Princess Cadance needs our help/Her magic will not last forever/I think we can do it/But we need to work together (A Canterlot Wedding)

Reminder: Since this is going up so late on Monday, there will be no Tuesday post. Regular posting resumes Wednesday.

“Yeah, man, like, we just wanna groove on all the love
you ponies are putting out, you know?”

It’s April 21, 2012. The top song continues to be fun’s “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monae, who is high on the list of delightful things I’d never have discovered without this project. The Hunger Games maintained its top spot for the first of two weekends since the last episode, but slips to number three this weekend, with the top spot taken by something called Think Like a Man, which appears to be a battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy.

In the week after the previous episode, Facebook buys Instagram, George Zimmerman is formally charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin, and terrifying theocrat Rick Santorum drops out of the Republican Presidential primary. In the week after that, the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic occurs, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is to be re-released for both its 35th anniversary and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in June, and two of Alan Turing’s papers are submitted to the British National Archives 70 years after publication.

On TV, we have “A Canterlot Wedding” by the almost-always-solid Meghan McCarthy (who, after overseeing a season all the scripts for which were complete before Lauren Faust stepped down, will next season be the unambiguous primary creative force behind the show), and directed by the team of Jayson Thiessen and James Wootton, co-directing for the first time since “The Return of Harmony.”

Other than both being two-part adventures featuring the introduction of a new villain, the two stories could not be more different. There is no narrative collapse here, no fundamental challenge to the underlying basis of the show–as we will see, the changelings could have been couched as such, but quite deliberately are not. Conversely, while “Return of Harmony” is a two-part adventure story with a clear villain throughout, “A Canterlot Wedding” falls neatly into two parts, dividing in the final scene of part one, between a character piece of the sort that we’ve seen many times before, and a fight-the-villain adventure of the type we have had only a handful of times–seven instances prior to this two-parter, and only that many if Ahuizotl counts.

Most of Part One is effectively a retread of “Lesson Zero” and “It’s About Time,” albeit with the addition of the simultaneously catchy and melancholic “Big Brother Best Friend Forever.” Twilight starts the episode upset that her brother is getting married without telling her in advance, and further upset that she’s (ostensibly) never met the person he’s marrying. Even after learning that “Princess Mi Amore Cadenza” is her old foalsitter Cadance, Twilight is not entirely mollified, mostly because Cadance appears to barely remember her. Twilight sulks through the next several scenes as her friends help out with the wedding, because Twilight apparently feels that she owns her brother and gets to decide who he marries.

Being savvy viewers, we can see where this is headed. Twilight will get more and more worked up, as she tends to do, letting her biased observations convince her that Cadance is evil, until finally she lashes out, nearly ruins the wedding, and must learn to trust the judgment of others where their own lives are concerned. Of course there are some oddities, most notably that having no friends appears to run in the family: every role in the wedding (except, initially, the bridesmaids, and even those are driven off) is fulfilled by Twilight’s friends. For Shining Armor that’s perhaps believable–as a guard, most of his friends are likely involved with defending Canterlot from the unspecified “threats” it’s received and therefore unavailable to help plan the wedding, but for Cadance–a princess with magical power over love, of all things–to have no friends of her own seems odd.

All is explained, of course, by the final revelation of the first part: Twilight’s worries were right. Cadance is up to something–specifically, as we learn early in Part Two, she is a Changeling, a creature that feeds on love by transforming into and replacing the object of that love. It is a creepy concept, but deployed in a very strange way.

The natural plot for an episode featuring an army of evil shapeshifters (largely traceable to the 1955 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1956 film of the same name, although both owe a considerable debt to 1951’s The Puppet Masters, though the villains in that are mind-controllers rather than duplicates) is one rooted in paranoia: trust no one, because anyone could be One of Them. It is Us versus Them, and They look just like Us–in combination with the nonspecific “threats” of Part One it sounds suspiciously like the paranoid narrative of the War on Terror, itself a reapplication of Cold War attitudes toward communists. The enemy is amorphous and clandestine, and therefore must be guarded against at all times, in all places, so that all else becomes subsumed in that vigilance and the only reliable figures are, conveniently, the same authorities who tell you to be afraid.

But the show does not do that, because the Changelings do not follow the correct strategy for that story. Queen Chrysalis does, posing as Cadance, working her way into control of a captain of the Royal Guard, and then taking out Celestia as soon as she reveals herself, but once she brings down the shield the rest of the Changelings behave like a bog-standard invading army. Except for some brief moments in their fights with the Mane Six, they largely don’t even bother to transform into ponies, relying instead on physical force and the ability to shoot laser beams from their horns.

So if not terrorists/the Communist Menace/Anonymous, what are the Changelings? There is a fun, but somewhat mean-spirited, read in which they are bronies, appropriating the show from its rightful owners, feeding on the love and happiness that permeates it and replacing it with the violence and destruction of something like “Fallout: Equestria” or “Cupcakes.” The image of a changeling taking on the outward appearance of a beloved character and acting out a romantic relationship with another, without ever truly possessing the essence of that character, is one of the sharpest critiques of shipping in Western media.

But such a read runs into two major problems: First, it applies only to the second part, not to Chrysalis-as-Cadance in the first, and second, it seems uncharacteristic for McCarthy, who (if her Twitter feed is any sign) approaches the adult fandom with a mix of bafflement, amusement, and cautious appreciation. Of course the intent and attitude of the creator only goes so far, so anyone who wishes to is welcome to run with this reading; however, we shall pass over it and move to another.

Key to this reading is the song early in Part Two, “This Day Aria.” Effectively a duet between Chrysalis-as-Cadance and the real Cadance, the song recounts each of their motivations, including this from Chrysalis:

I could care less about the dress
I won’t partake of any cake
Vows–well I’ll be lying when I say
That through any kind of weather
I’ll want us to be together
The truth is I don’t care for him at all
No I do not love the groom
In my heart there is no room
But I still want him to be all mine!

Chrysalis, in other words, has no capacity for love, and no humanizing desires at all–not for the glamor of a dress, the taste of cake, or the comfort of companionship. All she cares about is power, to possess, control, and dominate others.

As we discussed in regards to “Dragon Quest,” power is inherently anxious. An individual with power can never truly trust anyone, and as such power is antithetical to real love, which can only exist between equals. However, this episode asserts, this antithetical relationship goes both ways; just as power can negate the possibility of love, love can lead to the overthrow of power.

The Changelings are creatures of power and manipulation, precisely the sort of people who benefit most from the environment of suspicion and mistrust of normally endorsed by shapeshifter narratives. Part One thus becomes critical to this read, because ultimately its twist ending suggests a moral of “Even if they have been wrong before, give your friends the benefit of the doubt.” This is explicitly not an environment in which one should Trust No One; it is an environment in which one should be very careful to trust the right people. There is a massive difference, most importantly that in a society devoid of trust, the only structures that can stand are power hierarchies, which neither permit nor require trust.

In an environment where trust is possible, however, Cadance (the real Cadance) and Twilight can rediscover their old, effectively familial love and work together to escape. Cadance’s love can reach Shining Armor, persuade him to break free of Chrysalis’ power, and together overthrow her and free Equestria. Love is a potent force against power.

What, then, to make of the hints last episode that emotions are socially constructed? If love is something we made up, and make up slightly differently for each person in each culture, how can Cadance have magical power over it? How can the Changelings feed on it?

To tackle the last question first, consider the way in which the Changelings feed according to the episode: They replace a person who is loved, and feed on the love felt toward that person. They are not the object of the love, and yet able to draw power from it anyway, because the victim believes the Changeling to be their loved one. This strongly suggests that, for all that it may be a physical force on which the Changelings can feed, love is nonetheless a construct, something thought into being by the lover.

The same goes for Cadance’s love magic. We see it used twice in the episode, once to remind two arguing lovers of their feelings (rather creepily cutting off their arguments) and once to enhance Shining’s Armor’s shield spell to drive all the Changelings from the city. In neither case does she create love (something which, as we saw in “Hearts and Hooves Day” and to a lesser extent in “Lesson Zero,” appears to be inherently dangerous and inadvisable), merely using love that is already present and recognized by the ponies involved.

There is, in other words, no contradiction: love is constructed, and it has real, potent effects in the world. Why should there be a contradiction? Power is just as much a construct, just as prone to vanishing as soon as those impacted by it stop acknowledging it, so of course love can meet it on equal terms.

We end the second season with one last call-back across time, a heart which forms to a variation of the original My Little Pony theme, but itself recalls nothing so much as the first use of the magic of friendship in the story-within-a-story of “Hearth’s Warming Eve.” That which created Equestria, both in the diegetic and extradiegetic senses, is now that which saved it.

And in both cases, that’s love: the love of a creator for the work created, the love of fans for the object of fandom, the love of friends for friends. It is a utopian dream, to say that love can overcome power–but it has happened, in a small and temporary way, so many times. So, I say, dream on.

Next week: But dreams have a way of turning into nightmares…

5 thoughts on “Princess Cadance needs our help/Her magic will not last forever/I think we can do it/But we need to work together (A Canterlot Wedding)

  1. Ah yes, I promised last week to expound upon my theories as to the nature of good and evil in regards to Changelings this week.

    The notion came to me when I was watching a Counter Monkey episode, and Spoony pointed out that no one thinks they're evil, no one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I will do bad things because I am evil.” So that got me thinking, could there be anyone who could actually think of themselves as capital-E “Evil,” as a guiding philosophy?

    Then, while I was skimming a “Changeling falls in love with prey and turns against the hive” fanfic, it occurred to me that there really isn't much in the way of healthy relationship models available to Changelings. I mean, yes, I'm hardly in a position to preach about emotional health, but if one party physically depends upon a supply of love, wouldn't there necessarily be a massive power imbalance in any relationship they could have?

    Equestria is a place where the “correct” ethical code is quite clear, due to the fact that it's actually a physical force, measured (and thus dictated) by the very force that holds their world together. This moral code is basically a hybrid of Virtue Ethics and Care Ethics, without the drawbacks of either… and it's entirely based in emotions.

    Of course, this strikes me as a more appropriate theme for a sci-fi story (the “What-If” genre) than a fantasy (which usually deals more in metaphors for stuff that already exists, rather than exploring how its narrative conceits might actually impact a society).

    And that's without my headcanon that Changelings are actually fully capable of feeling love… but it expends the love energy that they have to extract from their prey (interestingly, this would make familial love an analogue for how insects and birds feed their young with regurgitated food). Thus their aforementioned lack of humanizing desires becomes a defense mechanism. Which also fits with my less-basis-in-canon headcanon that Chrysalis was the princess from the Hearts and Hooves Day story, and became the progenitor Changeling when a cure for the love poison went wrong (I also think that Chrysalis is “queen” in the insectoid sense, the sole progenitor… in fact, I'm not even sure the drones and soldiers have gender dimorphism).

    Therefore, the Changelings would be downright eager to label themselves capital-E “Evil.”

  2. Well, I had a response to this, but Google ate it. *shakes fist at Skynet*

    Short version: I don't think the Changelings would describe themselves as capital-E evil, because the “correct” ethical case in Equestria is only clear if you subscribe to the naturalistic fallacy.

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