At the opening of “Ocarina,” the one hundred and sixty-eighth episode of Adventure Time, Jake the Dog and Lady Rainicorn’s five pups wait for their father, who is three hours late to their birthday party. He is in charge of the food. The “pups" are nearly middle-aged – Rainicorns age quickly, so they’re about the same biological age as their father – but are no less disappointed with their father’s absence than if they were small children.
“When’s the last time you even heard from dad?” one of the pups asks, with a slight note of contempt. Another comments that he’s only met Jake twice.
Jake appears moments later, fresh from adventuring with his adopted brother Finn, expecting his children to forgive his late arrival. The only food he’s brought is a pocketful of macaroni salad. The pups each respond to this disappointment in their own ways – some seeking his approval (“Dad, you’re beautiful!”), others not so much.
Jake’s son Kim Kil Whan, an imposing figure dressed in a tan suit tailored to his noodly Rainicorn shape, informs his father that he has purchased the tree house that is Jake and Finn’s home. Marceline the Vampire Queen, the rightful owner of the tree house, was willing to give him the deed “in exchange for one lunatic bass.” Jake expresses disbelief at his son’s actions. Why would Kim Kil Whan kick him out of his home? And, on top of that, expect him to get a job in order to pay rent?
“Ocarina,” is one of Adventure Time’s more complex examinations of parent-child relationships, depicting Jake’s discovery that his not-good-enough-parenting has caused unexpected conflict between him and his adult child. This episode is far from the first encounter with a neglectful or selfish parent in Adventure Time. In earlier episodes, Marceline has struggled with her literal demon of a father who has a habit of ignoring her wishes. More than once, Finn has confronted being abandoned by his birth parents. And Jake himself has wrestled with the memory and teachings of his dead parents at crucial moments when he’s needed to make decisions that will affect his own wellbeing or that of his pups.
Children don’t choose their parents. And parents don’t choose their children. The natural dissonance that arises from this condition of life is not easily reconciled. While Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward has said in the past that the show “is for kids more than anyone else” and that he doesn’t write “with a co-viewing audience in mind”, he and the show’s writers have portrayed the often difficult reality of parent-child relationships in a relatable, empathetic, and sometimes heartbreaking, manner that services both the children and adults watching the series.
Marceline, a teenage vampire and amateur musician, enlists the help of her friend Finn to record a song. Finn drops the beat. Marceline strikes her ax bass – it’s made out of an actual ax – and starts to sing:
“Daddy, why did you eat my fries?
I bought them, and they were mine
But you ate them, yeah you ate my fries
And I cried, but you didn’t see me cry
Do you even love me?
Well, I wish you’d show it
Cause I wouldn’t know it
What kind of dad eats his daughter’s fries
And doesn’t even look her in the eyes?
Daddy, there were tears there
If you saw them would you even care?”
Finn is visibly uncomfortable. He asks Marceline why she doesn’t just talk to her dad about how she feels about him stealing her fries. She responds that it “isn’t worth the effort.” Finn, against Marceline’s wishes, performs a spell to summon her father from the Nightosphere, the netherworld of which he is the demon overlord.
The episode, “It Came From the Nightosphere,” is the first time we meet one of the main characters’ parents. Hunson Abadeer, Marceline’s father, is just as selfish and thoughtless as one would assume based on Marceline’s “Fry Song.” Once he enters the Land of Ooo, where Adventure Time is primarily set, he tries to steal Finn’s soul and repossesses Marceline’s ax bass – according to him, it’s a family heirloom – before leaving Marceline’s house to feast on the souls of other creatures.
Marceline and Finn follow the trail of soulless and frightened Ooo-inhabitants that Abadeer leaves behind. Marceline, who has accepted the evil nature of her father, just wants her bass back. Finn, an idealist who strives to do good by everyone, wants to return the souls that Abadeer has stolen to their rightful owners.
“You can’t destroy me!” Abadeer warns, after an encounter with Marceline and Finn.
“Dad, I don’t want to destroy you,” Marceline says, before angrily telling him, “Stay out of my life!” Later, she admits to Finn, “I just want my dad to care about me.” Marceline wants her father to love her enough to let her possess the things that are hers – the ax bass that is essential to her musicianship and the fries that are, well, her fries. His continued disrespect for her autonomy has left her defeated, but still wishful that he will change enough to care about and respect her.
When Finn distracts Abadeer by playing his recording of “Fry Song” in order to free the souls trapped in Abadeer’s body, Abadeer is shocked to hear that Marceline was hurt by the fry incident:
“Marceline, you really feel this way? Of course I love you. I’m sorry I ate your fries. I didn’t mean to hurt you...I love you Marceline.”
His response feels like a band-aid. Regardless of whether Abadeer loves his daughter, it’s hard to believe that a soul-sucking demon will change just because his daughter is upset with him.
But with Abadeer distracted, Finn is able to use his weapons to free the souls and perform the spell that will send Abadeer back to the Nightosphere. (“I’ll see you in the Nightosphere, you sick freak,” he says, in a triumphant moment.) Marceline is, at first, upset with Finn. However, she very quickly admits that she’s relieved that her father is back where he belongs.
When we next see Hunson Abadeer, he’s up to his old tricks. This time, however, he’s not just taking from his daughter. He’s using her. In the episodes “Return to the Nightosphere” and “Daddy’s Little Monster,” Finn and Jake find that Abadeer has enchanted Marceline using an amulet and placed her as the ruler of the Nightosphere. They see video footage of Abadeer telling Marceline that he wants her to “join the family business.” She expresses in another song that she’s “not [her] daddy’s little girl anymore” and though she wants to remain close to him by being in the Nightosphere, she doesn’t want to rule over it.
When Finn and Jake confront Abadeer about his actions, he admits that Marceline ruling the Nightosphere is what he has always wanted. He continues to fail to consider Marceline’s wishes for her own life and would cannibalize his daughter to realize his vision.
Finn and Jake are able to save Marceline and escape from the Nightosphere, but before they close their portal, Marceline and her father share a few last words. Her father apologizes and says that he thought she’d want to make him proud.
“Yeah, I want you to be proud. I want you to be proud of me,” Marceline says.
Once again, her father has disappointed her with his selfish behavior. His inability to separate from Marceline and recognize her autonomy resulted in misunderstanding and conflict. The state of their relationship can’t be repaired until either Hunson Abadeer learns to accept Marceline as she is or Marceline learns that she can’t expect her father to change. Her frank statement, telling her father that she wants him to be proud of her, is a valuable moment for the viewer. It is a reminder that children need to be appreciated for the people they are and not as extensions of their parents, and that parents, as humans, are fundamentally flawed and may not always act the way they should.
Though still a “teenager” in many respects, Marceline has been alive – or undead – for over a thousand years. Her father has continually abandoned her, so she’s had to search for what she’s needed – protection, validation, and love, among other things – from others since the catastrophic Great Mushroom War tore her world apart and caused the formation of the Land of Ooo when she was just a child. For a time, she found what she needed in Simon Petrikov, the scientist who would later become the Ice King, Adventure Time’s main antagonist.
In “I Remember You,” the Ice King asks Marceline to write a song with him, using pages he’s torn from his old scrapbooks for inspiration. He is unable to remember the past or how he’s arrived at his current demented state. As they collaborate, both the Ice King and Marceline become frustrated at the Ice King’s inability to remember how they know each other. Eventually, with prompting from Marceline, the Ice King uncovers a memory from just after the Great Mushroom War. He waded into the wreckage of a toy store and emerges with Hambo, a stuffed animal who becomes Marceline’s most prized possession.
Hunson Abadeer’s whereabouts after the Great Mushroom War are unknown and Marceline, a child, needed a protector and father figure. Simon Petrikov was able to fill these roles, but only at the expense of his own mental health. In order to keep himself and Marceline alive, he needed to use the power from an enchanted crown to ward off evil, mutant beings. Marceline reveals this to Finn and Jake in the episode “Simon and Marcy,” when they question her putting up with the Ice King and his mania during a two-on-two basketball game.
In a flashback to 996 years earlier, Simon searches high and low for chicken soup to heal a sick Marceline. Several times, he puts on his crown in order to summon the powers of the Ice King of the present and protect Marceline from danger, even though he and Marceline both recognize that the crown is making him crazy. Once they are safe and a blob of sentient pink goo delivers a can of chicken soup and a spoon, Simon and Marcy exchange the words “I love you.”
Simon, with his love and his feeling of obligation to care for young Marcy, is a much better father than Hunson Abadeer. However, he has devolved over time into a maniac who is obsessed with capturing princesses, committed to annoying Finn and Jake, and devoid of a memory. This is undoubtedly disappointing to Marceline, who has not been able to count on either of the “fathers” in her life to remain by her side. However, this can also be interpreted as a comment on the disappointment and abandonment every child will experience at some point with their parents. Simon may have been a good father in the past, but his efforts caused him to lose his mind and caused Marceline to lose him, the only person she could rely on as a child.
Marceline, for her part, has accepted this loss. After all, if it hadn’t been for Simon, she may not have survived to be a relatively well-adjusted young adult. When she finishes telling Finn and Jake the tale of “Simon and Marcy,” the Ice King pipes up to ask how the story ended. “Little Marceline felt a lot better and they lived happily ever after,” she replies.
Finn, we are told, is the last remaining human in the Land of Ooo. He was abandoned as a baby on the side of a mountain, left to lie on a leaf in his own “boom boom” – an Adventure Time universe term for defecation. In an early episode, “Memories of Boom Boom Mountain,” Finn reveals that he is primarily motivated by his memories of being abandoned by his biological parents. Because he remembers that a ladybug walked by him as a baby and refused to help him, commenting to her child that he must have “problems,” Finn declares that wants to solve everybody’s problems, no matter how small they are.
When the number of people asking for Finn’s help overwhelms him, Jake asks Finn what he wants. Finn then recalls being found by Jake’s parents, Joshua and Margaret:
“What do you want, baby? Why are you crying?” Joshua says in his film noir detective’s voice.
“This baby just wants some love and kisses to make him happy,” Margaret replies on Finn’s behalf.
Finn, in the present, gives a different answer: “What I want is to help anyone in need so that everyone is happy!” This desire drives many of Finn’s actions throughout the rest of the series and, more often than not, causes frustration and heartache. A notable example of this is Finn’s encounter with his biological father.
While it’s indicated that Finn had a good childhood with Joshua and Margaret, it remains that he was abandoned by his biological parents and then again by Joshua and Margaret when they died. When the spirit of Finn’s hero, Billy, reveals that Finn’s biological father is alive and in a place called the Citadel, Finn jumps at the chance to reunite with him.
Finn tells Jake the news about his father and he reasons that there must be a logical explanation for his father abandoning him. For instance, his father may have been “captured by thieves and enslaved for years.” Jake plays into Finn’s wishful thinking and over the course of two episodes , they journey into space and to a bizarro maximum-security jail to find Finn’s father. “Hey, my dad must be like, the warden there,” Finn says, after finding out that the Citadel is a prison, ignoring the more likely possibility that his father is a prisoner. From the beginning, it is made clear to the viewer that Finn, in searching for his father, is taking a risk that might not be worth it in the end.
Finn and Jake accidentally unleash the Lich, an evil demon, who heads straight for the Citadel. While the Lich is destroying the crystal cells of the prison, Jake spots a prisoner who looks a lot like Finn. Finn, realizing that his father must be a prisoner, is crestfallen. He comments that his heart “feels all yellow and green.”
Finn and Jake try to help Finn’s father, Martin, escape. When he finds out that Finn is his son, his only response is, “Good for you, kid.” He seems not only to want to escape from the Citadel, but also to escape from Finn and Jake. In his haste, Martin is injured and he manipulates Finn, who he refers to as “Flynn,” into healing him using a magic substance. Finn promises to heal him if Martin tells him why he abandoned him. “You know me. I’m a funny guy!” Martin exclaims, before saying, lamely, “It was a long time ago. Like, who knows? Maybe you left me!” Finn heals Martin anyway and Martin escapes from the chaos of the Citadel without Finn and Jake.
Finn chases after his father, who is trying to get on a spacecraft with a group of other escaped prisoners. He tries so hard to hold on to Martin that he loses his own arm.
Finn’s immediate disappointment upon meeting his father is clear. His father is neither enslaved by thieves nor is he the warden of the Citadel. He doesn’t remember Finn and can’t articulate why he might have abandoned him as a baby on a mountainside. His father, simply, is a self-absorbed jerk. Once Finn is home and learning to live without an arm, his disappointment develops into righteous anger.
In “The Tower,” Finn’s anger is about to boil over. He decides he wants to “punch [his] dad in the face and steal his arm.” So, with the help of a sort of phantom appendage, Finn builds a tower into space, all the while fixated on getting revenge on his father. He sings the following song as he works:
“Baby’s building a tower into space
Space is where he’s gonna find his dad
Daddy’s got an arm and
Baby’s gonna harm his
Arm by tearing it off his dad”
Both Finn and Jake, who is trying to be supportive, think that Finn will feel better after he completes his act of revenge. Princess Bubblegum, however, feels that the exercise will be dangerous. As Finn gets closer to space, he falls unconscious. When he wakes, he is in a futuristic room and finds Martin watching TV. He overpowers his dad and tries to pull off his arm but stops when he realizes he’s not getting anything out of it. Moments later, it’s revealed that “Martin” is Princess Bubblegum in disguise. She and Finn agree that physically attacking Martin wasn’t of much help. His phantom arm disappears. He must learn to cope with the loss of his arm and the father he didn’t – and still doesn’t – have.
Finn’s hunger for a father remains unresolved. But he is maturing. (He was twelve years old when the series started and is now, in the show’s sixth season, approximately sixteen.) And his progress is something the viewer – whether adult or child – can identify with. Finn continues to realize through trial and error – such as the events of “The Tower” – that instead of trying to fix everything he doesn’t like, he may be better off accepting the things he can’t change. Like the fact that his dad is a loser.
“Forget that loser!” Jake yells to Finn as he chases after his father in “Escape From the Citadel.” Jake is a protective older brother. And while he and Finn work together as equals in many of their adventures – and can act equally as goofy – Jake exhibits maturity as a young adult that Finn has yet to develop. He takes hobbies like cooking and playing the viola seriously and is in a committed relationship with Lady Rainicorn. But even though he is an adult and his parents have died, Jake is still partially ruled by his memories of them, especially his father.
In “Crystals Have Power,” Jake remembers losing control in a fight with his brother. His father, Joshua, encourages his violence. “Having no control makes you a tough galoot – like me,” he says. When Jake complains that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, his father tells him the ugly truth: “Well, that’s too bad kid. Because you’re going to hurt everybody.”
Jake reacts to this memory in the present by vowing to no longer hurt anyone. However, when he has no choice but to use force to save Finn from danger, he sees another vision of his father, who corrects his statement from the earlier memory: “Everybody who is evil, Jake. Let me finish next time.”
Jake is seen taking his parents’ wishes or advice to heart several other times during the series, such as when his father conveys via pre-recorded hologram that Jake must let Finn fight his own way through an impossibly dangerous dungeon in order to toughen him up in “Dad’s Dungeon.” Or when his mother provides parenting tips in her own series of holomessages after the puppies are born in “Jake the Dad.” Jake is able to realize through trial and error that his parents, while well-intentioned in their reasoning for leaving these messages behind, don’t know Jake or Finn or Jake’s puppies as well as Jake does. Jake helps Finn through the dungeon when his father’s method – letting Finn struggle all the while demeaning him – doesn’t work. He ignores his mother’s parenting advice when he remembers that the only way he learned valuable lessons as a child was by making his own mistakes. Over the course of the series, Jake learns to separate from his parents and trust his own judgment, which is essential to becoming a functional adult and successful parent.
In the Adventure Time universe, kindness, love, and respect are prized above all else when it comes to parent-child relationships. Through the relationships of Marceline, Finn, and Jake, Adventure Time provides a key for how parents should behave toward their children. In order for their children to thrive, parents should be present. They should not use their children for their own profit. They should respect their children’s independence and personhood. And above all, parents should love their children and reinforce that love.
Children, for their part, can see through multiple examples that parents are never perfect, even if they try. This would be an undoubtedly valuable lesson to learn while one is young, though no one could blame kids for not picking up on something like this while watching the consistently inventive, wildly fun Adventure Time. The series is, ultimately, for their entertainment.
Kim Kil Whan buys his father’s home out from under him, rents him the only apartment he can afford (a ladder), and sends him a bill after bailing him out of jail when he and Finn are caught trespassing in what was formerly their bathroom. Jake and Finn figure that Kim Kil Whan must be renting out their house for his own financial gain. They follow him to his home to confront him. When they arrive, they find that Kim Kil Whan lives in a gorgeous house in an enchanting wood and must not need the profit from renting out their tree house. Kim Kil Whan finds Finn and Jake outside and asks them why they’re there.
“I realize that you don’t need our money,” Jake says, “So I’m wondering if you’d consider our counteroffer. Father love!” While saying “I love you” over and over again, Jake hands Kim Kil Whan a gift. It’s an ocarina, a sort of oval-shaped flute. Jake has forgotten to poke the hole in it that would make it playable, but Kim Kil Whan accepts it anyway in exchange for the tree house.
Kim Kil Whan returns to his house, where he speaks to his wife. He explains that his father “still lives the life of a child” and that he thought if he made his father get a job and move out of the tree house, he would have grown up. But, he concludes, “I think I was wrong about Dad. I think he’s good.”