Hush now! Quiet now!/Lay your sleepy head! (For Whom the Sweetie Belle Tolls)

The young Sweetie Belle wallows in whatever
it is ponies are supposed to wallow in.

It’s March 22, 2014. The top song is still Pharrell Williams with “Happy,” and the top movie is young-adult dystopia Divergent. I saw the number two movie, Muppets Most Wanted, instead, and found it a pale shadow of its excellent immediate predecessor, appropriately enough. In the news, Russia formally annexes Crimea, while the U.S., Europe, and Japan respond with sanctions against Russia; the U.S. expels all Syrian diplomats and closes the Syrian Embassy in the U.S.; and the BICEP2 experiment finds evidence of cosmic inflation.

In ponies, “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Tolls” by Dave Polsky airs, largely retracing ground already covered by “Somepony to Watch Over Me,” but with the other prominent pair of sisters. There are some differences–Sweetie Belle feels overshadowed, rather than controlled, by Rarity, lashes out at her sister rather than trying to prove herself, and therefore the resulting race across Equestria is Sweetie Belle and her friends rushing to undo the damage Sweetie Belle has done, rather than Applejack rushing to save Apple Bloom. But overall it is the same story: little sister feels smothered, acts out, chaos ensues, sisters reconcile.

So rather than retread territory just covered two weeks ago ourselves, let’s focus instead on the fascinating ways in which this episode draws parallels between characters and events. Most obvious here is the one blatantly stated in the episode: Luna sees Sweetie Belle’s feelings of being overshadowed, and acting out in response, as a parallel to her own jealousy and transformation into Nightmare Moon a thousand years ago. This is a particularly interesting statement to make, as it is the first time the show has reversed its usual approach to mythology. Generally, the mythological functions within the show as a way to depict the personal on a vast, even cosmic, scale: sibling rivalry becomes a cosmic war between moon and sun, Fluttershy’s fears become a dragon, Twilight’s completion of her education becomes the apotheosis and ascension of a new princess. This, however, is the first time the show has really made the cosmic personal; the ancient war of moon and sun becomes a point within Sweetie Belle’s life, descending through her dreams in order to help her work through her personal issue.

This transformation of the personal to the cosmic and back is one of the unique functions of fiction, because in reality the cosmic is entirely impersonal. The moon and sun maintain their motions no matter what we mere mortals do, and have no message to impart to us–any secrets we think we see written in them are messages from ourselves. As, of course, are dreams as well, which makes the next set of parallels interesting: the degree to which the episode is full of performances.

The two most obvious performances in the episode are Sweetie Belle’s play and Sapphire Shores’ show. But most interesting is the third performance: Sweetie Belle’s dream, which, it is implied, was deliberately constructed by Luna, and can therefore be regarded as a performance put on by her. But if it is a performance, and the majority was not real, what of the two memories of Sweetie Belle’s fifth birthday? The first, from Sweetie Belle’s perspective, is accepted by her as her own memory, so we can regard it as such, but what of the second, which shows that Rarity wasn’t trying to steal the spotlight, but rather help her sister?

There are a few possibilities. The first is that it is a genuine image of the past as it occurred; given that the season premiere established that alicorn magic can empower a potion to see the past, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Luna can create dreams of the past. A second option is, given Rarity is also asleep, that Luna is bridging the two sisters’ minds, and letting Sweetie Belle see Rarity’s perspective. This is led some credence by the appearance of dolphins earlier in the dream–Sapphire Shores will later mention that they are a common fixture in her own dream. The third possibility is that Luna is just making up a likely scenario about the birthday in order to help Sweetie Belle accept that her sister acted out of love in the more recent incident involving the play–not a lie, exactly, but a comforting story that for all Luna knows is actually what happened.

Regardless of exactly where the scene came from, Luna deploys it skillfully, and along with her timely assistance to Sweetie Belle during the chase sequence later in the episode, successfully engineers a reconciliation between the sisters. That intervention then creates a chain reaction of characters happily supporting one another without credit: Luna suggests the dolphin stitch to Sweetie Belle, who passes it to Rarity without crediting Luna. Rarity then gives the headdress to Sapphire Shores without crediting Sweetie Belle, and Sapphire Shores performs without, presumably, crediting Rarity–certainly it seems unlikely that a major pop star would interrupt her performance to thank her costume designer, any more than she would the technicians who operate the lighting or set up the speakers, at least by name.

But the key thing here is that all of these characters seem content to not be credited. Luna in particular smiles and nods to Sweetie Belle, seeming to encourage her to take credit and not mention Luna’s help. It is Rarity who provides the key here: why is she excited to have her costumes worn by Sapphire Shores? Because ponies in Canterlot and then across Equestria will see them. Most will only see them as one small part of a pop performance, but those who are most interested in fashion and costumes might inquire further and learn Rarity’s name; even if they do not, they will recognize and acknowledge the quality of the costumes. In other words, she is content to do good work because it is good work, secure in the knowledge that those few who do notice it will recognize it as good work. This fits very well with Rarity’s characterization; like Rainbow Dash, she seeks praise and acknowledgment of her skills, but where Rainbow Dash prefers the roar of the crowds, Rarity wants the accolades of the elite. In this case, “elite” means “those elite enough to recognize her work.”

In turn, this gives us a powerful insight into how Luna now deals with being overshadowed by her sister. (Remember, Luna and Rarity share an actress–it is unsurprising they share other traits as well.) Luna, we see, is happy to have helped, happy that one pony, Sweetie Belle, knows and appreciates what she did. It doesn’t matter to her whether or not Rarity, let alone Sapphire Shores or the general masses, know that she helped two sisters reconcile; what’s important to her is that she did. She is no longer jealous of her more famous, more widely praised sister, because she has realized that the work she does isn’t the kind that makes you famous, just as Sweetie Belle has realized that Rarity’s costumes overshadowed her play because it wasn’t very good. Luna has learned to appreciate the rewards her work does provide, instead of pining for the rewards another receives–that popularity is not the only measure of worth.

Next week: Although there’s a fine line between telling people a story to help them, and peddling placebos as miracle cures…

2 thoughts on “Hush now! Quiet now!/Lay your sleepy head! (For Whom the Sweetie Belle Tolls)

  1. A few random thoughts:

    1. I could do an entire video analyzing the theatre/stage imagery in this episode as well… the two stage shows that bookend the action, and the whole idea of Luna putting on basically a giant dream puppet show for Sweetie Belle.

    2. I'm surprised the comics haven't delved more into Luna's dreamwalking ability, it seems like exactly the sort of thing Katie Cook would have a field day with.

    3. Oh, and the title is “Toils,” with a sqrt(-1).

  2. My media studies professor played a clip from the beginning of this episode to a packed lecture hall this past Wednesday as part of a lecture on how the brony phenomenon presents a positive example for future internet-based interaction. It was seemingly selected at random; all we found out in the clip was that the smaller white pony felt inferior to the larger white pony. A student next to me posited at the end of class that the creators should introduce some male pony characters to establish their commitment to diversity. All in all I don't think it went off right.

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