One of the great things about this blog is finding unknown or hidden places where mental health conditions are being addressed and looking at what is being said about them. One of the great, positive frontiers is children’s television. Newer shows seem much more willing to take a look at these controversial issues head on. One recent example is Adventure Time’s season four episode “I Remember You.”
Adventure Time is a Cartoon Network show about a boy named Finn and his shape-shifting, talking dog named Jake. They live in an absurdist world, fighting villains who aren’t really evil and saving princesses who don’t need saving. Among the villains is a man named the Ice King, who controls ice and snow, and wants to date a princess (and is friends with penguins). One of the princesses is a 1000 year old vampire named Marceline, who wants to play her bass guitar, not be evil (she drinks the color red, not blood). Some of the other characters include the Bubblegum Princess, who is made of bubblegum and is a scientist, and BMO, a living videogame console. (Television shows for kids seem to be getting more complicated, don’t they?)
In the episode “I Remember You,” the Ice King wants to get himself a girlfriend and hears that women love men with tragic pasts (in a brilliant takedown of pick-up artists). Believing that he has a tragic past that he can’t remember, he takes pages of his scrapbook (which he comments “still smells like tears”) to Marceline, and asks her to help him write a song. While he sings about the Bubblegum Princess, the song eventually breaks down to him wailing about wanting someone to love him. Marceline reads the pages of the diary, and the audience learns that he helped raise little Marceline. Eventually, we learn that the Ice crown he wears is destroying his brain but keeping him alive. In the end, she realizes that he’ll never remember her.
This is one of the most direct views of mental health conditions (and memory loss conditions) I’ve seen. The Ice King has no control over his reactions, and the loss of his relationship with Marceline is tragic (even for someone who doesn’t watch the show). He’s oblivious to her pain, but not because he’s mean-spirited but because he has no way to handle it. At one point, she yells at him to “stop being crazy,” and his response is to climb on top of her fridge. It’s weird and funny and sad all at the same time. He pleads at another point, “Why won’t anyone tell me what’s wrong with me?”
Marceline, meanwhile, is stuck remembering their relationship before the crown destroyed his brain. She loved him, and still does, but can’t handle him for long stretches of time. Adding to her stress is the knowledge (written on a picture of her as child), that he wore the crown to live forever because he didn’t want her to be alone. She’s guilty for it, and for not helping take care of him, and that knowledge doesn’t help.
For a 15 minute short, this was incredibly moving. The relationship between the Ice King and Marceline is fractured but loving, and her exasperation and her sorrow is pitch perfect. From what I know of the show, they have dealt with this relationship in other episodes and plan to do so in the future. This is a great way to help children understand what it’s like to have a mental health condition and how empathy can help someone. It’s also pretty funny, as long as you just go with the all of the weirdness. I’m really glad to see this topic being dealt with so completely, and so well, for such a young audience. I have to think that episodes like this will help the next generation remove the stigma around mental health conditions.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the 1994 movie Nell, which featured an Oscar nominated Jody Foster as a young woman living alone in a cabin, and the doctors who study her. Have you seen this episode of Adventure Time? What do you think of its handling of mental health conditions?