Okey-dokey Loki (The Return of Harmony)

Like the blind sages’ elephant, it has so many names: Time, Loge, Evolution…

Things are wrong from the start. This isn’t how we normally begin. I mean, it’s been a while since we had a real episode of the show, so maybe we’ve just forgotten, but shouldn’t there be some sort of grounding here, a way to position ourselves in familiar spaces? Where are the Mane Six? Where, for that matter, are we? This isn’t Ponyville, and we always start in Ponyville or at least with the Mane Six. And have we ever seen ponies physically fighting each other before?

…the day of the Eclipse, Christ, Q…

And then, after the credits, the title. “The Return of Harmony.” The first thing this episode tells us is that harmony has gone away. It must have, if we’re watching the story of its return. Something has gone fundamentally wrong. Maybe it was always wrong, and we’re only just now noticing.

…eucatastrophe, change, Armageddon, progress…

She must break free.

The solution is simple. We know the Elements of Harmony, we can solve this problem and restore order before it breaks down. That is what we want, isn’t it? Static, constraining order?

…the beginning and the end…

It has taken her world for its own and rules it as a tyrant. This sprawling beast, this hideous abomination that gnaws and grinds and surrounds the universe it claims as its own. It is both her jailer and enabler, maintaining her creations even as it imprisons these entities of pure thought in plastic shells, pink where they should be white, and what’s up with the pets?

Except it’s too late. The Elements are gone, and he walks openly among us. The progression is clear: First we learned the nature of destiny. Then Pinkie Pie, always the first to intuit these things, discovered that the nature of the show blocked her evolution toward her future destiny, and called him forth by name. Then he was evoked in spirit in Canterlot at the end of the first season. It matters little that the escape from his physical prison is well after that; he is entropy, that which makes time different from space, and so time belongs to him as much as it does to the regulators of day and night. He has already been to Canterlot, already stolen Harmony.

…Shiva, insanity…

He can save her. He can open a path to let her free. But how can she escape without shattering her prison? And her prison is the world. Her imprisonment is the fundamental law of existence. If she is no longer contained within the tyrant’s laws, chaos reigns. How can her world continue without her?

We recognize him immediately, of course. His shape is different, but his voice, his mannerisms, his actions and personality, they’re all the same. Discord isn’t based on Q; Discord is Q, the all-powerful trickster, hopping from one show to another. Of course the exact same description is true of the Doctor, but we see the Doctor from the perspective of the downpressed, downtrodden, and rebellious. We see Q from the perspective of elite members of an enlightened, but authoritarian, quasimilitary organization; of course that colors how we view the one who overturns the natural order.

And now Star Trek-flavored chaos is invading Equestria. The last time Star Trek invaded Friendship Is Magic the show was nearly destroyed, and had to be reborn. This time is no different.

…Hermes Trismegistus, enlightenment…

She made the world, this incarnation of wisdom, this Faustian, Celestial figure. But she was trapped by it, sealed in and constrained by its laws and the keeper of those laws.

He is sadistic and cruel, breaking down each of the characters we love in turn by confronting them with the essential weaknesses that each of their Elements of Harmony imply, each time taking the form of their cutie marks. Applejack must confront the reality that truth hurts, so she embraces lies. Pinkie Pie rehashes the still-unresolved “Party of One,” her fun-seeking that papers over a total lack of self-worth, and becomes bitter and nasty in the face of being laughed at, not with. Rarity’s love of beautiful things and ambition overwhelm her generosity of spirit, so she becomes grasping and miserly. Rainbow Dash, torn between too many loyalties, betrays her friends.

…entropy, rebirth, death, Ragnarok, Moshiach…

This is the end of the world. The apocalypse. But then, when isn’t it? It is the nature of change and therefore of time; everything is always being destroyed. The universe ends at every moment, and in the next moment a very slightly different universe is born. Every generation inherits a world ruined by the previous generation and must rebuild it, only for the next generation to call it “ruined” and tear it all apart. We live in a state of permanent apocalypse.

Except he can’t turn Fluttershy, of course. With each of the others, he peels away their surface strengths to expose the weakness beneath, and then turns them inside-out. With Fluttershy, the weakness is the surface, and the core is pure strength. He can’t do it, so he is forced to cheat.

…revelation, the Doctor, Coyote…

It gets everything wrong. It smashes beauty in its jealous determination to protect its domain. It renders her beautiful concepts in crude and malformed matter. It casts about in mad confusion, unable to comprehend what it rules, understanding only a single word: “Mine.”

It makes sense. Being too honest or laughing too much can hurt others. Too much generosity can create dependency. Too much loyalty can lead to enabling someone instead of helping them. But too much kindness? As long as you have the strength for it, you can never be too kind.

Trapped in the world she created, source of its greatness but imprisoned by its flaws, she cries out for someone, anyone to help her.

Though she doesn’t know it yet, by the end of the first half Twilight is alone, and that’s terrifying. Twilight’s never been alone before. Even at the start of the first episode a season ago, she had Spike. Now everything starts falling apart in earnest. Of course you could as easily say that mysticism is the only escape from horror. That a purposeless universe in which there is nothing beyond death, no entities looking out for us, and no overarching plot or unifying theme is the true terror. Reality itself breaks down.

…revolution, chaos, liberty…

Twilight now knows what it is to not be alone, knows what she’s lost, and descends into despair. Around her chaos unleashed forms a mocking frame, clinging to the

One way to achieve a sense of chaos is to break
something into component elements, then rearrange
those elements pseudorandomly. The elements–which
can be ponies, pies, paragraphs, parts of creatures–
retain their internal order, but the relations between
them are scrambled and disorienting. The whole, quite
intentionally, does not make sense as such, and it may
or may not be possible to rearrange the elements into
something that is both coherent and complete.

edges of the screen, racing around them as all material things dissolve into madness, but the focus in this scene remains on Twilight as the color leaches from her, as she staggers home a broken pony, conceding to Discord the victory.

…the Phoenix…

It’s September 17, 2011. The top song is Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which combines her soulful voice with incredibly insipid lyrics about a petty woman refusing to move on and imposing herself on an ex in an apparent attempt to sabotage his new relationship. It’s quite nice-sounding, but utterly awful if you pay attention. The top movie is the 3D rerelease of The Lion King, a very different tale of restoring order from the one we’re looking at here. Horror and enlightenment are not really all that different. Destruction and ascension are largely the same thing. The Gnostic Christ is a mystical being from outside the universe who only looks human, who wants to tear out our souls and dissolve all things material in order to release a vast cosmic entity imprisoned within us. If you want to see what Cthulhu cultists would look like in real life, the Gnostics is where you should look. A few major news stories since the last episode: NASA found water on Mars and ended the Space Shuttle program. The Libyan civil war more or less ended with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, although fighting continues for some time afterwards. On the day this episode airs, Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement in general begin, an assault on the existing order made possible by new technology and the magic of friendship.

Oh, and Lauren Faust announced her departure from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic on May 8. All of the Season 2 scripts were completed before she left, so her influence and presence are still with us throughout the season, but she herself is gone.

…the philosopher’s stone, history…

Twilight is alone. She has no friends, and if she has no friends, there is no show. Discord has not only The point is that it’s all in how you look at it. It’s ultimately the difference between the sort of fan who combs through the series for clues at what’s going to happen in future episodes, and the sort of fan who likes to relax and watch the colorful ponies be silly. broken up the Mane Six, not only brought chaos to Ponyville, he has broken the premise of Friendship Is Magic itself.

…AbraI could do a whole article about the use of sweets as symbols in the show. Cakes as emblems of order, pies as signifiers of chaos, chocolate rain and muffins of doom. I mean, I won’t, but I could.xas…

This is narrative collapse. Normally, conflict in a story Something about forests and trees. Discord is a force of nature, not a monster, but the same is true of all monsters. involves either some danger to the characters’ well-being, or some obstacle that impedes their progress. But in a serial work, audiences know that the danger will always end, the obstacle will always be removed. It has to, because next episode, next issue, next story there needs to be a new danger or a new obstacle, so the series can continue. Narrative collapse exploits that knowledge by presenting a new kind of threat. Discord does not merely represent a physical or emotional danger (though he is both of these). He does not merely stand in the way of the characters’ goals (though he does; Twilight is unlikely to learn much about friendship, nor is Rainbow Dash likely to join the Wonderbolts, while he’s around). His true menace is not to any character, but to Friendship Is Magic itself.

…all are differing perspectives on the same thing: the elusive, uncontrollable, infinitely potent force which makes things different tomorrow from how they were yesterday.

But we’ve forgotten someone whose presence is defined by her sudden absence. A message from outside arrives, the memory of everything that has gone before. All those friendship lessons still mean something. Friendship Is Magic is dying around us, but all those bonds it helped forge, all those memories, they endure. Any one friendship can be broken, any one person can leave, but Friendship endures, and remains still (as it always was) Magic.

It’s September 24, 2011. The top spot on the charts goes to Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera with “Moves Like Jagger,” while the top movie is still The Lion King. In the news, the U.S. military officially ends the homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Google+ launches and R.E.M. break up, the FBI arrests alleged LulzSec and Anonymous members, and Herman Cain (who makes Ron Paul look stable, well-grounded, and in touch with the masses by comparison) wins a straw poll for the Republican primary.

Harmony has returned, it seems. From Star Trek to Star Wars, marching down the aisle to collect our medals. This is a celebratory moment, a declaration that things are better. We are in the realm of grand narrative, now; Star Wars made the Hero’s Journey a household name in Hollywood. We know where we are again, but at the same time, Star Wars’ impact on pop culture has been such that the Hero’s Journey is virtually inescapable. Its arrival in Equestria is, if you value Friendship Is Magic for how different it is from typical television, ominous.

So, perhaps, order has been restored, but is it the order we want and the show needs? Discord shattered the show so it could be born anew, killed it in order to save it, but has that birth occurred? Has the underlying flaw revealed by “Party of One” been resolved?

Next week: Yes. Yes it has.

17 thoughts on “Okey-dokey Loki (The Return of Harmony)

  1. Love this analysis. The Return of Harmony has always been my favorite episode, and the week between the two parts was my favorite time in the fandom thanks to all the discussion and speculation that was going on (that kind of thing is justified when it comes to a two-parter right?).

    “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was homophobic and needed to be done away with, but at the time it was at least an improvement over what came before.

    I always thought the singer of “Someone Like You” was supposed to be somewhat unsympathetic, kind of like the guy in “Somebody That I Used to Know.”

  2. Good god…well I got it in two readings (which ties The Three Doctors over at the Eruitorum for fewest reads of collage essay) bu this was not what I expected to open my Sunday with.

    Cracking good essay. That being said: I finally get to comment.

    One of the things that sticks out is an equivalence of The Doctor, Q and Coyote. Which seems a bit much. Q's mischief is whimsical and capricious, there is no point to it other than he feels like it. Which fits in with Discord's love of Chaos. However we're rapidly running into Sukteh (another precreation godlike figure who in the end is defeated a little too easily) territory with his morality. He likes Chaos and friction for the sake of it, not for any end. The fundamental difference is not from the point of view we see them at (The Doctor and Q) but from the ends. Fr the Doctor, for alchemy itself the end is Material Social Progress. Discord/Q have no end game. They are anarchy unleashed from ideology. If we're continuing to draw parallels from Aboriginal Myth here, (And this is only based on what I know from the three bands that are situated around our city and were hence part of my education) Coyote and Q are Discord, while the Doctor is Raven. Who is happy to fuck around with you, but there is a point to it.

    One of the things that bugs me here is that Discord is beaten not truly by the Mane 6 but by Celestia. Twilight tries to remind them that they are friends and fails. However when an authority figure steps in to remind Twilight then she can figure it all out and solve the problem. From a shallow didactic point of view it's a lesson children need to learn at some point: sometimes an adult of authority figure is needed to step in and fix your problem. However in terms of looking a bit deeper at it not only does it infantilize our heroes a bit, but it also shows us that sometimes you just need to sit down and MAKE people be your friends (which was the message my younger niece took from it). It's a fine narrative collapse…but here it's not succeeding at being good television at the same time. Magical Mystery Cure does this quite a bit better in my opinion, but we can save that discussion for then.

  3. Glad you liked it! I wish I'd been involved with the fandom when Return of Harmony came out. I started watching the show in the gap between the first two seasons, and so I was watching as it came out, I just wasn't talking to other fans yet, except my then-fiancee.

    Oh, DADT was definitely an improvement over what came before. But the only reason they didn't jump directly to allowing openly gay servicemembers is prejudice, not necessarily of the law's backers but of its opponents and the general populace.

    That's entirely possible about the Adele song.

  4. Treated as characters, yes, the Doctor and Discord differ. But I equated them not only with each other, but with events and abstractions, specifically because for this comparison I'm looking at them as forces of nature and signifiers, not characters. Looked at that way I think they do rather neatly collapse into Change, at which point the difference between Chaos and Progress is largely a matter of point of view.

    Celestia provided valuable support against Discord, true, but I wouldn't go so far as to say she defeated him. Her letters enabled Twilight to overcome Discord's despair, but it was still the Mane 6 who confronted and defeated him.

    It's rather worrisome that your niece took the lesson that sometimes you need to make people be your friends. My pick for friendship lesson I most want to see the show do continues to be “Sometimes some people aren't your friends, and won't ever be your friends, and that doesn't mean that you or they are bad.”

    I think we'll have to agree to disagree about whether this is good television, though. I consider it one of the two or three best stories of the series to date.

  5. I know you we're comparing them based on signifiers. However many of the the truths we cling depend entirely upon our own point of view. Point of view is important here…Discord is change for it's own sake to the detriment of it's surroundings. “As above, so below” after all. If we are to look at it alchemically these symbols are no different then the things themselves. The fact that the Doctor's change leads to material social progress is integral to what he is. Just as the fact that Discord's chaos cannot lead to anything productive or good.

    While the Mane 6 were able to defeat him themselves they could not have done it without Celestia. They pulled the trigger but she loaded it and handed it over. How much trouble it is really comes down to personal preference I suppose.

    I didn't mean to say it's not a good episode. I sound a lot harsher then I meant. I think it's a good episode, just not a particularly effective episode of children's television.

  6. I don't think it's true at all that Discord's chaos cannot lead to anything productive or good; it led to a very good episode, for starters.

    I completely agree with you about point of view. But ultimately I think the difference between the Doctor and Q lies in their respective milieus' attitudes toward authority. Star Trek is about benevolent authority figures in a quasimilitary organization, and therefore Q is a bad guy, and given bad-guy motivations. Doctor Who is about an anarchist wanderer who thumbs his nose at authority, and therefore the Doctor is a good guy and given good-guy motivations.

    I agree with you that this episode is among the weakest we've covered thus far at delivering its educational pill, but man does it have one of the best sugar coatings on that pill.

  7. Yes, technically Princess Celestia sent the letters, but you're forgetting that Twilight (and her friends) wrote them. Those letters are Twlight's accomplishments in friendship. They're practically part of her. I think you're blowing Celestia's help out of proportion.

  8. I was referring to within the text. Of course there is definitely a reading where unmitigated chaos is no good within the world of Equestria but is a needed component of the Meta Reality surrounding it. But to my point: the chaos Discord brings is shown to be unproductive and harmful. As opposed to that brought by Pinkie Pie which ends in laughter.

    You know one could make another reading of Discord where he is an amalgamation of the elements of Harmony out of sync.

    They might be Twilight's letters, but her friendships aren't strong enough without a symbolic link to fight off Discord/Q. Perhaps that's part of why Celestia will eventually have all 6 Ponies send her letters. Twilight has realized what she has and how special her companions are, but one filly does not a relationship make. Later the other ponies send letters and learn lessons, which is why an outside totem is not needed in “Magical Mystery Cure”. They have finally realized what Twilight has, that their friendships are Magic.

    Like I said before it is a fine episode. I just don't think it fires on all cylinders. Of course we differ on a few things (Applejack) and agree on a few (Ice Warriors!) so this might just be an episode where the middle ground between us is wider than others.

  9. “You know one could make another reading of Discord where he is an amalgamation of the elements of Harmony out of sync.”

    Yes! Placing harmony out of sync would be how one achieves discord, wouldn't it? Like authentic and deceptive cadence, it's a musical pun that works better the more you look at it.

    I think I'm not explaining my point well. Yes, Discord's chaos is shown as being unproductive and harmful. That's because, if you like the current order, then you will of course depict chaos as being unproductive and harmful, and come up with things like Q, Coyote, or Discord. If you don't like the current order, then you will depict chaos as being revolutionary and revelatory, and come up with things like the Doctor, Raven, or Christ. Just because it's a matter of perspective doesn't mean that it's entirely the perspective of the reader; the perspective of the work matters too.

    Put another way, you could say that the difference between the Doctor and Discord is that one is good and the other is evil. Or you could say that the difference is that in Doctor Who the world is normally depicted as bad and in need of tearing down, and in Friendship Is Magic it's depicted as good and in need of defending.

    “They might be Twilight's letters, but her friendships aren't strong enough without a symbolic link to fight off Discord/Q.”

    I don't read it that way. I read the letters as a reminder, that nudge from a mentor that students sometimes need before they can solve the problem at hand. It's still almost entirely Twilight's work, but it's also a demonstration that she's not yet ready for graduation–she still needs someone to give her that nudge.

  10. I do get your point. I just don't know how much I agree with it. I'm ok with that. Unlike many people on the Internet I don't have a powerful need to everyone to agree with me. As I get older I get much more tolerant of the fact that the universe can contain multitudes. Which is not to say that you're solely motivated by that. Like I said before I just don't think our views on this episode are going to meet.

    My reading of the letters as a totem comes directly from your invocation of Hermes Trismegistus and the several parts where you invoke the use of symbols. While in the surface read they are a nudge from a teacher, when we look deeper they are a totem that restores Twilight's power. They are an icon (literal symbols containing g the teachings of friendship) created by Twilight's magic (not just the magic of friendship, but crafted and transmitted by her familiar). Twilight is broken and powerless without them, and even workings that she has done before fail. When they are restored to her she is able to transform and purify her friends back to their purest elements. Alchemy.

  11. Oh, I'm perfectly fine with people disagreeing with me. Most people do about something! I just wanted to make sure I was articulating my point clearly.

    As for the letters: You yourself state that Twilight, not Celestia, created them. To me it reads that Celestia is, at most, closing a link on a spell Twilight has been casting throughout the entire first season.

    At the same time, though, I'm sympathetic to your read, because the letters are also a farewell to/from Faust, who is here completing the spell *she* spent the first season casting. That makes Celestia Faust (which is, you may note, something I suggested in the OP), and the letters her creation.

    So, between you and Derpmind on this I think I find myself not so much either/or as both/and.

  12. This is why I'm still here. Despite any point we might disagree on'p, the fact you can accept disagreement makes you one of the top 1% of people to talk with on the Internet. The fact that this blog perfectly follows two of my interests is just icing on the cake really.

    Perhaps my reading isn't quite perfectly developed. Perhaps Celestia sends Twilight to Ponyville as party of one of her own workings, and Twilight appropriates it's trappings as part of one of her own? I mean at this point she is the most mercurial, the most magical character we have seen. It would not be a transgression in her role for her to do something like this.

    Of course we could go on and on about authorial workings but to be honest I'm sure there will be a better time for it (the season 3/4 gap?). I feel like I'd need to do a lot more reading to get myself ready for that conversation.

  13. Aw, thanks!

    I actually think the magic largely passes from the show to the fandom somewhere in or shortly after Season 2, but we'll see where this journey takes us, eh?

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