Astral Plane: We’re All Scared of the Future

Every so often, an episode of a television show airs that plays out like a magnum opus. An episode that rocks you to your core, that speaks to you on a level deeper than you ever could have anticipated when you hit the play button. Within its block of time, it is somehow able to capture the nuance of each of its characters, fodder the show’s recurrent themes, or make us think about how we view the world. A week ago, Adventure Time achieved this with an existential masterpiece: “Astral Plane”, the twenty-fifth episode in its stellar sixth season.

First, it’s important to give context. Adventure Time, despite its designation as a “children’s show,” is no stranger to ‘adult’ themes — which it manages to blend with fart jokes and weird songs in a bizarre, charming fashion, all against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world. In just 11-minute episodes, or the occasional two-parter, it’s managed to conquer themes and issues like what ‘home’ is (“Evicted!”), family and parenthood (“It Came from the Nightosphere”, “Goliad”, “Wake Up” & “Escape from the Citadel”), gender norms (“Princess Cookie”), reincarnation and cycles of life & death (“The Vault”, “Food Chain”), dictatorship (“Lemonhope”), depression and emotional detachment (“Breezy”), amongst many, many others. Philosophic pondering on ethics, morality, metaphysics too is often an undercurrent in character arcs, if not central to some episodes.

In the last few episodes of the season, Adventure Time‘s writers dug up a seed they’ve been planting for some time now: the Catalyst Comet, which strikes the Earth every thousand years and brings about — as the name suggests — some sort of massive and sudden change. “Evergreen<“, the episode preceding “Astral Plane”, ends in the grand tragedy of Gunter the dinosaur being unable to stop the Catalyst Comet. The show is no doubt gearing up for the finale of its sixth season, the Catalyst Comet being central to it, but pauses the action to let our adolescent hero have an existential crisis.

All the Lonely People

Finn begins the episode in an already inquisitive mood, questioning what people do implicitly — keep pets — while laying beside his brother and best friend, Jake the Dog, mind you. Looking at the stars, he wonders about life in space and their customs, which Jake attempts to silence by putting out their campfire and going to sleep. As the Catalyst Comet hurdles closer, Finn enters the Astral Plane, a state wherein Jake cannot see or feel him and he possess no control over his body. He drifts about Ooo, and each of the inhabitants he encounters all share a common theme. Each scene plays out to show differing forms of loneliness, how we can feel isolated from the world and what prevents us from curing that.

Mr. Fox

Finn’s first visit is to Mr. Fox, who previously appeared as Boobafina’s rejected love interest in “Storytelling”, now seems to live in some sort of abandoned communications base and/or observatory. Mr. Fox’s sleep is uneasy, tossing and turning, and his astral projection sits nearby playing Sudoku to pass the night away. Mr. Fox seems glad to find another awake (and in the Astral Plane) at this hour when he notices Finn, and he offers Finn a drink; Finn drifts through the ceiling before he can accept Mr. Fox’s offer, remarking that Mr. Fox “seemed lonely” and that there are “not a lot of foxes up at this hour.” Finn’s statement to me suggests a link to insomnia (furthered by Mr. Fox’s consistent eye bags), but a less reaching interpretation would suggest that Mr. Fox has been unable to move on from Boobafina (whose name he mutters in his sleep) and that obsession has caused him to leave the forest, sleep odd hours, and generally disengage from others.

Mr. Fox remains fairly apathetic about Finn leaving, immediately returning to his puzzle, further suggesting his dissociation from the world and others.

Bounce House Princess

Drifting over some mountains, Finn next encounters Bounce House Princess; BHP checks her watch and finds it’s quitting time, spitting out the children playing inside her. She hops to her cave home and is terrified when a porcupine creeps through her doggie door. She races to her Panic Room and begins to recover, but when the porcupine unlocks the door and starts licking up her spilled Froot Salad, she coaches herself away from a panic attack:

Bounce House Princess, you listen to me! Are you gonna shut yourself off from other people forever? I mean, he or she could be really nice…

To be fair, Bounce House Princess has legitimate reason to fear the porcupine, as an easily-punctured inflatable house. BHP’s fear is unfortunately realized (Finn floats away as we hear an ominous pop), but it’s obvious that her issue is akin to social anxiety. BHP secludes herself within her cave because she’s afraid of being hurt by others, struggling to accept that simply because others have quills that may hurt us doesn’t mean they necessarily will. As Finn comments, “maybe they sorted it out. They could have stuff in common. You never know until you speak to the person.”

Ice King

Adventure Time‘s chronically lonely old Wizard is shown next, attending a party in the Cloud Kingdom and chatting up a Cloud Person who is about as interested as his usual objects of affection. To Ice King’s chagrin, the Cloud People only show interest in him when they need ice for their beverages or when he namedrops Finn. Finn is conflicted; he wants to pity Ice King — who he calls Simon, to humanize him, — but has trouble, as it is clearly Ice King’s complete lack of self-awareness and social ability that makes him a lonely Wizard.

Marceline (the Vampire Queen)

As Finn drifts away from the Cloud Kingdom, he spots Marceline hovering high up in the night sky, singing and strumming her guitar…

What can I do?
Time will unbind our memory glue,
and I’ll be as nobody-ish as all of you.
So don’t care about a thing now,
like a trash bag when it’s windy out,
like a butt that has a face,
Dutch boxing up the palace.
Yeah girl it stinks

Lyrically, the song  hearkens back to her Journal Song, which is Marceline’s extremely personal expression of her struggles to cope with her immortality, inability to show emotion, and isolation from others (“Let’s start with my feelings about my friends / Oh wait, I don’t have friends!”). Coincidentally, the Journal Song and “Marceline’s Closet” were, like “Astral Plane”, written and storyboarded by Jesse Moynihan.

In her “Astral Plane” song, she similarly reflects on how seeing so many live and die has left her to view others as nobodies, and how time distances her from cherished memories. The image of “a trash bag when it’s windy out” is especially interesting, as it apathetically allows nature to carry it through the air. The “butt that has a face” line seems also to be an expression of Marceline’s low sense of self-worth, which the (fantastic) comic series Marceline and the Scream Queens explores in more focus. Adventure Time manages to sneak in a reference to farting (the fifth line was originally “‘hot boxing up the palace’ but it was changed to avoid a possible drug reference, although that wasn’t the intention”), and the fact that it refers to a palace — and a female subject — definitely hints at a certain, also lonely and isolated, Princess, with whom Marceline has a troubled past.

As he leaves Marceline behind, Finn considers her case too.

Sheesh. I wonder if being a sad loner gives you more raw materials to form song ideas. Is that where creativity comes from? From sad bizz?

It’s no coincidence that many of Marceline’s songs are driven by her loneliness; the link between emotion and art is no great discovery, but all the same is an important one for Finn, as many of his songs have been vessels to express his emotion (see “What Was Missing”, “Incendium”, and “Breezy”). It’s also a part of the show’s realistic, sympathetic approach to each of these characters — displaying them not as weirdo loners, but real people with genuine problems and legitimate feelings.

Space Lards

In space Finn finds a family of Space Lards, who zap him inside the Mother Lard, where he witnesses Space Birth. (The boy has had quite a night, hasn’t he?)

Well, that was creative. And it wasn’t sad, either. So maybe birth is the greatest creative statement in all the universe?

As the Baby Lard leaves his mother, the show cuts quickly to another shot of the comet’s approach, juxtaposing birth with death and destruction, another reference to the cyclic nature of reality. This season has put Finn’s search for, and disappointment in finding, his father at the forefront, so despite birth’s usually positive portrayal, there is still the undertone of loneliness there — that though we’re born with our parent, or parents, present, that doesn’t always hold true through the rest of our lives.

I am so high up right now. I’m so high up there is no high up.

The Space Lards give Finn a boost across space, and he reaches Mars, where Grob Gob Glob Grod attempts to save their planet from the incoming comet. GGGG discusses the Catalyst Comet and how it brings an agent of change, but is puzzled by the comet being off-schedule and off-track. GGGG connects Finn’s astral dreaming to the comet, but Finn is more interested in seeking the deity’s wisdom; his final contemplation holds the basic principles of existentialism and was my first realization of the Nietzschean parallels; it’s his attempt to find links between all that he’s just seen, to find meaning not only in his time in the Astral Plane, but also in life.

Finn: If just being born is the greatest act of creation, then… what are you supposed to do after that? Isn’t everything that comes next sort of a disappointment? Slowly entropying until we deflate into a pile of mush?
Grob Gob Glob Grod: Well, it’s not enough to have created something amazing, right? What if I just let my Martians’ society go to butt?
Finn: But what’s it worth if we’re all gonna get blowed up right now?

Finn’s question goes unanswered, as GGGG blasts off to fly into the comet, destroying himself in the process and prompting a “Glob is dead!” from Finn, as if Nietzsche’s influence on the episode wasn’t clear yet.

I’m not versed enough in Nietzsche to comment in any large capacity on the deep parallels in this episode, but sure enough, others are. GGGG’s sacrifice only diverts the comet away from Mars and towards Earth, and Finn and Jake leave their campfire to go help the deflated Bounce House Princess. We also discover that the comet isn’t a comet at all — or at least, not a Catalyst Comet — but Finn’s deadbeat dad, Martin, who has lost control of his (mostly likely stolen) spaceship.

The ship of course poses a threat to Ooo, and I’m sure it will be Finn and Jake’s responsibility to prevent its hitting the planet. Despite the inbound space object being revealed as not the Catalyst Comet, it still carries with it an agent of change — not for the world, but for Finn.  To save Ooo, Finn will have to exert his Will to Power and become ‘more’ than human; he will have to overcome his ongoing paternal struggles, to find enough meaning in the world and his life to fight for them. And through victory (or failure), Finn will, in turn, become the agent of change he is destined to be.

When asked why she loves Adventure Time, tumblr user roachpatrol responded with a really eloquent and affectionate description of the show and its characters. It’s a post that I came across — I don’t remember how — before I started watching Adventure Time, despite my sister’s urgings, and a post that has stayed with me since. In other posts, roachpatrol insists on how Adventure Time never underestimates its audience; we should return the favor by not underestimating it. “Astral Plane” is but one episode that tackles what are considered ‘adult themes’ — but find me a teenager that hasn’t, like Finn, wondered what it’s all for — how to go on living in the face of death. One who has never felt alone, or seen loneliness in others. A teenager who has never felt as though their parents don’t love them, who has never cried over what could have been, who has never been in love, who has never had a falling out, who has never been afraid of themselves, who has never had some great friends.

It’s a disservice to the show’s primary audience to not represent the themes and problems that they’re interested in and grapple, but Adventure Time also manages not to be weighed down by it; it allows the viewer to take a breath of fresh air and enjoy an episode that’s just about hanging with your buds and having a movie night, with some potty humor along the way. Adventure Time delivers to its target audience unlike any other show for the same age group, but also defies it, with episodes that confront the timeless questions that adults, too, carry with them.

Adventure Time pushes boundaries, and broke through them with “Astral Plane”. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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