In the last installments of Adventure Time‘s “Stakes” miniseries, “Checkmate” and “The Dark Cloud,” Marceline confronts the Vampire King, whose unexpected proposal leads to the culminating battle between Marceline and her deepest fears. It’s the eponymous time again.
The series’ sixth season culminated with Finn’s confrontation of childhood’s primary conflict, that we have no ultimate control over what happens next, and that we need to be okay with that. Just as Finn enacted the basic mystery play of childhood, the “Stakes” miniseries oversees the next logical step, in which Marceline enacts the basic myth of teenagerdom, of transitioning from teen to adult. Throughout the miniseries episodes, the writers have made use of the tarot’s esoteric symbology to characterize the changes and realizations that have to occur in order for the teen to adolesce in a healthy manner, in a fabulous, modern-day retelling of what some interpreters see as the tarot’s primary meaning. In the final episodes of the miniseries,”Checkmate” and “The Dark Cloud,” Marceline progresses not only through the stage of the Emperor (the tyrant to overthrow), but also, in oblique references, further stages of the tarot as well, to win finally an object of desire that both she and the audience have probably known all along.
The crew’s final conflict with the King of Vampires, the Emperor, was nothing as they expected. It seems there was some truth after all to the arch-vampires’ attempts to plead with Marceline; the King wishes to no longer be a Vampire King. After warding off their infantile attacks, he explains that his own resurrection is an opportunity to escape the wheel of destiny, which dictates that he, as a vampire, must battle Marceline, as one who hates vampires as part of her guardian complex. If this were to occur, he indicates that Marceline would be turned into a vampire again, forced to re-perform her torment again and again, and he would die. But true to his kingly nature, the Vampire King can’t stand to be enthralled, especially to an endlessly recapitulating sequence of events. Towards this end, he requests that Bubblegum cure his vampirism the way she did Marceline’s.
In this request, Vampire King is instructing Marceline as to the meaning of his tarotic position, just as the battles with the Empress, Hierophant, Moon, and Fool did before. The Emperor of the tarot is a symbol of the father patriarch, or on a greater scale, a ruler of the material world, who at first protects and dictates, but eventually must be overtaken in order for a consciousness to progress along the life path of the Major Arcana. But Vampire King’s teaching goes beyond demanding Marceline to defeat him: he’s asking her to defeat the processes that control her destiny, just as he is seizing his own destiny by destroying his vampirism. The true Emperor-Tyrant here is the cyclical fate binding Marceline to a life of continual conflict and confusion.
It’s interesting to see that he’s able to convince Marceline by pointing out that, as one who’s lived thousands of normal lifespans over, she’s in a unique position to see and recognize the cyclical nature of conflict. If Marceline is supposed to be the archetype of the teenager, then a proper reaction would be: how would anyone be able to break that cycle unless they were immortal as Marceline is? And the proper response would be: we don’t need to be immortal, because we can tell stories like Marceline’s. That’s the function of culture, and also an arguable function of cultural objects like the tarot, and Adventure Time has explicated that function quite deftly.
After a mighty, manly, kingly display of self-determination in the sky, worthy of a van-side mural, the Vampire King convinces everyone of his intentions, and they proceed back to Bubblegum’s cabin, where a fanboying Peppermint Butler eagerly awaits a meeting with the dark celebrity. The process is successful, and the Vampire King’s vampiric essence is extracted into a bucket, leaving the King in his natural form: a white lion, duh. Then Peppermint Butler fumbles the bucket of darkness, which explodes the cabin due to the raw evil forces within, and materializes as a vast and dark chimera-cloud, rampaging the countryside.
While Bubblegum, Finn, and Jake prepare to take up arms again, Marceline is utterly broken by the fact of this never-ending battle, and her frustration is understandable: they extracted Vampire King’s juice to end the cycle, yet it seems to have exploded beyond all previous proportion as a result. It’s a frustration that embodies the next big lesson, right up there with Finn’s conundrum in the last season, and it’s that life is often a Russian doll set of problems, one within the other, in what looks very much like a cycle, and Marceline simply wants no part of that cycle anymore. So the question is: why can’t she win the way Vampire King taught her, Vampire King who submitted to his enemy in order to confound fate and become something greater?
It’s helpful at this point to note that even though ostensibly, “Stakes” only features the first six major trumps, the Fool, Magician (Marceline, who’s progressing through life as the Magician does the tarot), High Priestess, Hierophant, Empress, and Emperor, there are numerous references to the other trumps of the Major Arcana as they pertain to the maturation process. Before they faced the Vampire King, Marceline professed to a dream of growing old with Princess Bubblegum; this and various other moments in “Stakes” thus paint the two as the Lovers of the tarot, which makes sense at this stage, as the struggles of mortality, along with Marceline’s greater reliance on her friends, spell an end to her aloofness and the possibility of meaningful relationships that were impossible before.
In his monologue in the sky, Vampire King states that he wants to ride into the void of the unknown in a great flaming chariot, the Chariot being the tarotic trump of control, over oneself and one’s destiny, which the Vampire King is very much all about, and wants Marceline to be all about also. He states also that as Queen of the Vampires, Marceline holds two scales in the balance, to choose either to stake the Vampire King and doom herself again, or attempt to break the cycle; this recalls the Justice trump, which is literally a winged figure in the sky bearing the scales of justice. The Strength trump is present in the Vampire King’s natural form, a lion just as depicted on the card itself, and symbolizing the resolve that Vampire King is trying to instill. The Tower, the symbol of violent change and which depicts a tower exploded by lightning, is the exploded cabin. The Death and Hanged Man trumps, symbols of reversed perspectives and unbearable change, respectively, are present in Marceline’s confusion at the start of “The Dark Cloud,” and the Devil arrives in the form of the Dark Cloud itself.
The answer to Marceline’s conundrum comes in the form of Ice King, who is the obvious candidate for our tarotic Hermit, the recluse who possesses unique knowledge and perspective because of very outsider-ness. And what do you know, Ice King arrives all disappointed and pouty because he was left out of all the mortal danger and fun, and who convinces Marceline that she really does not want to be a coward, a mere survivor, a non-actor the way Ice King is.
So if Vampire King is supposed to be teaching Marceline, why is it that Marceline’s path is the precise opposite of his? Vampire King won by opting out, submitting to his foes, relinquishing his powers, and winning freedom. Marceline succeeds by taking up the fight, obeying the call to action, absorbing the power of the Dark Cloud, only to be bitten again, in what looks like a Quixotic return to the bondage of immortality. The answer is in the implied trump of the Wheel of Fortune.
In the tarot, the Wheel signals a turn of fortunes, of historical epochs, a great paradigm shift in which the powerful are overthrown by the lesser, the old die off, and the young aspire. You can see this in Crunchy’s adorable usurpation of King of Ooo’s position as Princess of the Candy Kingdom, and in Vampire King and Marceline’s inverse roles. As an abdicating ruler, the Vampire King is aging gracefully, understands his true trajectory, and goes quietly into the night. But as a developing youth, Marceline’s path is to ascend to power, to fight the battle, and engage the Wheel.
The cycle to be broken here isn’t really fate, it’s the self-imposed curse of resisting fate and confounding yourself. That’s what Marceline was talking about when she regretted battling the vampires to begin with; that battle symbolized her refusal to accept the fact of Simon’s passing, of her mother’s passing, and ultimately of all the change that robs from her and thrusts her in situations she felt she couldn’t handle. This whole time, she was trying to battle the immutable processes of aging and change, and that is the real hallmark of childishness. It may be Vampire King’s time to descend, but as a teenager, it’s Marceline’s time to step up. You can’t fight change, you undergo it, period.
And Marceline eventually does so, by charging into the cloud and absorbing it using her demonic soul-sucking ability. On the way down, the Dark Cloud bites her from the inside, returning her to her original vampiric state, which again accords with the tarot’s progression, which isn’t a progression at all, but a cycle; the first card in the series, The Fool, isn’t number 1, he’s a 0, and exists outside the cycle as the stage you begin on and return to. As Marceline’s final song states, “Everything stays.” While the tarot can be seen as symbolizing a lifespan, it also dramatizes the small cycles within that lifespan, of learning a skill, a fact of life, or anything else.
We end with Marceline back at her cave-house, where the others have prepared her for a well-deserved rest. The final two cards of the Major Arcana, the Judgment and the World, are evoked in the final scenes: neither Finn nor PB knows if this is a real victory or not since Marceline is still a vampire and all, but she declares that she has changed. She’s gone through the experiences of mortal teenager life with greater understanding, greater empathy. That’s the Judgment; the World symbolizes a state of balance, depicting a woman inside an ourobouros, with the four zoomorphic symbols of the four elements at the corners of the card as a sign of stability. The woman inside is wholeness, higher consciousness, or understanding of true desire. And as the fandom has long suspected, and as Marceline’s fevered dreams of growing old indicate, that desire is to hang out with Bubblegum for the rest of eternity.
Now start at the beginning and try to read this as a coming-out story.