What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been – An Adventure Time Retrospective

With Adventure Time airing its final episode later today, I wanted to sit down and write my thoughts on the series as a whole. For any of you who know me, you know that I have very strong feelings on Adventure Time. It is my honest belief that for many parts of its almost 9 year run, it was the single greatest show on television. Not just best as in quality of episode to episode (obviously that too) but for its influence on the genre,  for the lessons it was teaching the kids who tuned in, and  for being one of the most abstract and surreal experiences ever put to TV.

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A lot of Adventure Time’s greatness can be traced back to its creator Pendleton Ward. Starting off as a short that aired on Nickelodeon, Ward built the Land of Ooo 15 minutes at a time. At no point do you ever feel like there is world building for the sake of world building, as there is always an adventure Finn and Jake are on to take them throughout the mysterious world. Most of the lore of show, especially in its early seasons, was hidden within the subtext of the show. Astute observes could figure out about the tragic nature of Ooo long before it was revealed and it gave the show an extra level of mystique and mystery surrounding it. Ward also does a great job establishing the tone of the show. For almost the entire run time, the characters are saccharine sweet (I mean there are literal candy people) which allows for the darker moments to hit so much harder. Adventure Time dealt with a lot of heavy material for “a kids show”. From deadbeat dads to dealing with your raging hormones. From losing an arm to confronting death. Adventure Time does it all, partly to create a more impactful narrative, but also to allow kids to experience these things  in a lower risk environment.

Ward created memorable characters who are value-driven, but are imperfect. Finn is a hero. He is kind and compassionate and wants to do right by his values. But like most children, Finn is stubborn and impulsive which leads to a lot of the shows conflict.  Being the only human left on Ooo, Finn wants nothing more than figure out his place in this world and to help those he meets along the way.  He is a great foil to Jake, who’s laid back chill attitude is played both for comedic effect and as an actual character flaw. I could spend the rest of my day breaking down each and every character and talking at lengths on how well-constructed and multi-faceted they are. Instead I thought it would be fun to revisit some of my favorite moments from the show.

Simon and Marcy

Speaking of well constructed characters, we have two of the best in Marceline and the Ice King. Both introduced early on as villains, eventually come into their own as important friends of the main duo. Marceline made that transformation very quickly where as Ice King kept on stealing princesses for most of the series. The episode I Remember You gives us a glimpse into their relationship as Marcy desperately tries to get the Ice King to remember her. It was the first truly heavy moment in the show and I still remember sobbing in my dorm room watching it. Simon and Marcy give us a glimpse into the Ice King’s origins and produces one of the most tragic portrayals of a villain ever put on television. I remember watching this episode, holding back tears as the Simon knowingly sacrifices his sanity to save Marceline. Simon singing the Cheer’s theme song as he slowly loses his mind is heartbreaking and still one of the best moments of the series.

Finn and Flame Princess

From the get go Finn had pined over Princess Bubblegum, who had very little interest in him. Jake helps Finn out by introducing him to Flame Princess and boom love was afoot. The next season was littered with episodes of them going on dates, and learning what it means to be in a relationship. Ultimately Finn’s hormones get the better of him as he begins to have family-friendly sex dreams about her, which twists the relationship into a lustful desire rather than love. The fallout of the relationship and Finn’s ultimate turmoil with figuring out how to deal with his desires in a healthy way continue on for quite a while. Finn tries out a lot of unhealthy ways of coping, including an episode where he plays a Sims-esque game where he plays god with tiny versions of him and his friends. All of this culminates in an episode where Finn tries to fill the hole in his heart by kissing all the girls in Ooo,  robs a bee of her virginity, and makes out with LSP.  It is a wild ride, but it is such an important lesson for kids to learn how to deal with lust and they certainly aren’t going to learn it from We Bare Bears.

Stakes

One thing that Adventure Time isn’t so great at is expanding past its genre, but the mini-series Stakes changes that. Here we get a Marceline led revenge-flick ala Kill Bill where the stakes (lol) are high.  Marceline is cured of her vampirism and in doing so unleashed a set of vampires who wish ill upon the denizens of Ooo. The rest of the series is her and the team going around killing vampires. It’s a fun change of pace from typical Adventure Time stuff and was the one time they successfully expanded past their usual “duo goes on a surreal quest” formula.

Rainy Day Daydream

Besides the pilot this was the first episode I watched and it cemented my love of the show for years. When people ask me why I watch Adventure Time, this is the episode I send them. It’s silly and wacky, absurd and surreal all within the confines of a boy and his dog stuck inside on a rainy day having to use their imagination to entertain themselves. While this isn’t my favorite episode (Escape from the Citadel) it is the easiest digestible.  If you haven’t watched Adventure Time please give this episode a watch. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Escape from the Citadel

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My favorite episode by far of the series. It is truly incredible just how much they were able to pack in just 15 minutes. It’s a harrowing episode of Finn trying to find, and save his father from an intergalactic prison and discover his own origins and why his father abandoned him all those years ago. What he discovers is that his father is kind of an asshole and in trying to save him Finn loses his arm. The aftermath of this episode is Finn coming to terms with his father’s abandonment (at one point he builds a tower to space to find his dad and rip his arm off) and is one of the more salient through lines of the show.

While I’m saddened by the fact that one of my favorite shows is coming to an end, I am reminded of all of the good that it has done, both to animation as a whole and to me personally. Adventure Time has shown that you can be silly and serious and handle heavy emotional topics in a mature way in an animated show about a magical talking dog and his best friend.  Season Finale airs 7 PM EST on Cartoon Network.

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