By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 20, 2012 at 12:15PM
Watching last night's anthology episode of "Adventure Time," entitled "Five More Short Graybles," I was reminded of the crazed photographer in Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" when he first spots the scraggly-haired Merde character, played by Denis Lavant, in the middle of a crowd and can't stop snapping pictures: "So... weird! So weird!"
That's the reaction "Adventure Time," with its loopy blend of bright colors and surreal mini-plots, constantly invites. But lurking beneath the surface of that reaction is an ageless tendency to grapple for meaning when precise definitions elude us. Because the photographer in "Holy Motors" doesn't understand Merde, he can only process the character as "weird." So it goes with much of "Adventure Time," which is centered around a pair of characters vaguely aware of the deeper themes and ideas surrounding them while largely regarding them as inscrutable waystations to new experiences. The genius of "Five More Short Graybles" was that it projected this mentality onto its audience to explore a subtext that has grown increasingly dominant in the show's later episodes -- namely, the discovery of sex.
A sequel to last season's "Five Short Graybles," the episode once again featured narrator Cuber, a portly futuristic being who presents a series of interlocking "Adventure Time" short stories on his Holo-Pyramid Viewer. In one sense, Cuber's presentation of these stories take cues from the educational mold of "Sesame Street" by presenting a series of incidents and forcing the viewer to unearth a connecting theme. This deceptively simple structure caters to young sensibilities while baffling everyone else, but that's exactly the point. The theme of "Five Short Graybles" was "the five senses" while last night's theme involved a related physical instinct. Both episodes dealt with the process of coming to terms with bodily urges (human or otherwise).
Like the previous "Graybles" installment, the episode nimbly progressed from one brief incident to another, starting with Jake and Finn reading Mother Goose nursery rhymes and attempting Little Jack Horner's decision to stick his thumb in pie and declare "What a good boy am I!" Assuming the act will result in magic, Jake and Finn decide to jut their thumbs in every crevice they can find, and happily bound about the Land of Ooo for the duration of the episode doing just that: Sticking their erect thumbs in holes and waiting for something magical to happen. Nothing to see here, folks. Move right along.
The first hint of a hidden sexual context to the episode leads directly into the next one, when vampire Marceline convinces a rock giant to let her ride his finger across the land to arrive at the music shop she seeks. It might be pushing it to suggest that Marceline's innovative trip, which finds her shrieking into the wind with joy, represents a certain orgasmic pleasure, but the pieces add up.
The next fleeting installment leaves no ambiguity about its topic: The elephantine Tree Trunk is wandering through the Candy Kingdom carrying a pie -- which, naturally, a passing Jake and Finn stick their thumbs in -- when she happens upon a statue and believes that it has presented her with "a rude gesture." Instead, she mistakes Shelby the worm, crouched in the middle of the statue's raised fist, for a middle finger. Her shock at this discovery, which essentially finds her reacting to a flashing incident, hints at the distinction between appropriate displays of affection and crude behavior, a frequent topic on the show epitomized by the highly inappropriate antics of the Ice King -- the subject of the next Grayble.
The Ice King, as we learned in last season's incredibly powerful "I Remember You," used to be a benevolent researcher during the early days of the apocalypse, when he lost his mind due to the magical crown affixed to his head. Now he's simply a lunatic living with a bunch of penguins in his ice castle. That can do funky things to one's need for companionship, so it's no surprise that the Ice King has found a disturbing outlet, drawing faces on his feet and falling in love with them. That's right: The Ice King has a foot fetish.
The final installment with BMO brought everything home. As in previous episodes, the animated Gameboy character engages with his imaginary friend Football, which talks back to BMO from his reflection. BMO gets incredibly excited about the possibility of teaching Football how to drink tea, to the point where the character ends up spilling liquid all over his face and sizzling with electricity. If this doesn't strike you as the slightest bit erotic by this point, feel free to dismiss "Adventure Time" as just another irreverent kid's show. But then Jake and Finn arrive home and BMO invites them to stick their thumbs on his controllers, which they do to great delight. The gray area just keeps getting smaller.
None of this should come as a great surprise to regular "Adventure Time" viewers. The show has contained glimmers of innuendo ever since its earliest iterations, digging beneath the implications of excited feelings that the characters experience and exploring the urges behind them. The original short that inspired the show contains a fairly blatant reference to masturbation, while "Princess Cookie" dealt fairly openly (and somewhat tragically) with a transgendered character and "What Was Missing" hinted at lesbian urges.
"Five Short Graybles" lacks that degree of complexity, but deals with sexual identity in its basest manifestation -- pure sensory experiences (hence the theme, taste, which has all sorts of meanings when you really dig into it). But the episode offers more than a series of wink-and-nod reference points. "Adventure Time" excels at allowing grown viewers to reenter childlike experiences, as last week's excellent installment of PBS' "Idea Channel" made clear with its thesis that nostalgia is key to the show's appeal for older audiences. "Five Short Graybles" accomplished this mission in a subtler fashion than usual. In the final 30 seconds of its 11-minute running time, as Cuber wraps things up, the narrator laughs at anyone who thought the theme of the episode of was... fingers. "Nobody has had fingers for 20 glabillion glaybles!" he says with an eerie amount of matter-of-factness.
With that revelation, we're left wondering not only where and when these events take place, but what has happened to the human body in this future period that has relegated fingers into extinction. In a matter of seconds, "Adventure Time" turns us into the clueless children, barely cognizant of the bigger world around us, but eager to learn more. Once again, "Adventure Time" teases out the fuzzy boundary between childhood innocence and adulthood. As Cuber might say, I need a few more glaybles to think about it.