The Child as Sage and Psychic War Elephant as Animal, in Adventure Time’s Something Big

On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Something Big,” Maja the Sky Witch awakens a sleeping primordial giant named Darren to lay siege to the Candy Kingdom, but while the mortal battle rages on, the awakened forces-that-be feel nothing but confusion and emptiness. It’s the eponymous time again!

The story arc of Marceline, Princess Bubblegum, and Maja the Sky Witch comes to an abrupt end in this episode, which feels coincidentally similar to the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall.” Both involve a high-stakes siege, a seemingly insurmountable foe against defenders grasping at straws and candy canes for survival. Further weirdness: both episodes also involve a greater meditation on life and death and heightened consciousness stimulated by dire straits, but true to form, Adventure Time takes it to a cosmic scale than no one else on television would dare touch.

To recap, several episodes and some seasons past, Marceline tracked down her stolen stuffed doll Hambo to the lair of Maja the Sky Witch, who’d been harnessing the embedded sentimental energies for her own machinations. In the midst of an episode about friendship and the seemingly insurmountable gap between the over-feeling Marceline and the coldly calculating Princess Bubblegum, PB strikes a bargain with Maja, taking Hambo back, but giving up in exchange the sweet band shirt that Marceline had given her. The Vampire Queen mistakenly believed that the Candy Queen never wore it, when in fact she wore it nightly as her PJs. D’aww.

I’m a bit disappointed in the culmination of that arc, since I saw so much potential in the conflict to discuss nostalgia value and sentimental worth, but it looks like those themes were tangential to the episode. Or so I thought.

To stand a chance against PB’s formidable pair of laser-blasting Gumball Guardians (heh, pair of laser-blasting balls), Maja utilized the feels-charged energies of the shirt to perform a complex ritual that melded future and past into a supercharged present moment, thus allowing her to awaken the sleeping titan known only as . . . Darren. Much to Maja’s confusion though, Darren is awakened with a few screws loose, or rather, a few screws meant for holes that no longer exist. Innuendo unintended.

See, Darren comes from an unfathomable time and age, one that isn’t really described in detail; all we know is that he has an impossible time understanding Maja’s motivations, and the feeling is mutual—he has no clue what ‘feelings’ are, much less how they summoned him, and she refuses to take a timeout and fathom his single-minded need to feed. This disconnect between mortal and primordial becomes a central issue of “Something Big,” completely displacing the seemingly epic-as-balls battle that’s about to ensue.

And it totally is epic as balls: time is running out as Darren and Maja are bursting through the force-field surrounding them (one created by a newly introduced princess—Gridface Princess, who looks like girl Daft Punk and apparently is a technological wunderkind), Darren summons the ‘Legion of Cadmus’ (naked buff dudes spawned out of giant pearls falling from a rift in the sky), candy cannons are fired, Banana Guards cowered, it was pretty real.

BUT NOT AS REAL AS THE ENTRANCE OF ANCIENT PSYCHIC TANDEM WAR ELEPHANT, who turns out to be every bit as badass as I dreamed—his tusk-rifles make short work of the self-regenerating (and Attack on Titan-reminiscent) Legion of Cadmus, and whose mind-beams prove nearly a match for Darren’s own ancient strength.

But a strange thing happens—it turns out that Darren and Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant go way back (Darren calls him Eli, that’s way cute), and the two have a depressing exchange fit for Alzheimer’s patients with a moment of clarity: “HI, DARREN!” “All this stuff is different now, what are we even doing here??” The two are hopelessly out of sync with the present they’ve been thrust into, and Eli admits that the transition hasn’t been easy. Constantly throughout the battle, Maja and Darren had been butting heads, Darren still clueless as to what the flip ‘feelings’ and ‘candy’ are, and Maja frustrated that Darren desires only to consume the Candy Kingdom and their Princess, whose feelings the Sky Witch needs for her own purposes.

What we’re seeing is a clash between mortals and primordial beings, the little people who scramble about playing their ego games, and the Old Ones who are a lot like us, but simpler (hence ‘primordial’)—Darren understands two things alone: life and death. Everything else, including ‘feelings,’ is petty, mortal complication. He’s eating to sustain himself, as all organisms must. As for Eli, I’d venture that he’s the primordial manifestation of warfare, since he says about as much towards the episode’s end, when Finn is bent on freeing the living war-machine. And pardon, but I just gotta say Eli is SO GOOD AT WHAT HE DOES.

As mighty as they appear, they still feel, as we do, the need for purpose, and perhaps it’s for this reason that Darren says “Thank You” as Finn pierces his brain-seed and vanquishes him, thus thwarting the siege on Castle Bla-I mean the Candy Kingdom. Anyone else believe in synchronicity, or just me?

The end of the battle is far from the end of the episode. Back at the Treehouse, Finn stirs guacamole while Eli hovers at his window, begging for commands. It’s just downright sublime that the ultimate psychic war machine is hovering at the window of a little boy and asking for purpose, but fitting at the same time. Think about it: when have you ever seen a child have an existential crisis? Kids simply embody DGAFness—they feel, they act, that’s it and that’s everything. And that’s the connection between episode’s grandiose, cosmic themes and the core of Adventure Time, which is childhood. With this simple image, everything comes full circle—while the mortals are summoning supposedly higher beings for their power and ability, they come to a child seeking essentially the same thing. Together they form a self-enclosed world in which there is no easy answer to the big questions, at least not externally. Where kids can just act guided from within, indifferent to purpose, we simply can’t do that.

Finn convinces Eli to go into the world and fulfill his own potential, whatever that may be. We track the hovering pink hulk across days in a montage of arcing suns and moons, and he comes eventually to rest in a cave. Inside, he watches an ant carry a leaf (“I’m doing this for a reason; what choice is there?”) and a mother bird feed her chicks. If that isn’t enough food for thought for an elephantine death machine, the sun itself speaks to Eli as a being even older than he is, one destined to swallow the solar system in fire, thus returning organic life and all its little mortal squabblings back to stardust. He urges Eli to consider his own situation, whether he’s simply a pile of meat with psychic brains and rifles for teeth, or if he is the vessel for the “soul memory of a million dead stars.” Finally, he delivers the epic Zen one-liner “How do you light a candle without a match?”

If the phrase means nothing to you, it certainly means something for Eli. He chooses to return to the battlefield, where a comatose Maja is still donked-out from the battle. The elephant volunteers to be her friend and keeper until she regains her strength, much to her terror, as she can’t comprehend why the laser-spitting elephant that felled her is now playing mother-bird to her broken mind and soul. It’s an act that makes sense to no one but Eli, performed purely out of child-like whim, because now he is both “match and candle,” a self-guided being.

But to come back to the theme of feelings . . . well, what should we make of them? Are they just complicated add-ons to the basic survival instincts of life, death, and sustenance? I don’t quite think so. The tokens of feelings, Hambo and PB’s bandshirt, are both sources of endless strife for everyone involved—Marceline suffered the loss of Hambo, and Hambo himself is a symbol of Simon Petrikov’s sacrifices and a fatherly affection that the Ice King can no longer remember. PB’s t-shirt was embroiled in a whole mess about how Marcy thought PB never cared. Feelings are the epicenter of struggle, the very ‘stuff that happens’ and cause happenings in turn; I’d say Eli’s adoption of Maja is the spontaneous growth of feelings in a being meant only for subservience. You could even say Eli is learning to be a child again, propelled only by an ineffable ‘inside-voice.’

And if Eli becomes the child, then we can see the ‘primordial’ class of beings as pre-children, or simply animals, as that’s what Darren’s ‘live-to-eat’ philosophy boils down to, and feelings are an inner sprout reaching outwards and upwards towards higher consciousness.

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