Time to say goodbye
All good graybles must come to an end. And with Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time concluding this week, EW compiled a list of our 30(ish) favorite episodes, highlighting the show’s ambition, invention, inclusivity, omnivirous intelligence, and truly kaleidoscopic sense of fun.
30. "Jake the Starchild" (season 9, episode 10)
A cosmically twisted late-run highlight, “Jake the Starchild” explores the unexpectedly elaborate Secret History of Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio). Cosmic space dude Warren Ampersand (Dave Foley) arrives with the shocking truth about Jake’s biological parentage. On a distant planet in the far-off cosmos, Warren begs for Jake’s help. Nothing is what it seems. Adventure Time had no patience for genre tropes, and “Starchild” turns into the show’s most blistering takedown of the Chosen One fantasy. It’s also an all-time eye-melting showcase for the visual possibilities of Jake’s elasticity.
29. "Root Beer Guy" (season 5, episode 43)
When we first meet Root Beer Guy (Jack Pendarvis), he’s got a dead-end telemarketing job, a dissatisfied wife, and an unfinished mystery novel he’s been working on for the past decade. But when he stumbles upon an apparent plot to kidnap Princess Bubblegum, it’s a chance to live those noir hero fantasies for real. “Root Beer Guy” epitomizes how Adventure Time explored even the most minor side characters. In the original pilot, Root Beer Guy’s a non-speaking, non-descript citizen of the Candy Kingdom. Granted the spotlight, he reveals a rich inner life. In a series obsessed with old-fashioned heroics — saving princesses, swinging swords, beating up bad guys — here’s a lovely testament to a quieter kind of heroism: the courage to follow your dreams. Bingo, bango.
28. "Fionna and Cake" (season 3, episode 9)
When observers look back on our current cultural moment decades from now, Adventure Time will explain a lot. The series combines of the best parts of our modern zeitgeist, from the effortless way it mixes genres and tones, to its conscious choice to highlight characters with diverse genders and life experiences. And it wrote fan fiction — one of the main ways modern fans interact with the culture they love — into its own story.
Gender-swapped fan fiction to boot! Enter the world of Fionna and Cake, alternate versions of Finn and Jake, who pal around with Prince Gumball (Neil Patrick Harris) and Lord Monochromicorn while fighting off the jealous Ice Queen (Grey Griffin). As it turns out, the Land of Aaa was reated by the Ice King (Tom Kenny) — and at certain points seems to share his addle-brained attitude toward female characters. At first, Fionna seems to care about dates the way Finn relishes adventures, but by the end she asserts her own independence and heroism. Her defining statement would fuel many future Aaa adventures: “I don’t need to feel like I’m waiting to be noticed. I know who I am, and I’ll know what I want if and when it ever comes along.”
27. "Death in Bloom" (season 2, episode 17)
After Finn and Jake kill Princess Bubblegum’s rare houseplant, Peppermint Butler (Steve Little) helps them sneak into the Land of the Dead to retrieve its soul. Inevitably, they challenge Death (Miguel Ferrer) to a heavy metal musical battle. It’s simultaneously one of the creepiest and goofiest Adventure Time stories — and the first introduction of Peppermint Butler’s extracurricular dark magic.
26. "The Monster" (season 3, episode 6)
Lumpy Space Princess is one of Adventure Time’s most recognizable characters, and not just because she’s voiced by creator Pendleton Ward. She’s one of the few princesses who doesn’t have dominion over a recognizable thing. She doesn’t control fire, or create candy people, or command the loyalty of wild berries; she’s just a lump. As a result, LSP has to contend with identity crises much more frequently than her royal peers, and even abandons her kingdom out of a desire to define herself on her own terms.
This episode features her single most entertaining crisis: When LSP’s parents pressure her to return home to Lumpy Space, she decides to run away even harder. In her desperation and hunger she comes upon a small village, whose residents mistake her for a horrific monster. And over the course of “The Monster,” LSP’s selfishness and love of drama can make her quite monstrous when she’s allowed to run rampant over people less privileged than her. On the other hand, her desire to be loved — if channeled properly — can also be used to help those same people. Such is the two-sided coin of royalty.
25. "You Forgot Your Floaties" (season 6, episode 38)
Every high fantasy story has a different take on magic. In Lord of the Rings, magic mostly refers to the doings of angels, while Harry Potter has a clearly defined system of spells and effects. As “You Forgot Your Floaties” proves, Adventure Time‘s magic is much darker — and weirder.
Time-displaced scientist Betty (Lena Dunham) becomes the apprentice of Magic Man (Tom Kenny) so she can learn enough about mysticism to free her lover Simon Petrikov (also Kenny, weirdly) from the Ice King’s crown. Per Betty’s scientific analysis, all wizards display some degree of MMS: Magic, Madness, and Sadness. Or, to put it another way, “all magic-users swim in the Loomy Gloom.” Magic Man’s greatest spell, for example, was only powered by his deep sense of loss after the disappearance of his beloved wife Margles (Gillian Jacobs), just like how Simon’s reign as the Ice King is fueled by his loss of memories of the people who gave his life meaning. The connection to real-life creatives, and the ways sadness and loss can fuel art at great cost, is powerfully evocative.
You have to be careful, though. If you try swimming in the Loomy Gloom without some protective floaties, you might end up losing yourself in it — as poor Betty finds out, to her detriment.
24. "The Tower" (season 6, episode 4)
In a series full of life lessons, one of Adventure Time‘s most enduring themes is how to process emotion in a healthy way. “The Tower” is the most obvious and poignant example. Finn mourns the loss of his arm by building a tower into space to punch his deadbeat dad. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) It’s a powerful depiction of grief, anger, and trauma, right down to the well-intentioned but conflicting advice his friends all give him about how to cope. Finn literally dismantles his own world piece by piece to build this tower, until he finally realizes that an eye for an eye — or rather, an arm for an arm — won’t bring him the peace he seeks.
23. "Time Sandwich" (season 5, episode 33)
For a show that’s mostly about two friends hanging out, Adventure Time often finds a way to inject its stories with tragedy and pathos. But “Time Sandwich” is a pure hang, featuring a simple plot that any lazy layabout could relate to: The quest for the perfect sandwich. Jake thinks he’s crafted a culinary masterpiece, only to have it snatched away by Magic Man and encased in a bubble of slowed-down time. All of Jake’s friends — from a monstrous Marceline to a skateboarding BMO — show up to help out, but really just end up piling on the problems. Only Jake could create this sandwich, and only Jake can rescue it. Sometimes, getting what you want means letting yourself cry a little.
22. "Islands: The Light Cloud" (season 8, episode 14)
The entire Islands miniseries is delightful, following Finn, Jake, and Susan Strong (Jackie Buscarino) as they journey to find the last surviving humans. But it comes to a head with the melancholy final act, “The Light Cloud,” where Finn reunites with his mom Minerva (Sharon Horgan) — or rather, the uploaded consciousness of his mom, which now controls an army of robots. Like her son, Minerva has dedicated her life to helping those in need, but where danger has made Finn brave, it’s made her cautious, fearful, and antagonistic. Ultimately, Finn decides to leave his mom behind as he journeys back to the new family he’s created in Ooo — and Minerva lets him go.
21. "Come Along with Me" (season 9, episode 13)
The oversized finale has it all, and we talk a lot about it in our review. Suffice it to say, the 280th episode is a classic, and what other show can say that?
20. "Three Buckets" (season 8, episode 27)
The sad saga of Fern (Hayden Ezzy) became one of the freakier ongoing narratives across the final seasons. The well-intentioned grassy duplicate struggled to find a place for himself in the world — until his simmering anti-Finn resentment boiled into jealous rage. The in-depth Edgar Allen Poe homage in “Three Buckets,” is mind-blowing enough, but its the emotional gutpunch of the final showdown that makes this one of Adventure Time‘s darkest hours.
19. "Ocean of Fear" (season 1, episode 16)
In this sweetly smallscale outing, Finn is afraid of the ocean, and Jake tries to help him conquer his fear. And thus ensues a parade of wonders: Visions of the post-apocalypse during a submarine trip, a mid-story turn toward why-not rhyming dialogue, inflatable aquasuits, a guest turn from Mark Hamill as the cruel Fear Feaster, and a triumphantly self-inflicted head wound. The final message is classic Adventure Time, at once hopeful and skeptical: “The mark of a great hero is his flaw.”
18. "Food Chain" (season 6, episode 7)
11 deliriously surreal minutes of TV splendor, created by guest animator Masaaki Yuasa. In a plot that suggests The Sword and the Stone with better music and more caterpillar romance, Finn and Jake learn all about the food chain by transforming into various creatures. Things get weird when they turn into bacteria, and that’s before they start singing “We’re Plants.”
17. "Evicted!" (season 1, episode 12)
Adventure Time created dozens (if not hundreds) of different colorful characters over the course of its run, but no one got a better introduction than Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson). This undead punk rocker entered Finn and Jake’s lives in the most challenging way possible: Kicking them out of their beloved treehouse. As our heroes search Ooo for a new place to live, Marceline’s character is succinctly defined for us by the show’s first great song:
“Oh Marceline, why are you so mean?”
“I’m not mean, I’m a thousand years old, and I just lost track of my moral code.”
Luckily, once Finn and Jake actually confront their paralyzing fear of vampires and stand up to Marceline, she lets them have their house again. Thus begins one of the most fun friendships in all of Ooo. So there go our boys…
16. "Be More" (season 5, episode 28)
Oh, BMO. Finn and Jake’s genderless videogame system/companion (voiced by Niki Yang) is Adventure Time‘s whimsical heart, exploring the world with a sense of wonder and joy. BMO has several standout episodes, but “Be More” is a particular highlight, exploring the tiny green computer’s heart-warming origins. When Finn, Jake, and BMO journey to the original MO factory for repairs, they meet Moe, an ancient human inventor who created BMO to love and care for a son he never ended up having — or, in other words, to be more. Cue the computerized tear.
15. "Is That You?" (season 6, episode 19)
Death doesn’t happen often in Adventure Time. Resurrections are even rarer. But the all-powerful time god Prismo (Kumail Nanjiani) really earns his comeback when he constructs a Rube Goldberg machine of interlocking time paradoxes in order to replace his deceased dream host with a time-displaced version of Jake.
If reading that sentence made you dizzy, you could heed Prismo’s own advice to Finn (“don’t think about it”). But the astounding thing about this episode is how much sense it makes. Helpfully, it stays rooted in emotion. Although Prismo has always been Jake’s friend, Finn declares that he’s willing to do whatever’s needed to help because “sometimes you can think someone is totally cool even though you never become besties. And I don’t know why that happens, but regardless, let’s do this!” Adventure Time celebrates all kinds of friendship, and sees them all as worthy of love and sacrifice.
Genre fans may even recognize one of Prismo’s moves as similar to the Doctor Who episode where a trapped David Tennant had to communicate a message to Carey Mulligan across decades. There’s lots of timey-wimey fun to be had in “Is That You?”, too. Don’t miss the last-second shot, possibly the most mind-blowing coda in the entire series.
14. "Simon & Marcy" (season 5, episode 14)
“Simon & Marcy” chronicles the 996-year history between the oldest friends in Ooo in an episode that’s part Adventure Time, part The Road. Told almost entirely in flashback, it follows Simon Petrikov as he tries to protect the 7-year-old Marcy in a post-apocalyptic dystopia — all while progressively losing his sanity to the Ice King’s crown. You’ll never think of the Cheers theme song the same way again.
13. "Too Young" (season 3, episode 5)
The first appearance of Lemongrab (Justin Roiland) provokes a courtly farce in the Candy Kingdom, as a de-aged Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) works with Finn to take back her throne. The pranks are elaborate, the quoteables relentless (“I don’t think that worked out too math, Finn!” “Being 18 is all plock dumps and wagglezags.”) It’s partially a whimsical demonstration of Finn’s ever-frustrated romantic endeavors, but “Too Young” also stands out as an early example of the ascending prominence of Bubblegum as a political entity — and her ongoing role as a brilliant scientist whose experiments always go mad.
12. "Wake Up"/"Escape From The Citadel" (season 6, episodes 1 and 2)
Airing right around the chronological midpoint of the eight-year run, this two-parter is both a head-tripping expansion of the mythos and a cold-bucket-of-ice-water emotional rollercoaster. Finn’s desperate to find out what happened to his biological father, a quest that leads to a prison cell in the outer firmament of the multiverse. There he finds Martin (Stephen Root), a disappointing dad if there ever was one. How disappointing? By the end of their first meeting, Finn’s down one arm.
11. "The Enchiridion!" (season 1, episode 5)
An early episode that set the tone for exactly what to expect from Adventure Time: heroic trials, moral quandaries, and the occasional trio of murderous gnomes who like to blow up old ladies. Finn grows and evolves over the course of the series, but his guiding principles always come back to what he learns in “The Enchiridion!”: Being a hero isn’t about slaying evil or rescuing princesses, but about making the right choices, even when it’s hard.
10. "Sons of Mars" (season 4, episode 15)
If you thought the Land of Ooo was weird, just check out Mars. On Adventure Time, the red planet is ruled by both Abraham Lincoln (voiced by Pendleton Ward) and the four-faced god Grob Gob Glob Grod, who also happens to be Magic Man’s older brother for some reason. Alas, even these amazing rulers are not infallible. When Glob descends to Earth in order to finally punish Magic Man for his many crimes of stealing sandwiches and turning people into eggs, the trickster shapeshifts Jake into his place, and his brother is none the wiser. By the end of the episode, Magic Man wins again (just like always), Miguel Ferrer’s Death has reappeared in devastating fashion, and the formerly enslaved Tiny Manticore (Kenny, again) learns freedom isn’t always so sweet if your new prison is shame.
9. "Bad Little Boy" (season 5, episode 11)
No other characters have inspired as much devotion with as little screen time as Fionna and Cake, and the gender-swapped heroes get their best outing in “Bad Little Boy.” What starts as just another Ice King fanfic gets an upgrade from Marceline, who weaves a tale of romance, skeleton armies, and a totally sick party in the woods. The Fionna and Cake episodes always feature plenty of sword-swinging and punching, but they’re especially interested in exploring complicated relationships. “Bad Little Boy” is no exception, and the focus here is the gender-swapped Marshall Lee (Donald Glover), a skinny-jeans-wearing vampire king who’s suave, seductive, and a bit of a scoundrel. When Marshall Lee launches into a flirty song about how he can’t be trusted, Fionna can’t help but be drawn in and literally let her hair down. Ultimately, it’s an episode about navigating emotionally-charged friendships — and how to deal with a charming but manipulative jerk.
8. "The Other Tarts" (season 2, episode 9)
Every single part of “The Other Tarts” is insane: the annual back-rubbing ceremony, Princess Bubblegum’s “decapitation,” the delivery of the line “hush, I ain’t gon’ burn it.” It also boasts what might be the strangest, saddest, and most delightful final moments of any episode, as the senile Royal Tart Toter bursts in and delivers a nonsensical monologue about the endurance of sweetness.
7. "Lemonhope, Parts 1 and 2" (season 5, episodes 50 and 51)
If you wanted to show off the sheer breadth of Adventure Time‘s possibility — the fantasy questing epicness, the dreamy freaky-cool surrealism, the deep bench of supporting characters, the complicated emotional spectrum, the music, man, the music!— you could start with this two-part odyssey. Young Lemonhope (Justin Roiland) is tormented with bizarre nightmares, frustrated by the Soviet-ish propaganda coming out of the totalitarian Lemon Kingdom. Called to heroism, Lemonhope runs away, to a desert ocean, to the clouds. “Lemonhope” ends on a sequence of paradoxical notes, a radical mixture of selflessness and selfishness, protagonistic triumph and lonely-wanderer melancholy. The ending involves a mindbending flashforward — and the saddest song to ever rhyme “sacrifice” with “sugar and spice.”
6. "Frost & Fire" (season 5, episode 30)
Among other things, Adventure Time is the story of a young boy named Finn growing up and learning how to be himself. This episode in particular tackles one of the single most dangerous parts of growing up: Learning how to contend with uncontrollable hormones. Finn means well, and spends most of his time trying to be righteous and just. Unfortunately, this combines with adolescence (and the lack of other humans around to explain how it works) to make him extra attracted to his girlfriend Flame Princess (Jessica DiCicco) after watching her beat up Ice King. After a “hot dream,” Finn decides to pursue that feeling at any cost…with disastrous consequences. Fire and ice recur as motifs throughout Adventure Time, and though they can sometimes co-exist peacefully (see our next blurb for the best example), if not channeled correctly they can seriously throw the world off balance — something Finn realizes far too late.
5. "Thank You" (season 3, episode 17)
Finn and Jake fight the Ice King… in the distance. Meanwhile, this almost-wordless masterpiece follows the progress of a lost fire-pup and a snow golem, two diametrically opposed entities brought together by chance and simple decency.
Evidence of Adventure Time‘s general awesomeness: Without even realizing it, we ranked two episodes about ice-and-fire entities right next to each other. (But the elemental dichotomy has different symbolic intent in “Frost & Fire,” man, different symbolic intent!!!) “Thank You” is marvelous feat of animation that also stands out as a statement of absurdly ambitious purpose: From this point on, Adventure Time could tell any kind of story about anything.
4. "The Lich"/"Finn the Human"/"Jake the Dog" (season 4, episode 26 and season 5, episodes 1 and 2)
When it comes to epic scope, the show never quite topped the three-part sequence that closes season 4 and opens season 5. The Lich (Ron Perlman) finally enacts his master plan of ultimate evil, taking the hallowed artifacts that meant so much to Finn’s early adventures (the Enchiridion hero handbook and the princesses’ crowns of power) and turning them into genocidal weapons to wipe out all life in the universe. What ensues is an important lesson in unintended consequences and the unknowable complexity of cause-and-effect. When Finn tries to fix the damage by wishing that the Lich “never even ever existed,” he ends up transforming the world in unpredictable ways. After all, if there was no Lich, then there was no Mushroom War, and thus the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo we all know and love would never have come into being. Finn would instead have grown up in “Farmworld” with two human parents and a non-magical dog. Unfortunately, evil still exists there (as it does everywhere) and that world lacks any battle-hardened heroes to defend itself.
Finn’s sense of righteousness can only get you so far; sometimes you need Jake’s warm geniality (shown here in the ease with which he befriends even a weird god like Prismo) to really save the world. It takes two to make a thing go right, after all, and showing these two at their most characteristic explains why the episodes are specifically named after them for once.
As the “big bad” of Adventure Time, the Lich is the only character who is never funny even once, but his “big good” counterpart Prismo certainly is. The Wishmaster’s explanation of the dangers of wishing — “say you wish for a back rub. Who’s gonna give it to you? A dirty man? A bear?” — makes for one of the funniest scenes in the entire show.
3. "It Came From the Nightosphere" (season 2, episode 1)
I could talk about how this episode is the first in-depth exploration of Marceline’s past and how it dives deep into her moral complexities. I could talk about the growing friendship between Marcy and Finn. I could talk about the declaration by Hunson Abadeer (Martin Olson) that Gunter is “by far the most evil thing I’ve ever encountered.” But honestly, this deserves a top-10 spot solely for “Daddy, Why Did You Eat My Fries,” an emo anthem that is — like most of Adventure Time’s best music — catchy, silly, and deceptively deep.
2. "I Remember You" (season 4, episode 25)
Even in the early days, there was this peculiar feeling with Adventure Time that you were watching deeper story hiding inside the story. There was a tale barely glimpsed by us viewers, and basically unwitnessed by supposed heroes Finn and Jake: Implications of apocalypse, visitations from other worlds, cosmic deities of Lovecraftian proportions, Bubblegum’s ever-hazy intensions.
Things really started to go full Silmarillion in the sunning “I Remember You,” which uncovers the unexpectedly intense friendship between Ice King and Marceline. The frosty wizard arrives on a typical lunatic mission, seeking the vampiress’ assistance writing a princess-baiting love tune. But Marcy actually remembers their centuries-long interaction, giving their dialogue a vague Eternal Sunshine quality (unless you think Ice King is a running metaphor for dementia). Then she finds some old notes from a pre-crazed Ice King. They sing a tune full of tricky emotions: Marceline singing Ice King’s words about herself, Ice King singing his own words but barely understanding them.
“What is going on in there?” asks Jake. “I have no idea,” says Finn — a protagonist sidelined in his own story, a boy suddenly realizing the world has more history than he’ll ever understand.
1. "What Was Missing" (season 3, episode 10)
NOTE: GIVEN THE PROFOUND CENTRAL THEME IN “WHAT WAS MISSING,” WE ALL WROTE AN ENTRY ON THIS PHENOMENAL FEAT OF HUMAN ARTISTRY.
If you were to create a checklist of the most essential Adventure Time elements and then build an episode out of that, it would look a lot like “What Was Missing.” There’s music, magic, heroism, comedy, weird BMO moments, and relationship drama (including the first hints of a shared history between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline). But what elevates the episode to true classic status is its heart. “Friendship saves the day!” is perhaps the single most overused theme in pop culture, but “What Was Missing” works because it goes deeper than that. The friendship between Finn, Jake, Marceline, and PB isn’t enough to open the door and defeat the Door Lord; instead, they have to learn how to communicate honestly and openly with each other. (Bonus: Marceline’s performance of the instant earworm “I’m Just Your Problem.”)
I counted seventy thousand things to love about this episode. And now I will list them all: Exaltation of collective collaboration over individual achievement, successful summation of the typical life cycle of a rock band in 7 minutes or less, the tricky mature emotions in the Bubblegum-Marceline relationship, the believably innocent emotions in the Finn-Bubblegum relationship (this kid actually thinks he has a chance?), Adventure Time‘s ongoing campaign to make violas happen, the songs, the totally sweet rock T-shirt Marceline gave Bubblegum, the poor Door Lord who was just trying to teach everyone a lesson about friendship, the fact that the Door Lord has Blink-from-X-Men powers, man Blink powers are the best superpowers, wait I’m out of space, oh man oh man just one more thing, BMO used as a musical instrument!!!
There are almost 300 episodes, so obviously everyone will have a different favorite. But this, for my money, is the perfect one. It’s the one I show people to explain what Adventure Time is. It shows off every main character at both their best and worst, and teaches us things about them we didn’t know before, such as Marceline and Bubblegum’s mysterious romantic history. It faithfully invokes the tropes of youth fiction (teamwork makes the dream work!) while also subverting expectations (poor Door Lord). Best of all, it’s the show’s most concentrated and meaningful use of music to aid its storytelling, which is really saying a lot.