Maturity in Adventure Time

Jake the Dog, New Jersey, and Season Six

By Eric Thurm

Ooo is unlike anywhere on Earth. Yet the title sequence of Adventure Time positions its world in an almost identical fashion to, of all places, suburban New Jersey. The Sopranos’ opening features a leering Tony Soprano emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel, cigar in mouth, clouded in smoke. Leaving the New York skyline behind, he moves through his Jersey haunts, including a cemetery and Satriale’s, before finally arriving at his castle. Likewise, Adventure Time’s opening showcases the bigger world of the show, starting with busted A/V equipment and nuclear detritus and moving on to the thriving Candy Kingdom and its Princess Bubblegum, the not-so-thriving Ice Kingdom and its Ice King, and Marceline playing bass in a tree. But it finally zooms in on Finn and Jake, and the title card appears when Finn and Jake fist bump—the fun never ends with these two.

Title sequences are important. They’re the first things we see as viewers—it’s significant that neither Adventure Time nor The Sopranos uses cold opens, opting to start every episode with the same thing—and they can function as a mission statement for a series in miniature. Both of these opening sequences map the worlds of their respective shows, giving us a sense of who is important and why. In the case of The Sopranos, the title sequence is a journey into Tony’s world, a descent through industrial decline and away from the glittering city before reaching the seat of an empire in decay. Adventure Time’s opening, in a much more lighthearted way, reflects that when the series began, it was primarily about two best bros in a magical land protecting candy people. It really was Adventure Time with Finn & Jake.

Early on, Adventure Time was filled with easy, simplistic conflicts with obvious antagonists—candy zombies, a lumpy virus, an evil heart with the voice of George Takei, and, of course, Ice King. Many of those enemies are stand-ins for different aspects of adulthood—Finn’s Fear Feaster, the sycophantic Business Men, Marceline’s, ahem, mature sexuality—which can be staved off with a crystal sword and an algebraic attitude. This is especially true in “His Hero,” when Finn discovers that his monster-slaying idol Billy has become a non-violent community activist who decries punching things as pointless. Our heroes encounter an adult worldview that should be familiar to everyone, especially anyone who’s ever been exposed to a kids’ show where the characters learn the extreme importance of not fighting. In this case though, Finn and Jake fail at pacifism, coming up against the limits of non-violence. The lesson of “His Hero” is that kicking butt is awesome.

As if to confirm the heroism we expect from the main characters of a kids’ cartoon, the entirety of “Enchiridion” is devoted to proving that Finn is the “goodest of heart and most righteous hero.” And for the most part, he and Jake are righteous—they go on awesome adventures, fight clearly evil dudes like the Lich, and Peebles calls Finn one of Ooo’s greatest heroes. Accordingly, the resolutions of these early episodes are pretty straightforward (if sometimes a bit surreal), Adventure Time at maximum closure. And with most episodes focused on Finn and Jake tackling small problems like returning a little jiggling guy to his mother or amusing themselves during a knife storm, there’s rarely any indication that anyone else in Ooo is doing anything besides waiting for them to show up and fight some goblins. PB is in her lab until she needs Finn and Jake, and Ice King is eternally plotting to kidnap a princess. If there’s a bigger event like Hunson Abadeer’s soul-sucking rampage, or even a well-contained adventure like Finn’s birthday mystery, it comes across as the center of the universe. The entire world of Ooo is, in a very real sense, Finn and Jake’s plaything.

But Adventure Time’s aging has come with increasing signs that Ooo is more complicated than meets the eye; that the show is pulling back from the treehouse. In part, this entails a rejection of the standard narrative conventions that would govern Finn and Jake’s lives. Though Princess Bubblegum is set up clearly as Finn’s romantic object at the outset, the show veers from the expected, suggesting repeatedly that they have no future together. And Ice King, their original enemy, has become, if anything, the show’s long-term protagonist, slowly revealing both his tragic backstory and his dynamic and (hopefully) heroic future. This is, in part, because the show has grown alongside Finn and Jake—there are only suggestions that Finn and Peebles should be together when he’s still young and innocent enough to think that age ain’t nothin’ but a number, and our changing perception of Ice King mostly coincides with Finn and Jake learning about his history from Marceline.

Meanwhile, characters are added to the supporting cast and fleshed out so quickly that it doesn’t seem possible for them all to get their due without an infinite series of spinoffs (the dearly departed Root Beer Guy was ready to carry his own show after appearing in literally a single episode). These characters have their own networks of relationships and desires, creating subcultures and plots, from a slow-boiling ’80s nerd revenge movie with wizards to BMO’s ever-growing loneliness to Cinnamon Bun and Flame Princess’ reform of the Fire Kingdom to the political turmoil in Lemongrab, each of which threaten to consume the show at any moment. The writers now appear more interested in exploring every corner of the weird and full world they’ve created than spending much more time with the children who only see one tiny segment.

Accordingly, as the sixth season chugs along, the show’s central pair is increasingly tangential to the action—there are just so many more radical characters to spend time with in Ooo. They’ll always be the rough centers for the show’s orbit, but this season has featured more episodes than usual without Finn and Jake in a major role, including one where their only purpose is to be abandoned by the wizards’ road trip, literally left behind. And it’s not just because the other characters are newer, either—Finn and Jake are a bit less fun to be around. To be fair, they have gotten older and learned a thing or two as the show has progressed, mostly, via the development of their relationships with the Ice King, who has become more of a harmless nuisance. They’ve both continued to take stands for what they think is right, even when that’s opposed to authority, as in Jake’s support of the hostage-taking would-be Princess Cookie’s escape from the banana guards. But, especially as they stand in the middle of season six, they’re trapped in patterns created by those new life stages. The pace of the show’s emotional growth and widening of our perspective as viewers has far outstripped Finn and Jake’s.

Finn is square in the middle of standard 16-year-old boy emotional territory. He’s girl-crazy, dealing with both growing sexual awareness and the fallout from the end of his relationship with Flame Princess. In “Breezy,” he tries to make out with as many girls as possible, making moves on Doctor Princess, Crab Princess, Lizard Princess, and even getting some from LSP. Eventually, his pursuit of princesses starts to approach Ice King levels of both obsession and emotional dysfunction. At the very least, Finn’s dealing with his completely justified teenaged parental frustration about as well as he could: He gives up a chance at revenge on his birth father Martin, even after losing an arm to the man he discovers is just a manipulative criminal. But that’s the main bright spot for a typically self-involved adolescent. One might say that Finn has become even less righteous and less attentive to the needs of others, even contrasted with the simplistic way he cares about them at the beginning of the show.

Meanwhile, Jake has comfortably settled in to being the canine equivalent of a thirty-something manchild (or a Jason Segel character). His selfishness hits a new peak in “Furniture And Meat,” where he’s a manipulative, cruel jerk, making berry people demean themselves in exchange for his and Finn’s treasure solely for his own amusement. (Were the Finn of season one to encounter someone else engaged in this behavior, he’d use his mitts on ’em.) But that’s secondary to Jake’s negligent parenting. His puppies with Lady Rainicorn might have fundamentally transformed the show, but instead, they grew up very quickly and went off to be adults. That wasn’t just a way of keeping the series’ status quo—the puppies’ absence has consequences. In “Ocarina,” Jake’s business-minded son Kim Kil Whan buys the tree house in what originally appears as a punishment to his father for not showing his kids enough affection. The episode ends on a note of sadness, as Kim Kil Whan sits with his own wife and bemoans his father’s childishness and immature life choices. An oblivious father with a criminal past—Jake has made no effort to stretch himself for his kids, and he might well be turning into Martin.

“Ocarina” is also suggestive of how advanced Ooo is, or at least the parts of it that don’t contain Finn and Jake. The small corner they inhabit is mostly monsters and princesses, but there’s still an entire world. In an effort to buy back their house, Finn and Jake get put through their paces, going to jail and trying to get a job in a world that increasingly seems to be more modern than we might have guessed back in season one. We’ve seen how complex the day-to-day workings of Ooo can be before (exemplified by full-fledged telemarketing firms and a decently sized market for pulp detective fiction in “Root Beer Guy”), but that junk is almost always just out of the corner of Finn and Jake’s eyes—playing games on BMO is pretty much the extent of their technical know-how, give or take helping the mechanically minded Banana Man fix a truck. Finn says, “imagination is for turbo nerds who can’t handle how kick-butt reality is,” but he and Jake are the ones who appear to be using selective imagination to shield themselves from some of the less kick-butt aspects of reality.

On inspection, our ostensible heroes are maybe no longer the best people in their immediate orbits—out of everyone, that honor might go to Cinnamon Bun. At the very least, they’re going through some jacked-up stuff, mostly putting off questioning the changes happening in their lives (something Finn only comes close to doing with a fake mustache in “Davey”). None of this is to suggest that we should view Finn and Jake completely with weariness and contempt, the way Kim Kil Whan does. They’re still awesome, and a huge part of what makes Adventure Time so special is that it rarely questions the greatness of unbridled, childlike enthusiasm at smashing stuff and going on cool quests. But kids can be selfish little bastards. For most of childhood, we’re incapable of seeing anything outside of ourselves, something that only intensifies during adolescence. The flipside of the joy that comes with experiencing the world as a child is the lashing out and frustration that comes with experiencing the world as a slightly older child, and the feeling of coming up against the limits of what the world will give you and realizing that everything is a bit more complicated than good guys and bad guys.

The idea that Adventure Time revels in childishness is nothing new, and maybe seems obvious to the point of irrelevance. But the way it’s succeeded in mimicking the rhythms of Finn and Jake’s growth in its broader development as a depiction of the world of Ooo is something special. It’s also a unique, powerful manifestation of a phenomenon that has defined many of the great television series of the past two decades. Television’s long-term, open-ended storytelling means that shows running for more than a season or two are forced to shift their horizons—it’s almost impossible to keep the same storytelling rules in place for too long without stagnation. So the best series either dig deep, zooming in on a tiny cast (Breaking Bad) or become about an entire world capable of carrying a story (Deadwood). Adventure Time has managed to do both of these things simultaneously—using its expanding universe to give us a sense of perspective on their flaws that wouldn’t be possible if every episode were still just Finn and Jake fighting monsters. (Would anyone even want to watch that version of the show?)

Another show has pulled off this trick–The Sopranos. That series perpetually hinted at a world outside Tony, featuring a few episodes in which he was more or less a minor character, but that served only to render the final run of episodes all the more psychologically claustrophobic, letting us in on precisely how much more there was to the world of The Sopranos than Tony and his monstrosity. But Adventure Time uses its emotional frequency, genre flexibility, and, perhaps most importantly, its nature as a work of animation to cast light on the ways in which great television series are like children, starting from baby steps before growing into the people (or shows) they were meant to be. The entirety of The Sopranos repeatedly hinted at a bigger universe for Tony and his crew, but always collapsed back to them and their myopic problems, always winding up back at the Soprano homestead (not even The Sopranos’ children are capable of escaping the boundaries of the show). The beauty of Adventure Time is that it can reject that darkness while engaged in the same trick of storytelling, using all of the things that make it special to get us to leave the Tree Fort, even before Finn and Jake are ready to do the same. Ooo is no New Jersey, and Finn is no Tony Soprano.