Hey, guess what? YET ANOTHER ADD-ON. This makes 5, and this one’s actually a double. Aren’t you folks lucky that you’re getting so much more content that I’m pretty sure nobody reads? (Update: Okay, so, I do have readers now. And they’re all smart and attractive.). While one of these, “Holly Jolly Secrets,” did air before I wrote the original list, despite its merit, it didn’t become one of the best episodes ever until its emotional set-up was finally, truly, cashed in on by “I Remember You.” Since this is an add-on, I’m going to just go ahead and pair them. It’s my list, I do what I want.
Adventure Time started as the single most generic fantasy show ever. It takes place in the enchanted land of Ooo, which is populated largely by princesses, magic creatures, and
whatever random thing can have a face drawn on it. However, it also is one of the best examples ever of the term “Cerebus Syndrome.” Cerebus Syndrome is named after a comic called Cerebus the Aardvark which started off as light and fun stories of a mischievous aardvark, then eventually revealed that all of the light and fun stuff had actually had huge consequences resulting in literal genocide, and ends with the main character being dragged off to what appears to be Hell. Basically, it’s when something moves from “kids’ show” to “adult,” or, if you’re from my generation, it moves from “90s Don Bluth” to “80s Acid-tripping Don Bluth.” The whole process of tone shift starts when it’s revealed that Ooo is not a different world, it’s actually Earth after the “Great Mushroom War,” which is revealed to be the nuclear war that blew a visible chunk out of the world and poisoned everything. Again, kids’ show.
The main characters are: Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada), a young boy, later a young man, originally believed to be the only human; Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio), his shapeshifting “brother;” Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), the science savvy but ethically-challenged-at-times ruler of the Candy Kingdom; Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson), the 1000-year-old half-demon rock goddess; BMO (Niki Yang), an artificial intelligence robot with a child-like mind; and the Ice King (Tom Kenny), a crazy wizard with ice powers and an obsession with kidnapping princesses.
“Holly Jolly Secrets” starts off with Finn and Jake digging up a box of VHS tapes that the Ice King had buried. They return home to watch them, only for the Ice King, who doesn’t remember burying them, to find out that Finn and Jake are watching “secret tapes” and wants to join them, unaware that they’re his. The episode mostly focuses on Finn and Jake listening to these tapes, which turn out to be Ice King’s boring video diary, while Ice King schemes to get into their house, using various Christmas themes (despite the fact that Christmas doesn’t exist in Ooo). Eventually, however, they get to the last tape, and the episode suddenly shifts. The last tape shows a man who vaguely resembles the Ice King. The man identifies himself as archeologist Simon Petrikov, a man who bought a crown and put it on as a joke for his girlfriend. It turns out that the crown is cursed, and, while it gives him ice magic, it also drives him slowly insane. As the tape plays out, we are shown a man slowly losing his grip on reality, his form shifting more and more to resembling the Ice King, and the background showing us the apocalyptic war, until finally, Simon is shown screaming that he knows he’s going to “do things that hurt [people]”, and he begs their forgiveness because he can’t help it. At the same time, we’re shown that he also is screaming for his lost “princess,” his fiancé Betty, explaining why he feels a compulsion to kidnap princesses.
Now, up until this point, the audience didn’t really know much about the Ice King except that he’s weird and often the antagonist. In this episode, we find out that he’s literally the victim of something out of his control, and he’s screaming for help from within the labyrinth of his mind. A later episode shows that this is literal: His mind lives inside a maze in the crown that he cannot leave. It’s rare for any show to so completely re-contextualize a character, and this show does it in 30 minutes. An amazing accomplishment, managing to show that the villain is just another victim, and reminding the audience that the people we think are evil may just be in pain. This would be a fine set of laurels to rest upon with Ice King, but the writers decided to one-up themselves hard in the episode “I Remember You.”
“I Remember You” starts with the Ice King wanting to write a song in order to get the princesses to like him. This is a weird, but childish premise. He then decides to grab a bunch of his “old lyric notes for inspiration” and solicit Marceline the Vampire Queen for help. When he arrives, he is confronted by Finn and Jake who try to drive him off before being told by her that Ice King can stay. Finn and Jake leave, and Ice King starts to sing a song about his love of princesses, which slowly devolves into him crying about how alone and unloved he feels before randomly lashing out. Marceline tells him to “stop acting crazy,” and the Ice King flees her, scared. Marcy sings the song “Nuts” which reveals that she has spent 1000 years periodically trying to hang out with him, but that his insanity inevitably drives her away until he tracks her down again. But, despite that, she still loves him and is happy to see him, leading her to question if she’s actually the one who’s crazy for her lack of self-preservation instincts. She then confronts him with his real identity, Simon Petrikov, only to find that despite his predisposition to find her, he doesn’t actually remember their history together or even his own.
Okay, so, this is pretty sad so far, but not into “I’m going to drink another beer and two shots after writing this review” sad. But, unfortunately for my liver, Marceline then finds that, among the papers that Ice King brought over is a letter addressed to her as a child, apologizing for what he is going to do. Ice King, not realizing it’s a letter, convinces her to sing it, leading to one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard, including the chorus “Please forgive me for whatever I do… when I don’t remember you.” The audience is then treated to a flashback of a child Marcy standing alone in the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, being given a stuffed animal by a still only partially cursed Simon Petrikov, with us knowing what he’ll eventually deal with.
It’s Alzheimer’s. The episode is about Alzheimer’s. The writers may not have intended it, but they nailed it. Ice King’s condition, while it makes him feel sad and alone, is more torturous on those who love him and have to see how he is just an unstable shadow of his former self than it is on him. You will hold out hope that maybe they can see you and remember you, and maybe for a few minutes you can feel like they do, but then they slide back into delirium and it breaks your heart all over again. Sometimes they’ll be afraid of you because you’re a stranger to them. Sometimes you’ll see them believe that there’s nobody who loves or cares about them because they just don’t remember it. And sometimes you’ll be standing in front of someone, knowing that they’re here, but not really here. You’ve lost them without losing them. This episode does in 12 minutes what entire books on the subject have trouble doing. If you aren’t heartbroken at the end, I don’t know if you’re human.
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Nuts/I Will Remember You: