In retrospect, the thought that Adventure Time might have had an actual, definitive ending feels silly.
By its fourth season, the show had rapidly lost interest in telling a single story about its central quartet of Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum and Ice King, and sprawled outward to the point where no single episode could possibly wrap up every ongoing thread. Would Ice King ever find his way back to being the unmutated scientist Simon Petrikov? Would Finn and Princess Bubblegum ever get together? (Or, more importantly, would Finn ever be in a healthy relationship, period?) Was Sweet P ever going to need to do battle with The Lich dwelling inside of him?
The final season of Adventure Time does have a valedictory feeling in that it addresses a few of these running plots, but the show was never leading to a real “conclusion,” at least not narratively. So it makes sense that while “Come Along With Me,” the four-part series finale, engages with a few of these questions, it’s content to leave many of them unanswered, which feels like the right choice.
Here’s what actually happens in “Come Along With Me”: Princess Bubblegum’s war with her Uncle Gumbald reaches a fever pitch, until some dream-based struggle allows the pair of candy people to realize they don’t need to resolve their differences through violence. Betty’s attempt to cure Ice King dovetails with Maja the Sky Witch to summon GOLB, the closest thing Adventure Time has to an evil god. Led by BMO and the power of song, the heroes prevail and avert the apocalypse. There are slightly higher stakes than normal, but Adventure Time had done a “fate of the world” type plot before. For the most part, the finale was just another adventure.
From one perspective, that story seems a bit small, especially for a goodbye. Princess Bubblegum’s war with Uncle Gumbald is a decent fantasy conflict, but it doesn’t have anything approaching the sweep of Finn’s battle with The Lich, or the apocalyptic sense of the catalyst comet. Though he’s mentioned as early as the second season, Gumbald isn’t fully introduced as an antagonist until the season eight finale, with only 15 episodes left to go. There’s just no way he could carry the weight of the entire show’s history, and “Come Along With Me” doesn’t ask him to. The Gumball War is transitory, like the sort of plot that would come in the penultimate season before the real showdown. That’s the whole point.
Some fans might feel shorted by this approach, understandably — they’ve been promised a story about the end of Ooo. The frame device of “Come Alone With Me” puts the viewer in the paws of Beth and Shermy, two new characters in a future version of Ooo who have taken on the adventuring mantle of Finn and Jake. (Beth, nicknamed the “Pup Princess,” is almost certainly intended to be a descendant of Jake and Lady Rainicorn.) Early in the finale, the pair meet the King of Ooo: BMO, who agrees to tell them about the end of everything. But everyone should know better than to take BMO at their word. That’s never really what the story was about; after all, Beth and Shermy are there, in Ooo. The payoff isn’t a cataclysm, it’s that stuff just kind of kept happening, and eventually Beth and Shermy got to do their own junk.
At every turn, Adventure Time went bigger with the world-building. If a side character showed up for one episode — say, a quasi-human named Susan Strong or a guy made out of Root Beet — they would come back in unexpected ways, because they were part of the fabric of Ooo. Any time Finn and Jake were out killing monsters, Princess Bubblegum was somewhere doing science, Peppermint Butler was experimenting with dark magic, and Lumpy Space Princess was off shaking her lumps. At any time, any of those characters could pop in without suggesting that their lives were only important when they were in the spotlight. Adventure Time was never a serial story with an endpoint. In fact, it was never really about Finn and Jake; at least not in the sense that the show needed them around to continue.
By the end of the show’s run, almost any side character could carry an episode of Adventure Time, a fact the show underlined with several one-off episodes about other characters and surprising groupings. (Consider “Root Beer Guy,” an episode far more interested in the title character’s marital problems and desire to write crime fiction than it is Finn, Jake, and Princess Bubblegum’s background plotting.) Then, there were episodes where Finn started to realize the world was much bigger than just his own biz — in particular, season six’s “Astral Plane,” in which Finn’s contemplation about birth and sacrifice is spurred by spiritual travel designed to show off the sheer scope of existence. The show without Finn and Jake would definitely be different, but it would still recognizably be Adventure Time.
Instead, it’s more helpful to think if Finn and Jake as characters created to communicate a mood. The show was less about any given fight, or even any given character, and more about, as Music Hole puts it, “a really specific feeling that’s hard to describe.” Music Hole sends off the show with a performance of some music she wrote about that feeling: “The Island Song,” the show’s ending credits song and the source of the title of the episode.
“The Island Song” plays over a montage of moments that put buttons on the arcs of many of Adventure Time’s minor characters: Maja the Sky Witch’s Crabbit Familiar finally puts on a dance recital, with a giddy ogre Donny in the audience; Jake’s son T.V. opens a detective agency; Magic Man wistfully settles down to rule Mars; Lemonhope continues adventuring by himself; and the new Gunther-Ice King puts on a puppet show for Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. These are the ending of some stories, but they’re the beginning of new ones, too.
So yes, it makes sense that some people will feel frustrated with “Come Along With Me.” It focuses squarely on the warmth and attention to intimacy at the heart of Adventure Time, rather than dizzying spectacle or surreal humor. BMO literally saves the day with music, which is a corny plot resolution if ever I’ve seen one. And even some of the more exciting moments, like Bubblegum and Marceline finally getting back together, or the quick glimpse of an enormous Sweet P carrying Finn’s Night Sword far into Ooo’s future, work more by confirming that life goes on, rather than by showing off anything particularly mathematical. By focusing on this payoff — years of communicating that what’s important isn’t the adventure itself, but the people you’re with and the feeling it gives you — Adventure Time put itself in a position to open up the future of Ooo to all of those other moods, other tones, other perspectives (and to countless comic books, video games, and other media that can effortlessly accommodate the show’s way of seeing).
Any given episode of the show could have appealed to one or several of Adventure Time’s many audiences, and in the face of having to pick one, the show’s writers decided to focus on the choice itself. “Come along with me” is a reference to the lyrics of “The Island Song,” but it’s also an invitation to adventure, whatever that means to you. Aw, yeah.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, and other publications, and the author of a book on board games forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019.