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Adventure Time has become this era’s finest coming-of-age story

A gorgeous new miniseries shows off the kids' series' emotional maturity.

Marceline's back-story is the center of Adventure Time's first miniseries, Stakes.
Marceline's back-story is the center of Adventure Time's first miniseries, Stakes.
Cartoon Network
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 15 through 21, 2015, is the eight-part Adventure Time miniseries Stakes.

Is Adventure Time the best coming-of-age story of our time? It's certainly the best TV version of that perpetually popular theme, and it stacks up incredibly well against stories in other media as well.

Over its seven seasons, it's watched as protagonist Finn (the only human being left on its candy-coated, post-apocalyptic Earth now known as Ooo) has grown from boy to almost-man, an adolescent who's slowly figuring out how to be both a good friend and a good person. And as the show has grown, it's also lavished time and attention on its two major female characters, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. (Those of you with a low tolerance for whimsy can probably take the preceding sentence as a sign that it's time to back out of this article slowly.)

But everybody on Adventure Time is growing up in one way or another. Though the show features seemingly dozens of immortals, they're all growing and changing, lest they become stagnant. Even Jake the dog (Finn's closest companion) has moved from happy wanderer to something like adulthood.

The closest thing Adventure Time has to a moral message is this: Change is good. Growth is good. Supporting others' growth is good. And accepting others when they need to change is the best thing you can do. The only thing that's bad is stasis. And nowhere was that more apparent than in Stakes, the program's first miniseries.

Stakes offers a backstory for the show's most mysterious character

In a way, it's amazing Adventure Time has gotten this far without explaining the full story of Marceline. When she first appeared in season one, she was more akin to a trickster god than any character, and even though she's developed impressive shading over the seasons, she's still often a superpowered force of nature.

Stakes, then, aims to fill in fans' most persistent questions about Marceline. How did she become a vampire? Where did her powers come from? Did she and Princess Bubblegum have a relationship in the past? (That latter one has been answered outside the continuity of the show, but fans would love to see it acknowledged within the show as well.)

The way it handles answering those questions is at once a little clunky and suitably epic. Much of the eight-part story (which ultimately runs around an hour and a half) involves Marceline confronting her past, via either flashbacks or the ghosts of vampires she killed before she became one herself literally haunting her. Plus, the need to have every single one of the eight sections tell a story in and of itself makes the overall story veer all over the place. It's less a cohesive whole than a bunch of short stories that feel as if they accidentally add up to something bigger.

The flashbacks, in particular, could stop the story cold. Fortunately, Marceline is a millennium old, and Adventure Time has a surprisingly deep mythology for a kids' show that lasts 11 minutes per episode. There are enough touchstones from Marceline's past — like her demon father and human mother, or the time she spent in the care of a man named Simon (later to become the show's main villain, the Ice King) in the immediate wake of the nuclear apocalypse — that the miniseries can nod toward any one of them and coast off the emotions those character beats have elicited in the past.

But the far richer material stems from Marceline's decision to ask Princess Bubblegum (Ooo's finest science whiz) to take away her vampire side and return her to mortality. Marceline's vampirism has always been of the kid-friendly variety — she drinks the color red, rather than blood — but the more we learn about the character's past, the more it becomes clear that it's also a kind of curse. Marceline is frozen, and that's induced a coldness in her. And Ooo abhors coldness. (Did I mention the villain is named the Ice King?)

Stakes is rich with metaphor

In a fall rich with TV characters struggling with depression, it's arguable Marceline should be added to the list, if only metaphorically. Her vampire nature keeps her from getting too close to people, and it dulls almost all of her emotions, from fear to love. It also can make her a little snide and cutting, though, again, this is a show aimed at kids, so she's never that big of a jerk.

This means that Stakes' most disappointing decision — when it returns Marceline to being a vampire after having her spend most of the miniseries as a human — makes more sense when considered metaphorically. After all, those who suffer from depression don't simply decide to banish it and find themselves whole again. They can medicate it or treat it via therapy or other methods. But they can't pour it out into a bucket, as Marceline does with her "vampire juice."

What Stakes depicts, then, is a time when Marceline is able to get better in touch with her humanity, so that she can try to cling to it more successfully while she's vampired out. For all of Adventure Time's weird whimsy and moments of puerile humor (a character bids farewell, amusingly, with a quick, "Hasta luego, turds!"), the series works so well because its storytelling grounds the important emotional realizations of a coming of age story in fantastical, even epic storytelling.

It would be one thing to tell the story of a depressed teenage girl realizing that she can count on her friends when things start to fall apart. It's quite another to couch all of that in metaphor, so that depression becomes vampirism, and the friends include a magic dog and princess, and the girl's quest becomes one to re-vanquish vampires she defeated long, long ago. In that way, Adventure Time honors the greatest traditions of genre storytelling — it can be incredibly direct about these things by pretending it's talking about something else entirely.

Those who just want to watch some friends go on a goofy adventure, then, can get that, but those who go digging will find the show's melancholic, lovely emotional core. And everybody should be able to key into the miniseries' final moments, as the characters' stories resolve over a beautiful song by former Adventure Time staffer (and creator of Steven Universe, Cartoon Network's other great kids' cartoon) Rebecca Sugar.

Titled "Everything Stays," the song suggests just that. If you're not able to deal with something right now, it's okay to leave it aside. Part of growing up is knowing when you're not ready to do something and when it's time to face it head on. Until that point, though, go ahead and step away for a little bit. It'll stay right where you put it.

Adventure Time airs new episodes on Cartoon Network, somewhat sporadically. It's best to check listings. Previous episodes are available on Hulu and Cartoon Network's website.