Exploring existentialism in Adventure Time
“What was and what will be are meaningless,” was a line of dialogue spoken by The Sun itself, to question a character’s place in the universe. It isn’t spoken to be discouraging – instead, it is the wise old star’s way of saying: “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Either you bog down your existence with trivial worries, or you just breath out and let eternity enrich the tiny allotment of time you’re given in this life. It’s a pretty heavy moment made even more significant by the fact that it’s from an episode of Adventure Time – a show that is very easy to confuse with a kids’ show.
Assuming you’re already are acquainted with the show, I’ll bypass a synopsis. But it must be said that it is one of the greatest television shows ever aired and that’s due to the fact that it’s unique, yet widely accessible.
And beneath the bizarrely hilarious and imaginative surface lies layers of profundity that gives us such moments as The Sun cheerfully musing about the futility of existence. That can be a lot for a young audience to take in, but it’s played gently enough that it doesn’t come across as depressing or upsetting.
The plots of each episode are high-end absurdity, but always contain a subtle undercurrent of darkness as a reminder that not everything is well in the bright world of Ooo. In nearly every frame of the show is a subtle reminder of the fact that Finn and Jake are treading upon remnants of our world which was destroyed in “The Great Mushroom War” thousands of years before.
Pieces of ancient debris are often seen jutting out of the vibrant landscape which our heroes happily traverse. Oddly, this haunting wreckage of a bygone era is rarely acknowledged by the characters. They simply take it all for granted as part of the background that their stories play out against, like the backdrop of a stage.
Rarely does anybody stop and think that their hopes and dreams may end up as a part of just another unsung layer of ruin in a world that, like a living creature, is constantly shedding its skin.
“Well, if just being born is the greatest act of creation, then what are you supposed to do after that? Isn’t everything that comes next just sort of a disappointment? Slowly entropy-ing until we deflate into a pile of mush?”
That quote – from the Season 6 episode ‘Astral Plane’ – highlights how deep and full of despair the show can sometimes be. It’s a brutally honest observation – to muse upon the fact that everything post-birth will do nothing more than disappoint us all, and that we’re all doomed to die.
For a kids’ show, it’s a lofty concept that teeters on the edge of being too deep. As a complex show full of content that adults can admire, it’s something magical. Entropy comes in many forms in the show – perhaps most often in the guise of The Lich and his mission to destroy life. But it often comes from the mouths of our heroes too – in the episode ‘The Real You’, Finn exclaims: “We were all born to die!”
Prismo is another key vehicle. After some time being presented on the show as an ethereal being who holds a God-like knowledge of time and the universe (as well as a penchant for parties), we learn that he’s actually just the fleeting dream of an old man (who’s actually Finn in his old age). This immediately transforms Prismo from an omniscient, deity-like entity, to being just like the rest of us – a being bound by the death knell of entropy and decay. For if the old man wakes up, Prismo ceases to exist (dies).
It’s buries home the fact that no one – not even chilled out party dudes – escapes death. Even Finn and Jake’s hero – Billie – dies. And in ‘Daddy-Daughter Card Wars’, Jake’s daughter Charlie deliberately looks into her own future. She comments honestly on each decade that awaits her, stating: “I begin to lose people around me,” (meaning her friends start dying from old age) when she’s looking at her seventies, and: “I’m scared again,” when she looks into her eighties.
Few kids’ shows tackle mortality as boldly as Adventure Time does. It gets away with it because it’s executed with such intelligence, such emotional grace and such boundless creativity.
The only characters who don’t take the world for granted are immortals like Princess Bubblegum who have existed since the previous global calamity. When first introduced, it wasn’t established that PB was anything other than an adorable and strong-willed leader of The Candy Kingdom. But as the series progresses, it is gradually revealed that not only is she an immortal who has seen hundreds of generations of her people be born and die, but that she isn’t as sweet as she makes herself out to be.
Above everything else, PB is a pragmatist who is often shown making callous, even cold-blooded decisions, for what she believes to be the greater good. Decisions such as destroying her Rattleballs battalion to prevent a possible uprising, having Flame Princess sealed away in a lamp for most of her life, and spying on her own citizens with her own whimsical version of the NSA. Hardly the actions of an archetypical cartoon princess, but understandable for someone who has lived an unimaginable life and learned to hope for the best but plan for the worst.
And there is a ‘worst’ as shown in the occasional flashforward to Ooo’s distant future. Yet another post-apocalyptic ruin that mirrors human civilization’s fate thousands of years prior. I’ve only just finished watching Season 7, so I can’t speculate about who survived and who didn’t. But like humanity, none of Adventure Time’s beloved characters remain untouched by the inevitable ravages of time itself.
In my personal favourite episode of the show, ‘Dungeon Train’, Finn is so attracted to the train’s battle carriages that he falls deep into his addictions. In doing so, he risks staying on the train forever, in an eternal carriage loop, growing ever more mage-like, as he essentially levels up and collects powerful loot from his fallen foes.
At one point he’s given a glimpse into this trance-like future and he sees himself as a bearded old man, donning an array of warrior items. Behind him (in one of the most touching moments of the entire show), is Jake as an old dog (carrying Finn’s loot in a backpack), who never left Finn’s side, even though Finn failed to listen to his warnings.
It warns of enjoying the good things a little too much in life – be this anything from computer games to recreational drugs – but it echoes the show’s broader theme of losing yourself to anything at all. Whether it’s Finn spending too much time wallowing over his sword in ‘The Music Hole’, Simon wearing the crown for too long, or B-MO going a little too deep into his fantasy-worlds, the show often warns of the threat of falling into something too deeply, by your own hand, and being unable to find your way out.
Disappointment is also a prevalent theme of the show. Despite taking place in a world where literally everything is possible, characters still find reality falling short of their expectations. This is best shown through the introduction of Finn’s father, Martin. Throughout the whole series, the audience has been bracing itself for the epic reveal of Finn’s lineage.
Everybody had wild expectations for what Finn’s parents would be like. Would they be legendary heroic badasses like their son? Well, no, unfortunately. At least as far as Martin is concerned. When Finn frees Martin from his crystal prison in the beginning of Season 6, he is immediately revealed as an utter deadbeat dad and amoral criminal whose selfishness results in Finn losing his arm.
Our hero’s innocent desire to find out where he came from opens him up to the sad fact that the universe isn’t always going to cut him the slack he deserves. Being a righteous hero who regularly saves the day isn’t enough to protect him from life’s heartbreaks.
The sadness of Simon (The Ice King) is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things about the show. In ‘The Music Hole’, he’s described as someone with:
“A deep sense of loss in their heart.”
Simon lost a great deal when he allowed the crown to take him over. It led him down a dark path that slowly transformed him into the sad, strange man he is today. He lost his fiancée, Betty, and he lost his memory of his former life.
As The Ice King, he lives with Gunter and other penguins in an ice castle, trying his hand at villainous schemes now and then (though he’s currently part-reformed), like kidnapping princesses – a certain effort to recapture what he lost in Betty, whom he called his “Princess.”
As well as being desperate for love, he’s also desperate for companionship. Despite often being at odds with Finn and Jake, he always openly admires them and often calls them his “best friends.” But as sweet as The Ice King might be deep inside, the crown has twisted him into a weird man, whom no one wants to be around.
This causes Finn and Jake to spurn his company sometimes, which can leave him sad and lonely. The human condition means we benefit from having friends, but some of us find this harder to achieve than others. This imbalance of wanting friends and being unable to attain them is what makes Simon’s predicament so sombre.
The one exception to this is Marceline, who is one of the few residents of Ooo who spent time with Simon before he turned into The Ice King. She knows what he was like before and holds that strong bond with him. Although The Ice King often fails to even remember who she is, she still holds that adoration for him and you’ll never see her spurn his company.
Simon isn’t the only lonely resident of Ooo, either – you only need to look closely at the way Shelby often seems to pop out of hiding places, having been listening in on conversations, or how sad Mr. Fox looks alone in his cabin to see that Ooo is full of sad souls who are just looking for some company.
We hope you liked our foray into the deeper tones of Adventure Time. Try as we might, we couldn’t cover every example of existentialism in this show – are there any other moments that stand out to you? Let us know in the comments section below.
Image credits: Cartoon Network