Sunday, June 16, 2024

Adventure Time Raises the Stakes and Finds Itself

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After a somewhat controversial Season 6, Adventure Time finds itself yet again in a brand new season. Thanks to the fact that the previous season didn’t end on a cliffhanger, Season 7 is allowed to develop its own storyline.

Well, there is the fate of Bubblegum that was left hanging when Season 6 wrapped up, but that’s not something addressed immediately in the first episode. It’s all part of her ongoing character arc, just like other characters have their own stuff to deal with. Obviously, there’s Finn, who arguably goes through even more character development this season than in any other before, PB who’s not so ‘P’ as in ‘princess’ anymore, and with the “Stakes” miniseries, we get a whole new angle on Marceline.

“Bonnie & Neddy” is an excellent start that establishes the new dynamic of the Candy Kingdom. Granted, it’s not to last too long, but it’s fun to watch nonetheless. Finn and Jake are still loyal to the Candy Kingdom, and, albeit reluctantly, to the Princess King of Ooo. More importantly, the episode starts exploring Bubblegum’s background.

We’ve known for quite a while that she’s almost as ancient as Marceline and Simon, so it was about time to get to know her origins. I do hope we’ll see more of Neddy as a character as his role here was mostly to humanize Bubblegum, in a sense. After the show spent so long showing us how incredibly flawed she is, it was nice to see that at the end of the day, she’s only hu— well, candy. Now that she doesn’t have her kingdom her insecurities are more obvious than ever, but it also allows us to see the core of Bonnie’s character. Her admission that Neddy just likes his own company more than she does hers is a quiet, heartfelt moment. Then there’s this:

“Varmints” isn’t any different when it comes to delving into PB’s character. It’s her moment to finally open up and let all the emotions she’s been bottling up out, a truly excellent episode that helps her move forward in a major way. The catalyst of this is none other than the Vampire Queen herself, because that’s right, it’s Bubbline time again. Not only is “Varmints” the episode where Bonnie lets the loss of the Candy Kingdom sink in, it also gives us many throwaway lines that reference the pre-”What Was Missing” Bubbline dynamic, and it is thanks to this episode that they can finally move on, together. To put it simply, “Varmints” is perfect. From the parallels to the often mentioned “What Was Missing” to the tender moments, it’s just what we needed right before “Stakes”.

“Varmints” finally addresses issues that have been lying around since Season 3. Sure, we had “Sky Witch” since then and smaller moments like “Red Starved” and “Princess Day”, but Marcy and Bonnie never really got to properly patch things up. This perfect opportunity came for them, and we got 11 beautiful minutes that explore the reason of their falling out while also building a solid base for their renewed friendship. It gives us a glimpse of what Marceline and Bubblegum used to be like long before Finn and Jake came along and before the Candy Kingdom reached its current state. At first, they find it easier to talk about this—their shared past, rather than the current circumstances, how PB got throne jacked and how she didn’t bother telling Marceline about it. But as the episode progresses and they go deep inside the caves, they also ask the important questions to themselves and each other.

I think I’ve made it obvious how biased I am when it comes to these two, individually and as a couple. But I also believe that it would be hard for anyone who’s been following the show to deny how rewarding this emotional journey is. Lines like “I think I was just trying to prove something” and “is that why you stopped talking to me?” build up the big scene, where Bonnie breaks down crying after losing her snapback (her freaking snapback, I mean, come on). It’s accepting that she’s lost it all and admitting that it was her own fault, but it’s also Marceline being there to reassure her. It’s a sign that they won’t make the same mistakes again. It’s when these two finally let go what happened in the past. At the beginning of the episode their interactions were still somewhat awkward, but by the end, they are as perfect together as ever.

Only took 4 seasons

Season 7 continues to deliver with the remaining three episode before Marceline’s mini-series. “Cherry Cream Soda” is a look at her life after Root Beer Guy, but in a twist true to the show he returns from death. As she’s married, and to Starchy of all people, the story is mostly about a love triangle, but with a satisfying end. Cherry Cream Soda makes her own decisions and doesn’t run back into “Dirt” Beer Guy’s arms, just gives him a chance. It’s always delightful when AT gets these minor character episodes right. “Mama Said” is the return of Canyon and a chill adventure for Finn and Jake, Glob knows they deserve it. “Football” is a heavier one that explores BMO’s mirror friend in more detail. It ends up being quite horrifying and depressing, although there’s always the chance that it’s all part of BMO’s impressive imagination.

With episode 6 the long-awaited “Stakes” miniseries begins. Ever since she first appeared in “Evicted!” Marceline’s been a fan-favourite, and although we had plenty of episodes exploring her long and often miserable life, “Stakes” was 8 full episode all about Marceline—not necessarily just her backstory, but also how she lets the things that happened to her define who she is.

Just like Season 7 as a whole (and arguably the whole show) is about growing up, and “Stakes” followed that theme as well. In many ways, “Stakes” was fanservice: from the mere fact that it was Marceline-centric, not to mention all the flashbacks and all the Bubbline you can imagine (without it actually explicitly becoming canon, mind you). But at the same time it was so much more than that. “Stakes” is a wonder of animation and a triumph of narration.

It starts with the basics of who the protagonist is, and “Marceline the Vampire Queen” is what it says on the tin. It’s about how Marceline first appeared all those episodes ago back in “Evicted!”, but it’s also the Cerebus Retcon of that. Far from being confident with that title, Marceline now wants to get rid of it. Just the fact that she realizes that when she turned into a vampire a thousand years ago she was a messed up kid and she’s still just that is an enormous step for her. Considering how emotionally closed off she was, first with her prankster persona and then her reluctance to face her own emotions in a way other than songs, this alone would call for applause in her development. Thanks to how they are on good terms again with Bonnie, she helps Marceline actually go through with it and rid her of her vampirism.

“Marceline the Vampire Queen” also makes it clear that for all her mind games towards the beginning, Marcy really doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She has nightmares about inadvertently hurting people as a vampire and we also learn in “Stakes” that she chose to drink the colour red instead of blood. It’s a valid criticism of the miniseries, and indeed of the series as a whole that its Cerebus Syndrome goes too far sometimes, because it’s just obvious how the creators didn’t have this all in mind when writing “Evicted!” or even “Henchman”.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with this particular retcon, not when it comes to Marceline’s character, because if I really want to, I can make the timeline and her behaviour work. It’s more a case of how it all does require some faith and imagination from the audience, which is not necessarily the marker of good writing. But I love Marcy and I love “Stakes”, so I’m willing to look over it.

Not that she wanted it in the first place

“Everything Stays” is all about the backstory. I remember that when “Stakes” was first announced it was rumoured that whole miniseries would be just one giant flashback with maybe one or two subplots set in the present. Fortunately, that’s not what happened and instead, we got one episode that dealt with the majority of backstory we needed to know. It wasn’t too much though, which is what would have happened if we got the entire miniseries focusing on the past.

When Marceline first appeared she was this mysterious figure, like vampires often are, but then the majority of her episodes started focusing on her past and the relationships she had. Which is all good, it’s what we wanted and it’s been executed amazingly, but I feel like there’s a line we shouldn’t cross. She’s a thousand years old, we don’t need to know every little detail of her life to get the general picture. “Everything Stays” managed to find the balance between a satisfying flashback episode and not giving away too much.

It also fits how Marceline is reliving some of her mortal memories when she thinks she’s dying. We finally get to see her mother (voiced by Rebecca Sugar, of course), see how Simon left her (ouch), and how she survived on her own for years and years. It’s the episode that establishes that she gained her powers from vampires she killed (Marcy the Vampire Hunter, am I right) and that she traveled with the surviving humans for a while. “Everything Stays” manages to foreshadow the upcoming “Islands” miniseries as well, thanks to the inclusion of the humans, and it also explores how Marceline, being a half-demon, was feared by them at first and how it had hurt her.

It really is a compromise; the whole episode is just different flashbacks because admittedly, “Stakes” needed one like this. But it also needed to maintain the air of mystery that’s been surrounding Marceline since the very beginning. Somehow “Everything Stays” also manages to make her past even more tragic than it already was, and it’s even more surprising that it does so without being utterly depressing.

This is fine

“Vamps About” might just be my least favourite episode out of the 8 that make up “Stakes”. It’s still good in its own way, but it’s a bit all over the place and has the hard job of introducing the 5 new villains (2 of whom we have seen in “Everything Stays”) as well as kickstarting the real plot of “Stakes”, which is hunting them down. All scenes are perfectly enjoyable, it’s just that the episode as a whole is not as well put together as the other ones. It still has its highlights, like the dynamic between the returning vamps, even if the explanation as to why they returned from the dead is kind of weak.

We also have a brilliant scene with Pep But and his arsenal of stakes, which he has “in case a certain frenemy of Bonnie’s decides to turn on them some day”. Even Marceline admits that that was plausible. We also see the continuation of the last flashback, the very moment where Marceline was turned into a vampire. It’s a rather disturbing one, as it usually is when it comes to this particular part of the vampire mythos. All in all “Vamps About” is fun and impactful, but it does feel like a build-up episode, a necessarily evil so that the rest of the miniseries can be more dynamic and exciting.

“The Empress Eyes” deals with a particular part of Marceline’s life after “Everything Stays” dealt with her past. It is the episode when she hunts the Empress down, now that the Fool is dead, but it’s also the one that centres around her relationship with Simon. We get a short flashback which serves as an explanation as to why Marcy decided to hunt vampires in the first place, and the reason turns out to be Simon himself. As if you couldn’t make their story even more tragic. It’s an excellent episode for the relationship between Marceline and Ice King, perhaps the best since “I Remember You”. Because the thing is, Marcy keeps calling him “Simon” and believes that he’s still in there (rightly so), but she also has to accept that Ice King is basically a different person. This different person doesn’t remember their past, no matter how hard she tries to trigger his memory, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about her.

What I love about “The Empress Eyes” is that it’s all about Marcy going berserk on the Empress for having used and abused Simon, while the one thing the Empress can’t get Ice King to do is to hurt Marceline. She might have made a fool out of him, but let’s be honest, he was already pathetic. And her powers don’t even work on him, so she can’t get him to kill Marceline, and not because Simon doesn’t want to do that, but because Ice King is against it too. As I said when talking about “Simon & Marcy”, even just the fact that these two found each other again is a ray of hope, and if anything, this must have proven that to Marceline.

“The Empress Eyes”, and even “Vamps About”, were also partly about Marceline deciding to be a lone ranger again and trying to deal with the vampires on her own, just like she did a thousand years ago. Part 4 of the miniseries end with her finally realizing that she doesn’t have to do it on her own this time, and so “May I Come In?” is about the friends she has made since in a major way. Bonnie, Finn and Jake accompany her throughout her whole journey of becoming a mortal again, but in this episode LSP is helping her out as well. Fitting, since the friendship they seemed to have formed last season is a strong one, so I’m glad Lumpy Space Princess joined the group for this one episode. It’s full of touching moments, like Finn’s “we’ll never let you get to her”, but perhaps none is more telling than Jake overcoming his fear of vampires as soon as he sees Marcy get hurt. So much love going around, it’s almost all too much. Hierophant, this episode’s villain of the week, is here to balance things out, as he’s the embodiment of an old school vampire, so much so that it proves to be his downfall. Out of all the vamps, he was perhaps one of the most interesting characters, despite how stereotypical he was.

The one true squad

After we had an episode about the importance of her relationship with Simon(/Ice King) and then one with Marceline’s wider group of friends, it was only right to get one that focused more heavily on Bonnibel. This is the other major relationship Marceline has with someone around as old as she is, and throughout this, Bubblegum as the deuteragonist of “Stakes”. It’s especially obvious in this episode, “Take Her Back” and the last one of the miniseries, as we see how the events of “Stakes” affect her own journey too and how eventually it all leads to her getting her throne back. She hasn’t mentioned the Candy Kingdom once so far and seemed content living in exile with Peps and helping Marceline, but “Take Her Back” gives her the opportunity to go back to her people. The beauty of it is that she doesn’t do it for herself or even for the sake of her citizens, she does it for Marceline.

It’s particularly heartwarming to see how she’s willing to admit her mistakes, her hubris, and how she feels like Marceline dying of poison is her fault. It’s not really, but now Bubblegum is ready to take responsibility and value lives over pride or technicalities, and that’s what really matters. She’s even willing to accept Pep But’s magic just to heal Marceline. Magic! Oh my, Bonnibel, what a drastic move.

Needless to say that apart from kicking butt and taking names, Bubblegum spends the vast majority of the episode worrying about Marceline and not being subtle with her affections, at all. I could go on and on about the bazillion Bubbline moments that happened throughout “Stakes”, hell, just the ones that happened in “Take Her Back”, but at this point I feel like there’s no need. Season 7 just did almost everything it could and made it more obvious with every episode. Bubbline is happening, and no worries, I’ll freak out about it some other day.

Real subtle

Finn and Jake spend the episode being the comic reliefs, just like they do for most of “Stakes”, but it might be the most obvious here. One of my first thoughts upon first watching “Take Her Back” was how they worked as the comical sidekicks, even if it only lasts as long as the miniseries, it still worked really well. As for Marceline, she spends 95% of the episode being unconscious and having dreams about growing old. Well, it’s only two scenes, which makes you wonder.

Putting the protagonist in a situation like this for an entire episode could have been a risky move, but Adventure Time pulls it off. One of the reasons is because the other characters can easily carry the episode (well, duh, being the more important characters outside the miniseries), including the Moon, the scariest of the vampires and this week’s target. The other is that even those two short scenes where we see into Marceline’s dreams are enough make her the most fascinating aspect of “Take Her Back”. The first dream is about how she wished Simon and Betty could get the life they deserve, both sane and growing old together, with Marcy visiting them as she’s getting older too. The second dream is no less bittersweet, as it portrays an elderly Marceline nearing her death, living a still young, “nice and pink” Bubblegum (*cough* married *cough*). If you listen to lyrics of the songs Marceline is singing they are even more telling. It’s all just an imagined life, a what if, if Marcy really were to remain mortal and grow old. It all happens as she’s dying, just like she relived her mortal memories when she thought she was dying earlier, now she’s imagining a mortal life.

Her mortal life, however, is put at risk as the final two episodes approach. “Checkmate” starts with everything being fine, then it seems like everything will go down, then everything’s perfect, and in the final minute hell breaks loose. Just as Marceline is enjoying life as a mortal, eating and being able to feel normal hunger (and love) the Vampire King appears. It doesn’t go down as Marceline imagined it would as the King doesn’t want to fight her. “Stakes” in general has a tarot feeling to it, what with the vampires being named after cards, but now the Vampire King also brings in the Wheel of Fortune and the major theme behind these 8 episodes.

No doubt many viewers expected the Vampire King to act just like the other vampires did, seek vengeance and act like nothing has changed, but from early on he alone seems to realize what being alive (undead?) once again means. Even when Marceline is unable to see the pattern he points it out to her and wants to break the cycle. Pep But as a fangirl and all the hilarious scenes with the group and the VK guarantee a lighter tone to “Checkmate”, but underneath it all is a truly fascinating idea. Eventually, Marceline does agree to have Bonnie unvamp the Vampire King, but what he said about the Wheel of Fortune and history repeating itself comes true as his essence turns into a Dark Cloud.

Marceline realizes what she didn’t want to in “Checkmate”. In the first half of “The Dark Cloud” she seems to have given up, accepting that she just can’t stop the vampire essence from coming to life and destroying Ooo. Her true reason for not fighting against it is simply because the Vampire King convinced her that she can’t stop history from repeating itself and that she’s afraid it will. I love how it’s Ice King who snaps her out of it without wanting to, and I love the comparison between what he said and what PB tried to convince her with. Bonnie compared Marcy and herself to underdogs who always pull through while Ice King says that they are survivors, just like cockroaches and rats. PB tries to essentially cheer her up, while Ice King has no tact and says it how it is without meaning to. He points out that Marceline’s just afraid and how she always survives, and gaining motivation from this odd speech Marceline decides to face fate anyway. Sure enough, she becomes a vampire again, the price she has to pay in order to save Ooo, after having entered what looked a lot like the Avatar State.

Avatar State, yip yip

Only that history didn’t repeat itself, not exactly. Marceline became a vampire again and after she fought bravely against the Dark Cloud Bonnie became Princess Bubblegum again, but they both defied the Wheel of Fortune in their own ways. The miniseries came full circle and yet it wasn’t all for nothing. Although we’ve yet to see her actually act like it, Marceline feels that she feels more grown-up now that she has fresh mortal memories. Maybe after the events of “Stakes” we won’t see her act like she did in episodes like “Evicted!” again, because now she has more empathy and actually had a chance to grow as a mortal before becoming undead again. She’s a vampire just like she was at the beginning, but now she can let go of her messed-up past and move on (with the VK in her head as well, that calls for an explanation too).

As for Peebs, she got back her throne as if nothing had happened, but now both she and her citizens know what the Candy Kingdom without her is like. After her breakdown in “Varmints” and how she acted in “Take Her Back” she’s bound to a better ruler again, and nothing demonstrates that better than how instead of making a new Peppermint Butler she gets the old one back together, something she might not have done a season or two ago.

“Everything stays but it still changes” ends up being the ultimate message of “Stakes”. Marceline and Bubblegum are back to where they were before the Season 6 finale, and yet they’ve developed so much as characters. It’s only fitting that the miniseries ends with Marceline singing her mother’s song as it’s the perfect ending to it. The circumstances are different now, both with their individual development and as far as their relationship is concerned. Thanks to “Varmints” and “Stakes”, now they get to hang out forever. Obviously, the main focus of “Stakes” was Marceline, but as I said Bonnie can be seen as the deuteragonist, and these 8 episodes proved to be crucial in her character development as well. She adds to the message of things staying the same and yet changing ever so slightly perfectly. “Stakes” ended up being even more satisfying than I hoped, it’s just absolutely brilliant.

After this, any episode would have had difficulty continuing the season, but the second Christmas special of the show manages in its own special way. “The More You Moe, The Moe You Know” two-parter is again all about BMO and the story continues the theme of growing up, as well as taking us back to the MO factory. It reveals the secrets of AMO and turns pretty damn dark, although it’s not as depressing as the first Christmas special of the show. BMO reaches some kind of enlightenment by the end, after having raised rather good questions about what it means growing up and being an adult. “Summer Showers” is Viola’s chance to shine and for her to prove her worth to Jake. It’s a chill episode compared to the previous ones, with “Stakes” and the Christmas special being more intense, but it’s exactly what we needed. Viola also proves herself to be an interesting character, one of my favourite of the puppies.

“Angel Face” is another BMO episode and that doesn’t do the episode much good. We had a BMO-centric episode, “Stakes”, another BMO-centric story, “Summer Showers”, and now back to BMO. It’s just a bit too much, especially seeing as “Angel Face” lacks the thematic depth of the previous two stories. It’s a nice Western episode with a surprising return from Me-Mow, but not much more than that. “President Porpoise is Missing!” continues the line of lighter episodes, which is most welcome. If it was me deciding the order I might not have put all these lighter ‘fillers’ next to each other, but it does feel good the lay back a bit. It could have been better and the Banana Man subplot had potential, but I have nothing against the tone.

“Blank-Eyed Girl” follows the line of these lighter episodes and yet it doesn’t. It’s probably the one episode that comes closest to outright horror and still manages to get past the radar. I was much more afraid before watching the episode, not knowing what to expect from AT, but by the end I was mostly just confused, which was exactly its intention. “Bad Jubies” is a special stop-motion episode, not the best guest-animated story-wise but undoubtedly stunning to look at. I do wish the plot was more developed and Jake felt out of character, but at least it made more sense than some other special episodes.

That’s it for now, a little more than halfway through the season. It’s a fabulous start and not just because of “Stakes”, although those 8 episodes boosted the quality quite a lot. But the 5 episodes before that were all proof that Adventure Time is back to “normal” after the slightly off Season 6, and the episodes after the miniseries also proved that the show can still do lighter episodes well. The second half of the season is going to be even more-action packed, but this first half needed a break after the miniseries, so these lighter ones didn’t feel random and out of place. I had minor issues with episodes like “Angel Face” and “Bad Jubies”, but overall this is a damn strong start to the new season, so it’s no wonder most people agree that Season 7 succeeded in redeeming its predecessor.

Images courtesy of Cartoon Network


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