Note: This mini-series recently aired as part of the seventh season of Adventure Time. While it won’t spoil the mini-series itself, anything that has aired previously is fair game for spoilage.
Adventure Time is a show known for its unconventional story telling. Despite being a series on Cartoon Network, Adventure Time has certainly had its fair share of more adult heavy subject matter in between goofier lines of dialogue, from dementia to depression to regret. It’s a big reason as to why Adventure Time has gained as much of a following with adult viewers as it does the target audience of children. Despite being simply drawn and displaying a few childish tendencies for fart jokes and the like, these characters have far more depth & complexity than most children’s shows, displaying a sense of continuity and heart that underlines these silly adventures with a genuine sense of history, even if that past includes extreme tragedy and loss. Plus, there are plenty of genre tinges, particularly with Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olsen), the immortal eighteen year old demon/vampire and musician who serves as a cool anti-hero counter to the Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the Dog’s (John DiMaggio) more traditional hero roles. Her past is probably the most rich and textual of the entire series, with her having survived the post-apocalyptic Earth following The Great Mushroom War as a child, been the daughter of the demonic leader of the series’ Hell known as “The Nightosphere” and had a strong surrogate paternal relationship with a pre-insanity version of the incompetent main villain of the series The Ice King (Spongebob Squarepants himself Tom Kenny).
All of these themes and struggles are at the heart of Adventure Time‘s latest experiment, an eight part mini-series entitled Stakes that centers around Marceline’s vampiric past coming back to–pardon the pun–bite her. At this point in her thousand year life span, Marceline has started to grow tired of her immortality. Luckily, her friend and recent ex-ruler of The Candy Kingdom Princess Bubblegum (Hyden Walch) has found a potential cure for her vampirism thanks to an experimental scientific treatment that no one has ever attempted. During this experiment, we see flashes of Marceline’s origins, including her hunting down the older vampire lords of Ooo a thousand years ago and gaining her various powers. When the cure somehow manages to work, the long dead vampiric beasts from Marceline’s past begin to suddenly reappear and terrorize the Kingdom, lead by the beastly Vampire King (Billy Brown). With Bubblegum, Finn and Jake in tow, a powerless and mortal Marceline must track down these enemies while having an internal crisis about her stagnation in immortality.
The essential thing to remember about Adventure Time is that the continuity isn’t something as easy to jump into as one would think. Despite each episode being ten minutes long, the storyline of this series is extensive. Through its own surreal lens, Adventure Time has managed to build an expansive mythology that it consistently sticks to. So, Stakes isn’t as likely to gain new fans as the more standalone min-series Over the Garden Wall from one of the show’s former writers Patrick McHale would. Those viewers may not directly understand details like Bubblegum’s exile from the Candy Kingdom, the narcissistic behavior of the newly crowned Princess King of Ooo (Andrew Daly) who usurped her or Peppermint Buttler’s obsession with the occult. Some of those elements are the weaker spots of the Adventure Time mini-series, with the latter two in particular distracting from the main plot for rather uneven comedic relief. Yet, for those who do love the show, Stakes has a completely new angle to explore on many of the lingering threads that have been dangling throughout the series, mainly Marceline’s troubled past.
Since we first had hints of Marceline’s past in season 2’s It Came from the Nightosphere, her character has gradually revealed an elaborate backstory full of genuine tragedy and abandonment, something which Stakes painfully deals with. The main plot centers around Marceline giving up her immortality as a red-color-sucking-instead-of-blood-sucking vampire, but we’re given true context for why. Her life has been filled with things leaving her. We get a flashbacks of her losing all the major players that made her life seemingly worthwhile, from her mother that helped inspire her love of music to Simon “The Ice King” Petrikov who abandoned her in the post-Mushroom War wastelands as his sanity grew dimmer to the group of surviving humans that took her in as one of her own while she hunted vampire for their powers. All these flashbacks to her mortal memories showcase the major theme of the Adventure Time mini-series: repeating cycles with new details. Marceline has been experiencing this kind of loss in her long life over and over again, perhaps far more times than we’re given in between these flashbacks and the modern magical Land of Ooo. She’s seen civilizations fall and rise, all the triumphs and fallouts that have come in the wake of the folly of mortal beings and even herself. Despite her age, Marceline remains stagnant in the 18 years before her transformation (which we see in full for all it’s cruel ironic worth) just for the sake of having some consistency in her life.
This is the kind of rich tapestry Adventure Time weaves in a context children may not fully grasp, but can get the major emotional beats of. Through dream sequences and the simple yet genuine back & forth of the characters, we see how much Finn, Jake and especially Bubblegum mean to Marceline as friends. It’s a bond she hasn’t felt in hundreds of years, one that might not actually leave her this time. One with people that genuinely have her back and care enough to risk their mortal lives for her. It’s the glue that keeps the major running plot of Adventure Time‘s Stakes intact as Marceline picks off the recently resurrected vampire clan alive one by one a la The Bride in Kill Bill, adding to the cyclical theme as we see flashbacks of her initially killing them in similar fashions. Those vamps are intriguing characters all their own, voiced by diverse talents such as Ron Funches, Paul Williams and Rebecca Romijn. Each holds a power that Marceline had at her disposal, but each power covers up an individual scar of her’s. The shapeshifting she used to transform her vulnerable frame, the invisibility that hid her from the world and the telekinesis she would use to make others do her bidding, even if it meant making them stay for the slightest second longer.
Adventure Time is many things: silly, sprawling, immature, elaborate and even a bit convoluted at times. Like I said, it’s pretty hard for someone to pop directly in with Stakes and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to brush up on over six seasons of history of the show just for this. However, for those in the know, this mini-series captures exactly what keeps us interested in Adventure Time even during its most frustratingly slow plot developments: these characters. Despite the goofy exterior of a Candy Kingdom, a person of royalty made of sentient immortal bubblegum or a shape shifting dog that laughs at farts, these characters are relatable personalities put in the context of a vibrantly imaginative world. Marceline in particular embodies all of this, being a secluded person who’s frustrated that things fall apart around her and she can’t do anything about it. Her immortal life serves as a sort of metaphor for depression, causing her to live with the constant cycles of abandonment, loneliness and constant instability. Yet, with this eight episode mini-series, Marceline may just find a bit of solace in looking at cyclical patterns of mortals as some semblance of familiarity in a world that constantly evolves around her. It’s a message spoken loudly and clearly in former Adventure Time storyboard artist/creator of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe Rebecca Sugar‘s song “Everything Stays”, which she wrote for Stakes and partially sung as Marceline’s mother in the mini-series. It’s a gorgeous lullaby that comforts with the idea that things often change, yet there are subtle indicators that keep them familiar. Much in that same way, Adventure Time‘s Land of Ooo mirrors its predecessor Earth’s own struggle with constant change. Marceline will just have to see as things leave, but at the same time see for herself the “little ways” in which “everything stays.”
Adventure Time – Stakes: (4.5 / 5)