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Festive Rewind: Adventure Time “Holly Jolly Secrets”

9 Dec

It’s TV Ate My Wardrobe’s first festive season and to mark this occasion we are hosting a very special rewind series. What this means is that we will be featuring a whole host of guest posts and in the spirit of the holidays we have asked a variety of writers to discuss a festive episode of their choice. These will be appear on the site over the next couple of weeks and there’s an eclectic mix including teen dramas, science fiction, animation, comedy, drama and more to get you in the celebratory mood. Or to at least give you plenty of suggestions of TV to watch over the break.

Up first is Andrew Daar with the Adventure Time episode “Holly Jolly Secrets.”

Holly Jolly Secrets

There is no Christmas in the Land of Ooo, the setting for Cartoon Network’s sublime Adventure Time.  That’s because the series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which nothing from our current society has survived.  So the Christmas episode isn’t about the holiday itself but what it’s often represents: friends coming together to hang out and eat sweets, and the airing of dark secrets among families.

“Holly Jolly Secrets” isn’t the first Adventure Time episode to suggest that there is something deeper going on with the Ice King, Finn and Jake’s arch-nemesis and bane to princesses everywhere; he wanted Finn and Jake to throw him a “manchelorette” party and he wanted the duo to teach him the secret of being happy.  But it’s here that we first see the Ice King as a tragic figure rather than a comic villain with intimacy issues.  Much of the two-part episode’s runtime is devoted to watching Finn and Jake watching the Ice King’s video diaries.  This sounds like a boring set-up, but Adventure Time’s bizarre humor makes the scenes of watching characters watch TV not only enjoyable but laugh-out-loud funny.  The structure is also very important to the final reveal because we finally see the Ice King communicating to only himself.  In the videos, he is stripped of his posturing and planning, and is purely himself.  We see him for who he really is: a very lonely, very deluded man with magical powers and no concept of responsibility or morality.  Meanwhile, the Ice King tries to get into Finn and Jake’s treehouse, not to attack them, but because he wants to hang out with them.  He goes about trying to watch the tapes with them in the wrong way – because he is deluded – but he genuinely desires to spend time with them – because he is lonely.

If “Holly Jolly Secrets” ended before the final reveal, our conceptions of the Ice King would be changed, and it would be a fun Christmas episode, featuring ugly sweaters, living snowmen, hot cocoa, and a few good friends spending time with each other.  The first three quarters of the episode is full of silly humor, friendship between Finn, Jake, and their sentient video game console/VCR/alarm clock BMO, and Ice King-induced winter hijinks.  Then the episode’s tone takes a sharp left turn, and we get our first glimpse of just how emotionally affecting Adventure Time can be.  We get our first glimpse of the world before “the Great Mushroom War,” and it is a tragic look indeed.  The Ice King’s origins are revealed, and it puts many of his darker behaviors in twisted context.  At no point does Adventure Time use the revelations of the episode to excuse Ice King’s bad behaviors (keep in mind that he kidnaps princesses on the reg; in one of his tapes, he considers kidnapping Wildberry Princess as if he were thinking about his grocery list).  Instead, the revelation is handled much like a family would treat a revelation about a family member; the characters feel empathy for the Ice King rather than sympathy.  The revelation provides insight into Ice King’s bad behavior, but it doesn’t excuse it.  And in their empathy, the characters decide to set aside one day every year to hang out with and feel empathy for “the biggest weirdo in Ooo.”

Like it or not, Christmas often requires us to spend time with people who annoy or anger us just as often as it enables us to spend time with our friends and loved ones.  The Ice King reveals himself as something akin to an embarrassing uncle, someone who makes problems for Finn and Jake and does things that makes them cringe.  But they can’t escape him because in his twisted way, he likes them and wants their company and approval.  And they’ll never be rid of him because he is no longer a cartoonish villain to be beaten, but a tragic figure worthy of pity.  A tragic figure worthy of pity whose darker impulses must be stopped, yes, as even in this episode, he turns to anger when he doesn’t get what he wants. But Finn and Jake will never see him the same way again.  Merry Christmas, Ice King.  You have received the gifts of humanity and depth.

Andrew Daar is an attorney and comedy writer in Chicago.  He has written pop cultural and legal analysis for websites like This Was TV, Sexy Feminist, and Bitch Magazine.

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