Two things no one appears to have noticed about The Very Soil…

Yes, I know, if I have to tell you how clever I am, I’m not actually that clever. Well, I guess I’m not actually that clever. The two things that no one has noticed, or at least no one has commented on:

  • The article titles.
  • The OTHER trick I pulled in the article on Episode 10.

The Very Soil will resume next week, but only if you tell me I’m clever. 

P.S.: There is going to be a book version. The book will contain revised articles and also new articles, much like the My Little Po-Mo books. I have no release date, even an approximate one.

Edit: Happy Walpurgisnacht! Too bad I didn’t think to time the articles so that one of the last two eps fell on today. 

Oh yeah, I have a blog…

For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, I finished the first draft of My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 in the wee hours of Sunday morning and sent it off to my editor. Now I’m tired and therefore going to be kind of lazy this week. I already have something small queued up for Wednesday, and there will be the usual liveblog chat thingy Saturday. Other than that, no guarantees about content this week. I’m not actively calling for them, but if anyone wants to submit a guest post, now would be the ideal time.

Actually, you know what, I am going to actively request a guest post: Is there anyone who really hates Twilicorn? Or who at least hated it at the time? Want to write about why? Because, spoilers, I’m going to be overwhelmingly positive about it in my next article (as in, I believe it saved the show), and it would be cool to have a counterbalancing opinion.

I’m bored. (Games Ponies Play)

This is pretty much what the whole episode feels like.

It’s some day or another. Who even cares?

Look, for a solid month now I’ve been reviewing episode after episode of mediocrity, slogging my way through such gems as The One Where a Character Helps Another and the Second Character Gets Clingy, The One Where a Fan Favorite One-Shot Comes Back and Is Less Interesting, and The One Where a Character Blows Off Their New Job and Creates a Disaster. And for all of them, I’ve tried my best to find some interesting take, some novel idea or recurring theme to pull out and spin into a post for you.

But now we have The One Where Everyone Is Facepalm-Inducingly Incompetent, and I’m done. There’s nothing interesting to be said about this episode. The most interesting thing about it is its complete lack of anything interesting–but if that’s interesting, then the episode doesn’t completely lack anything interesting, and therefore loses the only thing that makes it interesting. It is a perfect eternal circle of mediocrity and failure.

It’s not actually the worst episode of the show. It’s not even the worst episode of the season. After all, this season contains an episode that can actively hurt the children watching, possibly two. But that at least is interesting and gives me something to write about! So no, this is not the worst episode. It’s not even the worst episode for me to try to write about–it’s not going to leave me feeling physically ill and emotionally exhausted the way, say, writing about “One Bad Apple” did.

So it’s not even superlatively bad. It’s just bad.

I suppose I should actually talk about what makes it so bad, which largely breaks down to two problems. The first I’ve already alluded to: this is an “idiot plot.” This unfortunately named term describes a plot which only works because every character is completely incompetent, such that if any one of them did one completely obvious thing, the plot would unravel entirely. In this case, the plot only occurs because it never occurs to any of Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie to introduce themselves to the false Game Inspector or for her to introduce herself. Yes, this episode’s plot requires Pinkie Pie to not try to befriend a person she just met, even though they spend an afternoon together. It also requires that none of them ever once use the words “Equestria Games” or “Game Inspector.”

Given Rarity’s side plot about struggling with Princess Cadance’s hair, what seems to be happening is that the episode is trying for farce. In farce, an assortment of characters with their own incompatible agendas and perspectives (which is what the episode title is referring to–Games People Play is a moderately famous book about the psychology of “mind games” and hidden agendas in relationships) act foolishly, repeatedly misunderstanding each other and making mistakes. Most characters are depicted as being completely incompetent, and any characters who are competent generally fail anyway due to bad luck or reliance on incompetent characters.

Which, so far, is a fairly good description of the episode: Ms. Harshwinny is competent, but stymied by the incompetence of the welcoming committee and repeatedly splashed by passing ponies. Rarity keeps trying to take shortcuts, ruining Cadance’s hair. The welcoming committee welcome the wrong pony, while repeatedly failing to check whether they have the right pony, and that wrong pony inexplicably fails to inform anyone that she is suffering from claustrophobia, and instead just keeps making excuses to try to go outside and meekly going along when the other ignore her excuses.

The problem is that most of these threads are extremely repetitive. Farce works by means of a form of suspense; as each character’s antics become more ridiculous, it becomes more obvious to the audience that the situation can only end in disaster when the disparate threads finally collide. This anticipation builds, until finally it is released in the climax, which pays off the anticipation in an eruption of chaos. To see this structure executed well, watch a performance of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors or Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or just pick any episode of Arrested Development at random.

This, unfortunately, is not what happens in the episode. The closest is the thread of the not-Games Inspector’s claustrophobia, where her reactions do become steadily more absurd, culminating in a ridiculous chase through the streets with a pot on her head, which results in Rainbow Dash being flung across the city (and, when Rarity hears her crash into the dome but doesn’t see her, the funniest moment in the episode). The thread in which the welcoming committee doesn’t know that she’s not the Games Inspector, however, is more frustrating than funny, and Rarity’s first and second failed attempts at Cadance’s hair look basically the same as far as the audience can see. Worst, however, is the Harshwhinny thread: she is dragging her luggage past a puddle when someone runs through it, splashing her. Later, this happens again. That’s her entire thread.

Eventually, everyone ends up at the spa for no particular reason, which is where the rising anticipation of disaster (which has not actually been rising, due to the lack of escalation in most of the plots) should pay off as the threads collide and interact chaotically. Instead, the claustrophobia thread has already peaked and the welcoming committee have realized they have the wrong pony without ever really getting any humor out of it. Rarity has perfected Cadance’s hair off-screen and without apparent fuss. And then Harshwhinny and the unnamed, claustrophobic tourist resolve the main issue between themselves, such that everything works out for everyone. The episode, in other words, just skips having a climax and goes straight to the denouement, fizzling out with a whimper to make room for Applejack and Twilight Sparkle to deliver the punchline to the previous episode.

So it fails at farce. Do we at least get something resembling a character arc for, well, anyone? To which the answer is, “Well, sort of.” Rainbow Dash seems like the best candidate–she’s heavily invested in getting the games to come to the Crystal Empire as a way of compensating for a childhood disappointment, and she gives a little speech at the end about how she made things worse. But an arc is more than just a sequence of events; it requires causal connection, and there just isn’t one here. Rainbow Dash doesn’t drive the Game Inspector away by being overenthusiastic, doesn’t get carried away by her vision and miss something important, or otherwise cause the apparent loss of the games; she and the others simply don’t think to ask the name of the pony they meet. No, the closest thing we get to an arc is Rarity’s almost entirely offscreen plot, in which she starts out taking shortcuts in her efforts to properly prepare Cadance’s headdress, and then either realizes she needs to stop taking shortcuts, or discovers the right shortcuts, and gets the headdress right. She messes up, she learns, she gets it right; that’s an arc; it’s just a very basic one that we don’t actually get to see most of–but in this episode, that’s the best we get.

There is no word for this except “mess.” And coming after three straight episodes of mediocrity, in a season that had already before that seen as much bad as good, a nasty doubt surfaces: Is this show even worth watching anymore? It is clearly floundering, casting about desperately for quick fixes and easy answers. Whether this is a result of Equestria Girls pulling resources or the loss of direction engendered by the departure of Lauren Faust (who left before Season Two began airing, but was nonetheless involved at the writing stage of most of that season’s episodes), it remains a clear and serious problem for the show.

If something doesn’t change, it’s difficult to justify the show continuing. It needs a new direction, an injection of energy, some bold, maybe even controversial, departure from the formula in order to pull itself out of this rut. But that seems unlikely, given how very safe it’s been playing these last few episodes, sticking to recognizable sitcom formulas. Even with the season finale next episode, it would be too much to hope for some kind of dramatic alteration to the show’s basic premises.

Next week: But we do get a surprisingly lifelike facsimile thereof.

MLP Livebolog Chat Thingy: “Inspiration Manifestation”

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. Afterwards, I will update this post with the chatlog.

Chatlog below the cut… sort of…

[16:47] <Froborr> Okay, so before I start an apology: the reason there are separate chats is because I tried to pull an all-nighter to finish the book, and I failed.
[16:48] <Froborr> Around 9:30 A.M. I decided to go to sleep, and I set an alarm for 2:45 P.M. so I could be on time for this chat.
[16:48] <Froborr> I woke up at 4:30.
[16:48] <Froborr> I have no idea why the alarm never went off. I’m kind of annoyed about it.
[16:48] <Froborr> Anyway: show.
[16:49] <Froborr> Street fair, huh?
[16:49] <Froborr> That really doesn’t like Rarity’s scene.
[16:49] <Froborr> *feel like
[16:49] <Froborr> I will admit, Spike is less bad than any other dragon we’ve seen.
[16:50] <Froborr> CREEPY DOLLS
[16:50] <Froborr> Aw, poor Rarity.
[16:50] <Froborr> I have a nasty feeling this is going to be a Spike and Rarity episode. I really really hope they gave it to a good Rarity writer…
[16:51] <Froborr> The music coming back was great, very classic melodrama.
[16:51] <Froborr> Oh good, Meghan McCarthy cowrote.
[16:52] <Froborr> Guess of the moment: Spike goes all over the place trying to help Rarity, and by the time he gets back she’s already gotten over the setback and doing something new.
[16:52] <Froborr> Ew, I suspect mixing magic an creative work is not a good idea.
[16:52] <Froborr> Yes Spike, use the obviously evil book that’s ben locked away
[16:53] <Froborr> I did not think he could do that at this age
[16:53] <Froborr> Spike is just fucking with Owlowiscious at this point.
[16:55] <Froborr> So Rarity is god now.
[16:55] <Froborr> That’s a pretty potent little spell.
[16:56] <Froborr> What is up with the weird way this guy talks?
[16:57] <Froborr> So, this is basically going to be The Cutie Box, but it’s Spike’s fault.
[16:57] <Froborr> Owlowiscious knows what’s up.
[16:57] <Froborr> OH NO, RARITY’S HAVING A RAVE!
[16:58] <Froborr> No, she’s just unable to stop creating.
[16:58] <Froborr> It’s basically that curse from the Sandman issue with the muse and the really evil author.
[17:00] <Froborr> Yep, Rarity’s going into full megalomia, and of course Spike is doing whatever she wants and thus unable to see how messed up she is.
[17:01] <Froborr> Okay, this birdhouse sequence is pretty funny.
[17:02] <Froborr> Spike: Stop agreeing with everything Rarity says, she is never going to sleep with you!
[17:03] <Froborr> I can hear the Nightmare Moon voice starting to seep in a bit. It’s a good touch.
[17:04] <Froborr> Spike, Rarity is now ACTIVELY ENDANGERING LIVES.
[17:05] <Froborr> Blah blah sometimes the best way to support someone is to tell them they’re screwing up
[17:05] <Froborr> Weirdly, this is EXACTLY what the book chapter I was working on this morning is about.
[17:05] <Froborr> Spike is definitely being the bronies this episode.
[17:07] <Froborr> …You breath fire that can melt a lock, but you eat the book? Great thinking there, Spike.
[17:07] <Froborr> SPIKE. STAHP.
[17:08] <Froborr> Spike just very nearly got Owlowiscious killed.
[17:08] <Froborr> Okay, that tree is legit awesome.
[17:09] <Froborr> Rarity doesn’t remember? Spike had better honestly tell her what happened.
[17:09] <Froborr> Ah, good. Points to Spike for not trying to keep it a secret.
[17:10] <Froborr> And we end on–surprise!–Spike is a jerk.
[17:11] <Froborr> At some point you have to wonder why that library has so many dark magic tomes in it.
[17:11] <Froborr> Okay, so… that episode was all right?
[17:11] <Froborr> I mean, that’s about as good as Spike episodes are going to get, I’m just really sick of Spike episodes.
[17:11] <Froborr> Though it’s not really the show’s fault that I reviewed one just last weekend.

Continuing with Felda…

The Dragons of Industry, as I am currently leaning toward calling it, is starting to take shape. What I’m currently thinking of doing is following one character at a time, telling their story as it intersects with and is shaped by others, then backtracking and telling another character’s story. To take the obvious comparison, imagine if Game of Thrones were structured so that, say, all of Ned’s chapters were first, then all of Arya’s, and so on. I don’t know yet whether each character’s story would be a section in a single book (can’t really call it a novel if I structure it this way) or one novel in a series.

The years passed largely without incident. Felda’s family worked their fields, took the crops into town. Her younger brothers, when there wasn’t planting to do or crops to bring in, walked down to the village school four miles away, learned their letters and numbers and the history and literature and songs of the Taufen. The only real change from how things had been before was that when Felda’s father took their crops to Weizenstadt, he no longer spent a week there or more, no longer had to sell from a patch of the market square and watch as whatever inn he stayed in ate his profits one night at a time; now he delivered them at the Guildhall, along with Felda’s mother’s meticulous records in official Guild ledgers, and received in return the family’s salaries and operating costs for the year.

And of course there was Brom, now Felda’s constant companion. Mother wouldn’t allow him in the house, but he slept beneath Felda’s window–in the second year after they joined the Guild, they rebuilt the house; it had three bedrooms now, one Felda’s own–and from dawn until dusk, while she did her work, he was by her side.

Every few weeks, that first year, somebody came up from Weizenstadt to teach Felda and Brom how to work the fields together. There were at least half a dozen teachers, but they largely blurred together in Felda’s memory in later years; they were all tough, and stern, and stubborn, hard workers themselves who demanded Felda do the same. She rather liked them, but they rarely stayed more than a day.

The first visits were frustrating. It was hard for her to learn to work with Brom, so very different from anything she’d done before. Her first tutor, a broad squat woman named Gertr whose bondling was a rust-red, short-legged, floppy-eared hound the length and girth of a pony, worked patiently with Felda, sympathizing with her struggles by claiming it had taken her much longer. Unfortunately, then Felda made the mistake of calling Brom by name.

“Never name it!” the woman shouted. “No wonder you struggle at reaching across the bond–your bondling is not a pet, or a companion, it is you. Do you name your hand? Call out to it when you want it to do things? ‘Here, Hans, lift my spoon for me?’ ‘Hans, wipe my bottom please!’ No, of course not! You will it and it does, because it is a part of you!”

Felda wilted in the face of the woman, a head shorter than her but broad and muscled as a particularly fit brick wall. “I–I’m sorry. I just thought he–“

“He!” snapped the woman. “It’s ‘he,’ is it? Do you make friends with your nice, big, strapping bull? Are there no lads your age in this village? Do you fuck it?”

Felda stared in open-mouthed horror. “No, I–“

“From now on, it has no name, you understand? It is as much an it as your hand, you hear me?” Gertr frowned as Felda hesitated. “Understand!”

Felda bowed her head. “Yes, ma’am.” She noted to herself to be careful not to mention Brom by name around her teachers again.

Nonetheless, by the time Gertr left, Felda had made little progress–the best she could do was sense Brom’s location, which was interesting, but not particularly useful.

Her progress continued to be slow, and it became increasingly obvious that she was lagging. Bit by bit, however, she learned to do more, seeing with Brom’s eyes, hearing with his ears, feeling the air in his fur and the soil beneath his hooves. But that was nothing compared to what happened with her fifth tutor, Elmun. 

He stood out from the others; he was younger, a tall, skinny boy all knees and elbows, only a couple of years older than Felda herself. His bondling was a badger, which snuffled about his feet continually while he struggled to explain what he wanted Felda to do. “Your affinity was never strong,” he explained. “But the bonding changed that.” He gestured at the space between himself and his bondling. “There’s a connection now, invisible, but real as the connection between your eyes and your hands. You’ve learned to see and feel across that connection. Now I want you to try to feel the connection itself.”

Felda closed her eyes and concentrated. By now, her connection to Brom was effortless and  automatic; she felt his heartbeat as constantly as her own, saw his surroundings as clearly as Elmun in front of her. But this was different; she knew where he was, so she tried to envision the connection between herself and Brom as a sort of thread extending from her to him and back. She focused on that thread, until she could almost see it–
She gasped, and her eyes snapped open. Thousands of threads, from tough cables to delicate filaments, stretched between her and Brom, shining and humming. Brom himself was like some complex, abstract tapestry, mighty cords of incredible strength anchoring a web of un fathomable complexity. But his threads were woven in her and through her and into the ground, where they vanished into a still vaster tapestry, a singing, pulsing, glowing, ever-moving, constant, infinite, eternal…
Elmun caught her as she swayed. “It can be a little overwhelming the first time,” he said gently. 
“What is it?”
He smiled. “That, Felda, is Earth.”

Addenda to Tuesday’s Post About Piracy

Two additional thoughts I either forgot about or didn’t think of until after posting:

  • Although of course there is a fairly obvious legal difference, I do not see any moral difference between using AdBlock while watching a free, ad-supported streaming service like Crunchyroll, and just pirating the shows. In both cases, you are circumventing the distributor in order to eliminate the cost (monetary in the case of piracy, time in the case of AdBlock) of accessing the show, and in both cases, while the immediate and obvious victim is the parasitic and predatory for-profit industry that distributes the work, in the long run they are quite good at passing those losses along to the actual creators.
  • No one ever needs access to a creative work. It is debatable, as I noted in the previous post, whether people have a right to access others’ work, but it is never a need; no one has ever actually died from being unable to watch the next episode of Mad Men. “I needed it” is a legitimate justification for theft–it is justified for a starving person to steal food, for example. But merely very much wanting something is not actually justification for taking it; regardless of whether a given act of media piracy is right or wrong, its rightness or wrongness is unaffected by how much the downloader wants to watch it.

“Equestranauts” Showcases Biggest Problem of Brony Community

Apologies for extreme lateness, I am once again ill. 

The recent Bob’s Burgers episode “Equestranauts” offered a very funny take on the brony subculture, as the titular burger joint owner had to pretend to be an adult fan of Equestranauts, an action- and friendship-packed show designed to market horse toys to little girls, in order to get back a toy a collector swindled out of his daughter.

Quite a bit of the episode is a simple, fairly gentle lampooning of convention culture in general and bronies in particular. The usual exaggerations for fictional depictions of conventions are in play, of course, most notably that cosplay is depicted as de rigeur rather than an expensive and time-devouring hobby pursued by a few. Notably, however, there does seem to be some awareness of the quirks of bronies. Admittedly, both Tina and Bob (especially Bob) are subjected to gatekeeping by defensive fans, more commonly a phenomenon of the science fiction, comics, and gaming fandoms, but here said gatekeeping is actually possible to pass, after which they are basically accepted into the community.
That community itself is depicted as, in large part, harmless silliness; unusual, perhaps imperfectly socialized, men hanging about and being faintly ridiculous. Most are welcoming and friendly and just looking to have some innocent fun feeling out over their favorite cartoon; only Bronconius is portrayed negatively. 
Where the episode is most interesting, however, is in its climax, where the Equesticles are called out for allowing Bronconius free reign as he swindled little girls, pushed people around, and generally acted like a selfish, domineering jerk. And there, perhaps accidentally, the episode accurately depicts the bronies’ biggest problem, the paradox of tolerance. 
This old philosophical problem is simply summarized: some people are, for whatever reason, frequently aggressive, controlling, and intolerant. Perhaps more importantly, most people are occasionally aggressive, controlling, and intolerant, and the more they get away with the behavior, the likelier they are to believe it is acceptable. There are few constraints on individual behavior more powerful than this aggressive intolerance; thus, a community which tolerates all behavior by its members is necessarily one which is experienced as intolerant by most members–put another way, in the absence of an asshole control mechanism, assholes run rampant. 
Bronies, as a group, are extremely reluctant to police other bronies. A combination of factors, including the show’s themes of friendship and harmony, and statistical tendencies for bronies to be likelier than the general populace to be poorly socialized, victims of bullying, and neurotic, combine to create a subculture where most people are unwilling to rock the boat, even to deal with someone walking the boat. An embattled mentality, mostly originating with extremely negative mainstream media coverage early in the fandom and attempts by 4chan to expunge Friendship Is Magic-related discussion, has created a culture of defensiveness, where criticism of bad behavior by individual members is treated as an attack on the community (which, to be fair, it sometimes is, because there is a natural tendency for said individuals become the most visible face of the community to outsiders).

For example, there is a frequent implication in mainstream media coverage that the majority of bronies have a deviant sexual interest in children (sometimes more than an implication, as in Amanda Marcotte’s characteristically knee-jerk Slate piece on Equestria Girls), which is hardly the case. (My own surveys and interviews suggest that very few bronies actually consume clop, for instance.) However, there are sufficient numbers of bronies that it is statistically certain that there at least a few members of the community who are sexual predators, and it falls on the community to identify and out them. Unfortunately, reports of such behavior at brony conventions are frequently rejected outright as “trolling” or outsiders trying to make trouble; a wagon-circling effect occurs which denies that such individuals exist within the brony community at all.

Derpygate is another good example of this phenomenon; fans expressing legitimate concerns regarding the use of an ableist slur in the show and conflation of physical and mental disabilities were met with accusations of trying to “censor” the show or “erase” the disabled, fan campaigns treated it as a personal attack on the character in question, and in some cases the concerned fans were subject to vicious harassment, to the point that some of the people involved in the show had to issue calls for it to stop. And yet, two years later, it is by and large the individuals who had those concerns who are remembered as the villains, for daring to question whether the show and its fandom are the perfect paragons of politeness, harmony, and equality bronies like to paint themselves as.

The instinct to circle around and protect a member of the community is not in itself problematic, but it must be tempered by a willingness to recognize that some members don’t deserve protection, and that sometimes the community itself is to blame. If we do not call out the Bronconiuses in our ranks, others will–and they will assume they represent who bronies are.

Assorted Contradictory Thoughts on Media Piracy

Otaku Journalist has been running a series on anime piracy lately, and it’s gotten me thinking.

I am fairly confident the following are all true:

  • People have a fundamental right to participate in their culture, which necessarily means they need access to cultural products.
  • Radio chased folk culture into an alley and murdered it a century ago, replacing it almost entirely with commercial mass media. The Internet has revived a zombie version of folk culture in the form of fandoms, but even fandoms have a commercial product at the core.
  • The relationship between industry (any industry) and consumers is a predator-prey relationship. The industry wants your money, and uses products as bait to get it. They will take as much as they can get away with, and care nothing about you or the products except as a source of money.
  • The previous point applies to an industry (or a corporation within that industry) as a gestalt entity. The motivations of the people working in the industry vary; many actually do care about their customers or creating quality products.
  • Generally speaking, people should be rewarded for their labor.
  • We as a culture undervalue creative work severely. We have come to expect that content will be free, and thus it is increasingly common that writers and artists are expected to work for the privilege of having their work published, as opposed to actually getting paid. (A growing number of news sites, for example, from fan-news sites like The Mary Sue to major general-audience national sites like Huffington Post and USA Today (web edition only), do not pay their writers.) This is unsustainable.
  • Physical media (books, tapes, DVDs, etc.) are rivalrous and excludable, i.e. private goods. Digital distribution is non-rivalrous and most non-excludable, i.e. a public good. Generally, governments are significantly better at managing public goods than private enterprises are.
  • The idea of handing management of the arts over to the government is fundamentally horrifying.
  • Most people who say they use piracy solely as a way to sample media, and buy the shows they enjoy once they become commercially available, are lying most of the time.

Conclusion: Piracy is a convoluted mess where everyone on all sides is both right and wrong, and there doesn’t really seem to be a solution.

SPIKE WANT! (Just for Sidekicks)

For all that I don’t particularly like this episode, this is quite
possibly the cutest, funniest image in the series. I can add
nothing to it; it is absolute perfection. I bow to its glory.

It’s January 26, 2013. The top song is still Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” thankfully on its last week, and the top movie is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I haven’t seen on the grounds that movies with titles that interesting rarely live up to them. In the news, the annual World Economic Forum begins, where the world’s major political and business leaders meet to solve all the worlds problems, if by “solve” you mean “accomplish very little” and by “all the world’s problems” you mean “as defined by the  most successful international corporations”; European scientists successfully use DNA as a data storage medium, which as far as gimmicks go is a pretty nifty one; and, continuing the national policy of punishing the people who report horrific government crimes as opposed to the people who perpetrate them, CIA agent John Kiriakou is sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing details of the U.S. use of waterboarding to torture prisoners.

Meanwhile, in ponies we have “Just for Sidekicks,” written by Corey Powell and directed by James Wootton. Which is the second Spike-centric episode in three episodes, contains little to no presence of the Mane Six, and is the third consecutive episode to be, well, kind of not-good. There’s almost an interesting structural trick being played across this and the next episode, in that this is a sort of “B side” to “Games Ponies Play”: the two episodes take place simultaneously, following different characters, and the climax of this episode puts its characters in the same physical space as teh “Games Ponies Play” characters. Unfortunately, neither episode does much of interest with that structure, they have little to nothing in the way of thematic links, and are both fairly terrible episodes, so the structural experiment cannot be regarded as a success.

No, this is yet another sitcom flail, in this case the hoary old “character takes on a new job they think will be easy, fails miserably” story. Indeed, like “A Dog and Pony Show” before it, this is an episode-length reference to a classic folktale, “The Man Who Does His Wife’s Work,” tale type 1408 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index. In that tale, a man insists that his wife’s work is easier than his, so they trade for a day. He then proceeds to make an utter mess of a number of household tasks, notably including cooking and taking care of animals, just as Spike does in this episode (though, obviously, the impetus for him doing so is very different).

That this story is sexist should be fairly obvious, but note that it is as much or more harmful to women as men, despite that it depicts a man as a bumbling fool when confronted with “women’s work.” The problem is that it defines as “women’s work”–the is, tasks which women must do because only women can be good at them–vitally important support tasks which are done at home for no pay, while men must “reluctantly” therefore take on the burden of all the tasks which require going out into the world and earning money. While our society does allow women to work outside the home and earn money, our entertainment (particularly sitcoms and romantic comedies) still quite frequently depicts men as incompetent at household chores, and it shows. Women still do the bulk of housework, even though they are now working outside the home as well, and while married men (on average) live longer and earn more than unmarried men, women see no such benefit.

So, once again we have a sexist traditional folktale, which retains a toxic power in the present day, being used as the basis for a Spike episode. However, we also have a significant callback to a second-season Spike episode, “The Secret of My Excess.” More accurately, we have a significant lack of callback which, in its own way, is a callback. In that episode, Spike’s greed, a traditional defining trait of the European dragon, causes him to begin transforming into a gigantic monster. In this episode, even though his greed makes him unable to stop eating gems long enough to finish his cake, and drives him to graspingly attempt to scam his friends into paying him to do a job he has no intention of doing, his size remains unchanged.

There are a few possibilities as to why. The most boring is that “The Secret of My Excess” is simply being ignored. Another possibility is that Spike’s greed for gems is a gluttonous desire to consume, while his greed for presents was an avaricious desire to possess, but that seems rather to be splitting hairs–certainly, the dragons of story and song seem to spend as much time devouring livestock and maidens fair as they do accumulating and sleeping on piles of gold. A more interesting possibility, however, is that the reason he does not change is that the metaphor of “The Secret of My Excess” is reified here. In other words, where in “The Secret of My Excess” Spike was acting like a profit-driven entity in a capitalist system, in this episode he is actually running a profit-driven enterprise, and so the metaphor of him swelling ever larger and more bestial is replaced by him taking on more work and hiring employees. (Unpaid interns, actually, but more on that in a bit.)

Spike wishes to acquire gems, and he sees running a business as a way to do it. However, he doesn’t want to expend any effort; he wants to gain without losing anything–he wants to take out more than he puts in, which is of course the definition of profit. A naive construction of capitalism can be stated as such: In Idealized Econ 101 Land (next door to the universe where hockey rinks are frictionless and cows are spheres of uniform density), A is good at procuring fresh water and less good at raising food; B is good at raising food and less good at procuring water. (It does not actually matter which is better than the other at each task–even if B is better than A at both, it is still more efficient for each to specialize in their personal top skill.) A gets the water and B grows the food, and they trade with each other. Both get more food and more water than if they’d tried to do everything independently; everyone profits.

In reality, what happens is that the one who is more ruthless or has an initial resource advantage establishes themselves as the employer, and the other as the employee, which is to say a hierarchy forms in which one has power and the other is subservient. For example, A realizes that zie can go longer without water than B can go without food, and zie takes advantage of that to force B to work for hir. A claims ownership of both the food and the water, and B is an employee (or, given that this example suggests a pre-industrial world, a slave or serf).

Thus, while in theory it is possible for profit to be mutual, in practice it is usually a mechanism by which entities with power acquire more. And Spike here is interested purely in profit, at the expense of his customers (who are, ostensibly, his friends) and the animals with whose care he is being entrusted. In this respect, he is once again a perfect match for a real-world corporation. Thanks to Dodge v. Ford Motor Company (a 1916 Michigan Supreme Court case which stands alongside such gems as Plessy v. Ferguson and Citizens United as being among the worst and most destructive decisions by American courts), corporations face a legal requirement to maximize shareholder returns (that is, profitability for the investors) rather than productivity or the good of customers, workers, or the community–or at least, such is the usual public understanding of the case. The reality is slightly more complicated, since while it establishes that corporations have a duty to maximize their shareholders’ profits, it also establishes a fairly stringent burden of proof on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the directors of the corporation have violated the business judgment rule, which has little to do with maximizing profits.

Regardless of the extent to which that particular court case is to blame, modern corporations do by and large exist to make money, with employing workers and serving customers treated as an unfortunate obstacle to that goal, to be overcome as quickly and with as little expenditure as possible. (Again, this is not to say that any given employee behaves this way–many individual employees care about their customers, and some managers and even the occasional executive care about their employees. Rather, this is a description of the behavior of the organization as a gestalt entity.) This is precisely how Spike operates throughout the episode, bemoaning the loss of every gem even as he dismissively ignores the advice and requests of the Mane Six and repeatedly tries to find the minimal-effort, minimal-cost way to make sure that the pets are still more or less intact when their owners return.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when he recruits the Cutie Mark Crusaders to help him. In persuading them to work essentially for free (the gem he provides them is to pay for the supplies they need to take care of the pets, not any sort of wage for the CMC themselves), he suggests that they might earn a cutie mark. In other words, he persuades them to do unpaid labor for them by promising that it will be educational for them and implying a future career that he has no intent of actually helping them attain. This is an increasingly common scam in the real world, particularly against young people in the creative professions. Designers and illustrators are promised “exposure” for their work or encouraged to enter contests where only the winner gets paid, but all the entries become property of the contest owner; meanwhile, news and review websites such as Huffington Post, USA Today, and The Mary Sue, among many, many others recruit eager young writers desperate to get their foot in the door, publishing their work and earning ad revenue from it, but never paying the writers a dime. In both cases, the effect is to devalue the work; writers and illustrators seeking to get paid for their work find themselves competing against the victims of these scams, and it is nigh-impossible to compete against someone willing to work for free. Essentially, these corporations are tricking their workers into screwing themselves out of ever getting paid, precisely by promising that if they do well enough they might someday get paid.

Fortunately, this is Equestria, which is to say a brighter, happier world than our own, and so Spike does not end up (as he would in real life) a successful entrepreneur with sufficient wealth to distort both the political and economic systems in his favor. Instead, he is punished for his attempt to take out more than he put in by, ultimately, being forced to put in far more effort than he intended, and end up with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, as usual he appears to have learned nothing in the end, as he once again eats his gem before he can put it in the cake. Then again, doing awful things and learning nothing in the process is the norm for Spike episodes by this point.

Next week: The even worse “A” side.