|Judge all you like, but he’s harming no one and seems happy.|
The top song is still Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” and the top movie is something called The Vow, about which I know nothing beyond the title. Sadly, I suspect it is probably not about some kind of vengeance blood oath. In the news, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, the government of Greece inches closer to default on their national debts, and a cold wave sweeps Europe, killing hundreds.
While on TV, well…
Our culture’s view of time exists in tension between two alternatives. The first, historically more common, view sees time as being essentially circular. Each day is fundamentally similar to the previous day, moving from dawn to dusk to night and back to dawn. Each year follows a similar cycle through the seasons. And most people’s lives have a fundamentally familiar arc as well: birth, childhood, work, marriage, more work, children, still more work, old age, death–an arc which becomes a cycle when viewed across generations, as children follow the same arc as their parents.
In tension with these cycles is the modern awareness that our culture is rapidly changing, which leads to a second view of time, as a linear progression. In this view, we are not cycling but either ascending or declining, and the emphasis is not on the fact that we get married like our parents did, but that we do so at a different age and met our spouses in different ways. That the seasons cycle, but do so more erratically every year (he said, writing on a 90-degree day in October).
As is nearly always the case with perspectives, these are alternative expressions of the same underlying reality, and the tension is thus illusory. If you choose to emphasize the similarities between successive chunks of time, it appears circular; if you emphasize the differences, it appears linear. Other alternate views of this same reality exist; for example, one can make the case that time is a linear progression, but our experience of it is largely governed by circular motions both literal (in the case of the Earth that define daily and annual cycles) and metaphorical (in the case of the reproductive and life cycles that define the birth and death of generations).
A television show exists in a similar tension. Like any show, Friendship Is Magic is inherently episodic and thereby circular; it always starts with a cold open, followed by the opening theme, three acts separated by commercial breaks, and the closing theme. At the same time, it is a linear sequence (for the most part; I argued in the book that the first season’s broadcast order is the chronological order in which episodes take place from the perspective of the characters, and in the second season the same order seems reasonable, with the option of switching “Family Appreciation Day” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve”) of episodes, with character arcs extending across and between entire seasons.
A significant number of episodes, this second season, have dealt with time, and in particular the circular perspective on time. “Hearts and Hooves Day,” written by Meghan McCarthy and directed by James Wootton, is no exception. At the core of the episode is the celebration of an annual holiday similar to Valentine’s Day, so of course we have the cyclical return of a festival, but more interesting are the other cycles it brings into play.
Specifically, the episode deals heavily with love, albeit from a child’s perspective. The Cutie Mark Crusaders are at first enthused about the idea, even while recognizing themselves as too young for it; their goal in the first part of the episode is to find a “special somepony” for their teacher, Cheerilee, and they settle on the eldest of the Apple siblings, Big Macintosh, as the perfect candidate. However, when their initial attempts are unsuccessful, they turn to magic (complete with musical references to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as they mix their potion), and of course it all goes wrong.
How is this referencing the cyclical nature of time? Well, first of all, it is a recurrence of a previous plot; both this and “Lesson Zero” involve a spell intended to evoke desire producing dangerous obsession instead (and in both cases Big Macintosh is among the most affected). The book also subtly calls back to previous episodes depicting the history of Equestria, in that it tells the story of a prince and princess who neglected their duties, causing chaos to reign–the love poison may be the reason Equestria fell to Discord, in other words.
In an additional reference to a previous episode, when the CMC take the love potion book from Twilight, she offers them another tome, which we’ve seen before in the first episode–it is the book which contained the legend of Nightmare Moon in that episode, and in addition it’s the book which opened to reveal the show to us in its very first cold open. Given the references to The Neverending Story last episode, and the fact that the same cover design was later used for the Elements of Harmony guidebook sold to fans, it seems reasonable to conclude that the entire series is contained in that book, and had it been read, we would be returning to the beginning of the series.
But there’s a much more important cycle here, both in terms of real-world import and the themes of the season, because this is the first episode to really bring in love as a significant factor in the pony world. There has been very little in the way of romance prior to this episode–other than Rarity’s fantasy of what the Grand Galloping Gala would be like in “The Ticket Master,” and her awful experience on her date at the Gala itself in “Best Night Ever,” romantic love has not been so much as mentioned. But by bringing in romantic love as a significant story element with this episode, the series opens itself up to two other forces that it has successfully kept away; this is also the first episode to hint at sex (with the about-to-be-wed couple sharing a bed, as well as arguabl the jelly fetishist pony) and death.
It’s the latter that’s most important for our purposes. During the musical number, the Cutie Mark Crusaders disrupt what is clearly a funeral (including a pony in a priest’s collar, the only reference to religion of any sort existing in Equestria in the series to date). This is the first time in the entire series that death has been acknowledged, the first outright proof that ponies are not immortal (though there have been hints before, most notably the absence in the present of anyone except Granny Smith from the flashback sequences in “Family Appreciation Day”). Love, and specifically romantic love and the usually accompanying sex, are the means by which life perpetuates itself. They make birth possible, and to be born is to be under sentence of death.
Like us, ponies are born, live, love, die. They wax and wane like the moon’s phases or the sun’s seasons, an eternal cycle. But they grow, they learn, they progress. Both linear and circular, progressive and cyclical.
The second of the season’s main themes, love, enters here. It may perhaps seem late, seventeen episodes in, to add a new theme, let alone the one that will close out the season. But ultimately, love is life is death is time; there is really only one theme here. It’s the weekend before an annual holiday dedicated to love, one which I am typically enormously cynical about because it really was just created to sell greeting cards and chocolate. But if there’s one thing Friendship Is Magic has taught us, it’s that sincerity, authenticity, and goodness can arise from cynical sources, so just this once, why not celebrate love and the cycles of life.
After all, it’s only a few days to Valentine’s Day; specifically, it’s February 11, 2012…