A.I

The new Adventure Time special is the payoff fans demanded

This summer, months into a seemingly never-ending pandemic, Adventure Time fans received a welcome escape from reality: a return to Pendleton Ward’s cartoon world of post-apocalyptic fantasy. HBO Max’s four-part Adventure Time spin-off, Distant Lands, kicked off in June with an interstellar episode focused on tiny robot BMO (Niki Yang). Helmed by producer Adam Muto, the premiere is zany and chock-full of Adventure Time’s signature melancholy. But it’s mostly self-contained, and it doesn’t contribute much to the series’ overarching character lore. It feels like a fun pit stop on the way to a more significant destination.

The second episode, Obsidian, finally arrives there. Centered on Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson) and Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) not long after the original series finale, Adventure Time: Distant Lands – Obsidian provides the emotional payoff and answers that fans have been yearning for.

[Ed. note: some spoilers ahead for Adventure Time: Distant Lands – Obsidian.]

Image: HBO Max

Obsidian begins in uncharted territory: The Glass Kingdom. But within the first few minutes, it becomes clear how this distant land and its citizens fit into Adventure Time’s central narrative. In a ritual retelling, See-Thru Princess explains that her kingdom lived in peace before dragon Molto Larvo descended upon the land, “gunking it up” with his fire. Worlds collide as the audience learns it was Marceline who rescued the community from the monster with the power of a song, beating him back into The Furnace, a molten pit deep within a mountain. During this yearly ceremony commemorating Molto’s defeat, the Glass people exalt “Saint Marceline” and sing her holy song (which has become a garbled mess over the centuries) to keep the beast at bay.

After the celebration ends, Glass Boy (Michaela Dietz), an outcast and Marceline superfan, breaks into the dragon’s lair, attempting to fix the crack on his head in the flames of The Furnace. Molto breaks free, and Glass Boy sets off to find Marceline, who he believes can save the Glass Kingdom again.

The bulk of the 45-minute special uses the Glass Kingdom plot as a backdrop for an exploration of the Vampire Queen’s childhood trauma, her romantic history with Princess Bubblegum, and how the two intertwine. Through numerous flashbacks (time is an illusion that helps things make sense), Obsidian finally fills in the gaps about Marceline’s past: What happened to her mother? Why did she and Princess Bubblegum break up? What does any of this have to do with the Glass Kingdom?

The new Adventure Time special is the payoff fans demanded

Obsidian isn’t as offbeat as BMO, but it’s heavier in plot and emotional weight. Throughout the special, the depth of Marceline’s trauma becomes clear, and explanations for her guarded, standoffish demeanor begin to reveal themselves. In a particularly heart-wrenching scene, a young Marceline and her mom are attacked by a mutated wolf and her pup while traveling through the desert. Marci deals with the problem, but her mother is horrified, foreshadowing the bleak future viewers know is in store for the Vampire Queen.

When it comes to PB and Marceline’s relationship, the show finally fleshes out backstory that was alluded to, but never fully examined during the series’ initial run. Though the “Bubbline” relationship was officially confirmed in the Adventure Time series finale, this retroactive exposition comes off as an attempt to make up for earlier equivocation about the characters’ sexuality and accusations of queerbaiting. As the opening credits flash, viewers are offered glimpses of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s idyllic domestic life — they’re shown building a cabinet, drinking tea (PB, fittingly, sips out of a mug that says “BOSS.”), making apple pie. Through these tender, intimate scenes, the episode’s writers make it very clear that the romantic subtext between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline has always been straight-up text.

But not all interactions between the fan-favorite WLW ship are loving. In the special, as in the main series, Marceline and PB butt heads. The Vampire Queen is still bratty and distant; Princess Bubblegum is a know-it-all with troubling dictatorial tendencies. In the episode “Come Along with Me,” the couple finally rode off into the sunset together, a resolution hard-won by the persistence of fans and writer Rebecca Sugar. But Obsidian reminds viewers that the “happy ending” is where the real work begins — the rewarding, introspective labor required to make a relationship last.

A blushing Marceline and Princess Bubblegum prepare to kiss in Distant Lands - Obsidian

Image: HBO Max

Obsidian has its flaws. The special’s structure and storytelling devices are conventional by Adventure Time standards: Glass Boy’s struggle for acceptance and healing mirrors Marceline’s, while See-Thru Princess’s desire to be taken seriously as a ruler parallels PB’s deepest insecurity. The Glass Kingdom residents’ preoccupation with cracks in their glass does heavy metaphorical lifting in an episode about brokenness and trauma. (The special is called “Obsidian,” after all.) Glass Boy is goodhearted, but grating. And in a few Glass Kingdom scenes, there are inconsistencies in Princess Bubblegum’s character design.

But Obsidian is still effective and heartfelt. The special has its offbeat moments (like a bizarre reference to the legendary “Cool S”), and more than a few surprise appearances from familiar Ooo residents, adding quintessential Adventure Time levity to a meditative, weighty episode. A cameo from Simon Petrikov (Tom Kenny), outfitted in his old blue robe, a toy crown, and Gunther slippers while sticking his face in a freezer “to cope,” is particularly funny. As expected for a special centering on Ooo’s foremost punk-rock vampire, Obsidian comes with plenty of excellent new music, from a blistering break-up shredder to an acoustic love song.

In the Adventure Time finale, Shermy (Sean Giambrone) and Beth (Willow Smith) ask BMO what happened to the heroes of the Great Gum War. They respond, “They kept living their lives.” The second episode of Distant Lands depicts just this: Marceline and Princess Bubblegum living, learning to accept each other’s flaws, becoming better, and, of course, saving the world. Obsidian is all the more romantic and satisfying for this messiness. Marci and Bonnie don’t receive a fairy-tale ending, they earn something better—a shared future that feels real.

Adventure Time: Distant Lands – Obsidian is streaming on HBO Max now.

 

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