On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “President Porpoise is Missing,” President Porpoise is indeed missing, BMO and Ice King bond over imaginary submarine adventures, and Banana Man grapples with social awkwardness. It’s the eponymous time again!
“President Porpoise is Missing” represents the series at its absolute best: a combination of ridiculous and freewheeling premises, combined with pithy meditation and deft storytelling, in equal amounts. Implicit in the episode’s wild goose chase for a missing undersea mammalian democratically-elected ruler is an impressive exploration of the roots of social awkwardness, and more generally, the behavioral games that we play with each other, and how they can be beneficial in social situations, but also destructive in, say, political decision-making. Adventure Time has always been fantastic at this combination of aesthetic presentation, mindless fun, and mindful probing, but rarely does it hone in so precisely on its subject matter, while connecting it across such seemingly disparate situations.
Finn and Jake’s session of mindless videogaming is interrupted by an emergency broadcast announcement saying that, you guessed it, President Porpoise is missing. Finn seems as confused as the viewer at this point, and isn’t quite convinced that a ruler named ‘President Porpoise’ is a real thing in Ooo. After Jake and BMO assure him that he’s real as can be (as Jake videochats with him regularly), and that the threat of succession by the villainous Vice President Blowfish is equally very serious and dire, they resolve to locate the missing President.
Enter Banana Man (voiced fantastically by Weird Al), their neighboring handyman and inventor who just so happens to have a submarine lying around, and who’s hiding behind the couch because he can’t socialize face-to-face like real people. And if that doesn’t quite round off the crew, enter Ice King also, hiding invisibly on the couch. Thus, Finn, Jake, BMO, and two of the loneliest characters on Adventure Time make their way to the shore together, in an adventure that will ostensibly go nowhere for anybody, save for those two same acquaintances.
Banana Man names Finn first mate and Jake officer of morale, and their first point of order is to ditch Ice King on the shore, with BMO to distract him. As the submarine dives beneath the waves, BMO takes control instantly, using his characteristically powerful imagination to convince Ice King that he isn’t being left out of the adventure at all, and that they’re actually in a submarine of their own, hurray! After initial protests, Ice King’s feeble mind falls easily into the make-believe, as he seatbelts himself in and wonders aloud about all the pretty mermaids they’ll meet beneath the waves.
Inside the submarine, Finn and Jake are engrossed in claustrophobia hijinx while Banana Man is left to sort out all the messy details of operating a submersible vehicle by himself. Continually in the episode, as Finn and Jake go with the ridiculous flow while Banana Man stays assiduously on-task, there’s a running motif of exclusion that bears out Banana Man’s perspective of a social outsider. The effortlessness with which Finn and Jake pal around, contrasts poignantly with Banana Man’s continual hand-wringing and nervous smiles, making for an accurate depiction of social awkwardness: to be socially asynchronized is to feel the imaginary judgment of others upon you, and feel compelled to obey codes of behavior and value, while everyone else acts as carefree as can be.
The submarine crashes into a parliamentary meeting of the undersea Court of Food, a collection of marine politicians who convene in a sunken food court; presently an absent-minded octopus is attempting to hold the Democracy of the Ocean together as the unsavory VP Blowfish tries to seize power. Finn and Jake descend into the asinine political games of the Court of Food, which is engrossed in pointless voting sessions, filibusters, and name-calling. Once again, Banana Man is excluded, this time from the political realm as well as the social, and who can blame him? He begins to tune out, catches the eye of a pretty lady-fish senator named Cybil, and strikes off on his own in search of answers.
Meanwhile, BMO and Ice King’s imaginary adventures have taken them undersea, in a beautifully-rendered fantasy sequence involving a neon submarine that’s quickly running out of air. While it was admittedly sad that Ice King was so unceremoniously excluded from the journey, there are a few things to point out: 1. the mission is going nowhere anyway, and 2. even though he’s been left out of the actual submarine and is consigned to an imaginary one, the fact remains that he’s having a great time with BMO regardless, and miracle of miracles, he seems to be bonding with someone, even if the conditions are less than what you’d call conventional social interaction.
Instead of focusing on some dire mission to rescue a McGuffin person of interest, “President Porpoise is Missing” uses this nonsense anti-quest for President Porpoise as a device with which to explore the ways in which we use arbitrary behavioral systems to mediate interaction, how so many of us need an ‘excuse’ to interact with each other, when we could just, well, interact. While all of these arbitrary systems have the drawback of being indirect and somewhat artificial, there are useful systems that distinguish themselves from the more pointless and destructive ones.
Banana Man and Ice King, as I said, are some of the most ill-adjusted characters in the series, and have joined the quest in an effort to be included in Finn and Jake’s immaculate circle of camaraderie. In other words, they’re trying to befriend Finn and Jake through the ruse of having something to do together, when they could ideally just cut through the artifice and bond directly. However, this route sometimes isn’t ideal for the socially maladjusted, in which case, a little bit of artifice is called for; against all odds, Ice King begins to bond with BMO, and only does so through the use of one of these artificial interaction scenarios: pretending to be in a submarine together. Under normal conditions, it would’ve been impossible for BMO and Ice King to converse normally, but sometimes a little make-believe goes a long way towards lubricating the socializing process.
Beneath the waves, Banana Man was just thinking about his inability to talk to people when he’s whisked away by Representative Cybil, the lady-fish from before. Uncoincidentally, their courtship is completely wordless, as Weird Al’s lyrics point out during a “Whole New World”-esque musical sequence that cuts back to scenes of friendship between Finn and Jake, BMO and Ice King. These montages dispel any contentions that BMO and Ice King’s bonding is somehow artificial or invalid just because they used artifice to make it happen. They’re obviously having a great time in each other’s company, just like Finn and Jake, who are the paragons of friendship–if that’s the case, does it matter how they do it?
When Banana Man asks if they should get back to finding President Porpoise, Representative Cybil connects these themes to the political when she flat-out replies, “Who cares? National politics don’t really represent my interests.” On one hand, that’s just about the most annoying thing to hear when you’re legitimately concerned with the outcomes of momentous political decisions, but on the other hand–this is the Democracy of the Sea we’re talking about, ruled over by a goddamn Porpoise. Cybil’s response reflects a political disaffectation that’s sadly pertinent during this most absolutely insane presidential campaigning season in recent memory, and her response also points out that if we’re talking arbitrary systems of interaction, especially the destructive rather than beneficial kind, then the political process absolutely takes the cake.
This episode isn’t so much a statement of political non-participation as it is an indictment of labyrinthine bureaucracy in government, which results in a continual three-steps-forward-two-steps-back, if even that. At the episode’s close, President Porpoise abruptly returns, and we learn that the entire Court of Food forgot that it was actually a three-day weekend. Hence, anyone who was along for the ride strictly to find President Porpoise would’ve found themselves sorely disappointed, with the winners being those who enjoyed themselves along the way.
The anti-quest for President Porpoise reflects the fallacy of the social wallflower. Awkwardness, many times, feels like playing a game for which you don’t know the rules, and so you do your best to learn them by scrutinizing everyone else’s actions, by forcing yourself to care about others’ cares, when in reality, none of those people who seem to act so naturally are obeying any such codes, because there are no such codes This Quixotic goal of understanding proper social interaction is as pointless as trying to find President Porpoise–there is no such quest. There’s just you, and the people around you, and the idea that “Dying together sucks a little less than dying alone.”