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The Tragic Story Of Team Rocket's Jessie And James

The Pokémon anime series first premiered in 1997 and is responsible for introducing many super fans to the franchise. The legendary theme song, unique setting, and lovable cast of characters made a show worthy of the IP's popularity. Jessie, James, and Meowth are the primary antagonists of the anime, acting as the most famous faces of the criminal organization known as Team Rocket. But are they really bad people? Could their pasts help explain how they turned out?

Like all great characters, Jessie and James are actually deep, conflicted, and complex individuals shaped by the formative events of their youths. Their tragic struggles as children reframe their attempts to prove their own personal value as adults through a lens of neglect and insecurity (per Screen Rant).

While their chemistry is undeniable in the anime, the iconic duo's backstories couldn't have been much different. In many cases, opposites attract, and Jessie and James fit the bill for polar opposites keeping each other in a balanced tandem. But how did their relationship come to be? And what was so tragic about their history? An in-depth review of deep cuts from the anime and official manga reveals unexpected depth for both Jessie and James.

Who is Team Rocket?

The show popularized Team Rocket, but they were around even in the Game Boy versions of  "Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow." The Pokémon gang occupies the "bad guy" space in the universe. The protagonist is optimistic; Team Rocket is cynical. Pokémon are symbiotic with nature and humanity; Team Rocket is parasitic. Their written oath is literally, "Steal Pokémon for profit. Exploit Pokémon for profit. All Pokémon exist for the glory of Team Rocket."

The Team Rocket that viewers and players are familiar with is led by Giovanni in the Kanto region. They have smaller exploits across other regions, but Team Rocket's popularity with fans comes from their dealings with Ash Ketchum in Kanto. Jessie, James, and Meowth are field agents foiled by Ash and his Pikachu when attempting a Pokémon robbery in Viridian City. From that fateful point on, the Team Rocket Trio attempts countless hairbrained schemes aimed at getting revenge on Ash and Pikachu. 

Despite being the lovable goons in the way of Ash's adventures, Jessie and James are people too. They've experienced a share of trials and tribulations the average Pokémon fan might not be aware of.

Jessie's legendary mother

Team Rocket's history goes back further than Giovanni. In fact, his mother, Madame Boss, was Team Rocket's founder and original leader before handing the reins over to her son. This pre-show, pre-game storyline of Team Rocket's founding structure comes from a radio drama recorded in Japan in 1998 called "The Birth of Mewtwo", and it's where Jessie's tale begins. Her mother, Miyamoto, was Madame Boss' right-hand. She took orders directly from Madame Boss, who called her the "ideal image of Team Rocket" due to her ruthless love of cash and effectiveness at getting jobs done.

During one of her jobs in South America, Miyamoto captured what was once thought impossible or merely a myth: actual evidence of the existence of Mew. Madame Boss was interested and sent her back out to obtain the rare Pokémon. Despite Jessie only being a child at the time, Miyamoto followed orders and left her daughter at a foster home. Miyamoto's mission was not successful, and she's presumed to have died in an avalanche after Mew refused to let her capture it. Despite this, she continued to submit reports in the wake of the event, and Giovanni even remarked that her whereabouts are unknown.

Certainly, Jessie had a horrible start to life: abandoned by her mother and left at the orphanage to fend for herself.

Jessie the orphan

The foster home that Jessie found herself in during early childhood was not well-equipped. In the episode "Snow Way Out!," Jessie reveals some of the harsh conditions she had to endure. Specifically, there were times when food was hard to come by and she was forced to eat snow. A testament to her tenacity, Jessie looks back on these "snowgasbord" meals as some of her only fond childhood memories.

Jessie's hardships at the foster home didn't end with just a lack of food — she also had troubles in her social life. In the episode, "Crossing Paths," she becomes infatuated with a boy who she went to school with named Astin. Astin was a Pokémon Coordinator in training, a person who prepares Pokémon to compete in talent shows, and he wanted Jessie to leave town and join him. 

Jessie shunned this potential positive future because she had her own ambitions. She and two of her friends from the foster home planned on becoming pop stars. Unfortunately for Jessie, both her friends passed their auditions and she was left behind to fend for herself yet again.

A stint at Pokémon Nurse School

Jessie's rough start to life after the foster home didn't put a damper on her ambitions. Upon reaching a suitable age, Jessie set her sights on becoming a Pokémon Nurse. After regular schools rejected her, she signed up at the Pokémon Nurse School, a program that trains Chansey to serve as assistants to Pokécenter healers like Nurse Joy.

Despite being warned against the move, Jessie stuck to her decision. She was actually quite skilled at nursing and taught one struggling Chansey how to bandage wounds. They became good friends, but Jessie wasn't able to keep up with her classmates when it came to using Sing to soothe other Pokémon. Because of an incident where she fell asleep after succumbing to the effects of Sing herself, Jessie wasn't able to graduate.

After all her hard work was not validated, Jessie packed a bag to go start somewhere new again. As she was leaving the Pokémon Nurse School, her friend Chansey broke her own graduation pendant in two and gave Jessie half of it. They later reconnect over the half-pendants in the episode "Ignorance is Blissey."

Jessie bounces around

Throughout Jessie's childhood and early adulthood, tragedy and failure abounded at every turn. However, these setbacks never really slowed her pace. She put her head down and kept trekking up the next mountain. After her time at the Pokémon Nurse School and before teaming up with James in Team Rocket, Jessie continued to bounce around. This deeper history is told through bits and pieces across episodes of the anime via tiny flashbacks to Jessie's past.

"The School of Hard Knocks" reveals that Jessie went to Pokémon Tech and received "the lowest scores in the history of the school." "The Bridge Bike Gang" shows that Jessie joined a bike gang in Sunnytown and gained a reputation for being tough by swinging a giant chain around her head as she rode. "Spring Fever" establishes that Jessie was a model at one point. "Xatu the Future" sets forth that Jessie was once a meteorologist for TV, and "From Cradle to Save" indicates that Jessie was even a ninja for a bit.

These endeavors were all short-lived, as well as the romantic relationships she formed along the way. Apparently a jack-of-all-trades, Jessie lived an adventurous and tumultuous life long before she became the red-haired diva of Team Rocket fame.

James' privileged upbringing

Part of Jessie and James' iconic chemistry is the way they foil each other. Jessie is a commanding leader and James is a dutiful follower. Jessie isn't scared of anything and James is scared of everything. Jessie can be cold-hearted and ruthless, while James can be whimsical and warm. These contrasts exist not only in their on-screen behaviors, but are also rooted deep in their respective backstories.

While Jessie got the ultimate short end of the stick for her childhood, growing up with no family, no resources, and no expectations, James' childhood unfolded at the other end of the spectrum. His' parents were multimillionaires and he was their only child.

As the sole heir to a family fortune, James was brought up in the conventions of high society. He had to attend lessons, appear at formal dinners, and abide by all the laws of the upper class. These stiff rules and unrelenting expectations wore James thin and he resented the culture he was born into (as per charusharu).

James refuses an arranged marriage

As a youth, James hated the harsh standards he had to live up to. Most notably, he was expected to marry a girl named Jessebelle (no relation to Jessie) as part of an arranged marriage between wealthy families. James intended to go through with the wedding at one point, as the episode "The Treasure is All Mine!" reveals with a locked-away letter containing an official proposal. However, James changed his mind due to Jessebelle embodying many of the same traits he found off-putting about his parents and their lifestyle: controlling, overbearing, and setting too many expectations.

James' refusal of this arranged marriage served as the tipping point for him to renounce his upper-class titles and run away. James relives this crisis in the present day during "The Treasure is All Mine!." The episode consists of Ash and the gang learning of James' past while James, Jessie, and Meowth all try to keep as much of it buried as possible.

The official marriage proposal becomes the focus of the episode and, hilariously, Jessebelle shows up ready to marry James all those years later. In order to get out of the wedding once again, James agrees to stage a confrontation with Ash and Pikachu that ends with Team Rocket being blasted away to avoid Jessebelle. While this avoidance of matrimony is played for laughs, it's clear that James was scarred by his arranged marriage and is still haunted by it.

What did James leave behind?

Central to the themes of the franchise, the relationship between a trainer and their Pokémon is supposed to be symbiotic, with both parties benefiting from the arrangement. Even though he is cast as one of the primary antagonists of the show, James breaks through the parasitic framing of Team Rocket's ties to Pokémon. He makes friends with them by understanding them. He feeds them his own food, praises their extraordinary feats, and gets down on their level to communicate through language barriers.

This deep love for Pokémon is shown all the way back in his childhood. James had a pet Growlithe named Growlie whom he adored and considered his best friend. When he ran away from his upper-class lifestyle, he tragically had to leave Growlie behind. When James and Team Rocket fall into a trap sprung by Jessebelle and his rich parents in the episode "Holy Matrimony!," Growlie appears out of nowhere to save the day. Clearly, James and Growlie had a close bond when he was a kid and his special connection to Pokémon likely started there.

How did Jessie and James meet?

The legendary trio of Jessie, James, and their sidekick Meowth has had their origin story retconned a few times throughout the series' many seasons. However, it's possible to piece together a generally accepted string of events. They first encountered one another at Pokémon Tech, as revealed in "The School of Hard Knocks." Jessie had just left the Pokémon Nurse School and James had just ran away from home. They both flunked out of Pokémon Tech after receiving dismal marks.

Initially hostile towards each other, they became rivals of a sort in their next shared endeavor with the Bridge Bike Gang in Sunnytown. There, Jessie became respected and James was mocked, and their personalities rubbed each other the wrong way. They both joined Team Rocket on their own terms, and when they were paired with each other and Meowth on a squad things were initially rocky. However, Meowth was able to get them all on the same page and their animosity quickly turned into friendship.

Jessie's golden opportunity

A deeper part of Jessie's tragic past is the potential she displays for doing good, constructive work despite the exploitative and destructive path she has chosen. When her childhood crush Astin encouraged Jessie to be a Pokémon Coordinator with him, he was correct in spotting her potential.

Jessie's initial attempts at winning Pokémon Contests are riddled with cheating, and this cheating is exposed in episodes like, "Going for Choke," where her disguise is outed and her Pokémon don't perform as expected. Going forward, however, Jessie finds success in Pokémon contests by actually competing fair and square. She still dons disguises (Jessilina) to avoid disqualification, but her performances flourish when she abides by the rules (as per CBR).

Jessie starts winning Pokémon Contests because of her unique appeal round. Instead of the Pokémon giving a final pose to the judges, Jessie herself poses with the Pokémon, putting herself as the center of attention. While her career as a Pokémon Coordinator ends with her loss at the Sinnoh Grand Festival, she shows earnest determination, care for her Pokémon, and potential for a brighter future.

Does tragedy end in romance?

Jessie and James have been together as partners-in-crime for so long in the animated TV series that fans have speculated about whether their friendship is more than platonic. Notably, one very controversial issue of the official manga, "Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu," has Jessie and James in a romantic relationship on the verge of childbirth at the end of tale. Besides this often dismissed piece of lore, is there any indication that Jessie and James are romantically involved? Well, not really. After all, this is a TV show and branded intellectual property aimed at being family friendly.

While there are hints throughout the show that Jessie and James share a deeper connection — like James being terrified at the idea in "The Treasure is All Mine!" that Jessie would learn of his willingness to marry Jessebelle once upon a time — there's nothing definitive to go off of. While it doesn't count as an official repudiation of these theories, the Japanese voice actors for Jessie, James, and Meowth have said that it would be impossible for them to date due to Team Rocket's rules (translation via Dogasu's Backpack). Maybe romance is too far, but they likely share a bond rooted in their corresponding tragic upbringings.