It is hard for something to be good forever, as much as when I am in it, I want it to last forever. I have gotten to the point where I would rather something end while I still feel like I want it to last forever than that it continue long past when it probably should. It’s sad to lose something you love, but there is always something else. Adventure Time is ending soon and I have some unfinished business. It’s possible I’ll write about it again—even likely—but I have things to write about endings, change and a little about fashion. And a heads up–I am being more careful than usual in talking about plot elements and things that happen in the recent episodes, but if you are avoiding all spoilers for season 10, you might wait till you’ve watched everything but the finale to read this.
It’s important to know when to end things. Beginnings can be wonky, but I can move past them. I tend to think the first issue or episode of any new story tends to be the weakest. It’s before everyone has found their stride–the artists, the writers, the crew. Sometimes, though, things go on too long. And it seemed like maybe Adventure Time had, but then it went on a little longer and found itself again. Things got shaky after show creator Pendleton Ward quit as showrunner. When I started writing this piece, I didn’t have any sense of how Adventure Time’s ending might play out. Whether there would be a final arc or if the show would end in media rēs, as it began. But Cartoon Network just released four more episodes and a teaser for the series finale. While these are not another miniseries like “Stakes,” which explored Marceline the Vampire Queen’s days as a vampire hunter, the episodes are leading towards a final confrontation between Princess Bubblegum’s Candy Kingdom, and Gumbaldia, founded by her Uncle Gumbald.
As Adventure Time nears its conclusion, it’s gotten harder to summarize. It is a fantasy/science fiction story centered on Finn the human and his best friend and adoptive brother, Jake, a talking dog with stretching powers. The live on the outskirts of the Candy Kingdom on the planet of Ooo, neé the Earth, after an apocalyptic war. Finn has been a hero of Ooo, but he begins his career working for the Candy Kingdom’s Princess Bubblegum. In the ten seasons and eight years or so Adventure Time has been on tv, Finn and Jake have also traveled to space, cleared many a dungeon, cared for some robots, uncovered mysteries and met many, many other characters. When it started, Finn the human was a tween and now he just celebrated his 17th birthday–almost the same age as Princess Bubble gum, at least legally*.
These last two seasons, there would be months without an episode and then several dropped at once, often as miniseries like “Stakes”; “Islands,” in which Finn tries to find his mother; and, “Elements,” in which the very elements of the world: candy, slime, ice and fire were explored.
In the current season, we have learned about Treetrunks the elephant’s past as a pirate queen, explored the duel mystery of that time Jake was blue and his stretching powers, learned about Princess Bubblegum’s childhood and her family, Aunt Lolly, Cousin Chicle and Uncle Gumbald. I love her post-apocalyptic yak and its 3D goggles.
These have been a mix of chill episodes, offering a bit of an interlude before the end, and episdes doing the narrative work of reminding us what has happened and who we have met over the course of the series.
Of course, all the things above are interesting and well-handled But what I love about Adventure Time is not the comprehensive world-building being presented explicitly to the audience. I appreciate that there is so much that is never filled in. So much of Adventure Time happens in media rēs, even as it expands on character relationships or happenings from years ago. And it’s been that way from the start. The first episode, “Slumber Party Panic,” begins in the middle of a zombie outbreak. The zombies are already attacking. The candy people have already taken shelter in the castle, although they don’t know they are. Instead, they believe Princess Bubblegum has invited them all over for a slumber party. The princess charges Finn with protecting them without ever letting them know they are in danger. He can’t even tell Jake. Meanwhile, she works to create a cure. And we aren’t only starting with the zombie attack already happening, all the relationships are already in progress, too. Who Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum and the candy people are is something we figure out based on what they do and say. Origin stories come later, if at all. And some of the origin stories that are shared, are happening now in the final season. I like that. I much prefer it to starting every story with an origin, because it recognizes that not everything is explained through an origin story, that not everything is simple, and that things change. Besides, origins are often most meaningful in retrospect.
Finn’s growing up** has been so gradual that it reflects what it’s like being with someone when they are growing up. It’s hard to see the change that is always happening unless you are dipping in and out. When we drop back in to Adventure Time, we see the characters continuing with their lives in the same way it happens when we talk with or visit people we haven’t seen in a while–even if it’s just a few days. I like the acknowledgment that other people’s lives are happening, even when we are not around, even when they are not the heroes of this particular story. The characters in Adventure Time take their lives and the changes in them for granted. At the same time, they do reflect on them. In the most recent episode, “Gumbaldia,” Jake and Finn talk about Finn’s changing as they begin Finn’s kick-butt diplomacy effort to prevent a war. “I used to be all about violence and now it’s like I’m different,” Finn says. “You’re a beautiful flower and I love watching you grow,” Jake responds.
Finn is troubled by the idea of war. In the past, he would have embraced the idea of defeating evil and never questioned Princess Bubblegum. But this time, after a long trajectory of being increasingly uncomfortable with some of the things Princess Bubblegum does, Finn works himself up to tell her that it’s a bad idea. Princess Bubblegum tells him he’s sweet, but “sometimes we just have to buckle down and do things the ugly way.”
When the commander of Bubblegum’s army tells him, “It’s going to happen, son. The best thing to do is sharpen your sword and stock up on flower wreaths.” Finn replies, “You’re dark, Colonel Candycorn.”
The show reflects change in smaller, far more cheerful ways, too. Say in Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s changing fashions. Both have a wardrobe. They wear their hair in different styles. Old outfits return or are mixed and matched***. For his part, Finn has worn the same outfit for the entire series, but because he has done a lot of adventuring and growing, he must have gotten new blue shorts, t-shirts and bear hats. His changing tastes and the predations of time are revealed in his changing swords, his changing arm and the length of his hair under his bear hat.
This attention to the passage of time through such seemingly mundane matters as clothes and hair incidentally resulted in Marceline becoming one of my fashion icons, along with Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive.
When I watch or read serial stories, I have generally assumed I am not watching or reading all that is happening. I have assumed that I am seeing notable things. Or am just dropping by now and then. I don’t feel more immersed the more complete a chronological and expository narrative I have. In part, I think, because there are no living things with complete chronological narratives that explain everything about them. On one hand, almost inevitably, more does not lead to better. And on the other hand, stories with all the perceived gaps filled in start to feel dead–a story completely walled in and meowing to be let out like some poor black cat.
There is a part of me that is amazed by people who can write about single issues or single episodes of an ongoing, serial story. It is always easiest for me when the story is complete. And yet, here I am, preferring the open-ended. Maybe it’s not as contradictory as it might sound. I like the spaces. I like giving stories space to breathe. Like panels or paintings that have enough space around them that you can appreciate them. Not too crowded with everything filled in. I like unfinished business. I like the gaps and the evocative lacunae. I like the open-endedness, the unexplained and the unexplainable. I like how in Adventure Time so many things are just they way they are. Not in the way that we shouldn’t question or wonder, but in the way where it is still left open for question, wonder and possibility. Space to ponder. I don’t think a story feels more immersive or more real when it has this space, but it certainly feels more ossified, less alive to have every gap filled, every element explained.
I am writing about the end now, before it happens, because I don’t know what I’ll think of or how I’ll feel about the finale. It’s hard to end something, particularly to create an ending that gather all the narrative threads together and ends them satisfyingly. So I am deciding whether to watch the teaser for the finale, but the ending hasn’t happened yet for me. I will leave it to my future self to write about, if I have more to say. It seems like there there is always more to say about Adventure Time.
*Princess Bubblegum is more like a thousand years old, but in past episodes she has been both 18 and 13, which caused her trouble in being of legal age to run the Candy Kingdom.
**And voice actor Jeremy Shada‘s growing up.
Comics Editor Carol always brings a techno-harpoon to a techno-harpoon fight.
Comics Editor Carol and Screen Editor alex have both written a lot about Adventure Time at the Cultural Gutter:
“Unacceptable, One Million Years Dungeon!” by alex MacFadyen.
“I Remember You” by Carol Borden
“Forget the Consequences, Just Get me a Sandwich” by alex MacFadyen
“Mad Science Throwdown: Princess Bubblegum vs. Frankenstein” by Carol Borden
“The Shrieking Horror of Castle Lemongrab” by Carol Borden
“Following How Your Dreams Make You Want To Be” by Carol Borden
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on March 22, 2018.