Play 208: The Bays-Thomas

I should have known something was amiss when the only moment I teared up was when Barney was holding his newborn daughter.

Maybe I was spoiled on last year’s double-header 30 Rock and The Office finales. Both shows came off of rocky late seasons (The Office much more so than 30 Rock) and delivered final seasons that built to beautiful climaxes, respecting everything about not just the shows, but the people inhabiting them. Years of change and growth were capped perfectly, and the miles and miles of life that stretched between pilot and finale actually felt worthwhile. Those finales justified their shows, cemented that they truly meant something.

As a finale, “Last Forever” fails pretty spectacularly. Sure, there were moments I liked. Marshall and Lily are well-served, and for the first half of the finale, so is the Mother (Tracy, as we learn). Robin’s goodbye to Lily in the empty apartment was genuine, even if it effectively confirmed Robin as the secret villain of the series. There weren’t many jokes, but the few that got through were pleasant enough.

But really, it all comes down to the last act. The hints were always too obvious, and I couldn’t help but think How I Met Your Mother respected the intellect of its audience enough to not be so blatant. The show has always excelled at an obvious set-up followed by a complete reversal of expectations, why should the finale be any different? But no, it seems the ultimate destiny of the entire show comes down to ‘shipping. How I Met Your Mother, it turns out, was never actually a complete thought. Instead, it was part of a larger whole: How I Met Your Mother, the Woman Who Was Not Only Perfect For Me In Seemingly Every Way, But Also Reciprocated My Love Unconditionally, Only For Her to Actually Just Be a Roadblock Between Me and Your “Aunt,” the Woman I’ve Actually Wanted to Bone This Whole Time. The Ted Mosby of “Last Forever” is the Ted Mosby of the pilot, not the one who grappled with his feelings for Robin, then finally made his peace and let her go only to find his literal dream woman. Not only is this regression egregious, its an unforgivable sin. Serialized television is, by its very nature, entirely dependent on growth and change. And in one fell swoop, How I Met Your Mother, possibly the most heavily-serialized sitcom in television history, destroyed it all. The episode doesn’t need words to communicate this betrayal, it’s all right there when a graying Ted holds up that goddamn blue french horn. That french horn, once a symbol of Ted’s impulsiveness, will now live on as shorthand for a series just completely fucking it up. (I’m also calling this Play 208: The Bays-Thomas.)

And what of Robin? Her series-long arc, like Ted’s, is completely dashed by the finale. The entire season is rendered null early on when Robin and Barney get a secret divorce, and her inability to cope with her own decisions and completely illogical feelings paint her as the absent antagonist. The second half of the finale is full of side-mouthed jabs at how bad of a friend Robin is, and sadly, they’re not wrong. After years of building Robin into a moderately unique female character, “Last Forever” reduces her to a love-sick teenager just waiting to be saved by the love of her life. It’s the destruction of one of modern television’s great female characters and performances, all for the sake of Ted Mosby. It’s the worst kind of fan fiction. It’s a complete farce. And it’s still only the third biggest betrayal of the finale.

Last Forever” isn’t just a betrayal of the fans or the characters, it’s a betrayal of the very premise of How I Met Your Mother, of the beautifully-woven mythology and time-shifted storytelling genuinely unlike anything else on television. “Last Forever” takes all the worst tendencies the show could have ever indulged in, puts them in a blender, then sprays the stinking goop all over the people, within and outside of the show, who gave their years, literal or otherwise, to it. It’s the DMV closing when you’re the next in line. It’s waking up, not to a horse’s head in your bed, but in an entire bed made of horse’s heads. It’s the Dexter finale of sitcom finales. It seems the show that helped defined the modern era of television comedy really only had one lesson to teach: don’t bother sticking around, because it’s all just a big fucking disappointment in the end.

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Holding Out for a Hero

billy's list

Adventure Time, “Billy’s Bucket List”

Billy wasn’t just any old hero. He was the greatest hero Ooo has ever known. He was Finn’s personal hero. And he was Finn’s friend and mentor. Adventure Time has put off dealing with Billy’s death for a long time, but it had to happen eventually, and the finale of a season dealing with the complications of growing up, if destinies exist and how we are bound to them, the cyclical nature of time, and blooming sexuality is as good a time as any.

A freestyle rap battle is what originally sets Finn’s mind on the fallen hero, and it’s seemingly a coincidence that immediately after the rap battle Billy’s ex-girlfriend, Canyon, shows up. She saw Finn’s name on the roster and wanted to give him Billy’s old loincloth. She and Billy broke up four years ago, but she just can’t keep it anymore. Finn accepts with gusto, and convinces Canyon to go with him to Billy’s Crag one last time. After clearing out some pesky fairies—with extreme prejudice, thanks to the grass blade—Canyon finds Billy’s old motorcycle. See, the two used to adventure together, until Billy became complacent to sit around and watch movies and play videogames all day. Upon further inspection, the duo find Billy’s bucket list hidden in the bike. Only two items remain: “tell Finn that thing” and “take Canyon for one last ride.” Finn and Canyon hop on the bike for a wild ride before she departs with a fist bump and an assurance that they’ll cross paths again. As Finn crosses the ride off the list, he discovers one last item: to float on his back in the ocean.

A distraught Finn heads to the ocean, but before he can even touch the water the Fear Feaster emerges from within. The Fear Feaster taunts Finn mercilessly, so Finn comes up with his own solution. Breaking off a plank and walking to the edge of the pier, Finn bonks himself in the head, falling into the ocean and losing consciousness. While out, he has a pink-tinged vision where his hat is stolen by a blue whale. As he swims out of a rock formation to catch it, Finn realizes that the rock formation was the same shape as his hat, and it rises out of the ocean, with the blue whale sticking out of the face hole, bringing Finn ever closer to its mouth, before Finn is awoken by the Fear Feaster. Tired of its taunts, the grass blade extends and slices the Fear Feaster in two, causing it to disappear. And just like that, Finn is no longer afraid. As the clouds open up, the constellation Billy acknowledges Finn’s tribute and thanks him for completing the list. But Finn must know what the thing was Billy meant to tell him. In typical Billy fashion, he shirks the answer at first, but eventually acquiesces, telling Finn that he must go to the Crystal Citadel because his father—not Joshua, his human father—is still alive and can be found there. Constellation Billy disappears, but his voice echos around Finn as he floats in the darkness.

Much of the Finn-centric stories of season five have dealt with the emotional, physical, and psychological aspects of growing older. Finn has had to learn how to deal with the greyness of morality, the trials and tribulations of romance, and the frustrations of sexuality. But other narratives have been threading themselves through the ancillary characters this season, and many of them have centered on destinies and heroism. As I discussed with “Lemonhope,” the past has had immense bearings on everything that happens in Ooo, because when reality-altering powers, whether magical or scientific, are present at any point in a reality’s timeline, they have ramifications on the entire reality in which they occur. The questions and unanswered mysteries surrounding Finn’s origins have been explored, but only in relation to alternate realities and his past lives. The revelation that Finn’s human father is alive is certainly world-rocking, but he has been an important part of the story the entire time, and now we may have the chance to understand just what impact Finn’s pedigree has had on the formation of Ooo’s present.

The other major event in this episode is the apparent death of the Fear Feaster. The Fear Feaster has haunted Finn since Adventure Time‘s first season, but until now, Finn has never owned a magical cursed blade that has completely bonded with him and may also be semi-sentient. When the grass blade first reveals itself, the Fear Feaster laughs it off, saying that no normal weapon could ever harm it, but grass blade is far from normal, and a single swipe is enough to make the Fear Feaster disappear, possibly forever. If Finn’s fear is gone, the possibilities are both exciting and dangerous. With no fear, Finn could kickstart his ascent to truly becoming Billy’s heir, and the next greatest hero in all of Ooo. But the grass blade is still a cursed weapon, and curses almost never work out in anyone’s favor. In all alternate realities, Finn’s left arm is missing, so of course that’s where the grass blade attached. No fear could mean Finn might ignore the darkness of the grass blade. No fear could mean Finn rushes headfirst into an unknown situation with no forethought. And now that Finn knows his father resides somewhere in the Crystal Citadel, home of the multiverse’s most dangerous villains, the chances of his heading into some such situation are heightened immensely. Without fear, or a mentor like Billy, Finn might be in way over his head.

Which brings us back to the question of destiny: is Finn simply living his, or is the grass blade carving a new one for him? Billy’s bucketlist includes “fix up an old car” and “learn how to play flute,” both things we’ve see Finn do with competence in this fifth season. Are these clues that Finn is following Billy’s path to ultimate heroism? Or was there some spatial-temporal knowledge Billy was aware of before he died? In “Lemonhope,” we a saw Ooo a thousand years in the future, a deserted, worn-down land that seemingly just died out. Where have all the heroes gone? What happens in Ooo’s future? Maybe, once Finn travels to the Crystal Citadel, we’ll be one step closer to finding out.

Hope Sings Eternal

lemonhope

Adventure Time, “Lemonhope”

What do autonomy, freedom, and destiny mean in the Land of Ooo? The politics of Ooo have always been vague at best, but questions of personal freedom and the roles our characters play in the grand tapestry of history have pervaded all of Adventure Time‘s fifth season. So much of the show’s first four seasons dealt with simply finding a place to belong, but the march of time means existential questions must enter the fray as well.

It’s not surprising that we return to the Lemon Saga to examine these ideas again, and possibly for the final time, this season. Since the last time we checked in on Castle Lemongrab, it has become a fruitalitarian state, with Fat Lemongrab bearing more than a passing resemblance to Kim Jong-un in the propaganda video Princess Bubblegum plays for Lemonhope and Finn. Bubblegum is trying to teach Lemonhope about his destiny, to return to Castle Lemongrab and free his people from Fat Lemongrab’s reign of terror, but he is wholly uninterested. Lemonhope’s refusal to care about others, even his own family and friends, is unsettling, but not surprising given his DNA. He will always be a Lemon, and with that comes certain traits that are unshakable. For Lemonhope, his harp, his flute, and his freedom are all that matter.

When Bubblegum takes Lemonhope to the outskirts of Castle Lemongrab to see the tyranny first-hand, she finally snaps, calling his behavior unacceptable, the magic word that sends Lemonhope fleeing into the woods and away from his destiny. At first, the freedom is magical. Lemonhope wanders among the plants and animals, singing and playing and knocking over an owl’s cup of water. When he stumbles upon a town that has been razed by a band of pirates, he isn’t concerned that the entire town is on fire. Instead, he sees the pirate ship as a new, better source of freedom and stows away, finding a stockpile of limes and a bunch of rats that will blanket him with a bit of harp playing. And when the pirate ship is attacked and ultimately stranded in the desert, Lemonhope is ecstatic at what appears to be ultimate freedom. Alone in a home all to himself, Lemonhope is in heaven. But good things never last long for a Lemon.

Lemonhope may be free, but other than playing the harp and flute, he has no skills, and his reserve of limes has to dry up eventually. The trip into the desert to find water nearly kills Lemonhope, but at the last minute he is saved by Phlannel Boxingday, a monster slayer who revels in his own personal freedom, despite being desperately lonely. He offers Lemonhope an apprenticeship, and once again the outlook is sunny for little Lemonhope.

Throughout “Lemonhope,” the title character is plagued by horrific dreams, reminders of the destiny he ran away from and the terrors that still exist because of his own inaction. Even Phlannel understands that you can’t just abandon your past, especially when there is an outstanding debt to be paid. He agrees to take Lemonhope to Castle Lemongrab, but cannot help in the liberation. (It seems that even the free people of Ooo are bound by the complicated pacts and treaties of the varying kingdoms.) Lemonhope finally gathers the courage to storm the castle, and with the help of Partially-Digested Lemongrab and the prisoners of the castle, he takes down the Earl once and for all. But while Bubblegum restores the power balance of Castle Lemongrab (a single Earl, made of equal parts of both Lemongrabs), Lemonhope doesn’t care to stick around. He doesn’t want to be Castle Lemongrab’s champion, and instead wishes to live a free life, one where he can travel and adventure on his own with no responsibilities holding him back. Of course, he’s free to do so, despite Bubblegum’s disappointment, but even this declaration of freedom is only temporary. As he leaves, Lemonhope flippantly says he’ll see them again “in a thousand years or so,” and while Bubblegum sings her hauntingly beautiful Lemonhope song, we jump forward a thousand years or so, to an Ooo that has both risen and fallen. A wrinkled Lemonhope, surrounded by a forcefield and sporting some massive dreadlocks, passes through a decimated city that is not dissimilar to the many glimpses we’ve seen of the world pre-Mushroom War. On the other side of that city lies Castle Lemongrab, still standing but lifeless. The hallways are empty, and it seems all the Lemons have either died or left long ago. But Lemonhope holds up his casual promise. He returns home, lying in his own bed once again, and drifts to sleep.

“Lemonhope” makes the most of its two-parter status, making enough room for the heady ideals that are culminating in the episode. As a champion, Lemonhope stands in stark contrast to Finn and Cinnamon Bun. Finn has always had the heart of a champion, and he’s never wanted to do anything else. Cinnamon Bun found a purpose and love while serving Flame Princess, leading him to take on the mantle of champion. But Lemonhope rejects his champion status until such time when he feels ready. His desires for freedom and exploration are more important to him than defending a home that, despite housing those he cares about, is still drenched in the horrors he was forced to experience there. When a wrinkled, old Lemonhope finally returns home, the wounds have had time to heal and be replaced by many lifetimes worth of new experiences. The traumas and the selfish ambivalence baked into a Lemon’s DNA needed to be sanded away by time before Lemonhope could finally embrace his destiny.

Heading into the season five finale, “Lemonhope” acts as the release of all the non-Finn/Jake themes that have been littered throughout the season. It’s a temporary resolution for the Lemon Saga, and deals heavily in the questions of destiny and champions. It also suggests that the future might finally become an integral part of Adventure Time‘s explorations of the malleability and importance of time and space, much like the show has done for the past and other dimensions during this season. In Ooo, all times and dimensions are constantly working to create each individual moment. “Time is a flat circle,” to borrow a line from HBO’s True Detective, and few shows on television are biting into that idea quite like Adventure Time. I may be reading too much into the final seconds of “Lemonhope,” but Adventure Time‘s obsession with the metaphysical, as well as the tiny hints of the future that have been scattered throughout, are enough to leave me craving more.

Fidel Castro in Flip-Flops

Community - Season 5

Community, “App Development and Condiments”

As a regular listener of Harmontown, Dan Harmon’s soapbox/talk show podcast, many of the themes of “App Development and Condiments” have been funneled into my earholes of late. These themes have also been popping up in other media, such as the Oscar-winning Spike Jonze film Her (about a man who falls in love with his OS) or the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (impossible to sum up in a single sentence but worth watching). But “App Development” doesn’t feel like a retread. Instead, it offers a glimpse into old relationships that have been given short shrift by Community and revisits some classic character traits that underline the entire series, all while being an agreeable balance of funny and totally insane.

Truthfully, the plot of the episode is both full of class-warfare cliches (think your Hunger Gameses and Elysiums) and also zooms around quite a lot. It’s… well, it’s sort of a mess. But the actual plot is infinitely less important than its impetus: the introduction of the MeowMeowBeenz app. A social media app that allows users to rate others based on their behavior on any given day, in any given situation, the internal mechanics of MeowMeowBeenz are appropriately arbitrary and prejudiced, giving the higher-rated users more control, regardless of how they earned their four or five MeowMeowBeenz. This tosses the power structure of Greendale into relative chaos: Shirley and Annie use their natural pleasantness to immediately rise to the top, though Shirley’s loudness about her niceties gives her more real power; Hickey figures out that he can game the system by just saying it’s his birthday, therefore rising in the rankings without having to do the work; Abed is content to be middle of the road, like the majority of students, though unwittingly finds himself floating to the upper tier by the sheer nature of the growing class divide; Britta brittas the whole ordeal, keeping herself a two for the whole episode; and Jeff initially rejects MeowMeowBeenz, then struggles with the concept of not just being cool, though he’s eventually admitted into the fives by way of a talent show and Van Wilder-copping Mitch Hurwitz. (Chang, as per usual, isn’t really given his own story, though he does end up with the fours and fives with dual canes, so, okay.)

Giving Shirley power is a dangerous game, one Community has flirted with playing several times before. “App Development” takes these flirtations to their extreme, giving Shirley ultimate power as she abuses her manipulative gifts in truly Jeff Winger-fashion in order to ascend to the top. As we’ve seen before, Shirley and Jeff have a complicated history, and are so similar that “normal” friendship is always just outside of their grasps. That Jeff is the only person able to coax Shirley out of her motherly bubble is telling. (That taking Shirley down matters so much to Jeff is equally telling.) Their big fight, and ultimate exile into the outerlands, is one of the episode’s proofs of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz. When society is organized based on a numeric ranking of what others think of you, the real persona is pushed down, replaced by a blander, less-jagged version, one trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Real people can be mean and unpleasant, but they also retain the ability to express themselves. The fight between Jeff and Shirley isn’t even that major—Jeff didn’t invite Shirley to a dinner with the rest of the group because he already knew she couldn’t go—but even just a few moments of them hashing out the issue results in their rankings sinking like stones. The world of MeowMeowBeenz can allow for passive-aggression, but any real emotion or expression of feelings becomes suspect and hostile and unfit for the upper tiers. Only fake personas and sterile environments allowed.

Britta gets the other major story, though hers only really takes off in the third act. Relegated to the twos and threes, Britta is lost in a sea of people with no individuality and no real drive other than to impress the fours and fives with the faint hope of possibly joining them. While Jeff and Shirley are ousted, Britta finally starts her revolution, smearing mustard on her face and convincing the twos and threes that they are still individuals, that they are legion, and that they can overthrow their oppressors. Not only does this uprising work, but Britta finally has the power she has so longed railed against. Of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Britta immediately begins enacting the Scarecrow trial scene from The Dark Knight Rises, with the fours and fives taking the place of Gotham’s elite and powerful. It’s a small victory for Britta, but it also highlights the other proof of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz: everyone is desperate to be liked and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. But a classic Winger speech breaks the whole charade down as he declares that there is one last five who must be judged, and that’s MeowMeowBeenz itself. With the sound of hundreds of deletions, normality suddenly returns to Greendale, and Britta, who only tasted power for a short while, is once again left alone. (To add insult to injury, Dean Pelton immediately urges everyone to forget the whole ordeal ever happened.)

There’s a lot of things to talk about in “App Development and Condiments,” from the bevy of guest stars (in addition to Hurwitz, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and [I believe] Jen Kirkman all appear) to the isolationism of the modern age (or the fact that the power struggle is ultimately empty, as it mainly involves the same people who already had power to begin with), but I think “App Development” works best as a character study, a brief look at just what these people will do when the slot for Top Dog is left open to whoever can manipulate their way there. In that sense, it reminds me heavily of “Contemporary American Poultry,” one of my all-time favorite episodes and one that asks similar questions about power, only this time Shirley fills the Abed role. But the episode is not malicious in its intent. Community has shown us how awful the study group can seem and be to the rest of the school, but it never actively seeks to destroy its characters, only make them better. And even the worst indulgences reveal the goodness underneath; Britta’s revolution and ultimate seat of power actually lead to the downfall of the false realtiy of MeowMeowBeenz, and even if it stings, it is the result she ultimately wanted. “App Development and Condiments” may be the zaniest episode of the season thus far, but like the best concept episodes, it’s riding on the same themes and characters that have always lifted Community to its highest peaks.