Any long-running television show tends to look to its past for inspiration. One of the primary drawcards of serialised TV is characterisation, and what better way to flesh out a character than delve into their past. There’s a tendency for this to go bad – I’m thinking specifically of a second season episode of The Shield (“Co-Pilot”) which improbably packs a plethora of critical pieces of backstory and foundational character-work into one day a few years before the show began – but done right (as in, say, Archer’s third season, or even Better Call Saul, which spun this practice out into a series of its own), it can bring new understanding and depth to already complex individuals.
Adventure Time’s path from cutesy-slash-Dadaist cartoon to a robust universe populated by such complex characters has been primarily facilitated through such flashbacks. The show has sparingly doled out slices of history – in flashbacks often set centuries earlier – that has retrospectively deepened its colourful, crazy world into the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. ‘Goofy’ characters have been shaded in with tragic pasts; most prominently Glenn Kenny’s Ice King – or, as he was once known, Simon.
That’s how Marceline (Olivia Olson), Adventure Time’s resident vampire/guitar-slinger/your cool older sister refers to the Ice King, with their history intertwined in the wake of said apocalypse. So far, Marceline’s backstory has generally been secondary to Simon’s. She’s been a sidekick in his journey from scientist to a Princess-stealing, ice-slinging, self-proclaimed monarch. Stakes!, a ten-episode miniseries occurring alongside Adventure Time proper (with its own intro sequence and all!), corrects that by focusing intently on Marceline’s past: the events that transformed her from a scared, abandoned girl to an aloof, all-powerful vampire.
To some extent, Stakes! operates as a deconstruction of the schematic simplicity of ill-advised backstories. The Shield’s aforementioned mess of an episode sucked not because its foray into the recent past clashed with the contemporary conceptions of its characters, but because it made too much sense. Good writing implies backstory without needing to make it explicit; clumsily doling out a series of “X is grumpy because of this experience” and “Y hates Z because this happened” when the shape, at least, of those events is already unmistakably clear is simply bad writing. Better backstories tend to be as surprising as they are inevitable. They offer the messiness of reality rather than the neatness of a ‘recipe.’
Yet a recipe is precisely what this spinoff provides. A series of flashbacks reveal how Marceline obtained her powers – flight, shapeshifting, super-healing – as she conquers a series of vampires by absorbing their abilities (you could call her a Rogue-like). It’s a distillation of the backstory-as-explanation, providing a straightforward explanation as to who – and what – Marceline is.
Thankfully – since this is Adventure Time, after all – things are touch more complicated than that. Marceline’s past is fleshed out with an understanding of why she resents her new(ish)found powers; they drive her away from communities (of humans, specifically). We come to recognise her teenage sullenness as a performative defence mechanism, and we understand her present-day decision to conspire with her [implied] girlfriend Bubblegum Princess (Hynden Walch) to expel her vampiric powers and regain her mortality. As we observe past-Marceline’s path from humanity to vampirism, present-day Marceline travels the opposite direction.
What Stakes! ends up offering, however, is an acknowledgement that escaping one’s path is not so straightforward. As these two narrative threads appear to be tied off only a few episodes in, Stakes! introduces conflict by reintroducing the vampire baddies that Marceline conquered hundreds of years prior. Marceline finds herself dragged back – by Jake and Finn, largely shifted to the margins here – into the same battles she’s fought before … only with entirely less enthusiasm this time around.
Gradually, this miniseries reveals itself to be a story about the implacability of the past and the difficulty – if not impossibility – of escaping it. Marceline’s attempts to remake herself as a mortal are sabotaged not only by the return of her long-dead foes, but by the sheer inertia of her existence. Stakes! doesn’t entirely eliminate the possibility of reinvention, but it recognises that it’s a deeply difficult – and often painful – challenge. Not bad for a silly kid’s TV show.