The Tarot Card Symbolism in ‘Adventure Time: Stakes’
Around episode four of ‘Stakes’, something occurred to me: almost every single one of the vampires from Marceline’s past is named after a card from the Major Arcana of a Tarot Card deck. Not only that, but the entire mini-series is soaked in references to the cards and their meanings. This is my attempt to try and analyze at least the most obvious symbolism, though knowing the subtly of this show and my own relatively limited knowledge, it’s very possible/likely I’ve missed some things.
But anyway, let’s get started with:
0: The Fool
The Fool is the very first card in the Major Arcana; it represents boundless potential and the beginning of journeys, something which distinctly mirrors this vampire’s role in Marceline’s story. He’s the first ‘main’ vampire that Marceline slays, the one which starts giving her the abilities to take down the others’. Notably, the traditional depiction of the Fool is of a young child with a dog, taking a step off of a cliff; a wonderful parallel to the young Marceline with her own dog, enjoying the power of flight for the first time.
3: The Empress
This card, as you might expect, depicts a regal woman- usually blonde- sceptre in hand, a picture of control. This is the card of female power, representing beauty, creativity, fertility, luxury, grace and love.
Obviously, the vampire with this name embodies certain aspects of this over others. This Empress is all about luxury, being served upon and drinking the finest of blood (with flecks of gold in it!) She literally controls others through mind control, and though Ice King is immune to those effects, he is insnared by her beauty (and her sexuality).
Grace and love, though? Eh, not so much. However, the greater scope of the episode ‘The Empress Eyes’, is all about love. It’s about Marcy coming to try and save her old friend Simon, even though he (as always) doesn’t even realise he needs saving. At the end, it’s about her apologising for going out of face the vampires alone, and accepting her friends’ help and love.
5: The Hierophant
Sometimes called ‘The High Priest’ or ‘The Pope’, this card usually depicts a religious figure with his hand raised. He represents religion, obviously, but also tradition and conformity. This, of course, perfectly captures the vampire with this name. He is described as an ‘old vampire’, rigid in following the traditions and rules of the past, even when they actively work against him in this new world of Ooo. He refuses to make a truce, or to switch over to a diet of red or even animal blood, despite now existing in a world with virtually no humans left. Ultimately, he is killed by his rules, burned alive after being thrown into a house (read: Jake) without invitation.
However, I think the Hierophant’s existence in the story plays a larger symbolism. ‘Stakes’ is, ultimately, a story of change. Marceline chooses to give up her vampirism, in order to give a chance to grow up and mature, only to discover herself frightened by the uncertainty of the unknown. She is then given a choice; conform to the old traditions, kill the vampire king and become a vampire again, or break the cycle. By choosing the latter, she affectively avoids the same self-destruction of the Hierophant.
Not that the Hierophant isn’t an entirely negative card. In fact, it can mean a call to spirituality, or advise someone about joining a group. Considering this story is about Marcy self-growth, and coming to accept her friends’ support and solidarity, it would be foolish to ignore this interpretation.
18: The Moon
This is the card of intuition, the subconscious, and dreams. This makes sense considering that throughout ‘Take Her Back’, Marceline is trapped in a coma, experiencing vivid dreams. This card usually depicts the moon over a pool of water, explaining why this his vampire made her home on a boat. This card deals with fears, securities and anxieties, which we see demonstrated in Marcy’s dreams. One, features Marcy herself, living in Bonnie’s cabin, having grown old and near dying, while the still eternally young Princess Bubblegum sings with her. This, presumably, suggests that Marcy wasn’t as unconcerned about giving away her own immortality as she pretended. Earlier in the episode, we also see her dreaming about Simon and Betty; now both cured, happily married and acting as the parental figures they were never able to be. It shows her own regrets about her inability to help her dear Simon. However, the purpose of the Moon card is coming to recognize your anxieties, and channel them into a positive way- an emotional healing. Having internalized the Moon suggests hopeful things about Marcy’s future.
4: The Emperor (The King?)
There is no card called ‘The King’; there is, however, one called ‘The Emperor’, which the Vampire King could have been thematically named after. It is the card of authority and structure, of father-figures. This embodies much of the Vampire King’s person. He is (or rather, was) the leader of the Vampires, and even after he expresses a desire to want to leave that role, he still does his best to guide and lead Marcy, to be a figure of wisdom for her.
And considering the sentiments expressed by the Vampire King, wouldn’t it make sense for him to the one vampire not expressly named after a Tarot Card? Which leads us to…
“I’m not afraid of the unknown! I have the power to change destiny! We are vampires! You weigh the scales of fate! Spill my guts, or face the unknown!”
Justice is the card of, well, justice- but also fairness, truth, and law. The Vampire King presents Marceline with a choice; she can do what she’s always done, and slay the Vampire King, even though he professes to have reformed. Just as the figure from the card holds a sword in one hand, Marcy holds a stake; but at the same time, she has a chance to deliver fairness.
7: The Chariot
“My path runs straight into the void- on a sick, flaming chariot!”
The Chariot is the card of will, control, and determination. It depicts a man riding out on a chariot, away from civilization to find spiritual attainment. It is not difficult to see the clear parallels to VK’s decision in this episode; he is willing to face the unknown, in order to break free from the dark fate of being a vampire, and make his own decisions.
10: The Wheel of Fortune
No, not the game show.
‘By the way, I will not bite… but turning you would subjugate me to the Wheel of Fortune! For I am a king, not a hamster!’
The Wheel of Fortune is the card of cycles, of karma, of change, of good luck, and success. The themes of cycles, of fate- but also of the importance of change- are some of the most central themes of these eight episodes. See this first comment The Vampire King makes, when he’s trying to convince our heroes that he truly does wish to reform.
‘This is the Old Way… agents of darkness and light, in a tug of war. But now, a creature can step out of that struggle.’
Or again, later, this exchange he has with Marceline.
VK: Tell me, what’s the one thing you’ve noticed about the world, since you beat me all those hundreds of years ago? M: Everything repeats, over and over again. No one learns anything. Because no one lives long enough to see the pattern, I guess. VK: But you’ve lived long enough.
VK resents the Wheel of Fortune, resents the cyclical nature of reality. He hates how he and everyone else in existence is forced to do the same thing, again and again, never learning or trying anything new.
Marceline, ultimately, does see VK’s point. She cannot just continue doing things just because that’s how she’s always done it in the past, just because she’s afraid of the unknown.
But this card is also about change, and that’s an element of it that both characters appreciate. The Vampire King, ultimately, wants meaningful change. Marceline, too, wanted the chance to grow up- to finally move past the unhealthy emotional state of arrested development she became trapped in when she was originally turned. The song of the mini-series, ‘Everything Stays’, is even about how change, though sometimes difficult to see, is inescapable.
Everything stays Right where you left it Everything stays But it still changes Ever so slightly Daily and nightly In little ways When everything stays
8: … Marceline?
Even though it is never explicitly mentioned, I think there is at least one other Tarot card represented by ‘Stakes’; “Strength”.
In the final two episodes, The Vampire King asked to have his vampire essence removed from his body, so that he can become mortal. When this is accomplished, her returns to his natural state- an ordinary, tame, lion. Later, when his vampire essence is spilled, it transforms into a terrible dark cloud, vaguely shaped like a monstrous lion, which spreads destruction across the land. At first, Marceline refuses to fight, feeling exhausted and defeated, seeing no point in facing the uncertainty ahead. After an (accidental) pep talk from Simon, however, she finds her inner strength, and overpowers the vampiric lion spirit, taking it into herself. In the very final episode, she discovers that the Vampire King still resides in her- though whether as a literal, separate entity, or just some element of her subconscious, remains ambiguous.
So how about the eighth card of the Major Arcana, strength? Traditionally, this depicts a beautiful young woman, calm and peaceful, taking a lion by the jaws, subduing it. Often, above her head floats the infinity symbol.
Marceline finds her inner strength. She fights the lion, not with her usual anger and ferocity, but through peace and determination, and the lion yields to her. It comes under her control. And in doing so, she regains her immortal nature, having now finally been given the chance to grow, and to learn.
Marceline the Vampire Queen, too, is represented by a Tarot card. Strength.
I just finished watching Struck By Lightning for the first time and I feel so emotionally drained… I absolutely adored it though! I spent most of the film in awe of Chris Colfer’s talent, both as an actor and writer.
But yeah, I shouldn’t have watched it on my own… I spent the last fifteen minutes of the film crying my eyes out.
Things I particularly loved about it (apart from everything). Under a read more for spoilers.
Hey Ivy, how does it feel to somehow still be unnervingly clairvoyant about this damn show and these damn characters? Is it fun? How are you doing this?
Unnerving is a good word for it! Also amused, very amused. And a little bit gratified! I don’t write fics in an attempt to predict anything. I’m just “what if”ing from 83920483204832 different perspectives within the boundaries of the characters as we know them, that’s all.
When I wrote The Progress of Sherlock Holmes, there were very few fans writing Sherlock as an emotional man. I had to apologize for doing so quite a lot at first, and I didn’t expect anyone to read it. It was pretty far from fandom tastes at the time, including, obviously, narrative style. I wrote it that way because I didn’t want to write about a man with shallow emotions, that just didn’t appeal to me. It was sort of an experiment to see if I could pack tremendous, outsized emotions into a man who doesn’t ever express them. Would it make sense? Is it feasible? Would it immediately feel out of character? That was one of the many challenges of writing that story and I really enjoyed it, but I expected nothing of the kind in canon. S2 was a huge, stunning surprise to me. But I understand it; emotional!Sherlock is much more fun to write.
I’m much less surprised that they had John talk to dead!Mary in The Lying Detective. I wrote John talking to post S2 dead!Sherlock as part of his grieving process in The Quiet Man, and really, really enjoyed it. It was way more effective and useful than I expected when I first started, and it mimicked an anxiety response of endless arguments in your head, which I thought made sense when John was facing an inexplicable suicide with so much left unsaid. Given that John is in a very similar boat with Mary in S4, I think it’s just the right thing to do to let him play out the conversations he should have had with an imaginary version of Mary. When I wrote it, it was a very internal process, not particularly visual, because I am not particularly visual. It hadn’t occurred to me that this idea actually works better visually, but it totally does.
Generally I think it’s gratifying that we and the writers frequently conceive of these characters in similar ways, and it seems inevitable that we would come up with similar strategies to convey their development.
Confession: I am totally shipping Felicity and Oliver on Arrow. Please give me some good news.
Prepare for all of the Olicity feels when Arrow returns on Wednesday as Stephen Amell tells us, “That relationship is really moving in a new direction. It’s one of those things where, guys do this all the time, you don’t realize the depths and levels of your feelings for someone until someone else likes them.” And we can tell you Oliver definitely is copping some ‘tude towards the tech whiz after she takes a trip to a certain city to check on a certain someone who’s been struck by a bolt of lightning.