On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Hoots,” Cosmic Owl is tasked with making human dreams come true, but along comes the girl of his own dreams. It’s the eponymous time again.
Maybe more than anything else, I love talking about the amorality of Adventure Time, by which I mean there are few, if any, real villains in the show. Everyone, from Lemongrab to Ice King, is doing exactly what they should be doing according to their situation, an idea that the series critiques constantly in its innumerable influences, where a good prince saves an innocent princess from an evil wizard. Finn remains good but suffers in so many episodes for it; Princess Bubblegum is a Machiavellian science-lord, and is anything but innocent; and it isn’t morals that Ice King lacks, but social skills. “Hoots” entwines the charming story of Cosmic Owl the bachelor with one of the most disturbing scenes of the season, and when it happens, we’re left contemplating a moral gray area once again.
The episode focuses on Cosmic Owl, who, far from being the mystical dream-totem that previous appearances painted him to be, is actually a mystical bachelor who enjoys boardgames and lives in a Motel made of stars. Adventure Time likes its deities doofy and relatable, and you can’t help but love the Owl; he’s got a waddling charm in his movements, a closet packed with too many single-player boardgames, and all his furniture is made of constellated stars, from the hot plate to the record player.
“Hoots” reveals Cosmic Owl’s task of patrolling mortal dreams and making some of them come true, by simply showing up in them. In his room there’s a pink polyhedron device that produces dream-tokens, which he spends in order to appear in soon-to-be prophetic dreams. It’s an interesting setup that suggests rungs of authority higher up than Cosmic Owl’s and Prismo’s; he’s merely the golden glittery owl at the desk job that happens to afford enormous power over the plotline of reality, and we don’t know where the tokens actually come from or how the polyhedron works. Later in the episode, Prismo even mentions that Cosmic Owl was “put in charge” of prophetic dreams, suggesting a greater hierarchy of power beyond Prismo the Wishmaster and his owl buddy.
In his apartment, Cosmic Owl patrols the dreamscape with a Minority Report-like interface screen where he can view the various dreams: there’s Marceline riding Hambo through the sky, Tree Trunks with a zipper duffelbag full of skeletons, and even the insecure Abracadaniel, who’s having some nightmare where fingers point at him accusatorily. In these sequences we see the vulnerabilities and innumerable side stories of Ooo’s populace, giving the episode a beautiful, panoramic feel, and the uneasy idea that fate is in hands more random than you can imagine.
In “Hoots,” Cosmic Owl tunes in to a dream where Finn is hanging out with his father, Martin the Human, and the reborn Lich Baby (an event which will now come true, by virtue of CO’s presence). Cosmic falls in love with a gray ladybird who calmly walks into the room to retrieve the ceiling disco ball, then promptly leaves while Cosmic Owl’s being badgered by Finn and his understandably freaked-out questions of what this particular dream means. Apparently, Oooians can make appearances in each others’ dreams, which explains how Jake and Jermaine can dream together if they’re asleep at the same time, as we saw in “Jermaine.”
Cosmic Owl decides to scour the dreamworld until he can re-unite with his ladybird, and eventually does so in a ballroom dream of hors d’oeuvres and tuxedo’d waiters. The two make plans to meet again the next day, when the overjoyed Cosmic Owl takes her back to his place. There, she becomes ominously more and more fascinated by Cosmic Owl’s obscene level of power, and her feminine innocence gives way to cold, penetrating questions about whether he can enter all dreams, like, say, Princess Bubblegum’s, and whether she has some sort of defense mechanism around her.
The love-drunk Owl rolls with his ladyfriend’s suggestions and they enter PB’s dream, in which she grows the Candy Kingdom out of the soil with a watering can, to the applause of her citizens. Immediately a change comes over the ladybird; a dark aura emanates from her, turning the sky cloudy and the adoring crowds into an angry mob as Princess Bubblegum pleads and is pushed into a river of sludge by the ladybird.
We’ve seen the foreshadowed doom of the Candy Kingdom in so many ways, the earliest being glimpses of a future in which the Kingdom is ruined, and especially with Starchy the Candy Kingdom Janitor, who holds conspiracy theory radio shows, has secret society meetings, and devotes his spare time to uncovering what he sees as the dark heart of Princess Bubblegum and her dystopian Candy civilization. Most recently, in “Graybles 1000+,” we saw Starchy escape the Kingdom by planting his tracking device in a passing grass-lard, then running to freedom.
In the dream, Cosmic Owl realizes something’s gone horribly wrong and wrenches them away. The Ladybird explains that it simply felt like the right thing to do, and surprisingly, she looks earnest when she says this, and seems genuinely to feel for Cosmic Owl when she talks about running away together. He banishes her from the dream realm, and she wakes up as, of course, Gunter the penguin. Or at least one of them.
We were thrown so many hints as to whom the ladybird could’ve been: she and Gunter have the same eyes, she reunited first with Cosmic Owl in a room full of tuxedo’d gentlemen (penguins), and in an arctic sea the next time, but most of all, Gunter has always had a penchant for doing terrible things for no reason at all. The penguin acts just like a housecat, breaking bottles, breaking Ice King’s legs in his sleep with bricks, that sort of thing. When he was given the Ice Crown to rebuild the Candy Kingdom, he ran amok in a 4-second scene, fighting Finn and Jake with summoned ‘snow-a constrictor’ snakes. And of course, way back in season 2, Hunson Abadeer declared Gunter the most evil being he’d ever seen.
It would be easy then to just call Gunter a small evil penguin, but the fact remains that she sincerely wanted to be with Cosmic Owl. Once she woke from her dream-sabotage, she flies into a rage, seizing her babybottle from Ice King, climbing onto the window ledge, then wistfully shoving it off as a wishing star flies overhead.
In the Lemongrab episodes, Princess Bubblegum never calls Lemongrab evil and never tries to change his heart, saying that there isn’t anything to change–he’s simply made that way, and apparently not even she, as his creator, can change that. In Adventure Time, evil actions don’t come from evil intentions, but from that secret place that produces all urges, benign or not. In “Hoots,” that’s an easier sell because we see the arbitrary nature of prophetic dreams (which depends on this 30-something nerdy owl doing his job when he feels like it) and really, the arbitrary nature of everything.
Sometimes, evil just happens, and it’s not because there’s an evil goblin spinning evil out of his evil workshop, but because everything, good, evil, and neutral, just sort of… happens, which was the point of alluding to powers higher than Prismo and Cosmic Owl. The fact that Gunter has no idea where her destructive urges come from, and that Cosmic Owl has no control over his dream tokens, suggest the activity of amoral, higher powers, whose workings might not be incomprehensible per se, but certainly go beyond ‘this is good, that is evil.’