“Heads Of Beef” is an episode of Nickelodeon cartoon show from the late 1990s, Courage The Cowardly Dog.

Heads of Beef

In any horror comedy starring a dog, surely at some point the dog must find himself a hot dog, right?

The trope of the surprise in the burger plays on a primal fear we have when visiting cheap food joints — what is under the bread?

David Walliams has used it…

As have I, in our story app Hilda Bewildered.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

While there have been many surprises and reversals, this is the first Courage episode which so completely subverts audience expectations.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is forced to go with Eustace to buy Muriel a scone. She is too sick to cook.

Courage’s other weakness is that he is inclined to worry a lot and sometimes, as will be revealed here, it’s over nothing.

Eustace is a Horrible Husband (the full trope) so of course he looks after himself and is grumpy about his wife failing to cook him dinner even though she is sick.

DESIRE

As ever, he must keep Muriel happy and make sure Eustace remembers to buy her the scone from the bakery.

Whenever Courage puts his own collar on this is a visual metaphor for him doing something he doesn’t want to do. Another catch phrase is, “The things I do for love!” though he doesn’t say that here.

Plans to remind Eustace about the scone change when it becomes clear Eustace has no intention of stopping at Sweet Stuff. They drive right past.

OPPONENT

This episode is one of the later ones from season one, and by now the audience is well conditioned: We know that an opponent will appear and that it’s up to Courage to save the day. Even if we’ve never seen any Courage episodes before in our lives, the intro sequence tells us exactly that: “…and it’s up to Courage to save the day!” The problem to be overcome by the writers is now how to keep the stories feeling fresh?

This is the first episode in which the opponent is not a genuine opponent. Both the audience and Courage are fooled into thinking the pig is evil and plans to eat them after luring them out the back.

The pig chef is called Jean¬†Bon — “I’m not French but my name sounds French don’t you think?” (Is this a dig at American singer Jon Bon Jovi?)

The diner itself is first seen from a ‘security camera’ angle. This in itself suggests things aren’t quite right.

A diner with a single customer is a dodgy diner. Is this man the real opponent or is it the pig chef? It takes us a while to figure it out, and when we’ve made our decision, the fact that we made a decision in the first place gives us more of a surprise at the end.

PLAN

Seeing the other customer disappear through a door (the lavatory?), and that the pig is suspiciously minding his briefcase and hat, Courage bravely decides to go through the same door and investigate. Of course he alerts Eustace first, but Eustace is busy enjoying his Very Cheap Burger.

Courage overhears part of a conversation

and imagines the worst

BATTLE

a low angle view emphasises the steepness of the stairs

The battle sequence involves Courage falling down the stairs into the basement, ominous shadows on the walls, and a chase scene in which Jon Bon chases after Courage in a way that seems he wants to eat him.

The pig looks meaner when we see parts of his body with the rest cut off. The purple on his apron — is that blood or sauce?

Shadows and stairways and basements lend a film noir level of suspense.

The battle sequence makes use of a variety of camera angles.

The best line is saved for the wife, who declares that Courage is so sweet she could just eat him up. She then chases him. Being quite large and unwieldy, Courage manages to get away and runs (wee wee wee) all the way home.

The psychological phenomenon wherein you want to squeeze or eat really cute things is called ‘cute aggression’. No one is sure why this is, but it might be simply that high levels of positive emotion may need a physical outworking, similar to crying when something really good happens to us.

SELF-REVELATION

The audience learns what the pigs mean by ‘heads of beef’. They are culinary artists who enjoy crafting customers’ heads out of minced beef.

It is also revealed that the customer who disappeared earlier is a gallery owner who offers to showcase their work.

Notice he stands in front of all sorts of weapons. A few moments ago this basement looked like a torture chamber. Now it is an artist’s area.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This part of the story actually comes before the revelation in this tale. (We are left wondering until the final scene what has happened to Eustace. Eustace often cops punishment for being such a horrible person but on this occasion he’s having a good old time.)

Courage makes it home, leaving Eustace at the diner. Sitting with Muriel in front of the TV, Muriel assures us all that Eustace will come home eventually. We know that Muriel won’t ever get the scone she asked for. But I have to admit, at the beginning of the story I was half expecting a circular plot in which Eustace stops off to get the scone and encounters a sequel of whatever he got at the burger joint.