What is the end of heroism?
Season 1 of Adventure Time brings Finn’s burgeoning heroic journey to a reasonable end in this episode. He gets the chance to meet his hero, which is something we all dream of but rarely realize. Paradigmatic in this encounter is the recognition that the person you worshipped and more or less deified is in fact mortal and vulnerable and doubtful, just like you. Finn, remaining a child at the end of the episode’s arc, doesn’t have to let go of his icon, however, and is allowed to move forward with his naive worldview. It’s only later in the show’s development (which naturally parallels Finn’s) that his views get deconstructed and his existence questioned.
Finn finds Billy (who forebodes Finn’s forthcoming trials, most significantly with the Lich) atop a throne of his accomplishments and treasures, the end of heroic efforts that we all imagine. That is, of course, if we view heroism in capitalistic or materialistic terms. Finn doesn’t. His motivation is internal, grounded in the untested belief that you perform heroism for the sake of heroism, not for any external reward. As soon as you start striving toward external ends, as soon as your telos exists outside of yourself, you stand to become corrupted or, in Billy’s case, jaded and hopeless. You can never win enough riches to be satisfied. The quests would never end. Then again, you can never perform enough heroism for its own sake either. Isn’t it more fulfilling though?
Eager to learn from Billy, Finn seeks his guidance. Billy is positioned as an ideal mentor and threshold guardian, and he ends up serving these roles by the end, either inadvertently or intentionally, depending on how you view Billy’s advice (he hardly seems surprised by Finn’s revelations at the end, as though he orchestrated the lesson). At first, however, we see him in the throes of life, facing the abyss with hopeless remorse. Everything he’s done has amounted to this: sitting on treasure alone in a cave. Hardly the stuff of legend. Actually, it’s exactly the stuff of legend, but it’s hardly satisfying. Billy realizes that threats always adapt and grow stronger, perhaps becoming worse precisely because of his heroism, so what was the point of his effort? It all becomes Sisyphean to him. Why bother? He’s finished rolling the boulder up the hill, and he advises Finn to give up as well, or at least to adopt a practice of nonviolence. To Finn, this doesn’t jive with his righteous anger and just violence, but he tries it out because Billy said so. He’s not autonomous enough to really determine and follow his own heroic, ethical code. Finn is an echo of what he thinks (what he’s been told) is right.
The problem with heroes is that they promote passivity and dependence. As soon as Finn abandons his post, which the masses have tacitly and then openly accepted and praised, his change is questioned. The people want him to take care of them. The necessity of heroism is convenient classism, a favorable message for the powerful: those who benefit from a culture that promotes hero worship. Finn is breaking the status quo, the established hierarchy, and the people don’t like it. They’ve been conditioned to accept their lots, and that means serving the community in a variety of passive, peaceful ways (as cobblers and doctors and so on). Finn play-acts those ways, performing in bad faith, for apparently, he is most authentically a warrior. Or at least that’s what the old lady tells him during her paradoxical rant (in terms of how to treat your elders). She proclaims, “like a true hero, you were born to punch evil creatures…don’t deny your rowdy nature.”
The show is increasingly about Finn’s existential revelations, and here, the old lady is espousing a belief in essence, that we are, by nature, this or that. In Finn’s case, he’s sold on the idea that he is a hero. The masses accept that they are common, and so depend on heroes like Finn to keep them safe. What they surrender in this process is the choice to become something else, or they at least neglect the fact that they’re always choosing. No one is a hero essentially; we choose who we are in every moment. A coward can become heroic and a hero can become cowardly based on his actions, on how he invents himself with each new opportunity. It’s safer and more comforting to believe that we simply are this or that thing. It means less work and less worry for us. In Finn’s childish world construct, all the pieces fit somewhere, static and predestined. He’s realized more and more, as the seasons have progressed, that this isn’t true. Choices matter, and existence is always up for grabs. We are never who we are. We are always in a state of becoming, despite our best efforts and hopes to pin ourselves down.
At the end of Season 1, Finn is still fixed. In his mind, he is a hero. That’s his essence. In time, he’ll learn of his complex, ambiguous existence, and that’s when his heroism will start to have value. He’ll realize how his choices matter, but he’ll also confront the possibility that his choices don’t really matter at all. What is the end of what we choose? If it’s always death, then, as Billy realizes, why bother fighting?
Note: I address all this in a forthcoming podcast episode, bringing Sartre into the mix.