In August of last year, Marceline voice actress Olivia Olson revealed that Bonnibel Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen were a romantic couple in the past. While the show has never openly acknowledged that aspect of their relationship—primarily because same-sex relationships are still illegal in some countries where Adventure Time airs—it’s an important detail to keep in mind when watching “Varmints,” which spotlights the changes in Bubblegum and Marceline’s friendship over time.

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It’s an especially significant episode for Bubblegum, exploring the intense emotional impact of the recent losses in her life. No longer a princess and living in exile in a sad cabin on the shores of Lake Butterscotch, Bubblegum is desperately trying to hide her pain by committing to her new “Garden Kingdom,” but her pumpkin patch is just another failure to add to the list thanks to the presence of pumpkin-munching varmints. She teams up with Marceline to stop the varmint menace, and along the way comes to terms with her new life circumstances and rediscovers her self-worth.

After yesterday’s lackluster look at Bubblegum’s past through her relationship with her brother Neddy, “Varmints” is a very welcome return to the deeper emotional storytelling Adventure Time is capable of in its best moments. It’s also a very fun action story taking influence from the Alien franches as it pits Bubblegum and Marceline against the varmints and their brood queen, showing two women that are capable of being kick-ass heroes without losing touch with their feelings. The fighting is actually therapeutic for Bubblegum, and working out her aggression by taking out varmints with her sweet multi-function shotgun helps bring her other repressed emotions to the surface.

Through Bubblegum’s struggle, writers/storyboard artists Kris Mukai and Adam Muto examine the transition from childhood to adulthood and all the stresses it introduces. Chasing the varmints down into the delivery tunnels from the old rock candy mines sends Bubblegum into her past, and she begins to remember a simpler time when she would ditch Cheese Kingdom trade meetings and tag the tunnel walls with Marceline. Bubblegum was eager to prove herself back when she was young and the Candy Kingdom was small and manageable, and as her domain got bigger, she had more and more opportunities to prove that she was responsible and prepared for anything that came her way. But once she proved herself, the problems just kept coming, and it began to feel like she was always heading toward a new disaster that only she could fix. That’s basically what being an adult is.

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Life is simpler when you’re a kid. While there are definitely exceptions (some kids are forced to grow up fast and take on more mature responsibilities at a young age), children typically have less to worry about than adults, and while many yearn for the freedom that comes with adulthood, they don’t fully understand the responsibilities that come with growing up. Unless you’re the rare adult that has a perfectly smooth, content life (if that person even exists), you’re dealing with constant pressure. The stresses of getting and keeping a job, managing finances, maintaining health, and creating personal relationships can become overbearing, and while these aren’t the specific obstacles Bubblegum has to deal with, she’s caving under the weight of her own unique adult responsibilities. For years she’s had to make ethical compromises to ensure the safety of her people, and that takes a big toll on her psyche, especially when those compromises eventually lead to failure.

After a thrilling standoff with the varmint mother and her children, Bubblegum and Marceline end up trapped in the room where a young Bonnibel tagged a wall with graffiti because Marceline told her to. Faced with this stark reminder of her less demanding past, Bubblegum is overwhelmed with emotion and starts weeping as she thinks about all the ways she’s disappointed herself. There are the big concerns like losing her home and her people, but the smaller ones like losing her baseball cap and her garden to the varmints are just as painful because Bubblegum sees them as evidence of just how far she’s fallen from her former glory.

Bubblegum is ashamed, which is why she’s pushed everyone away. She fled from her personal relationships and the potential judgment of her peers and committed herself completely to her work, but that just made her situation worse. Traveling down the varmint hole is a metaphor for Bubblegum’s retreat into herself, and the varmints represent the emotions that eat away at her as she tries to isolate herself from the rest of the world. The only way she’s able to escape is with the help of Marceline, and while the two of them aren’t able to completely eradicate the negative feelings plaguing Bubblegum, having someone to express her negative feelings to allows Bubblegum to break free from the prison she’s built inside herself.

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Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship could easily be seen as a lost childhood friendship, but knowing that they were a romantic couple brings an extra layer to their interactions in “Varmints.” That former intimacy between the two amplifies Marceline’s anger when she finds out Bubblegum hasn’t been a princess for two months and never told her about it, and it explains why Marceline is the person Bubblegum finally opens up to about her current issues.

Marceline helped Bubblegum break out of her shell when she was younger, and Marceline helps her out of her present rut by being what she’s always been: cool, carefree, and nonjudgmental. Marceline misses the relationship she used to have with Bubblegum, so she’s eager to take this opportunity to rebuild the bond they used to have. It may not be a romantic one (and probably never will be, at least on screen), but a close platonic friendship is better than being pushed out of Bubblegum’s life. “Varmints” teaches a poignant message about the power of personal relationships in combating internal turmoil, and it’s a big jump in quality for a seventh season that got off to a middling start.

Stray observations

  • Princess King Of Ooo has raided Bubblegum’s closet and has started to wear a long pink wig, because a princess has to look the part.
  • I love how Marceline and Bubblegum’s outfits distance them from traditional images of princesses and vampire queens. Their clothes are very masculine, which is appropriate considering they step into action hero roles this week that are typically reserved for male characters.
  • Marceline’s anecdote about vomiting up shrimp samples in the grocery kingdom is a great way of creating a calm, relaxed atmosphere between friends before the varmints show up to interrupt their bonding.
  • Bubblegum’s gun has a function that allows it to shoot out another gun, which is amazing.
  • Items in Bubblegum’s pocket: some bandages, a pen, an unpaid Internet bill, and a strawberry lip balm
  • “Bubblegum is fine, just fine. And deposed. And powerless.”
  • “Tell Bubblegum I wear her nightgown! Tell EEEEEEVERYONE!”
  • “Be cool, Marceline. (Cocks shotgun.) Let’s all be real cool.”
  • “Yo, varmints! You hungry? I’ll eat your mom! I’ll eat your eggs!”

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