On last Monday’s episode of Adventure Time, Finn, Jake, and PB journey into the Desert of Wonders to collect samples, but when the mission goes awry, it looks as though crew member James might be a saboteur in disguise – or is there some other explanation? It’s the eponymous time again!
With “James,” the Adventure Time writers sojourn once again into a morally ambiguous waste as devoid of guides and landmarks as the actual waste of the Desert of Wonders. Superficially, the episode takes the form of another zombie tale, though instead of ending in potion hijinx or math questions, this time around we’re left with an existential quandry regarding the candy soul, as well as a mortal threat to the Candy Kingdom estate.
For the first third of the episode, I thought I knew what James was. I thought he was just the kid in class with the cashew-shaped head, and for whatever reason, that was plenty of reason for you and everyone else to wail on him without abandon: one who attracts hate without morally justifiable reason. I thought it was just going to be “what saboteur is using James’ eccentricity to soak up the blame?” Well the saboteur was Princess Bubblegum, but James isn’t just a James, and this isn’t just another zombie episode.
Essential human dignity is at the heart of the episode, and what better way to demonstrate the weight of a soul than by showing the worth of even the least of souls? Enter James: the wafer sandwich with enough behavioral ticks to drive Robin Williams grumbling out of the room. He was handpicked by Princess Bubblegum for his ‘ingenuity’ to accompany a mission into the Desert of Wonders, which is a giant sand dune filled with eerie Mushroom War imagery.
As I’ve said, James was written deliberately to inspire rage, which is interesting in terms of his position as the scapegoat of choice. About halfway through the episode, I think it becomes rather obvious that James is not the one sabotaging Finn’s plans for escaping the awoken slime-monsters, but that hardly matters; I found myself begging for a reason to hate James, I was ready to turn on him like that. Screw facts and logic, let’s just throw this idiot into the fire and watch him burn.
Which is pretty sick – the viewer becomes party to the lynching mob. After the big reveal, we realize that James was trying as hard as the rest of them to survive, but that Bubblegum was sabotaging the plans because they had no chance of success (? yeah I still don’t understand that logic). Yes, the writers probably wanted you to feel like a jerk, and as big a jerk as possible, which is why they packed James with enough character-traits to make you vomit. Even his smallest actions are accompanied by robot noises, he provides no useful input when lives are on the line, and when responsiblity falls upon his shoulders, he reassures you that his lucky coin will do the trick. Somehow. The guy is a warehouse of personality traits, which makes his arguably pointless sacrifice all the more troubling.
PB explains that James sacrificed himself to save the crew, and that she allowed this to happen because candy citizens can be cloned, but Jake and Finn cannot. So everything should be lickety split, right? Not at all – James’ funeral service is confounding because it’s impossible to judge whether his sacrifice was noble, manipulated, or what. Jake and Finn’s reaction to seeing the cloned James sums everything up – it’s sickening to feel the emotional energy of his grisly death, only to see it evaporate because there’s a new James hot out of the oven. What a disturbing precedent – if a fire breaks out, let’s just build a wall of candy people until it dies down, and then remake everyone. Try doing that a few dozen times and see if you look at people the same way. It just unleashes a whole slew of creepy conclusions about the Candy Kingdom.
Can any candy person perform an act of true sacrifice if they can just be remade? Does this nullify James’ worth as a person, even if the list of his character traits could fill a jet hangar? That’s what I wonder after watching him used and repaired like a pocketwatch (in fact, the robot noises he makes are just creepy now). I think it’s appropriate here to voice a concern about the Candy Kingdom – it’s the only one in Ooo so far where all the denizens were made by its Princess. After this whole James scenario, the Candy Kingdom is starting to seem like just a grand echo chamber for Princess Bubblegum’s ambitions, and that in a sense, she’s the only ‘person’ person in the kingdom.
Let’s start up a tally of PB’s ambitions for the Candy Kingdom so far. Serious flags were thrown back in “Red Starved” when she obtained the Spoon of Prosperity, after which she said something like ‘no one will go hungry in my eternal Candy Kingdom.’ Yikes. Factor in the idea that candy people are essentially immortal, and that Princess Bubblegum plans to colonize the Desert of Wonders by the end of the year, and her plans take on a chilling scope. ‘Colonize’ is a pretty dirty word here in the 21st century, so I might be a bit biased, but PB’s power has been growing exponentially, without an end in sight. She might not be a malicious personality, but she also isn’t above things like having Flame Princess locked up to keep Ooo safe, or cutting Finn’s cheek to keep him away from her crown. PB is all about the ‘greater good’, and will sacrifice her own interests for the sake of it (like trading her pajama shirt for Hambo), but what that ‘good’ is in terms of the Candy Kingdom remains to be seen. It’s always worrying when a ruler’s sense of ‘enough’ is ill-defined.
Who knows? Perhaps the slime-monster horde led by slime-James will change the candy peoples’ minds – will they still want to fulfill PB’s candy ambitions when they see the fruits of our nuclearambitions? Will they start to feel uncomfortably expendable once they see slime-James juxtaposed with fresh-baked James? The more I see PB’s plans resemble historical stories of civilizations’ rise and fall, the more I wonder how closely she’ll veer towards the endgame of the Mushroom War. It’s especially interesting because she was born out of the Mushroom War, from an irradiated pink goo back in “Simon and Marcy.” “James” was an exhilarating episode for what it contributes to the greater Adventure Timemythology, as we head closer and closer to a breaking point in the Candy Kingdom’s history.