I’d been patiently waiting for new episodes of Adventure Time on Hulu for months. My brother told me that season 6 ended on a fascinating note, and I couldn’t wait until I got to see where Finn and Jake’s adventures would take them. I was stopped in my tracks by the episode “Evergreen,” which is not only one of the best episodes Adventure Time has produced, but one of the most outstanding examples of television’s storytelling ability. “Evergreen” is the kind of storytelling I aspire to someday. From the first exchange between Urgence Evergreen and Gunther, we know that this story will not have a happy ending. If you’re familiar with Adventure Time, then you realize almost immediately that the resemblance between Evergreen and The Ice King means the characters are connected. “Evergreen” lays out all of its story beats, character motivations and plot elements at the very beginning of the episode. Yet having a straightforward story presented in a straightforward way does not detract from the power of the episode. In fact, it heightens it. The elegance of the story’s presentation allows us to dig deeper into “Evergreen,” and we find one of the most basic truths about humans raising other humans.
Before I continue talking about “Evergreen,” I think it’s important for me to lay out my theory of what good storytelling is. When an author constructs a story, they are setting up a series of expectations for the reader. These expectations are generally laid out in a predictable narrative structure:
There are variations to this structure, of course, but our stories typically play out in the three-act structure. Receiving a story should be like driving to the grocery store- interesting things will happen along the way, and no trip will be the same as any other. Yet you feel confident that, no matter what happens along the way, you’ll arrive at your destination. And if you don’t, then something has gone wrong.
The destination of a story is not the end- the literal termination point of the story. The destination of a story is its resolution, the point at which the plot and character elements introduced throughout the story meet their logical conclusion. This is the expectation that must be met by the author. Once all plot point and characterization elements have been revealed, the resolution must occur and make sense given what the audience has been told.
For that resolution to occur, the audience has to be told something. Information needs to be delivered so that the audience can build reasonable expectations that will be satisfied by the resolution of the story. Paying off those expectations is what “Evergreen” excels at. If you’ve seen Adventure Time before, then you already know what’s going to happen by the end of the episode: the asteroid will destroy everything and the Ice King’s crown will be formed. If you haven’t seen the series before, the episode is still constructed in such a way that the characterization and plot elements presented carry you towards the same inescapable conclusion. Information about Gunther, Evergreen and the world they inhabit tells the audience what to expect. We’re told several times that Evergreen’s scheme will not work. And in the end it doesn’t.
The payoff of this expectation is the most important reason that “Evergreen” satisfies its audience. The plot of the story remains true to the characterizations we’ve seen; the information that the author gave us matters. It would have been a simple change to have Evergreen save the day at the end. Maybe it would turn out that he wasn’t so bad, or that Gunther’s truest desire was to be a hero. That would have been the perfect way for the author to have their cake and eat it too- Gunther wants to be a hero like Evergreen, and becomes one by destroying the comet.
But that’s not the story that was laid out, and the writers had the bravery to follow their story to its conclusion. The analogy about a story being a trip is crucial here. Once you get on the road, it leads to its destination, no matter how badly you may want that particular trip to end in some more fanciful or exotic location. The road is built, and if you want to go somewhere different, then you have to take a different road. Story is the same. It can’t go wherever the author wants. Once the author begins constructing their world and characters, possibilities begin to narrow and a path begins to form. Evergreen is a cruel, loveless man and Gunther worships him. With that information given to the audience, there is only one possible resolution to the story. The authors built the narrative which delivered us to where we expected to go, and it felt great that we got there.
To be fair, any decent story follows their path. Only awful stories rely on the complete reversal of audience expectations to tell its tale. The movie Crash is a perfect example of this, where characters consistently act in ways which contradict their stated motivations and intentions. I can understand what Paul Haggis was trying to communicate (racism takes different forms for different people in different circumstances), but what he accomplished was a narratively incoherent series of vignettes which drew their emotional power by manipulating the audience’s emotions, as in the infamous invisible cloak scene.
What happens though when the author doesn’t want to set clear expectations for the audience? What if the focus is not to bring the audience to their destination, but instead to make the audience wonder where they are going? It’s possible to get good stories out of such a narrative style, but I would argue that the end result is often less satisfying than getting the story you were promised. Too often, it feels like the stories we are being told focus on dramatic reveals and obfuscation for their own sake. We are in an era of “mystery box” storytelling, from the phrase J.J. Abrams used during his TedTalk in 2007. The problem with the mystery box is that, ultimately, it’s bad storytelling.
After we watched “The Force Awakens,” the internet was buzzing with fan theories about who Rey’s parents are. What we’re talking about with The Force Awakens are the things that are NOT in the story. Conversations have centered on the things that J.J. Abrams and his co-authors didn’t tell us (who Rey’s parents are, who is Snoke, etc.) instead of the things they did (the events that actually happened in the movie). That represents one of the most fundamental failure of narrative there is, and is the embodiment of what the mystery box has come to be. Mystery and suspense are not bad elements of storytelling. They are tools that are supposed to serve the narrative; they are the means, not the end. When the mystery becomes the end, storytelling suffers because the author must purposefully keep relevant information from the audience.
Story considerations are not academic. The construction of narrative, plot and characters influences not only our enjoyment of stories, but the meaning we derive from them as well. It’s difficult for an author to both maintain the mystery box while building subtext and meaning. That reality leads to perhaps the most damning criticism of a storyteller like J.J. Abrams. His films are enjoyable, and perhaps even good. But once you’ve exhausted yourself with fan theories, the film itself evaporates away, leaving a pleasant enough memory and nothing that genuinely sticks to your mind. As much as I want them to, Finn and Rey do not exist in my mind anymore. My only question for Rey is, “Who are her parents?” In contrast, I think about Urgence Evergreen and Gunther constantly. I feel like they are trying to tell me something beyond the origins of the Ice King’s crown. There’s no greater gift an author can give to their audience than the desire to look deeper at their work, and find some truth about themselves in the lives of others.
There is a great deal of truth in “Evergreen.” There is truth in Evergreen’s casual abuse of Gunther. There is truth in Gunther idolizing his Evergreen despite that abuse. There is truth in Gunther visiting that abuse upon the next person who is smaller and weaker than him.
The truth that “Evergreen” is showing us is pain. It shows us its source. It shows us its consequences. It shows us the way that pain endures and multiplies.
“Evergreen” focuses on arguably the most acute pain we experience- that which our parents inflict on us. The father/son relationship between Gunther and Evergreen becomes explicit when Gunther asks Evergreen if he is in fact his father. “No,” Evergreen replies, “But I stole your egg and mutated your brain.” Evergreen’s confirmation-by-denial is only one of many examples of his abuse. Of course Evergreen is Gunther’s father; without his magical interference, Gunther would be a regular dinosaur with his original family. Evergreen has raised him since birth, yet his emotional cowardice prevents him from accepting the responsibility of parenthood.
Even if Evergreen doesn’t recognize Gunther as his child, Gunther idolizes him in the way that only a child can worship their parents. He begins the episode by mimicking everything about Evergreen, from his powers to his verbal abuse. In the end, he literally becomes Evergreen, embodying everything he loves and loathes about the man who created him. It’s a dark moment in the episode, as the audience realizes that Gunther’s inability to destroy the comet will shortly result in his, and everyone else’s, death.
It’s also a dark moment for the lives of the audience members. Gunther’s transformation into a frothing, reductionist version of Evergreen is a time-lapsed reflection of our own lives. The hurts which are visited upon us, intentionally and otherwise, help to form who we are. We internalize those hurts, normalize them and then unleash them on others. Consider who you wanted to be when you were a child. Did you want to be just like your parents, and emulate their compassion, love and devotion? Or did you want to be the opposite of them? Did you want to escape their cruelty, anger and neglect, and did you swear to never make the same choices they did, to never treat someone else the way that they treated you?
How successful have you been in either of those promises?
We try to be different from the people who have hurt us, but as sophisticated apes, we learn through imitation. Our actions are heavily influenced, if not determined, by what we’ve been shown. We can hold many different emotions inside of us, and act out of any of them in an instant. How many of us have experienced the particular fear of being with a parent when everything is fine, only to know in the back of your mind that a silent countdown has begun until the next outburst of anger and violence? That experience teaches you something. It taught Gunther to kick Nina when he was upset with her. It taught me to spank my son.
The greatest shame I carry is that I hit my son when he was younger. I spanked him a few times for the most minor of offenses: when he was two, he wouldn’t stay in his bed at night. It didn’t matter that every child that age has gotten out of bed at night, and it didn’t matter that it was a relatively easy thing to put him back in there. No; my son had to respect me, and learn discipline, and do what I told him to do the first time. I gave him a firm smack on his butt, and sent him back into his room crying.
I feel sick recounting that story. Many people would say that I didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s true that my son has never experienced anything close to the beatings I got as a kid. But since that day, I’ve tried to think about it from his perspective. What it must have been like to be afraid in your room by yourself, or bored, and what you want is to see your parents, the people who provide literally everything for you. And when you reach them, your father, who looms over you and is far stronger than you, hits you. What must that experience be like for a child?
And why do they come back the next day?
That’s the question at the heart of Gunther’s transformation. Why would he want to be Evergreen, the father figure who demonstrates only the most basic concern for him beneath a tide of insults and neglect? Before we demand that answer of Gunther, can we answer it ourselves? Why do we return to people who hurt us?
When I hit my son, I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I’d learned that pain is how you learn- not punishment, consequence or discipline, but specifically pain. It was a lesson that my mother learned from the cruelties she experienced, which far eclipse my own. She passed it down to me, and I passed it to my son. That pain endures, just as Gunther’s pain endures beyond his death, in the crown that transformed Simon Petrikov into an abusive lunatic in his own right.
I haven’t hit my son since then. I had a moment where it felt like a voice from outside of my own mind said to me, “This is wrong.” I listened to that voice. Yet there are so many ways to hurt someone without laying a finger on them. I am a person with a great deal of hurt. Some of it has scabbed over and been reduced to a dull ache; some of it bursts forward everyday, like metaphysical blood spurting from an open wound with each beating of my heart. I visit this hurt upon the people who are closest to me, and no one is closer to me than my son. My hope is that my son will not have to deal with the same kinds of hurt, at the same intensity, as I hold onto in my adult life. I can’t be perfect, but I can be better.
Or can I? As gratifying as it is to watch my son grow up into an independent young man with his own thoughts and ideas, there’s a certain thrill that comes from hearing a smaller version of you use a phrase that you use, or pick a flavor of candy that you like, or start an activity that you enjoy. It’s a moment of validation to see someone make the same choices as you, because despite the hurt we carry, we’re still the heroes of our own story. The hero is supposed to be good, right? This child, MY child, does the things that I do because they are good things, and I am a good person. I want my child to be a good person too, so why not be like me? So I hope that he has my sense of humor, and loves Zelda, and becomes a writer someday like his dad. But I also see the hurt, the sadness and the anger that I know. I see the transformation happening right before my eyes.