So much to-do caused by “finality.” Misheard by Finn’s robot arm as “fatality,” it irreversibly changes Finn’s gung-ho attitude towards violence and sends him hurtling towards maturity as no haircut or crush ever could. And with Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time now at an end, fans are left to mull what—if any—kind of closure there was to be had in the series’ last episode. What kind of finality do we get? What kind of The End comes to the Land of Ooo—and is it as charged as the consequences barreling down on its characters? The groundbreaking animation retires with a legacy-cementing finale, and a well deserved one at that: Its undeniable industry impact and cultural influence pushed cartoon-loving kids and rebellious oddball outsiders alike towards earnest sweetness.
Adventure Time dismantled Dungeons & Dragons, farted on fairy tales, so its ending was never going to be anything as simple as the pseudo-victory of war. That’s too much like the childhood daydreams the series built itself on (a great hero, a sword, a princess!), then promptly undermined. Even though Finn, Jake and the Candy Kingdom are initially heading towards the Great Gum War when we get to the finale, its unexpected de-escalation, otherworldly re-escalation, and graceful resolution is much weirder and more heartwarming than its promise of some cartoon Ragnarok.
Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, a thousand years after a nuclear war decimated society. That the cyclical end of the series would cleverly reference this holocaust while embracing its central tenet (that maturity and absurdity are not mutually exclusive) makes perfect sense—and enhances a meta interpretation wherein Adventure Time is the urtext of a movement, even if it’s outlasted by beautiful facsimiles.
That’s because Adventure Time ran for nearly 300 episodes and more than a decade since its viral pilot hit the Internet. That’s more episodes than South Park, more seasons than Rugrats. It became a multi-generational show—strange for an animated series. It succeeded for so long that it not only outlived its cult status, it was also outgrown by that very cult. But it was never disowned by its longtime fans; they just mostly moved on to the next evolution. The coterie of ex-Adventure Timers became the core of animation’s new paradigm. Steven Universe, Regular Show, Summer Camp Island, Over the Garden Wall, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, Clarence, Cat Agent: Adventure Time was the Velvet Underground of animated TV, only it didn’t stay underground for long.
Adventure Time was such a brazen departure from the status quo that it developed a huge following and shifted how aspiring animators approached the craft. (It also found opportunity when another animated hit that attempted a large tonal change, SpongeBob SquarePants, saw its original audience age out and its quality decline in the wake of showrunner Stephen Hillenburg’s departure). As Slate’s Heidi MacDonald wrote, “Where once young cartoonists overwhelmingly produced gloomy masculine self-absorption and misanthropy in the tradition of Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware, these days many booths feature fantasy epics with colorful characters and invented worlds heavy on the talking animals.”
So, approaching its end from a cyclical standpoint—not a Groundhog Day cycle, but one that evokes history, ancestry, and the inescapable march of time (OK, maybe it’s like True Detective)—lends the finale power as a capper to an incredible series and as a landmark in creative inspiration. It’s a cycle composed of us, both the first-run, stalwart AT fans and the next generation discovering the show, those moving backwards through animation’s canon and finding the source from its influences. It’s a lovely thing to see at a series’ end, which always feels like a death. Adventure Time, thankfully, chooses the most elegant exit it can.
That’s aided by smart writing, plenty of strange jokes, and gorgeous animation both graceful and oblique: This is truly the best Adventure Time has ever looked. The animators pull out all the stops for the four-part finale, matching complex surrealism and black-and-white over-the-top anime styles with the appropriate story beats—an overwhelming assault of friendship and music. The latter comes from former Adventure Time storyboard artist and Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, who returned to contribute the simple, tear-jerking song “Time Adventure” for the final episode. The series has always used song to express complex emotions with endearing simplicity, and the lyrics of its final song are a loving rumination on memory, change, growth, and the eternity of inner lives and the bonds between them. All with the easy refrain, “You and I will always be back then.”
My partner has never seen Adventure Time. I’ve seen most of it. We both sobbed. Poignancy runs so deeply and so thoroughly through the shaggy hangdog of a show that even if you missed a few seasons here and there, the formational impact of loving something as immediately as Adventure Time’s entrance onto the scene pays off even now. The finale works as an episode of TV, sure, hitting the right balance of humor and emotion, closing off narrative arcs, and delivering just the right amount of fan service. The characters, who’ve come to terms with aging—their lame senses of humor, their evolving values, their imperfect but beloved parents—never betray their long paths to this point. But more importantly, the finale works as a joyous farewell address from the series, full of well wishes to its offspring and a last goodbye to the fans that came along with it on so many adventurous times.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.