Essays · TV

‘Adventure Time’ and the Art of the Series Finale

TV’s finest “kids’ show” ended with an exquisite and grown-up lesson in closure and acceptance.
Adventure Time Finale Header Art
By  · Published on February 18th, 2019

This piece contains serious spoilers for the Adventure Time series finale. If you haven’t watched it yet, I strongly suggest you do. Go on. It’s 45 minutes long.  It’s on Hulu. And it’s one of the best treats you can give yourself.

Have you watched it? Good. Come along with me.

In 2007, Pendleton Ward created Adventure Time as a short for Nickelodeon. It was a creative and joyful expression of art at the heart of mid-2000s randomcore. In 2010, it found a home as a series on Cartoon Network, where over the course of 10 seasons it evolved into one of the most emotionally satisfying, artistically innovative shows on television.

In the fall of 2018, it ended. And it ended perfectly.

The 45-minute special “Come Along With Me” clocks in at four times the length of a normal episode, but with every 11 minutes, it shifts gears to a different hallmark of what makes the show so special: high interpersonal drama, trippy dream sequences, magical lore, and musical pathos.

It’s a lovely touch in a world that’s always been governed by four elements. These four elements tell a single story about “the end of Ooo,” narrated from the distant future. It’s a beautiful and cripplingly emotional episode. Finn grows up. Lovers reunite and come together for the first time. Not everyone survives.

Come Along With Me

But while the loose ends of the present are the most pressing, the episode also delights in references from the past and glimpses into the far-flung future, encouraging joyful speculation even if it comes without the promise of explanation.

It’s a celebration of both the fluidity and the unceasingness of time, and it’s expressed beautifully in the song “Time Adventure,” written by Rebecca Sugar. Here’s the song in its entirety within the episode. (And here’s the album version. If you haven’t heard it, I’d encourage you to listen and have a good cry when Jake comes in alone on the last line).

If you don’t feel like listening, here are the lyrics:

Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense
It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then, singing
‘Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And will happen again and again’
’Cause you and I will always be back then.

BMO sings this song to Jake near the end of the episode, when their home has been destroyed and chaos reigns. We the audience don’t know if the world is ending or not, but we know for a fact that the show is. For the characters, and for us, it’s urging for the peaceful acceptance of the transience of things.

It’s been years since Adventure Time slipped its already shaky classification as a “children’s show,” but this song teaches a lesson that everyone, especially the adults who’ve grown into it, can learn from. Things end, yes, but that makes their having happened no less real.

BMO Come Along With Me

BMO’s song winds up serving as a weapon, as our heroes harmonizing together staves off the forces of chaos and discord. Within the show, accepting the end actually averts it. But for the audience, the end of the episode — and of the series — remains inevitable, and the lesson we’ve learned is a vital weapon in our own struggle against despair.

The song continues:

If there was some amazing force outside of time
To take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we could see it all
It would look like ‘will happen, happening, happened…’

Of course, that’s exactly how Adventure Time exists: as a billion tiny frames that you can play again and again, in whatever order you choose, until your DVDs burn out or you stop paying your Hulu subscription. It’s comforting to know that, as far as we the audience are concerned, time really is an illusion, and we need never stop watching.

But that’s not what’s at the heart of the song, and it’s not what we feel as we watch. In the moment it’s a moving message for these characters we’ve come to think of as real, and for our own lives. It’s a meditation on the nature of time itself, an insistence that everything that’s happened exists somewhere and so can never truly end.

And if nothing ends, what is a finale, really? That’s something that makes “Come Along With Me” so special — it’s an ending that fully acknowledges its identity as such, but at the same time it understands the contrivance of such a thing.

This is expressed masterfully in the episode’s framing device, set a thousand years in the future, in which BMO, unchanged and living as the self-styled King of Ooo, narrates “the end of the world.”

Adventure Time BMO

BMO’s house is packed to the gills with treasures from the series, a veritable Easter egg hunt in a sea of nostalgia, and the knowledge that these things are from the past weighs the mood heavy with loss. Outside, things have changed almost beyond recognition, and the sense that time marches on is strong.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since time advances, that also means life continues. These tiny glimpses into the future raise innumerable questions that will likely never be answered. Questions like: How did the Ice Thing lose his body? And how is Jake’s grandson Gibbon coping with the madness of the crown’s gem?

Adventure Time Come Along With Me

But there’s a comfort to be found in that open-endedness. It means that, even if we can’t see it, things in Ooo will carry on. There are no real endings, just the ends of stories. BMO’s tale about the end of the world finishes peacefully — there’s heartbreak and loss, yes, but most of the characters are safe and sound. When asked what happened to them next, BMO shrugs and says “they kept living their lives.”

And so they did. We see it in how the landscape and characters have evolved in the far future, and in how our friends in the present continue after the “end.”

The latter is conveyed in a gorgeous final montage, set to LAKE’s “Island Song,” the brief end-credit music that, for the first time in eight years, plays in full. The montage shows just what BMO describes — the characters of Adventure Time, some we love dearly and some we haven’t thought about in years, living their lives.

Adventure Time Come Along With Me

It’s unspeakably comforting to see Ooo carry on like this, in its happy, recognizable ways.

And even the far-off future, strange though it may be, is familiar. The audience for BMO’s story are Shermy and Beth, stars of a new intro and a weird but recognizable reprise of Finn and Jake.

Are Shermy and Beth literal or just spiritual reiterations of our favorite heroes? Who knows. Reincarnation is a provable fact in Ooo, so anything is possible. But who they are and who they’ve been hardly matters. They’re adventurers, they have a new sword, and they will always be best friends.

Everything will happen again and again.

Shermy and Beth

“Come Along With Me” might very well be the perfect series finale. It knows what its audience loves, and it delivers it in just the right amounts. It understands that it’s a finale, and it uses that status to tie up loose ends and deliver the ultimate emotional impact while it does it. But it also acknowledges that endings are artificial and it assures us that, even if we can’t see it anymore, Ooo is carrying on just fine in the past, present, and future.

It’s a celebration of the minuteness and the vastness of life that leaves us with a simultaneous hope and exquisite sadness, a nostalgia for what’s ended and complete satisfaction that it was at all.

We’re lucky to have had Adventure Time at all, and we’re extraordinarily lucky to have seen it end the way that it did — flawlessly.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)