Last year, Cartoon Network took home audiences by surprise with their first mini-series, Over the Garden Wall. The ten episode event delighted critics and fans with a short form original story, and this year Cartoon Network took a chance again with a new mini-series—except this time, instead of something new, we got an eight episode Adventure Time special about everyone’s favorite dark horse, Marceline the Vampire Queen.
Adventure Time: Stakes was an eight episode mini-series that aired this past week (with two episodes premiering every night). The special was a sort of character piece about Marceline, a vampire who jokingly antagonizes heroes Finn and Jake, eats the color red, and shares a mysterious past with Princess Bubblegum. The first episode opens up with Marceline approaching Princess Bubblegum asking her to remove for vampirism with science, once and for all.
What happens next is that we get a quick flashback about how Marceline got all of her powers, but sucking out the souls of four different vampires and gaining each of their unique powers of flight, transformation, invisibility, and healing. In her fight with the last vampire in the Land of Ooo, the Vampire King, Marceline makes a final sacrifice that finds her becoming an official undead vampire.
Flash forward to the present, where Bubblegum’s procedure is successful at turning Marceline into a mortal, but releases the souls of the five vampires who return to their physical forms to wreak havoc across the new Ooo. It’s now up to Marceline, Bubblegum, and of course, Finn and Jake to track down and stake the five villains before ever creature in Ooo gets drained of their blood.
Over the course of the eight episodes, Stakes has become some of my favorite episodes to come out of Adventure Time in years. Many fans are divided on the quality of the show six seasons later, some embracing the show’s abstract and artistic experiments, while others long for the zany madcap adventures of a boy and his magic dog. Stakes finds a great balance between the two by experimenting with storytelling and exposition, but also while telling a solid memorable story and introducing a handful of interesting new characters.
Stakes continues to add more to the lore of Adventure Time by showing what the world was like before becoming the candy colored Ooo we already know as well as more details about the nature of Marceline and Ice King’s relationship. In fact, we learn a lot more about Marceline’s place in the world and learning more about her is incredibly satisfying. More light is especially shed on what exactly is going on between Marceline and Bubblegum (and what both of them are looking for in each other’s futures).
Adventure Time found its footing with strong character driven stories and Stakes takes that foundation and turns it up to eleven. Yes, the world building is there and so is that classic weirdness the show has become famous for (at one point, a bunch of characters gather around a campfire to sing the Mr. Belvedere theme song), but it feels like in Stakes, the writers have gone out of their way to keep the show from being too obtuse. There is something satisfying about watching an episode of Adventure Time and not quite knowing how to feel, but Stakes proves that the artists behind the show still have a strong voice as classical storytellers.
So if you haven’t watched Adventure Time in a few years because you may have been put off the decidedly sublime direction has recently taken, is Stakes worth watching on its own? Yes, definitely, yes it is. Of course, Stakes continues from the events from the end of the previous season, with Bubblegum living in a shack on the edge of the country after being usurped by the King of Ooo among other things, so it may not hurt to get caught up with last few episodes to get caught up to speed. On its own, though, Stakes weaves a beautiful story about Marceline that is equal parts hilarious, saddening, scary, and mysterious, all at the same time.
The mini-series feels less like a series and almost more like a smaller Adventure Time movie—which for me personally, strengthens my confidence in the idea of a feature production that’s been thrown around for quite a while now. If you missed Stakes as it aired, all eight episodes will be airing on Cartoon Network again tonight starting at 7 PM EST, or you can always grab the episodes digitally or later when they’re released on DVD. It’s certainly some of the best episodes of Adventure Time to date and shouldn’t be missed by anyone who’s ever enjoyed the show.