Adventure Time finale review: One of the greatest TV shows ever had a soulful, mind-expanding conclusion
Try to keep it short. Adventure Time always did. Two hundred eighty-some episodes across eight-plus years, a near-decade of candy-colored mythbusting musical tragicomedy, Final Fantasy plus H.P Lovecraft times Philip K. Dick divided by Mystery Science Theater 3000 raised to the Charlie Brownth power, but funnier, but sadder, but weirder. And every episode still, what, 11-and-a-half minutes? Less, with an opening credits sequence only a heartless streaming service would ever skip?
Sans commercials, Monday’s “giantsized” final episode clocked 44 minutes, 47 seconds, the precise length of time it takes your average prestige drama to burp. The series finale — variously titled “The Ultimate Adventure” or “Come Along With Me” — found time for two epic showdowns, three epic kisses, two musical numbers, one gigantic personification of universal chaos. This was a last explosion of imagination, every millisecond a subreddit waiting to happen. Eight years is a healthy run, but the propulsive energy suggested a brilliant-but-canceled oddity, an epic saga with an episode order cut halfway through season 3, an “ending” crammed with ideas that could’ve engine-fueled another five seasons.
The new opening sequence introduced a far-future landscape, with creatures familiar yet unknowable. (Who was that strange traveler with a telescope?) The closing montage subplotted outwards, a princess ascended to monarch-hood, a marriage, the tantalizing possibility that the major female characters are trending toward an ’80s mallrat makeover. In the background, for like five seconds, we saw a grown-up skyscraper-sized Sweet P, rocking an indie rock beard and a busy-looking sword. Take it away, FanFiction! All yours, academia!
There was always the spinal possibility that Adventure Time was a coming-of-age story for Finn. He was the initial, apparent hero. And Jeremy Shada voiced the human boy through the squeaks of adolescence, aging with his audience like last decade’s Harry Potter kids.
If you were tracking this thread, it’s fascinating to realize how little Finn actually did in the finale. His big suggestion was that fighting solves nothing. He worried about the impending war between Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) and her uncle/creation Gumbald (Fred Melamed). And his big plan for stopping the battle was…making everyone dream! And even then, he outsourced the action part of this inaction to Jake (John DiMaggio), handing the special knockout dream gem thing to his older brother.
“You guys have to hash this out in the unconscious world,” Finn said, sounding like one of those Jim Starlin protagonists who rescue their multiverse by weaponizing good vibes. The dreamscape was one last showcase for Adventure Time‘s grotesquery, a High Weird version of kids’ animation that went out of style when Walt Disney lost money on Fantasia. There was an underground balloon mall storing repressed memories, Lady Rainicorn cooking Jake’s kids in a pot, a toothbrush duel inside the chomping mouth of an inconceivable dream beast. Eyeballs everywhere, everywhere eyeballs. And the goofs, man, the goofs! “We need love, not war!” said Finn. “Good idea,” said Bubblegum, conjuring a “LOVE BAZOOKA!” Finn begged Jake for assistance, but the yellow stretchy dog was lost in a banal nightmare: “I wanna help you,” he said all apologetic, “But I can’t lose this job,” dressed as a waiter balancing a dozen plates.
The big battle never happened, which makes sense. Adventure Time loved to zigzag towards anticlimax. A heavier read on this show would explore how it mixed familiar science-fiction and fantasy together, unpacking or exploding the usual pop tropes. Mysterious biological fathers turned out to be shysters. The evil wizard was an emotionally distressed basket case, lobotomized toward a toxic princess fixation. The last human on Earth was actually just one of many, many, many humans scattered around the world. Bubblegum initially came off like some variant Nintendo-Disney Princess, and by season 4 you realized her Wikipedia character summary required a seven-volume biography.
The finale was sweet in many ways, and cute. But there was acid in these veins, too. (SMASH CUT TO: One of the Gumball Guardians, mumbling “sorry” as his glass face shattered into candy droppings.) Gumbald was promising peace, but he would’ve attacked Bubblegum if not for the unexpected arrival of Lolly (Maria Bamford). “He was never the epiphany type,” Lolly explained. Not hard to draw one key lesson here: The very worst sort of being is a creature incapable of changing their mind.
And then all literal Hell broke loose. Out of the sky appeared a great red monstrosity, GOLB, an entity whose arrival has been teased for awhile now, a big red baby with Rocky Horror gumlips. Finn was sidelined. “How do I stop this?” he asked Normal Man (Tom Kenny). And Normal Man… stepped past him, to Ice King (also Kenny!), declaring “You are the only one who can stop this!” Finn’s big climactic physical action was jumping into the belly of a monstrosity he was powerless to defeat. “I always figured I’d go out saving somebody,” he said, defeated. (A thousand years hence, the great climactic story of Finn’s time of adventuring was the stuff of misremembered legend. His very good friend couldn’t recall properly remember his name: Fred? No, Phil!)
Was Ice King the real hero all along? He got a big romantic moment, devolved backwards into his old self again, granted one last moment in GOLB’s digestive system with his long-lost love Betty (Felicia Day). Or no, wait, the real heroes were Bubblegum and Marceline (Olivia Olson). I think we will have to explain to the next generation why it was such an emotional supernova watching two cartoon women kiss onscreen. But Adventure Time began in 2010, in the brutal age of Proposition 8, when Mitch and Cam were the one Modern Family couple that never kissed, like, the super liberal President could only ever state publicly how his perspective on gay marriage was evolving.
This year feels more brutal. But scan a newspaper (or a newsfeed) and notice the marvelous new regularity of certain phrases, his husband, her wife, the universal “they.” So run back the whole series and ponder if this was a long tangential tale of love regained, Mary and Bonnie Ross-and-Racheling themselves toward reunion. “I don’t want to lose you again!” said Marceline, the real star of Adventure Time for the tormented romantics in the audience.
This show built off pop culture history. I’ve made so many comparisons in this review — a critical crutch, I know. I wish I had a newer language, like ideograms or whatevs. And this was a decade so lousy with genre fiction, space-knights and wizards. (The most popular TV shows were, in order, the one with the zombies and the one with the dragons.)
But you watched Adventure Time and you realized how, well, old all those other stories felt: Microwaved reheatings of intellectual property from the 20th century, old ideas dressed up with new faces swearing religious fealty to the holy toxic fandom. Myths reprinted with bigger budget, two Spider-Men, Harrison Ford sequelized toward oblivion, God-emperor Bezos promising infinite Tolkien in the content cloud. I dunno, man, Adventure Time beats all that. Hang your nostalgia, this was the new nowness. Don’t get bogged down in the details; Finn could be Fionna, and that’s totally math.
More sensible to compare Adventure Time to Wicked or Sex and the City or Sopranos, these great cultural notions of (respectively) the good-evil paradigm or romance or masculinity deconstructed. “They’ll be talking about this fight for years!” declared Jake with superhero braggadocio, right before giant creatures pulped him flat with one smash. And then those same creatures flattened his beloved treehouse: Adventure Time‘s central notion of Home or Headquarters, obliterated as collateral damage, victim not of purposeful evil but from a total uncaring lack of awareness, destruction by drone.
Hope came from an unlikely source. This was in the show’s design all along, of course, that democratic (communistic?) attention to all the little people, focal episodes for Tree Trunks, the crucial adventures of Root Beer Guy. BMO (Niki Yang) appeared, scarred, in the wreckage. All was lost, but BMO wasn’t scared. It was time, in fact, for the little Game Boy thing to sing a song…
Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we’re always living in the present tense
It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
You and I will always be back then
Future, present, past; hope, memory, eternity. Will happen, happening, happened: Ascended consciousness via verb conjugation. The song, called “Time Adventure,” was written by Rebecca Sugar, an Adventure Timer from back when (who created the spectacular Steven Universe). I suppose there are tougher critics who heard BMO sing this tune without immediately shrinking into a crying puddle of gasping bio-mass. But I refuse to believe any human being watched Bubblegum and Marceline join in on the song without shedding a tear. “Harmony hurts them!” said Bubblegum. “MY ART IS A WEAPON!!!!” thrilled BMO.
All the familiar faces started singing. Impossible to pick one perfect shot from this great finale, but I loved the brief tracking shot that foregrounded the supporting cast harmonizing along, Normal Man and Lady Rainicorn and Fern and Neptr and Lumpy Space Princess. Their tandem march suggested the doomed pilgrims’ dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal. The lyrics trended metaphysical:
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 we could see it all
Oh my glob, they’re talking about animation! Credit Sugar for this final act of meta-musical wonder, though I always hesitate to start talking about authorship with this series. Adventure Time was created by Pendleton Ward, who stepped back from showrunning around the midpoint of the run. (Actually, he announced this backstep in the kind of Rolling Stone profile that seemed generated to mint his TV-genius status — “auteurism” thus becoming another dumb ego-myth Adventure Time deconstructed.) Adam Muto took over as showrunner from Ward, and his steersmanship produced some of the most beautiful 11-minute content nodes of this decade.
Credit them all, and know that there’s so much more here, kids. Betty’s noble act of self-sacrifice was also a monstrous evolution: Evil wasn’t defeated, only transformed. The Ice King was himself again, but now cursed with an impossible new quest, hunting the cosmos for a way to rescue his love from, um, er, like, being chaos itself. Poor Fern (Hayden Ezzy) died, begging to see a treehouse that was now mere smithereens. “Just promise to plant me there,” he said, dissolving windward. This was a good episode on its own merits, even if a few hundred episodes of mythology required the occasional exposition dump, “He’s a big evil alien stuck in a penguin!” (The series finale earned a spot in our top 30 Adventure Time episodes, which is a roundabout way of saying it’s one of the best episodes of television this decade.)
I’ve watched the finale twice, rewound the “Time Adventure” singalong seven or eight times, and right now this minute all I want to talk about is the voice of John DiMaggio-as-Jake harmonizing the chorus, Will happen, Happening, Happened, his peculiar gravel timbre sounding impossible gentle, almost talk-sung. (For a couple years at the dawn of the 2010s, DiMaggio was Jake and Bender on Futurama simultaneously: Legend status, though every voice on Adventure Time belongs in a museum.)
You could scan some capitalism in this non-ending. Rumors persist of a movie, and anything successful will live again. Adventure Time made its own reboot textual in the finale’s bookend. In the “present,” Fern became a seed shaped like a sword. In the distant far future, that seed was a tree for another dynamic duo to climb. We met Shermy (Sean Giambrone) and Beth (WILLOW SMITH!). Their world was built out of the ruins of Ooo, just like Ooo was sprung upwards from the detritus of our world’s impending doom.
So, some optimism with your pessimism: Two Armageddons from now, there will still be time for adventures, kids with big dreams, magic swords, ancient mystics, a great sci-fi/fantasy vibe, all that biz.
But what happened to Finn and Jake, Marceline and Bubblegum, Simon and Tree Trunks, the Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant, Lumpy Space Princess, LEMONHOPE??? “They kept living their lives,” said BMO. They will always be, back then.
Finale Grade: A
Series Grade: A+