On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “The Mountain,” Lemongrab comes face to face with the screeching, grotesque truth of his own Lemongrabness, and spits in its face. It’s the eponymous time again.
In Jesse Moynihan’s 2014 mytho-religious comic extravaganza Forming, an enterprising Noah ascends through multiple spiritual dimensions, each one with a god claiming to be more God than any god he’d encountered before, but Noah smells a funk that should not exist in heaven–so what if this dodecahedron-headed spirit created everything? What does Noah owe him? What does he have to offer Noah? Why doesn’t it feel ‘ultimate?’ In “The Mountain,” Moynihan brings many of the same doubts and themes to one of Ooo’s most befuddled characters, Lemongrab, who comes before the godhead in this episode and must make a decision that lies at the end of any spiritual journey.
This is Lemongrab’s first appearance since the ending of the Lemonhope saga, in which Lemongrab’s tyrannical reign came to an end at the hands of the young prodigy-rebel Lemonhope. The inciting event was a dispute between Lemongrab and his twin brother, a being created to love Lemongrab when no one else on Ooo could. After Lemongrab consumed this perfect mirror of himself, the resulting trauma sent his psyche into a tailspin, culminating in an explosive confrontation. After he’d been rebuilt from parts of both Lemongrabs, there was really no telling what he would be in the aftermath—his arc really is one of the most dynamic and emotionally complex in the series, and “The Mountain” resolves some, if not all of our outstanding issues with the character.
It seems as though Lemongrab chilled out considerably after those events; the Lemon people work in harmony and seem content in their positions, and to follow the rule of their patriarch. Orders are shrieked, the command is carried out, the fields are sown with lemonheads while more are harvested, and when Lemongrab screams “LIGHTS OUT” the entire populace falls simultaneously comatose where they stand. He and his kingdom have hit a pleasant equilibrium.
And the crack in the equilibrium comes with a crack in a hieroglyphic fresco, carved into the ceiling of Lemongrab’s bedroom; before he falls asleep, a hole appears in the head of one of the carved figures, out of which a centipede crawls. Lemongrab is understandably perturbed and sets off on a journey in Adventure Time’s rendition of the archetypal ‘journey up the mountain,’ whether it’s Sinai, Mt. Doom, Olympus, or in this case, The Mountain of Matthew.
From a hill where they’re viewing a disappointing meteor shower/astral event (is there any other kind, really), Finn and Jake spot him trekking towards the mountain on his Lemon-camel. Finn follows, partly to check up on the formerly deranged Lemon man, partly to take his mind off of his ex, Flame Princess, who’s working out with Cinnamon Bun in the mountains also. A rubble elemental stops Jake at the mountain entrance, while Finn is admitted because of his unresolved spiritual business.
Inside the mountain, Lemongrab is becoming increasingly unnerved by the slime and mess inside, and confronts three mirrors, one of which is the correct path to Matthew. One mirror depicts his fondest desire: to play catch and be understood by Princess Bubblegum, his progenitor, which explains both Lemongrab’s psychological motivations, and also that strange room in Castle Lemongrab housing a single catcher’s mitt.
For much of the character’s existence, the central problem has been a lot like that of Ice King’s: what are we to do with social misfits, and what are they to do with themselves? As his creator, Princess Bubblegum is absolutely determined (to her credit) not to change his personality, no matter how spiteful and misanthropic it might be, because she is convinced in the rightness of his natural being. Lemongrab’s trial in the Mountain of Matthew proves the efficacy of her reasoning: if he can come to a certain understanding by himself, through suffering and error, then there really was no need to change his heart, and the image of the baseball mitt also settles it. How horrific would it have been to lobotomize a creature whose only desire was basically the same as everyone else’s—validation from one he considered his greater, his judge?
The second mirror shows Lemongrab’s greatest fear: Lemonhope is being coronated as the younger, more effective ruler of Castle Lemongrab, after LG himself had been judged “unacceptable.” His anxiety about his self-worth has always been connected to his ability to govern; Lemongrab’s very first appearance saw him snatching the Candy Kingdom away from Princess Bubblegum, and consequent struggles involved the fact that Lemongrab is alone, that he has no kingdom to rule and no one to understand him. He wants not only his own kingdom, but a successful rulership as well, and we can interpret this as a desire for a place of his own, in an alien world.
The final mirror shows Lemongrab’s most traumatic memory, which is the murder and cannibalism of his own brother over an argument about Lemonsweets, a doll that resembles an idyllic, childhood version of Lemongrab. The original Lemongrab consumed his cloned brother in a symbolic act of self-loathing and imbalance. Torn between these three mirrors, between desire, fear, and pain, Lemongrab chooses to confront his most painful moment, wisely avoiding the endless paths that fear and desire constitute.
LG hops into the frame, sprinting towards a Lemonsweets on the verge of being split between the quarreling Lemon brothers. He leaps through the doll’s mouth into a dimension where the ground is composed of pulpy, gross, lemon material that swells, erupts in lemon juice-pustules, a place that’s completely revolting to Lemongrab. The plane quakes, and Lemongrab finds himself hanging off the ledge when the guiding voice of Matthew appears once again, asking Lemongrab to taste the grease on the ground. He does so, realizes the taste is of lemons, and finds himself hanging off of a vast version of himself. He understands now that the grease and dirt and imperfection he’d been running from were aspects of himself, which is the central tension in his personality defects. He resolves to discard his material body, the grosser aspects of his being, and to release his pure essence into the void, in an experience that psychonauts refer to as ‘ego death.’
Finn follows close on Lemongrab’s heels, but his journey isn’t quite as… meaningful. Confronted with the three mirrors, he sees his greatest desire (to be Cinnamon Bun hanging out with Flame Princess…), his greatest fear at the moment (Jake made Finn-cakes and BMO’s gonna eat them without him), but instead of a traumatic memory, Finn hears Lemongrab’s cry, and his butterfly spirit animal appears in the mirror instead. Finn rides it into the ego-death plane, where entrants can see themselves separated from, er, themselves, and thus achieve some kind of perspective on the relationship between self and other.
Finn eventually finds Lemongrab at the precipice to a glowing pit, floating above which is Matthew himself, a great cloud with a piece of himself still missing. Lemongrab is torn between two paths. The first is to experience the bliss of ego-death by breaking himself down and joining with Matthew, to rise again in the “Second Age of Terror” to restore the world or some such nonsense. The other path involves a sneaking suspicion that the lemon candies in Lemongrab’s pocket can destroy Matthew…
At this point I’m going out on a limb, because this is an incredibly dense eleven minutes of television, but it makes sense to me if no one else. What Lemongrab learned in the ego-death plane is that everything outside of himself is himself, whether it’s the revolting grease of imperfection, or the greater godhead that the grease composes: fear and desire are illusions, as the mirror riddle taught LG. And if that is so, then there is no fear to run from and no perfection to run towards. Lemongrab is perfect the way he is, and to surrender this perfection for Matthew’s sake would be a denial of that inherent divinity. It would be a denial of that basic truth that Princess Bubblegum believed in when Finn and Jake were all for brainwashing this citrus-y psycho into a functional unit of society: Lemongrab is just like that, and that’s alright.
Lemongrab reasons that if Matthew is the Godhead at the top of the ziggurat, the Biggest Baddest and Best, then this whole scheme distances this divinity from Lemongrab’s imperfect self. When LG casts the lemoncandies, the pieces of his most basic self, into Matthew’s mouth to destroy him, he is rejecting the idea that he isn’t already perfect the way he is–he’s asserting himself before Matthew’s promise of bliss. It’s an affirmation of his individual self as the godhead, as opposed to this idea of a perfection that is inherently greater than the natural soul. “Infinite stairs is unacceptable” means ‘take your holier-than-thou nonsense and stick it.’
It’s a saying in Buddhism (or a misquote from Kill Bill) that if you encounter Buddha on the road, you have to kill the Buddha. It’s an expression that means self-improvement has no end and no true goal; any goals you might see are illusory traps, just like Matthew. There is a direction, but the path is endless, just as the supposed divinity at the end of it must be endless.
Anywho, Lemongrab decides to stick it to the Mannest of Men and tosses the lemoncandies into Matthew’s mouth, thereby exploding him into the spiritual acolytes of which he’s composed. Finn and Jake escape the mountain through a mob of these unhappy zealots, and deposit Lemongrab back at his kingdom. Lying in his bed, Lemongrab sees once again the crack in the hieroglyph. He chews a lemoncandy and spits the gummy into the hole, sealing it, and declaring: “Yo yo, it’s grease.” TL;DR–Lemongrab had a hole in his head because he thought he was nothing better than grease, and after realizing that he is grease and grease is A-OK, he can now fill that hole.