In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explore the DARKEST episode of Boy Meets World.
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This Boy Meets World Episode Got Dark
Growing up in the 90s there was no better way to spend a Friday evening than with an extra cheesy pizza, an ice-cold coke, and the TGIF television lineup. TGIF was ABC’s Prime Time Television block on Friday evenings. It was an attempt by ABC to market an entire clump of various sitcoms as one enjoyable viewing experience. And it worked. TGIF dominated the ratings, and while a slew of various shows were shuffled in and out of the lineup, there’s no denying that its three powerhouse properties were Family Matters, Full House, and Boy Meets World. These were shows intended to be watched by the entire family. Thirty minutes of pure entertainment stuffed with bumbling physical comedy and wholesome family values. And while Boy Meets World held true to that formula for the bulk of its episodes, it occasionally veered into some pretty DARK territory.
One episode, in particular, stands out for its inclusion of physical violence, near death, and… a Cult. You heard that right. In the Season Four episode Cult Fiction, the character of Shawn, played by Rider Strong, is lured into a cult-like group of young people under the leadership of the mysterious and magnetic Mr. Mack. Throughout the series’ Seven Season run, Shawn was a prominent and important character. He’s Corey Matthews’ best friend. The cool kid whose looks and charisma have carried him for most of his life. Despite being best friends, Corey and Shawn were opposites in many ways. From their values, personalities, and home lives the two seemed to be experiencing the world from opposing viewpoints, and that’s what allowed the show to explore some of its most meaningful and impactful topics.
One constant aspect of Shawn’s character and arc throughout the show was a lack of real family and belonging. While Corey had an idyllic upbringing, living in an upper-middle-class suburban home with a loving mother, father, brother, and sister, Shawn had spent his life in a rundown trailer and bouncing around foster homes. It’s a pretty heavy backstory for a lead character in a family-oriented sitcom, but Boy Meets World was never afraid to tackle heavier subject matter. Like Corey cheating on Topanga or even domestic violence. But it was this lack of a traditional family unit that paved the way for Shawn’s encounter with The Center. After meeting an attractive young woman, Shawn is introduced to the cult and its leader.
It’s no surprise that a girl is used as the catalyst to launch the episode’s plot. Throughout Boy Meets World, the male leads are portrayed as hormonal, girl-obsessed boys with little else on their minds; a common trope of coming of age story about teenage boys. Sean is quick to notice that something feels… off about The Center and Mr. Mack. The members are gleeful and embrace Shawn with hugs and greetings of “Are you centered?”. Without hesitation, Shawn calls the group out for what it is… a cult. However, when the group turn things around on him and point out that he’s simply judging them in the same manner he’s been judged by others, Shawn begins to view them in a new light.
Earlier in the episode, Mr. Turner, Shawn’s teacher, and former foster parent attempts to counsel Shawn about poor grades and realistic plans for his future. But when Shawn dismisses his concerns, Mr. Hunter tells him, “The people who care about you in this life, you could count on one hand.” The point he’s trying to make is that he cares about Shawn and wants him to make the most out of his life; however, his delivery and wording are, arguably, very poor. Especially for an educator. It’s this statement, coupled with the instability of his home life, that makes Shawn so susceptible to the misguided welcomings of a cult.
Realistically, Shawn is exactly the type of person that a cult would appeal to. According to an article from California State East Bay’s ‘Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies’ “From a psychological perspective, many youths join cults because they are in a transitional period attempting independence all the while struggling to form a sense of belonging…”
There’s typically a period of grooming. Days, weeks, or even months of gaining a prospective member’s trust before they become embedded within the brainwashed teachings of a cult. But 90’s sitcoms worked at a faster pace. With a tight twenty minutes to tell a story, things progress quickly and little time is dedicated to proper development. So, after a quick commercial break, and only around five minutes into the episode, we return to find Shawn fully immersed in The Center. He jumps to his feet to greet Cory with a hug and a “Are you centered?”
Cory is, understandably, thrown off by Shawn’s behavior since it varies so drastically from his typical ‘Cool Guy’ demeanor, and this launches the episode’s overall directive. To save Shawn from the clutches of a dangerous man and his disillusioned followers. The episode wants you to know that Mr. Mack is dangerous. It says so repeatedly, although it does nothing to explain or bolster those assertions. The idea of a cult is addressed here in an extraordinarily vague manner. Boy Meets World was known not only for its use of comedy but melodramatic themes and deliveries of serious topics. This rings even more true when you go back and watch the series today.
As with most 90s sitcoms, there is a moral to this story. While Shawn feels that he has no true family or belonging, the people who come to his rescue are the very people who care about him the most. Throughout Boy Meets World, the Matthews family have treated Shawn as if he were their own flesh and blood. He’s more than just their child’s friend. He’s closer to being their own child. And the moment that they learn of Shawn’s involvement with The Center, they launch into action and do everything they can to bring Shawn home. Then there’s also Mr. Feeny, who acted as Cory and Shawn’s teacher and mentor for years. Mr. Feeny would continue to play that role for the entirety of the series, following the students throughout their school careers by becoming a high school principal and eventually a college professor. Mr. Feeny claims to have had prior run-ins with Mr. Mack and The Center and is the most vocal about the cult’s dangerous teachings.
The episode comes to an explosive climax when Mr. Turner is in a severe motorcycle accident. The same Mr. Turner that Shawn had dismissed at the beginning of the episode. Everybody gathers at the hospital and Shawn brings Mr. Mack to act as his support. This is when things turn violent as Mr. Matthews forcefully pushes Mr. Mack against the wall while insisting that he stay away from Shawn. Nothing has worked up until this point, because this is a decision Shawn must make for himself. The more that others tell him to leave The Center, the deeper into their arms it forces him.
It’s not until Shawn enters the hospital room to see a badly injured Mr. Turner that things begin to turn. As Shawn sees him unconscious in a hospital bed, in casts, and bandaged from head to toe, the reality of the situation begins to sink in. Mr. Turner had been a safety net, somebody that would always be there for Shawn and the idea of losing him brings Shawn to a newfound realization. He takes Mr. Turner’s hand, and the hand squeezes back… just barely. Just enough to say to Shawn that he still cares, and he’s there for him.
And then, just as quickly as the brainwashing had set in, it was washed away. Shawn sternly tells Mr. Mack that he’s done with The Center and everything returns to normal. For sitcoms of this decade, it was standard practice to end an episode in the same position it had begun. Few occurrences throughout an episode would carry over or have long-lasting consequences. Not even joining a Cult. Cult Fiction pokes fun at a very serious and deadly topic and when it tries to address the material in a meaningful way it does so heavy-handedly. But that’s okay.
Sure, much of Boy Meets World hasn’t aged very well, but it was a staple of every 90s kid’s childhood. It was cheesy, melodramatic, and, at times, pretty dark. But so are soap operas and General Hospital has been on for like sixty years!
Do you agree that this was the darkest episode of Boy Meets World, or did you have a different one in mind? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to like, subscribe and hit the notification bell for more great content. Are YOU centered? We’ll see you next time.
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