These two ponies have a bit of a grudge match they’re trying to settle. (Boast Busters)

Equestria: Even our terrifying marauding space bears are cute.

You know, I feel like my last couple of posts have been good, but for a site called My Little Po-Mo, I actually haven’t looked at postmodern elements of the show much. Let’s change that!

It’s November 19, 2010. The big movie this weekend is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, so magical conflicts are clearly in the air. In music, Ke$ha finally knocks Far*East Movement out of the number one spot with “We R Who We R,” which while obviously made by a group of people utterly devoid of anything to say or any emotional investment in their work, is at least recognizable as an attempt to be something vaguely resembling music, albeit really bad music.

In marginally more depressing news than the top two songs being Ke$ha and dubstep, the death toll of the Haitian cholera epidemic passes 1,000, the U.S. continues to fire missiles at civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing a few dozen more this week, and rabid bats attack Los Angeles. At least the last is morbidly funny?

In Equestrian news, Chris Savino writes the first of his two episodes of MLP, “Boast Busters.” It’s really too bad that he only ever wrote the two; they’re both pretty good, and they both do an excellent job of exploding the adventure/character study binary I described a couple of weeks ago, while also finding ways to pull familiar stories out of their usual contexts and do something new with them. In other words, Savino is one of the more postmodern writers on the show, and a quick glance at his resume shows that this isn’t a fluke of these two episodes–he’s worked on some of the great postmodern cartoons of the 90s, like Ren and Stimpy, I Am Weasel, and Rocko’s Modern Life. He’s also the only recurring writer other than Lauren Faust to have significant experience as an animator, and it shows; this is a very visual episode, in the sense that the visuals are not simply following the dialogue but adding nuances that aren’t apparent from dialogue alone.

For example, while Trixie’s dialogue points to a stage magician, she does not wear the traditional black cape and top hat we associate with that archetype. Instead, her low-saturation color scheme of almost-gray blues and purples, peaked hat, cloak, and penchant for fireworks point to one of the defining archetypes of the modern conception of a “real” wizard, Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey. By putting the behavior of a stage magician in the trappings of a real wizard, we recognize Trixie as a fraud immediately; a stage magician is an entertainer, but a stage magician pretending to be Gandalf is a liar.

Except the episode does something very interesting here, because of course Trixie is using real magic to perform her stage act. Her fireworks are genuine magical illusions, her rope tricks real telekinesis, and so forth. She may not be anywhere near Twilight’s caliber, let alone Gandalf’s, but nonetheless underneath the fraud there is something real. (Which, incidentally, is why the entire Lunaverse can happen, but that’s way outside the scope of this blog.) The episode doesn’t do much with this underlying reality–in the end, Trixie is the big-talking out-of-towner who gets shown up by a local and chased out on a rail–but I suspect it has more than a little to do with Trixie’s status as one of the fan-favorite ponies-of-the-week.

Another major factor in making Trixie a fan favorite is that she is an excellent foil for Twilight Sparkle. She is confident and confrontational where Twilight is neurotic and avoidant; a dominance-seeker where Twilight seeks approval; a liar where Twilight is honest. There’s a reason fans keep wanting her to turn up in a later season as Princess Luna’s apprentice!

So it’s an interesting choice that, in an episode where the main antagonist is an excellent foil for the closest thing the show has to a singular main character, our point-of-view character for most of the episode isn’t Twilight Sparkle, but rather Spike. From this distance, we’re able to detach from her actions and interrogate her character as she interacts with Trixie; instead of sharing Twilight’s fear that the other ponies will reject her if she stands up to Trixie, we share Spike’s frustration at her refusal to do so. At the same time, since we can hear Twilight’s conversations that Spike either doesn’t hear or tunes out, we understand the source of her concern, keeping her sympathetic even as we recognize it’s a baseless concern. It’s a clever way for the episode to encourage a relatively complex response from its audience while keeping the complexity of the actual story at an appropriate level for the five-year-olds it is ostensibly written for.

Keeping the focus on Spike also serves to keep the focus off of Twilight’s crippling self-esteem issues, which is good because this is not the story for exploring them–that’s better done in a comedic character collapse episode, of which we’ll get a couple for Twilight later. In this story, it would be far too depressing. But rest assured, Twilight has serious self-esteem problems, between her conviction that she must be the best of the best to impress Celestia while simultaneously never giving any hint that she’s better than the other ponies. In other words, she has accepted that ponies can be ranked from best to worst in an absolute way (which is messed up to begin with), and her worth comes from being best, but no one will love her if she’s best. To address this directly would bog the entire episode down into Twilight Has Issues, which would be no fun for anyone, least of all the viewers, so yet more reason to locate our point of view outside Twilight.

The detachment from Twilight also means Savino is free to bring in elements of stories with different main characters. This episode could easily have been a Brave Little Tailor variant: Trixie (the tailor) brags about beating an Ursa Minor (the giant) and then has to face one. The scenes of her alone with Snips and Snails–unless I am much mistaken, the first scenes in which ponies talk to each other without any of the Mane Six around–help support the notion that it’s this type of story. Add in that, as we mentioned above, underneath her showmanship and braggadocio is real magic, and you have a real possibility for Trixie to be the hero of this episode. If this were The Trixie Show, she would be forced to find a way to use her abilities to beat the Ursa Minor and thus learn a valuable lesson both about bragging and about valuing the abilities she has instead of claiming abilities she doesn’t have.

This isn’t The Trixie Show, but right up until the moment that she refuses to admit wrongdoing and flees, it remains possible that she will be the one to learn the friendship lesson this week. This dangling possibility, I think, is a major factor in Trixie’s popularity in requests for characters to return: she is not redeemed (and cannot be, as she says bad things about all of Ponyville, which includes Fluttershy–that’s close enough to the Unforgivable Sin that she cannot be redeemed now, though she is still not utterly beyond the possibility of future redemption), but we feel the possibility that she could be. Certainly, she is presented more sympathetically than Gilda, despite being in many ways the same character–a newly arrived dominance-seeker and show-off who looks down on everyone in Ponyville.

However, this isn’t The Trixie Show. It’s My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which for much of the first season is The Twilight Sparkle Show. Thus, this episode spends a lot of time on Twilight Sparkle and her fears of becoming victim to Tall Poppy Syndrome. On the face of it, this concern should be absurd; ponies are a species comprised entirely of savants, after all: Every pony has one talent at which they are effectively genius-level natural prodigies, and vary in their other talents. It makes no sense for ponies to even have Tall Poppy Syndrome, since there is no such thing as a merely average pony (assuming, of course, that all ponies eventually discover their cutie mark, which seems likely.)

Additionally, ponies are very much not a society in which status is zero-sum. Their country is founded based on the discovery that being nice to each other prevents monsters from freezing them all, and overflows with so much love that the Changelings see it as a continent-spanning buffet. Ponies do not have the sorts of small, rigid hierarchies (such as cut-throat noble courts or gangs of teenage delinquents) that lead to Tall Poppy Syndrome–places where the only way to gain status is to reduce someone else’s–and they haven’t for thousands of years. Ponies consumed by envy either learn a friendship lesson or get eaten by Windigos. And as we discussed last week, if every pony has a singular gift that is both their obsession and their unique talent, then there is never any reason to envy another’s abilities–after all, no matter who you are, you’re better than them at what really matters to you.

The ponies do comment negatively about Trixie’s bragging, but it makes sense for ponies to generally disapprove of bragging. If every pony has something they are uniquely good at, and every pony knows not only their own gift but, by looking at other ponies’ cutie marks, everyone else’s gift as well, then there is no reason to ever brag. Trixie knows she’s good at stage magic, anyone looking at her cutie mark knows she’s good at stage magic, so bragging about it just proves that she’s deeply insecure, a jerk, or both.

Despite this, and despite growing up in Equestria, Twilight has somehow never absorbed that ponies dislike bragging but have no problem with displays of talent. There’s a reason for this, of course, namely that Twilight Sparkle is quite possible the worst-socialized pony in Equestria, and certainly the worst-socialized pony among the Mane Six. (Now, at least. By the end of second season she has passed Pinkie Pie to become second-worst-socialized.)

In a culture that values friendship above all else, Twilight starts the series with no friends. She values no relationships other than family and her mentor; she doesn’t even acknowledge friendly overtures from other ponies. It takes being smacked in the face with the fact that friendship is somewhat necessary to live a good life, and also incidentally gives you vast magical power if your name is Twilight Sparkle, to break her out of that and get her to actually try to make friends, and at the start she’s terrible at it. This is consistent across several episodes: Twilight can’t make up her mind about the gala tickets, worsens Applejack’s character collapse, gives Pinkie terrible advice about Gilda, and now can’t tell the difference between empty boasts and actually demonstrating a skill when it’s needed.

Bless her, Twilight tries, but she’s really bad at dealing with other ponies at the start, and easily dissuaded by her fears of how they will respond, because for all intents and purposes Twilight’s social and emotional development is that of a five-year-old. Of course, this makes a lot of sense non-diegetically, because the point of the show is for Twilight to learn lessons that would matter to her five-year-old viewers, but it also makes diegetic sense: Her development is stunted by her lack of relationships with pony peers.

Every episode thus far has been a fairly conventional plot: Ancient evil returns, and heroes rise to defeat it; friends find themselves competing for a limited resource all want; a character faces a challenge they can’t handle and crumbles in the face of it until they accept the help they need; old friends clash with new friends. “Boast Busters,” on the surface, is another fairly simple story, as we’ve discussed (stranger comes to town and challenges local), but by drawing in elements of other stories it permits us to get a surprising amount of character depth from such a seemingly simple plot.

By combining the two stories and ensuring that the camera does not center on Twilight until the climax, Savino is able to simultaneously explore the rather sad existence that is early Twilight Sparkle and keep it from dampening the fun. Along the way, we’re able to get in a little exploration of the implications of a society in which every pony knows their own and others’ true gifts, get to know a pony-of-the-week compelling enough to merit calls for a return, see how Spike supports Twilight, and cap it all off with a cool monster attack that ends in a very fun, non-violent resolution.

In short, this episode is a tour-de-force, and for the first time since the first episode I can declare this easily the best episode we’ve looked at so far.

Next week: Easily the best episode we’ve looked at so far.

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