We’re playing catch-up this week with last Friday’s Adventure Time episode “Gold Stars,” where we watched breathlessly to see if a sweet, albeit unnaturally large child is actually the Anti-Life. It’s the eponymous time again!
“Gold Stars” is an episode about inherent good or evil, much like “Goliad” awhile back. It asks the classic question of nature versus nurture, whether we are the way we are by genetic disposition or if it’s instilled in us. “Goliad” left the question open, as Princess Bubblegum’s would-be successor Goliad was molded into a tyrannical mind-sphinx through Jake’s negligent babysitting, whereas Stormo was good by virtue of his lineage from Finn. “Gold Stars” takes the question even further, and instead of watching the process as an outsider, we observe intimately how a mind (more profoundly, a child’s mind) might process good and evil, and choose for itself.
The episode focuses on Sweet P, the enormous, horned, Hulk-sized baby that used to be the Lich, until he was doused in the life-giving blood of the Guardians of the Citadel. The blood had remarkable healing powers back in “The Citadel,” and when the Lich was drowned in the stuff there was really no telling what would happen until the end, since, as Prismo put it, the Lich is more of an anti-life machine than an evil being. What Sweet P is, is anyone’s guess, but it looks as though he went from an inert, programmed construct into a new, living, sentient creature, endowed with the ability to judge and choose, as we learn later on. It’s an interesting predicament in that before, the Lich was more like a plague or a forest fire, but with Sweet P, we can afford to throw the word ‘evil’ around, or so it would seem.
It’s Sweet P’s first day at school in “Gold Stars,” and the name of the game is: is this really a sweet, gentle giant that we’re looking at, or is this a latent Lich? It’s a far-reaching question that penetrates into conundrums of biological destiny, and of whether or not people can truly change. But that’s a dastardly train of thought, isn’t it? Sweet P is just a child, there’s no change for him to undergo just yet, but we as an audience come in with a prejudice that defies the fact of his innocence, since we know he is, or used to be, the Lich.
As soon as Sweet P leaves his idyllic home, his breakfast of eggs and toast, and loving parents Mr. Pig and Tree Trunks the elephant, he’s met outside with a barricade of Banana Guards and helicopters, who are there ostensibly to escort Sweet P on his very first school day. There’s a truly palpable tension between our fear of the Lich, the creature who killed Prismo and Billy and nearly wiped all sentient life out of the world on numerous occasions, who’s literally built to destroy, and the presence of this sweet, unnaturally large child. But damn do writers Seo Kim and Somvilay Xayaphone sell his sweetness, from the moment he cuddles his parents, one in each enormous hand, to his rescue of a fat squirrel from a jar.
I was torn whether or not to get mildly political with this recap, but it’s just too uncanny not to state: it’s extremely difficult not to draw numerous parallels, between the Banana Guard blockade and recent images of police blockades in the media; between a threatening-looking but factually, plainly innocent child; and between our apprehension towards Sweet P as viewers, and the recent dialogues regarding racial profiling. Let’s just leave it at that.
The children at the schoolhouse don’t take kindly to Sweet P’s girth and waste no time in berating him, and in that moment we’re holding our breath once again, waiting for Sweet P to lose control as Finn and Jake feared he would—and then he reacts like a normal child and weeps. Great going, assholes (including me). It’s a really well-crafted moment because it points out that evil is, in many ways, a completely natural response to a less-than-stellar world, one that’s about to get a whole lot… less stellar.
Watching from the playground fence is our old buddy, the conniving True and Rightful King of Ooo, and his buddy/lawyer Toronto the squirrel. They pounce on the vulnerable child, offering to teach him (sigh) sick dance moves so he can come back and show those bullies what’s what. TLDR: he teaches him Chunk’s fat belly dance from Goonies.
The episode then takes on an Oliver Twist and Fagin-type situation, as King of Ooo and Toronto use Sweet P to induce crippling laughter in people in order to rob them blind, each time giving Sweet P a gold star to bring home to his unsuspecting parents, who still believe he’s going to school every day.
The scheme falls through when Sweet P seeks them out one night when Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig are out on a date. He wants one last gold star to completely cover the fridge, and overhears their entire scheme while standing outside their alleyway shack. They pursue him all the way home, where they threaten to burn down the apple orchard unless he run away to dance and rob with them forever. An already ugly world gets uglier as they devolve into a chorus of ‘manbaby, manbaby,’ in a scene right out of The Elephant Man. And at that point, cause and effect, natural instincts, and righteous justice kick in: Sweet P’s consciousness breaks at the sight of their torches, and for a moment he is the Lich again.
The Lich engulfs King of Ooo and Toronto in his immobilizing presence, and shows them a glimpse of the past, where before existence there was darkness, and before darkness, an endless sea of monsters. The Lich’s words may or may not be true, but they chill to the bone regardless: is the foundation of everything rooted in chaos, or even evil? That seems to be the logic of the Lich: he is an expression of the purest, most basic truth of decay and disorder, the alpha that precedes law, society, and morality, and maybe the omega also.
He thanks his ‘teachers’ and dismisses them, and when Sweet P comes to, he brushes the vision off as just a dream, as he did with the nightmare of the Lich in the episode’s beginning. King of Ooo and Toronto run off screaming, leaving their jewelry behind, which Sweet P collects and surprises his parents with the very next morning. The next day at school he’s bullied again, we hold our breaths again, but, in the defining moment of the episode, he does the Chunk belly dance, cripples them with laughter, then trots off to class.
It’s a brilliant episode because it admits both the naturalness of evil and the heroism of resisting it, especially as a basic truth, if you believe the Lich’s vision. Arguably, Sweet P still has no idea he has the Lich’s power inside of him, but that doesn’t make the moment any less monumental. He overcomes what would be a natural prejudice against one’s enemies, something that he should’ve learned from the con artists he’d been duped into hanging out with, but regardless, he finds a way out of it. He actually is a truly sweet child, even if he does have an anti-life skeleton engine sleeping inside of him. Hence, it doesn’t matter if the Lich’s creation story were true or not—if anything, it makes goodness more heroic for running counter to the basic universal tendency of chaos.
“Gold Stars” manages to explore even more of what the Lich represents as a figure of pure evil, while also speaking volumes about expectation, prejudice, and human duality. It’s going to be interesting how Sweet P’s story plays out later on, especially these days, now that Princess Bubblegum’s protective surveillance system has been dismantled. It looks like the threats to Ooo just keep on piling up.
Also, our recap for “The Visitor” comes out tomorrow morning, check it out!