Adventure Time has never been a show afraid to push its limits, and season 5 is arguably where Cartoon Network’s landmark series experiments with narratives the most. The substantial 52-episode season more takes more opportunities than ever before to wade into serious territory and explore the background of its characters and its world, while our central characters Finn and Jake are left facing some of the challenges of growing up for better and for worse.
For me the season’s tone is set by its two part opening “Finn the Human” and “Jake the Dog,” which are themselves following up on the fourth season’s dire cliffhanger involving the return of the malevolent Lich. The villain makes his way through a dimensional portal to the domain of Prismo, a seemingly omniscient (and two-dimensional) being that will grant any wish to his visitors – albeit with an “ironic twist” for the careless. Being the evil creature he is, the Lich makes a doomsday wish before Finn and Jake can stop him, leaving them no other option but to make a wish to undo the damage. Finn responds by wishing the Lich out of existence completely, resulting in an alternate reality where the apocalypse that creates Ooo happens in a different way that goes very badly for the normalized Finn. The peril of unintended consequences is played thoroughly seriously, lightened mostly by the contrasting humor of Jake being slow to see the situation for what it is from the safety of Prismo’s chamber. The theme of being careful for what you wish for was well used a generation before Adventure Time came along, but as with nearly everything else the show does, its execution is flawless here.
This fifth season certainly has its share of standalone quirky adventures, and they’re as entertaining as they’ve ever been. “Shh!” is a highlight episode that largely eschews dialogue as Finn and Jake compete to see who can go the longest without saying a word. In addition to freaking out the unaware BMO, it’s a great exercise in telling a story through action on screen. “Mystery Dungeon” is the rare episode that puts aside Finn and Jake in favor of spotlighting the Ice King and a ragtag group of secondary characters as they work together to escape a perilous labyrinth in one piece, while “Sky Witch” does it again in favor of exploring the bond of friendship between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum. Also memorable is “James Baxter the Horse”, a tribute to the titular British animator that went the extra mile by having the man himself voice and animate the joy-bringing, beach ball-riding horse at the center of the adventure. My personal favorite of the goofier episodes would have to be “Time Sandwich,” where the trickster Magic Man returns to torment Jake by swiping his “perfect sandwich, ultimately receiving his deserved comeuppance thanks to Jake’s circle of friends. It’s a basic and absurd episode to be sure, but the satisfying payoff to it all never gets old.
In addition to the oddball fare we’ve come to expect though, this is also a season where Adventure Time carries out a number of smaller story arcs. “Mystery Dungeon,” “All Your Fault,” “Too Old,” and the two-part “Lemonhope” form the core of a bizarre saga involving the unhinged Earl Lemongrab as he and his clone mismanage their domain to the breaking point, after which one of the pair becomes dominant and rules the whole place with an iron fist. Enter “Lemonhope,” starring a seemingly docile Lemon Kingdom citizen rescued by Finn and Bubblegum who then undertakes a classic hero’s journey, going from an immature and disinterested youth to someone with empathy for those he left behind during his time adventuring on his own. In addition to addressing the trouble with Lemongrab, the show also remembers the Ice King with the standout episodes “Simon and Marcy” and “Betty,” which offer further looks at Ooo’s postapocalyptic past and the Ice King’s inexorable descent into insanity as Simon Petrokov looking out for a very young Marceline. “Betty” also takes the bold step of revealing just what becomes of the love of his life and connects the truth of that revelation to the present day, hopefully setting the stage for more resonant adventures for this subject down the line.
Of course Finn and Jake are the main stars of Adventure Time, and both get plenty of narrative focus themselves. Jake is served one of the finest episodes of the season in “Jake the Dad,” which manages to simultaneously poke fun at and pay tribute to concerned parenthood as Jake runs himself ragged caring for the five newborn children he sired with Lady Rainicorn. With a little help from dubious notes left by his mother, Jake is driven by love and ever-escalating paranoia to shield his children from anything potentially harmful, up to and including an innocuous picture book over a “bad word.” Jake’s protectiveness is taken farcical extremes, and yet there’s something relatable and admirable in his actions that I think parents and those who appreciate them can recognize. “One Last Job” is a worthy follow up to the episode that comes off as Adventure Time crossed over with Ocean’s Eleven, as Jake is blackmailed into reuniting with an unsavory bunch from his past to pull off a heist for the sake of his supposedly kidnapped daughter. It’s a good episode just to see Jake take the lead in navigating dungeon-like perils instead of Finn, and the ending twist is an amusing surprise.
As for Finn, for better and for worse our boy spends the season with growing pains that culminate in the season finale “Billy’s Bucket List,” where an earnest attempt to pay tribute to the fallen hero leads to a major revelation that Finn’s father is alive and out there waiting to be found. But that pales compared to the angst Finn brings on himself when his relationship with Flame Princess is botched in “Fire and Ice,” where Finn manipulates her into fighting the Ice King in part because he enjoys it and in part because he thinks this event is the trigger for a prophetic dream from the Cosmic Owl. Naturally the truth gets out, and while the resulting rift between the two is healed in subsequent adventures, there’s no easy fix to go back to the way things were. For some fans, I know this resembles a frustrating commitment to keeping Finn troubled or at least moving him away from the rambunctious personality of the earlier seasons. However, while I admit preference for a happier Finn, I don’t think the program is out of line or choosing to get into this area carelessly. The fact of the matter is that Finn is a teenager after all, and not exactly at an ideal age to settle into a relationship. I also approve of the implicit message that there are problems that can’t be quickly and easily fixed even with an apology. Adventure Time may be a comedy, but it’s not one to use its genre as an excuse to deny that actions have consequences we have to live with.
Season 5 of Adventure Time is a shift from the prior Blu-ray releases in a mostly good way. The season is double the length of the prior four and its 52 episodes are evenly distributed across two discs, but with an asking price of just a few dollars more, this release delivers unrivaled value. Regrettably this is also the first time audio commentaries are entirely absent, which is a surprising shift from the practice of including them for every episode on prior sets. This is no bare bones release though, as they’ve compensated by including animatic clips for a specific scene from every episode. Meanwhile those looking for commentary get something with the featurette “Adventure Time Forever,” a fifteen minute retrospective of the show’s conception and creative development with remarks from the series’ many creative staff.
The only caveat I’ll give to season 5 of Adventure Time is that this season is a poor starting place; at the least an interested viewer should begin by picking up the fourth season and seeing that first in order to best appreciate it. All in all, in relative terms season 5 gets my vote for the most serious season so far and the one most interested in sustaining a measure of continuity to hold the interest of long-time fans. However if the program is less innocent these days, it’s nonetheless still one of the most imaginative and fun cartoons around and leaves an impression that its most interesting days are likely still to come.