Episodes Review: ‘Islands’ (S08E07–14)
- Airdate: January 30–February 2, 2017
- Story by: Ashly Burch, Adam Muto, Kent Osborne, Jack Pendarvis
- Storyboarded by:
Sam Alden, Graham Falk, Polly Guo, Tom Herpich, Seo Kim, Hanna K.
Nyström, Kent Osborne, Aleks Sennwald, Pen Ward, Steve Wolfhard,
- Directed by: Elizabeth Ito, Cole Sanchez (supervising), Sandra Lee (art)
Here we are: Islands. This is the second miniseries that the creators of Adventure Time have made, after Stakes (2015). I was a big fan of the last one, and I particularly enjoyed this, one too. I have quite a bit to say about it, so instead of doing a recap, I’m going to jump right into what I have to say about the 8 episodes that aired this week.
What Works… What Doesn’t…
Within the middle of Islands are arguably two of the most emotionally compelling episodes that the series has ever produced: “Hide & Seek” and “Min & Marty”. Both of these take characters we already knew about (Susan and Martin, respectively) and have them interact with new characters (Frieda and Minerva, respectively). In the end, we learn a great deal about what makes them them. I have gained a new respect for Susan, with the revelation that she was forced to betray her friend (and possible crush). Likewise, Martin’s characterization makes much more sense now—he was not originally an evil guy, but his experience losing Finn and Minerva presumably broke him.
I was worrying how the show was going to handle Finn’s mother, but Minerva is an excellent character. It now makes sense where Finn’s heroic traits—his desire to help others, his inability to rest until wrongs have been righted, etc.—come from, as his mother is a Helper (which is basically a person with the expertise of the best doctors, but with the bed-side manner of the best nurses). I had predicted that the show would present Finn’s mother as a some trite warrior-goddess, so I’m glad Adventure Time instead went down the medical route instead. It’s fresh and creative, and it also makes Finn’s subplot in “Do No Harm” more relevant.
It is rather heartbreaking to realize that Minerva’s post-mortem computerized existence means that Finn will probably never be able to see his mother again, but at the very end of Islands, when Finn slips on the VR headset and is able to embrace his mother in virtual reality, this heartbreak somewhat subsides, if only for a moment. Finn got the chance to meet her, Minerva finally learned that he didn’t die, and the two finally connected with one another. Finn leaves the island with tears in his eyes, and it’s a bittersweet moment. He met his mother, but he can’t physically interact with her. This doesn’t really matter, however, because in the end, Finn’s mission was a success, and he now knows that Minerva is a wonderful, caring mother whom he never had the pleasure of being raised by. That knowledge, and sense of inner peace it brings, is worth all the Finn-cakes in Ooo.
Unfortunately, the beginning three or so episodes after the premiere are, to put it bluntly, somewhat unnecessary. While “Imaginary Resources” is just really funny (Man-BMO is horrifyingly hilarious), “Whipple the Happy Dragon” is a non-starter, and “Mysterious Islands”, while certainly cool, doesn’t really establish much outside of what we already knew (namely that humans are great at killing themselves via their technology). This isn’t to say that these episodes are bad—they are not, and this needs to be stressed. However, the pacing of the miniseries and ultimately the character development within are affected by them. Perhaps Zack Blumenfeld of Paste magazine puts it best when he writes:
An origin arc done well should hit hard in the feels department. And there are moments of Islands that do so, most notably the heartrending story of Susan Strong (Jackie Buscarino) and her childhood flame, Frieda, as told in “Hide and Seek,” the emotional peak of the miniseries. [But] none of the Finn-centric moments in Islands has as much impact as you’d expect. Perhaps this is because Adventure Time here makes inefficient use of its 11-minute format; Finn simply isn’t given the time to process the society he discovers, and the “Islands” episodes that would be totally fine as one-offs—the deadpan, hilarious “Whipple the Happy Dragon” and the sweet “Mysterious Island”—instead take valuable time from the character-driven focus.
If we compare how Islands functions to Stakes, one will see that the former goes from about a 3 to a 9 really fast once we hit “Hide & Seek”, whereas the latter is consistent all the way through. This issue with Islands is perhaps its biggest detriment… and honestly, probably it’s only detriment. But it can’t be ignored.
You can probably already guess who I’m going to praise.
Hanna K. Nystrom and Sam Alden.
Both do just stellar work. Sam’s episodes go from good to great, in that order. Hanna’s episode is, to put it bluntly, perfect. She and Aleks Sennwald do wonders with Susan, giving her depth and a purpose. Susan, for the longest time, felt like an abandoned and awkward season two story arc, and so with the reveal that she was a Seeker, her character seems finally justified.
I also appreciate that Hanna inserts people of color into her episodes. First, it was Marceline’s mother, and now Frieda. This diversity is great, and the show does it in such a low key-yet-major way that it successfully normalizes what is already very normal feature of human society (namely, that people of different shades, beliefs, and cultures all call this planet home). It’s sad that shows have to ‘normalize’ something that is as important as the reality of diversity (since it arguably should be reflected in media in the first place), but Adventure Time succeeds, and I would argue makes the world a bit of a better place.
Humans and Technology
Whereas Stakes was a meditation on the eternal return (a topic that, given all the events that are happening in the world today, is of critical importance), Islands instead focuses on the practical and philosophical implications of technology on humanity. Every one of the islands that Finn and pals land on shows amazing technological progress: Alva’s island features tech that can control the weather, the VR island features a mega virtual reality serving hundreds of humans, Dr. Gross’s islands is the seat of transhumanism, and Founder’s Island is a veritable utopia. But each of these islands also holds a dark not-so-secret. Alva’s island was ravaged by the elements, killing most of its inhabitants. Those on the VR island are helpless and weak outside of their faux-reality. Dr. Gross’ experiments are an affront to nature (more on that later). And Founder’s Island is a nanny state.
According to seminal communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, every technological advance is an extension of humanity (in that it enables us to do things that we were not able to do before), but also an amputation (in that it renders unnecessary previous attributes). An example is the book. While the book allows us to store information for posterity, it also negates the need for us to remember every single detail of an intricate story (as such was tradition with oral stories). This might seem like a pretty good trade-off (I would argue that it is), but it means that we don’t have to put as much effort into remembering things, and so our skills at remembering can weaken the more we rely on the written word. This idea was espoused by Socrates via the story of Ammon, wherein he notes that humans “will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”
Perhaps Socrates was being a bit hyperbolic, but I believe there is a definite truth to McLuhan’s understanding of the issue. Technology is great, but because it redefines what it means to be human, certain factors/attributes/advances/etc. that humans once relied on will fall to the wayside and eventually atrophy. It seems that this is clearly what Islands is trying to show by taking us to the extreme limit: by putting all our trust into technology, we will inevitably lose what makes us human.
Adventure Time consistently proves to be a very humanist show. I don’t mean that in the secular humanist pseudo-religious way, but rather in the full embrace of what it means to live as a human. This is perhaps best illustrated in the sixth season finale “The Comet”, wherein Finn affirms his desire to see his meat existence through until the end. This means embracing all that life has to offer: happiness, sadness, joy, anger, loneliness, love, desire, peace, etc. If we substantially modify our reality and bury ourselves in tech in the desire of escaping the ‘bad’ parts of the world, we will inevitably lose the good as well. At the end of Islands, Finn beseeches his mother to realize this. Life is really not worth living if you only experience the good, because without the bad (or the dangerous, or the risky) your understanding of good is so shallow as to be meaningless.
Now, I’d caution that Adventure Time isn’t espousing a Luddite philosophy. After all, Finn is perhaps the best example of McLuhan’s extension/amputation philosophy (i.e. he has a robot-arm that functions as an extension of the body, but it is also an amputation because he is lacking a ‘meat’ arm), and he seems to be doing fine. In fact, he feels that the arm is natural. Finn therefore represents the proper balance between living the human existence, but also embracing technology to a healthy degree.
It is this ‘healthy embrace of technology’ that separates two other characters: Minerva and Dr. Gross. The two are presented as opposites sides to a similar coin, as both have embraced technology as a way to hold off death. However, the two cannot be more different.
Dr. Gross was attempting to modify the natural world so as to make it ‘better’. Her song about evolution in “Preboot” expresses this ideology. In her mind, the material world is not firing on all cylinders, and so it is up to her to upgrade and improve it. However, she does not seem to be doing this for some sort of altruistic reason, but rather to control the world around her (otherwise, there’d be no reason for her to have the ability to 'over-ride’ her cyborgs’ minds and effectively eliminate their free will). Why does she desire control? The excuse of 'protection’ is given, but that doesn’t justify the extreme measures she goes to. No, the way I see it, Dr. Gross is motivated by one thing: a fear of death. This terror drives her to modify herself with technology in an ill-advised attempt to escape that which comes for all of us.
Finn’s mother, on the other hand, has also embraced a transhuman post-mortem existence, but she is portrayed in a good light. This is intimately connected to the reason for why she uploaded her consciousness: not to live forever, but rather to aid others. We know from the episode “Helpers” that the antics of Dr. Gross caused all of the helpers to eventually be killed off by a virus. Minerva was the last one, but she too was dying. However, her will was strong, and she still had a desire to help others rather than herself. Instead of uploading her consciousness so as to escape the reality of death, Minerva uploaded her essence so as to continue serving the community that she so very dearly loved. Her embracing of transhumanism was ultimately for an altruistic reason.
At the end of Islands, when Minerva finally understands what her son is trying to say, becomes the type of person that Adventure Time is wont to praise: someone who does things (even fully embraces technology) for good and altruistic reasons, but who also realizes that life is worth living, even if that means putting ones self in danger.
(OK, I’m going to talk about some really, really dark stuff right now.)
I might seem like a deathist with this essay… and I guess I am. Like J. K. Rowling, I view death as inescapable, but also something that should not be feared. Dr. Gross fears death, and that fear drove her to do terrible things. Now, I will admit that the concept of death has terrified me since I was 12, but I also realize, in a somewhat Stoic manner, that worrying about it is not going to help things. Even if technology were to advance to the point where we can all live forever, we have to remember that eventually the Universe will burn out and then we’d still bite it. We can’t escape, and we need to realize that. Adventure Time seems to make this point pretty clear.
Mushroom War Evidence: Almost too much to count. We get a glimpse into the world of humanity following the war, but before the present day.