I get to do two back-to-back episodes this week, which rules! And I noticed a couple themes that bounce around a bit in both episodes. One is the relationship between age and wisdom. Another is that bonkers people sometimes need help, but the kind of help they need depends on the particular ways in which their bonkers-ness manifests. Do other episode pairs share similar thematic through-lines? I really don’t know, but it’s something I’ll be looking for as I keep watching. For now, let’s take a look at “Prisoners of Love” and “Tree Trunks.”
Prisoners of Love | Aired: April 12, 2010 | Reviewed by Ralph
Finn and Jake zip around some snowy hills using a desk chair as a sled. It’s always fascinating to see relics of 20th century society—especially the mundane ones—in Ooo. The presence of such artifacts often sets my mind a-wondering about the time and place in which Adventure Time operates, and then by the time I snap out of my wonderings seven of the twelve minutes of the episode have passed, and I’ve missed like a million things and I have to start it over again. If you’re interested in where this rabbit hole has recently taken me, feel free to click on the ”probably a little too academic but still I think interesting stuff” below.
Probably a Little too Academic but Still I Think Interesting Stuff
The Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin was interested in how time and space work in different literary genres. His mind blown by Einsteinian revelations about the interconnectedness of space and time, Bakhtin theorized what he called “chronotopes” (space-time configurations) as particular functions of genres. He observed one such chronotope, which he called “adventure-time,” in ancient Greek and chivalric romances. Adventure-time allows the heroes of such romances to operate physically and temporally outside of their day-to-day lives to take as much time as they need, and cover as much ground as they need, and get their asses beat just enough, to accomplish something that helps them learn and develop. Jennifer Ballengee describes adventure-time as a sort of “suspended animation,” in which heroes are made to suffer without long-lasting consequences so that their bodies can endure, keeping them largely intact so they can serve as an important public figure. This enduring public figure is, Bakhtin writes, the “artistic and ideological meaning of the Greek romance.” Having completed the adventure—having learned something and having communicated some kind of ideology to the audience—the hero snaps out of adventure-time and return to their home where very little has happened, and they can resume their daily activities. These activities are considered boring to the authors and audiences of the time, so we don’t really see them, but we can assume the hero has to sometimes do the dishes or power wash the driveway or whatever. In later Adventure Time episodes there will be moments that zoom in on chronotopes such as, for example, what we might call “culinary time” and other domestic space-times. But if the show’s writers are asking us to consider these as moments in Bakhtinian adventure-time this kind of mundane stuff takes on a different meaning in the development of our heroes. For example, making a great sandwich becomes an epic development in the life of Jake the Dog. It’s one of the things I love about this show. Adventure Time, by way of adventure-time, embiggens the smallest moments.
I don’t know if anyone who worked on Adventure Time was at all familiar with Bakhtin’s genre theories—there’s a book and at least one scholarly article out there that probably gets at this, but I haven’t read them yet. In any case, Bakhtin’s chronotope is a useful unit of analysis for approaching and understanding familiar and unfamiliar genres because authors’ uses of chronotopes reflect—sometimes in a warped way—cultural ideologies of the moment. And one other thing that’s significant here is that, if the action in Adventure Time occurs in Bakhtinian adventure-time, then we (myself very much included) probably shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to apply commonsense understandings of space-time to the show. The overarching chronotope is “post-apocalyptic Earth,” aka “Ooo,” but adventure-time draws our attention more toward the development of our hero within this broader setting, and the destruction and redevelopment of Earth into Ooo usually takes a narrative backseat. Time and space will expand in later episodes, as the show reaches into the past and the future and sends us to more “distant lands,” and [hover over footnote for a minor suggestion of what could be a spoiler] 1 beyond the suspended animation bubble of adventure-time. But, and here’s my point with this way too long thing, time and space will always bend around the needs of the story, not the other way around.
Anyway: Their sled is a desk chair. Then it breaks, and they ride each other like sleds. Lots of visual gags. Penguins 2. Goofiness. Pure joy. I love this show.
We meet the Ice King, who’s upset about them trespassing in his domain. He’s got a real “stay off my lawn” vibe. Ice King is, ironically, not cool because he, even more ironically, has no chill. “Why don’t you just try being cool?” Finn asks. He protests that he is cool. This seems to be one of IK’s ongoing problems. He wants to be cool. But he just isn’t. Is it sad? Do we, at this point and with such limited knowledge about the Ice King, feel sad for him?
I’d say no. At this point it’s hard to feel much pity for the Ice King because it’s hard to feel pity for kidnappers. IK imprisons Finn and Jake with six princesses he’s captured, announcing to them in a sing-song voice, “I brought you a baaaay-beee and a puppppyyyy!” Such a freakazoid.
He informs Finn and Jake that he’s collecting princesses to decide which of them he wants to marry. Marriage is not something you just rush into, you see. Finn tells IK that the princesses don’t want to be there. IK retorts that that’s impossible because he “would have killed them already if they didn’t want to be here.” Oh my glob, that’s dark!
Let’s take a look at the Ice King’s interior design choices:
IK freezes Jake, and Finn flies into an impotent rage.
From what I remember of my previous Adventure Time viewings, I feel like it’s rare to see Finn lose it to this extent out of pure anger. But rewatching the show for this review series I noticed he loses his temper in this way in the previous episode, “Trouble in Lumpy Space,” too. In both instances it’s because Jake is put in mortal danger and Finn feels helpless to do anything about it. I forget sometimes, because of the dense lore and complexity of the show, that it’s very much about a boy and his dog.
IK tries to get Wildberry Princess to play the keyboard, and he gives everyone else instruments to play in a band with IK on drums. It’s kind of a mess. The music is frequently kind of a mess in this show. Finn devises a plan to trick IK into thinking they’re having fun so he’ll try to join them in the jail cell, at which time Finn will wallop him. Solving problems with a little bit of cunning and a little bit of good old-fashioned violence seems to be Finn’s M.O. in these early episodes.
The plan works, and Finn, in his signature blunt adolescent style, drops some wisdom on the Ice King:
You’re nuts, man. And I don’t know how to help you. Probably just because I’m a simple dude. But maybe you should talk to someone with more life experience, like Jake!A self-aware Finn to an un-self-aware Ice King
Finn sees Jake as the wiser of the two because of his age. But, as we’ll see in the next episode, Jake sees Finn as very capable because the latter is twelve years old. Interesting.
IK is knocked unconscious, and, floating around in dream space, wonders why he isn’t better liked. The Cosmic Owl 3 drops some more straightforward wisdom:
But, of course, IK rejects the Cosmic Owl’s insights. He insists once again that he’s cool, and flies off back into consciousness, flashing his little butt along the way.
Slime princess, grateful for being saved, sort of coyly asks Finn to marry her. Jake bails out an uncomfortable Finn by telling the princesses that he pees his pants all the time. They’re grossed out. Jake laughs. The end.
What did Finn learn? That he doesn’t know exactly how to help everyone. And knowing what you don’t know is important.
What did we learn? This Ice King guy is messed up.
We also meet a lot of princesses in this episode! Who’s on your Mount Rushmore of Adventure Time princesses (excluding PB—she gets her own monument)?
Tree Trunks | Aired: April 12, 2010 | Reviewed by Ralph
Tree Trunks is a little chartreuse-hued, beady-eyed pygmy elephant who bakes delicious apple pies and shares them with others. She delivers charmingly slanted folksiness in a voice as homey and comforting as a warm buttermilk biscuit. She wears a tiny pink bow on her tail. People. Hate. Her.
And I guess I’m a little weirded out by TT too. But why? What’s our freakin problem?
In several ways, TT is a typical resident of Ooo. As we see in this—not her first appearance but her eponymous debut—episode, she is helpless, incompetent, difficult to understand, frustrating. She is, as Finn eventually realizes out loud, “old and bonkers.” But here’s the thing: Starchie is old and bonkers. The Ice King is way old and bonkers. Marceline and PB are sometimes bonkers (and are both old but appear young). The Banana Guards are bonkers. James is bonkers. Lemongrab is bonkers as fuck. And each of these characters puts Finn and Jake in just as much peril as TT does, so their bonkers-ness isn’t harmless. I’m happy to get this opportunity to write about this episode because I want to understand what makes her so upsetting. So let’s look at the episode, “Tree Trunks” 4 to try to get some clues about what makes TT different than these other bozos.
We open on Finn and Jake playing some loud and chaotic game with their swords behind TT’s vardo, which is parked on the edge of some woods. She lives, it seems, on the outskirts of the Candy Kingdom. Perhaps she is more of a hermit or solitary crone. Watching Finn and Jake play from her window, she remarks on how men love their swords, 5 and she beckons them in for some apple pie. Let’s take a sec to admire Tree Trunks’ feng shui:
She pulls a freshly baked pie from the oven and—just a couple minutes into the episode—we first glimpse TT’s . . . uh . . . complexity. She flips the fuck out when a fly lands on her pie, and she dumps the whole dang thing in the trash can.
TT has a backup pie ready to go, which the boys go to town on. But it’s worth lingering on the moment when she decides to throw the pie in the trash because Pendleton Ward and company decided to linger on the moment as well. I can almost imagine this scene in some cutesy old nursery rhyme about an old lady throwing away a pie because a fly lands on it. 6 But the show-runners give this strange pie-trashing behavior a more haunted tinge as they really zoom in on the insanity of such an act. The shots of TT gazing with insane dismay and repulsion at the fly-contaminated pie are disturbing. And Pendleton Ward insisted on making them disturbing. Here are his notes for how the scene should be composed:
The creepy shading and severe angles accentuate TT’s inner creepiness, giving us our first indication that something unsettling lurks within the heart of this tiny highlighter-tinted pachyderm, and Ward pretty much wallops us over the head with it.
It’s easy to breeze past that uneasy moment, though, because there’s another pie to eat! And TT tells the boys that she really would love to get her tiny little hooves 7 on a crystal gem apple that grows in the deep part of the dark forest. Sounds like an adventure! So adventuring they go, with Finn and Jake dubbing Tree Trunks an honorary adventurer.
But, wouldn’t you know it, she sucks at adventuring. In his attempts to help lead TT through the forest, Finn is repeatedly jacked up by various monsters. And when TT tries to help, she just exacerbates whatever problem they’re in at that moment. Just before their first monster encounter in the woods, TT asks Finn if it’s okay if she plays with some goop on the ground. “I’m cool with you doing whatever you want,” Finn responds. 8 The goop turns out to be part of a flesh wall (because of course), and they battle it. Finn uses his sword, and Tree Trunks puts stickers on the thing, to no avail. Later, TT uses her domestic skills and feminine charms to try to get out of similar jams. She tries to feed some sign monsters 9 some picnic fare, and, following what she calls her “adventurer instincts,” she dons some makeup to try to seduce a snake-armed brain beast.
In each case her strategy fails, and Finn suffers at the hands (and snake arms) of the monsters in his efforts to protect TT. But she’s not totally oblivious to Finn’s struggles. Tree Trunks worries to Jake about Finn “getting jacked up again,” and Jake—sort of echoing what Finn said about him being the wiser of the duo in the last episode—replies, sagely
Yeah, Finn can handle it. He’s twelve.Jake the Dog’s assessment of Finn the Human
Having had his shit repeatedly wrecked, Finn snaps at TT, telling her she’s not an adventurer, making her cry so that her freshly applied mascara runs down her cheeks.
Finn feels terrible. At the beginning of the adventure, Finn deferred to TT. Now he recognizes a paternalistic impulse to protect her. He wasn’t prepared for this shift, and it stresses him out. Finally, upon reaching the crystal gem apple of legend, Finn apologizes to TT with all the poetry he can muster:
I’m a huge butt guy for getting mad at you. I’m a huge fart. I was only upset because I love you and I don’t want to see you get hurt.A remorseful Finn to a forgiving Tree Trunks
It’s so sweet that of course Tree Trunks accepts his apology (as long as she can give him a kiss on the cheek). They then manage to get around a crystal guardian standing between them and the crystal gem apple by battling it “Tree Trunks style,” which means putting on makeup and confusing the guardian. 10 TT gets her sweet little mitts on that apple, bites into it. And. . .
This was originally the way the episode ended. But viewers found it too bleak, and so they tacked on a short coda where TT is walking around in some kind of crystal limbo chuckling to herself. Which, IMHO, is an infinitely creepier ending. Cue the music. End of episode.
So what did Finn learn? That TT is old and bonkers. And that it’s hard to strike a balance between letting others—especially when they’re old and bonkers—make their own decisions and protect them at the same time. That tension between paternalism and autonomy can be, uh, tense.
What did we learn? The land of Ooo is even less predictable than we might’ve thought. Flesh walls, sign monsters, crystal apples, and crystal guardians? Sure. Whatever. They’re all part of the ecosystem. But there are surprises in Ooo that baffle our heroes and, therefore, baffle us even more. Baffles upon baffles. I read somewhere that Pendleton Ward is a big Twin Peaks fan, and I feel like this is the first episode to really emit Lynchian vibes. There is the suggestion of chaotic darkness beneath our shared understanding of placid domesticity. There is (very) suddenly a strong suggestion of some kind of unknown/unknowable interdimensional mechanics. Finn the Human = Agent Dale Cooper. Jake the Dog = Major Garland Briggs. Tree Trunks = Nadine Hurley (née Butler). These are the facts, and I will not elaborate. 11
And what about all those people who hate Tree Trunks? I don’t know if TT’s first appearance gives us much insight into why people find her so off-putting. Some people, I kinda suspect, may balk at her advanced age and her expressions of sexuality, though I wouldn’t say that’s what bothers every TT-skeptic. But aside from the legendary Blanche Elizabeth Marie Deveraux (née Hollingsworth), we just don’t see too many perpetually sexed-up seniors on television. Having watched this episode a few times now I feel confident that had TT blinked out of existence after that bite of the apple and never returned audiences would not have very strong opinions about her. Some might just wonder once or twice what happened to that old, bonkers elephant from the first few episodes. She becomes an important recurring character later, and I anticipate that the more time we spend with TT the more we’ll be able to say about why people feel the way they do about her. For now, we must keep watching and keep learning more about Tree Trunks—and, of course, we must inquire within ourselves—to understand where this distaste comes from.
What are your thoughts on Tree Trunks? Any ideas as to why she’s so widely disliked?