Adventure Time’s Amoral Compass

Adventure Time belongs to that class of works which purports to be for children, and in fact is made for and by whimsical and/or cannabis-addled adults.

Don't touch those, Finn, you don't know where they've been!

Don’t touch those, Finn, you don’t know where they’ve been!

There’s a telling moment in the early Adventure Time episode, “The Enchiridion,” where Finn meets some gnomes trapped in a lake of fire. He rescues them, of course, because Finn’s a hero, and helping the unfortunate is what heroes do. But as soon as he does, the Gnomes start blowing up old ladies. There’s a message here, I suppose, about the fact that the unfortunate are not necessarily virtuous. But that’s not really what the show is trying to accomplish. Rather, the show is taking an old established fairy-tale plot and turning it on its head. The way the plot’s supposed to work (as it does in fairy tales like “Diamonds and Toads,” “The Mouse and the Lion,” and countless others), is that Finn goes out of his way to help the gnomes in act one, and then they show up in the nick of time to help him out in act three. Not so in this case:  instead, they turn out to be psychopaths, and Jake stuffs them right back into the lava. The same plot, and the same reversal, inform the episode “Freak City,” in which Finn meets a hobo who asks him for food. Finn only has a sugar cube, which he’s loath to part with because he’s “freaking all about sugar.” But he’s even more all about helping people, and besides, as Finn puts it, the hobo is “probably secretly an elf who will reward us for being nice.” As it turns out, the hobo is the Magic Man, and rather than rewarding Finn, he curses him, turning him into a giant foot. Like many fairy-tale curses, this one can’t be reversed until Finn learns a valuable life lesson. But in this case, the lesson is that the Magic Man is a total jerk.

This kind of treatment of standard children’s plots is endemic to the show, at least in its first season (which, in that it’s all that’s on Netflix, is all that I’ve seen). In “Tree Trunks,” Finn and Jake go on an adventure with their pal Tree Trunks, who looks like a tiny, wrinkly yellow elephant, and talks and acts like Rose from the Golden Girls. At first, Finn and Jake are anxious about adventuring with her, because she’s an old lady with no combat skills and a weak heart. But when they encounter a menacing wall of flesh, Tree Trunks realizes that it’s not a bad wall at all: it just needs a little love. She gives it some stickers, it learns the error of its ways, befriends them, and then in the third act comes back to scratch all of that, after she gives it the stickers, it tries to eat her, and Finn and Jake have to kill it with violence. In “The Witch’s Garden,” Jake loses his magical powers because he steals a donut from a witch. All he has to do to get them back is apologize, but he’s too proud to do that. Eventually Finn gets in serious trouble, and Jake weeps tears of remorse in front of the witch, who tells him he’s learned his lesson and grants him his powers — at which point he knocks her down, steals another donut, and runs off to save Jake, proudly shouting “I’ve learned nothing!” In “Finn Meets his Hero,” Finn decides that rather than jump-kicking evil in the face, he’s going to try to find nonviolent ways to help people in his community. This goes UNREASONABLY poorly, and causes no end of destruction. Contrariwise, in “Henchman,” Finn is forced to help the Vampire Queen Marceline carry out a series of apparently evil actions (such as raising an army of the undead), which all wind up making people happier.

Adventure Time hits this particular note so frequently, and so hard, that it would be easy to read the show as a kind of libertarian fable about the law of unintended consequences. Ameliorist, interventionist social policies just end up hurting the very segments of society that they were trying to benefit. If Donny the Grass Ogre is pulling vicious pranks on a village full of tiny house-people, we can try to reform Donny by giving him an education, pants, and a future… but it will turn out that Donny’s body odor was the only thing protecting the house-people from a far more dangerous antagonist, a pack of Why-Wolves. (For Donny, read “Avon Barksdale.” For “tiny house-people,” read Baltimore. For Why-Wolves, read “Marlo.”) The only intervention that has never backfired on Finn and Jake is physical violence, which is in keeping with the sort of libertarian ideology that wants a miniscule federal government with a whopping defense budget.

But I don’t think the show is really libertarian, deep down. (We see the failure of ameliorist policies, but we don’t see the free market providing a solution to the same set of problems.) Rather, the driving message seems to be that, because trying will only make things worse, we are morally licensed to not try. Confronted with a problem like Donny the Ogre — a transparent allegory for urban blight — the appropriate response is to ignore it and go blithely on your way. (This is arguably a canny message for a franchise that depends on it’s audience deciding to get high and watch cartoons all day.) And even this is probably reading too much into the show. The constant reversal of standard fairy-tale plots is probably motivated by nothing more than a sense of formalist play. The show is anti-ameliorist, and promotes slacking, precisely because actual fairy tales are rigorously ameliorist, and promote action. The reversals aren’t really meant to have meaning:  they’re reversals for reversal’s sake, because reversals are awesome and funny.

This kind of fast-and-loose play with convention is a big part of what makes Adventure Time appealing to its sizable adult audience. If you’re like me, and you grew up reading the Andrew Lang collections from cover to cover, it’s pleaurable (and in a weird way validating), to watch a bunch of clever writers playing with those particular toys. But the show is ostensibly pitched to children, and so to evaluate its malformed fairy-tale plots, we have to examine the role that those plots play for children.

tumblr_mbi61bYC1d1rzji1ao1_400One of the most noticeable aspects of the fairy-tale is that it paints its morality in broad strokes. The good are absolutely good, the wicked, absolutely wicked. The juvenile morality of the fairy tale is generally contrasted with the serious, grown-up morality of something like Death of a Salesman, where everything is painted in shades of grey, and there is no such thing as a truly evil act, but only weak and regrettable ones. We generally assume that everyone will get bored with black-and-white morality and graduate to the fuzzier stuff, typically sometime around the end of middle school.

There are two general explanations for this.The first is that children are stupid, with tiny pathetic brains that are incapable of processing moral ambiguity. If you make them think, they’ll get angry or bored, so the story has to be as simple as possible. Eventually, they get smarter, and demand more complicated moral systems. The second theory, which is more interesting, is that children are bastards. Another aspect of fairy tales’s moral simplicity is the way that they conflate goodness with physical beauty. In Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters are also the ugly ones. Some later versions try to identify a causal link, making one of the stepsisters too fat because she’s a glutton who eats bonbons all day, and making the other too thin because she’s vain and spends all day looking into mirrors, but these are accretions, added to make adult sense of a fundamentally childish story-logic. The real reason that the good characters are hot, according to the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, is that goodness, on its own, is not enough to make children care about the hero. The relevant question for the audience is not “which of these characters is admirable,” but “which of these characters do I actually admire?” And because children are hideously amoral little beasts, by and large, the answer is not “the one that’s most good,” but rather “the one that I want to be like,” which is the rich one, the hot one, the one with narrative agency. (If heroic characters lack any of these qualities at the beginning of the story, they eventually get them at the end.) Bettleheim’s contention is that the social function of fairytales is to program children to associate morality with these more obviously desirable characteristics:  first the child identifies with the hero, and then, in Bettleheim’s words, “the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.” Generally, this programming is so successful that we need another round of it (again, typically around the end of middle school) to teach us that hotness does not necessarily equal goodness.

It's not so much that these three are GOOD looking, as that the rest of the cast, uh, has no alibi, if you catch my drift.

It’s not so much that these three are GOOD looking, as that the rest of the cast, uh, has no alibi, if you catch my drift.

If you read the plot summary of Adventure Time, and look at the conceptual art, it seems like a Bettleheimian fairy-tale of the first order. Finn, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline — three of the major protagonists — are a lot more beautiful than the rest of the characters. (Jake fits in more with the rank and file, but Jake isn’t really a focalizing character in the same way.) More importantly, they’re cool. One of them plays a bass that is literally an axe, another has a wicked awesome sword… you get the picture. We have all kinds of reasons for wanting to identify with them. The main villain, on the other hand, the Ice King, is not only a jerk, but a giant loser. And it’s primarily the fact that he’s a loser (rather than the fact that he is, in a waffly, PG-13 kind of way, a serial rapist), that prevents the audience from identifying with him. At one point, when Finn and Jake are playing ninja, they learn that the Ice King is way, way into ninjas, and Jake actually wonders aloud whether ninjas must therefore be lame by association. This is precisely the kind of identification-and-rejection mechanism that Bettleheim describes.

So much for Adventure Time’s characters. As for the plots, however…

When people try to explain what Adventure Time is about, they tend to suggest that the Ice King is constantly kidnapping princesses, and Finn is constantly saving them. This would give us good, and evil, and a reason for preferring one to the other. But if you actually sit down and watch the show, that basic plot actually plays out but rarely. Rather, what we see over and over again (as described above) are subversions of basic fairy-tale narrative logic. When Finn tries to be good, it usually backfires spectacularly. It is only in his attempts to be good, in fact, that Finn is, rather than a strong, cool, and capable character, a perennially weak and frustrated one. (We might put it like this:  Finn is just about as good at being good as the Ice King is at capturing princesses.) We still identify with Finn — but his goodness, which for Bettleheim is the entire point of our identification with the character, is constantly played up as trivial, or unimportant, or accidental, or even misguided, thus breaking the link between coolness and goodness that the fairy-tale’s moral content depends on so heavily. Thus, Adventure Time only has moral content in that it makes mock of the sort of moral content that children’s entertainment generally has.

And therefore, although Adventure Time is popular with children, it’s not really a children’s show. I don’t know if I would show it to my kid, if I had one. When Ricardio the Heart Guy describes the super-best-friend-massage-technique as “entirely consensual,” I just about died laughing. But I really wouldn’t want to explain to an eight year old why that’s funny. We’ll give the last word to G.K. Chesterton, whose ideas about fairy tales are quite similar to Bettelheim’s (although proceeding from radically different assumptions):

Beautiful, wise, and witty lyrics like those of Stevenson’s “Child’s Garden of Verses” will always remain as a pure lively fountain of pleasure–for grown up people. But the point of many of them is not only such that a child could not see it, it is such that a child ought not to be allowed to see it–

The child that is not clean and neat,
With lots of toys and things to eat,
He is a naughty child, I’m sure,
Or else his dear papa is poor.

No child ought to understand the appalling abyss of that after-thought. No child could understand, without being a snob or a social reformer or something hideous, the irony of that illusion to the inequalities and iniquities with which this wicked world has insulted the sacred dignity of fatherhood. The child who could really smile at that line would be capable of sitting down immediately to write a Gissing novel, and then hanging himself on the nursery bed-post.

A child who watched Adventure Time would not really understand Adventure Time. And if they did, they would not really be a child.

14 Comments on “Adventure Time’s Amoral Compass”

  1. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    Hooray, more Adventure Time! Great article. The first season and a half of Adventure Time definitely harped on the same themes over and over (mainly “violence is always the answer” and “don’t ever try to help people”) – so much so that I almost gave up watching the show. It was cute, but I hate violence and love helping people! I’m very glad I didn’t stop watching, because the show’s morality gets much more complex and interesting as it goes on. The characters get more rounded, too. Without giving anything away, I’ll say Ice King becomes probably the most well-developed character in the whole thing, which I never would have expected when I was watching the first season.

    Also, I’d argue the show gets much funnier.

    I’ve heard that others have watched the later seasons of Adventure Time at but I would never do that. I’m Lawful Good.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      “Without giving anything away, I’ll say Ice King becomes probably the most well-developed character in the whole thing.”

      …… him? /MichaelBluthVoice


  2. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    If you don’t want to watch 50-something episodes of AT before getting to the good stuff, here are the episodes you need to watch. The starred ones are absolutely necessary, plot-wise. The rest I just like.

    The Enchiridion*
    The Jiggler
    My Two Favorite People*
    Memories of Boom Boom Mountain
    What Is Life?*
    Freak City*
    It Came from the Nightosphere*
    The Eyes
    Power Animal
    To Cut a Woman’s Hair*
    Her Parents
    The Real You
    Death In Bloom
    Susan Strong*
    Mortal Folly/Mortal Recoil*
    Memory of a Memory*
    Too Young*
    Fiona and Cake*
    What Was Missing*
    Jake vs. Me-Mow
    Thank You
    Holly Jolly Secrets*
    Dad’s Dungeon

    After that, just watch all the rest. Except Dream of Love. Bleh.


    • Gab #

      Finally, it’s published- your User’s Guide to Adventure Time!


  3. sgoodspeed #

    That’s a good list! I loved Dream of Love, but I have a huge that-guy-in-that-thing soft spot for the Pig, sooo

    I really like this article because it hones in on certain points about the show that are true throughout, but definitely most pronounced in the first season. I think you’re definitely right in that the first season has a very traditional structure as a cartoon: sets-up a conflict involving a character defect, and then draws attention to that flaw in the resolution, whether or not its solving the flaw or proposing a heroic solution.

    The first season definitely lays groundwork in terms of its moral argument, namely that heroism just for the sake of it doesn’t inherently do anything. In fact, I think by putting an emphasis on the use of violence as a resolution, and reliance on the good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy, it’s trying to say that the mindset of immature heroism leads to a falsely black and white, extremely unforgiving world.

    Later seasons, build on this by showing that compassion, specifically the passion of trying to build communities with others, is the truly heroic and mature thing to do. For instance, by season 4, when Ice King is a (hard to beleive), extremely morally complex character, as much victim as perpetrator, he is constantly painted in many different lights, and while he still kidnaps princesses he’s rarely painted as a villain, if ever.

    I have more, but this is going from comment-size to forum-size haha. I love reading something that makes me want to write something. Well done!


  4. Matt Ramsay #

    I disagree with your claim that adventure time promotes the philosophy of nihilism. I believe it to be more representative of the philosophy of existentialism. Finn and Jake take meaning from their actions rather then from any sense of their place in the universe. Rather then promoting the futility of action I see the reversal of fairy tale tropes as refuting the taking action with the goal of results. It promotes the idea that actions should be taken because they are intrinsically right rather then taking actions because they may get something. (I realize this is seemingly contradicted by the example of the magic man and the foot but that example feeds back into the major theme of adventure time being more representative of reality then of narrative forces.) This is shown in that Finn continues to take action despite the persistent negative reactions he gets from that action. I think this philosophy is not merely promoting non-action but promoting the idea that the world is complicated and those you help will not necessarily have the same worldview as you. just because your actions may have results that are contrary to expectation does not mean that you were wrong to take action just that you took the wrong sort of action.

    Also Jake is very much a main character in adventure time. He probably has more episodes devoted entirely to him then Marceline or Bubblegum do, as well as playing a major role in the excellent princess cookie episode, which is what I recommend to anyone who wants to see what the greatness in adventure time is.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      I think I would call the show existentialist before I’d call it nihilist, although there’s a rich vein of hedonism in there that neither of those labels really accounts for. The point I was trying to make, though, is that you can’t present children with narratives in which virtue is its own reward — not if you’re trying to train them to be virtuous (which is, historically, one of the major purposes of stories for children). But I will freely admit that I know very little about child psychology, so I wouldn’t take anything I’m saying here too seriously.

      I do think you make a good point about the show not really promoting non-action. It might be easy for me to figure out that Finn’s best move in many situations is just to walk away, but the show never presents that as a viable option. If we assume that the children watching are going to want to be like Finn… well, Finn is above all else a guy who Tries.

      w.r.t. Jake being a main character: main yes, but focalizing no, at least in the episodes I’ve seen so far. He’s a magic servant character, like the genie in Aladdin. We don’t identify with his struggles, primarily because his powers, and skill-set, and emotional maturity, and social role as Jake’s gentleman manservant, ensure that he doesn’t really have struggles. Bettelheim has some interesting things to say about characters like this… the tl;dr of it, which makes intuitive sense for me, is that as viewers we’re primarily supposed to put ourselves in Finn’s shoes, and then view Jake and the Ice King as respectively the nurturing and menacing aspects of our parents.


      • Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

        I should have said this above, Jordan, but I really hope you return to this topic again after you’ve seen the later seasons.


  5. Josh sorell #

    There’s A LOT of things that could be said about Adventure Time’s moral compass and the really interesting stuff doesn’t really come up until maybe late season 1 or beyond season 2. There’s episodes that have left me completely jaw-dropped in terms of dramatics and character development. There’s stuff that doesn’t even bother with morality but is just wacky and hilarious.

    The best example is the Christmas episode “holly Jolly Secrets.” Half of it is just hilarious antics; the Ice King makes an army of snowmen to fight our protagonists but they are too busy exploring Finn and Jake’s refrigerator to do anything “evil.” Then we learn about the Ice King’s origins and in that one minute of footage towards the end of that episode we got a horrifying, tragic glimpse into the life of not only the show’s usual antagonist, but we began to FEEL for him. The last line sums it up as Finn and Jake have “a fleeting moment of empathy for the biggest weirdo in Ooo.”

    Largely this episode and a few others largely display those characters that are “evil” largely to have some sort of misbegotten past or never had guidance or opportunity to make their lives better. The Goblin king, Magic Man, the frog beast, (etc etc) are largely immoral because they are trapped by poor standards of living or are compelled by some sort of problematic and addictive personality problems. Even Marcelline’s demon lord dad and King of the Nightosphere, Hunsen Abadeer, (now there’s a demon name for ya’) at least feels for his daughter and relents when he sees the emotional damage he causes to her.

    The only really evil creature we see in Adventure Time is the Litch. His only desire is to completely destroy the universe and remake it in his own image, not caring about the creatures he has to destroy along the way.

    The bizarre variation of evil vs good in the story that has become one of the major plot points is Finn’s current girlfriend Flame Princess. Her father, the Flame King, is constantly trying to get her to do evil by hilariously whispering “evil, evilevilevil, evil” whenever she sleeps. Although Flame Princess is generally decent, she is confined by a temperament that largely precludes her to burning things. When examining a small town she says, “Hmmm. Needs more… Fiiiiire.” However, that’s before she really has a chance to know Finn and develop a way to manage her pyromony. Her natural ability for burning things has proven to be potentially highly destructive, as Bubblegum has calculated that if FP’s love and passion for Finn becomes too great, she may crack the earth’s crust and burn the planet’s core. Luckily our protagonist stops this “for now…” as Bubblegum states, but the dynamic of heroic romantics overcoming problems that may be positivist at their route.

    Ironically one of the characters who displays more moral ambiguity at times is Princess Bubblegum, who is often experimenting on tiny creatures or doing things with science that generally end up creating a mess. When trying to create a successor, she creates a giant pink sphinx derived from her DNA named Goliad who, after only a few minutes of misinterpreting the actions of Finn and Jake, ends up trying to battle his creator. Oddly enough the only way to stop Goliad is to create another sphinx, derived from Finn’s DNA, who must battle Goliad in a psychic battle for all eternity to keep Goliad in check.

    In a way the show’s moral ambiguity is part of a larger narrative of trying to overcome varying and dynamic circumstances. Perhaps the show’s morality is not that good necessarily overcomes evil in the Bettleheim sense, but that difficulties of life’s adventures cannot always be solved by the same solutions.


  6. William #

    So let me get this straight. The show designed to show kids that they could be the way they want to be, and to be the best they can be is amoral. A show about how despite your personal flaws as a human, you are still a beautiful part of creation and should cherish yourself is amoral.


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