If you're not a Pokémon Master, you might expect an epic marathon of every episode in long-running anime series to be a fun exercise in nostalgia. But for thousands of Twitch users trying to catch 'em all, day two of the marathon brought tears.
On Tuesday afternoon, Twitch streamed Episode 21 of the original Pokémon: Indigo League anime series, "Bye Bye Butterfree," which first aired in the U.S. on October 5, 1998. It's an episode that broke many a '90s kid's heart back then, and based on the nonstop flow of comments on the Twitch chat, current viewers felt the same way.
"No skip too sad," wrote one viewer, whose comment quickly disappeared in the stream as other watchers lamented that this episode was playing.
The episode's title is the only clue that this is going to be a heavier half-hour than most episodes. Otherwise, the action begins with Ash, Pikachu, Misty, and Brock in a hot air balloon to observe a Butterfree breeding event — think the Pokémon equivalent of the real world's gigantic monarch butterfly migrations. Ash, who has a Butterfree, happily tells his Butterfree to go find a mate. His Butterfree gets rejected by an alluring pink Butterfree, but after thwarting Team Rocket's attempt to steal all the Pokémon, as is their wont, the pink Butterfree reciprocates Ash's Butterfree's affection.
Then, Butterfree — the first Pokémon Ash ever caught, the one that little kid viewers have known ever since it first appeared as a Caterpie in Episode 3 — leaves forever and doesn't come back. Ash tearfully says goodbye as his "old friend" flies into the sunset, and a montage of all the good times he and viewers had with the beloved Pokémon graces the screen. Along with Pikachu's near-goodbye in Episode 39 and Ash's "death" in the first movie, it's widely remembered as the saddest moment in the beloved series.
Twitch viewers mostly seemed to know what they were in for ("it's coming, noooooooo!" wrote one), but chat still exploded into a wall-like mess of sad and crying emoji as Butterfree departed.
"I'm 25 why crying," asked one viewer, while another sadly typed "he was beautiful."
It was all a little over the top, coming across less as real-life tears and more a fun, cathartic reflection on how jarring this episode was back when younger viewers first saw it. Up until that point, Pokémon had always been the same. Sure, Ash would catch a new Pokémon or win a gym badge now and then, but beyond that incremental progress, nothing really ever changed. Team Rocket always blasted off again. Butterfree's unexpected farewell was the first time the series ever said goodbye. Watching the episode now, almost 20 years after first seeing it, it's perhaps even more remarkable a whiplash. Viewers were watching Butterfree try to get a girlfriend with no indication that his success would mean going away forever.
The end of the episode, the part every Pokémon trainer remembers, got an expected reaction from Twitch viewers — performative sadness with just a hint of irony. More interesting, though, was watching this massive internet audience react to the first half of the episode, when Butterfree gets rejected in his courtship attempts.
It's impossible to count how many times the stream's nearly 40,000 viewers wrote "Feels Bad Man" in the chat, especially when the pink Butterfree rejected Ash's Butterfree. Twitch users, many of whom also compared the moment to "real life," invoked one of the earliest, most famous edits of cartoonist Matt Furie's Pepe the Frog character. (The character has been co-opted by the alt-right, but there weren't any #MAGA vibes in chat, given the context.)
But there's something interesting about a group of internet users reacting to a second perceived tragedy. Butterfree's farewell was sad then and it's sad now, but viewers weren't encouraging Butterfree to be more "alpha" in order to win the girl back then, nor were kid viewers reacting with "that face when no GF" upon seeing a dejected Butterfree. When Butterfree does take Misty's very pick-up-artist-like advice to show his stuff, and the pink Butterfree falls for him, several people in chat called him "Chadfree," spoofing the Incel meme.
The first half of the episode has aged into a more complex world and a society that's grappling with courtship and dating in the mist of an awakening about male entitlement and rage, and the language seen in many of the comments reflected the need for that conversation. "Bye Bye Butterfree" is innocent, and the chat was all in good fun, but in that moment, the stream inadvertently showed how much has changed — and remains the same — in the 20 years that have passed since it first aired.