TV Rewind: How Adventure Time's Biggest Arc Dismantled Its Hero's State-Sanctioned Violence

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TV Rewind: How <i>Adventure Time</i>'s Biggest Arc Dismantled Its Hero's State-Sanctioned Violence

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Adventure Time, during a period when grabbing your friends is a health hazard and going to distant lands is prohibited by law, is the perfect dose of empathy and chaos—slapstick and heart—for those seeking comfort. Completing a full series watch of the iconic, industry-redefining Cartoon Network animation now has a pot of gold at the end of its goofball rainbow: HBO Max is releasing a handful of sequel specials following key characters from the show under the banner of Distant Lands, starting June 25, 2020. So ok, that’s a pretty short deadline for watching Adventure Time’s incredible (nearly flawless) run of 283 episodes. But if ever there was a suitable environment for honing your binge-watching skills, it’d be one that encourages thinking about deconstructing state-sanctioned violence.

The adventures of Finn and Jake, set in a literally candy-coated post-apocalyptic future caused by humanity’s own warring tendencies, has a decent split of bittersweet vignettes (that come later in the series), utterly surreal silliness, and gutbustingly funny standalones. Very little is overtly serialized, so picking and choosing what you watch won’t prevent you from following the nuanced development and growth of its world, its residents, and their heroes. One hero in particular, Finn, has an extraordinary amount of growth over the series that falls directly in line with Adventure Time’s central subversion of the easy fairy tale expectations foisted upon a kid-focused fantasy environment.

Created by Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time may have plenty of Tex Avery mania, but it’s nearly free from Disney-esque moralizing. It undermines tropes, specifically dismantling childhood roots of violence and militaristic thought; fitting for a show bookended by war (the Mushroom War on one side and the Gum War on the other). Finn, who wants so desperately to be a hero, fights with true justice in his heart. From the very beginning of the show—like S1E5, “The Enchiridion!”—Finn has had qualms about violence (especially when someone instructs him to do so).

He freely uses it on ogres and dark magicians, but refuses to smash an ant as commanded because it’s “neutral” rather than “evil.” It’s a funny reference to Dungeons & Dragons moral alignments, but it also shows a seed of doubt planted in this boy’s mind. There’s something wrong with fighting—at least SOME of the time, as Finn’s gung-ho self-righteousness leads him to smack around an innocent guy dressed in some devilish pajamas.

These misunderstandings and mishaps never come from a place of evil or spite. Finn’s as good as possible, but his actions still often result in failure, unfulfillment, and long-term pain. No matter what dimension or version of reality he finds himself in, he keeps losing one of his arms, for example.

The boy who’d be a knight—who at one point wants to be a cop in the detective-esque episode “Candy Streets,” which also features the only appearance of the Blueberry Cops—works to dismantle his own violent tendencies and ingrained ideologies over the course of the series. Other knights, guards, and police-analogues are shown to be variously incompetant, corrupted, or erroneously loyal. If ever there was a cartoon that embodied the reorganizational and ethical guidelines of defunding the police, it’d be Adventure Time.

As the show ramps up to its finale, a storyline (in “Happy Warrior” and “Hero Heart”) where Finn and the entire Fire Kingdom get juiced for killing is shown to have roots in fear and anger—unhelpful signs of immaturity—and is undone with a song. That same push and pull of negative emotions, overreactions, and calm musical resolutions continues in its stellar finale.

“Come Along With Me,” which builds up a tragic comment on mutually assured destruction as it continues to beat an anti-violent drum, sees Finn at his most enlightened. He’s grown a lot since being a boy-knight who solved all his problems with a fight and a sword in hand. Princess Bubblegum, criticized throughout the series for being a benevolent dictator that runs a surveillance state, is moving her massive army to fight another as her right-hand man, Finn, fights tooth-and-nail for a peaceful solution.

That’s a long, long way away from Finn’s chop-happy plans from the first seasons, which had the kid show off new and inventive ways to slap fools around every other episode. Instead, in the end, he goes to negotiate with the foe. He begs, pleads, and even pulls a wild stunt at a brief ceasefire meeting with something called “nightmare juice.” He really doesn’t want war, against the direct orders of his superior. However, he has to confront his own violent past (by bonding with Fern, a grass-based version of himself that he kinda killed) and help everyone find peace. Then the biggest bad of the series is defeated not with punches or laser beams, but another loving, tear-jerking song.

Adventure Time concludes with a defiant concert in the face of war games, wooden swords, violent hero worship, and violence on a national level. The world is saved not because the good army beat the bad army and the righteous kingdom pulled through, but because these divisions fell away and alternative, more effective peacekeeping efforts took over. It might be a stretch to claim that “Adventure Time said ‘Defund the police,’” but when systemic injustice and warped institutions weigh heavy on the forefront of the cultural consciousness, comfort and lessons can be gleaned for adults and kids alike from one of the best animated series to ever air.

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Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.

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