This day was going to be perfect/The kind of day of which I dreamed since I was small (The Best Night Ever)

Let’s talk about evolution. No, not the inexplicably controversial–despite being as close as any model can get to solid fact–biological theory; I mean something more basic. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between evolution and change.

Frequently, talk of evolution implies some ideal of progress, but that’s not really accurate to the concept; certainly biological evolution has no sense of going from “bad” states to “good” ones. Likewise, the evolution of a character might make them less appealing to the audience (to use one definition of “bad” character) or involve a decent into villainy (to use another). The real definition of evolution is simply cumulative change, that is, a series of changes, each building upon the last.

Some characters evolve within their stories, while others merely change. To use pony examples,within the first season Applejack does not evolve. She changes in “Applebucking Season,” but her change is circular: ultimately she returns to the state she was in before the episode. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, evolves. She is a different pony after “The Elements of Harmony” than at the beginning of “The Mare in the Moon,” and she retains these differences after. She changes again in “Winter Wrap-Up,” and again retains elements of those changes for the rest of the series.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, transformation and change are recurring themes in the first season. There’s several non-exclusive reasons why this should be the case, but one is particularly notable here at the end of the season: The show itself has been evolving, and many individual episodes reflect this continual change.

No, really, it’s not a magical girl show after all.

It’s May 6, 2011.Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is back at the top of the charts, and while still not great, it’s a massive improvement over last week. Speaking of massive improvements, we have an actually good movie dominating the box office for the first time in what seems like ages: Thor, which is exactly as gloriously silly and overwrought as a movie about a Norse god (who’s actually a space alien) becoming a superhero ought to be. In the news, the biggest story broke Sunday with the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Sony’s in trouble again with the news that hackers may have stolen the account information of nearly 25 million Sony Online users, and the Canadian elections create a Conservative majority, because when times are tough people like strong, decisive leaders who will do everything in their power to make things worse.

The final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic‘s first season is unquestionably Amy Keating Rogers’ best, the aptly titled “Best Night Ever.” At heart, it’s about disappointment and recovery; about planned and hoped-for events going awry, yet ultimately turning out as good or better than planned.

Obviously, the Grand Galloping Gala itself is such an event, at least for our main characters. The episode depicts its development into and beyond disaster as effectively an evolutionary process. The Mane Six enter the Gala with certain expectations, but events shatter those expectations. A period of chaos ensues, forcing the ponies to come up with something else that turns out to be just as good as what they planned–at least for the Mane Six themselves, Spike, and Celestia. Granny Smith will have to find another way to pay for that new hip, and all the other Gala attendees had their evening ruined, but then it wouldn’t be a Rogers episode without some failure to think through the implications or empathize fully with out-of-focus characters–and it wouldn’t be a My Little Po-Mo article about a Rogers episode if I didn’t complain about it. (Also: While this is, by far, her least bad attempt, I still hate how Rogers writes Rarity. There, anti-Rogers quota achieved.)

The episode opens with an elaborate musical number which (besides being the best song of the season) neatly encapsulates the series’ evolution so far. Back in “Elements of Harmony,” Pinkie’s musical number was tongue-in cheek and the responses of the other ponies suggested that they were not only aware of the prevalence of musical numbers in cartoons, they were familiar enough with the trope to be sick of it. It was a moment for the show’s makers to demonstrate that while they may be doing a musical number in My Little Pony, they’re still cool and detached. By contrast, “At the Gala” is an enormous production number unironically indulged, a celebratory moment shared by every pony on the screen. There is no effort to be cool here; it is gloriously emotive and sincere.

As a general rule, musical numbers are nondiegetic, which is to say that they are not “real” from the perspective of the characters. A musical number is a narrative technique to convey a character’s emotions to the audience, not a part of the plot; it is generally safe to assume that anything that happens in a musical number isn’t real unless something in the show signals otherwise. “The Elements of Harmony,” however, signaled otherwise from the beginning of the first musical number of the show, making it clear that Pinkie Pie was really singing, the other characters knew she was singing, and they were as weirded out as any of us would be on encountering a musical number in real life. For the rest of the early first season, Pinkie Pie was the only pony who sang, and the audience could assume all her songs were diegetically “real.”

“Winter Wrap-Up,” along with all the other changes it initiated, had the entire population of Ponyville singing a song together. On the one hand, this musical number (also called “Winter Wrap-Up”) has to be at least somewhat nondiegetic; there is no way ponies across town from each other could coordinate their timing to trade off verses as they do in the song. On the other, groups of laborers often use music to coordinate their efforts, so it’s entirely plausible that the song is at least somewhat diegetic. As the season has gone on, however, we’ve gotten more songs from non-Pinkie Pie characters, such as Rarity’s “Art of the Dress.” Here in “Best Night Ever,” we have no less than three songs, which is quite a few for a 22-minute cartoon. It’s not quite a full-fledged musical episode, but it’s close enough to make clear that this is no longer a show that’s too cool for musical numbers. Musicals, after all, are on the surface silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy–an excellent description of My Little Pony‘s appeal.

But “silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy” is not the show we began with twenty-five episodes ago. Oh, those elements were all present in the series premiere, but they shared the stage with an attempt to be cool. To judge by the series premiere, we were watching an unusually funny magical girl show, a spiritual successor to The Powerpuff Girls that shifted the anime influence from the character designs to the plots. The natural expectation would have been for the majority of episodes following to involve battles with monsters and villains, ending with an encounter with some kind of uber-villain or major crisis in the season finale. Certainly a comedy or character-building episode here and there, and of course there’s no getting away from the friendship lessons that are the show’s raison d’etre, but the original conception of the show seems likely to have been driven by sanitized violence. Perhaps a preschool version of the greatest Western magical girl show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Mane Six would have battled monsters that symbolize the challenges of growing up, drawing power and support from their friendship with one another, and “Dragonshy” would have been a typical episode rather than an interesting one-time experiment.

That might have been a good show, but it didn’t work out that way. Immediately after the premiere, we started focusing on the characters themselves, without symbolic monsters to act as crutches. Unable to be My Little Buffy, the show cast around for other things it could be, and a season of evolution began. It spent a few episodes exploring the characters and discovering its capacity for sincerity in a world where even the children’s shows are cynical and bitter, but found itself trapped in the tension between being a utopian idyll that stayed true to its characters, and a meme fountain and growing pop cultural icon. That crucible triggered its alchemical transformation into a new kind of show, and it has spent the latter half of the first season trying to figure out just what kind of show exactly that is.

“The Best Night Ever” doesn’t try to answer that question. Instead, it ruminates and reflects on the journey thus far, which in itself is a partial answer. The show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic started as would have ended its first season with some kind of massive conflict with a major villain, probably one threatening a narrative collapse–something not too different from the second season premiere. That’s just how TV shows–especially ones that earn a geek cult following–work in the 2000s. Instead, we have an episode entirely devoid of antagonists, where the only conflict is that between the unrealistic expectations of the characters and the reality of what occurred.

It never occurred to me, the first time I watched this episode, to be disappointed in it. But in a sense it is a failure to fulfill a promise given when Nightmare Moon was defeated. All the rules of normal television say that this episode should have involved a battle with an even bigger villain and ended with another use of the Elements of Harmony. That’s what we’ve been trained to expect, and therefore to want, by the last decade-and-a-half of television, by everything from Buffy to Teen Titans to even Adventure Time. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, per se. It’s appealing and it works and there’s lots of variety in how it can be done–but it’s not the show My Little Pony evolved into.

The show My Little Pony evolved into ends its first season with a rumination on where its been. We get a mini-character collapse from Fluttershy, we get a deflated (albeit less literally this time) Pinkie Pie desperately trying to get a party going, we get a glimpse of why Twilight Sparkle might not have thought much of social interaction in Canterlot. It’s something like a greatest-hits album of the season, touching on an essential element of each character lightly and then moving on (except, of course, with Rarity, but at least she gets to tell someone off fairly impressively).

But this isn’t a clip show, even in spirit. It does actually have something to say. The Gala is a constraining structure that traps the ponies, forcing them into paths they don’t want to take, and only by unleashing chaos can they break free and change it. This is no less true of the series. Last time they made a major change, it required a complete alchemical transformation. Now a new challenge is looming, because last week proved something utterly devastating to the premise of the show: Twilight can’t learn a friendship lesson every episode. It’s too constraining, and it prevents the other characters from meaningfully evolving if their crises and their character-building episodes must conclude with Twilight learning a lesson.

There’s also the issue that, if Twilight has to learn a new lesson about friendship every episode, sooner or later the writers are going to have to start either teaching lessons Twilight never needed to learn or repeat old lessons. Either way, it undermines Twilight’s evolution and forces her into mere change.

To break free of the constraints of Twilight’s friendship lessons is a major challenge. It’s a core element of the premise of the show–I referred to it above as the raison d’etre, and from the Hub’s point of view that’s true. Part of the purpose of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is to fulfill the Hub’s obligation to provide educational programming; remove the thirty seconds of “Today I learned…” from the end and it no longer fulfills the requirements.

There is, of course, the solution of having the other characters learn lessons as well, but within the show that runs into the issue that Twilight was assigned to Ponyville to learn friendship lessons. It’s her job, and she can’t just let others do it for her.

The show appears to be trapped, just as Celestia was trapped by the constraints of the Gala. And just like Celestia, the solution is to invite in an outside element that brings chaos. This element has many names, but at its core it is the essence of change. It is time and entropy and death and rebirth, that which laughs at constraints and dissolves the old order so that a new may arise. It is chaos, and it is dangerous and tricky.

Pinkie Pie called it by name last week, invited it in: “Okie doki, Loki.” Possibly unintentional on the part of the writers, to be sure, but Pinkie Pie can walk through end-of-episode irises and hang off the top of the frame; she can tell where the show is headed. It needs an injection of chaos, a narrative collapse that permits a new narrative to be built from the ruins. The problem is that chaos is rarely cooperative. That’s why it’s so frequently depicted as a Trickster–once invited in, it does what it wants, and we have to be prepared that what we get might not be what we expected, even if odds are good that it’ll be as good or better.

The show is going to try to get that injection of chaos; it’s going to get a big ol’ storm instead. Discord is coming.

Next week: To celebrate finishing off the first season, I’m taking a break from episode analyses for a month. But that doesn’t mean an end to My Little Po-Mo articles! Instead, April is going to be Fanworks Month. Every Sunday I’ll apply the same techniques I use for the episode analyses on a different fanwork. Some might be major fan favorites, others my own idiosyncratic preferences; some might be video, others fanfics or comics–every week will be something different. Then in May we’ll pick up where we left off with the beginning of the second season.

So what fanwork am I doing next week? I’ll give you a clue: All the way across the sky. What does it mean? Find out April 6!

Pony Thought of the Day: Who are bronies, really?

The herd census is complete!

Interesting findings: Bronies are majority male (84%), and overwhelmingly American (64%, nearly 10 times the second-place country, Canada). Brony concentrations within the U.S. follow population centers, as you’d expect, but per capita Utah has the most bronies, followed by Washington state. In general the northwest and northeast have the most bronies per capita.

Bronies are overwhelmingly white, again nearly 10 times as many as the second-place race, Asian. Bronies come from more stable-than-average families, tend to be more highly educated than the average American, and are less likely to serve in the military than the average American. The study wasn’t able to get good data on the question, but all of these factors correlate with wealth in the general population. It would make sense for bronies to be from wealthier-than-average households–unsurprising, when you consider that the only ways to watch the show are non-basic cable or high-speed Internet.

Most interesting result, to me at least, was that the community largely rejects the term “pegasister,” with women even more likely to reject it than men.

Sadly, the study very nearly invalidates itself by tossing in a “Jungian personality test,” a.k.a the thoroughly discredited Myers-Briggs. The study’s authors do mention wanting to do more thorough personality testing in the next iteration of the census, so hopefully they will use real personality tests next time.

Pony Thought of the Day: Fanon Versions of Characters

There’s a lot of fanon versions of the characters on the show, to the point that sometimes I think we tend to forget that they aren’t actually canonical. Celestia and Luna being god-tier in their magical abilities, for example, has no real basis in the show. Neither does Ditzy Doo being physically or mentally disabled, or Scootaloo being an orphan. That’s all stuff we made up.

All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile/From these happy friends of mine (Party of One)

Who knew Jackson Pollock was a brony?

It’s April 29, 2011. The top song is Rihanna and Britney Spears singing “S&M,” which is exactly as repetitive, brainless, and tawdry as you’d expect from the singers and song title. The top movie is Fast Five, so also repetitive, brainless, and tawdry. In real news, WikiLeaks releases files that confirm that everything we thought was happening in Guantanamo Bay is, in fact, happening in Guantanamo Bay, renowned crazy person Ron Paul (not to be confused with his even crazier son, Rand Paul) announces his intent to run in the increasingly wacky Republican Presidential race, and the Playstation Network implodes.

Meanwhile, Megan McCarthy brings us the best episode of Season 1, “Party of One.” There is so much greatness in this episode it’s hard to keep this post from degenerating into incoherent squeeing noises. The jokes are solid, and the visual gags come thick, fast, and funny. The animation is as good as first season gets, the lighting is inspired, the use of backgrounds is incredible–the episode simply hits on all cylinders.

Like “Applebucking Season,” it’s a character collapse. In a character collapse, circumstances force a character (in this case Pinkie Pie) outside of their normal role. That’s just good character writing, however; to be a true character collapse, the character must respond by inverting elements of their own personality and undermining their own goals or well being. In short, a character collapse is a process of transformation by which a character, through their own choices and in-character responses to circumstances, becomes their own foil.

Up to this point, Pinkie Pie has been a cartoon character. Of course, this is a cartoon, so every character is a cartoon character, but Pinkie Pie is by far the cartooniest of the bunch. With her random outbursts, tendency to break the fourth wall, and general happy-go-lucky bouncy attitude, she’d fit right in on Animaniacs or some of the less cynical Looney Tunes shorts. Like Roger Rabbit, she can do basically anything as long as it’s funny. Even when she’s not doing anything in particular, her bright color and characteristic bouncing motion liven up any shot that contains her. While that motion is reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew, her friendly, fun-loving demeanor, innocent-prankster mischievous streak, and above all her ability to pull anything she needs out of nowhere recall the classic, and sadly now nearly forgotten, Felix the Cat.

Pinkie is also a cartoon in the negative sense of the word, or at least she is at the beginning of this episode. True, she is colorful and animated, but she is also flat, two-dimensional, and more caricature than character. All Pinkie wants, it seems, is to receive immediate gratification of her desire for the pleasures of parties, friends, and sugar.

There is a concept in psychology, originating with the work of Daniel Kahneman, that we can construct a person as two selves in the same body, tugging in different directions. The experiencing self lives in the moment and wants to do things that are pleasurable now, while the remembering self lives in the past and wants to do things that will create good memories. Because of its focus on remembering the past, the remembering self is capable of planning for the future; it wants to do now what will bring it pleasure in the future. Often they are at odds: for example, hard work to overcome a challenge isn’t very pleasurable and so the experiencing self dislikes it, but it can create very good memories, so the remembering self loves it.

We have seen no trace of Pinkie Pie’s remembering self. She always lives solely in the moment, and seems to never look back. She indulges her every impulse to pursue pleasure, and seems to have no interest in accomplishing anything, no goals, no memories she wants to create. She is literally lacking a dimension all the other characters possess, which is another way of saying that she’s a flat character.

And then Meghan McCarthy comes along to collapse her. It’s quite a feat, collapsing a character that’s already flat, and this episode is a testament to just how good McCarthy is when she’s at the top of her game. Throughout the first two acts, Pinkie Pie sticks to behaviors we’ve seen her use before, albeit from other characters’ perspectives. As in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” she pursues Rainbow Dash relentlessly, somehow managing to already be wherever Rainbow Dash goes, despite Rainbow Dash being the fastest pony in Equestria. And as in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie lurks inside innocuous objects such as a haystack and a bell.

In those other episodes, Pinkie’s behavior was portrayed from the point of view of Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle, and came across as purely humorous. In this episode, her behavior is portrayed from her own point of view, and while still funny, it has an edge of desperation that casts her past actions in a new light. In “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie expressed a belief that friendships are fragile and can easily be damaged by a broken promise, and dedicated herself to paranoically pursuing Twilight to ensure that she didn’t do so. Now in “Party of One,” Pinkie’s behavior is again a paranoid pursuit of her friends, and again based on her belief that friendships are fragile. Her behavior in “Griffon the Brush-Off” was comically annoying, but driven by a desire to spend time with her friend; now we see that it is not a desire but a desperate need.

With only her experiential self to draw on, Pinkie has no resources to draw on when alone. Her self-esteem and self-image are based entirely on how much fun she is having at the moment, how much attention her friends are paying to her, and how much she is entertaining others. She has no accomplishments or achievements to think back on proudly, no future goals and therefore no progress to be proud of. She doesn’t have Applejack’s or Rarity’s career successes, Twilight’s ever-growing magic and knowledge, or Rainbow Dash’s competitions. In this respect she is most like Fluttershy; both ponies place their sense of self-worth entirely in their ability to please others, with opposite, but equally shattering, effects: Fluttershy feels inadequate when she is around others because she fears earning their disapproval, and Pinkie Pie feels inadequate when she is alone, because she can no longer earn approval.

For all the silliness of Pinkie Pie’s resulting behavior, her distress speaks to a very real problem with being defined solely by one’s relationships rather than by the totality of one’s person. We live in a society where women in particular are likely to be defined by their relationships alone. President Obama, for example, frequently uses a “wives, daughters, mothers” framing when discussing women’s issues, which has the effect of making it seem like he’s talking to men about women and of making it seem like women are only worth something to society because of their relationships to others, as opposed to having the intrinsic worth that, for instance, wealthy straight white cismen are assumed to possess. When Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan started a petition asking him to stop using that framing, it failed to reach the required number of signatures, and some people, such as National Review’s Patrick Brennan, argued that people should be defined by their relationships.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being partially defined by your relationships. Relationships are like food: there’s no one food you absolutely must eat,, but a wide variety of food is essential to a healthy diet, and if you have no food, you will die. Likewise, there’s no one absolutely essential relationship, but to be a fully realized human being you must have relationships of some sort with others, and a wide variety of different types of relationships is much healthier than just one type of relationship. I don’t think anyone is arguing against that; the problem is with being defined entirely by relationships, which undermines self-worth and leads a person to, like Pinkie Pie, be unable to function without constant support from others.

Pinkie Pie’s breakdown, once she believes her friends have abandoned her, is swift and unsettling. It’s a testament to McCarthy that this episode never stops being funny, even though Pinkie is suffering what amounts to a psychotic break in the third act. Everything her “new friends” say is directly from Pinkie’s own thoughts, and quite telling: she is furiously angry at her friends, which speaks to how badly hurt she feels. Without access to her remembering self, she cannot remind herself of all the signs that her friends love and care about her; all she feels is their current absence, and that feels like a betrayal.

Why doesn’t Pinkie Pie have a remembering self? Or more accurately, since everyone has a remembering self, why is hers so overpowered by her experiential self? We got the answer just two weeks ago, in the “Cutie Mark Chronicles.” Her story in that episode has “unreliable narrator” written all over it, but it seems the core of it is true: Pinkie Pie grew up in a joyless environment of emotional isolation and repression, and had no good memories for her remembering self to take pleasure in. When she discovered her gift for partying, she found something to feed her experiential self, and all of her growth since then has therefore gone to that self; her remembering self is stunted. As far as Pinkie is concerned, there is nothing to be gained from remembering the past, and therefore nothing to be gained by caring about the future, by pursuing goals or trying to accomplish anything. She just wants to throw parties and enjoy herself every waking moment of every day, to be loved by everyone and never have to worry about anything, because working hard reminds her of her unhappy childhood. She has swung from one extreme to the other, and utterly missed health in the middle.

Friendship sustains and nurtures her, but the only cure for her desperate lack of self-worth is meaningful accomplishment, something which Pinkie finds an abhorrent reminder of her miserable upbringing. She’s trapped, and it doesn’t seem likely that anyone except either a very good therapist or Pinkie herself can unravel this snare. Friendship is magic, it seems, but not even magic can do everything.

At the end of the episode, Pinkie Pie is bouncing and happy again, because she’s reassured that her friends love her. But has she actually learned anything? Twilight writes the letter to Princess Celestia, not Pinkie, and it seems that from Pinkie’s perspective, the problem was that her friends appeared not to like her, and the solution was discovering they did like her. She still has no self-worth outside her friends’ approval; in short, there’s nothing to prevent something like this from happening to her again.

Fittingly, as the pony most likely to interact with the medium, Pinkie’s collapse has demonstrated the seams in the show itself. Friendship may be magic, but not even magic, it seems, can fix everything. But if that’s true, then what is this show about? What is it for, if not to evangelize to children about the magic of friendship?

Yet again, as it has been doing all season, the show must reinvent itself, and Pinkie Pie has spoken the name of the force of change it requires. As before, it will take several episodes to fully transform, but the collapse of Pinkie is where it truly begins.

Next week: Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.