“The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Adventure Time has built a vast, rich mythos over the past seven years, but one massive question has remained unanswered: What happened to all the humans? Finn’s (Jeremy Shada) status as the supposed last of his species has been crucial to his development—he’s Finn the Human because he is a unique creature in a land of bizarre mutants—and that identity, as Islands shows, has more allure to him than the series has ever exposed before. So, when he discovers that there are other humans, including his long-lost mom, that information shakes him to the core—and awakens within him a desire to know and, potentially, to belong to a group.
An origin arc done well should hit hard in the feels department. And there are moments of Islands that do so, most notably the heartrending story of Susan Strong (Jackie Buscarino) and her childhood flame, Frieda, as told in “Hide and Seek,” the emotional peak of the miniseries. In comparison, the romance between Finn’s parents in “Min and Marty,” told immediately afterward, seems rushed and trite, particularly the unbelievably quick initial seduction. Indeed, none of the Finn-centric moments in Islands has as much impact as you’d expect. Perhaps this is because Adventure Time here makes inefficient use of its 11-minute format; Finn simply isn’t given the time to process the society he discovers, and the “Islands” episodes that would be totally fine as one-offs—the deadpan, hilarious “Whipple the Happy Dragon” and the sweet “Mysterious Island”—instead take valuable time from the character-driven focus. But fortunately, the relative emotional emptiness of “Islands” is made up for by classic Adventure Time philosophical musing, which here takes on shades of Black Mirror and existentialism to cast a critical eye on technology and the human spirit.
Post-apocalyptic worlds typically treat technology in one of two ways: extreme development (e.g. The Hunger Games) or none at all (e.g. Hawaii in Cloud Atlas). Islands adopts the former standpoint, giving us a world in which incredibly advanced bioengineering and cybernetics have kept humans alive and ensconced in relative comfort. But the twist is that the very scientific drive to innovate and develop these technologies is precisely what damned our species in the first place. The weapons that blew apart a quarter of the planet were human-made; even in the peace and security of the Islands, Dr. Gross (Lennon Parham)—a chilling villain who I hope we’ll meet again—succumbed to ambition, and she ended up killing 62% of the surviving human population with a supervirus.
What Islands ends up delivering, therefore, is the most harrowing answer to Fermi’s famous paradox: Intelligent life will inevitably destroy itself. More importantly, the miniseries implicitly defines human intelligence as necessarily including aspiration and struggle. There’s little doubt that the folks Finn and Jake find willingly imprisoning themselves in a virtual reality still have functioning rational capacities. Ditto for the peaceable, timid survivors tended to by the army of Minerva-bots. But placed in an environment in which they can get everything they want and have everything they need, they’ve lost real agency. Under the spell of contentment, their free will—their ability to define themselves as unique beings in an authentic reality—has shriveled and died. In fact, the self-definition that occurs within the VR world is what Jean-Paul Sartre would call the epitome of bad faith, a shrinking from the world rather than an embedding of oneself within it. And in each case Islands presents, technology is the primary tool used to lobotomize the essence of humanity. In an effort to save the species from itself, Minerva (and whoever created the VR world) ended up giving it the Dementor’s Kiss and sucking out its soul.
Enter Finn, who at this point in Adventure Time is a close approximation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch: someone who affirms life as it happens (both the good and the bad), constantly creates a value system and exists completely unfettered by society or the past. Finn checks most of these boxes. He’s grown up without the weight of human history and custom, has guided his own way through a flood of adolescent emotions and has become a hero in a dangerous land of his own free will. His moral code, once crafted in the image of his idol, Billy, is now of his own making. Perhaps the clearest sign that Finn is an Übermensch came in last season’s “Flute Spell,” in which he expresses his love for Huntress Wizard but agrees with her assertion that two exceptional beasts cannot be constrained by any permanent ties. (For the record, I don’t think that Nietzsche’s ideal is psychologically sustainable in real life, but Adventure Time has the luxury of being animated fiction, two levels divorced from real life.)
When such an exceptional beast encounters the shell of humanity on the Islands, he is naturally shocked. But disgusted as he is by the state of his people and the actions of his mother to “protect” them, Finn’s has a crucial epiphany: He cannot help them. It’s not for lack of trying—only Adventure Time can pull off a line as bald as, “You: Do you know you have free will?”—but in the end, he must suppress his own helper instincts, leading the emaciated people back to their VR cells and allowing Minerva’s pets to remain under her stewardship when they decide not to board his ship. He has shown them their potential and challenged them to match him, but it is their prerogative to do so. An Übermensch cannot commit himself to dragging others upward.
One of the last frames of Islands depicts a crying Finn on his way back to Ooo. This show makes extremely judicious use of tears, so it’s vital to understand why Finn weeps. It’s partly for his mother, whom he will likely never see again. But his tears also fall for humanity as a whole, which has effectively become analogous to Nietzsche’s “Last Man”: sated, tranquil, more or less egalitarian, but completely lacking in human spirit. Though Finn can appreciate his mother’s efforts and empathize with her intentions, he can take no pride in the outcome. So he must return to the freedom and chaos of Ooo, where he is the only human, and therefore Finn also cries for himself. Being an Übermensch is an extreme emotional burden.
In the end, Islands answers one of Adventure Time’s greatest questions, but it also asks us one in turn: What effect will we allow technology to have on our lives and our society? Neither extreme presented in the miniseries—selfish pursuit of greatness for greatness’ sake or benevolent autocracy in the name of hedonism or cheating death—is satisfactory. We will die, regardless of whether our science hastens or delays that inevitable fate. The trick is to use technology to further humanity’s creative potential and face danger head-on in our short lifetimes. In our world, that means investment in green energy and life-saving medicine; in Ooo, that means Finn building a Never-Ending Pie-Throwing Robot. C’est la vie.
Adventure Time: Islands premieres tonight at 7:30 p.m. on Cartoon Network.
Zach Blumenfeld is also wondering if Finn will confront Princess Bubblegum about her own over-protective rulership qualities. Find him on Twitter.