Everything stays, but it still changes.
This review contains light spoilers for the series finale of Adventure Time, titled “Come Along With Me.”
Adventure Time may have aired its final episode, but this isn’t truly its end; we’ll get to keep seeing the exploits of Finn, Jake, and co. in an official “Season 11” comic book continuation. Furthermore, the broader franchise of toys, games, and other merchandise will be ongoing for who knows how long. Still, the conclusion of the cartoon itself is a bittersweet occasion, both for kids who grew up watching the show and older viewers who similarly appreciated its singular strangeness and charm. The series finale, “Come Along With Me,” embodied all the qualities that made Adventure Time so beloved – its heart, its humor, and its willingness to buck expectations.
While the series itself has now ended, it already wrapped up most of its big plotlines ahead of time. The Lich, the show’s biggest recurring villain, was dealt with more or less definitively way back at the start of Season 6, more than four years ago now (and halfway through its overall run). In the time since, Adventure Time has played out one extended, almost leisurely denouement, like a years-long exhalation. Along the way it’s answered a lot of mysteries (bringing up some new but less urgent ones in the process) and given many of its characters closure on their respective arcs (while leaving plenty of room for further growth). “Come Along With Me” ties together the story’s major remaining threads, including Princess Bubblegum and Gumbald’s war and Betty’s quest to restore her beloved Simon, but is less concerned with wrapping those up in an epic manner (though it certainly does that) than with making one last statement on the show’s biggest ideas.
“Come Along With Me” has some of the elements you’d expect of a series finale. There’s a wealth of callbacks to moments, catchphrases, and in-jokes from the whole history of the show. Certain long-simmering subplots get their payoffs, with the definitive confirmation (and resumption!) of the Princess Bubblegum / Marceline romance being the biggest bit of fanservice. The show also smartly brought back Rebecca Sugar to do one more original song, deployed perfectly at a tremendous emotional crescendo. But the “Gum War” doesn’t play out as many viewers may have expected or hoped it might (resolving with a mass session of enforced introspection instead of a fight), and the whole thing is given an unusual framing.
The episode opens not with Finn and Jake confronting Gumbald, but with a flash-forward to a distant future Ooo, featuring the entirely different adventuring duo of Shermy and Beth. Similarly to the various “Graybles” anthology episodes, this forms a wraparound device wherein our heroes’ battles are recontextualized. On a purely functional storytelling level, this creates some wonderful suspense, as various red herrings and ambiguous narrative leads in the future segments suggest a wide variety of possible outcomes for the current-day scenes. But more importantly, it emphasizes that regardless of how events play out, Finn, Jake, and everyone else will eventually die anyway.
This isn’t a source of cheap nihilism; Adventure Time has never been about that. This has always been a show with its mind on the past, present, and future simultaneously. It’s a post-apocalyptic story where the pre-apocalyptic events hold significant emotional heft, rather than being a generic piece of background lore. Through the show’s long-lived characters, like Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, and the Ice King, we’ve seen a slow-burn study in different ways of processing and living through past traumas. And those arcs have developed in concert with Finn and Jake’s gradual but distinct coming of age. The Graybles episodes have previously reminded us that just as there was a world before our protagonists, there will be one after them. This series has delighted in seeing how many different ways it can contort the world while featuring characters who remain identifiably human (even if they’re made of candy, or fire, or lumpy space).
“Come Along With Me” deftly sums up this long view of history in its big musical moment. Sugar’s song, “Time Adventure,” is a beautiful meditation on ephemerality, and a meta nod to viewers on the show’s ending.
Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense
It seems unforgiven when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
A later verse essentially summarizes the show’s conception of time and how it relates to our interaction with stories:
If there was some amazing force outside of time
To take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we could see it all… all… all
It would look like
Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And will happen again and again
This speaks to the pretense of control humans have over time with their ability to revisit fiction – or to go even deeper, with the mere act of memory. It also speaks to the nonlinear thought process of Adventure Time itself. “A billion tiny frames so that we could see it all” could easily describe the windows depicting different past events in the Graybles episodes, or even to the process of animation itself, an imitation of life conjured from many still images working together to project motion.
Think about this along with another famous Adventure Time Rebecca Sugar song: “Everything Stays” from the “Stakes” miniseries (one of the show’s high points). It both meditates on the nature of change and of the show:
Let’s go in the garden
You’ll find something waiting
Right there where you left it
Lying upside down
When you finally find it
You’ll see how it’s faded
The underside is lighter
When you turn it around
Right where you left it
But it still changes
Ever so slightly
Daily and nightly
In little ways
When everything stays
Adventure Time maintained an ostensible status quo for Ooo throughout much of its run while consistently showing how drastically different it was from what the world had been, how different it would be in the distant future, and how the people living in its now were themselves changing “ever so slightly.” Impermanence is posited not as a reason to despair but as something beautiful for its own sake, and personal growth is made an expression of that greater universal evolution. Stories don’t really end; they just leave the characters at an appropriate stopping point. In the future Ooo, we see both remnants of now-gone characters and others who have continued to stick around. Nothing really ends, everything stays, but it’s always changing.
That is the subtext beneath every silly diversion, out-there scene, and dramatic fight over the course of the series’ run. And in bringing this idea to its purest expression, “Come Along With Me” gives the show a deeply satisfying wrap-up. Even if there are still stories to tell in this world with these characters, even if a final montage (set to the titular song, made for the closing credits of every episode) shows us that the characters will continue to grow past this stopping point, here is a good place to say farewell.