The Annotated Adventure Time: Artistry and Identity in “Sad Face”

On last Monday night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Sad Face,” Jake’s tail goes on a somnambulant adventure as the circus performer ‘Blue Nose,’ who contends with a slave-driving ringmaster and a merciless audience, all as BMO and NEPTR look on. It’s the eponymous time again!

Adventure Time has put out multiple noir homages so far, such as “BMO Noire,” in which BMO riles up the (imaginary) criminal underworld of the Treehouse to find Finn’s missing sock, and the lovely “Rootbeer Guy,” a Hitchcock-style case of surreal events which force an average joe to peel back the layers of mundane, urban life to get at truth. “Sad Face” follows in sort of the same vein, as a tribute both to the elegant simplicity of classic cinema, and also by virtue of its affecting, greyscale atmosphere and Lynchian surrealism. The episode picks apart the plight of the artist in mainstream culture, who struggles to retain both identity and integrity in the face of popular demand. In this case, the necessity of lampshading such heavy subject matter as a silly sleepwalking adventure adds to the theme of the uncertainty of the artist’s identity and role, both to the audience and to himself. Because he’s not an artist at all–he’s Jake’s sleepwalking tail.

Apparently, the tail does this nightly, or at least often enough for BMO to know of it and invite NEPTR along for the ride. It was a stroke of genius on the writers’ part to have the robots as our fly’s eyes on the wall, as they have an intriguing relationship towards Adventure Time‘s non-mechanical cast, and towards humanity in general. BMO loves to play at being human; not being a little boy or girl specifically, much to the delight of speculators and fans who love to read gender issues in BMO episodes, but just as a human that pees, brushes its teeth–he even pantomimed pregnancy by putting an egg in a cup and taping it to his belly. NEPTR is in the same outsider boat, as he was created physically by Finn, but brought to life by Ice King’s magic, and considers both of them father figures, which hasn’t been easy on the little guy. Finn once played hide and seek with him and forgot about the hiding droid for a couple of months, and Ice King can’t even remember his existence, and once kidnapped him thinking he was BMO. The spectating robots places humanity on the stage, which makes Blue Nose’s later hardships a pantomime of the basic struggle to express honestly. Aside from adding that meta-theatricality, their voyeurism also recreates the magic of early cinema as a spectacle-parlor, a dark room where you pay your penny, the curtains pull back, and you watch something strange unfold.

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It’s undoubtedly bizarre–Jake’s tail stretches off downstairs, dons a derby hat, packs a hobo-sack full of nuts and berries, and hits the road. BMO and NEPTR look on as the tail heads to the woods, where a turn-of-the-century circus tent is erected, and a ladybug ringmaster hollers at ‘Blue Nose’ to get to makeup before the show starts. Aside from the hat, the tail pads some skintone onto its face, a rodeo clown’s frown, and a blue line for a nose, and we now have a sleepwalking tail that believes (believes? is?) it’s a clown. Inside the circus tent, the seats are filled with a crowd of ants, an image that hearkens back to that classic MGM cartoon about a lively flea circus (check it out here, it’s an old-school charmer), but it also has this terrifyingly lonely aspect to it also, which soon intensifies.

A snail’s high-flying dive into a thimble elicits tremendous applause, then Blue Nose’s act begins: a phonograph plays a broken tune in the background, and Blue Nose is selling oranges from a cart, but nobody’s buying, in a simple parody of his own career. He then spots a bumblebee boy asleep in the orange display, as played by a marionette puppet. The boy does a lively dance, then collapses as from heart failure, and ascends to a spotlight in the tent’s roof opening. The audience is ruthless, and drives Blue Nose off the stage amidst jeers and booing, wanting a return to tossed pies and bruised fools. It’s a public speaker’s nightmare, this mass of teeming, identical ants, silently judging, and ravenous for entertainment. Together, it’s a vicious portrayal of life as an unappreciated artist: this is one of the few spaces in which one can create, yet one must survive by pandering to masses wanting nothing but to gratify base desires. Now we’re looking at a tail dreaming that it’s a clown that’s hoping that it isn’t merely dreaming of becoming an artist. The original tail-referent keeps getting further and further away, and as it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what’s “really going on,” the silent Blue Nose is speaking volumes about his own self doubt, and what his work actually is, compared to what he envisioned it to be.

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The ringmaster calms the enraged mob down, and unleashes the headliner act: a proportionally monstrous chipmunk named Goralina, led into the ring in chains. The King Kong reference intensifies the episode’s ‘classic cinema’-feel, and makes it easy to guess what comes next. An unimpressed, or otherwise mean-spirited ant tosses his drink at the chipmunk, blackening her eye and sending her into a carnivorous rage. Blue Nose takes the center stage and calms her down with a snake-charmer’s dance, thus demonstrating the potency of his art and its ability to enthrall, literally saving lives with his art, but to no one’s gratitude.

Next, Blue Nose is in a meeting with the ringmaster, and demanding that he make good on his promise to release the chipmunk, but he counters with his own offer: if Blue Nose can produce an act that can draw the same crowd as a giant chipmunk, then the circus can afford to set the animal free. But in order to do that, Blue Nose must “give the people what they want,” and so he’s left with no choice but to put art aside if he wants to do the right thing. Outside in the night, Blue Nose visits Goralina in her cage, and feeds her the nuts and berries he’d taken from the Treehouse. Afterwards, he knocks over his orange cart in frustration, and opens a chest wherein sits a whoopee cushion and a soda spray-bottle. Blue Nose knows exactly what the audience wants: he sits on the whoopie cushions, sprays himself with the soda bottle like a buffoon, and allows the chair-legs to break out from underneath him. His rage becomes the only genuine part of the show, and he tops the act off with some impromptu DJ scratches on the phonograph while literally shaking his ass, and smashes the phonograph, a la Pete Townshend, or Gallagher. It’s a crucifying finger in the face of sensationalism in all its forms through all eras, but again, the meaning of his act is invisible to all but himself.

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Even after Blue Nose’s self-defacement, the ringmaster refuses to release Goralina, now that he’s got two blowout acts under his belt. His dishonesty sends Blue Nose into a rage; he seizes the whip, rampages through the ring, and sets Goralina free, and together they flee the circus. Unfortunately, Blue Nose is still just a stretched-out tail, and the ringmaster’s strongman drags him slowly back. They proceed to berate him and his “corny clown hat,” messing up his makeup until the frown is reversed into an eerie grin. The change in expression bewilders them, and is unnerving to behold in the aftermath of what’s happened. “What’s so funny? You rat! You creep! What’s the big joke?” The big joke is that the sun is rising, the makeup is wearing, and the act has ended. Blue Nose de-stretches, retracing his steps and all the events of what happened in that single night. On the way back home, Blue Nose sees Goralina in the forest with a new chipmunk paramour, and the smile becomes genuine rather than sardonic. After the tail snaps into Jake’s backside at the Treehouse, we find that Jake has no recollection whatsoever of what transpired, and BMO and NEPTR smother giggles with their automaton’s hands.

“Sad Face” keeps the viewer going back and forth between reality and artifice, honesty and necessity, and finally, consciousness and subconsciousness. Why did it have to be Jake’s limb? Maybe the writers were sick of working with Finn’s arm, and wanted to focus on a new body part for a change. Or maybe artistry is the sleeping portion of humanity that is forced into subliminal spaces because it runs so counter to everyday life and real-world necessities. Art in “Sad Face” is an activity that makes no money and makes no friends; it serves no purpose beyond the artist’s satisfaction, and actually gets in the way of moral rectitude–Blue Nose had to set his act aside to try to win Goralina’s freedom by playing into the game of popular demand. In this way, it makes perfect sense that Blue Nose is Jake’s sleeping limb, as an urge that we can’t be conscious of because we are ourselves, and have other human things to deal with, like putting food on tables and roofs over our heads. Either way, it’s still up in the air as to whether Blue Nose is even part of Jake’s persona, or reflects any of his characteristics or desires. Jake isn’t the most un-artistic character–he plays the violin, and definitely puts heart into his sandwich-making, but who knows? Maybe Jake does secretly want to run away to the circus and be an avant-garde performance artist.

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