Spoilers for Season Two of Infinity Train and Steven Universe Future. Read at your own risk. Also some Harry Potter ranting/fanficcy idea stuff.
Infinity Train just finished up its second season a while ago. And honestly, it was a ride. Adventure Time really raised the bar for animated programming. Pretty much every major animated show conceived after Adventure Time has been trying to live up to the last one. And for the most part, they’ve been knocking it out of the park. Fans are starting to hold animated shows to a much higher standard. Although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another Adventure Time or Steven Universe in our lifetime, Infinity Train fills that massive gap left by Gravity Falls and the end of the original Steven Universe series. Put simply, it’s a good show with good writing and good characters.
“Finding yourself” is a common theme in pretty much every type of media. The Hero’s Journey, learning to be yourself, etc. Infinity Train tackles this in Season 2 with Lake. That’s literally Lake’s entire storyline. But the show also gives us something we’re definitely not used to seeing in media aimed at a younger audience: a protagonist who commits murder. Actual literal murder. It’s not sugarcoated or overlooked or ambiguous. Lake kills a guy. But instead of spiraling down into a hero-into-villain arc, Lake’s entire storyline resolves itself in the end and they get their happy ending. Of course the ending is left open-ended and we probably won’t ever know what happened to them. However, Lake achieves their ultimate goal and doesn’t turn into a supervillain. Why is this important? Because in most narratives, murder is a strict no-no for a protagonist. We all know how Batman doesn’t kill people—except sometimes in specific iterations that tend to make people upset—because he’s a good guy. This black and white approach to morality is a familiar trope in most stories, Harry Potter being one of the best examples. Harry’s whole thing is that he prefers a disarming spell—Expelliarmus—while Voldemort’s signature move is the Killing Curse. This entire contrast between them—Harry being the Good Guy and Voldemort being the Big Bad—is an important part of the narrative. Throughout the story, Harry rarely hurts someone unless he absolutely has to. In fact, he’s almost incapable of harming anyone, even people who might conceivably deserve it. In Book Five, Harry attempts to cast the torture spell on Bellatrix after she murders his godfather, but it doesn’t work because Harry is just too much of a Good Guy to ever use an Unforgivable Curse on anyone even in a fit of rage. Never killing or causing great harm is a major tenet of the Good Guy brand. It’s rare to see a protagonist—especially a protagonist in a kid-friendly piece of media—who doesn’t adhere to this strict rule.
Lake breaks this signature rule by rejecting the core concept of black and white morality. At the end of the day, their ultimate goal is to get off the train and define their own life. They’re not a “hero” or a “villain”, they are simple a character in a story with their own motivations, ideals, and struggles. They’re not boxed in by a very basic understanding of what it means to be good. This narrative of the hero sparing the villain at the last second is so pervasive that it has almost become a cliché. One of the most obvious and well-known examples of this trope being turned on its head is in the first Deadpool movie, in which Wade (spoilers) decides he actually does want revenge, even if it makes him a bad guy. But of course Wade is an anti-hero, so he’s basically ground zero for morality. Wade lives by his own specific moral code.
Another abruptly relevant example is Steven, particularly Steven in Steven Universe Future. In Fragments, Steven—a character who has so far been characterized by his desire to remain a pacifist—finally unleashes his anger and ends up killing Jasper. He heals her soon afterward, but this moment—seemingly—marks a moral turning point for Steven. It is the first time Steven has caused intentional—and fatal—harm to a character. Of course he didn’t intend to shatter Jasper, but he did intend to hurt her and—based on the end of the episode—Steven realizes he messed up and that giving into his anger was maybe a bad idea. But Steven is not—has never been—a “hero in the story”. His entire Hero’s Journey was about him coming to terms with his identity. Of course there was a big bad evil villain to defeat, but the actual Big Bad throughout the series was always Steven’s inner demons. The same goes for Lake in Infinity Train. At the end of the day, Lake was trying to run away from—both literally and figuratively—the identity that was forced on them.
Black and white morality is, quite frankly, really cliché and kind of dumb. It doesn’t really make for good storytelling if your protagonist has zero real flaws or moments in which they go against their own established morals. How many times would Batman have been completely justified in killing Joker, rather than locking him up in an asylum that he knows Joker is going to escape from again? If anything, more narratives should show us a protagonist with a “no killing” policy dealing with the aftermath of compromising their morals. How much better would the Harry Potter series have been if Harry did successfully cast the torture spell on Bellatrix in Book Five? And what if he’d spent the rest of the series dealing with the aftermath of that? Of course it’s perfectly fine to have a character with a well-defined moral compass and a strict “No Killing” policy, just like it’s fine to have a protagonist who has neither of those. It’s also fine to have a protagonist who subverts expectations. What if Harry had snapped at the end of Book Four or Five and decided to join the Death Eaters? Wouldn’t that have made for a way more interesting and subversive narrative, a real twist to send the fiction world spinning? The Harry Potter series was subversive in places, but it did hold back and play it safe more often than not. The characters all get their respective happy endings, the Big Bad is defeated, and we don’t really get a glimpse of the aftermath of the war to spoil the image of our favorite characters being perfectly content.
So should you watch Infinity Train? Definitely. It does so many things well, especially Tulip’s back story in Season One. But so far, MT/Lake is my favorite protagonist. I didn’t expect to like them better than Tulip, but there it is. And Season Two deals with a lot of stuff about self-identity, peer pressure, etc. It’s all about finding yourself, but it does this familiar storyline in a far more nuanced way than we’re used to. Worth a look.