„A debt unpaid is not easily forgotten.“
It is safe to say that Adventure Time is consistently among the most surprising shows on air. You never know what you will get when you tune in to a new episode – and sometimes, you still don’t quite know what you have seen after an episode has aired. „Lemonhope“ sure is a headscratcher, full of tiny random tidbits (sand pirate ship!?), but it is also grounded in a compelling story of a young lemon searching for freedom and a place to call home.
Castle Lemongrab has become a totalitarian state, with its inhabitants waiting for their savior: Lemonhope. Too bad the kid is not a fan of that burden at all – after being pressed to help his country by Princess Bubblegum, he instead decides to venture out into some wild adventures…
Spoilers from here onwards.
Lost Lemonhope, longed for freedom above.
„Lemonhope“ is a mockery of the trope of „the chosen one“ – the unlikely hero, an everyman, whom destiny chooses to safe his people and become the hero he has always been meant to be. Lemonhope fulfills all of these criteria, but of course doesn’t want to – not because he cannot see himself doing it, but instead out of a lack of compassion. „I’m not too worried about other people, I guess„, he tells PB after having just seen clips from the hilarious „peak of public obedience“ in the Earldom of Lemongrab. He doesn’t understand why he should share his cupcake with Finn, and before he does so he would rather make both of them inedible. In that sense he is very much still a child, one that won’t let other kids play with his toys, and one would assume his arc would encompass to put those selfish interests behind him, learn how to shoulder the dreaded (and oft-mentioned) responsibility, and become his people’s much needed champion – even PB and Finn say so at the end of Part 2. Everything is set up for the perfect happy ending, except that Lemonhope does not become the called-for champion – he never grows up, not even by the episode’s end, nor in a thousand years in the future. Being young forever sounds alluring enough, but Lemonhope’s story tells us it should be anything but.
„Lemonhope“ is one of the show’s darker entries. The totalitarian Earldom, with the Nazi-comparison not being a far stretch, is played for laughs, but seeing one of the lemons trying to flee being eaten alive as a punishment is actually quite distressing. Also included in this episode: a raided city, pirates that are never seen alive, and innocent flying whales that are hunted for the loot. But the great darkness that the ironically titled „Lemonhope“ emits has to do with the design of the titular character: Lemonhope looks innocent and almost angelic – the wings in the dream sequences fit to a T – but underneath lies an unquenchable thirst for a place to call home.
It is not Castle Lemongrab, and neither is it the Candy Kingdom – all his duties there are a chore, including the worst of them all: school. It soon becomes apparent that he is the ultimate loner – not because of an inability to connect with other people, but out of the desire to be alone. In his first dream, in which he explores a surreal landscape as a hatched bird, there is nobody but him, and it is probably the most content we ever see him in this episode. When he encounters a raided city, we do not only see lack of compassion – Lemonhope is actually kind of happy to see nobody around. Alas, he never grows out of this phase – when he ends up coming back to save Castle Lemongrab from its tyranny, he even states he only does it to get Finn and PB out of his head. His moral compass is entirely absent – at heart, Lemonhope is a selfish little lemon.
Even when he wanders the world in what one can assume are the one thousand years later that he mentioned to Finn and PB, he is still all on his own. He does not look particularly happy, possibly even having become apathic in all these years in which he seemingly has not found a purpose – in which his search for ultimate freedom has become a meaningless phrase, a nihilistic exercise. The only thing more depressing is the conclusion of what is one of the most gorgeously realized Adventure Time endings in recent memory – Lemonhope finds his old home, with all its inhabitants gone, and feels at peace. PB’s song beautifully underscores the melancholy of Lemonhope’s quest to remain free: all he had wanted was for the people in his life – PB, Finn, and the entire lemon people – to vanish. To free himself of them – when he meets them in his dreams, he is in chains. We humans tell each other to do what makes us happy in our lives, but what about Lemonhope? If loneliness makes him happy, does it also truly fulfill him? His name may just go down as one of the biggest misnomers in history. Once again Adventure Time tells us a tragic story without putting the tragedy center stage by exploring an ambiguous protagonist.
Compassion or friendship, wisdom or love.
The only things Lemonhope cares for, other than the ever-elusive freedom, are his instruments – and the episode has a lot of fun employing it as a weapon. Making friends with giant rats? Sure. Scaring away deadly scorpions with red eyes? No problem. Angering and appeasing flying whales that thrive on dosh? Yep. We had been told Lemonhope was a prodigy in the episode he was introduced, „5.31 Too Old„, and „Lemonhope“ parts one and two put that on great display (although, ironically, the best song belongs to Princess Bubblegum). But of course, Lemonhope’s harp is also a metaphor of his desire for self-expression and individuality, and by extension his freedom. Being different is hard, particularly in the Earldom, and yet Lemonhope stands his ground. The notion of creativity as a weapon, unwanted in a totalitarian state, was explored in „Too Old“ in more depth, whereas „Lemonhope“ takes a different spin on Lemonhope’s search for freedom.
It is freedom he seeks, sure, or at least so he thinks – but soon he realizes the freedom not to learn how to read or the freedom not to find water aren’t so great after all. And yet he is not able to admit it to himself. The conflict of freedom versus responsibility takes center stage in this episode, but contrary to expectations, it is only rudimentarily resolved: Lemonhope does not truly gain the insight that a life without boundaries, characterized by too much freedom, does not lead to happiness – or does it in his case? There is something unnerving to see him live in a somewhat content manner in the debris of a s(tr)anded pirate ship, all alone except for some rats, even nearly dying of thirst rather than admitting that he needs to find water.
In a story like this, there would usually come a character to set our hero straight – and indeed, Phlannel Boxingday mysteriously appears to save the day and teach Lemonhope a thing or two. He sure drops a few beautiful pearls of wisdom on Lemonhope: „a debt unpaid is not easily forgotten“ sounds like it was taken from a Game of Thrones screenplay. „You’re a doer, not a thinker“ is just as aptly perceived, even though Phlannel seems to have a little too high of a regard for the lemon boy – he isn’t really a doer either. Phlannel tries to wake Lemonhope’s conscience, but for Lemonhope, saving the Earldom is just a means to an end. He doesn’t do it for the sake of the people, he just wants to make sure he can sleep well again – and be undisturbed when he escapes reality by delving into lonesome dreamscapes.
It is interesting to see Adventure Time’s take on the raw potential of childlike innocence in the form of poor, sweet, lost, strong, safe Lemonhope, creator of beauty and ugliness too. He has the potential to become a hero like Finn, using a harp instead of a sword – but he decides not to use it to do good. Be it laziness or selfishness, or maybe just his abusive childhood – Lemonhope could not fulfill the hopes that had been put into him. All this turns „Lemonhope“ into a powerful parable of how freedom is a double-edged sword – one that beautifully takes advantage of the show’s rich landscape.
– I had to watch this episode twice to really „get it“, just like last week’s „Bad Timing„. In a way, watching Adventure Time has thus become all the more rewarding – somehow, this super-goofy story about a young, hopeless lemon boy makes me feel more involved than last week’s True Detective season finale. (Admittedly, though, True Detective has had far less episodes to achieve a similar level of attachment to the show.)
– I can’t express just how intriguing the brief glimpses into the future are. What’s up with that tree that Lemonhope stares at in the future – is that the tree of Finn’s and Jake’s tree house? And is that the candy kingdom in ruins? Why is the Earldom still in such a good shape (albeit unchanged), and why is there no dust on Lemonhope’s bed? What I like best, though, is the idea of how the apocalypse is apparently happening in cycles – in the future of Adventure Time’s timeline, everything is devastated once more, after finally having gained access to modern technology again. It’s utterly somber and beautiful, and perfectly goes along with Lemonhope’s story.
– PB sure loves experimenting with her creations. Patching the two Earls of Lemongrabs together is a darn sinister idea – how on earth could she think that’s a great idea?
– I guess that means this was the last we have seen of Lemonhope. I personally don’t mind – he is not a particularly likable character, and he is inherently tied to the Earl of Lemongrabs, who are, quite frankly, the most annoying characters on the show. That’s by design, I know, but they often kill the mood in an unfavorable way – the final confrontation between Lemonhope and the Earls is my least favorite moment of the episode.
– I’m very happy to see this episode be a 2-parter, running for just over 20 minutes, but given the choice, I wish „Betty“ had gained that favor instead.
Conclusion: 9,0 of 10 points.
„Lemonhope“ is an endlessly fascinating episode that shows the creative force of Adventure Time on full display. It is astonishing on just how many layers it is working – from the interesting take on the debate of freedom vs responsibility to the fun small random tidbits the show is so renowned for. What’s best, however, is the amount of subtext the show can mine out of each and every scene, fully utilizing the cartoon medium to emphasize the show, don’t tell mantra.