On the newest Adventure Time episode, “Scamps,” Finn tries to teach some Candy Kingdom street scamps how to survive without grifting by taking them camping. It’s the eponymous time again!
Adventure Time occasionally dips into the political realm, but never overtly, and never in the reductionist, mindlessly left-wing manner that you’d expect. It’s always performed with thought and coherent argument, and in “Scamps” the series delves into school-to-prison pipeline, and the origins and psychology of habitually criminal behavior. The episode takes up the soft-commentary mantle of past episodes like “Princess Cookie” and its explorations into gender fluidity and popular opinion impinging on self-definition, or the Cold War realpolitik of “The Cooler.” And aside from all that, it’s just real cute to see small marshmallow street urchins talking like 20s bootleggers.
Growing up in the hood doesn’t necessarily make one heartless; the street is a natural environment like any other, and engenders certain behaviors, and selfishness isn’t necessarily one of them. We find our Marshmallow kids defending their street turf from the notorious Pup Gang, who seem more bent on your typical hooliganism, while the Marshmallows prove not only that they’re hard as hell (I mean, lighting yourself on fire for a rumble?), but they’ve got a personal relationship with their neighborhood; they clean up after the Pup Gang, sweeping up their leftovers to donate to the orphanage’s charity jam sale, and enjoy the thanks of the Candy Tavern’s owner for keeping the “bad elements at bay.” In other words, they’re essentially good kids who take good care of themselves and theirs.
And if they live on the street, that also means stealing from idiots like Starchy with a sham gambling racket, which local authorities Finn and Jake can’t overlook. After a lengthy chase sequence, the Marshmallows are cornered and get a not-so-stern talking-to from Jake, a former criminal himself who stole because he “didn’t know it was wrong” at the time. After Jake learns that the kids make five hundred bucks daily by grifting, he gets lost in doubtful thoughts, leaving Finn to educate the youth. From speaking with them, he learns they’ve apparently never seen a tree before, and rather than locking them up for baby-booking, Finn tells Princess Bubblegum that he’s going to take them on a nature hike instead, hoping a change of scenery might inspire a change in behavior.
“Scamps” is very big on the idea that environment dictates behavior, and that the solution to unsociable behavior, then, is to present a new environment, or at least a new way of perceiving your environment. While ostensibly very excited to leave the city and see an anthill and some rocks, the Marshmallow gang wastes no time in distracting Finn so they might test their new surroundings; one of the children fall into the river, and after Finn rescues him and regroups with the rest, he finds them swindling a woodland squirrel out of his life savings in nuts.
The kids start to warm up to Finn after he lies to PB about the nature hike, enough to listen to his woodsmanship lectures, but Finn quickly realizes that they’re not so much ignoring the woodland experience, as they are struggling to reconcile their inherited criminal behavior to their new surroundings. They’ve only ever survived by taking advantage of others, playing a game of power with other people in which they have to wind up on top, or risk disenfranchisement. They literally do not understand Finn when he says that if you can rub two sticks together, you can make a fire, and so he resorts to using trickster-language to convince them that they’re conning nature into rendering services for them. They’re not harvesting berries, they’re ambushing and mugging a bush; they’re gathering rube-sticks and fooling them into making a shelter, and so forth.
The Marshmallow kids are basically learning that you can obtain goods through work, rather than preying on others. Finn is breaking the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that they’ve acquired with while living on the streets, teaching them to take advantage of their situations, instead of their dimwitted neighbors. The gig is up when Finn falls into a pit of caramel quicksand, leaving the Marshmallow gang to negotiate with their surroundings in order to save him. They try just about everything they can think of to ‘trick’ a vine into acting as a rope; when all else fails, they resort to going ‘old school,’ because apparently, they’re so pure-hearted as to use violence only as a last resort. After some stray rough-housing, they get the vine into the quicksand; Finn is rescued and comes clean, telling them they haven’t been conning anyone at all–they’ve just been, well, camping.
At the Candy Kingdom schoolhouse, Finn shows Princess Bubblegum the fruits of his labor: the kids are running around, teaching themselves math, geography, and booksmarts, armed with the new perspective that there are more productive ways of self-aggrandizement, many of which don’t involve bankrupting rubes at all. Outside, however, they find the recalcitrant Jake running his own cup-and-ball scam on the grass.
“Scamps” on the outside is just a cute romp with some tough-talking toddlers and great visual gags (Jake’s bewildered relapse into grifting, for example), but also comes at a timely moment during the US campaign season, where we’ll once again talk about the odd phenomenon of booming prison expenditures, simultaneous with shrinking budgets for school districts everywhere. The episode is Adventure Time‘s two cents on the issue, and they deliver it with maturity and plain eloquence.