The Annotated Adventure Time: Stunted Childhood in “Stakes” Pt. III & IV

On Adventure Time‘s next installments of the “Stakes” miniseries, “Vamps About” and “The Empress Eyes,” Marceline discovers that five vampiric foes from her past have resurrected, and one of them has chosen the Ice King for her prey.

The first two episodes of the “Stakes” miniseries introduced five vampire antagonists from Marceline’s past, each one curiously named after the first six trumps of the Major Arcana of the tarot. “Vamps About” and “The Empress Eyes” further explores the significance of the trumps not only as they relate to the vampires themselves but also to Marceline’s development as a character. We also learn Marceline’s motivations for exterminating the vampire race in the early days of Ooo and how this fits into her increasingly complex character arc.

As I said in a previous recap, the Major Arcana in sequence can be interpreted as crucial developmental stages in the human lifespan; given that fact, it makes sense for Adventure Time to make use of the tarot, since it is a series about growing up and all the associated challenges. The idea is that every healthy human being starts out in ignorance (The Fool) and from there, progresses into a lifestage dictated by parental figures (The Empress and Emperor), and then enters the world armed with religious or societal knowledge (imparted by The Priestess and Hierophant) to face the challenges of the other trumps. The trump missing from this series is the Magician, which symbolizes the figure who progresses along the developmental stages of the Major Arcana.

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“Vamps About” opens with the five arch-vampires finding that they are somehow alive again, after being vanquished by Marceline in the distant past, and without knowing that it was Bubblegum’s de-vampirization cure that freed their essences. It’s interesting to see that each vampire’s behavior and abilities roughly correspond to the trumps for which they’re named.

The Fool is, of course, foolish and freewheeling as his card, which depicts a figure unwittingly about to walk over a cliff edge without a care in the world; the Fool’s ability is the freedom of flight. The Emperor and Empress, like the parental figures they symbolize, are domineering and hold positions of power in the group, as well as the powers of telekinesis and hypnosis respectively. They’re also quite sexualized as characters, as the Emperor demonstrates with his penchant for putting eyeliner on his prey and then slow-dancing with them, and as the Empress demonstrates with her ability to charm. That might just be the nature of the characters, or it may be a nod to the fact that parental figures are everyone’s first exposure to sexual difference and relationship.

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The Hierophant briefly clashes with the Emperor, saying that they have a chance to begin anew and should cleave to the ‘old ways,’ much as the tarotic Hierophant is meant to possess secret and old knowledge regarding sacred law and the natural world; his ability is shape-shifting, which brings up a host of other associations, most notably with Satan, who in Christian tradition also offered secret knowledge and possessed the ability to change appearance. Finally, Sister Moon doesn’t say a thing and recedes into the shadows of the forest after the vampire fellowship dissolves; the Priestess in the tarot is a mysterious figure, sometimes associated with a hidden tradition of a female pope, but almost always as a gatekeeper figure that opens the way towards secret knowledge.

Now all of this may certainly sound hokey if you don’t buy into the mystical aspects of the tarot, but it should be noted that the series has made use of esoteric symbology in the past (Peppermint Butler’s black magic ritual was spot-on in the Tart Toter episode, and there was the Magic Man episode with blatant references to famed magick proponent Aleister Crowley) and that the writers have used similar themes in their other works (please read Jesse Moynihan’s Forming, it’s simply the wildest ride currently out there). And if the arcane lexicon of ‘magician’ and ‘secret knowledge’ also bothers you, replace them with ‘person’ and ‘self knowledge’ and you’re right on track.

As I mentioned earlier, the only missing trump is the Magician, a role fittingly enacted by Marceline, who is the most childlike character in the series at this point. Finn, our archetypal child, already made his peace with the universe, but Marceline’s character and personality is still rife with insecurity and overprotectiveness, loneliness and self-imposed aloofness. Her past is marked by multiple fractured family units, including her absent demonic father Hunson Abadeer, a mother who was presumably lost either before or soon after the Mushroom War, and the foster-father Simon Petrikov, who went insane and was also forced to abandon her. Like I speculated yesterday, and as Marceline herself confirms in “The Empress Eyes,” she hunted the vampires into extinction in order to protect the fledgling human tribes left over from the war, as a way of compensating for her inability to protect any of her own parental figures, or for their inability to protect her.

In light of this, you can see “Stakes” as a necessary detour from Finn’s narrative, which is the story of a healthy child growing up in a healthy environment, with his strong and nurturing foster-parents, Martha and Joshua the dog, and a series of life experiences that have guided him through all the usual childhood issues: girls, irrational fears, revenge, heartbreak, spiritual aimlessness, etc. Marceline, on the other hand, had none of these things, and hers is the story of getting by without such an ideal psychological environment. Without these same experiences, Marceline became stunted by her lack of guidance, which is symbolized in the vampiric curse imparted to her by the Vampire King.

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After Jake reveals that he’s seen the reincarnate vampires in person, and after Peppermint Butler confirms their identity with some expertly crafted witness sketches, Marceline remembers her final battle with the Vampire King on the refugee ship of the human tribe. There, the King intimates that Marceline hadn’t properly paid for the abilities she stole from the vampires by consuming their souls, and to preserve the race of vampires, bites Marceline while impaling himself upon her stake. Marceline’s theft of these vampiric abilities, from the Fool, Sister Moon, Empress, Hierophant, and Emperor, dramatizes an atypical psychological development in which the symbolized developmental stages are ‘skipped over,’ and the child-Magician never receives guidance from either parents or societal guides like the Hierophant or Priestess. In other words, Marceline simply grew up too quickly, losing so many parents early on, forced to fend for herself, and forced to act as a parental guardian for the struggling human tribes. Her turning into a vampire signifies her stunted growth, unable to either age or mature as a result of her past trauma, and now we can see the five vampires as something like ‘the five ghosts of terrible childhoods past.’

Despite agreeing to hunt the vampires with the help of Bubblegum and company, Marceline decides to face the Vampire King alone after discovering his lair in the woods. As before, he attempts to reason with Marceline, stating this time that he’s changed his ways and now feeds on animals only. To avoid further confrontation, he tells her that the Empress is headed for the Ice King’s lair as they speak, prompting Marceline to leave in order to save her mentally disabled foster-father.

Ice King falls easily under the Empress’s spell, or rather, only appears to be because of his absolute helplessness for the opposite sex. Ice King kidnaps Finn and brings him back to the Empress as an offering of rich human blood, and on his return stumbles into Marceline and the Empress’ conflict. Marceline pleads with the befuddled Ice King, telling him that she’d begun hunting vampires for his sake, and in an attempt to preserve the familial relationships that she was constantly denied. In an emotional rap, she recounts her loneliness in the days after Simon’s departure, and that she killed her first vampire to save a human couple and their daughter. Ironically, in killing vampires to protect the humans she wanted to bond with, she became too terrifying for them to behold, which furthers the theme of stunted development; Marceline was doomed to try to save her family, over and over, the result being that she was denied the company she craves. All the more reason for Marceline to attempt to cure her vampirism, end her immortality, and move on.

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Interestingly, while battling Marceline, the Empress hints at a past relationship between herself and Simon Petrikov, and that Simon had been under her spell before. The idea that he’d been happier as her slave enrages Marceline, and with Bubblegum’s help, she destroys the Empress once again and absorbs her ability of invisibility.

Marceline’s battle with the Empress had some interesting sexual overtones and brought up a quasi-Elektra complex between Marceline and Simon Petrikov, as it was the idea of the Empress’ sexual domination of her foster-father that tipped Marceline over the edge and spurred her attack. That conflict paints the Empress in an antagonistic light that’s sort of the inversion of what the Empress should be; rather than highlighting the Empress in her positive aspects as a mother figure, it brought up the darker possibilities of sexual jealousy and territoriality that divide familial relationships. It will be interesting to see how her next few encounters with the arch-vampires will force Marceline to confront her long-submerged weaknesses, as well reveal more of the history of Ooo’s humans.

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One Comment

  1. Adding to the tarot references along the show; on the episode You Forgot Your Floaties, the crab/lobster emerging from the pool is at the very base of The Moon card, and it’s a card that deals with confusion and the conscious/unconscious mind, which makes sense for that episode.

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