Things are starting to feel different, aren’t they? At least here in the U.S., there’s seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel—and while we’re all hoping that light isn’t a train, all evidence indicates that we’re moving from pandemic to endemic. It’s a weird feeling, this mix of hope and hesitancy, this overwhelming feeling that it’s time for things to return to normal, mixed with the realization that our old notion of “normal” is a mythical land to which we’ll never truly be able to return.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote at length about comfort viewing—about my and my wife’s desire, bordering on need, to dive into the consoling arms of Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, that trilogy of films speaks to a longing for the mundane, for a desire to return to the way things were. Back in April 2020, the world kinda felt like the geopolitical landscape of Middle-earth, on the brink of a conflict against a nebulous foe with the power to change the course of history forever.
Fast-forward a year, and circumstances seem less dire, but that hardly negates the need for the occasional comfort viewing. And I wish I could tell you I knew ahead of time the perfect fable for our current reality, but the truth is that my wife and I
stumbled upon it almost by accident.
Sensing that the year-long lull in entertainment is waning—that production is ramping up on all manner of new movies and TV shows and that films that have been sitting in the vault for months and months are finally emerging—the missus and I decided that now would be the perfect time for one more massive binge-watch of a TV series we’ve been meaning to revisit. We settled, after some discussion, on Adventure Time, a show I positively obsessed over in its original run from 2010 to 2018 but one my wife struggled to get into because of the erratic airing schedule and what she perceived as random weirdness.
In her defense, the series does start off very randomly and very weirdly. For the first few seasons, every episode is like a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot set in the Land of Ooo, an island nation populated by adorable mutants made of candy and fire and ice and slime. Its heroes—Finn the Human (the last of his kind, as far as he knows) and his brother Jake the Dog (a shape-shifting bully breed whose non-shape-shifting parents adopted Finn as an infant)—explore the world slaying monsters, delving into dungeons, honing their skills,
collecting loot, and just generally acting like the goobers they are. In short, it’s just a really good action-adventure-comedy cartoon with its own style and vocabulary.
When I originally watched Adventure Time, I couldn’t put my finger on when things changed and it started to develop a consistent mythology and take itself more seriously. But watching it straight through for the second time on HBO Max (where, by the way, it looks way better than it did on Cartoon Network), it’s pretty clear things take a turn sometime in the third season. Here the dots start to connect less ambiguously and it becomes undeniable that the Land of Ooo doesn’t merely resemble the remnants of our world in many ways, it literally is the remnants of our world, one thousand years in the future, after a global nuclear conflict laid waste to civilization sometime after Cheers went off the air but before high-definition displays rose to prominence. (Those may seem like the weirdest of touchstones, but such are the calculations one has to
make when attempting to piece together the 66-million-year timeline of Adventure Time.)
The show’s haphazard mythology and piecemeal philosophy are actually what make it such a wonderful parable for this moment we’re living through. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, which was the meticulous creation of one man—a sort of rejection of Nietzsche wrapped up in an attempt to construct the kind of English mythology Tolkien presumed would
have existed had the Normans not come along and Frenched everything up—Adventure Time was never the work of a single mind. True, series creator Pendleton Ward heavily shaped the direction of the show until sometime during the fifth season, when he stepped down as showrunner. But neither he nor his successor, Adam Muto, held too tight a leash. Writers and storyboard artists were free to explore whatever territory they saw fit, and as the series went on, it became increasingly more philosophical and poignant. And weirder.
The philosophy that emerges from that assemblage of diverse thinkers is understandably a little hard to pin down. But in broad strokes, it could be summarized as follows: People change. The world changes. A lot—unavoidably. And that’s scary. But we can persevere by joining with one another to share our art, play, and laugh at silly things while also doing the hard work of keeping civilization working.
The first real coalescing of that philosophy comes in the seventh-season episode “Everything Stays,” in which Marceline the Vampire Queen, in coming to terms with her own mortality, reflects on her thousand-and-three years of life and remembers a song sung to her by her mother in the days just before the civilization-ending Mushroom War. The lyrics to that song really say it all:
Let’s go in the garden
You’ll find something waiting
right there where you left it
lying upside down.
When you finally find it
you’ll see how it’s faded
the underside is lighter
when you turn it around.
right where you left it
but it still changes
Ever so slightly
daily and nightly
in little ways
when everything stays
True, there’s a lot of wiggle room for interpretation in those words, as there is for everything about Adventure Time, especially in the second half of its run. It helps to know that those lyrics were inspired by a formative event in the life of series storyboard artist and songwriter Rebecca Sugar, who lost her favorite stuffed bunny in a garden when she was a child, only to find it some months later, sun-bleached and damaged by the elements. It was still the bunny she loved, but it wasn’t. It was different, and yet she loved it no less.
Taken in the context of the series, those lyrics also tie into larger themes of ongoing transformation and upheaval. In the mythology of Adventure Time, the world is visited once every thousand years by a catalyst comet—an agent of change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but inevitable either way.
As my wife and I started to get to the part of the story where the catalyst comets start to come into play, I couldn’t help but think how apt a metaphor all of this is for our current moment. We’re coming to the end of one pandemic. We don’t really know what waits for us on the other side, but we know it won’t be like things were before. And we know that global pandemics of this sort are destined to become the rule rather than the exception if we don’t stop packing our populations so tightly and encroaching on the natural world with seeming impunity. But we’ll make it through the next one just like we made it through this one—hopefully with a little more wisdom and a lot more planning, but probably not.
All of the above is a bit of a reductive view of the series. It’s about so much more than that. It’s about growing up, getting old, dying; parenting; and self-identity and self-actualization (the latter a concept Tolkien apparently found repugnant). In many ways, the later seasons almost read like a thought experiment plucked straight from the pages of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. As many others have noted, Adventure Time is also in many ways a rumination on bad fathers and the damage they do.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the show’s creators exploring a lot of the same territory as Sartre and Camus, toying with existentialist notions without ever fully embracing Existentialism, acknowledging the absurdity of life without truly committing to Absurdism. In many ways, Adventure Time lands in a place Camus would have eventually reached if that tragic car accident hadn’t cut short his fascinating metaphysical evolution.
In the midst of all that, it also manages to be a fascinating critique of American foreign and domestic policy (certainly a topic on a lot of people’s minds in recent years), a deconstruction of the notion of libertarian free will that avoids the trappings of fatalism, and a meditation on the merits of utilitarianism—all wrapped up in a zany cartoon that is, if not overtly aimed at children, at least kid-friendly.
But when you get right down to it, all of that is really secondary to the driving ethos of the show, which is summed up beautifully by the finale (one of only two truly perfect series enders in modern television history, alongside The Good Place). In one of the show’s darkest moments, when the evil deity GOLB is unleashing unknowable chaos upon the Land of Ooo, one of the series’ main characters—BMO, a sentient portable game machine/media player with a penchant for creating elaborate film noire fantasies to entertain him/herself—accidentally stumbles upon the one weapon that can stave off such discord: Harmony. The world is literally saved by a sing-along.
If there was some amazing force outside of time
to take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we can see it all, all, all
It would look like:
Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And there we are, again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then
The Lord of the Rings is a comforting lie—one of the best ever told, in fact. It’s everything myth should be, and will always be the balm I reach for during the darkest hours.
The funny thing is, I didn’t return to Adventure Time looking for comfort, but I found it nonetheless. For all its stretchy half-alien mutant canines and bubblegum people and interdimensional weirdness, this show is the reassuring truth I didn’t know I needed right now, and in some weird ways it’s helping me come to terms with this new world ahead of us. Because if there’s one underlying message of this sweeping, chaotic, and singularly beautiful tale—aside from the fact that art is a weapon against darkness—it’s that even if things seem OK for now, they’ve gotten bad before and they’ll get bad again . . . not in exactly the same way, but close enough that there are lessons to be learned.
And perhaps its most salient lesson is this: No matter how donked up the world gets—and it will indeed get donked up, over and over again—we all have the strength to persevere, so long as we open ourselves up to a bit of weirdness and embrace a lot of uncertainty.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.