Looking back, the first two installments of Distant Lands, HBO Max’s four-part follow-up to Cartoon Network’s animated odyssey Adventure Time, are easy to map onto the show’s existing structure. Released last June, BMO was essentially a 45-minute version of one of the stories from “Five Short Graybles,” following one of the show’s beloved side characters on a far-flung adventure to the farthest reaches of its expansive universe. Obsidian, by contrast, served as a sequel to episodes like “Simon And Marcy,” delving into the backstory of fan favorite Marceline The Vampire Queen, while also giving her a well-earned happy ending. But the most recent special, Together Again—ostensibly designed to reunite fans of the show with protagonists Finn and Jake, missing in action since the series proper ended—is a much trickier and more complicated enterprise. It’s a shell game of sorts, designed to keep its characters, and its viewers, from looking too closely at its actual goals before the trap is ready to be sprung.
The con is on from the special’s opening moments, with the sudden return, after two absent specials, of that legendary title sequence and its endlessly catchy theme tune: Adventure Time! Come on, grab your friends—even if your friends are looking a little older, and a little more tired of the adventure, this time through the chaos. And certainly, there’s a rote, mechanical weariness to the special’s opening moments, as Finn The Human and Jake The Dog punch their way through yet another set of absurdist obstacles in service of yet another LOL-random goal—in this case, a crew of ice cream people guarding special ice cream in their lair made of ice cream—while Finn cheerfully yells math-based catchphrases, and Jake seems so, so incredibly weary of it all.
No time for thinking about that, though, because, wouldn’t you know it, the Ice King is back to his old tricks. Although, didn’t he give up the crown in “Come Along With Me?” And weren’t these princesses a little too easy to save? And isn’t it kind of strange the way, every time there’s a lull in the action that might allow thought or feeling to creep in, another brightly colored crisis comes along to distract Finn from the ache that’s eating him up inside? The opening minutes of Together Again are essentially Adventure Time in miniature, as written by someone who didn’t like Adventure Time very much, or at least never really knew what it was beyond the GIFs and memes it was always easiest to boil the series down to. Because while Together Again takes its early cues from, and clearly has a certain affection for, the show’s vision of a fantasy world where every day is an 11-year-old kid’s first day of summer vacation, the real inspirations being drawn from here aren’t the fun, “Let’s punch a bad guy” episodes. No, we’re working here in the vein of the weird episodes of Adventure Time. The scary ones. The confusing ones, filled with strange Freudian dream language and the neutral certainty of death. That part of the show, reflected throughout its run in episodes like “King Worm,” “The Vault,” and more, is the sort of thing that’s hard to fit on a T-shirt. But it’s a vital part of the series’ DNA, one that Distant Lands has so far left untapped, and it’s refreshing to see that darkness get its day in the light here.
At the center of it all, fittingly enough, is the relationship between Finn and Jake, an expression of heartfelt bro-ness that’s nevertheless always found strain in the pair’s divergent visions of a happy life. Finn matured over the series’ run, yes, but he’s never lost the base desire to spend his life leaping in and punching things for justice, ideally with his brother at his side. Jake, meanwhile, is stealthily one of the most dynamic (and domestic) characters in American animation, picking up a long-term partner, kids, and a far more relaxed view on hero-ing over the series’ 11-year existence. At their best, the two balance each other out, with Jake keeping Finn from rushing headlong into dangerous situations, and Finn keeping Jake from letting his patience flatten out into laziness. At their worst…well, Together Again tackles that, too.
As a special, this new installment lacks the deep, conclusive satisfaction provided by something like Obsidian. (Its setting rivals BMO in inventiveness and strangeness, though, especially once Finn really starts exploring the reality that he and Jake find themselves trapped within.) There’s a sense, too, that the allure of having Finn and Jake back together, beating up bad guys, might have been a little too seductive to the show’s producers, blunting some of the existential horror that makes the darkest Adventure Time episodes so compelling. That, in turn, feeds into a feeling that has run through all three extant Distant Lands specials, the sense that a conscious decision has been made to not blow things out completely, in terms of the cosmic horror and weirdness this series is capable of—although Together Again comes closer to it than either of the previous two installments. (It’s also low-key probably the funniest installment, including a very dark gag about reincarnation that felt perfectly of a piece with the series’ love for one-shot, unhappy weirdos.)
And, honestly, we’re not made of stone here: There’s a part of us that’s always going to respond to the sight of these two guys cracking jokes and kicking butt, clearly having the times of their lives. To say nothing of the show’s voice cast—getting to hear Jeremy Shada, John DiMaggio, Maria Bamford, Tom Scharpling, Jeff Bennett, Andy Daly, Isabelle Fuhrman, and more all reprising Adventure Time’s incredibly wide array of silly characters is one of Together Again’s most easily accessible joys. That goes doubly for one last appearance by sassy old lady Tree Trunks, whose actor, Polly Lou Livingston, died earlier this year. At the end of the day, the special argues, Finn and Jake should be together for the simple reason that it’s fun when they’re together. It’s a hard argument to refute.