“Fionna and Cake” was perhaps the single most brilliant episode in the past five season of Adventure Time. It’s not just the fact that the creators so brilliantly translated every single character in the show’s cast to the opposite gender. It’s not even the fact that the whole gender-swap alternate universe is an affectionate knock against the entire fan-fiction history, casting fanfic authors as real-life Ice Kings desperate to take part in their favorite characters’ fantasy worlds. It’s that it throws characters’ complex skulls wide-open, baring the disturbing insides in vibrant color. “Fionna and Cake” is, in fact, one of the most intimate portrayals of Simon’s lonely, confused and irremediable sociopathic condition, one in which he can’t identify gender, accurately replicate affection or participate in human (or post-apocalyptic-fantasy-creature-or-whatever) interaction. This week’s episode, “Bad Little Boy,” lets us in again, but this time we get VIP access to one of the show’s most enigmatic and alluring characters: the Vampire Queen Marceline.
Let it be known that this is not an episode for first-time viewers. It’s an excellent story that newcomers may enjoy, but it would be an utterly bewildering one. Then again, everyone I’ve ever exposed to this show has been utterly bewildered, no matter how simple the story, but that’s neither here nor there. In fact, this show can only be truly appreciated by the series’ most die-hard fans, because if you haven’t seen “Memory of a Memory” from Season 3, you’ll miss the entire point of this episode.
Just like in the original “Fionna and Cake,” the Ice King imprisons his audience, forcing them to “enjoy” his story, because that’s the only way he can interact with others- by forcing them to interact with him. But there’s one character who’s known Simon from the beginning, and actually interacts with him willingly. She even listens patiently to his fanfic. Now that we’ve seen Marceline and Simon’s complex backstory in “I Remember You,” we can understand, to some extent, the nuances of a rescuing-widower-cum-despondent-sociopath and a orphaned-monster-cum-aloof-hipster-royalty father-daughter relationship. We can also accept that Marceline would join in the fan-fiction party, as Marceline crafts her own alternate universe, in which we get a telling picture of her perception of her relationship with Finn, Jake and even her psycho-ex Ash.
It’s clear that Marceline is cognizant of her bad-girl temptress relationship with Finn, and her dismissal of Jake as Finn’s conscience/Jiminy-Cricket, and the trio get plenty of screen-time as gender-swapped versions of their real selves, but then Marshal Lee, her alternate-reality male version, starts to get abusive and controlling. Just like, you got it, her own ex-boyfriend Ash. It’s like Marceline is so bound up in her past relationship that she can’t help exposing it in her fan-fiction, but it’s never explicit- the characters in this episode never mention the connection between Ash and Marshal Lee. I mean, it’s not like anyone but Finn and Jake know about her romantic past. But us diehard fans do, and experienced viewers probably couldn’t help but identify the parallels between the two characters. That’s the nature of this show-the true past and inner psychosis of each character is only revealed in specific episodes over the last five years of this show. You can pick up on the broader nature of each character and how they function superficially, but you’d never understand the complexities and nuances of this show if you miss the little snippets of meaning and lore. In this instance, you’d never really pick up on “Bad Little Boy” if you missed “Memory of a Memory.” In the same way, “I Remember You” makes little sense without “Holly Jolly Secrets,” and “All Your Fault” is bereft of meaning without “Too Young.”
But this isn’t quite the same as Arrested Development, where every scenario and line is a complex inside joke dependent on previous episodes for its comedic value- “Bad Little Boy” still stands on its own, based on a strong musical showing and engaging characters. Seriously, sometimes Adventure Time gets totally hipster, quirky and very ad-lib with its musical performances, but the ongoing rap and duet combo in this episode is exceedingly well-crafted and not as offbeat as the usual Adventure Time music. New character Marshal Lee totally has enough self-aware swag to pull off the white-boy wordplay that pervades this episode’s climax, and, just like in “Fionna and Cake,” the singing is utterly charming. I still get the goosebumps during the musical part of “Fionna and Cake,” and Marshal’s delivery in this episode is just as good. Finn’s original voice actor wasn’t chosen for his singing ability, something that shows in episodes like “What Was Missing” (even though it has its own offbeat charm, of course), but the alternate-reality characters were seemingly chosen for both their singing ability as well as their voice-acting ability.
Just as enjoyable is the episode’s punk love story and Fionna’s charming and unwilling vulnerability. Even first-time viewers can identify with the heartfelt and original tale of abuse, affection and honesty in “Bad Little Boy,” even if they don’t get how awesome Lumpy Space Prince’s moustache is, or the fact that he/she/it still has the exact same voice and voice actor. That’s Pendleton Ward himself, btdubs.