Last week, I took issue with this show ignoring much of the past five seasons’ growth for an episode that felt inconsequential and out of place. While “Red Starved” doesn’t offer much in the way of relationship progression, this simple Finn-Jake-Marceline story has a much stronger focus than “The Box Prince,” putting the three friends in a dire situation than brings out the dark side in two of them and reveals the other’s vulnerabilities. “The Box Prince” was like one of those season one episodes where the writers were throwing out random ideas and seeing what worked, but “Red Starved” features the confident, clever storytelling that has characterized Adventure Time in its later seasons.
The episode begins with boredom as Finn and Jake stand around an underground sand kingdom while Marceline steals the Spoon of Prosperity for Princess Bubblegum, but when Jake’s ennui caves them in, they find themselves with no food and no way out. Jake also ate all of Marceline’s red erasers thinking they were candy, so if they don’t get the vampire queen something to eat soon, she is going to kill them in a hunger-fueled berserker rage. As Finn goes off to explore the city ruins and find something red, Jake has to deal with Marceline, who won’t know the difference between friend and food if she loses control. Unfortunately, the same goes for Jake, who develops a taste for vampire after he digests those school supplies.
Marceline’s addition was a major turning point for the series, introducing a hip, adventure-loving female to the cast who can hold her own against Finn and Jake and also has a strong connection to Ooo’s past. She’s been at the center of some of the show’s most emotional episodes, but beyond her dramatic value, Marceline tends to just make every episode better. The writers clearly enjoy writing scenes for her, Finn, and Jake, and her carefree but passionate attitude combines the best elements of Finn and Jake’s personalities with vampire superpowers, making her super awesome. And because Marceline romantically shut him down early in the series, Finn doesn’t have the same anxieties around her that he does with other females, so he can be relaxed and honest when she’s around.
What makes “Red Starved” such a strong episode is that it brings the danger back to Marceline’s character, showing how she’s a pretty cool friend that will also totally kill you if circumstances should go awry. I love the monstrous progression of Marceline’s facial features as she succumbs to her redlust, her skin wrinkling to show her true age the longer she’s denied sustenance. It’s easy to forget how scary Marceline truly is when she’s decked out like your hipster high school crush, so it’s nice to see the writers put the emphasis back on her dark side in recent episodes.
Jake is another character with evil tendencies (he’s shown a particular fondness for dominating others), but that’s largely because he’s a dog that becomes primal when provoked. When Marceline starts to threaten him, Jake turns the tables and decides to eat the vampire, digging a moat of lava around his meal that heats the meat at a low temperature to make it extra tender. This may appear evil, but Jake explains it best when Finn arrives with a giant ruby to quench Marceline’s hunger: “She was trying to eat my insides, so I’m cooking her. I know it sounds crazy, but I had no choice. I’m operating on my lowest survival brain function right now.”
Both Marceline and Jake have that same survival instinct when the hunger sets in, which isn’t representative of any sort of moral deficiency on their parts, but rather a trait ingrained in their biology. For the most part, they can keep their instincts under control, but sometimes, they get trapped in an underground sand castle that forces them to confront their terrifying nature. If Princess Bubblegum didn’t appear to save the day with her giant brain-powered sandworm, it’s very possible that the city would have become the grave of a vampire, a dog, and the last human.
That ruby mentioned earlier? Everyone keeps telling Finn that it’s an emerald, but he doesn’t believe them, so he lugs a giant piece of green rock through the ruins only to learn that he’s probably color blind. (Finn sees the rock as a reddish grey, probably more grey, though.) Finn is surrounded by friends that can stretch and float in the air, but not only does he not have superpowers, he doesn’t even have full vision. He’s vulnerable, and that weakness could have cost him his life.
The end of this episode reveals that the cure to their starvation was in their hands the whole time; the Spoon of Prosperity has the magic ability to instantly feed a person when placed on a nose, and if Finn had explored the power of this mystical object that has “prosperity” in the name rather than running off exploring, he could have solved their problems without all the extra effort. Finn’s friends may be powerful, but they also switch into a survival mode that severely diminishes their brain functions, making him the only person that can think logically in intense situations. His mind is as valuable a tool as his body, and he’ll only become a better adventurer when he starts exercising his brainpower.
- ICYMI: I wrote a TV Club 10 on Adventure Time last week in which I chronicled the series’ evolution and chose the 10 episodes that best represent the show. Check it out and chime in with your 10 suggestions for any newbies.
- In the zoomed-out shot of the underground city, there’s a visible Tri-Force on one of the destroyed walls. I’m going to assume they are in the ruins of the Hyrule Temple from Super Smash Brothers Melee, fallen from the sky and now buried underground.
- Finn: “I thought we were going to get into some serious flavor with these sand people, but they’re just standing around like garnish.” Jake: “That’s how I feel. Like a dying parsley.”
- “Peeps will never starve in my eternal empire. Sandworm, up!”