In “Varmints,” Bubblegum and Marceline track down the varmints raiding her pumpkin patch. It’s that eponymous time again.
Now that I think about it, yesterday’s recap of “Bonnie and Neddy” probably stepped on the toes of today’s recap of “Varmints,” but it’s just as well since together they’re kind of a two-parter focusing on the aftermath of Bubblegum’s dethronement. ICYMI, I talked about how Bubblegum’s creation of the Candy Kingdom was her quixotic attempt to compensate for the loss of the mothergum she was birthed from, the loss of that prebirth feeling of a “crowded womb.” In other words, Bubblegum’s birth trauma became the driving force behind her life’s work, and now that it’s all gone up in smoke, her new character arc poses the question: ‘If I were not merely the product of my biological circumstance, if I’m not meant to seek safety and procreate for the rest of my days, what would I be?’
“Varmints” sees Bubblegum navigating that quarter/mid-life crisis, in a remarkably smooth thematic transition from childhood issues to adult concerns. Tagging along with Marceline, we find Bubblegum on the shores of Lake Butterscotch, where she’s struggling to regain a modicum of peace and raise some pumpkins, some “100% loyal” pumpkins in her mini garden kingdom, who presumably won’t oust her in favor of some sheister in a gold pompadour. But all clearly isn’t well; the life of a rural pumpkin farmer neurotically on watch for crop-destroying ‘varmints’ is a microcosm of the high-maintenance life that she’d recently lost. Same as before, Bubblegum has plotted out some territory for herself, and grinds herself bone-thin trying to keep out intruders and dangers that could never end.
The episode title and conflict reflect Bubblegum’s primary character flaw; like Marceline says, Bubblegum spends all her time preparing and attempting to prevent… well, everything, or at least everything not under her control. After tracking some stray varmints into the subterranean Rock Candy mines with Marceline, they encounter the varmint mother, a grotesque throwback to the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise, and the perfect metaphor for everything wrong with Bubblegum’s worldview. No matter how much damage the Vampire Queen and former Candy Kingdom Princess deal, the varmint mother regenerates her innumerable grabbing limbs, her double-row of teeth, and spawns her seemingly endless supply of varmint-eggs. The theme of multiplicity in the varmint mother reflects the innumerable variables of real-dang-life that Bubblegum tries so hard to contain.
When it becomes apparent that the varmint mother can’t be killed, the defeated Bubblegum breaks down, right in front of some old graffiti in the tunnels that Marceline made her draw, way back in the day. Throughout the episode, Marceline has been constantly reminding her of all the times she’d been able to pull Bubblegum outside of her perfectly controlled and logical self, whether it was playing hooky or tagging her own property. Consequently, Marceline represents the positive aspects of everyday chaos, which goes by the more benign name of ‘spontaneity.’ Similar to the varmint mother, Marceline really showcases her vampire queen powers in the episode, morphing into a werewolf in battle-mode, and eventually shapeshifting her hand into a varmint to burrow their way out. It’s a subtle visual motif that reinforces the idea that unpredictability is a two-sided coin, with varmints and chaos on one side, and Marceline’s free-spiritedness on the other.
At certain points in the series, it felt like Bubblegum could do literally anything with the help of her freakish science-brain and Candy resources, but the fact of her failure makes perfect sense in hindsight; if pure Machiavellian rule could truly win the day, then perhaps the Mushroom War would never have happened. Consequently, you could see her dethroning as an aversion from certain disaster. Sure, Bubblegum could’ve stopped King of Ooo from ascending, brainwashed the Candy simpletons, science’d her way out of things, but to do so would be to go down the path that Flame Princess warned her about all those episodes ago, way back in “The Cooler” where she told PB flat-out that she’s cold, broken inside, after PB neutralized the Fire Kingdom’s arsenal of destructive/flamelife-giving fire giants. Back then, Bubblegum declared that she wanted to change. By letting go of the Candy Kingdom and reconnecting with Marceline, she’s finally making good on that promise.