Of course, the following could just be a masterfully written put-on. It comes from OverthinkingIt, after all:
Adventure Time’s Amoral Compass
There’s a telling moment in the early Adventure Time episode, ”The Enchiridion,” where Finn meets some gnomes trapped in a lake of fire. He rescues them, of course, because Finn’s a hero, and helping the unfortunate is what heroes do. But as soon as he does, the Gnomes start blowing up old ladies. There’s a message here, I suppose, about the fact that the unfortunate are not necessarily virtuous. But that’s not really what the show is trying to accomplish. Rather, the show is taking an old established fairy-tale plot and turning it on its head. The way the plot’s supposed to work (as it does in fairy tales like “Diamonds and Toads,” “The Mouse and the Lion,” and countless others), is that Finn goes out of his way to help the gnomes in act one, and then they show up in the nick of time to help him out in act three. Not so in this case: instead, they turn out to be psychopaths, and Jake stuffs them right back into the lava. The same plot, and the same reversal, inform the episode “Freak City,” in which Finn meets a hobo who asks him for food. Finn only has a sugar cube, which he’s loath to part with because he’s “freaking all about sugar.” But he’s even more all about helping people, and besides, as Finn puts it, the hobo is “probably secretly an elf who will reward us for being nice.” As it turns out, the hobo is the Magic Man, and rather than rewarding Finn, he curses him, turning him into a giant foot. Like many fairy-tale curses, this one can’t be reversed until Finn learns a valuable life lesson. But in this case, the lesson is that the Magic Man is a total jerk.
This kind of treatment of standard children’s plots is endemic to the show, at least in its first season (which, in that it’s all that’s on Netflix, is all that I’ve seen). In “Tree Trunks,” Finn and Jake go on an adventure with their pal Tree Trunks, who looks like a tiny, wrinkly yellow elephant, and talks and acts like Rose from the Golden Girls. At first, Finn and Jake are anxious about adventuring with her, because she’s an old lady with no combat skills and a weak heart. But when they encounter a menacing wall of flesh, Tree Trunks realizes that it’s not a bad wall at all: it just needs a little love. She gives it some stickers,
it learns the error of its ways, befriends them, and then in the third act comes back toscratch all of that, after she gives it the stickers, it tries to eat her, and Finn and Jake have to kill it with violence. In “The Witch’s Garden,” Jake loses his magical powers because he steals a donut from a witch. All he has to do to get them back is apologize, but he’s too proud to do that. Eventually Finn gets in serious trouble, and Jake weeps tears of remorse in front of the witch, who tells him he’s learned his lesson and grants him his powers — at which point he knocks her down, steals another donut, and runs off to save Jake, proudly shouting “I’ve learned nothing!” In “Finn Meets his Hero,” Finn decides that rather than jump-kicking evil in the face, he’s going to try to find nonviolent ways to help people in his community. This goes UNREASONABLY poorly, and causes no end of destruction. Contrariwise, in “Henchman,” Finn is forced to help the Vampire Queen Marceline carry out a series of apparently evil actions (such as raising an army of the undead), which all wind up making people happier.
Adventure Time hits this particular note so frequently, and so hard, that it would be easy to read the show as a kind of libertarian fable about the law of unintended consequences. Ameliorist, interventionist social policies just end up hurting the very segments of society that they were trying to benefit. If Donny the Grass Ogre is pulling vicious pranks on a village full of tiny house-people, we can try to reform Donny by giving him an education, pants, and a future… but it will turn out that Donny’s body odor was the only thing protecting the house-people from a far more dangerous antagonist, a pack of Why-Wolves. (For Donny, read “Avon Barksdale.” For “tiny house-people,” read Baltimore. For Why-Wolves, read “Marlo.”) The only intervention that has never backfired on Finn and Jake is physical violence, which is in keeping with the sort of libertarian ideology that wants a miniscule federal government with a whopping defense budget.
But I don’t think the show is really libertarian, deep down. (We see the failure of ameliorist policies, but we don’t see the free market providing a solution to the same set of problems.) Rather, the driving message seems to be that, because trying will only make things worse, we are morally licensed to not try. Confronted with a problem like Donny the Ogre — a transparent allegory for urban blight — the appropriate response is to ignore it and go blithely on your way. (This is arguably a canny message for a franchise that depends on it’s audience deciding to get high and watch cartoons all day.) And even this is probably reading too much into the show. The constant reversal of standard fairy-tale plots is probably motivated by nothing more than a sense of formalist play. The show is anti-ameliorist, and promotes slacking, precisely because actual fairy tales are rigorously ameliorist, and promote action. The reversals aren’t really meant to have meaning: they’re reversals for reversal’s sake, because reversals are awesome and funny.
Whoa! Those are some long paragraphs, huh, podners?