Police States and Individualism in Adventure Time’s “The Thin Yellow Line”

On the latest Adventure Time, “The Thin Yellow Line,” Princess Bubblegum’s tyrannical image begins to soften as Finn and Jake search the Banana Guard ranks for a graffiti vandal on the loose. It’s the eponymous time again!

Mainstream media has seen a surge in powerful and complex female characters, and Princess Bubblegum is one of the earliest and most vivid members of that movement. She’s kept viewers continually guessing with her scientific (and political) smarts, troubling Machiavellian attitude, and the pink, Bubblegum Princess-y veneer that holds it all together. PB’s a combination of the stereotypical and the taboo in a female character (motherly and cold, powerful and dispassionate) but she’s now in a transitional phase. She’s slowly softening from candy tyrant into a more compassionate ruler, and “The Thin Yellow Line” continues her character arc’s trajectory by exploring her persona from the street view of the average Banana Guard. It’s a perspective that’ll comment on the failures of PB’s formerly totalitarian worldview, and how it problematizes the infinite variety in an inherently random world, made up of unique individuals.

“The Thin Yellow Line” wastes no time in introducing a subtle thematic anchor in “Pilgrims of the Land,” a blatant parody of popular society-building boardgame Settlers of Catan. On their way back from boardgame night at Peppermint Butler’s, Jake complains that the game’s just a bunch of “pilgriming around” without purpose, and Finn defends its complexity, saying it’s about “building and developing holdings while trading and acquiring resources.” Jake has never been one to appreciate abstraction–he’s an Epicurean and an accomplished (sandwich) artist who’s more about sensory immediacy. In other words, he’s the kind of friend who’d hate Settlers of Catan, a game that is only a game if it can convince you that its little wooden tokens are abstracted pieces of property, that get shifted around in a simulation of ‘fun.’

Banana Guard 16 gets caught in "The Thin Yellow Line"

Their differing takes on “Pilgrims on the Land” gets referenced immediately when they stop to admire a graffiti mural on some Candy Kingdom real estate. Jake compliments its beauty, while Finn calls it ‘disrespectful to the Kingdom’s holdings.’ Once again, Jake sees its immanent beauty, while Finn can only see the civic transgression that it represents, a crime that’s only a crime if you buy into the idea that a wall is an abstract piece of someone else’s ‘property.’ Realizing that the paint is fresh, Finn spots the perpetrator, a Banana Guard in face mask, who flees to the BG barracks and blends into the faceless crowd. Our mystery Banana is using the recurring theme of abstraction in his own favor, playing on the police state’s tendency to generalize individuals by erasing their distinctions.

Finn and Jake take their case to Princess Bubblegum, who declares the whole situation “interesting,” and asks them to infiltrate the Banana barracks in disguise, in order to sniff out the perpetrator. In “The Thin Yellow Line” Bubblegum’s sporting a red power suit complete with clicking red business heels and Dana Scully-esque shoulder pads, a clever design accentuating her imposing persona in the episode. There’s plenty of tension here, in that Bubblegum has always dealt with the hiccups in her empire with extreme prejudice. Inside the barracks, Finn and Jake witness the strained relationship between PB and the Banana Guards firsthand as they observe their daily routine: morning calisthenics followed by adoration time, in which the BGs bow in deference to a slightly melted gum-idol of Princess Bubblegum.

banana guards slipping in "The Thin Yellow Line"

Finn and Jake’s initial positions on crime and public property slowly start to shift poles while they investigate the Banana barracks. Jake takes to the hallways of the Banana bureaucracy, and chases down bizarre leads involving horse sounds in a file office, a mysterious whispering gnome, and a beautiful voice in the shower. Whenever he attempts to close in on the phenomenon, it disappears, to be replaced by a new inexplicable happening. Meanwhile, Finn attracts the attention of Banana Guard 16 while mindlessly doodling in the barracks office. After BG 16 gives some curiously apt artistic advice, Finn realizes he’s stumbled on the mystery artist. After some banter, BG 16 leads Finn through an air duct to an isolated room that he’d converted into a massive art space. The walls are covered with divine and terrible depictions of Bubblegum, Lemongrab’s stitched face, and the cloned twins, Goliad and Stormo from an earlier season. Finn suggests BG 16 go public with his art, but 16’s fearful response speaks volumes.

Apparently, the Banana Guards regard Princess Bubblegum as a supremely capable but terrifying ruler, who’d ruthlessly put down past Candy Kingdom revolts, chained her brother Neddy to the castle dungeons, and consigned the Rattleball guards to deactivation. BG 16’s account contains slightly altered versions of undoubtedly true events, and presents the previously unexplored attitudes of the Candy People towards their dulce duce, the immaculate Bubblegum. We’ve become accustomed to seeing the Candy folk as benign sheeple, childlike, naive, and ultimately faceless as a crowd. We saw them as a ruler does, but in “The Thin Yellow Line,” we finally see them as they see themselves, and they’re afraid. Banana Guard 16 fears that if he revealed his artistic streak, Bubblegum would take him apart to see ‘what went wrong.’ He gestures towards Lemongrab while saying so, in reference to the nightmarish, miscreant first child of Bubblegum’s ambitions. Before they can continue, Jake bursts into the room and arrests BG 16 as a conflicted Finn looks on.

Banana Guard 16's gallery in "The Thin Yellow Line"

As the assembled Banana corps await Bubblegum’s sentence in the barracks courtyard, Finn agonizes over how a random genetic mutation had given BG 16 his artistic impulses, and how, in the current regime, that could be grounds for punishment. As he reflects on how it could’ve happened to any of the guards, Finn is realizing that such a law isn’t law at all, but an artificial and random ruling, like the rules of an incomprehensible boardgame. He makes a last-ditch effort to do the right thing and fumbles the guards together, giving BG 16 a chance to escape into the crowd, but the errant banana steps forward to accept his fate before PB. After the rest of the bananas step forward as well in a Spartacus moment (“I am Banana Guard 16!”), PB explains that she isn’t punishing anyone, and instead commissions a mural from BG 16. She understands their trepidation, however, and admits that she’s trying to make a clean break from the sins of her past. Her mercy, along with the fact that she’s stepped down from her platform onto the common dirt of the barracks, inspires the crowd to come forward with their own unique gifts: there’s a hydroponics gardener Banana guard, a jelly bean horse-riding guard, one ventriloquist, a singer, and so forth.

The dynamics between police and citizenry are at the heart of the episode. All of the strange occurrences Jake encountered were simply unique Banana Guards hiding their individuality from their oppressive overseers. Jake’s outsider status made it seem as though a malicious conspiracy surrounded him; on the other hand, Finn’s more empathetic approach towards Banana Guard 16 allowed him to penetrate into their society and perceive the situation as it is. Jake’s police state attitudes, in effect, turned the natural variety of a human populace into a sea of uncontrollable variables that needed to be rectified. “The Thin Yellow Line” is essentially about the arbitrary nature of law and crime, and how the world and society change demeanor depending on how ruling parties perceive the natural qualities of their constituents.

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