On the latest Adventure Time episode, “Summer Showers,” Jake’s questioning his fatherly conduct, while his daughter Viola tries out for a role in Lumpy Space Princess’s play, but finds her talent shunted aside by LSP’s ego. It’s the eponymous time again.
“Summer Showers” is a soft return for the series’ seventh season: no jaw-dropping reveals, no significant deepening of the existing mythology, just a quiet, desperate, but altogether tender love letter to the strugglers and stragglers in creative professions. Jake’s daughter Viola auditions for Lumpy Space Princess’ stage play “Summer Showers,” a Henry James-esque parlor drama taking place in the fictional(ish) locale of “Ing-Land.” LSP’s insecurities and fastidiousness, however, threaten to sink not only her own desires, but Viola’s and Jake’s as well. Episodes such as these make me grateful that Adventure Time isn’t a series that relies on devastating plot twists week after week–I’m just as happy to see the main plotline propelled, or to go dog-paddling on a tangent yarn.
At the center of “Summer Showers” is a trio of unfulfilled souls: Viola, the blossoming dog-rainicorn; her troubled father, Jake the dog; and the incurably egotistical (and fan-beloved) Lumpy Space Princess. Throughout the episode, the skies are bleak and on the verge of rain, and most of the scenes unfold on quaintly detailed backdrops: a boutique cafe with the curtains drawn, the small-town-ish playhouse decorated with lush, Victorian backdrops. In these cozy and somewhat melancholy spaces, our characters huddle together, emotionally sagging at the stitches and lashing and clinging towards each other for warmth. The drama is sewn into these visual details and small character gestures and utterances, all resplendent with the unsung meaning of everyday strife.
Young Viola dreams of striking out on her own as a career actress and auditions for Lumpy Space Princess’s play “Summer Showers,” but is unceremoniously rejected and condescendingly offered the job of director’s assistant. From there, Viola’s behind-the-scenes toiling and LSP’s unceasing attacks upon her dignity should cut pretty close to the bone for any viewer who’s ever been an aspiring anything-at-all, working in the gutters and basement kitchens of their dreams. The dissonance between Viola’s capabilities and her actual duties drearily widens, and the tragedy deepens when, over a lunch date with her largely absent father Jake, Viola lies about getting a lead role in “Summer Showers.” The white lie makes Jake ecstatic, even as he waxes pensive about his paternal failures while wearing his own father’s fedora, with heavy implications that Viola’s successes would validate his existence as a father. Needless to say, Viola is not pleased by this added pressure.
To round off our cast of troubled figures, Lumpy Space Princess is still her terrible and destructively self-centered self, and though the episode goes a ways towards humanizing her, the writers deftly avoid the pitfall of bleaching their characters for cheap, heartwarming sentiment. After berating Viola repeatedly for her failure to create life-like raindrops for a scene, Lumpy Space Princess takes her up to the roof for a humiliating lecture on raindrops and an unexpected pow-wow.
There, LSP unspools to the infinitely patient Viola all her insecurities, built up over the entirety of the series’ seven seasons; she bemoans that among Ooo’s increasingly diverse landscape of princesses, the name ‘Lumpy Space Princess’ is pointedly the least princess-y of them all, and unlike Bubblegum Princess or her ilk, connotes failure and gracelessness. LSP confesses that “Summer Showers” is her bid for individuality and worthiness. It’s bitterly ironic, then, that the character most needful of self-expression will never succeed in that regard because of the intensity of that very need. Lumpy Space Princess’s impoverished self-esteem makes her overbearing, prevents her from creating anything that might affect someone else artistically. Self-frustration is a theme that we see in nearly every LSP-centric episode, making her one of the most unexpectedly engaging characters in the series now.
On opening night, leading lady Tree Trunks backs out at the last moment, and Lumpy Space Princess rushes to fill the serendipitous hole, but not before dangling the opportunity before Viola’s own eyes. As the audience pours into the rows, and as LSP fatuously practices tongue-twisters behind the curtain, Viola at last seizes the moment and zaps LSP all the way into the distant Ice Kingdom using her rainicorn powers, in order to take her place and steal the show. LSP eventually makes her way back to the theater, only to see her play salvaged magnificently by Viola. Backstage after the show, after Lumpy Space Princess admits her approval of Viola’s raindrops (if not her acting acumen), Viola reflects on how that used to be her former and only role: the raindrop girl.
Adventure Time might baffle with arcane themes and symbology, but I’d like to think that its sheer heart always shines through; “Summer Showers” goes out to the fledgling dreamers, and for eleven minutes, puts them on the pedestal. Most everyone in the episode is in a position of stagnance: Jake’s time for action as a caring and attentive father has long since passed, and consequently, whatever triumphs he might find, in that respect, lie in others’ hands. Lumpy Space Princess is similarly disempowered by her own character flaws, and so the burden and moment of action fall to Viola, the young dreamer and archetypal intern, whose naivete and freshness can bring regeneration to others too weighed down by their pasts. No one in “Summer Showers” gets what they want solely because they want it very badly, or even if they deserve it–Viola’s success is a confluence of forces largely beyond her control, and to navigate these forces required a mixture of both wide-eyed and open-hearted humility, and also daring, right at the precise moment.
“Summer Showers” comes only a few weeks after the controversy involving an Old Navy shirt bearing the slogan “Aspiring Artist,” except that “Artist” was crossed out on the shirt and replaced with, variously, trite and ‘more realistic’ dream occupations like “President” or “Astronaut.” Society has never been kind to its artists, nor has the industry ever been accused of being too kind to its own, but in the middle of all that negativity, “Summer Showers” cuts through like its gentle and refreshing namesake.