Born of candy and glue.
Creator of beauty,
And ugliness too.
I found you in the dark.
You lived in the bathroom,
Now live in our hearts.
Freed by hard sacrifice,
To live in the kingdom
Of sugar and spice.
Longed for freedom above,
Compassion or friendship,
Wisdom or love.
Risking freedom and health,
Came back for his brothers
And for himself.
No more will you roam.
Once you were lost
And now you’re back home.”
— Princess Bubblegum, “The Ballad Of Lemonhope”
The touching song sung by Princess Bubblegum at the end of “Lemonhope” is the type of oral narrative that would have been a major source of entertainment in ancient times, and it’s the perfect cap to an episode that does remarkable work building a legendary tale around a small supporting character. Combining elements of Pinocchio, The Little Prince, Lord of the Rings, and The Odyssey, this two-part Adventure Time epic tells the story of one hero’s quest to find freedom and save his people. For much of the episode, the responsibility of the latter prevents Lemonhope from achieving the former, and over the course of the story, he learns that the only way to truly be free is by fulfilling the unpaid debts of his past.
This show is ending its super-sized fifth season with a bang, and “Lemongrab” continues a streak of episodes that have told captivating, visually stimulating stories that take full advantage of Adventure Time continuity in drastically different ways. “Betty” made some huge strides with Ice King’s character while telling a thrilling, bittersweet story about fixing the past; “Bad Timing” considerably fleshed out LSP’s personality with psychedelic tragicomedy; and “Lemonhope” addresses universal adolescent urges with a wildly ambitious cinematic two-parter. The range of stories is just astonishing, and while each episode offers a distinct viewing experience, they all still feel like they belong in the same world. That’s a testament to the work done by the show’s creators over time, building an environment where anything can happen and experimentation is encouraged.
That experimentation is clear from the opening moments of “Lemonhope,” which take a more abstract, expressionist approach in their depiction of the titular hero’s dream, casting him as a baby bird that is leaving the nest for the first time. The entire setting is monochromatic except for the yellow of Lemonhope’s flesh and wings and a bright red door sitting ominously atop a giant stone column, balancing the liberated feeling of the hero in flight with a limited color palette that shows he’s still restricted. The episode returns to this black-and-white dreamscape more than once to visualize Lemonhope’s emotional state. At one point, he views himself as a horse tied to Lemongrab’s half-eaten brother; horse-Lemonhope gets Princess Bubblegum under his hoof, symbolizing how these two people are weighing him down with their shared expectations of him. Later, he’s a puppet chained to Emperor Lemongrab, an image that represents the responsibility Lemonhope feels to detrone the evil ruler.
While I’ve been hard on Lemon-centric episodes in the past for being a bit too aggressive with their abrasive weirdness, this episode doesn’t go overboard with obnoxious Lemongrab behavior, portraying the power-mad villain in a way that emphasizes his ability to create fear instead of annoyance. In class, Lemonhope is forced to watch propaganda videos from Castle Lemongrab, ruled by an obese dictator that has eaten his brother, and this more satirical, subversive version of Lemongrab is much more effective that the screeching villain of the past. There’s still plenty of screaming, but in that video we see a ruler that is trying to sell a fantasy image of his kingdom when the reality is much bleaker and oppressive. That’s a kind of scary that exists in the real world, and highlighting that aspect of the character is a wise decision on the part of the writers.
Like most children, Lemonhope is eager to see the rest of the world, but he’s forced to sit in school so that he can learn how to be the person others want him to be. The Lemon people freed him so that he could come back and save them, but now that Lemonhope has a taste of the outside world, he just wants to explore it. When Princess Bubblegum takes him to Castle Lemongrab to show him just how dire things have become, Lemonhope escapes and stows away on a pirate ship, getting a taste of freedom that becomes a giant heaping serving when the vessel is attacked and shipwrecked in the middle of a desert.
Before Lemongrab can truly experience freedom, he needs to unshackle himself from his past. He has a limited understanding of this when he first runs off and removes his clothes and cloaking device, cutting himself off from the identity he had when he was living in the Candy Kingdom. Disconnecting from his Lemon-messiah obligations is going to be harder, though, and the world won’t let him flourish until he fulfills his destined role. Shipwrecked, starving, and out of lime juice, Lemonhope ventures into the desert holding on to that singular notion of freedom that motivates him, and it is there he meets his end, burning up in the raging sun as a rain cloud rests in the sky above. The first part of the episode ends with the extremely depressing image of a presumably dead Lemonhope face down in the sand, a stark moment that hits with a lot of impact.
Luckily, that raincloud is actually the Cloud Trawler of Phlannel Boxingday, an elderly explorer that hunts monsters (specifically Greedlards) and keeps the “dosh” (treasure) that the beasts eat. He’s a lovable grandfather type that speaks in an exaggerated style (sample: “All those pacts and treaties have me sklonked up tighter than a synthetic zanoid sterilizer bed compressor tube enlarger on garbage day!”), and he helps Lemonhope experience the life of open adventure he’s always wanted. It’s a lot of fun, but the boy is still haunted by his old responsibilities, and when he tells Phlannel about his nightmares, he hears the words that pave the way to his eventual independence. Phlannel tells Lemonhope that while it’s true he is physically free, a debt unpaid is not easily forgotten, so he’s still a prisoner in his mind. If he helps the Lemon people, maybe he can break those chains, but he’ll only find out if he actually does it.
Phlannel takes Lemonhope to Castle Lemongrab, where the hero uses his harp to make the Emperor explode into a bunch of pieces. He fulfills his destiny and it wasn’t all that hard, and now he can move forward without any burdens. The last dream shows winged Lemonhope escaping that black-and-white world and returning to the nest that now exists in a realm full of color, evoking a sensation of comfort and total possibility for the future. Taking a cue from Peter Jackson’s The Return Of The King, this episode feels like it has a few different endings, and after a blackout at the end of that dream, there’s another scene that shows PB sewing Lemongrab back together Lemonhope leaving the Castle for the next thousand years or so. He’ll come back whenever he gets tired of freedom, and that’s where Princess Bubblegum’s heroic ballad comes into play.
This episode uses musical impeccably, with the first part using juvenile, expressive music to show Lemonhope’s character and the second providing more polished songs that evoke a specific mood and heighten the imagery on screen. The sequence with Lemonhope playing his harp to make the Greedlard crash into a rock formation wonderfully applies music to set up a gag, playing a light, cheerful tune that cuts off when the beast crashes headfirst into a giant wall.
That scene also shows off the episode’s cinematic visuals, and the shot showing the Cloud Trawler flying around the downed creature has some beautiful framing that establishes a massive sense of size and scope. The full scope of “Lemongrab” isn’t even revealed until the final moments, when the story checks in with the hero after centuries of freedom, returning home as an old man to settle down. As PB sings her song, we see an elderly Lemonhope walk through an abandoned Candy Kingdom, now in ruins, and a similarly uninhabited Castle Lemongrab. It’s a poignant sequence that is both triumphant and melancholy, showing a hero that lived a full, satisfying life and made his way back to the place he could rest easiest.
There’s a lot of hope in the hero’s story (of course), but those final images of an empty, dystopic Ooo are also a frightening reminder that not all good things can last. As we reach the final episodes of an outstanding 52-episode season, it can be easy to take for granted what a gift this show has been for the past 16 months. Over the course of this fifth season, the creators of Adventure Time have truly embraced the freedom Lemonhope is looking for, and hopefully the wait for the sixth won’t be too long, because this show will be greatly missed once the break begins.
- Like last week’s scene in the Candy Tavern, the small peek at PB’s classroom this week makes me want to see a full episode set in the Candy Kingdom’s school. Maybe a John Hughes spoof?
- Great moments with animals this week: The hilarious scene with the fox that finds Lemonhope’s clothes and cloaking device. The rats crawling on top of Lemonhope and forming a blanket, and later, two of those rats (now deceased?) becoming Finn and PB figurines for the hero.
- Could this episode potentially be about Canada (Phlannel) providing assistance to the United States (Lemonhope) in military campaigns with foreign countries (Castle Lemongrab). I don’t know if there’s enough to support that, but Phlannel Boxingday makes me immediately think of Canada.
- Most depressing line: “Lots of nightmares again. Guess that’s freedom for you.” Any other suggestions? There were a lot to choose from.
- “Hello! And Keep Away From Castle Lemongrab” is a great name for a propaganda video.
- “Order! Harp smashing! We’ve have it all!”
- “Save us, Lemonhope! You’re our only Lemonho—“ (White noise.)
- “In conclusion, no one needs to come here ever, especially Lemonhope and I ate my brother. Goodbye!”
- “Well, at least he’s street smart.”
- “It’s not peeps, it’s dosh.”