Adventure Time Season 8 Part 1 Recap: Increasingly Less Algebraic

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Due to Adventure Time’s clinically insane airing schedule and short length, we’re going to be recapping Season 8 in chunks. This review covers episodes 1-6.

I felt relieved when I learned Adventure Time would conclude next year with its 9th season, because theoretically, Adventure Time is the kind of show that could continue forever.

Animated shows don’t have the problems long-running live action shows have, like their actors aging beyond recognition or their ever-expanding ensemble cast becoming increasingly difficult to get in the same room. But while some (South Park) can maintain their tone and relevancy over decades with remarkable consistency, others (The Simpsons) simply limp along, the shadow of a once-great show.

And if you haven’t kept up with Adventure Time, let me assure you: it once was a fantastic show. The first couple seasons pandered mostly to kids and tended to attract an adult audience simply for its unpredictable “ZOMG so random” character, and it did its job there capably.

But season 4 demonstrated an increase in the tonal maturity of the show and an ambition to tell a more substantial larger story, and seasons 5 & 6 fine-tuned these attributes to the point where they stand among Breaking BadRick and Morty, and Louie as some of the best television I’ve ever seen.

But season 7 didn’t stick the same way – the show’s first miniseries, Stakes, particularly disappointed – and so far, season 8 doesn’t seem to promise anything much better. They’re fine, really – they’ve got plenty of charm and humor, and they stay true to the “spirit of the show” in ways that even the earliest bad Simpsons episodes didn’t. But I’m not seeing much of the show I once loved.

[AV Club]

Take the two-part season premiere, for instance, “Two Swords” and “Do Not Harm.” Picking up right where season 7’s cliffhanger ending left off, we learn in “Two Swords” that the grass sword-Finn sword fusion from the finale has transformed into a grass being who believes he’s Finn. The creature makes a big mess of the treehouse, but Finn sympathizes with the creature and lets it stay with them for the time being.

In “Do Not Harm,” Jake and the grass boy venture to find the Grass Wizard and understand his nature. When the Wizard explains he just made the grass blade because he “thought it would be cool,” Grass Finn grows to understand that he needs to follow his own path rather than emulating Finn, so he changes his name to Fern.

This all plays out with a lot of “so what” – the finale felt like it intended to set up some major life-altering events for our main characters, and maybe we’ll see those yet in Islands, but the Grass Finn story felt like a rehash of “In Your Footsteps” from season 4.

The most fun from these episodes comes from Finn’s stint as a doctor in place of Doctor Princess, practicing rudimentary medicine entirely on intuition, climaxing in attempting to knock Susan out of her coma by dropping a sword onto her head. But watching Fern ride into the sunset at the end of the arc, I couldn’t care less whether we see him again or not.

The following two episodes have their own problems. “Wheels” features Jake trying to impress his granddaughter Bronwyn’s friends with his skateboarding moves, but the character dynamics in this episode mostly feel pretty icky – whether Jake is embarrassing Bronwyn pointlessly or making a fool of himself in front of the judgmental teenagers, it’s one cringe after the next until the eventual heartfelt conclusion.

And “High Strangeness,” which reveals that Tree Trunks has conceived a litter of children with a secret alien husband, demonstrates a return to the “weird for the sake of weird” of early episodes of Adventure Time and follows it up with a fairly uneventful plot.

[AV Club]

The highlight of this first chunk definitely comes in the form of “Horse and Ball,” which heralds the return of James Baxter, one of the all-time great Adventure Time bit players. His debut in Season 5’s “James Baxter the Horse” was a beautiful and insightful meditation on the nature of artistic creation and the power of creative work, and this episode expands upon those ideas with a delve into Baxter’s backstory. We learn that he developed his act to cheer up a bat friend of his, gaining his name from misreading signs that say “Games” and “Bookstore,” but ultimately got so caught up in the act that he abandoned the bat.

James Baxter delights me so much because of his simple, earnest and unpretentious act, and seeing the heartfelt origins of his signature performance only makes me appreciate him more. But the episode really comes together with the conclusion, where Baxter sets aside his usual beach ball-balancing routine in favor of dancing – not for anyone’s entertainment except his own. Just as “James Baxter the Horse” explored the process of starting out as an artist, “Horse and Ball” demonstrated the natural next step: growing to appreciate your art not just for how it makes others feel, but for the sheer pleasure of creating it.

“Jelly Beans Have Power,” the last episode in this chunk, probably stands more as a valuable addition to the larger character arc of Princess Bubblegum than as a strong individual episode, although it doesn’t entirely fail as the latter either.

Jealous of Slime Princess’s grasp over her elemental powers, Princess Bubblegum learns through a series of dreams featuring the Candy Elemental how to expand her own abilities, and ultimately fuses this with her science knowledge to create a candy explosion and save the kingdom from a flying fortune teller. It’s a strong battle scene, and it’s arresting to see the candy citizens in fear of their own ruler after the collision harms many of them. But mainly it sets the stage for Princess Bubblegum’s candy powers to become a major part of her character in the coming season.

With Islands up next, I’m optimistic we’re about to see an improvement, over not only the mixed quality of these six episodes but also over the mixed quality of Stakes. But it’s an optimism I feel like I need going into the miniseries. I want really, really badly to love Adventure Time again. But I’m going to need Adventure Time‘s help to do that.