Adventure Time is a show on Cartoon Network featuring Jake the dog and Finn the human as they go on adventures in the Land of Ooo. If you’ve never seen it, it’s kind of tough to explain. I suppose you can say, “It’s out there.” As in, a little crazy. But that doesn’t begin to touch on the show’s beautiful art style, quirky humor, and powerful themes of friendship and acceptance.
Since its pilot in 2007, and official release in 2010, Adventure Time has earned a feverish following among both kids and adults, appealing to a wide audience through its imaginative stories and richly populated world. Among more traditional cartoons, Adventure Time has helped lead the charge in a new wave of kid’s shows that, in their most simplistic forms, are just plain weird (in a good way); it’s astonishing how well Adventure Time, and shows like it, manages to be sophisticated, silly, strange, stirring, and accessible at the same time.
Keeping up with that tradition is a new miniseries, Adventure Time: Stakes, out today on DVD. The miniseries, which originally aired back in November, focuses mainly on Marceline the Vampire Queen, who, after a millennia of struggling to cope with her life as a red-sucker, one day decides she wants to be mortal. Unable to deal with the immutable events of her past, she turns to Princess Bubblegum for a cure.
That’s when things take a turn for the worst. After extracting her vampire essence, five of Marceline’s most powerful vampiric foes, whom she killed years ago, return to haunt her: the Fool, the Empress Eyes, the Hierophant, the Moon and the Vampire King, a collection of tarot symbols who come to represent her stages of growth. This sends Marceline on a mission to stake the vampires one-by-one—each defeat signals her slow growth from emotionally scarred to someone who gains a deeper understanding of the world around her.
It’s this inner turmoil that serves as the foundation of Stakes.
The miniseries does an excellent job of exploring themes of depression, change, and forgiveness. No matter what Marceline does, she’s stuck in that awkward angsty stage of teenage naivety, unable to accept her plight and make that final transition into a higher state of consciousness. So in an effort to force change, Marceline makes the decision to end her immortality, thinking it will allow her to move on with her life. But, as Stakes proves, growing up, and accepting change, is much more complicated than pouring your vampire essence into a metal bucket.
As a result of Princess Bubblegum’s cure, Marceline’s extracted vampire-ness manifests into the ghosts of her past, sending her on a transformative emotional journey. Even when things are at their most grim, we find Marceline at a critical turning point, blaming herself for the destruction she has wrought. But instead of coiling up into a despondent ball of pain, she rises up and accepts a dark cloud of vampire essence back into her heart—the very same essence she hoped to rid herself of.
Instead of fighting change—Marceline tries to go into the sun in the very first scene of Stakes—she willingly accepts it by using her demon-sucking abilities, completing a cycle of growth. Although she’s once again a vampire, she’s not the character she was a millennia ago—she’s finally “grown up.” And, heck, she might even find happiness through a touching companionship with Princess Bubblegum, whom she imagined growing old with in a fever dream.
“Being mortal was good, but at the same time, it was terrifying,” Marceline says. “Now I’m a vampire with fresh mortal memories and, I dunno, more empathy or something. More grown-up.”
Even if at times Marceline is unable to cope with her vampire nature, and her past, she realizes that there are people who love her for who she is—that’s especially true of Princess Bubblegum. In the beginning, Marceline thought it was her vampirism that was holding her back from “growing up,” but we find out that wasn’t true at all.
In addition to Marceline’s perilous emotional journey, Stakes provides some of her backstory, from child survivor to badass vampire slayer; we even get to see her with Simon, her post-apocalyptic guardian, who we find out abandoned her as a form of protection; the man was slowly edging toward madness as the Ice King, and there was nothing either of them could to do stop it. It’s all terribly heartbreaking, and highlights the moments of change that would scar her for years to come.
Unfortunately, we only briefly see the complexities that made Marceline who she is—loss, abandonment—so moments with her and her mother, and her relationship with Simon, are fleeting. (With episodes clocked in at around 10 minutes, it’s difficult to include everything in so little time.)
Still, Stakes does a wonderful job of showing Marceline, one of Adventure Time’s more mysterious characters, going through an intense emotional journey, one that nearly sends her into a crippling state of depression; it’s a reminder that, although change is hard, it’s necessary for growth.
Stakes ends with a powerful message that Marceline finally understands. Again a vampire, she sits alone in her home with bass guitar in hand, and sings Everything Stays, arguably the most beautiful and poignant song in the Adventure Time canon.
Right where you left it
But it still changes
Ever so slightly
Daily and nightly
In little ways
When everything stays
Adventure Time: Stakes is out on DVD today for $14.97.