On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Jermaine,” Finn and Jake reconnect with their older brother Jermaine, only to find him embittered and their childhood home infested with demons. It’s the eponymous time again.
As writer Jesse Moynihan’s admitted on his own blogs, his writing for Adventure Time has just gotten weirder and weirder,and the reaction’s gone both ways: some fans have been finding the show more and more impenetrable with arcane episodes like “I Remember You” (time paradox resurrection rituals anyone?), “The Mountain” (how about the destruction of false godheads?), and “Astral Plane” (out-of-body epiphanies?) while others feel that you just can’t get that kind of narrative and thematic experimentation anywhere else, live-action or animated.
Whichever camp you’re in, “Jermaine,” written by Moynihan and Brandon Graham (King City), was shockingly straightforward in an elegant way. It’s a charming character portrait of Finn and Jake’s disgruntled brother Jermaine, who’s victimized himself for being the sibling left behind as caretaker for their father’s extensive collection of occult, crime-fighting artifacts. Through that characterization, Moynihan explores the long-running theme of Jake as a 30-something man-child, and weighs responsibility as both the gateway to, and deadweight of, adulthood.
It’s a small-scale episode that delights with little details hinting at untold stories, and boasts evocative animated sequences like the gorgeous dream opening: a laughing, giddy Jake slides through a rollercoaster landscape composed entirely of his lady paramour, Lady Rainicorn, free as a babe despite being years older than Finn. He catapults into a mysterious grey cube in the sky, where he meets Jermaine dressed in a bear costume, busy at his undisclosed work. Jake’s adorably effervescent to see his older brother, but Jermaine huffs, pouts, and unceremoniously kicks his brother out of his mind-cubicle and back into the waking world.
I forget why, exactly, Jermaine’s in a bear costume, but the childish get-up accentuates the fact that his situation is ridiculous–he putters around their ancestral home, taking care of things of consequence to no one but him, as though it were of the utmost importance. Atop dream-Jermaine’s bear ears are tombstones bearing the initials of his parents Joshua and Margaret with a wilting flower between them, symbolizing the unnecessary burden he’s been carrying this entire time.
Jake awakes and tells Finn about the dream, and the two decide to pay Jermaine a little visit. The Treehouse seems even more teeming with little doodads than usual: there’s a blinking bandit head in the fridge, Jake’s sipping cola out of a living can with a face, Finn’s working on… something that rockets out into the sky, BMO’s skipping rope with a cable. All of these tiny details put together prepare us for the barrenness of Jermaine’s world.
They find their childhood home surrounded by demons, scratching to get through Jermaine’s magic salt circle and reclaim what Joshua stole from them, all pieces of Jermaine’s tragic, self-imposed clockwork. Finn and Jake are ecstatic to see their old childhood stuff (like Cloud’s Buster Sword!) and set about wrecking the place like nothing’s ever changed, much to Jermaine’s horror, who’s got a ‘system’ worked out. A system that includes running to the basement to change the tape in a bear cassette-player every single day, lest the taunting demon that it imprisons eats him alive. Jermaine’s world is an unnerving mixture of the childish and the horrific, a gothic degeneration of childhood smushed into adulthood in the worst possible way. Finn and Jake beg him to rethink some of these life-decisions, to which Jermaine responds pathetically: “I don’t need a plan B. I’m responsible.”
It’s tempting to say that Adventure Time sides with childishness when it comes to ‘fun versus responsibility,’ but it’s more accurate to say that the show is about successfully transplanting childhood into adulthood, as an essential process for adolescence. If you do, you end up like Jake, which isn’t to say you’ve got the attention span of a goldfish and make fart jokes, but to say only that you never lose your sense of joy. If you don’t, then you wind up in Jermaine-land, tricked by responsibility into doing something you don’t want to, because you thought it was the right thing to do. One makes decisions, the other has decisions made for him–who’s the child then? Maybe it’s the one wearing the bear costume and playing house, and not the one enjoying what he wrought for himself.
This is a cousin-episode to “Ocarina,” where Jake’s suit-wearing, businessman son Kim Kil Whan buys and seizes the Treehouse in an effort to force Jake into his vision of responsibility, which means getting a job, despite the fact that Jake has a whole hoard of dosh in his basement (that they accidentally gave away, but that’s besides the point). Jake, of course, never gets that job, but does give his son a handmade ocarina with no windholes drilled into it. In that moment, KKW realizes that Jake is acting according to his highest level of awareness, and to ask more of people is fruitless. Jake has just as much responsibility as he needs, and no more. He doesn’t see the value of a job, he doesn’t seem to need it, and so bothering him about it is just enforcing one karmic load, one set of values, unduly onto someone else.
The brothers’ relationship comes to a head when Jake cooks up some fried rice, which Jermaine enjoys immensely until he realizes Jake used salt from the protective magic circle around the house. A demon sneaks through the weakened barrier, and though the brothers emerge electrocuted but victorious, Jake’s thoughtlessness is the last straw for Jermaine. He unloads on his younger brother, berating his cushy life in a Treehouse, his luxurious recipes utilizing salt, and for being the favorite child. But Jake explains that he was never the favorite, it’s just that their dad loved his fart jokes, his childishness, and with a well-timed fart joke Jake defuses the whole situation, explaining that Jermaine could’ve left whenever he wanted to.
In the squabble, their house catches fire, but Jermaine no longer seems to mind. By morning the house is gone, and the demons hounding him scatter after they realize their stolen belongings have disappeared. The demon in the basement emerges from the ashes; he was after the poster on the wall outside his cell, which Jermaine would’ve given to him if he’d just stop talking about eating Jermaine ‘from the bottom up,’ which would never have happened if Jermaine didn’t insist on carrying on his father’s squabbles. Instead of a final battle, the two of them walk off bickering into the forests like the old friends they are, instead of the enemies they were under Jermaine’s system.