Adventure Time is one of those shows that gives its viewers just enough to get invested in large plot arcs, but keeps enough away so that we always want more. For example, what exactly is going between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum? Is Finn destined to lose his arm no matter what universe he’s in? Where is Betty and what is she doing? These kinds of questions lead fans to speculate much about the world’s properties, stories, and characters. One character that I enjoy analyzing in particular is Princess Bubblegum, especially where she falls on a scale of morality.
Last month, I wrote about needing more jerk-y female characters. The Princess is an example of one way that sort of character can be used: she is usually quite nice, but has a darker side. Bubblegum is cold just as often as she is affectionate. As much as she appears to care about her subjects, she is willing to sacrifice people and things to achieve goals. She is stuck in a land of strange morality. However, when her actions may hurt someone, they are typically done for the greater good. This is exemplified most clearly with her involvement with the Flame Princess. It was partly Bubblegum’s actions that lead to Flame Princess being imprisoned for much of her life. In Bubblegum’s mind, it was better she be imprisoned than destroy much of the world, despite how Flame Princess felt about it.
Problem avoidance is another common theme in Bubblegum’s interactions. Lemongrab, Goliad, and Rattleballs all are characters that were dealt with in a somewhat cold way. Lemongrab was given his own kingdom; that way, Bubblegum didn’t have to force him to adjust to the Candy Kingdom’s norms. Goliad, a sphinx created by the Princess to be her successor, went power-mad and intended to control everyone with psychic power against their will. Instead of defeating Goliad or convincing her to stop, the Princess created another sphinx to distract her, thus locking them both in eternal psychic combat. Rattleballs was part of a robot police force that the Princess created that got out of hand. They craved violence too much, and were destroyed. Rattleballs, through self-meditation to calm himself, and time spent convincing the Princess, was spared this fate. However, he was forced to hide and protect from the shadows. Again, these examples show that Princess Bubblegum is dedicated to protecting her people, but not always in the cleanest way.
This was evident in the episode “James”. In this episode, Bubblegum, Finn, Jake, and a character, James, go on a scouting expedition in the desert. The mission goes awry after they uncover a zombie-like creature. The Princess determines that the only way out would be for one of the crew members to sacrifice himself and distract the monsters. She convinces James to do this, but she knew Finn and Jake would protest. To save them all, PB knocks the two of them out and lets James sacrifice himself. However, upon return to the Candy Kingdom and recovery from head trauma, Finn and Jake find that James has been cloned—but without much of his memory, indicating that he is almost a completely different person. Finn asks Jake, “Is this right or wrong?” to which he replies, “I can’t tell.” In my opinion, this exchange perfectly describes the Princess and how the audience probably views her.
I find this ambiguity intriguing and useful. Many shows have a strict black and white morality—we know who is good and who is bad, although more media has been introducing worlds where the morality is black and grey (i.e. villains and heroes with dubious methods, like The Dark Knight). This is different with Adventure Time. Much of the Land of Ooo is purely good—Finn and Jake, the Candy Kingdom citizens, etc. Then we have a very clear villain in the Lich King and the Chaotic Evil Flame Kingdom citizens. Things get tricky with the Ice King, however, who is clearly antagonistic to princesses, but who doesn’t participate in any evil activity other than that. He would most likely fall into that grey area. Princess Bubblegum is another weird mark on the spectrum as her actions sometimes don’t seem to be for the benefit of good or evil, but rather science.
This point is important. Although Adventure Time is enjoyed by older fans, as primarily a children’s program, it must be shown that not every person falls neatly into a good/evil archetype. These situations come up more often than we’d like to admit. People will often have conflicting goals, and neither of those goals will be explicitly wrong. How can someone choose sides in these situations? As a show that is largely about growing up and exploration (both literally, and metaphorically), this concept is one that shows up more and more often. When the show began, the conflicts were pretty straightforward with Finn and Jake fighting the Ice King to save the Princess. But as they all grew and evolved along with the show, the definite, constant character conflicts became blurry. Even Finn has struggled with being a character with insincere motivations without technically being on the side of evil.
All in all, if a character exemplifies the blurry morality in Adventure Time, and by extension, our own world, it’s Princess Bubblegum. A character/person can be on the side of good, but still be guilty of dubious activity. Sometimes they might not even be a jerk about it. Sometimes, they might even be your most consistent ally.