Warning: Spoilers for the latest Adventure Time miniseries, Stakes, as well as plot elements from older seasons below.
Recently, I had just finished watching Adventure Time’s eight-part miniseries, Stakes, and needless to say, I enjoyed it. It was a nice return to form after a not-so-great season 6 and season 7 premiere. The humor was great and there were some genuinely emotional moments. However, the miniseries also highlighted a problem I have noticed with the entire show itself: a severe lack of permanent meaningful progression or change.
Now, I have praised Adventure Time before (just look at my other article), and my positive opinion towards the series still stands, at least for seasons 1-5 and some of season 6. The characters still are great and each character has experienced a significant amount of mental development. It is subtle and at times feels inconsequential, but the development is still there, especially when one reflects on previous episodes. Adventure Time has always nailed subtlety-effectively making the hints at more grandiose concepts more powerful than they have any right to be. With 7 seasons of a drip-feed approach to storytelling though, I’m starting to wonder if there might be other reasons for maintaining the subtlety.
In the miniseries, Stakes, Marceline seeks to have her vampirism removed, and for the rest of Stakes, we see a more vulnerable and less emotionally distant side to her. It was an idea that I would have loved to see as a permanent part of the show; a Marceline who is able to grow and maybe even cope with her past now that she was free of the chains of immortality. Sadly, Marceline becomes a vampire again at the end of the miniseries and everything returns to the status quo. At the beginning of Stakes, Marceline openly expressed how she wanted to grow up and mature emotionally, yet the ending implies that she was able to grow up through her very brief stint as a mortal. While she confronted some of her past struggles by fighting the vampires and their leader, the Vampire King, that sense of character progression was not conveyed to the audience that well. The miniseries felt almost pointless, and that sense of pointlessness has been all too common with Adventure Time.
Other drastic changes included Finn having a girlfriend, Jake and Lady Rainicorn having kids, Finn losing his arm, and Finn meeting his father. All of these alterations to the status quo could have been fascinating, with opportunities to bring some more emotional moments and to test the limits of the relationships the current characters have made. Instead, these plot points are barely explored, maybe dedicating an episode or two to those plot elements and then completely ignoring all of it for literally months. When first introduced, for example, Jake’s kids result in Jake living with Lady Rainicorn so that he can help raise them, but by literally the end of the episode, the kids are grown up (they age much faster than Finn or Jake, so they are adults after maybe a couple of days), so Jake no longer has to be the responsible father and can go back to adventuring with Finn. Jake is much older mentally than Finn, making the conflict between youth and adulthood a big part of his character (or at the very least should be), but his life of adventuring is rarely challenged afterwards. The elements that could have challenged the perceptions and dynamics of the characters are willed away either through convenience or blissful ignorance, and it is a shame that the creative team’s dedication to new story ideas is virtually non-existent.
What’s surprising is that this is the same team that is praised for its unconventional methods of storytelling. As of now though, it seems that underneath all of that experimentation, there is a heavy layer of restraint that keeps the series from reaching new storytelling heights, and I am not sure why that restraint exists. Given the uncertainty of how long Adventure Time will continue, it could be the team imposing restrictions so that they don’t run out of material, which means that either the last season will be a poorly-paced, exposition-heavy mess that fails to savor the more significant moments, or they will just continue to avoid creating pivotal moments for the characters and the overarching plot until the audience is left with an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to the series. Another possibility is that the team is too afraid to break from the established formula; unsure of how to incorporate new long-lasting changes into said formula.
There is a bleaker possibility that is probably a little too far-fetched. It could be an intervention on Cartoon Network’s part, making sure that the content the creative team makes is in line with the rest of the marketing. If Marceline was no longer a vampire for example, then the current tools used in marketing her would be mostly irrelevant and possibly cause confusion for consumers (is she or is she not a vampire? Which product should I buy?). Adventure Time has been a wildly successful investment by Cartoon Network and has essentially become a merchandising empire. Few television shows are as widely adored as Adventure Time, and Cartoon Network wants to keep milking the series for as long as it can, even if that means renewing the series until it completely runs out of steam. At the end of the day, Adventure Time is a product that still needs to appeal to the largest audience possible, even at the cost of artistic integrity. This is all speculation of course, and the likelihood of ever learning about the in-depth creative process behind the series is highly improbable.
Regardless of the reason, the show’s lack of commitment to new ideas is causing the series to stagnate, which is an absolute shame. I want to see Adventure Time succeed, because I am truly invested in the characters and I want to see them grow and develop (as cheesy as it sounds, I want to see the characters become the best they can be and to be truly happy), but as the show continues to avoid character growth as much as possible, it becomes harder to remember why I loved this show in the first place. Now that Steven Universe has surpassed Adventure Time in terms of character and story, I am left wondering if it is time to abandon Adventure Time for good, and that decision is more painful than I would care to admit.