Original Airdate: September 26, 2011
Written & Storyboarded by: Adam Muto & Rebecca Sugar
I’ve felt iffy about What Was Missing for a very, very long time. It’s arguably one of the most popular episodes to date, and while I’ve always thought that the episode was well crafted, I also sensed a feeling of tonal difference from the rest of the series. What I love about AT is that the characters’ feelings, motivations, and life paths are left mostly ambiguous and up for debate, and that notion has only increased throughout the run of the show. Rebecca Sugar, on the other hand, has her own specific style that is very different from everyone other staff member on the show, mostly because she has her own vision for the characters and precise ways of writing for them. Sugar’s style is evident on a show like Steven Universe, where all of the characters are very honest and genuine about their emotions and feelings, and almost every episode works towards some sort of conflict resolution or developmental change. AT, as I said, is very different in its approach. It’s more about drawing your own conclusions about what the characters are feeling, and continuously opening new doors (no pun intended) within the Land of Ooo. These are two very different mediums that collide especially in later seasons when Sugar’s style becomes more evident, this episode included. I could even see this working as an SU episode, with Steven, Pearl, and Amethyst filling the shoes of Finn, PB, and Marceline respectively.
So what point am I trying to make by this? Well, frankly, for a while I was less enthusiastic about What Was Missing than everyone else was. I really just thought it was too big of a tonal shift for the show to take on, and the characters acting this open and honest with each other felt a bit… out of place. However, after rewatching this episode and the commentary for it specifically for the review, I do have a bit more of an appreciation of it. I realize that this is just a very big passion project that involved Sugar pouring every little bit of her heart into it (not ignoring the fact that it’s also Adam’s episode, but let’s face it, this is pretty much Rebecca’s baby).
The songs she wrote for this episode, I’m Not Your Problem and What Am I to You? are some of the best written songs in the entire series, and derive from very personal place in Sugar’s heart. I’m Not Your Problem not only addresses the subtle, long term conflict between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, but channels an experience Rebecca had while trying to impress a roommate she once had, but failing in that regard. Some of the strongest songs in the series come from personal experiences that help the tune feel more raw and passionate (All Gummed Up Inside, Lost in the Darkness) and this is another great example. It’s an aggressive and intense experience, and pretty much gives us everything we need to know about Marceline and PB’s past history without ever giving us any flashbacks or long bits of exposition. It shows the flaws between both characters: Bubblegum’s unintentional ego and Marceline’s feeling of inadequacy. It’s a very well done conflict that I think a lot of people can identify with, and it’s done in such a unique and entertaining way.
What Am I to You? is in the same vein. Dealing with Finn’s inferiority complex towards Bubblegum and Marceline is something that feels a bit overlooked and undermined through time, but it’s done in such a catchy and sweet way that it’s hard not to instantly be able to empathize with Finn as a viewer and immediately see things through his perspective. The inspiration behind this song is actually something that admittedly had me tearing up a bit while listening to the commentary (or someone in my house was just coincidentally chopping onions. I like to think the latter). Sugar wrote this song based on her experience with the Adventure Time crew, and how she finally felt accepted in her position and no longer saw her job as work, but rather something she genuinely enjoyed doing with people she loved. It’s a very endearing, loving message that honestly makes the episode itself even more heartwarming, and for that reason, it’s really hard for me not to get drawn into this episode. It puts every bit of care and compassion into it from the crew who love working on this show so much.
Besides that bit, I like the little in-between bits as well. Jake pretending to be the jerk of the band is funny enough, and even gets better when he alters his entire appearance. Finn’s little song about pasta is cute, and I just really love seeing all of these characters together at once. It’s rare that we even get to see Finn, Jake, and Marceline hangout from this point on, so it’s very nice to see Bubblegum and BMO included on this friendship train. It highlights some of the most important flaws of each character and focuses on them in great detail: Finn’s awkward and sometimes creepy interest in Bubblegum, Marceline’s inferiority towards her old friend, PB’s intelligence that can often come off as condescending, and Jake’s inability to take anything seriously. I even like the Door Lord as well, voiced by Steve Agee. His design leads me to believe he’s some sort of relative or distant cousin of Key-per, and it honestly cracks me up everytime he speaks in his hummed speech. Apparently the storyboard has legitimate translations for what he’s saying, but you can pretty much gather the gist of it without even needing to know.
In the end, it actually is an episode that warrants the characters being so open about their feelings. In fact, it’s basically the whole point. Though I do like the ambiguity that each character possesses in their emotions and personal struggles later on, it’s nice to watch them finally get what is bothering them off their chest, and it’s a pretty good message to show that the truth will set you free a majority of the time. Finn got to open up about his feelings towards Bubblegum to Jake recently in Wizard Battle, and while he isn’t that explicit this time, it’s nice to see that he does acknowledge how he feels about her in a way, and that he’s able to earn a newfound respect in return. In addition, Marceline’s able to do so by accepting the way that she feels towards her ex-BFF. By not getting angry at herself for wanting to reconnect with Bonnie, Marceline allows a possible chance for forgiveness and new beginnings, something she couldn’t envision with her bitterness blinding her beforehand. It also shows PB’s side of things by showing her brief admiration for Marcy by having deep sentimental value in the shirt that she gave her, which was really just icing on the cake. My only problem with this episode is most likely your only problem with this episode: why the hell wasn’t BMO mentioned in the song?! She’s sitting right there, Finn! How couldja forget her like that?
And I guess I should acknowledge the brief controversy surrounding this episode. On an AT oriented YouTube channel called Mathematical, which was started up by Frederator Studios, there was a video that gave a brief recap of What Was Missing and analyzed it further by addressing the implied homosexual relationship between PB and Marceline, equipped with fanart of the two in a romantic scenario. The entire channel was shut down, and the mastermind behind it, Dan Rickmers, was fired. To be honest, this is just some dumb bullshit that went down. I get that a couple of years have passed since then and animation and television in general have become considerably more LGBTQ positive recently, but c’mon, PB and Marceline are basically openly lesbian at this point in the series. Whether you interpret them as best friends or an actual couple, the show and the staff seem to be doing everything they can to stress the pairing of them in a romantic sense, so really, was there any point in making such a big deal over allegations if said allegations would later just become practically true without anyone even batting an eye? It was a dumb bit of controversy from the start and only seems more absurd with the current state the show is in.
Getting back to the actual episode, I definitely have grown more positive towards What Was Missing as time goes on. I still don’t know if I’d call it one of my personal favorites, but it’s just so charming and likable that it’s hard for me not to get sucked into what many people consider one of the all time best episodes. It just goes to show that whenever you want the show to be as sweet as can be, ya just add a little Sugar!