Friday, February 22, 2013

Analysis: Adventure Time: Goliad

Adventure Time, Season 4, Episode 10: Goliad
Original airdate, June 4, 2012
This is a reprint of an article written in Summer, 2012.

"I Was Afraid This Might Happen" ~or~ "It's My Way Or The Highway, Gob-Globbit" - An analysis of the Adventure Time episode, "Goliad"

Adventure Time is the remarkable television series from Pendleton Ward and Cartoon Network. It is that rare show that easily appeals to kids and adults alike, possessing a complex and nuanced continuity and quality of character-based storytelling unlike any other animated series on the air. Here I analyze one notable recent episode, "Goliad."

"Goliad" starts with Finn and Jake being summoned to the Candy Kingdom: Princess Bubblegum, spurred on by her prior near-fatal encounter with The Lich, and after more than 80 hours with no sleep, has created an heir to the Throne to rule over her Kingdom when she someday dies. Creating living things is old hat for the superscientist-monarch, and she has outdone herself with Goliad, a large, immortal sphinx-like creature forged from Bubblegum's own DNA. Goliad introduces herself to Finn and Jake with the voice and casual innocence of a small child. Despite the exertion and sleeplessness, Bubblegum wants to start teaching the being about leadership - Goliad was designed to be smart, literally scary-smart. Fearing for Bubblegum's health, Finn and Jake intervene, offering to teach Goliad all they know. Bubblegum agrees, and sleeps. Finn and Jake go out into the world with a genetic nuclear bomb.

While Finn builds an obstacle course to physically develop Goliad, Jake takes her to a nearby pre-school to learn some basics. Instead she is witness to a school of really, truly terrible, misbehaved youths. After the kids try to eat Jake's brain, Jake looses his cool. Goliad sees this as a valuable lesson in leadership: To get the kids through the obstacle course, she immediately reverts to bully tactics, yelling and intimidation. Finn implores her to not be heavy handed and authoritarian, but to use her brain. At this point, a third eye emerges from Goliad's head. She telekenetically freezes Finn and forces him through the obstacle course, an act that is clearly physically and mentally traumatic to a young hero who has been shown accustomed to physical and mental trauma. To this point Goliad has been seen as wide-eyed to the world and a bit over-eager, not intentionally dangerous. She took control of Finn's body and mind, forced him through against his will because this was the quickest, most efficient way - she has no concept of the pain she caused, or of the ramifications of bypassing Free Will in such a manner.

Finn, gasping: "You can't just control people or whatever, it's messed up." And here, the turn. Without hesitation, without a shred of doubt, Goliad answers simply, serenely, "No, Finn, this way is good. Everyone did what I wanted. Really fast, no mistakes, calm, like you said. This, definitely, is the way to lead." Goliad is no mere overgrown child fumbling her way through a strange, new world: she is a being of immense mental and physical power with no regard for choice or the well-being of those under her, where there is no concept of the end not justifying the means because there are no means, only the end. She is completely certain of the righteousness of her actions because she is achieving the ultimate goal of peaceful leadership, not just the imperative of the potential ruler but her genetic imperative, the very thing Bubblegum created her for.

Upon hearing Goliad's counter-argument of peace through control, no matter how morally repugnant, Finn does not immediately reject it as evil. He stumbles, and questions "No, no, wait, is that true?" Finn has a very well-defined moral code and an utterly unshakable sense of right and wrong. When confronted with this new reality of peace through absolute power, absolute control, Finn sees a shade of grey and for the first time in the series he is stopped in his moral tracks. We, the audience, are not given an answer and must work through the myriad issues of the use of power and free will ourselves (few television shows have the fortitude, intelligence, and faith in the audience to pull this off, just some of Adventure Time's many qualities).

We cut to the heroes who track down Bubblegum and inform her of what has happened. Bubblegum responds to news of Goliad's sudden embrace of authoritarianism through mind-control with an astonishing and revelatory resignation, "I was afraid this might happen." She confronts Goliad, who is now far beyond her ability to control, and attempts to reason with the creature, to introduce a more sympathetic, empathetic philosophy of rule. Bubblegum shows Goliad a bee and it's symbiotic relationship with the flower: the bee gets what it wants, the flower gets what it wants.

But Goliad cannot be persuaded, she has found the Answer to the Question of Rule and it is Control, and the right to rule is hers by virtue of her Power. There is nothing else to consider, not safety or happiness or choice. Goliad, with the same sense of serenity that comes from knowledge of pure righteousness, pure power, takes the bee: "Bee cares not for flower. If getting pollen hurt or kill flower, bee would not care. Bee is stronger than flower." She crushes the bee. "Goliad is stronger than bee." She resurrects the bee. "Goliad is stronger than all." This is a frightening display of the universal corruption of Power. This is Might Makes Right, the true story of Power in every System.

Bubblegum, thinking to herself, sees that Goliad is simply too powerful, "too far gone, too corrupted... I'll have to disassemble her and try again." But Goliad reads her mind and casually takes the castle and the Kingdom. This is all Goliad's, now, and Goliad rather likes that. Bubblegum rushes back to her lab to create another Candy Sphinx, one that can counter Goliad's immense power. After force-feeding Jake the nearby inhabitants of the Candy Kingdom, Goliad tries to rip Bubblegum's plan from Finn's mind (unsuccessfully - this is the greatest hero in all of Ooo, after all). And when all seems lost, Bubblegum arrives with a new being, a new nearly omnipotent Übermensch (Übersüßigkeitmensch, perhaps?). A being of blond hair and with a single-minded purpose, Storm-o.

Storm-o quickly takes out Goliad, freeing Finn. Goliad sees right away what has transpired. "Wait, brother! Why must we fight? Rule with me!" Storm-o is implacable, refusing to yield. Now Goliad sees her fate, a fate Storm-o has already embraced. They lunge at each other and end up locked in psychic battle, two perfectly matched beings of incomprehensible power, trapped inside the other for the rest of time, the total stalemate. Finn asks "If Goliad and Storm-o are the same, how come Storm-o's a good guy?" Bubblegum: "I used some of your heroic DNA in the recipe, and [tellingly here:] not Goliad's." Storm-o, the creation of Princess Bubblegum and the genetic scion of Finn the human, and also the final puzzle piece in the picture of Bubblegum as villainess-potential.

Let's look at the root of the conflict: Princess Bubblegum, after nearly meeting her mortal end, and only after discovering that the science/magic of Ooo cannot extend her own life into the infinite, creates a creature of extraordinary power to extend her rule past the bounds of death. She intentionally designed an immortal creature capable of mind control to subjugate her Kingdom for Eternity. An act she knew could backfire! ("I was afraid this might happen.") And backfire not for the first time, either: The Earl of Lemongrab, who briefly usurped power in season 3, was also created to be heir-apparent. Lemongrab, Bubblegum's creation, responded to power by trying to imprison everyone.

These schemes have long since stopped being a benevolent back-up plan to ensure continuity of power. It is simply reckless tyranny.

And here is where a startling character revelation seems to emerge: Princess Bubblegum may be the Story's great antagonist.

One of Adventure Time's remarkable traits is the consistency of the subtle and nuanced character portrayals. The creators have a very clear vision of who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the roles they will play in the larger story woven in the background. In repeat viewings you see that there is not a wasted character or line of dialog. Seemingly one-off or background characters (or even sight-gags, hello Waving Snail) come back later, often in important roles. Bits of seemingly throw-away character dialog are revealed to expose massive elements of who these characters are. Some episodes hinge on plot twists that rely on the viewer's knowledge of the characters and their histories and relationships. But as with anything, not everything is as it seems: The Ice King is at once the show's cheapest plot tool (he wants princesses, Finn and Jake intervene, repeat) and the show's most tragic character (a thousand years ago he unearthed an artifact that took over his mind, destroyed his relationships, cursed him to be an immortal ninja ice-wizard-monarch plagued by constant visual hallucinations).

Bubblegum is good-natured and she cares deeply for her people and for science as a tool for progress. But she is also consistently portrayed making terrible scientific mistakes (usually in the aim of achieving something pretty disturbing) resulting in everything from the all-powerful ruler-sphinxes to multiple instance of mass zombie-ism. When confronted with a massive error in judgment in the creation of a god-like sphinx, she creates another one. There is no check or balance on the science she wields, no second opinion or oversight on the ethics or consequences of her actions. Is she a mad scientist using her royal subjects as test subjects, a pink, pretty Doctor Doom? Or is she simply a driven scientist who seeks progress at nearly all costs. Both can achieve amazing results and the line between the two, as exhibited in Bubblegum's actions and even personality, can be very blurry.

Now take the creations of Goliad and Storm-o. Storm-o is inherently, unshakably good because of Finn's DNA. Bubblegum makes this clear, but she's also obfuscating a deeper truth with tricky wordplay. She contrasts the two being's dual-nature by noting that Storm-o doesn't have Goliad's DNA. What she means (and what we can see right away) is that Storm-o doesn't have *her* DNA.

Storm-o is good because of Finn. Goliad is evil because of Bubblegum.

Goliad decides she knows what is best for her people, and will do whatever it takes to ensure and enforce peace and order. Just like Bubblegum. Goliad used mind-control, Bubblegum uses science. And there is the unavoidable grander metaphor in the deadlocked sphinxes, pure opposites of equal power, fated to an eternity of even-matched battle. Finn is still coming to terms with the inescapable reality that, despite everything they have been through, Finn and Bubblegum will never be together (a great pain in the heart and soul of our hero). And maybe the message in the image of the deadlocked sphinxes is that Finn and Bubblegum cannot be together, not because of mere incompatibility but because they are opposites, destined to be at odds in the future. Finn can never be with Bubblegum because to be with her is to put himself and his home in the crosshairs.

Is Bubblegum a young woman teetering on the razor's edge of good and evil? Is she a developing villain? Or is she like most people, a good person capable of ungood things? Bubblegum is not a true villain in this story by any means (that would be the Lich, of course), but it is hard not to see the potential for villainy in her or to entertain the idea that some act of hers may put Ooo in some grave jeopardy? I may be reading too much into this of course, but this is a series that hides things in plain sight and thrills in seeding stories that do not pay off for months or years. The stories of Storm-o and Goliad are not over and the fate of Ooo may be intertwined with theirs.

Whatever the potentialities, there is salvation for Bubblegum and Ooo in Finn the Human. Finn's inherent goodness, his willingness to fight Fate, and his belief in the goodness of others may prove to be the x-factor that tips the scales in favor of Bubblegum's redemption. And he has shown in dozens of instances that he will fight for what is right until he cannot fight anymore - he is nigh-unstoppable. Mere destiny has not stopped Finn before and I don't see that happening now, especially if it involves someone he loves. In the episode "The New Frontier," Jake dreams of his death, a prophesy to be embraced - Finn successfully fights off the weight of destiny and disrupts the very path of the future itself to save his brother. Even the presence of the Cosmic Owl, one of the series' two acknowledged deities, could not dissuade Finn from saving Jake. Bubblegum can drift towards villainy all she wants (or doesn't want), it matters little because Finn will be there to stop it, or die trying.

Finn may also be the salvation of Bubblegum because Finn will always believe in Bubblegum, always, no matter her actions. But even Finn's unassailable belief in others may prove to be his undoing: In the episode "In Your Footsteps" an impressionable bear shows up mimicking Finn, looking to be a hero like him. Jake does not trust the bear, but Finn sees nothing wrong and accepts and encourages the bear in his path. Finn's belief and acceptance backfire on him - unknown to him, the bear was an agent of The Lich, and the bear-spy succeeded in delivering to The Lich the Enchiridion, the manual of heroism on Ooo and the device that nearly succeeds in turning the entire Multiverse over to the Lich. Finn's pure heart was nearly the key to his ruin. If he was wrong about the bear, could he be wrong about Bubblegum? Could Bubblegum be used against Finn unknowingly, only to turn on him knowingly?

And perhaps this all means everything to the future of our characters and the show, and perhaps it is all meaningless.

"Goliad" is one of Adventure Time's most complex and layered episodes in a series full of them. Time will tell the importance and impact of these events, or at the very least reveal that I think about shit like this way to much.

c) 2012, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought science was a former of mind control.