Season 5.2 is arguably the most drastic shift in tone from previous seasons in the entire series. As I’ve mentioned before, and as most of your probably know, Adam Muto took over as showrunner beginning with this half season for the remainder of the series, and by comparing the first half of the series to the second half, you get a pretty clear sense of each showrunner’s attitude and influence on the show. Pendleton Ward is a quiet, yet silly guy who wanted a quiet, yet silly show. He always wanted the series to be kept light, with hints of darkness and beauty scattered throughout. The show was able to have moments of tragedy and heartache, but was always interlaced with lighter and sillier moments. While season 5.2 has similar attitudes in its execution, Adam Muto took a stance towards a darker, more controversial approach in terms of how the characters are written and how most of the stories are told.
Thus, Adventure Time became less about the individual adventures that Finn and Jake embark on and how their actions affect the people around them, and much more about Finn and Jake dealing with tougher and more realistic trials such as the loss of a loved one and the struggle to find out what place they truly have in the world. The scope of focus also became broader, and Finn and Jake are no longer the sole stars of the series. Inhabitants of the Land of Ooo all get their chance in the limelight, more so than ever in the following season.
The show definitely lost a bit of its identity for this shift; no longer was this the series that was so goofy and weird that it spawned a cult following (and honestly, thank God for that on some accounts. Couldn’t tell you guys how much it bothers me when people address that AT is the best show to get high to). It’s now a series that is less focused on what made it work in the first place, and instead focused on evolving and developing on the world and characters it set up in the first place. And Muto chose some risky decisions to emphasize this direction.
This half season mostly focuses on Finn’s break-up with his loving girlfriend, Flame Princess. Though it doesn’t take up the entirety of the season, it is the main focus in episodes like Frost & Fire, Earth & Water, and The Red Throne, is an overarching theme in episodes such as Too Old, Love Games, and Dungeon Train, and is shown to still affect Finn deeply in The Pit and Rattleballs. And though we sympathize with Finn during his tough time, it’s almost as if the show intentionally placed him into unlikable territory and wanted the audience to turn against him in an attempt to show how much he has lost his way. Honestly, this is what makes this story arc so enticing for myself. Shifting Finn from a kind, caring hero to a slightly incompetent douchebag was a pretty ballsy decision, and while I think the writers went too far with his portrayal in some instances (i.e. The Red Throne), this display of Finn’s character was filled with ripe and interesting details. I’m glad that the series took time to show that, despite his identity as a hero and an overall do-gooder, Finn is still deeply flawed and is not immune to human insecurities. Finn is the human; this series is filled with so many (literally) colorful characters, that Finn is the one that we’re supposed to relate to and be able to empathize with the most. While I certainly don’t want him to embody all of the darker elements of humanity, it is refreshing to see that he is just as misguided and confused as the rest of us. I think that’s the best way to describe his behavior, “misguided.” I like that the show is still able to make him seem enjoyable and likable even during some of his less heroic moments. Regardless of his actions, you can just tell the little guy is confused and uncertain of his needs and desires as ever. In an episode like The Red Throne, where Finn’s behavior is exemplified to its own detriment, his portrayal fails because it touches less on making Finn seem human and flawed and just focuses on making him as cartoony and unrealistically incompetent as possible. The reason Finn’s character works so well is because of the honest, compassionate, and genuine storytelling that carries out his character. This season may not have showcased the Finn we all have come to love so dearly, but a different side of his personality that we can still accept and invest in, despite how unexpected it is. We care because we love Finn, and even in moments where we dislike how he’s acting, we understand his circumstances for what they are. It’s something this half-season really excels at.
Aside from the Finn focused bits, this half-season also dabbles in some pretty experimental exercises. The Vault cleverly uses a past life of Finn as a framing device to show a bit of depth into the creation of the Candy Kingdom, Root Beer Guy centers around the life of background citizen of Ooo, Lemonhope is an ambitious, visually interesting tale focusing on substance and allegories rather than all-out action, and Bad Timing features a very neat visual gag, while also managing to do the unthinkable by making Lumpy Space Princess a genuinely sympathetic character. Many episodes of this season also amped up Princess Bubblegum’s presence by showing her shadier and more questionable character traits, such as Frost & Fire, James, Apple Wedding, and Rattleballs. Again, it’s a bit of a controversial decision, but nonetheless an interesting route to take her character in, and one that really makes every one of her spotlight entries raise more intrigue and questions. Hell, Finn and PB steal the spotlight so much in this season that several other main characters take a bit of a step back from the limelight. Marceline had major appearances in Sky Witch, Red Starved, and Betty, yet of the three, only Sky Witch was truly telling and impactful for her character. Even Jake takes a bit of a step back and is absent for a total of four episodes toward the end of the season. Whether John DiMaggio was busy or not, I think it is somewhat appropriate that the series does not feel the need to shoehorn Jake in every time that Finn appears. Not that his presence isn’t welcomed, but it’s cool that the show is able to breathe with just having Finn on screen and leaving it at that.
While I overall enjoyed 5.2 more than 5.1, I will say that this second half to the season did fluctuate in quality quite a bit, but for interesting reasons. Part of the reason is because some episodes were so unbelievably good, and some of the best that the show has ever put out, that others seemed weaker in comparison. Dungeon Train is a perfectly delightful episode that continues to show off Finn’s insecurities, though through Jake’s perspective, yet I gave it a lukewarm review because it was also coming directly after the epic The Vault and the ever-hilarious Love Games. And because some of these episodes were so good, the weight of the actual clunkers felt much more diminishing. An episode like Red Starved might have been well fitting a couple of seasons earlier, but with where the series is now, it doesn’t truly do anything that justifies its placement this late in the series. And I don’t say that because Red Starved is filler; one of the best episodes to come out of this entire season is Time Sandwich, and that’s practically the epitome of filler. What I mean is that the bar is set so high by this point that anything “average” comes closer to feeling like a misfire. Which means that episodes like Box Prince and The Red Throne really feel like the worst pieces of shit ever created, even though I’d probably still prefer to watch them over anything else on television. What a complicated series this is.
This half-season benefited from some really solid teams. Cole Sanchez and Andy Ristaino were practically comedic geniuses when working together (which really helped divert from the somewhat unfitting Sugar-Sanchez pairing), Tom Herpich and Steve Wolfhard continued to create some of the most ambitious efforts that AT has ever put out, and occasional guest work from Pendleton Ward, Graham Falk, and Luke Pearson gave an extra boost of creativity to each of the episodes they worked on. Somvilay Xayaphone and Seo Kim were unfortunately the only dead weights this season; feel bad ripping on them, but of the five episodes they worked on during this half-season, only Blade of Grass stands out as a truly competent episode. Earth & Water had some storytelling flukes, Box Prince was incredibly banal, parts of Play Date were good, but the episode as a whole suffers from being disjointed, and The Red Throne features some of the worst writing for Finn in the entire series and awful pacing. Luckily, the two eventually find their feeting with each other as partners, though this season certainly is not one of them. If I had to pick the true shining stars in terms of boarding partners, I’d say that Jesse and Ako were all around a pretty superb pairing, per usual. In terms of quality episodes, I think Herpich and Wolfhard definitely churned out more gems, but Castuera and Moynihan felt the most competent and unique in their efforts. Even an episode like Betty, which could have so easily tanked due to its haphazard pacing, succeeded because the two artists have really mastered the practice of fitting as much substance as they possibly can in 11 minutes. And of course, Billy’s Bucket List works as a perfect swan song for the temporary end to this team.
Top 5 Best Episodes
Honorable Mention: Lemonhope – Threw in an honorable mention last time, so why not do it again? Lemonhope isn’t an absolute favorite of mine, but its terrific storytelling and out-of-the-box visuals give it a very unique and different presence from any other episode in the series.
5. Root Beer Guy – A terrific noir-themed episode that centers around one of AT’s best background characters.
4. Frost & Fire – Was really debating putting this one in the top five, but I think it really deserves it. It’s the direct turning point for AT as a whole, and capitalizes on Finn’s mistakes in all the right ways.
3. Bad Timing – The best LSP episode to date, and one that is fueled by enticing emotional turmoil.
2. Too Old – A really great tale about the dangers of recreating the past, and one that’s done using Lemongrab and Finn of all pairings.
1. Time Sandwich – AT at its all-time funniest; a pure romp of undeniable joy, cleverly featuring most of AT’s main cast in all the best ways.
Top 5 Worst Episodes
5. Earth & Water – A follow-up to the “Finn’s break-up arc” that showcases an interesting backstory for Flame Princess, but nevertheless offers nothing particularly insightful or challenging.
4. Red Starved – A mostly dull episode that doesn’t offer anything new between the Jake-Marceline relationship. (Also, that fucking colorblind joke still rubs me the wrong way)
3. James – One that feels extremely convoluted and contrived, and also pretty bad on the storyboarding and animation side as well.
2. Box Prince – Very little of substance or interest.
1. The Red Throne – One of Finn’s worst portrayals to date, and an abysmally disjointed story to go along with it.
Season 5.2 definitely spent a lot of time testing the waters for the new direction the series was heading in, which is often apparent, but man, some of these entries are just so damn good. It was also nice to get a bit of serialization that gave this season a compelling arc that (mostly) carried all the way through. Season 5.1 had a handful of gems as well, but often times I felt that it was… directionless. Where 5.2 feels much more focused on telling a consistent story, with plenty of delicious fluff in between. Overall, I thought this half-season was great. It fully committed to telling some really ambitious stories, many of which would become even more unique and creative in the following season.
“Frost and Fire”
“Root Beer Guy”
“Lemonhope” (both parts)
“We Fixed a Truck”
“Blade of Grass”
“Billy’s Bucket List”
“Earth and Water”
“The Red Throne”
Overall, this is the most consistent batch of episodes the show’s put out to date. The majority of the episodes are very good-to-great, and the highs are some of the highest in the series’ run. Is it quite as great as seasons 6, 7, and 8? Not for me, but I can see why one would think of this run as the peak of the series.