Praising with Faint Damnation: A Defense of Spike

This is a commissioned post for the Phyre Family, who donated very generously to the My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter. They have very patiently waited without comment for the months it has taken me to figure out how to approach this article. Thank you!
It should come as no surprise to long-time My Little Po-Mo readers that I am not particularly a fan of Spike. I have in the past been quite harsh on him, probably unfairly so. So when I was commissioned to write an essay about Spike and bullying, with no further information on what was desired, I struggled to figure out how to approach it.
My immediate instinct was to write about Spike as a bully. After all, he frequently displays an entitled attitude, self-centeredness, and greed, and more than one of his focus episodes involves him either self-aggrandizing or taking advantage of a position of power. It should be easy to come up with examples of him bullying others, surely?
It wasn’t. It turned out, in fact, to be essentially impossible. Recall our discussion in regards to “One Bad Apple”: not all poor treatment of others is necessarily bullying. Following David Dupper, we defined bullying as utilizing a position of relative power to create an ongoing pattern of psychological or physical abuse against a victim who cannot defend themselves.
Spike has never done this. Oh, Spike has been in positions of power or authority which he abused, such as when he grew to enormous size in “Secret of My Excess” or foisted all the work involved in his pet-care business onto his unpaid interns, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, in “Just for Sidekicks.” But while he does in fact use this power to harm others and take what he wants from them, that’s not actually bullying.
At the core of bullying is a sense of entitlement to power and status over others. The abuse of others is simply a way of demonstrating or expressing the power that the bully believes is theirs by right. That’s not really what Spike is doing in either the examples above. In “Secret of My Excess” he is, first of all, not entirely in control of his behavior, and second, he’s driven not by a desire to demonstrate power he already possesses, but by a desire to take something others possess. Bullying is not, despite common folk-psychology to the contrary, actually driven by jealousy, but by a desire to put others in “their place,” to remind them that their hierarchical status is below the bully’s. A bully doesn’t steal another child’s lunch money because they want or need the money–or, at least, not solely or primarily because they want or need the money–but rather because they want to demonstrate that the other child possesses nothing the bully cannot take.
That’s simply not the motivation Spike expresses in “Secret of My Excess.” He’s after the possessions of others–actually motivated by greed and jealousy, in other words–not trying to set himself up above them. Likewise, in “Just for Sidekicks” he does mistreat the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the pets, but again it’s not out of a desire to demonstrate power over them, but rather a combination of laziness and greed: he wants to get as many gems as possible with as little effort as possible, and neglecting the pets and exploiting the Cutie Mark Crusaders is how he does it.
In other words, when Spike abuses or mistreats people he has power over, it’s in pursuit of something else, while for bullies, bullying is its own reward. Contrast to Spike the behavior of actual bullies, like Diamond Tiara (pre-“Crusaders of the Lost Mark”) or the dragons Spike encounters in “Dragon Quest” and “Gauntlet of Fire” (with the exception of Princess Ember). To take the latter case, the Dragon Lord is a classic bully. He doesn’t receive anything from the other dragons, isn’t exploiting them to gain anything; he simply uses his size and strength to intimidate them into obedience, and takes pleasure in that.
Garble in “Dragon Quest” is a little more complicated. At first, Spike has nothing he wants or respects, so Garble is dismissive and cruel for the sake of it, encouraging Spike to take part in activities Garble is certain he cannot handle, so that Garble and his friends can laugh at Spike’s humiliation. That’s straightforward bullying, but then when Spike is able to handle a bellyflop into lava without injury, Garble’s view changes. Now he sees Spike as “tough,” or at least not completely without toughness, which is to say that Spike has demonstrated a quality Garble values. Garble remains pushy and manipulative, but he is no longer bullying Spike when he takes him on the phoenix egg hunt, but rather trying to include Spike in an activity–he has accepted Spike as, if not an equal, at least someone who has value beyond being a tool for demonstrating Garble’s own superiority. This of course reverses when Spike refuses to destroy the phoenix egg and is defended by the ponies, which Garble interprets as weakness, negating the value he saw in Spike. Thus by “Gauntlet of Fire” Garble is back to bullying Spike, though that takes a backseat to the titular competition.
That competition gives us the key to Spike’s relationship with bullying and the best roles he can play as a character–and I’m using the word “key” deliberately as a reference to the Key episodes of the Season Four. Those episodes, along with Season Five’s Map episodes, involve the ponies taking up teacher or mentor roles, learning more about their Element of Harmony by teaching it to others. And at the end of Season Four, Spike was given a seat at the map table, implying that he would be taking on that role despite not having a (stated) Element of Harmony.
And sure enough, at the beginning of “Gauntlet of Fire” Spike starts glowing just as the Mane Six’s cutie marks glow at the beginnings of their Map episodes; “Gauntlet of Fire” is Spike’s Map episode, his opportunity to teach the lessons he’s learned to another. That other is clearly signposted as well: it is Princess Ember who has the clearest character arc over the course of the episode. What, then, is the lesson? What is it that Spike has learned over the course of the series, and now teaches?
Spike is the little guy, literally–he’s smaller than the other characters and the only male main character. He’s less skilled than the others, less experienced, lacks any obvious specialty. He is a prime target for bullying, and that experience means that he knows what it’s like to be bullied. Enter Princess Ember: smaller than the other dragons, the first girl in what the series had previously portrayed as very much a boys’ club–indeed, as I argued regarding “Dragon Quest,” the dragons are easily readable as a portrayal of toxic, fragile masculinity the series holds up in contrast to the healthy, stable femininity of the ponies. And Ember is definitely bullied by the dragons, and particularly the Dragon Lord: her gender, size, and relative lack of physical power are regarded as markers of inferiority, and she is thus denied participation in the Gauntlet of Fire, which is to say access to leadership positions and social power. She is being held down because she’s seen as inferior, as a means of ensuring the other dragons get to continue to feel superior, which is quite close to our definition of bullying above.
Spike then models for her what it takes to survive being bullied. He refuses to allow his power to be taken from him by participating in the Gauntlet, and helps Ember to make the same refusal. He even demonstrates for her how the ostensibly weak can overcome the powerful, by cooperation–a lesson which she gives every sign of having taken to heart in the episode’s closing. And just as the Mane Six’s Map episodes are as much about developing their characters as educating the guest stars, “Gauntlet of Fire” advances Spike significantly as well: he is no longer alone. Before, he was a new kind of dragon, a postdragon if you will, who embraced the pony way of life and experimented with combining it with his own concepts of what it might mean to be a dragon. Now Ember has learned from him, and stands in a position of power, a healthy feminine presence rising above the toxic masculinity of draconic culture. But she’s learned Spike’s lesson, and does not seek to forcibly impose herself or destroy the other dragons’ masculinity. Instead, she ends the episode using her authority to teach rather than force, to show a different way, to give the dragons the freedom to be themselves that was snatched from them by the toxicity and fragility of their conception of masculinity.
So what is the lesson Spike taught? It was the ability to take the best of others and incorporate it into yourself. The ability to transcend, adapt, evolve–ironically for a character who often struggles to retain his lessons from episode to episode, it turns out that Spike’s equivalent to an Element of Harmony is Change itself. He is a vision of a masculinity that starts toxic and fragile, that must dominate or shatter, but over time allows what it previously rejected as feminine into itself, and constructs a new form of masculinity that can deviate from a narrow path without losing itself.
The danger with Spike has always been that as he grew up he would become the monster from “Secret of My Excess,” the creature of power that can only take, never give, that crushed and destroyed and trampled. But now a new path has opened for him: he can grow up to be Big Mac instead.

My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Book Launch!

My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 coverMy Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season Three and Derivative Works is now available for purchase!
Like them or hate them, the fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic have created a plethora of derivative works, from the typical fanfiction and fanart to long-running comics, audio dramas, video games, songs, and even animation! Not to be outdone, licensed derivative works have proliferated as well in the years since the series began. But is this a natural and healthy expression of fandom? Or appropriation by adult men of one of the few quality works not created with them in mind?
This third volume of essays adapted from the blog My Little Po-Mo combines a critical study of the third season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with analysis of both licensed derivative works and a selection of fanworks to explore these questions and the show which inspired them.
This volume includes:

  • Critical essays on every episode of the third season.
  • Additional essays on licensed works such as the IDW comics series and the Equestria Girls spin-off movies.
  • Analysis of more than a dozen fanworks, including Friendship Is Witchcraft, Ask Jappleack, “Rainbow Factory,” and Mega Pony!
  • A case study of Doctor Whooves as an instance of fan influence on the show.

And more!
You can buy it as an ebook on Smashwords (preferred–you get it in your choice of DRM-free formats, and I get more royalties than the other sites), the Kindle store, Barnes & Noble, or the iTunes iBook store!
Or if you prefer, get it in print on CreateSpace (preferred–this site pays the author more royalties) or Amazon–other stores to follow!
ETA: And if you’re interested in the first two books in the series, or my other books, you can find them here!

Elements of Harmony 7: Cadance Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
For starters, Cadance has one of the best names in the series, and almost certainly the most oversignified. Start with the first name given for her, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Mi amore is, of course, Italian for “my love,” and likely a title indicating the nature and source of her power; much as Twilight Sparkle is the Princess of Friendship, Cadance is the Princess of Love. But cadenza has a very different meaning: it is a musical term, referring to an ornamental passage, usually a solo designed to show off the virtuosity of one musician, placed near the end of a work. This is very much Cadance’s role in her first appearance.
Let us go back, a moment, to the end of Season Two. It has been something of a triumph, with a number of episodes that stand among the series’ best: “The Return of Harmony,” “Lesson Zero,” “Sweet and Elite,” “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” “Read It and Weep,” “It’s About Time.” Now, here at the end of the series, we’re introduced to a new character, Princess Cadance, and just as swiftly (a mere couple of minutes into “A Canterlot Wedding, Part Two”) introduced to the real Princess Cadance, bedraggled, scratched up, desperate to save Shining Armor. What follows can only be described as a virtuoso solo passage, as the two Cadances sing “This Day Aria.” It is easily the best song in the show to that point, alternating verses in which the true and false Cadance sing light and dark versions of each other’s lines, with the false Cadance, Queen Chrysalis, wanting to control and devour, while the true Cadance mourns the disruption of her special day and worries about the loss of her love, Shining Armor.
Chrysalis isn’t just disguised as Cadance; in a sense, she is Cadance, another side of the same coin. Their song together is an aria–a piece performed by one singer–not a duet, and their power is the same: love. Chrysalis devours while Cadance creates, yes, but such is the nature of love; it can be grasping, greedy, possessive, or it can be giving, nurturing, healing. Usually, it’s both at once. And within a universe where friendship is magic, love is pure power; Chrysalis is able to defeat Celestia in a direct battle of power against power, and Cadance in turn is able to empower Shining Armor to do what Celestia can’t, and drive the Changelings from Equestria. Because, of course, one lover alone can only be selfish; it’s when love is shared by two or more people that it becomes able to accomplish something good.
This is the power of love: connection, binding, bridging gaps, enabling sharing and cooperation. Cadance is, in more ways than one, a bridge. She is, for example, a unicorn that became an alicorn princess: according to Lauren Faust, Cadance was a unicorn, neither an alicorn nor a princess, when “A Canterlot Wedding” was first planned; sometime after Faust left, she became an alicorn princess. This, perhaps, is why she is so different from Celestia and Luna: less distant, smaller, more down-to-earth and approachable. She is a living bridge between “ordinary” magical ponies and the goddess-like Princesses of Sun and Moon, someone who has ascended extradiegetically, and thus traced the path for Twilight to do so extradiegetically a season from now.
But Princess Mi Amore Cadenza is only one of her names. She has two more: Cadence and Cadance, the former her name according to the credits and closed captioning of some episodes, the latter her name in other episodes, most merchandise, and the Elements of Harmony guidebook. Cadence has multiple meanings, all related to sound. First, it is a musical term, the sequence of chords that ends a passage, with different types of cadences used to different effects–deceptive cadence, for instance, generates a feeling of hanging incompleteness. (As something of a joke, “B.B.B.F.F. (Reprise)” in “A Canterlot Wedding” ends with a deceptive cadence, moments before Chrysalis-as-Cadance attacks Twilight.) It can also mean a particular style of speech or intonation, or a rhythm.
These latter meanings of the word resonate with Cadance’s second major appearance, in “The Crystal Empire.” Though she spends most of the episode sidelined, her role is tremendously important, as she is (with Shining Armor’s support, a nice reversal of their roles from the climax of “A Canterlot Wedding”) the one actually battling King Sombra; the entire plot of the two-parter is Twilight trying to find ways to help Cadance finish him off. She’s the obviously correct choice for the job; having already confronted her own dark mirror in Chrysalis, she is more than prepared to take on the Shadow. But there are subtler ways in which cadence permeates the episode. For example, the Crystal Ponies are marked by a particular cadence of speech, a dour and overprecise intonation that represents the repression of their past and their light. As the Crystal Faire frees them, they begin speaking with a more normal cadence and regain their full shine, only to lose it again to Sombra. Their light and their cadence are equated, and it is Cadence who brings both once she grasps the Crystal Heart, recovered by Twilight and Spike.
What is the connection between Cadance and the Heart? The Crystal Ponies seem to recognize her as the Crystal Princess, and after “The Crystal Empire” accept her and Shining Armor as their ruler. The Crystal Heart bears a close resemblance to Cadance’s cutie mark, and flares to life when when she takes it, after which she leads the Crystal Ponies in using its power to dispel Sombra’s Shadow for good. But she’s not a Crystal Pony: like the Mane Six, she sparkles only temporarily after the activation of the Crystal Heart, not permanently like the Crystal Ponies, and she clearly has no memory of their realm, so she’s not their millennia-lost princess. What she is, however, is Cadance, which is to say, cadence, a rhythm–and the most primal rhythm of all, one accelerated both by the love that is Cadance’s power and the fear that is Sombra’s, is the beating of a heart.
Which brings us to her third, and apparently official, name: Cadance. Which is not itself a word, but fusion of two, cadence and dance. Dancing is, of course, another activity closely associated with both rhythm and with love, but the name carries more meaning than that: Cadance, from her first appearance, has been a character who dances on the edge of the spotlight, doing important things but never being at the heart of the story. She is not a mentor like Celestia, nor is she someone who can serve as the focus character for an episode like Twilight or Luna; she is the friend, the loved one, the one who holds down the home fort while others go questing. This fits well with her personality, as one of the most grounded and down-to-earth characters in the series. In “Three’s a Crowd,” for example, she’s happy to go along with either visiting the Star-Swirl the Bearded Museum or going on Discord’s absurd quest with Twilight, while in “Games Ponies Play” she tries to get Twilight and the others to relax and accept events as they unfold. And, as already observed, she is a pony who works by empowering others.
Friend, lover, wife, mother, quest-giver. The balanced center around which all else revolves, a font of power which others wield, the beating heart of the Crystal Empire whose love is refracted across all Equestria. Bridge between the three tribes of ponies and the alicorns, between the everyday and the exalted. Yes, there is definitely a case to be made for Cadance as best pony.

My Little Po-Mo Volume 3 is coming!

My Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season Three and Derivative Works is on its way! Content is now completely finalized, it’s fully formatted for print version, and I’m working on formatting for e-book. The cover designer is working her magic, things are humming along. I’m hoping to have it available for purchase by Black Friday, but I’ve learned never to guarantee a release date.
Have the TOC:

  • Dear Princess Celestia… (Introduction) – Fully rewritten from the one used in past books!
  • I’ve finally figured out why you’re having so much trouble being liked! (The Crystal Empire) – with expanded coverage of Sombra as a Shadow archetype to several characters!
  • Maybe something less over-the-top and not so super-hyper (Too Many Pinkie Pies)
  • I’ll be embarrassed, shamed, disgraced, mortified, humiliated… (One Bad Apple)
  • You will never have the amazing, show-stopping ability (Magic Duel)
  • Actually, Twilight Sparkle, I’m the main singer tonight (Sleepless in Ponyville)
  • The Wonderbolts will never let a loser like me join! (Wonderbolts Academy) – revised to examine the ways Lightning Dust pushes Rainbow Dash to be better!
  • Now hold on, everypony. We’ve done our best to improve supply this year. (Apple Family Reunion)
  • That’s future Spike’s problem (Spike at Your Service) – revised to be hard on Spike as opposed to brutally unfair!
  • Sometimes it can be hard for a shy pony like me to stand up for myself (Keep Calm and Flutter On)
  • SPIKE WANT! (Just for Sidekicks) – see “Spike at Your Service”!
  • I’m bored. (Games Ponies Play)
  • Princess Celestia Is Best Pony
  • I don’t know when she changed, but she changed! (Magical Mystery Cure) – revised to make at least 20% more sense!
  • I wonder where I’m going now/What my role is meant to be/I don’t know how to travel/To a future I can’t see (Magical Mystery Cure)
  • Alchemical Fandom: A Case Study in Doctor Whooves – revised from my guest post on TARDIS Eruditorum for a pony audience rather than a Doctor Who audience
  • Last Survivor of Gallopfrey (Time Lords and Terror)
  • Save Derpy (Doctor Whooves and Assistant)
  • Fire the Orbital Friendship Beam (Double Rainboom)
  • [Pony] Is My Waifu (Snowdrop)
  • Welcome to the Herd (Friendship Is Dragons) – revised with more arcs of the comic, more coverage of the development of the campaign comic genre, and more accurate history of tabletop RPGs!
  • Confound These Ponies (Friendship Is Witchcraft)
  • Haters Gonna Hate (My Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season One) – completely replaced with a piece by my editor about what a POS that first volume was before he got his hands on it!
  • The Glorious Lunar Republic (The Lunaverse, Season One)
  • Princesses as Celebrities in Equestria
  • Mods Are Asleep (The Return of Queen Chrysalis Part 1-4)
  • To the Mooooooooooooooon! (Nightmare Rarity, Parts 1-4)
  • Big McIntosh is Best Pony
  • Hit Its Weak Point for Massive Damage (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Volumes 3 and 4)
  • Solar Empire (Reflections) – Book-exclusive coverage of comic issues 17-20!
  • Hate Detected (Turnabout Storm)
  • Ponify Everything! (My Litle Investigations Case 1: True Blue Scootaloo)
  • Get Equipped With Magic (Mega Pony)
  • My Favorite Background Pony Is Applejack (Background Pony) – heavily revised to be more analytical and less caustic
  • Glorious Pegasus Master Race (Rainbow Factory) – also heavily revised for expanded discussion of the theory of the grotesque
  • Apples and Apple Accessories (Ask Jappleack/ – Book exclusive!
  • RIP Golden Oak Library (The Elements of Harmony)
  • From a feminist perspective, has MLP:FIM changed the world? – significantly expanded!
  • Gak (Equestria Girls) – expanded to discuss the theme of mirrors and the parallels between Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer
  • I Watch It For the Plot (Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks) – Book exclusive!
  • …Today I Learned…

ETA: Corrected what “Glorious Pegasus Master Race” is about–I had the wrong fic listed originally.

Elements of Harmony 6: Twilight Sparkle Is Best Pony

The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
Because of course she is. It’s hardly even a question. Twilight has had more focus than any other pony, and is nearly always depicted positively. Even when her behavior is shown in a negative light, as in “Lesson Zero” or “It’s About Time,” she learns from it and improves—there is a steady decline in her neuroticism from the frantic panicking of those episodes, to the visibly manageable anxiety of “The Crystal Empire,” to the strength and determination of “Twilight’s Kingdom.” She is still worry-prone and detail-oriented, but in increasingly mature ways over the course of the first four seasons. So let us take it as a given that Twilight is best pony, and focus on Twilight as a character, on who she is and what role she plays.
Twilight’s role is right there in her name: she is a creature of liminal spaces and transitional moments. She balances on the edge between light and dark, night and day, most obviously in the sense that she is responsible for reuniting Luna and Celestia in the premiere, but in many other ways as well. Twilight moves from a tower in Canterlot to a tree in Ponyville, and later into a crystalline hybrid of tree and tower; towers and trees both act as bridges from Earth to Heaven, and so are deeply appropriate to a character whose storyline has been dominated by ascension.
And what an ascension it has been. Twilight began as the classic nerd character, grumpy, neurotic, and far more interested in the acquisition of data than in her relationships with others. Not that there is anything wrong with being inclined to scholarly pursuits, and the show has never shamed Twilight for that. She has never lost her love of learning, but it has gone from being the totality of her limited existence to one aspect of a more complete person. The premiere was an epiphany for her, opening her eyes to her own incompleteness, and over the course of the first two seasons she grew in her understanding of others. Most significant here was her transformation in “Winter Wrap Up,” where she discovered her organizational skills and slight tendency to arrogant certainty combined to make her a natural leader. From that point, the course of her evolution was effectively set: to master magic and social interaction alike, and ascend to princesshood.
But this was not, in itself, a destination. It is in the nature of twilight to be transitional, and so it is for Twilight; she is always evolving, always connecting realms. Almost immediately after her ascension, she found herself the bridge between two worlds, namely Equestria and the human world in Equestria Girls. Passing through a mirror, she entered the mirror realm, full of reflections of the ponies she knew, and there she encountered her own dark reflection, Sunset Shimmer—even their names are synonymous! This in turn opened a path to seeing Sunset Shimmer’s own reflection, the human Twilight Sparkle (as shown in Equestria Girls: Friendship Games), who never had the lessons she did and so remained incomplete. That Twilight, drunk on knowledge and magical power but lacking friendship to anchor her, nearly slid into a demonic transformation worthy of Nightmare Moon—but Sunset Shimmer helped bring her back to herself, closing the circle.
This is one of Twilight’s greatest powers and greatest gifts. In Friendship Games we see just how close she is to the darkness, how easily she could have become another Sombra or Nightmare Moon. But that liminal existence, that transition from darkness to light, is exactly what enables her to help others ascend. Twilight is the bridge between Luna and Celestia, which is why she was able to heal Nightmare Moon in the first place. She is not only one who ascends, but one who descends to help others.
This, too, is why she had to be the bearer of the powers of the other princesses in “Twilight’s Kingdom.” Luna and Celestia form a binary, light and dark, night and day, sun and moon, gold and silver. Cadance is an outlier, unconnected to either. It is Twilight who partakes in all three—in the obvious sense that twilight is both day and night, but also in the sense that, as the Princess of Friendship, her domain naturally overlaps with the Princess of Love. Her liminality also makes her the one most able to hold the vast quantities of magic involved, as it is in the liminal spaces that magic thrives—one encounters it most in the surfaces of mirrors and the deep woods, in caverns and the backs of cupboards, between sunset and moonrise.
Twilight stands between night and day, between darkness and night, so it is necessarily Twilight who serves as the first line of defense against the darkness. We rarely see Celestia or Cadance fight the terrors that haunt Equestria, and when they do, they are usually less than entirely successful, but Twilight and her friends regularly fight evil, because that is who she is and where she stands—“liminal” comes from the Latin for “threshold,” and it is on the threshold that Twilight stands, Equestria’s gatekeeper. Like her brother, captain of the guard, she is a defender against evils that try to enter the realm, be they dragons, creatures of chaos, or her own Shadow.
Discord in particular is a perfect foil for Twilight. She is nigh-obsessively organized, and he is chaos incarnate, so they naturally clash. At the same time, both stand on opposite sides of the threshold: as master of chaos (in itself a paradoxical concept, because by its nature chaos cannot have a master), a walking grotesque, Discord’s role is to disrupt the order Twilight protects, and in so doing demonstrate its weaknesses and flaws. It is the nature of the grotesque to transgress boundaries, and Discord does, constantly, his very appearance transgressing the boundaries between species, his actions transgressing against the boundaries laid down by the laws of physics, and his conception itself transgressing the boundaries between shows, a Star Trek character within My Little Pony.
So Twilight, in her role as gatekeeper, must face Discord, not just once but repeatedly. At the same time, she cannot simply drive him away, imprison him, or destroy him, because the chaos he represents, the transgression of boundaries, is essential to her liminal nature. She has no choice but to befriend him, and while it is Fluttershy who does the most work in persuading him to change and helping him adapt to his new roles after the change, it is Twilight who provides the key moment of transition from villain to ally.
So it is not just that Twilight is the show’s own straightforward pick for best pony. She is also the most magical pony, not merely in the superficial spell-casting sense, but in the sense of being the pony who transforms and is transformed, the one who walks across worlds, who ascends and returns with the power to help others ascend. She is the one who journeys through darkness to enlightenment, and in that sense, she is us all.

Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle (Twilight’s Kingdom)

It is the end.
But the moment has been prepared for.

This is the path from Crown to Kingdom.

It’s May 10, 2014. Pharrell Williams remains “Happy” to play us out. The top movie is the Seth Rogan comedy Neighbors. In the news, violence between pro-Russian and pro-European factions in the Ukraine continues, the World Health Organization announces that polio is once again a growing international health concern, and on the day this two-parter airs, Austrian recording artist and drag queen Conchita Wurst wins the Eurovision Song Contest with “Rise Like a Phoenix.”

Meanwhile, the fourth season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and My Little Po-Mo with it, end with the two-part finale “Twilight’s Kingdom” by Meghan McCarthy.

In the beginning, there was Light. God, the Universe, all things were One, and that One was Light. And God said “Let there be Dark,” and the Light retreated, retracted, creating a space that no longer held Light. 

The Dark remembers it once held Light. It wants it back.

In many ways, this entire story is an extended riff on the original piece of pony animation, the My Little Pony TV special, originally untitled but called “Rescue at Midnight Castle” on DVD and streaming services. That special introduced Tirek, a demonic being who wielded the Rainbow of Darkness and had the power to transform and corrupt ponies, impressing them into his service as dragons. At the end, he tried to attack the (seemingly ineffectual) Rainbow of Light wielded by the ponies and their human friend, Megan, only to have it first absorb his Rainbow of Darkness and then destroy him.

Now he’s back–and, despite never having appeared in Friendship Is Magic before, it is explicitly a return within the episode. Celestia tells the story of his long-ago invasion of Equestria, and it is more or less the story of “Rescue at Midnight Castle,” if one replaces Megan and the ponies of that story with Celestia and Luna, cuts Spike and the Moochick, and makes a few other minor tweaks, with the biggest change being that it ends with Tirek being imprisoned rather than destroyed. (On the other hand, he’s imprisoned in Tartarus, part of the Greek afterlife, so even that is consistent with him being killed.)

And, interestingly, he believes that the magic of Equestria–all the magic, upon which the world itself depends–belongs to him, that he is not stealing it but reclaiming what’s rightfully his. Simply the greed and narcissism of a cartoon villain who believes that, because he wants something, it belongs to him? Or a memory of a time before the Dark?

And it gets, a little bit, what it wants. A little trickle of light into the darkness, swirling into a vessel, a fruit, the rind of which is necessary made of the Dark because it has to hold the Light, and Dark and Light are the only things that exist so far.

What is it for? 

This is Keter, the Crown. It sits above the head, which is to say before inspiration even begins; it is the first stirrings of creative intent within the Infinite. It is the source of all form, and hence formless, an empty impulse to creation without any sense of what to create or why.

Twilight Sparkle has lost her sense of purpose. With the aid of her friends and her magic, after years as a student, she has attained enlightenment, the Crown of the princess. She has passed from student to teacher, brought together the shards of (the Rainbow of) Light, the Elements of Harmony, and restored them to their place in the Tree. She has ascended, attained apotheosis; she has climbed to the top of the tree.

Now what? Now she is filled with potential but devoid of purpose. The problem with being One with all things is that there is no room for anyone or anything else. To create and to connect, One must become many, must descend toward the world, the Kingdom.

The other three princesses have walked this path before her. They assure her that she has a purpose, and that she will find it. And by the end of the episode we see that she does: “That is the role I am meant to have in this world. The role I choose to have.”

“Meant to” is passive voice; it obscures who means her to have that destiny. But in the next sentence she answers: she does. She fulfilled one destiny, but her life continued and therefore she needed another, so she created it herself.

Just as all of the Mane Six did when they decided that they were destined to meet, based on the shared experience of getting their cutie marks from the first Sonic Rainboom. The Rainbow of Light is everywhere in Twilight’s life, right back to the beginning.

The Light trickles further. Chokhmah, the spark of creativity and inspiration that channels the pure potential above into the specific creation below, and Binah, the intuitive insight of how to apply that inspiration.

It is Discord that gives Twilight her key, literally and figuratively. Before setting off to face Tirek, he is trying in his own way to be helpful, generously providing her the bookmarked entries in the journal that are the clue to how to open the crystal box, but laughing mockingly at her as he does it. Generosity and Laughter together, as they are side-by-side on the Tree of Harmony.

There’s a mirror to this a little later, when Twilight first has that spark of inspiration and realizes the secret of the box: each of them has faced a challenge to their Element, and in the process taught someone else about that Element, receiving a souvenir in return. Those souvenirs are the keys–literally, as Pinkie Pie discovers when she throws hers into the box. (The line between intuition and a lucky guess, after all, is quite thin.) Inspiration and Intuition together, as they are side-by-side on the Tree of Life.

But one key remains. Twilight must face a crisis of friendship, and teach someone else a lesson in the process, before she can discover the secret of the box.

Down the Light drips, creating the Tree as it goes, filling and overflowing each vessel in turn. Chesed, loving-kindness, compassion, the necessity of ensuring that one’s creation is not destructive, but rather, in some way, makes the world a better place for being in it. And Gevurah, judgment and limitation, the honest recognition that one cannot do everything at once, and must choose the good and reject the bad.

Discord is not a good friend. He does seem to be actually trying, most notably with the gift of the book, but he still enjoys annoying others too much, which is to say he is still a petty sadist. He also lacks judgment; he is easily tricked by the more socially adept Tirek–it is in the nature of the trickster to upend norms and invert relationships, after all, and that includes inverting the relationship of trickster to tricked. Tricksters often find themselves falling for the tricks of others, as witness stories like “The Death of Anansi” or “The Farmer and the Devil.”

He mimics the acts of friendship, but doesn’t really understand the underlying necessity of empathy, of acknowledging that others have unique and non-negotiable needs and preferences which differ from his own. He has not, in short, learned Lesson Zero. He also lacks good judgment; he has in the past been effectively impossible to hurt or control without the Elements of Harmony, and so he naturally assumes Tirek cannot harm or effect him. Between these two factors, he is easily fooled into thinking that Tirek is being a friend toward him, and swayed by promises of freedom.

Note the argument Tirek uses, however: he promises to help Discord escape from the restraints of his ties to others, to become free of the world in which he is enmeshed, and thereby become more fully himself. What Tirek is promising, in other words, is a dark form of enlightenment–he has already usurped the role of representative of the qlippoth from Discord. No wonder he steals Discord’s power so easily later on! He’s already practically finished the job from the moment they meet.

The branches, near-pure Light at the top and slowly partaking more and more of the Dark as they go lower, converge. Here is the nexus-point, the trunk of the Tree where everything above converges into the moment of decision. This is Tiferet, Adornment, the point where compassion and judgment, kindness and honesty, must be balanced so that correct action can begin. 

Twilight Sparkle has a lot of experience in combining powers. The first appearance of the Rainbow of Light in Friendship Is Magic–heralded as such by the reprise of the original My Little Pony theme–is in the second part of the series premiere, when Twilight brings together the Elements of Harmony and releases it against Nightmare Moon. She’s a natural pick, then, to combine the powers of the princesses, even if she struggles to control it at first.

Tirek, by contrast, combines nothing. He is the Dark, snatching and devouring the Lights. His power is stolen, consumed, broken–thus, even with the combined power of every unicorn, pegasus, and Earth pony in Equestria, plus Discord, he is still only an even match for the combined powers of the alicorn princesses. He cannot defeat Twilight power-for-power, so he must instead force her to make a choice: her friends, or her magic.

He does not understand what Twilight understands, that this is a false choice. Friendship is magic; as long as she has her friends, she has her magic. She just needs to figure out how to access it after Tirek drains it.

And as for Tirek, given all the power he craves, what does he do? He destroys trees. His goal is obvious: to destroy the Tree, to cut the world off forever from the Light, so there is only what he has consumed. But to do so, he must destroy every tree, because every tree is in some sense the Tree–few more obviously than the Tree of Knowledge in which Twilight resides, the very first he destroys.

The Tree is supported by another pair of vessels, the third and final such pair, gateway to the trunk. They receive the decisive intention and power of Tiferet, and split it again so it can be balanced. Netzach, Victory, is the passion the creator puts into the work, the emotional force, the feelings that cannot be expressed through words. It is the shining power of the sun, creating warmth and life. Hod, Majesty, is the creator’s thoughts, the intellectual aspect of creation, that which can only be expressed through words. It is the powerful royal voice, decreeing what shall be.

Celestia and Luna are sealed in Tartarus, but they are here in spirit. They were the original wielders of the Elements of Harmony, after all, and it was they, together with Cadance, who told Twilight she would find her destiny. The box which grew from the Elements, Twilight realizes and decides, contains that destiny. 

I have complained before that this series often cross the line from Friendship Is Magic to Friendship Is Mandatory, and unfortunately that happens here. Even though Twilight has never consented to Discord’s friendship, only tolerated having it thrust upon her, she chooses to own him as her friend here, a choice that seems forced on her by narrative necessity. A redemptive read is possible, however, if we note that Twilight had her moment of revelation–which, as for the other ponies in the key episodes, is shown by having the Rainbow of Light briefly play across her eyes–before asking for Discord to be freed.

We can take this to mean that she knows she has to teach Discord to be a better friend by modeling that friendship for him, and that in turn she knows that this will give her the final key to unlock the box and defeat Tirek. She willingly surrenders power that rivals Discord’s own–the power to take the kind of freedom Tirek offered Discord–in exchange for her friends, because she recognizes them as worth it, and in so doing she models for Discord the concept of putting one’s friends’ interests ahead of one’s own.

She rejects the notion of enlightenment Tirek offers, of escape and freedom from being tied to the world, and instead, this pony, who has already experienced apotheosis back in “Magical Mystery Cure,” chooses to be bound to the world, to be bound to her friends, even bound to Discord. Because she has climbed the tree, and seen what is to be seen from the top.

At last we reach the trunk, the connection to the world, the moment of creation itself. This is Yesod, the Foundation, the womb from which all things are born, and the point where the divine, filtered and made safe by the vessels above, actually touches the world. Traditionally, it is identified with the tzaddik, the righteous one, the Enlightened.

Twilight has climbed the Tree, ascending to apotheosis and embracing her destiny. Now she has returned, as the Enlightened do, as a teacher. She shows Discord what true friendship really looks like, and chastised, he gives her the final key.

Within the box is, of course, what had to be in the box all along: the Rainbow of Light. It no longer belongs to the Elements of Harmony or to the Tree, but to Twilight and her friends. The ancient drama replays: Tirek attacks it with his own power, and his power is taken away from him. The Light returns to where it belongs, spreading out into the hearts and souls and cutie marks of all the ponies of the world.

That is, after all, what Light does when it meets Dark: push it back, shove it away into the corners and the depths. Tirek remains what he always was–hungry, nasty, and weak, able to wield only stolen power, gnawing away in resentment at what he lost. While Twilight Sparkle? She shares her power, her Light, and grows ever stronger as a consequence.

Only one vessel remains: Malkuth, the Kingdom, which is the world. This is the lowest of all vessels, the closest to the primordial Dark, into which the creation must be released. This contact is never survived wholly intact–no creation is ever quite what it was envisioned to be, never quite captures that moment of pure potential with which it began. Even in the Beginning, the rabbis tell us, the Light was too much for the vessels, even filtered through all ten, and they shattered into shining shards, each bearing an imprint of the Light and of all ten. These are the souls of humanity, and it is the role of the tzaddikim to gather these shards back together and restore the Light, healing the world, undoing the damage done at its beginning.

This, it is implied, was no accident, but planned from the start.

The error all too many people make, when talking about spiritual progress and enlightenment, is thinking that spiritual progress and material progress are distinct and that, therefore, enlightenment is one-and-done. That there is some pinnacle of attainment from which there is nowhere else to go, and perfection is achieved.

But the vessels were always meant to shatter. Perfection is an illusion, and progress is not teleological. It is not a process of narrowing down to a singular endpoint, but of climbing up and out into new possibilities. The tzaddikim and bodhisattvas both understood this; that’s part of why they come back.

Because you can climb the Tree and sit at the top in contemplation forever, sure. But we don’t climb trees to see into space. The sky still looks basically the same from a treetop as the ground. But the world, that’s different. The real reason we climb trees is so that we can see the world below from a different angle.

The climb up is enlightenment. The climb down is an act of creation, of bringing what we have seen into the world so that we may find ways to share it with others, to plant a seed containing the Light into the ground–which is to say, to gather the sparks, the souls, with which to rebuild the vessels–and thus create a new Tree, from which to spread Light across the Kingdom.

So it is that Twilight’s new castle partakes of elements of both the Tree of Harmony and the Golden Oaks Library, which is to say the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Because that too is a story of how the world started out broken, and it is up to us to fix it, to bring back together what once was. But the castle is also a tree, which is to say it can be climbed to see the world in a new way.

For three seasons, Twilight was a student, combining the duty we all share of healing and helping with a boundless curiosity and desire to overcome her ignorance. But she reached the Crown, and became a teacher instead. This season began and ended with her questioning her role; in between it gave the answer. Over and over again this season, we have seen the Mane Six teach others about their respective Elements of Harmony, and in the process they have learned and grown themselves.

Every creative work, be it the masterwork of a great artist or the scribblings of a child, a life lived or a scientific theory, even a silly little cartoon about singing, colorful magic ponies, is a tree made of Light, dribbling down from Crown to Kingdom. And because every tree is the Tree, we always have the option to choose to climb it, to be enlightened, to see the world anew.

And then in the act of climbing back down, of sharing what we have seen, we create a new tree, which someone else can climb if they so choose, while we go on to other trees. Because if every tree is the Tree, than the Tree is every tree, and no two trees offer quite the same view from the top. Again and again we cycle up into enlightenment and understanding and down into creation and the healing of the world, progressing, evolving, learning, growing, and we never have to stop because there is no end-point, but an infinite space into which to expand. We are, every one of us, at once creators and seekers, teachers and students, princesses and ponies, working to grow our trees, all together, forever.

There will be a semi-hiatus for the rest of the month. Regular features (Captain’s Log Weekly Digest on Tuesdays, Video Vednesdays, Fiction Fridays, and Saturday liveblogs) will continue as scheduled, but there will be no content on Mondays and Thursdays, and Sundays will be guest posts if I have them to post. Currently I only have one, on Discorded Hooves. Please contact me if you would like to do one or have something I can use, as I need at least two more.

Regular posting will resume on February 1 with the beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, a psychochronography of the DC Animated Universe.

Let me help you (Equestria Games)

Sorry this is late. It was actually finished in plenty of time, but I screwed up queueing it and set it for noon instead of midnight. Soon as I realized I switched it to publish immediately, but unfortunately that wasn’t until after 11.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen the “feed them
grapes and fan them” thing done that it wasn’t all women
doing the serving. Also: Spike has a fanboy. Haha, get it?

It’s May 3, 2014. The top song is unchanged, and the top movie is The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the news, India surpasses Japan as the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing power parity, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford takes leave in order to get treatment for substance abuse, and the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma leads to a brief reignition of debate over the death penalty in the U.S.

And in ponies, we have something of a perfect storm: a story set in the Crystal Empire, which has not boded well in the past, that is also the second Spike episode in a row, and written by Dave Polsky, whose output has been uneven, to put it mildly: he’s written on real gem, “Rarity Takes Manhattan,” several fairly solid episodes, including the misunderstood “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” and a few, let’s be honest, total stinkers, such as “Over a Barrel,” “Daring Don’t,” and most importantly for our discussion of this episode, “Games Ponies Play,” which was both set in the Crystal Empire and focused on the Equestria Games.

Fortunately, “Equestria Games” falls into the “fairly solid” range, thereby achieving the rare feat of a Good Spike Episode. Spike manages to not be a jerk to anyone else for an entire episode, which immediately shortcuts the usual problem of Spike episodes not noticing that Spike is a jerk, and instead spends it acknowledging he has a problem and then attempting to address the problem. Specifically, he is suffering a crisis of self-confidence, and the only cure is for him to accomplish some kind of meaningful achievement.

In its own way, this episode is a step further along the same path as “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies.” That episode was about the damage that saving instead of helping can do, and while it was from the point of view of the would-be savior, Fluttershy, it gives a great deal of screentime to a very strong character from among the “saved,” Seabreeze. “Equestria Games” tops this by having the “saved” character be the main focus, and showing the damage it does to him and the process by which he recovers.

As I noted in my article on “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies,” this is a difficult and delicate topic to address, because there is a significant political faction in our culture that uses the philosophy of Ayn Rand to argue against helping, and the arguments against saving are quite similar: that it creates dependency, undermines confidence and self-esteem, and imposes a submissive or servile state on the saved. The key to navigating this is to remember that these don’t happen with helping, and are in fact how you tell the difference: saving imposes the will of the savior, which in turn forces the saved to be submissive, undermines their confidence, and makes them dependent. A helper, by contrast, allows the helped to decide what help is needed and how to use it, which empowers the person helped and prevents those negative effects.

The episode gives us two pairs of acts of helping and saving, and contrasts both, once in a silly way and once in a more serious way. The more serious contrast is in Twilight’s actions. During the torch lighting, she saves Spike when he is crippled by performance anxiety. She has no idea what is causing the problem–she outright states that she doesn’t know why he’s not lighting the torch–but she can see that he isn’t lighting it and fears that he will be embarrassed, so she rescues him by lighting the torch for him. Once he understands what’s happened, Spike is devastated; he sees it not only as a failure, but as a vote of no confidence from Twilight. His resulting desperation to prove himself leads to him humiliating himself with the Cloudsdale anthem, pushing him even deeper into withdrawal from the outside world and unhappiness.

It is only when Twilight starts actually talking to him, asking him why he’s upset and what would make him feel better, that it becomes possible for her and Cadance to help him. As Twilight puts it, he needs to do achieve something that has meaning to him, not others, in order to earn back his confidence, and only he can tell them what that is. They can offer help, but he must be the one to take it, rather than having it pushed on him by them or by circumstance, as with the falling ice cloud.

That ice cloud forms part of the second contrasting pair. Spike, from the start of the episode, is hailed by the people of the Crystal Empire as their savior. Which is true–he was the one who actually retrieved the Crystal Heart in “The Crystal Empire.” But nonetheless the episode paints this as ridiculous–Spike, who the viewers know is the perpetual fifth (or, rather, seventh) wheel of the Mane Six, has ponies kowtowing to him, asking for his autograph, even fanning him and feeding him gems while he reclines! Spike, too, ultimately finds this empty; even when he saves the Equestria Games by destroying the ice cloud, he is unable to feel a sense of accomplishment from it. Unstated but implied is the contrast between his actions to save the Empire, which were spur-of-the-moment things that weren’t asked for, to his failure when the Empire actually asked him to do something. He has internalized the difference between saving and helping, having experienced himself, and now he wants to be a helper rather than a savior.

Which Twilight and Cadance then help him become, repairing the damage Twilight did by saving him earlier. Twilight and Spike thus both learn the same lesson in this episode, but for once the gravity of Twilight’s character is resisted, and so her learning occurs more or less in the background. The result is actually a little bit like a key episode for Spike, though not as much as the previous episode; he has repeatedly been described as Twilight’s helper or assistant. “Helping” is the closest thing he has to an Element of Harmony, and this episode was about exploring the fail-state of Helping just as “Rarity Takes Manehattan” was about the fail-state of Generosity, “It’s Not Easy Being Breezies” was about the fail-state of Kindness, and so on.

Which, with only the finale left to the season and, presumably, the key arc, raises the question: What is the fail-state of Magic? Of Friendship? What must Twilight overcome to earn her key?

Next week: Why we climb trees.

ETA: Corrected an error in the first name of the Toronto mayor.

I don’t see any disasters (Inspiration Manifestation)

Clearly this bodes nothing but glad tidings and happy times.

It’s April 26, 2014. The top song is still “Happy,” as indeed it will be for the remainder of the season, and the top movie is revenge comedy The Other Woman. In the news, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that states may amend their constitutions to eliminate affirmative action, China amends its environmental laws to reduce pollution and environmental damage in the country, and on the day this episode airs, the legendary hole in the New Mexico desert where thousands of unsold E.T. Atari cartridges were said to have been buried after the Video Game Crash of 1983 is unearthed, proving the legend true.

On TV we have “Inspiration Manifestation,” cowritten by Corey Powell and Meghan McCarthy, and surprisingly solid for a Spike episode. It is actually readable in a fair number of different ways, and happily none of them are worse than mediocre–that being the surface reading, in which this is an episode about Spike wanting to only ever say positive things to Rarity so that she’ll like him more, not realizing that criticism is an important part of friendship. First, as an artist, she needs honest aesthetic criticism from Spike not just to keep from going overboard as she does in this episode, but so that she can trust his statements of support. She knows the puppet theater at the beginning of the episode isn’t good enough, because the client rejects it; Spike insisting that it’s perfect, especially in such an overblown way, doesn’t do anything to persuade her, and can only serve to call his judgment into doubt, making it easier to treat his positive statements as things he’s “just saying to be nice.” Second, and this is the point on which the episode spends most of its focus, by refusing to question or criticize her actions, Spike tacitly endorses her worst behavior as she wreaks chaos and destruction throughout Ponyville in the name of beautifying it, disrupting and endangering the well-being of the other ponies. Only by having enough backbone to speak the truth to her can Spike be truly a friend to her, because only by doing so is he accepting his communal responsibility to inform other members of the community when they are doing wrong.

In this sense, the episode serves as something of a metaphor for the worst problems of the brony community. As I discussed in both My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 and my post on the Bob’s Burgers episode “The Equestranauts,”  bronies have a serious problem with self-policing. The (generally laudable) desire of the community to be all-inclusive and all-tolerant leads to a tolerance for behaviors and inclusion of people that are intensely toxic, helping to create an environment in which spamming and harassment of non-bronies and attacks on anyone who criticizes the behavior of bronies are commonplace. Most recently, a brony accused of plagiarizing a fanfic appears to have been bullied into suicide. Spike’s refusal to criticize Rarity even when her art becomes harmful is particularly reminiscent of the “Down with Molestia” conflict, which started as a disagreement over a Tumblr blog that had a running gag about Princess Celestia being a serial rapist and rapidly escalated into a vicious war of words, threats, and harassment on both sides. Bronies can tolerate anything, it seems, except honest disagreement or critique.

This is not the only available read of the episode, however. Spike’s behavior can also be read as enabling. In this read, Rarity’s attachment to the magic is akin to a drug, perhaps a stimulant that makes her more superficially productive but disrupts her judgment and endangers the people around her. By continuing to praise her, Spike is helping to encourage her addiction. In this light, Rarity’s line “I’m so excited! I’m so excited!” stands out as a possible reference to the infamous 1990 anti-drug Very Special Episode of Saved By the Bell, “Jessie’s Song,” in which Jessie becomes addicted to caffeine pills while trying to become more productive. In that episode’s most famous scene (with over 2.5 million YouTube views), she tries to sing the Pointer Sisters song “I’m So Excited,” before breaking down in tears: “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so… scared!”

Spike’s struggle about whether or not to tell Twilight that Rarity is causing the problems around town, in this addiction read, is another staple of PSAs: “sometimes you have to break a promise to help your friend.” Again, in both reads there is a running theme that it is impossible to be a true friend to someone without sometimes risking disapproval or entering into conflict with them. Even in Equestria, perfect harmony is both impossible and undesirable. Of course, even though he learns this lesson, Spike doesn’t stop being a jerk; he goes from the kind of jerk who constantly tells “white lies” to the kind of jerk who makes unkind, unhelpful statements and then excuses them with claims he is “just being honest,” as he does to Twilight at the end of the episode.

Which brings us to the last of the readings of this episode I want to discuss, one that ties into running themes of my coverage of this season: Spike’s place in the Tree. He of course has none, corresponding to none of the sephiroth, and thus has no key episode. This, however, is in a sense his equivalent, because this episode deals closely with the other function of the Tree: it is not merely the path from humanity to God, from the material to the spiritual; it is a bridge that links them, and can be traversed both ways. It is the original process of Creation, from the divine spark to the material world, and so, just as every soul is a microcosm of the universe, so too is every act of creation a microcosm of the Creation. The Sephiroth, read top to bottom, are thus a model of the process of creation, from initial inspiration to finished product.

And so of course the spell Spike finds is dark magic, because its function is to circumvent the Tree, to pass directly from spark to matter. It is thus a negation of the Tree, and thereby allied with the Tree of Death, the qlippoth, the plundervines. A reptilian creature tempting a woman away from the Tree of Life and toward another Tree, which brings death? Fairly sure I’ve heard that story before.

Yet Spike’s role is not really to be the Serpent, since his telling the truth is what ultimately sets Rarity free from the trap he unwittingly placed her in. Only by refusing and rejecting her behavior–stepping out of harmony with her–can he restore her to who she was, bringing back the proper creative process and with it, the Tree.

Once again, the qlippoth, in the Jewish tradition at least, are not evil. They do keep us away from the the sephiroth, but only as a rind keeps us away from the fruit inside; they are as much protection as hindrance. So, it seems, may be the case here: Perhaps the Tree of Harmony needs a little Discord.

Next week: But first, more of the other plotline no one cares about and another Spike episode. Shoot me now.

Like you wanted, remember? (Trade Ya!)

I was really disappointed when the mallet didn’t squeak.
It just looks like it should, y’know?

It’s April 19, 2014. The top movie and song have remained unchanged in the two weeks since last episode. In the news, astronomers discover the first moon outside our solar system, Boko Haram attack a Nigerian school, killing two guards and kidnapping 200 girls, and the Supreme Court of India ruled that the government must recognize the existence of and ban discrimination against hijra, a third gender that broadly corresponds to the Western concept of transgender.

In ponies, we have “Trade Ya!” by Scott Sonneborn, one of the more structurally complex episodes of the series inasmuch as it has a full A, B, and C plot, as well as an implied background D plot. For the sake of clarity in discussion I’ll lay out the four plots briefly, so that henceforth I can refer to them solely by letter: All four plots are set against within a giant annual swap meet. In approximate order of screentime, plot A follows Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as they engage in a chain of deals in an attempt to acquire a rare first-edition book Rainbow Dash wants; plot B follows Rarity and Applejack as they pool their resources in order to trade more effectively, only to conflict over which of two items, each of which will require everything they have in trade, to get; plot C follows Twilight and Pinkie Pie as the former tries to get rid of books she no longer has space for and the latter tries to prevent her from making a bad deal; and plot D is Spike spending the entire day at one stand, dithering over which comic to trade his mint-condition copy of Power Ponies for, only to finally pick one just as the swap meet is ending.

At first, the episode appears to be a farce. As I’ve discussed before, the farce is characterized by complex, usually multi-threaded, plots rich in absurdity which eventually pile up into a ridiculous climax. Characters often work at cross purposes or pursue incompatible goals, only for the whole thing to collapse into a resolution that collides them all and, improbably, leaves everyone satisfied, except possibly the villain if there is one. However, this climactic collapse never materializes; the closes we get is Twilight presiding over an impromptu hearing to determine whether Rainbow Dash’s final trade was legitimate under the rules of the meet, at which the A plot is finally resolved, but by that point the C plot of which Twilight is a part has already been resolved. More to the point, although in the end everyone is happy, no one except Spike actually gets what they want.

Instead, the episode becomes an examination of desire and value. Each of the threads (excluding D, which as I said is only ever implied by background events) involve characters who value very different things, for very different reasons, and generally fail to understand or appreciate the values of others.

In the A plot, for instance, we have the chain of deals Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy perform. Rainbow Dash’s lucky horseshoe is a perfect example of an object which has value to Rainbow Dash, as she considers it a good-luck charm, but no one else can perceive this value–to them, it is a rusty old horseshoe. The pony with the crystal chalices then turns this onto the audience; she wants a rusty old horseshoe, not because she perceives it as a good-luck charm (maintaining that as a value only Rainbow Dash sees in it) but because she specifically wants a rusty old horseshoe. The audience never learns what she wants it for or why it needs to be rusty and old; we know only that she wants it enough to trade a chalice for it, thus making us the ones who cannot see the value she sees in it. Rainbow Dash then breaks the chalice and she and Fluttershy have to fix it; the viewer, naturally assuming that the sculptor wants the chalice for display purposes or to drink out of, assumes that he will likely reject the crudely glued-together chalice, but instead he happily accepts it and then smashes it with a hammer, so that he can use the crushed pieces for his mosaic made of smashed crystal chalices. Our assumption about what a crystal chalice can be valued for has proven false, further undermining the notion that we can judge value for others. After a few more trades, they finally get the orthros (a cute reference to the chimera in Sonneborn’s previous episode–in Greek myth, Orthros was Cerberus’ two-headed brother and Chimera’s mate), but the pony with the rare book no longer wants it unless Fluttershy will come to Manehattan with her to train it. Even when we know what others value, it can shift without apparent warning!

The B plot goes beyond how values vary from person to person, and examines a straightforward conflict in values. After Rarity and Applejack pool their trade goods, they each find an item that will require the entire pool: a pie tin that is very slightly more efficient than normal pie tins for Applejack, and an antique brooch of which Rarity already owns a perfect replica. What’s interesting here is that the show aligns the audience against empathy; rather than both items seeming like reasonable things to want, instead it is the arguments the ponies make against each other’s items that seem reasonable. Both Rarity and Applejack are completely sincere in seeing their respective absurd items as being completely worth the trade, so by emphasizing that absurdity the B plot serves to highlight the arbitrary nature of value.

The C plot moves from examining differences of value between people to differences in value over time. To Twilight, the books initially have negative value–she does not want them, she wants the space that she’ll get once she gets rid of them. (So that she can fill it with more books, naturally.) Even a broken quill is worth more to her than the books, because it occupies less space. Meanwhile, the other ponies at the swap meet seem not to value the books very highly at all, if a broken quill is the best offer Twilight gets for them.

But then Pinkie Pie gets involved, and starts trying to make the ponies at the event value the books more by playing up Twilight’s celebrity status, which predictably annoys and embarrasses Twilight. Pinkie succeeds, gathering a large crowd to bid on Twilight’s collection, but then she plays up the books’ value so much that it backfires: the books are now worth too much, and none of the other ponies have anything worth trading for them! But Twilight is content, because she’s realized that the books have value to her after all, as mementos; each is a reification of her memories of the events she associates with them.

All of this then serves as background to the brief trial scene. The value of things–of anything and everything–has been depicted as subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, which is a direct challenge to the premise of the show, which is about depicting the value of friendship, of varied interests and personalities, of kindness and generosity and loyalty and honesty and laughter. But if value is subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, then is the entire show to this point a lie?

And the answer is no. Because even though Twilight is forced to rule that the trade of what amounts to Fluttershy’s indentured service and an orthros for the rare book is, under the rules of the swap meet, both fair and binding, Rainbow Dash’s plea that she values Fluttershy far more than she could ever value the book touch everyone present. All the material objects depicted in the episode, their value is subjective and arbitrary because it’s not a part of them; it can’t be, because value is intangible, created by the valuer, while the objects are tangible. Again and again, this episode shows us that the objects desired by various ponies don’t have value of their own, but have it placed into them by other ponies. It’s not Twilight’s books that are valuable, it’s celebrity or memory. Not the brooch, but age; not the pie tin, but efficiency and saving time.

It is basically a more sophisticated version of both “The best things in life are free” and “It’s the thought that counts”: value, this episode is saying, is intangible, and therefore only intangible things have value. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy’s friendship is the most obvious case, but the resolution of the B plot on the train ride home shows the same principle: Rarity and Applejack each used their half of the trade goods to acquire a lesser version of the item the other wanted. Both their explanations of their choice of gift suggest they haven’t completely understood the other’s reasons for their desires–Rarity thinks Applejack values age, when what she wants is a specific kind of plate that’s no longer made; Applejack thinks Rarity wants something similar to what she already has, when what she really wants is age–but as Rainbow Dash points out, the real value is the effort they made for each other.

Is the episode right? It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, it is right that value is not inherent in objects, but constructed onto them by individuals and societies. On the other, that doesn’t mean that intangibles have inherent value either; for example, one person may value familial relationships more than friendships while another values friendships more, so the value of friendship isn’t any more inherent than the value of a birdcall. That does not mean, however, that the show is in any sense being dishonest when it portrays friendship as highly valuable. The key here is that value is not just individually constructed, but also socially constructed. Shows like this are part of that social construction; they are a way for people who value friendship, and value the valuing of friendship, to encourage it in the wider society. So no, it’s not dishonest; the show has never pretended that it’s not trying to change the society around it. That’s what being utopian means.

Next week: Oh for fuck’s sake.

There’s something wrong with the baby (Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3)

When I wake up in the morning
And the alarm gives out a warning
I don’t think I’ll ever make it on time
By the time I grab my books,
And I give myself a look,
I’m at the corner just in time to see the bus fly by
So I whistled for a cab and when it came near
The license place said “FRESH” and it had dice in the mirror
If anything I could say that this cab was rare

But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, homes to Bayside’
I pulled up to the school around 7 or 8
And I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo homes smell ya later’
I know I’m in a mess
And my dog ate all my homework last night
But it’s all right
Because that’s how I became the Fresh Prince of Bayside

It’s April 5, 2014. The top song is still “Happy” and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a scathing indictment of the security culture of global surveillance. Speaking of surveillance, in the news, the Irish government establishes a Cabinet committee to investigate the Garda phone recordings controversy, involving years of government phone taps on incoming and outgoing calls at Irish police stations. In other news, the High Court of Australia recognizes a third, “neutral” gender; the U.S. Supreme Court votes to overturn aggregate limits on campaign contributions by individuals, because the Alito court is really, really determined to find ways to protect the right of the super-rich to buy elections; and the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador demonstrates that you can indeed explode twice.

On TV is Amy Keating Rogers’ last entry of the fourth season, “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3.” Credit where credit is due, she knocks it out of the park; she has improved drastically since the first season, in part as a result of increasingly taking or being assigned stories that play to her strengths, but also, as this story demonstrates, in part by dealing with her earlier weaknesses.

To very briefly recap those weaknesses, which I discussed in depth back in Season 1, the largest is a tendency to repeat cliches and common narratives uncritically, perpetuating toxic stereotypes not out of malice, but because they are “in the air,” so to speak.  Secondarily, she is distinctly better equipped to write some characters than others; she writes Pinkie Pie extremely well, but precisely because she relies on broad-strokes, cliche-driven characterization, she struggles to depict a more nuanced character like Rarity, and rarely overcomes the issues with more problematic characters like Spike.

Thankfully, Rarity and Spike are barely in this episode, and more importantly, it is entirely about critiquing a particular common attitude, and thus for once avoids the trap of letting that attitude seep in unremarked upon. Specifically, this episode is about learning styles; Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle clash because Twilight’s attempts to help Rainbow Dash study for her test are all rooted in the notion that Rainbow Dash has the same learning style as Twilight. For Twilight, successful learning comes from very traditional means such as reading textbooks, listening to lectures, and studying flashcards. But this is ineffective for Rainbow Dash, who is used to absorbing information from a multitude of sources at high speed–all of Twilight’s methods are too ponderous for her, and her attention wanders. She has similar problems with Fluttershy’s dramatization, Pinkie Pie’s music, and Rarity’s museum-like “history of fashion” display.

Because she is unable to learn from any of the methods presented to her, Rainbow Dash naturally despairs, and decides that she is stupid; what the episode reveals, however, is that she is really quite brilliant within her particular specialty, which is a sort of hyperawareness and near-perfect recall of everything she sees and hears while flying. Given the history lesson in a form that caters to her learning style, Rainbow is able to learn the information quickly, thoroughly, and accurately.

Twilight ends the episode penning the lesson she’s learned, effectively that learning styles vary and should be accommodated before judging anyone’s intelligence, making this the most overtly and straightforwardly political “Letter to Celestia” in the show’s run. Twilight, after all, provided precisely the kind of learning opportunities that typical, traditional schooling entails, such as textbooks, lectures, and rote memorization; Pinkie and Fluttershy provided some of the more generally painful forms of education familiar from public schooling, the unwatchably amateurish skit and the badly outdated, cheaply made attempt at a “cool” song, while Rarity provides the alternative of a museum and Applejack the escape hatch of hands-on, on-the-job learning of a trade. No one, however, provides what Rainbow Dash needs–and in our modern system, it is Rainbow Dash who would likely be punished for the failure of the educational system to meet her needs. Her intellect, if such a thing exists, would be left to flounder unnourished, and that brief scene where she declares herself “dumb” could very well last a lifetime. Indeed, we may see here the origin of her antipathy toward books and “eggheads” back in Season Two; the Equestrian school system shows every sign of operating more or less like our own, and it really does seem as if no one has ever told Rainbow Dash she’s intelligent before–she expects to fail at academic tasks, and affects an attitude of nonchalance toward them until one appears as an obstacle toward her life goals. It seems very likely that Rainbow Dash was very poorly served by her education; it would be in character for her to choose not to care about her schoolwork in order to avoid failing at it–and of course, without instruction that works with her unique learning style, she will fail.

We tend, as a culture, toward victim-blaming both gross and subtler. One of the subtler ways is that we tend to treat systemic problems as “belonging” to the victims rather than the dominant parties. The pay gap is seen as a women’s problem rather than an employers’ problem; high incarceration rates of black men are seen as a black problem rather than a justice-system problem; pollution is seen as a problem for the communities poisoned by it instead of the industries that generate it. And so we tend to view a child failing in school as a problem of that child–they are “dumb” or “lazy” or have a “learning disability.” And sometimes perhaps that’s the case, for example the child is choosing not to participate in their education because they’d rather play video games. But at other times, especially where “dumb” or “disabled” kids are involved, it’s that the child’s learning style isn’t something that fits neatly into the narrow range of styles we’ve arbitrarily declared “normal.”

And that’s where this becomes an intensely political episode–and given some strong views and personal circumstances Rogers shared in regards to the Derpygate incident, almost certainly intensionally political–because of course the only way to broaden that range is to train teachers in more styles, which costs money, and have them spend more time with students with less common styles, which requires more teachers, which costs money, and provide them with the resources necessary to deal with those styles, which costs money, and thus ultimately comes down to the question of how much we choose to prioritize education as a society, which is of course a completely political question.

Yet it is fundamentally a straightforward ethical imperative when phrased in this way: of course a child should be given every chance to succeed. Of course a mind with an unusual gift should be nurtured, even if it doesn’t respond to the “normal” methods. Of course Rainbow Dash shouldn’t be made to feel dumb. Yet from that fairly straightforward, not particularly controversial ethical position we arrive at a moderately controversial political position, that schools should do more and therefore we as a society should spend more money on them. Which is, of course, just the inverse of the more familiar process in which an extreme political position leads to unethical behavior; politics is just ethics on a larger scale, yet somehow our instincts don’t seem to always make the jump when the scale shifts.

And yes, we can argue about political parties and tax rates, revenue streams and budget deficits, but in the end it all slams into the blunt fact of the Rainbow Dash’s of the world, and the ethical failure they represent, just one of many, many ethical failures we hide behind political rhetoric. But they remain, an indictment of our system and our politics–and one so obvious that even a show for little girls can elucidate it in twenty minutes.

Next week: Farce!