A few weeks ago, I introduced an elementary school teacher friend of mine to Adventure Time, and it’s quickly proven to be a valuable classroom tool to help his fifth grade students learn how to critically analyze what they watch. Devoting half of an hour of each school day to watching an episode of Adventure Time and writing blog post reviews (school sounds kind of awesome), my friend has already seen a huge improvement in the work of some of his struggling students, who are connecting with this cartoon far more than they have any written material.
Those kids are starting their analysis with the simplistic first episodes of the first season, and I can’t help but wonder what a preteen child would think of a psychologically dense episode like “The Tower.” Written and storyboarded by Tom Herpich and Steve Wolfhard, the duo behind the similarly dense “Escape From The Citadel,” this episode explores Finn’s PTSD following the loss of his arm and the abandonment of his father, a mental condition that manifests as a telekinetic electro-emotional prosthesis (or Magic Finn Arm). With this ultrapowerful new psychic appendage, Finn sets off on a quest for revenge by building a tower into space, where he will find his father and rip off his arm, but it’s a fool’s errand that can only end in heartbreak for the hero.
The episode begins with Finn trying to go on with his normal routine using a fake Candy Arm from Prince Bubblegum, a clunky prosthesis that fails miserably at making spaghetti. When Finn thinks about his father and his rage over losing his arm, the Candy Arm explodes, destroyed by the Magic Finn Arm that is preparing to lead Finn down a path of despair. While lying on the grass, staring up at the blue sky that hides a vast infinity where Martin is off being a smarmy asshole with two arms, Finn’s telekinetic prosthesis begins stacking stones to lay the foundation for the tower, a metaphor for how trauma can breed destructive, addictive behavior.
Jake has been wanting Finn to work out his emotional issues, rather than pretend that everything is the same as before, so he thinks the tower is a totally normal course of action while PB is afraid that Finn is posing a danger to himself and others with his unstable building. (BMO gets crushed by an ice block later in the episode, but he’s fine.) It quickly becomes apparent that PB has the correct opinion here, and there’s a sense of unease underlying the entire tower construction, beginning with the shots of Finn grabbing materials from all around Ooo to create the tower. He’s destroying the world around him to gather supplies, and things like baby deer are getting caught in the chaos.
A long camera pan shows the great height of the tower, and the longer the camera moves, the more unstable Finn appears. Just how mentally unhinged is he? Here are the lyrics to the song he mutters to himself over and over again:
Baby’s building a tower into space
Space is where he’s gonna find his dad.
Daddy’s got an arm
And baby’s gonna harm his arm
By tearing it off his dad.
During construction, Finn meets a cloud woman named Carroll (voiced by comedian/ A.V. Club columnist Cameron Esposito), who shows him an alternative to vengeance in order to overcome his personal pain. Carroll used to be water—“like a pond or something, real wet”—but she didn’t like people swimming in her and kicking her around, so she evaporated into the air where she could get away from that. She suggests that instead of building a tower of revenge, Finn should run away and never stop hating on his old life instead. And she means really dwell on it. The outcome of that path is a life of lonely solitude, but no one can hurt you if you’re all alone.
Mentally exhausted, physically drained, and out of building supplies, Finn reaches the end of construction and is nowhere near achieving his goal, and that’s where PB comes in to start the real healing. After blacking out at the top of the tower, Finn wakes up in what looks to be a spaceship where his father is sitting and watching a sports event on TV, and he finally gets his chance to punch Martin in the face and steal one of his arms like he planned. As he’s pulling his father’s arm, he realizes that he doesn’t have the nerve to actually finish the deed because unlike his father, he’s not evil, and that’s the lesson Finn really needs to learn here.
Finn thinks he needs revenge, but through PB’s manipulation and her makeshift Martin costume, he learns that revenge won’t bring him the closure he’s looking for. Beating and maiming his father would open Finn’s mind to horrors he’s not ready for yet, and getting the opportunity to act on his anger and frustration shows Finn what he needs to do to actually get closure. And that’s accepting the reality of the situation and finding a way to turn that into a learning experience for the future. The episode ends with the symbolic tearing down of the tower, a visual representation of Finn’s freedom from his vengeful feelings and his new focus on his life on Earth rather than his father’s life in the stars. Or, to put it in the simpler fifth grade terms, Finn learns that it’s better to heal himself than hurt others.
- There is so much detail in the tower. Any eagle-eyed viewers find anything especially memorable in there?
- Will we be seeing the Deer again? I predict yes.
- This episode made me hungry for melon.
- “It’s almost like I’m trying to tell myself something. Like a message from my melonheart…”
- Jake: “Pfft. TMLO, princess.” PB: “What does that mean?” Jake: “That Means Lay Off.”
- “Get out of my house or I’m going to faceblaaaaaaaast you.”
- “I just thought about my anxieties, and it’s like my mind-hand touched a hot memory stove.”
- “Finn! What’s it like up there? I’m thinking I could turn into space ice, or something.”
- “You were hallucinating like crazy, so it was really easy to trick you.”