Welcome back to this Adventure Time commentary. At this rate we’re getting one update every couple of years. RIP.
When I go back and read the early commentaries, I find myself a little frustrated that they seem concerned, above everything, with evaluating each episode on ‘social justice’ criteria. Which is just… an overly restrictive lens, I think, but that was my genuine reaction at the time. However, I can’t continue that liveblog that 2018!canmom or 2020!canmom would have written; what follows can only be 2023!canmom’s commentary.
Adventure Time is now 13, as old as Finn at the start of the series. It’s actually still going, with a new Fionna and Cake series just come out at the time of writing. It did a lot to set the tone for the ensuing generation of American animation—its style of shape simplification, its rapidfire editing, its courting an audience of students and nerds, its combination of casual American humour and high fantasy/sword and sorcery elements. It launched the career of Rebecca Sugar, but even besides Steven Universe, you can definitely feel its DNA in subsequent works like Gravity Falls, Infinity Train, and even The Owl House. When it came to subjects like The Gays, many of these works would surpass Adventure Time—but they are also much less visually experimental than Adventure Time at its best! (The Ren and Stimpy/Beavis and Butthead influences cited by Ward were gradually filtered out.)
Pendleton Ward, for his part, would step down as showrunner midway through the long Season 5 of Adventure Time. He’d continue to storyboard and write episodes of Adventure Time, but his next big project was The Midnight Gospel, which adapts unscripted interviews by podcaster Duncan Trussell with various guests into surreal shorts. Sadly, it did not find a lot of success. Adventure Time would meanwhile continue for a solid 10 seasons of 16-52 episodes (283 in total), not to mention sequels like Distant Lands (4) and Fionna and Cake (10). Surprisingly, they never made a movie, but otherwise Adventure Time has spread into just about every kind of media.
So: it’s just getting going. Let’s finish Season 4.
Episode 17: BMO Noir
Exactly what the title says: with the house to themselves, BMO stages an elaborate pastiche of film noir, casting various animals and a TV remote as the other actors (all voiced by BMO)—a rat as a criminal, a chicken as the femme fatale who’s ultimately behind it all, cats as corrupt cops. It’s very cute.
As soon as Finn and Jake leave, Finn grumpy because he’s lost a sock, the screen fades to greyscale, and BMO starts their voiceover. At one point they hit their head and we see a dream sequence with brief glimpses of them putting lipstick on the chicken etc. The greyscale must have thrown an interesting wrinkle into colour design for this episode. It’s always very readable.
Gender Shit of note: at the beginning of this episode, Jake is putting on mascara and drawing a spiral on his face with lipstick. We never find out why and this passes without comment.
Episode 18: King Worm
Solid episode. ‘Trapped in a dream’ premise which lets them fuck around with surreal morphing, camera tricks, and general formal stuff like that. False waking bit and everything.
Also serves as a tiny tiny bit of a character study of Finn, as his ‘deepest fears’ are invoked to destabilise the psychic prison created by the King Worm. Finn’s fears are, in order: the ocean, the Lich, getting looked down on for his age by Princess Bubblegum, being stuck on a high chair and menaced by a witch, and clowns. It could go deeper but we’re not at that stage yet.
There’s a couple interesting design things in there: Finn’s dream version has noticeably longer ear decorations on his hat, and he looks in a mirror and sees a version of himself with a bionic arm. Finn losing an arm and getting it replaced with a prosthetic is going to become a recurring element as things get increasingly timeline-y down the line.
I think this is the first time we see it, so, foreshadowing! Apparently this was first suggested even earlier in the S3 finale.
Episode 19: Lady and Peebles
OK, now we’re fucking talking.
Princess Bubblegum and Lady Rainicorn descend into a fucked up meat dungeon in order to rescue Finn and Jake. Though PB prepares with various weapons, they’re soon stripped from her by grasping hands. Other threats include giant tongues and walls of psychic eyes. If it feels a little sexual, we soon see why: the architect of this whole scheme is Ricardio, the Ice King’s lustful heart (voiced by George Takei!), who we last saw all the way back in Season 1 Episode 7.
Ricardio has constructed himself a body using the Ice King’s tissues—which suggests that the entire dungeon might in fact be formed from the Ice King’s body. But Bubblegum is not impressed, displaying some impressive martial arts as she tears him limb from limb while criticising his craftmanship. Ricardio is allowed to live.
Notably at this point we are shifting very heavily from ‘random thing of the week’ to callbacks to older episodes, a trend that will continue. Beyond that, this episode really underlines the changes in both PB and the Ice King’s characterisation. Bubblegum is determined and just as capable of violence as Finn, and the Ice King has so fully transitioned from ‘genuine threat’ to ‘mild annoyance’ that PB goes and constructs him a new heart (in fifteen minutes!).
It’s also great to have a really chatty Lady Rainicorn episode—and of course, to set up for the big reveal at the end, that she’s pregnant. (So… Jake fucks!) This is the start of an extended arc about Jake’s kids. Exciting.
Episode 20: You Made Me
Speaking of callbacks and PB characterisation changes… time for a Lemongrab episode!
So we’ve been coming back to the ‘PB creates life’ theme quite a bit in this season, and this episode returns to one of her earliest creations, the Earl of Lemongrab. He rules what appears to be the Candy Kingdom’s only other settlements besides its main city, a desert outpost full of lemon-themed candy lifeforms, such as lemon camels. One thing it notably lacks is subjects, and so our inciting incident sees Lemongrab lurking in the rooms of certain candy citizens, simply watching them.
There’s a pretty good bit where the Banana Guards have avoided reporting this up the chain because it’s too entertaining. (Cut to a room with PB and everyone else crowding to see—solid editing in this episode all round.)
Lemongrab demands to have some subjects, and here we see for the first time the people of the Candy Kingdom protest against their benevolent sovereign, turning out en masse to chant a Hell-less variant of the old Vietnam anti-draft slogan; ‘no, no, we won’t go!’. An as yet unseen group of candy delinquents, the Pup Gang, volunteer on the demand of amnesty for their crimes (such as throwing a basketball at Jake). This proves to be… not the best idea, as the instant they talk back to Lemongrab, he takes them to his electroshock chamber for ‘reconditioning’, and Lemongrab gets up to his old tricks.
PB attempts to instruct Lemongrab in the proper ways of rule (candy people are designed to need constant affection), but his autistic ass can’t get with it—it’s a classic scifi story about the conflict of imperfect creator and flawed creation. The rest of the conflict plays out much as you might expect. Finn and Jake get put in the Jojo electroshock chamber, there’s violence. Lemongrab’s weapon is a cool ‘sound sword’ which throws out slices of air.
The resolution is fun: PB creates the only person Lemongrab could understand: a second Lemongrab, who shows up naked, fresh from the pantry—a resolution Lemongrab is finally able to accept. Adventure Time is a real master of cutting at just the right moment, but I’m looking forward to seeing that joke followed up on down the line.
Episode 21: Who Would Win
Well, they can’t all be winners.
This episode is a kind of excuse for the two ‘bros’ to fight in the middle of their ‘bro time’ (‘what, like no ladies?’ ‘or dudes, or whatevs’ #representationorsomeshit). I got rather taken to task by some tumblr user for not acknowledging that Finn and Jake are literally adopted brothers and all those shipping jokes I liked to make were (gasp) actually incest jokes all along, but the show’s preferred terminology would seem to be the vague ‘bros’ so like, c’mon lmao. They’re a cartoon boy and a cartoon dog.
Anyway, Jake would rather play a computer game than train to fight a monster called ‘The Farm’. We get one of the only times we ever see a darker human skin tone in Adventure Time, in the form of a train-themed cyborg guy. Finn expresses a desire for bionic legs. The bros fight, they are visited by a hippy called ‘Dream Warrior’ who speaks in cryptic metaphors, they beat The Farm with dirty tricks like biting his arse, and are duly declared ‘brogends’ complete with little medals.
The best aspect of this episode is all the Jake transformations. The animators have some fun with that. But it’s definitely an unmemorable episode.
Episode 22: Ignition Point
Continuing the Flame Princess arc. After the smell of a farting game gets too much, FP sends Finn & Jake to retrieve her scented candles. The episode functions as a window into the evil Fire Kingdom as they end up catching wind of a conspiracy to assassinate the Flame King. (Not to be confused with the Fire Nation, ruled by a Fire Lord.)
It’s kind of riffing on Hamlet, even performing a bit of the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy at one point, and later seeing the boys disguise themselves as actors. The conspirators have a very Hamlet-y motivation, seeking revenge for their father’s murder at the hands of their uncle. But it also gives us a chance to see everyday life of the Fire Kingdom—they’re just guys! They like art and theatre. Although more militaristic than the Candy Kingdom by a long way, the Fire Kingdom seems to be functional, and it’s definitely suggested to be the one of the largest polities we’ve seen so far in Adventure Time along with Wizard City. I don’t know if they’ll develop it much more beyond palace drama, but it’s nice to get a little window.
The D&D alignment jokes get a bit more explicit, with the Flame King remarking that Flame Princess would ‘take an experience penalty if she acted out of alignment’ when Finn suggests the idea that someone could turn her to good. Flame King is a pretty affable villain, even when he casually throws out death sentences for vaguely seditious plays. But much like Hunson Aberdeer, he wants to make his daughter evil through magic artefacts.
I am looking forward to the end of the Flame Princess-as-love interest plot so we can start fleshing out the Fire Kingdom a little more in its own right.
Episode 23: The Hard Easy
Finn and Jake run into a village of ‘mud scamps’, menaced by a giant frog monster. This episode plays out in a swamp, allowing the bg artists to bring in a lot of desaturated palettes.
They have some fun with the animation in this episode, most notably when Finn realises the frog monster is looking to be kissed, and breaks the curse, resulting in a full on magical-girl henshin sequence in which the frog is stripped down to his skeleton and reconstituted as a prince. “I don’t know a lot of dudes who’d do that to help a guy out” he says, in case you missed the subtext. I guess technically this would qualify as Adventure Time’s first gay kiss. lmao
There’s one bit where they do a sendup of special forces stuff - painting streaks of mud on your face, hand signals etc. This made me curious where the standard ‘two streaks of mud on each cheek’ war paint image came from, but I haven’t been able to find out. TVTropes calls it This Means Warpaint, but doesn’t have much in the way of an origin. Obvious heavy overlap with depictions of indigenous/’tribal’ people, but it’s become as much an ‘army’ thing.
Episode 24: Reign of Gunters
So ok, let’s see. It’s a Gunter episode. Gunter steals the Ice King’s ‘Demonic Wishing Eye’. Ice King, unaware, goes to get a new one from Wizard City, where he hits on Huntress Wizard with a spiel against secrets and initiations, and then stumbles onto a wizard secret society.
Meanwhile, Gunter creates an army of clones with the Wishing Eye, but all he wants to do is smash glass things to throw a tantrum against Ice King. With the power of the Wishing Eye, the Gunter army is able to easily overpower the Candy Kingdom’s defences, even the Gumball Guardians.
The unifying thread in the A and B plots is secretiveness. We introduce Jay T. Dawgzone, author of Mind Games, some kind of pickup artist type who recommends keeping everyone guessing about your real feelings as a way of hedging your bets in romance. There’s a bunch of similar books IRL so it’s hard to narrow it down to a specific parody, but I definitely remember the ‘PUA’ misogynistic subculture being a bit of a flashpoint for online SJ at this time. ‘Swing at every ball’ is how they present his bad advice (since ‘trying to pressure someone into sex as quickly as possible’ is not really something Adventure Time can address directly); Jake keeps the book around for laughs, but Finn takes it seriously. I expect we’ll drill further into this later!
Pretty chill episode, all told. I think we’re getting a run of fun ones to lead into the big dramatic finale.
Episode 25: I Remember You
Ah, here we are.
So, we’ve already had hints towards the Ice King’s whole deal in season 3, but it’s time they laid it out in full and shot for the big pathos. Ice King is struck by a sudden urge to compose a song with Marceline to appeal to the Princesses, grabbing a pile of old documents which might contain an enticingly tragic past; when he arrives, she responds with a deeply forlorn expression, letting him in, expressing only mild annoyance as he does his loneliness and desperation routine. Because the Ice King cannot remember who he was before the crown stole his memories—but Marceline can, and we see that Simon Petrikov, the researcher, pretty much adopted her, but then gradually slid into magical dementia, afraid all the while that he would be leaving Marceline alone in the ‘ruins of the world’.
It’s very much a musical episode, with all the major beats conveyed with songs. The big one at the end is a duet between Marceline and the Ice King that they composed while Petrikov was still Petrikov, and it’s impactful, with the combination of Marceline’s trained singing voice and the Ice King doing his best to match reflecting the process of recording.
With the benefit of years of hindsight, having encountered many stories that use the backstory reveal as the major emotional climax (especially in anime and manga), and with many animations since following its footsteps in taking a dramatic turn from a comedic start, it’s easy to forget what an explosive impact this had on the fandom when this episode came out. Adventure Time was already popular at this point, but I think this is where it kicked into a higher gear. There’s a fairly substantial Wikipedia article which has a number of production notes (although it turns out Wikipedia has individual articles for every episode of the season). Notably, Rebecca Sugar was a big part of both storyboarding the episode and designing Marceline’s outfits, as well as playing the omnichord in the songs.
Fundamentally it is a dementia metaphor—not lost on the audience of the time, with contemporary reviews mentioning family members with Alzheimer’s. While the Ice King drives the action here, it’s not really about the subjective experience of someone with dementia (in contrast to for example Cartoon Saloon’s short Late Afternoon) but their family and friends—the main point of identification is Marceline, and they do a splendid job of conveying her complex emotional state with incredibly simple expressions and spot-on voice acting from Olivia Olson.
I vaguely remember at the time being excited that Adventure Time was about to launch into a bigger, more dramatic story, but it will actually be a while before we follow up on this episode. Instead we have a different big dramatic story.
Episode 26: The Lich
Now for the second part of our one-two plot punch. We’ve been vaguely hinting towards a return of the Lich, now it’s time to make good for the season finale. As has now become traditional, this is a two-parter split between seasons, with this episode functioning as setup, and the resolution coming at the start of S5.
Finn has a Cosmic Owl dream suggesting something has happened to Billy (the big hero guy), caused by the snail!Lich. He runs over to ask Billy what to do, and discovers that Billy seems alive and well, but asks Finn to collect gems from the crowns of various princesses and the Ice King so he can seal the Lich in another dimension. There’s one of my favourite gags in the show, where they pull the star-shaped thing out of Lumpy Space Princess’s head (and it later turns out not to be one of the special gems at all).
There’s a little exposition dump courtesy of a little hologram guy on the Enchiridion. Dimensions can be linked accidentally by wormholes, or deliberately by artefacts. And this comes up:
At the centre of all the dimensions is a dimension called the Time Room, believed to be the quasi-corporeal dwelling place of the almighty Prismo. The Time Room is a single dimension that exists outside of time. The Time Room produces the Time Waves that are experienced by other dimensions.
I don’t think they ever explain who Prismo is again, so let’s make a note.
The final gem comes, naturally, from Bubblegum. We have a little vignette of her idly cutting the limbs off tiny candy people and reattaching them in various configurations, before Finn bursts in and tries to take her gem. She cuts his cheek with the scissors, which I believe will leave a lasting scar. I appreciated this little PB moment.
Naturally Billy is just a corpse puppetteered by the Lich. The Enchiridion portal opens, Finn and Jake are dragged in, and we end with a strange scene of an alternate Finn and Jake in a much more mundane-looking world—a farmhouse in which Finn has a robot arm and Jake is a regular dog, and they have a living mother.
Multiverse shit is pretty common nowadays, but in 2012, Adventure Time was ahead of the curve in its medium. Naturally, we’re drawing pretty hard on D&D settings like Planescape, and the role of ‘dimensions’ in old-school fantasy novels (Moorcock, Vance etc.), not to mention all the shit that gets pulled in comics. We’ve seen a lot of worlds that are kind of like variants on ‘hell’ or ‘weird magic place’, but now we’re starting to see them abstract the show’s mythology into the idea that certain elements, like the heroic one-armed hero Finn, will recur across all the worlds and timelines. But more on that next time!
Season 4, as a whole
So, the real Adventure Time starts here.
This season has brought in a greater degree of inter-episode continuity—we’ve shifted gears from ‘random thing of the week’, to turning this into a ‘world’ where ideas introduced in the past can unexpectedly come back. And I think this really heralded a change in American animation! Which isn’t to claim that Adventure Time was the first American cartoon to have a long-term plot arc lol, it certainly wasn’t, but the way it fits together, the particular balance of status-quo episode and mythology joke, and the kind of stories it wants to tell (the willingness to tell tragedies, the amount of long term character development), prompted a general shift in a lot of subsequent shows (even if Steven Universe was the successor to really nail the formula down).
It also strikes a very strong balance between the overall casual and upbeat tone and the post-apoc setting—the thing that unifies Adventure Time most of all is its affect, an affect that would be reflected all over subsequent works, from Centaur World or Over the Garden Wall to Infinity Train. (The next couple of years after this season would also see parallel developments in ‘adult animation’ across shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, it’s not all down to AT).
The upshot of this is that minor plotlines like Lemongrab or Ice King/Simon’s backstory develop very gradually, addressed only once or twice in a season, but this honestly still proves to be a very effective frame for an episodic show that dances rapidly between comedy and drama—it keeps you guessing. Each episode is so brief that even when there’s a dud, it’s not a big deal. It’s very similar to Homestuck in that regard, constantly throwing out a huge amount of stuff that might be relevant later, depending on whether the writers decide to use it.
So Adventure Time presents you with a huge field of elements you could find appealing. But the flipside is, if there is something you latch on to as scratching an interesting itch, you might feel frustrated that it’s diluted amongst everything else. However, it’s perhaps because characters like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline don’t always take centre stage that they’re allowed to have characterisations beyond ‘straightforwardly heroic’. Finn isn’t an entirely bland character, his goofy idiolect is very charming and he can definitely carry episodes that centre on him, but I definitely have to accept the parts of Adventure Time that I enjoy most (the weird D&Dcore setting, the two main girls) are not the focus, Finn and Jake are.
But that’s fine because every episode throws us something new and strange. What I’m struck by, coming back to it, is that Adventure Time consistently shows real passion and creativity in its animation. It doesn’t do things the ‘obvious’ way. Jake’s constant morphing is always a delight to see. Certainly I have a lot of nostalgia for watching it when it aired, but I am really enjoying this rewatch just in its own right!
Honestly, I finished this writeup for old times’ sake, but I’m not sure if there’s much need to continue an episode-by-episode commentary across the remainder of the show. I don’t think I’m drawing out anything that hasn’t already been thoroughly dissected by fans. When even Wikipedia has per-episode articles with detailed production notes and summaries of contemporary reviews, is this still an interesting format? We’ll see, I suppose!