Original Airdate: July 20, 2017
Written & Storyboarded by: Polly Guo & Sam Alden
Whispers was a long-anticipated entry for myself, mainly because I had expected a major role from the Lich on two separate occasions prior: first was the season six finale, of which I figured would somehow involve the Lich’s relationship with the catalyst comet in general, and the season seven finale Preboot and Reboot, which I thought to be a reference to Jake’s line in Escape from the Citadel, “That sap rebooted him or something!” 83 episodes after Gold Stars, we finally get to see more into the dynamic between Sweet P. and the Lich, in a thoroughly satisfying entry… for the most part.
I actually think the best portion of this episode centers around Finn and Fern’s relationship. Fern is noticeably upset about the events of Elements and can’t seem to bring himself out of the funk of feeling useless in the grand scheme of things. It’s understandable why Fern would feel this way – even though it clearly wasn’t within his control, he still is overly critical and not a stranger to self loathing. What’s more interesting is that Finn doesn’t immediately invalidate Fern’s feelings and kind of goes along with it, telling him to “learn from his dinks.” I think this could be looked at one of two ways: 1. Finn knows that trying to sweet talk Fern is useless, given that he isn’t very susceptible to positive reinforcement. 2. Finn subconsciously still feels slightly concerned about Fern being a stronger and more influential version of himself (as elaborated on in Cloudy) and doesn’t want him to feel too empowered. The latter paints a more darker and selfish version of Finn’s character, but I think it’s all-the-more interesting if the two of them both experience feelings of inferiority towards each other. Their bond is certainly awkward, but similarly sweet. I like how, since Fern is essentially a duplicate version of himself, Finn can pinpoint exactly how to cheer his quasi-brother up with a simple “squoze.”
Fern alone is pretty much the highlight of the episode for me. His problem obviously isn’t that he just flat out sucks, but his preconceived expectation for failure and a general negative outlook prevent him from truly becoming a competent and successful hero. Finn goes through similar trials and tribulations throughout this episode, namely being vested and almost killed off entirely by the Lich, only to be saved by Sweet P. This is something that Finn could easily dwell on and use for self-destructive behavior, but he doesn’t. Fern, on the other hand, perceives any minor failure as affirmation that he’s awful. No matter how hard Fern tries to separate himself from Finn, he’ll always be reminded of who Finn truly is and that Fern will never be as well-regarded as he once knew in his distant memories. I really love how much the writing staff took advantage of Fern’s inferiority and didn’t choose to fully resolve his arc in Do No Harm. Some would call Fern’s arc as a villain somewhat of a predictable turn given that it’s a common trope among clone stories in film and television, but I feel as if it’s unique enough in this situation to work. Without trying to sound redundant, Fern is Finn, but that unfortunately means that he can’t be Finn and will never be regarded as highly as his counterpart. This partially has to do with Fern’s preconception of himself, as well as the element of reality playing a part too. Some of these failures are played straight for dramatic effect, while others are more humorous. I love how his suggestion to help Sweet P. involved mercilessly murdering him.
I didn’t really think Sweet P. had much of a character in his original star role during Gold Stars, but Whispers plays around with his identity and connection to the Lich much more effectively. Similar to Fern’s connection to Finn, I like how Sweet P. isn’t simply a “vessel” for the Lich as suggested and actually exists as his own independent being. Granted, he’s a child, and doesn’t know a ton about forming his own identity. But, from the simple mind of a child, Sweet P. knows that he wants to be good and to do good things, quite separate from the Lich’s desire for ultimate destruction. This is the last Lich centered episode of the series, and I was originally kind of opposed to the idea that Sweet P.’s arc is resolved in a much lighter and simpler way than expected, but I think it’s kind of fitting considering Adventure Time‘s main theme of change that the ultimate evil within the world of Ooo becomes the ultimate source of goodness and innocence. It’s such a drastic twist that seemed kind of cheap in its inception during Escape from the Citadel, but now I think it’s a change that feels quite endearing on a developmental level. Granted, I can’t help but feel slightly cheated by how much the show built up the Lich over the years, even in recent seasons, but I’ve grown accustomed to the concept that what ultimately killed the greatest source of death and evil in the world was a source of life and righteousness. It’s a simple, yet light-hearted decision that I can get behind. Sweet P.’s presence in this episode is benefited greatly by how Finn acts around him. I love how much of a sweet caretaker he is, even getting to bond with the toddler over having a shitty dad! That was a terrific edition. It also helps that Sweet P. isn’t really meant to be taken completely seriously throughout this one’s run – Sam Alden and Polly Guo have a lot of fun with how massive Sweet P. is, mainly when he tosses himself down the sewer and crushes everything in sight. It’s a fantastic bit of slapstick.
Now, I really like Whispers for the reasons I mentioned above and will mention below, but I think it’s important to discuss the biggest issue with this episode, which is kind of a big one: from a character standpoint, this is the Lich’s weakest entry to date. I’m almost glad this is his last appearance, because I think this episode is a clear sign that he may have outlived his usefulness. The Lich, plain and simple, isn’t scary or intimidating in this episode. There was a time where he really would feel like the big bad he was designed to be, providing a level of intensity and uncomfortable feelings that’s unique to his character only. Even in a bad episode, like Gold Stars, the Lich is able to add substance and atmosphere that nearly justifies the entire episode’s existence. But here, he kind of just feels like a stock bad guy. I thought Finn’s “oh boy, here we go,” in Crossover was a hilarious nod to show how he is pretty used to dealing with the Lich by now, but all of the little nods in this episode, which are funny, just kind of downplay the Lich more and more to where I kind of feel as if there aren’t any stakes at hand at all. It’s really disappointing to say because the Lich is one of those great villains that typically adds so much whenever he’s on screen, but this just kind of feels like overkill. I think the Farmworld Lich hand was a cool twist that I never expected to come back, but the silliness of the hand talking also kind of kills any creepy or threatening vibes in the air. The Lich’s dialogue isn’t particularly engaging either… I think they made Ron Perlman say “child” a few too many times to where it just feels somewhat comical. The one aspect that stands out with the Lich’s presence is that he mentions himself as “the last scholar of Golb” which is interesting, to say the least. I do wonder if this implies a more two dimensional side of the Lich that wasn’t entirely evil before absorbing the knowledge and tendencies of an ultimate evil. Golb is a character that we begin seeing more of from this point on, and this was a great starting point. Otherwise, I was pretty ready to move on from the Lich’s character. People often complained about the Lich only appearing after a handful of episodes, but I think it was the best decision to keep his character intimidating. Otherwise, he’s no more threatening than Orgalorg is.
While the Lich himself isn’t scary in Whispers, the atmosphere, environment, and ambiance suit it nicely. The quiet nature of the forest was a terrific location to build up fear and concern, while the return of the abandoned subway station and the Lich’s well of power carry through that build up in the most invigorating and intense way. Sweet P.’s dialogue continues to be creepy because of its stilted nature, namely when he describes the terrifying nightmares that he’s been having. Even the shadows of the Lich and Sweet P., while slightly silly, provide a bit of a creepy demise for the Lich and a threatening feeling overall. The rest of Whispers looks gorgeous; once again, Ghostshrimp is back at it providing more memorable landscapes, namely the fishing pond that is also a graveyard. The lighting and shifting of the time of day similarly allow for some really beautiful colors and shading to shine through.
It also helps that Whispers is thoroughly hilarious. Whether it be Finn’s back-and-forths with Fern (apparently Fern doesn’t have tree senses, hm), Mr. Fox’s cranky discovery, Jake’s morbid voicemail, or Sweet P.’s uncanny nature, there’s a lot of funny moments packed in this one, especially on Sam Alden’s side of the board. Whispers ends on the stressful and ambiguous note that Fern wants to become the only Finn in Ooo. Sweet P. chose to shape his own destiny, but in Fern’s case, that isn’t exactly the simple route for just everyone. ‘Specially when you have an evil grass octopus living inside of you.
Aside from my gripes with the Lich aspects, Whispers did its job in being both thoroughly entertaining, and a solid entry for development. It still is strange to me that the Lich’s final appearance is just a standard 11 minute episode, but like I mentioned, I guess it’s for the best. The Lich was designed to be the big bad during the show’s initial inception, and I don’t really think anyone expected for Adventure Time to run as long as it did. The sad truth is that the Lich simply had too many opportunities to shine, and isn’t able to recreate the same magic that he was capable of at the beginning of the series. He’s a character that is deservedly retired, for better or worse.