In the Adventure Time episode “Too Young,” we’re introduced to the Earl of Lemongrab, the extremely selfish, obnoxious and shrill leader of the Earldom of Lemongrab, and the first of Princess Bubblegum’s experiments to go wrong. Lemongrab’s catch phrase is “UNACCEPTABLE!” his delivery of which conveys an immediate understanding of his mentality: everything must go precisely his way, and there is no room for compromise.
Later, in the episode “You Made Me”, when Lemongrab expresses his dissatisfaction at living all by himself in his Earldom, Princess Bubblegum creates a clone of him, Lemongrab 2, using the same candy life formula she used to create her Candy Kingdom citizens. For the Lemongrabs, of course, this is not enough, and they use the formula to create their own lemon citizens to rule over with an unyielding, lemony fist. One of these oppressed citizens is a child named Lemonhope, whose talent at playing the harp has the potential to destroy the Lemongrabs. Finn and Princess Bubblegum, along with revolutionary lemon citizens, eventually help Lemonhope escape from his washroom prison in the Earldom of Lemongrab, and when we meet Lemonhope again, in a very special eponymous two-part episode, it’s clear that Princess Bubblegum has been training Lemongrab to carry out a particular mission: namely, to free the lemon people from Lemongrab’s fortified totalitarian city-state.
The problem is that Lemonhope is not particularly interested in coming to his people’s aid. As The Earl of Lemongrab states in his Soviet-style propaganda/tourism film Hello! And Keep Away from Castle Lemongrab, “Since the expulsion of Lemonhope, we have reached peak societal obediency.”
Princess Bubblegum explains it straight out, “One day, saving those lemons is going to be your responsibility.” To which Lemonhope replies, “I’m not too worried about other people, I guess. Like, I got me, and they got them.”
And this is the way that Adventure Time tackles the really complicated world of foreign policy. In particular, the Earldom of Lemongrab is made to strongly resemble North Korea, with the Candy Kingdom functioning as a stand-in for the United States. In general, the Candy Kingdom is a land of freedom – people are allowed to do more or less whatever they want, as long as they’re not hurting anybody. It’s only when a monster or evil wizard menaces its citizens that its leader, the benevolent Princess Bubblegum, calls in her Banana Guards or the heroes Finn and Jake. Taxes are collected by the Princess herself going around with a bag.
On the other hand, Lemongrab’s Earldom is completely predicated on oppression and suffering. As a matter of fact, it seems like the only reason that the Earldom of Lemongrab exists is so that Lemongrab has people to torture and imprison. The irony here is that the Candy Kingdom with its individualist principles has a moral interest in freeing the lemons, but because of its respect for the Earldom’s sovereignty, Princess Bubblegum can’t directly interfere with the Lemon Earldom or even get too close to it; this makes Lemonhope the only one who can free the lemons, but due to his nature as a lemon, Lemonhope, much like the Earl, doesn’t care about anyone but himself – as he says to Bubblegum, “I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to! They set me free, and free means that I decide what I do. Not them, and not you!”
This is a paradox that constantly plagues foreign policy wonks – is the responsibility of free nations to support and spread freedom, even if it takes military intervention? Or does a devotion to freedom require a hands-off approach, live-and-let-live, even to the point of tacitly approving of others’ oppression in the name of respect for the sovereignty of countries that aren’t technically “rogue states”?
Think of the 2003 Iraq War. Leaving aside the widely-assumed-but-officially-denied economic justifications for the U.S.’s going to war, their official reasons were threefold: that Iraq’s presumed possession of weapons of mass destruction presented a genuine threat to the United States and its allies; that Saddam Hussein was known to be supporting terrorist groups such as Hamas; and to free the people of Iraq from Hussein’s dictatorial rule and oppression. Two of the main forms of opposition to the war were the ideological, libertarian isolationism of people like Ron Paul, which professes that sovereign nations ought to stay out of each other’s business altogether; and the argument that the human cost of going to war would be too high to justify. Eliminating the “weapons of mass destruction” pro-war argument (given that none were found), and the “funding terrorism” argument (which no one really reasonably opposed, since Hussein’s financial support for Hamas – although not, it should be noted, for Al Qaida – was certainly no secret), the fact is that neither the anti-war Left nor the anti-war Right denied that the Iraqi people were being quite brutally oppressed. They just thought that freeing them from that oppression would, in some way, do more harm than good. Leaving aside our knowledge in hindsight that, in this particular event, the post-Saddam situation was screwed up in monumental fashion, the question in principle of whether or not to interfere in the affairs of undeniably oppressive foreign regimes remains.
And what better medium to discuss this than a children’s cartoon about talking candy and a stretchy dog?
Princess Bubblegum is adamant that Lemongrab must be deposed. It’s likely that she feels somewhat responsible for the oppression of the lemon people – although, of course, Lemongrab is oppressing his citizens of his own free will, it was Princess Bubblegum who created Lemongrab in the first place and who allowed him to come into possession of the candy life formula. The parallels between the U.S. and Iraq are certainly apparent in this: the U.S. supported Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s, believing that Iran’s Islamist regime was more of a threat to the region than Iraq’s secular Ba’athist party. This, of course, was followed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait after the inconclusive end to the Iran-Iraq war; Iraq, for various reasons, believed that the United States wouldn’t prevent it from annexing Kuwait, and was unpleasantly surprised when an American-led coalition attacked in Kuwait’s defense. The terms of Iraq’s surrender, six months later, included sanctions and the establishment of a no-fly zone – both of which Iraq violated, giving justification (at least from an international law perspective) for renewed hostilities in 2003, although this was not one of the main arguments that the U.S. presented when preparing for that conflict.
So while the situations are quite different in their details, the similarities remain: interference in the affairs of foreign entities leads to mixed results at best. While Princess Bubblegum once freed the Candy Kingdom from Lemongrab’s brutality (Lemongrab was originally created to be Bubblegum’s successor, until it became apparent that he was dangerously insane), her granting him an Earldom of his own, with lemon citizens of his own, led directly to the creation of a new dictatorship in Ooo. Similarly, by choosing to support what they saw as the lesser of two evils, the U.S. in effect helped solidify Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule over Iraq, even as America attempted to impose and enforce sanctions related to the despot’s treatment of his people. Despite what could be seen in both cases as good intentions subverted by short-sightedness and/or plain old incompetence – big mistakes, in any case – both feel the ideological tension brought on by their devotion to freedom being implicated in the oppression of others somewhere else.
Is it Lemonhope’s responsibility to free the lemons? Ideologically, he’s libertarian – halfway between Princess Bubblegum’s benevolent dictatorship and Lemongrab’s malevolent one. It’s not that Lemonhope doesn’t care about freedom; freedom is very important to him, he even calls himself “a lemon of freedom” in one of his songs – but only his own freedom. Unlike Lemongrab, Lemonhope has absolutely no interest in subjugating others; but unlike Bubblegum, he has no interest in liberating them either. He cares only about himself – and he’s okay with other people caring only about themselves too. The Earl of Lemongrab is selfish to the point of near-solipsism; it infuriates him to see anyone besides himself having independent needs or interests. On the other hand, Princess Bubblegum is so concerned with the freedom of others that she’s sometimes willing to compel people to do things when it serves the greater good. Both of these imply a kind of paradox.
When Lemonhope leaves the Candy Kingdom (naked, because freedom) and stows away on a pirate ship (because it “looks just lousy with freedom, straight up right out the diddle-doo…coming at you right straight up”), he finally begins to see the inherent conflicts and weaknesses in the notion of absolute freedom. While Lemonhope sleeps under a blanket of rats, the ship crashes and sinks into the desert (it was a sand ship). An injured Lemonhope, his harp broken, makes his way to the deck of the ship, where he instantly admits, “I think I really need some help.” Of course, no help is forthcoming.
We next see Lemonhope some time later, emaciated, camping out in the abandoned pirate ship. His confidence in his individualistic viewpoint has already taken a beating, but he’s desperate to cling to it. He wakes from a disturbing dream (“A lot of nightmares again. I guess that’s freedom for you!”), to discover that his supply of lime juice, his only source of nutrition, is used up (“I guess if there’s no juice, I got freedom to go find water!”), and momentarily berates a cloud that has been hanging in the sky for a while (“Weird cloud’s still there. Couldn’t rain a little, could ya! Cloud! Huh, what are you gonna do – freedom not to rain, I guess.”), and goes off in search of water, but only manages to wander in the desert for an unknown period of time, seemingly about to die of thirst (plus his head catches on fire).
Of course he is rescued – by a mysterious stranger named Phlannel Boxingday, who has been watching Lemonhope this whole time from inside that weird cloud – and who looks suspiciously like Princess Bubblegum in drag. After giving Lemonhope some water, Phlannel tells the young naked lemon that “you’re totally free to come hang out with me until you’re feeling stronger. It’s your choice!” Now, Lemonhope actually has to think about this for a moment – accepting help seems to violate his principle of self-sufficiency for himself and others, but although Phlannel’s offer sounds entirely casual and friendly, it’s also carefully phrased in terms that allow Lemonhope to maintain his dignity. Of course Lemonhope’s “choice” is less free than this – he could either go with Phlannel or die there in the desert. Not really much of a choice at all, and Lemonhope, to his credit, realizes that accepting help is less ignominious than dying alone for no good reason.
Lemonhope and Phlannel Boxingday fly around solving problems together for a while (“killing monsters that eat dosh and then keeping the dosh”), but Lemonhope is still plagued by disturbing symbolic nightmares. “I’m free now, Phlannel,” laments Lemonhope, “to do all whatevs I ever wanted. But all I think about is my old life. What does it mean?”
And wise old Princess Bu – um, I mean Phlannel Boxingday sagely explains: “Well, it’s true you are free. Free to help the lemon people, or leave them be. But a debt unpaid is not easily forgotten. So you are a prisoner still.”
Lemonhope decides, “I’ll go back. And I’ll help my people. And maybe I’ll feel better.”
Which he does. Ultimately, after he defeats the Earl of Lemongrab, Princess Bubblegum invites Lemonhope to remain in the Earldom to act as its champion and protect its people in the future – an offer that Lemonhope declines. Lemonhope openly admits that it was not any sense of altruism that led him to save his brethren. “You guys are cool and all,” he explains to Princess Bubblegum and Finn, “but I mostly came back here so I could stop thinking about y’all all the time. I’ll be back when I’m tired of being free. See you in a thousand years, I guess!”
His self-interest is indeed genuine, and fundamentally Lemonhope is almost completely incapable of empathy for others. Princess Bubblegum (in the guise, I think it’s safe to say, of Phlannel Boxingday) manipulated Lemonhope to get him to do what she wanted while making him believe that it was what he wanted – which doesn’t sound very much like something a good guy would do, does it? She believed that it was only Lemonhope’s viewpoint based on his circumstances that made him reluctant to help, that once Lemonhope had experienced the hardship that directly resulted from his need to be radically independent, that he would better understand why responsibility needed to go hand-in-hand with freedom. Phlannel Boxingday refers to “a debt unpaid” – but was it a debt Lemonhope owed to the lemons, by virtue of some service to the concept of freedom itself, that no free person should be able to abide the oppression of others? Or was it merely a debt to Finn and Princess Bubblegum, for freeing Lemongrab personally? Bubblegum clearly holds the former view, while Lemongrab seems to hold the latter.
Adventure Time comes to a typically ambivalent conclusion in “Lemonhope,” satisfying the requirements of the story while laying bare the inextricable complications of the meaning of freedom and how it requires and yet conflicts with responsibility. Those with the capacity to help others also need the desire to do so – even though valuing freedom can precisely be what causes a person to be unwilling to “violate” the self-determination of others by redeeming them from their oppression.
Are free people obligated to fight for the freedom of others? Can you force a person to be free? It is okay to trick people into endangering themselves if you believe it will lead to greater freedom for the world at large? What if you’re convinced that it’s only fear or self-centredness posing as individualism that prevents those with the power to liberate others from doing so?
Pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ cartoon. But then, the world of international politics and its seemingly unanswerable questions can very often look a lot like recess in the schoolyard.
P.S. Sorry for saying “lemon” so much.