Women and girls make up a significant portion of Adventure Time’s audience, and over time, the series has devoted more and more time to its female characters, turning Princess Bubblegum, Flame Princess, Lumpy Space Princess, and Marceline The Vampire Queen into complex characters with their own distinct personalities, motivations, and flaws. Since returning from a five-month hiatus, the show has placed extra emphasis on the women in the cast; the seventh season began with episodes spotlighting Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, and Cherry Cream Soda, and this week sees the premiere of Adventure Time’s first spin-off miniseries: the Marceline-centric Stakes.
Marceline has undergone a dramatic evolution since her early days as Finn and Jake’s cool, mischievous frenemy. The tragedy of her life’s story, which begins in the ruins of the Great Mushroom War that ushers in the nuclear apocalypse, makes her one of the show’s most heartbreaking figures, a quality best exemplified by season five’s “I Remember You,” a tearjerker that takes the cartoon to emotional heights it has yet to top. The eight-part Stakes delves further into Marceline’s past, but her pre-vampire life doesn’t get as much attention as her present-day fight against five bloodsuckers who have been released from her body after centuries of imprisonment.
Unleashing these villains on Ooo is an unexpected side effect of Bubblegum curing Marceline of her vampirism, giving Marceline the opportunity to literally slay the demons of her past so that she can mature. The miniseries is at its strongest when it looks at vampirism as a metaphor for depression, but that aspect of the narrative only comes into play at the beginning and end. The middle episodes don’t push the metaphor as heavily, instead featuring more straightforward plots where Marceline and her vampire-slaying friends go after each of her demons one-by-one. Those chapters are still plenty entertaining, particularly because the writers incorporate lots of comedy into the vampire hunt, but they lack the substance of the episodes that more directly address how these mythical beings relate to Marceline’s mental and emotional state.
Adventure Time consistently impresses with its voice casting, and Stakes is no exception. The vampire gang includes Paul Williams as the melodramatically old-fashioned Hierophant, Rebecca Romijn as the stuck-up seductress Empress Eyes, Ron Funches as the goofy, dim-witted Fool, and Billy Brown as the authoritative Vampire King, and the new characters’ personalities are quickly solidified by the guest stars’ expressive performances. The main cast is as strong as ever, and Olivia Olson anchors the miniseries with her nuanced work for Marceline, navigating the character’s emotional journey with subtlety and style.
Like “I Remember You,” Stakes features a poignant song by Rebecca Sugar, the former Adventure Time composer, writer, and storyboard artist that left the series to launch her own hit show, Steven Universe. Originally sung to Marceline by her mother, “Everything Stays” is a bittersweet lullaby about the inevitability of change, preparing young Marceline for the millennia of change she’ll witness as an immortal vampire. Olson brings a mournful quality to the song when Marceline reprises it later, and the combination of her somber vocals with Sugar’s delicate songwriting gives the song a quiet power that highlights the importance of this melody in Marceline’s story.
“Everything Stays” is also the name of Stakes’ second episode, a chapter that introduces the villainous vampire quintet through a series of flashbacks showing Marceline’s growth from child survivor to vampire slayer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, providing glimpses of her doomed relationships with her mother and her best friend Simon along the way. These flashbacks are the most intriguing parts of the entire miniseries, but they don’t get as much focus as they deserve. The flashbacks have a darker tone than the present-day action, and while the majority of the miniseries feels very much like the Adventure Time norm, “Everything Stays” has writers Adam Muto and Hanna K. Nyström using Marceline’s past to give Stakes a distinct identity.
Unfortunately, it’s Muto and Nyström’s only episode and they have lots of ground to cover in 10 minutes, so these flashbacks are just quick snapshots of Marceline’s formative experiences. Rushing through those past events is a missed opportunity to offer a more comprehensive look at where Marceline comes from and how those circumstances have shaped her, and Stakes loses steam when it moves away from the introspective personal elements of the past to detail Marceline and her friends’ vampire hunting adventure in the present.