|Was anyone even a little surprised that she can just
spontaneously play the organ all of a sudden?
It’s November 30, 2013. The top song is Lorde’s “Royals,” which I can’t precisely say I enjoy, but at least it’s interesting, the lyrics being readable as a rejection of the fantasy of class mobility used to trick the poor into voting against their own interests. The top movie is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which like the previous film in the series takes a book which had a strong premise and characters but workmanlike execution, and adds top-notch actors and cinematography to significantly surpass the book.
In the news, it’s a relatively slow week. There are a few significant follow-ups to news stories from the 2012, however: four employees of Steubenville City Schools, including the Superintendent, are indicted with criminal charges for their mishandling of the Steubenville rape case; a report on the Sandy Hook School Shooting is released that finds no clear motive, though it does reject shooter Adam Lanza’s mental health issues as a causative factor, and CBS suspends reporter Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan after Logan admits portions of her report on the Benghazi attacks were false. In news that will gain significance in the future, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the Hobby Lobby case, which will eventually lead to their most spectacularly wrong-headed decision since Citizens United. And in news that was never and will never be significant, but is kind of cute, the American Thanksgiving celebration occurs during Hannukah for the first time in over a century and the last time in 70,000 years, which is to say most likely the last time ever.
In ponies, we have “Castle Mane-ia” by Josh Haber, which rather like “Royals” is more interesting than entertaining. The episode is more complexly structured than anything the show has done previously, even more so than “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” which had multiple short stories embedded within a framing device. Each of those short stories were components of a narrative, which they told nonlinearly, but they were also each able to stand alone. Here, however, we have three intertwining stories, none of which can really lay claim to being a framing device, and more importantly all of which interact in such a way that none functions as an entirely independent story.
Consider, for example, the scene in the “Hall of Hooves” where Rainbow Dash feels someone’s leg around her in the Rainbow Dash/Applejack story, while Rarity panics because she touched something “alive” in the Rarity/Fluttershy story. The characters in the two stories share a physical space and interact with one another, yet never realize the others are there. Similarly, when Angel is separated from Fluttershy, he ends up with Twilight and Spike, twining their story together with Fluttershy and Rarity’s. This is fundamentally unlike the common element of the Sonic Rainboom in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” because here the only common element between stories is the castle itself. The interactions between them are more than sharing a common origin; rather, the three stories start out driven by different motivations–exploration, competition, and restoration–interact multiple times throughout the episode, and then ultimately converge on a shared ending and the reveal of Pinkie Pie as the unwitting cause of much of their troubles.
This relationship between “Castle Mane-ia” and “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” reflects the relationship of their respective seasons. Friendship Is Magic‘s first season did have a sort of emergent storyline in the form of the Grand Galloping Gala, but it was almost entirely in the background until the finale. By contrast, “Castle Mane-ia” immediately picks up where “Princess Twilight Sparkle” left off, with the question of how to open the strange box that sprouted from the Tree of Harmony. This will form an arc across the entire season, with each character getting a focus episode that involves defining their Element of Harmony and encouraging it in others, leading to the acquisition of a series of objects that become the keys to the box in the season finale. The result is a more unified season than any prior; interestingly, it is also slightly heavier on action-adventure elements over slice-of-life, closer to the ratio which Faust has indicated she would have preferred for the first season. In many ways, Season Four can thus be seen as the idealized form of the series intended by its creator–perhaps that kabbalistic read of the season premier wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
Other than its beginning, “Castle Mane-ia” has two strong ties to the season arc. The first is the discovery of the Journal of the Two Sisters, which leads Twilight to propose that the Mane Six keep their own journal, which takes the place of letters to Celestia now that Twilight has graduated from her tutelage. The other is the reveal at the end of the episode that there were two shadowy cloaked figures lurking in the castle, Pinkie and an unidentified, but implied to be sinister, other.
This is where the dual pun in the title comes in. “Mane-ia” is, of course, a pun on “mania,” consistent with Friendship Is Magic‘s fondness for horse puns. The title thus refers to panicked ponies letting their imaginations run wild in the castle. It is also, however, a pun on Castlevania, a series of video games in which the hero explores the titular malicious, ruined, haunted castle with, usually, the goal of reaching and killing Dracula. The setting of the castle, with its hidden passages, creepy statues, and ubiquitous and inexplicably lit candles and torches evokes the Hammer Horror-esque aesthetic of the games, though it lacks the undead creatures that normally stalk the halls of Castlevania.
Or does it? Dracula, in the Castlevania games, is reimagined as an ever-returning force of cosmic evil, as much a Satan-figure as he is a vampire, and frequently able to transform into an enormous monster when he is finally confronted. And, of course, as a vampire he derives his power by feeding on others, though once defeated he is reduced to a shadowy presence. The title thus evokes the notion of a shadowy being who predates the series, drains energy from others, and turns into a monster–in hindsight, it’s a dead giveaway of things to come.
But that is a thread to be returned to at the end of the series. In the meantime, we have only an ominous shadow in the background; the foreground will be taken up by more familiar light and fun for quite a while yet.
Next week: At least for very small values of “fun.” Every season’s got to have at least one, right?