There’s a certain wisdom that exceptionally playful dogs develop when they age up into the double digits. They’re no longer barking at every passing squirrel or sprinting around the yard aimlessly, preferring instead to chill on the couch or lay their drooling head on your lap (gross, but endearing). They realize the energy of their youth, if it still exists, can no longer be expressed through their less capable bodies, and their decision to spend their time curled up comfortably with their human friends seems almost conscious. This development is particularly clear when there’s also a younger dog in the house, frolicking like a maniac and getting into shenanigans the way the older dog used to do. The geezer will sometimes work up the verve to join in for a bit, but then it’s back to sage observation.
Adventure Time, drawing ever nearer to its planned 2018 farewell, is the old dog of Cartoon Network. And this week’s episodes take on that gray-muzzled feel more clearly than the series has before now. Perhaps this is because the sheer kinetic energy of Elements and the shattering revelations of Islands were unprecedented bursts of plot development from a series that has built its world at a tortoise’s pace. In the aftermath of those excellent, weighty miniseries, a return to Adventure Time’s meandering ways can’t help but take on a wiser, more historically inclined eye. The show’s surrealist hipster vibe and visual playfulness still form the core of its value system, but now more than ever, the idea of time seems to bear on the mind of both the show and its characters.
Take Jake, for example. Of Adventure Time’s main characters, he’s probably been the most affected by time, having seen his five children grow into adults since their birth in Season Five, way back in 2013. That’s why, at first, it’s sort of shocking to see him have such a difficult time handling change in “Abstract,” the week’s first episode. But it’s telling that what bothers him isn’t his physical mutation into a scaly, blue, five-eyed beast, but rather his brother Jermaine’s (Tom Scharpling) foray into abstract art. In the Land of Ooo, weird visuals are just part of life, and Finn and Jake have always accepted that quite willingly—their full-blown embrace of their country’s weirdness is what makes them Ooo’s perfect heroes, unfazed as they are by absurdity that would cow a less spirited person. But when it comes to more meaningful shifts, in personality and preference and the like, Jake wigs out. Jermaine, rigid landscape painter that he used to be, served as a rock for Jake, someone for whom shapes would seemingly never lose meaning. The fact that even such a realist can change his view on the world stuns Jake into accepting his own mutability, even while he reaffirms his own spirit.
From the show’s perspective, “Abstract” serves as a self-referential allegory, an acknowledgement that even in this twilight of Adventure Time’s long run, its underlying values and worth remain steady. The show’s not the paragon of childlike wonder it was in 2010—certainly not after Finn’s mind and Ooo itself were almost blown to pieces—but it’s managed to balance its joyful gaze with a serene acceptance of its aging process. This has been less evident in Jake’s development than in Finn’s, because it’s easier to comprehend a teenage boy’s adolescent growth than that of a middle-aged dog. But Jake has been the heart of the show for a while now, dating back at least to when he had his puppies (coincidentally, right around the time AT alums were firing up Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall). “Abstract” builds upon other great Jake episodes like “Ocarina,” “Wheels,” and “Cloudy” to sketch out Adventure Time’s contemplation of its maturation and its staying power, capping those moments of growth with a satisfied nod to the past.
With aging also comes retrospection, and the week’s second and third episodes, “Ketchup” and “Fionna and Cake and Fionna,” deliver it in Adventure Time’s typical bizarro fashion. For the “whenever it happens to be on” viewers, “Ketchup” is a charming vocal performance from Niki Yang as BMO combined with some classic Marceline inability to face her demons. But those who’ve seen Islands and Elements will find the episode familiar, because it’s a fictionalized retelling of the miniseries’ wild events, an acid trip atop another acid trip. Marceline’s fictionalization of Elements is particularly revealing—not just because we discover that she tried to save Princess Bubblegum from turning into a candy giant, but also because the vampire queen is clearly distancing herself from events that have contributed further to her emotional wreckage. It’s also indicative of Adventure Time’s own rose-colored view of its past.
Early in the series’ history, before we knew about the apocalypse that birthed Ooo and learned that Simon and Marcy had basically lived The Road, AT was an audiovisual manifestation of childhood, of unfettered joy and limitless imagination. Cats could have legs on their backs and people could turn into potatoes without a batted eye or any deeper emotional resonance. The style of storytelling BMO and Marceline undertake in “Ketchup” harkens back to that era (with the help of Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera’s simplistic guest animation), but by freighting it with the visceral feelings the show has elicited of late, we’re reminded that Adventure Time can never truly return to those halcyon days. The tears in Marceline’s eyes, as BMO invents a fable about her mother, fall for the past in general, and they remind us of the increased stakes that come with age—after all, Adventure Time still has to definitively unstick Marcy from self-denial and her perpetual teen angst.
And more than just one character has unresolved issues. The week’s final two episodes, “Whispers” and “Three Buckets,” serve as a reminder that evil is never far away in Ooo. Sweet Pea’s kinship with the Lich has been one of the most harrowing elements of Adventure Time’s latter days, and in “Whispers,” we get the strongest indication yet that the series’ biggest baddie isn’t done wreaking havoc. His everlasting presence at this stage in Adventure Time’s timeline has the Lich taking on shades of death personified, and Sweet Pea’s valiant battle against his nasty forebear smacks of the show’s own reckoning with impending mortality and of its assertion—the same assertion made in “Abstract”—that in the face of change, no matter how severe, purity of heart glides over all. And the series has proven that as it matures, it can temper its pure central joy with fear, anger, even resignation, and still find the energy to wag its tail and go frolicking with the puppies.
That next burst of vivacity will probably stem from Finn’s conflict with Fern, his grassy clone and the closest enemy to home he’s made to date. And from the looks of “Three Buckets,” it’ll be Finn’s fiercest fight yet, a literal self-overcoming that might also happen to serve as the perfect vehicle for Adventure Time to explore the years-long toll that nearly ceaseless combat has taken on its protagonist. Finn’s not the sword-slinging boy he once was, and given that Fern is the literal embodiment of a sword, one possible conclusion might be a pacifist Finn who will fight no more forever.
But far more likely is that Finn emerges from this new conflict reaffirming his bright-eyed, warrior spirit, even if he does so through a veil of melancholy. That, after all, is the path Adventure Time seeks as it winds its way toward the close, embracing the serenity of age and all the emotional peaks and valleys along the way before coming to rest in the levity from whence it was born. And so long as the series continues to straddle the present the way it’s done this week, the old dog will remain beloved until the end.
Zach Blumenfeld wishes he had a shapeshifting dog… or just any dog, really. Follow him on Twitter.