What counts as fan service? Is it just the surface-level, feel-good stuff that gets the long-time viewer’s adrenaline pumping—the big action set pieces, the cool new songs, the ’shipper fuel and the exciting cameos? Or is it the deeper satisfactions, too: the elements of a long-running series that finally explain key moments or mysteries, or that pay a toll of service to fan and character alike? The term carries with it a heavy host of indulgent, negative baggage. But at its best, “fan service” can be as simple as offering viewers the things worth delivering, something like a happy ending earned, not given. In that sense, HBO Max’s latest Adventure Time: Distant Lands special, Obsidian, qualifies as fan service at its finest.
After all, what is the whole Distant Lands project—which began on the streaming service with BMO back in June, and which will continue with two more 45-minute specials after this one—if not an extended exercise in victory lapping, allowing Adventure Time to check in on its dazzling array of beloved characters, see how they’re doing, and then (possibly) bid them a fond and final farewell? (You’ll be missed, Choose Goose.) But where the perfectly pleasant BMO had fun with a character whose appeal was rarely more than case-deep, Obsidian dials in on one of the most complex relationships in the original show’s entire eight-year run: The slow-burn romance between badass breakout character Marceline The Vampire Queen and scientist royal supreme Princess Bubblegum. The show’s big finale, “Come Along With Me,” finally confirmed nearly a decade of teasing, hints, and general coyness by giving the two characters a triumphant kiss, and a glimpse of a shared future together. Obsidian homes into what that life together actually looks like, un-smooth patches and all.
It’s telling that, unlike the space-set BMO, we’re still in Ooo this time—albeit a far-off corner, where a city of glass people live in fear of a fire-breathing dragon, and hold yearly celebrations of “Saint Marceline,” who once sealed the beastie away. That closer-to-home nature underscores the fact that “getting together” hasn’t automatically removed the personality differences that kept PB and Marcy at arm’s-length for much of the show’s run. Although the shots we get of their life together in domestic bliss are sweet, chill, and satisfying, Bubblegum is still something of a tunnel-visioned control freak, and Marceline still has problems being vulnerable or exposing herself emotionally. Getting to the root of the latter issues is what makes this much more of a Marceline special than a fuller double-act, with voice actress Olivia Olson once again capturing every angle of the character, from punk rock princess to wounded crooner, ably, both in speech and song.
Along the way, we get plenty of the usual lovely Adventure Time touches, with See-Through Princess’ ornate but goofy kingdom firmly winning its place within the pantheon of weirdo Ooo civilizations. As with BMO, the basic metaphors being tossed around here aren’t as complex or esoteric as the original series sometimes got, with cracks in the glass people’s glass offering a clear counterpoint to Marceline’s own relationship with her trauma and anger, and a young fanboy playing out many of her earlier and more abrasive flaws. But the story itself taps all the right beats, even if it puts less of an emphasis on silly humor than on emotional payoff, and the series’ typically excellent approach to music. (The songs are just as good as ever, including an absolutely brutal kiss-off ballad that features heavily in the flashbacks that show how the glass kingdom’s former issues led to Marceline and PB being on the outs in the first place.)
And that emotional payoff is functionally sublime. Unlike the simpler BMO, Marceline had one of the most emotionally resonant stories across the entire run of Adventure Time, tied with (and to) that of her old pal Simon Petrikov. (Who’s been hitting the open mics lately, in one of Obsidian’s several delightful cameos from the series’ wider cast.) As with previous installments, Obsidian flits back and forth across her era-spanning timeline, filling in a few key final gaps that help explain the bratty, aggressive punk rocker we met nearly a decade ago in “Evicted.” But critically, having finally uncovered the roots of much of its main character’s pain, the special resists the urge to “fix” her, rejecting the idea that she was ever broken in the first place. “Come Away With Me” gave Marceline a happy ending, and a well-earned one, at that. But Obsidian satisfies by showing how she—and PB—are going to keep that ending, whether we ever check back in on the two of them living out their sweet and lovely epilogue again or not.