“What’s really scary is letting fear make all your decisions for you.” Finn’s words in the finale of Adventure Time: Islands hit like a gut-punch in this current political climate, in which fear has become the primary tool of the American government. This miniseries was written before the results of this most recent election, but I think the Adventure Time writers could see how the tides were changing in this country. People were retreating into their technological bubbles, where they could surround themselves with like-minded individuals and attack people with different opinions from a safe distance, and fear was emerging as the driving rhetoric for political leaders, not just in the U.S., but around the world.
Adventure Time: Islands has been a phenomenal miniseries. As I mentioned in my TV Review of the event, it’s functioned like a summary of this series’ growth over time, beginning with smaller self-contained stories before building a more serialized narrative with a strong emotional core. You started to see that transition with the two episodes that aired last night; “Hide And Seek” provided the first good look at the human society that Susan Strong (formerly Kara) and Martin Mertens were a part of, and introduced new characters and relationships. In this world of strictly defined classes, Kara was a Seeker who befriended a Hider named Frieda, and their friendship ended when Dr. Gross implanted a chip in Kara’s brain that allowed her to control Kara’s behavior.
Martin Mertens was also a Hider, but he found a reason to stop running when he met Dr. Minerva, a Helper who fell for his charms despite all indications that he’s a total asshole. As detailed in “Min And Marty,” they fell in love, had their son, Finn, and lived a happy life of domesticity until Martin was ambushed by Seekers that wanted to punish him for past crimes. He made a run for it with his son, and risked his own life to save Finn, attacking the Guardian that protects Founders’ Island so that Finn could escape a confined life in the human colony. It’s one of the only genuinely selfless acts Martin has ever attempted in his life, and while Finn did manage to survive, his mother spiraled into depression after the loss of her family.
“Helpers” essentially functions as set-up for the big emotional pay-off of “The Light Cloud,” introducing Finn, Jake, Susan, and BMO to the human community on Founders’ Island and revealing the humans’ fear of anything that could potentially threaten their safety. This fear was already in place before the virus Dr. Gross accidentally unleashes, likely because of the Great Mushroom War, but the epidemic made everything all the worse, leaving humans even more frightened of venturing outside of their safe little bubble. Over half of the humans died in the outbreak (specifically 62 percent), but all of the Helpers were infected, forcing Minerva to upload her brain map into the web and put herself in stasis so that she could continue to serve humanity in the form of hundreds of robotic Helpers formed in her image.
While Finn is meeting his mother, Susan is reconnecting with Frieda, who has given up on her dreams of escaping and resigned herself to following the teachings of the Founders. Both of the major personal conflicts in these two episodes are very grounded: Finn and Minerva’s tension is rooted in a mother’s wish to keep her child safe, while Susan is nervous about seeing Frieda again because of how she hurt her in the past. She doesn’t know if Frieda will accept her, but Susan finds the courage to reintroduce herself because she misses her friend. The risk of being turned away is certainly there, but there’s also the potential reward of reestablishing this intimacy she’s been missing for a very long time. Frieda welcomes Susan because she doesn’t really care all that much either way, but her affection is truly restored when Susan reminds Frieda of her old self, awakening the adventurous spirit that had been quelled by reeducation.
Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan gives one of my favorite Adventure Time voice performances as Minerva, and there’s a strong sense of compassion in her voice that makes her perfect for a character that is all about helping other people. There’s a flood of emotion when she realizes that her baby boy is alive and all grown up, a mix of surprise and joy and just a bit of melancholy that she’s missed out on so much of his life. Now that she’s reunited with Finn, all she wants is to keep him safe, a maternal instinct that goes against all of Finn’s personal inclinations. Yes, his life is extremely dangerous, but as Jake says, people need danger in order to grow. Minerva orders Finn to get in the brain map machine so he can be kept perfectly safe in a VR world with his mother, but Finn refuses and instead takes to the streets, preaching the value of relinquishing fear in favor of exploration and adventure.
By giving into fear mongering by an authority figure, the humans are giving up their free will for a promise of safety. Unlike the current state of the U.S., Founders’ Island actually is safe for these people, and Minerva does want the best for her fellow humans. But is it really worth giving up freedom? How do you know you’re happy if someone else decides it for you? Don’t you want to choose what you do and where you go? The humans respond to these questions by saying that it sounds hard, because they’re so used to being coddled that they’ve lost all sense of agency. But Finn is there to show them a new path. He’s there to show them that freedom is fun and boring and good and bad because life is many things, and humans are hard-wired to seek out those feelings and experience life in all its wonder.
Finn’s words inspire the humans around him, but Minerva is consumed by fear herself, a fear that the humans aren’t ready to leave the safety of Founders’ Island. Rather than risk the further destruction of her species, Minerva takes drastic measures and prepares to upload all of the Islands’ population into the VR world, leaving their meat bodies behind for the total safety of a digital reality. It’s a villainous action, but her intentions are motivated by the need to help as much as possible. What ultimately stops Minerva is Finn’s history as a hero in Ooo, and when Minerva sees how a dangerous world shaped her son to be a Helper like her, she realizes that venturing outside the limits of Founders’ Island isn’t the horrible thing she presumes it to be.
The humans like Finn’s idea of leaving Founders’ Island, but they’re too cowardly to follow through. Finn, Jake, Frieda, and Susan work together to make it past the Guardian by tricking him with Minerva’s simulation and then reprogramming him, granting them safe passage across the ocean. Frieda and Susan decide to go off on their own to create new memories together, while Finn, Jake, and BMO head back to their old setting to continue their usual high jinks.
Islands ends with a bittersweet moment between Finn and Minerva as Finn ventures back into the VR world to get a glimpse of his childhood home and give his mom a hug, and it’s a beautiful scene that brings a lot of emotional weight to the miniseries’ conclusion. Finn has this moment of connection that he’s been longing for his entire life, but then he has to leave his mother behind once the ship gets out of range of the VR signal. He says goodbye as a tear streams down his cheek, and even though there’s an undeniable sadness in this departure, Finn leaves his mother with a better idea of who he is, where he came from, and what he can be.
- I love that the Islands title cards look like Polaroids.
- The designs for the humans on Founders’ Island are delightfully imaginative. So many fun shapes, colors, patterns, and silhouettes.
- Jake eats BMO poop.
- The Minerva-bots’ creepy syringe fingers do a really good job of adding a sinister quality to robots that are there solely to help people.
- There’s some very impressive detail in Frieda’s toy store. No wonder BMO is so delighted to get in there.
- Thing that the humans of Founders’ Island find really scary: bees, germs, frogs, and crowds. They wouldn’t last a day in the greater Ooo.
- “Minerva’s into helping people, just like you! She musta’ gave you her helper genes as DNA up in her womb with your placenta.”
- “I love you man, but your mom’s a hundred robo-clones.”
- “Did you see the simulation? You die. Let’s watch it again.”
- “Awkward feelings averted. Let’s have some soup!”
- “Your world seems so chaotic. Your ruler’s a piece of gun. Your friend’s a vampire. You dated a bit of fire!”
- “Be a good boy and get in this machine so we can juice up your precious essence.”
- Finn: “You! Do you know that you have free will?” Human: “Is—is that what you’re selling?” (Finn slaps drink out of his hand.)
- “Say goodbye to your meat bodies!”