Happening Happened: Adventure Time Helps Us Deal With Time

It feels appropriate that I finished Adventure Time on my twenty-fifth birthday. It is, after all, a show concerned with (among many things) growing up and all the things growing up entails. As a result, it’s also a show about time, and how time passes, and how “everything stays, right where you left it, everything stays, but it still changes, ever so slightly, daily and nightly…” (as Marceline so beautifully puts it).

Even before I reached the finale, I might have guessed it would be framed one thousand years in the future (I couldn’t have guessed it but it hardly surprised me). Some of the best Adventure Time episodes focus on the future of Ooo: the montage that plays over the ending of “Lemonhope” as Bubblegum sings her song includes an overgrown treehouse, a destroyed and abandoned Candy Kingdom, and an equally abandoned Castle Lemongrab. “Graybles 1000+” (one of my hands down favorite episodes) doubles down on the promise of apocalypse, introducing the mutated Ice Thing and the Prize Ball Guardian. Something bad has indisputably happened and there is nothing our heroes can do to stop it, since they’re all dead by the time this new world comes into being.

It might seem like a dour note, promising all the good our heroes accomplish will inevitably come undone, but Adventure Time’s approach to time reframes that apocalyptic future, balancing it with an apocalyptic past. Instead of framing the arc of time in terms of “things getting worse” or “things getting better” it instead suggests simply: “things change (or even more promising: somethings grow somethings die).” As the show progresses we watch the growth of characters, which is often fitful and sometimes regressive. Time is the same – it is organic and thus is always growing, but sometimes in strange patterns we don’t recognize. Just as a person cannot be a “best version of themselves” so can time not be a “best version of itself” (please note: this does not exclude the idea of “personal growth” or “dark times in history.” It simply allows that there is no core “final form” to be achieved. People and the world are both more fluid and multi-faceted than that).

Throughout Adventure Time we witness a lot of theoretical “endings.” In “Evergreen” we witness the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs – a definitive end, and bad news for the dinosaurs, yes, except it’s also a beginning of a new age, our current one. Frequent reference is made to the Great Mushroom War, a nuclear war that wipes out our present day civilization (and takes a huge chunk out of the Earth) – another ending that serves as a beginning of the era that Adventure Time takes place in, giving rise to Bubblegum and the Candy Kingdom and all the characters we know and love. That era will, in turn, come to an end, allowing something new to arise. Adventure Time approaches time as cyclical as opposed to a progression – something it doubles down on by implying that reincarnation, in some form or another, exists: before Finn was Finn he was a butterfly, and Shoko, and will go on to be Shermy thousands of years later, reinforcing Marceline’s insistence that everything stays, but it still changes.

It remains difficult to not mourn, a little, the apparent ephemeral nature of everything our characters have accomplished. We understand things keep changing, that there is no way to maintain stasis, that stasis in fact means death. Still… “Ozymandias” may be a poem poking fun at anyone assuming they will stand the test of time, but it’s difficult to not pity Ozymandias a little, because while most of us don’t make statues testifying to our great works we still like feeling that our actions have weight and consequence. We may intellectually understand they will fade to nothingness, but it’s a difficult emotional pill to swallow. Once again Adventure Time’s relation to time looking like a tragedy, if not intellectually at least emotionally.

There are hundreds of beautiful Adventure Time songs that highlight the show’s relationship to the moment, but since I’m focusing specifically on the finale, and because the song most strongly speaks to what I’m saying, we can listen to BMO’s final song: “Happening Happened”. I’m going to quote the lyrics in full, because I’m going to keep referring back to them:

Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense
It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then

Singing will happen, happening happened
Will happen, happening happened?
And we will happen again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then
Will happen, happening happened?
Will happen, happening happened?
And we’ll happen again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then

If there was some amazing force outside of time to take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so we can see it all, all, all

It will look like, will happen, happening happened?
Will happen, happening happened?
And there we are again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then
Will happen, happening happened?
Will happen, happening happened?
And there we are again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then
That’s why
You and I will always be best friends

When I first listened to the song, I admit I was confused (it sort of sounds like gibberish at first pass). But the more I listened to it (admission: I listened to it A LOT) it started to make more and more sense to me. We are “always living in the present tense,” because that’s what we need to do in order to make sense of the world, and because we’re constantly evolving. We aren’t who we were yesterday, and there’s something sad about that. Things come, and then they go, and it can “seem unforgiving when a good thing ends.” Because we’re always living in the present tense, we can’t really return to any moment. But that doesn’t mean that moment disappears. When BMO says “you and I will always be back then, that’s why you and I will always be best friends,” I don’t think he’s suggesting the moment has permanence, but I don’t think he’s saying it dissolves either. It continues to exist as a moment, on its own merit, with its own inherent value. Maybe the “you and I” aren’t best friends right now (BMO tellingly earlier in the episode but 1,000 years later chronologically refers to Finn as “his best friend” while simultaneously forgetting his name, referring to him instead as Fred, and then correcting himself: Phil). But growing apart, or growing old, or even forgetting each other doesn’t rob what happened of any of the value it once held. It still holds that value even if we can’t access it, because we’re stuck in the present. Time is fluid, and moments are static, and it’s difficult to hold both those things at the same time even if that’s the reality.

Of course Adventure Time chooses to address this antinomic approach to time through song, a form of art, because within art lies the answer to these seemingly antithetical statements. Adventure Time has never made any bones about being a show that comments on art directly, frequently as a prism with which to examine life. Like moments art is static – it encapsulates the thoughts of its moment of conception (completion?). Once it exists, it remains existing in its current form. But reaction to the art, the context around the art, and the world the art exists in is constantly changing, meaning that the art’s relationship with everything is constantly changing – art is at once both static and fluid.

When I was young, the thought of death really terrified me, but I have graduated to the fear of change. Like Adventure Time I can intellectually accept its inevitably, even its necessity, even its beauty, but that doesn’t mean letting go of the moment has become easier for me. I have always loved the moment I’m in, but I often wish I could simultaneously exist in all the moments I’ve been in, that living in one moment doesn’t preclude in living in all the other ones. But of course people change, and grow, and drift apart, and drift together, and things decay and new things sprout. Adventure Time started as a goofy show with a lot of heart and ended as something more, still with a lot of heart. I’m not going to say it had a perfect finale, but I don’t know if something like a perfect finale exists. There is no perfect final moment. Accepting that is just growing up, a constant endeavour whether you’re a fourteen year old Finn the Human or a twenty-five year old Chris the Human.

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