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!

I wonder where I’m going now/What my role is meant to be/I don’t know how to travel/To a future that I can’t see (Magical Mystery Cure)

No, seriously. The first image Celestia shows Twilight during
her song is the arrival in Ponyville; the second is this.
There is nothing remotely sudden about Twilight’s ascension.

It’s February 16, 2013. The top song, as it is for the entire month, is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz. The song may be a clever satire of that subgenre of raps about how rich and expensively dressed the rapper is, tapping into the high levels of unemployment and debt among the current generation of young people and resulting trend of “found fashion,” i.e. using thrift store purchases as a form of expression. Or it’s a brainless and repetitive novelty song that is annoying the first time and grows more obnoxious with each repetition. Probably both, but it could be worse–March’s charts are all topped by “Harlem Shake.”

The top movie is Identify Thief, an alleged comedy. In the news, “We Are Young” by fun. featuring Janelle Monae, the only Billboard top song I have actually liked in the history of this blog, wins the Grammy for Song of the Year; North Korea conducts a successful nuclear test, prompting the EU to tighten trade sanctions; and the Large Hadron Collider shuts down for a couple of years for upgrades, after nearly five years of significantly advancing our knowledge of fundamental particle physics while not destroying the world even a little bit.

Oh, and Twilight Sparkle is dead.

For the length of one commercial break, anyway.

Which is part of why, as I mentioned in the last article, this could not have worked as a two-parter. The only cliffhangers in the episode are at the end of the cold open and Twilight’s death, so the division would have to be at her death. This creates two problems. The more severe one is that, after the “Twilight’s been vaporized” cliffhanger is resolved, there is no conflict whatsoever for the rest of the effort–workable as an act-long detournement, not so much as an entire episode. But there is also the problem that we are dealing with a very young audience here, and leaving Twilight dead for an entire commercial break is bad enough. Doing it across the end of an episode and into the next one, or worse, still, across an entire season break? That’s just cruel–not so much because the kids will think she’s going to stay dead, as because of the tension of how she’ll be brought back.

Because she is most definitely, unquestionably dead, sacrificed to restore the rightful destinies of her fellow ponies. She is burnt to a smear of ash in the shape of her own symbol, annihilated by the potent magical forces she has tapped in messing with destiny itself. She ascends to a dark and empty space illuminated by a distant light, the classic depiction of the liminal space between life and death, and there her entire life is presented to her by her mentor, now taking the role of a psychopomp. She is transformed, acquiring wings and a full-body halo of purple light. Pretty much the only thing she’s missing is the harp.

And then she returns from beyond to establish her kingdom in the earthly realm. Behold: a Christ-figure, which is to say a sacrificial deity, which means it’s time to recall some foreshadowing I noted way back in the Season 2 premiere.

You see, one of the most influential takes on the sacrificial deity in pop culture is a book which has nothing to do with pop culture, John Campbell’s study of folklore and mythology. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That book is in turn primarily about the Hero’s Journey, a structure which Campbell constructs primarily from elements of Mediterranean sacrificial deities and cherrypicked bits of a handful of European folktales (and to a much lesser extent, myths and tales of other cultures), then declares it to be universal by tying it to the big psychological theory du jour, in his case Jungian psychology. (Which, to be fair, is how every Grand Unifying Theory in literature and mythology gets made. If it weren’t for the Science Wars, we’d probably have a major theory explaining how all stories are representations of concepts from evolutionary psychology by now.)
The influence on pop culture came indirectly; George Lucas was a fan, and treated Campbell’s descriptive theory as a prescriptive framework, trying to hit every beat of the structure over the course of the original Star Wars. Before long, cribsheet versions of the Hero’s Journey were floating around Hollywood, and the structure became intimately tied to popular film, particularly the action-fantasy blockbuster model Star Wars helped create. From there, it has infested pop culture, a straightjacket which demands far, far more than their fare share of heroes need to be wide-eyed farm-boys (and it is almost always boys) or the modern equivalent, the working-class kid, whose wise old mentors die halfway through their conflict with a dark figure tied into the hero’s origins.

This is not to say that the structure is inevitably bad or even that it’s inherently problematic that it’s widespread. Like it or not, the most popular religion in the world, the dominant religion for most of our culture’s history, is devoted to the worship of one of those Mediterranean sacrificial deities; the Hero’s Journey is going to show up a lot. And sometimes it’s used well in popular culture–Harry Potter is pretty decent until it flubs the ending, most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is quite good; there are plenty of examples of it being executed well and plenty of examples of it being executed poorly, just like pretty much any structure.

The problem is in its ubiquity and its prescriptive force; the Hero’s Journey has become the standard, and as a consequence it has become predictable and boring. But as foreshadowed by the Star Wars homage in the Season 2 premiere, Twilight is on just such a journey in the third season, although the highly episodic nature of the season (and probably also its short length) compresses that journey into the two-part premiere and the finale.

As is often the case in serial works–and as Campbell himself noted is often the case with the Heroine‘s Journey–the result is a sort of spiral structure. Taking all three episodes as a unit, Sombra takes on the role of the Journey’s first challenge, the Threshold Guardian, who represents the protective parent who won’t let the child out into the world. Twilight’s conflict with him, however, contains within it a miniature Hero’s Journey in itself, with Celestia taking on the role of the Mentor, representing the parent as teacher, Cadence as the Goddess who provides protective gifts (in this case, keeping Sombra at bay until Twilight is ready to deal with him), representing the parent as nurturer, and Sombra as the Dark Father, the menacing figure connected with the heroine’s origin (in this case he is a villain defeated by her Mentor returned for revenge), who represents the necessity of rebelling against the parent to attain adult independence. Twilight sets out on the Road of Trials in a quest for the Crystal Heart, experiences a descent into the Belly of the Whale at the door which forces her to face her greatest fear, and then acquires the object of the quest and overcomes the Dark Father, taking a step out into the adult world.

And yes, that is how the Hero’s Journey works: anything novel or unique to the story is stripped away so that it can be pulled apart, its bones neatly labeled and placed in boxes, each of which has a prescribed metaphorical meaning. It’s like TVTropes, if there were only twenty-odd tropes. And much like TVTropes, it can be an amusing diversion for an afternoon, but is more hindrance than aid to real analysis, and actively destructive as a guide to writing.

Anyway, as Sombra was only really the Threshold Guardian within the larger story, Twilight has not yet proven herself, and a second cycle of the Journey begins, deploying a different set of the archetypal stages of the journey. Here, the Dark Father is notably downplayed, but nonetheless is clearly Starswirl the Bearded, the ancient unicorn whom Twilight sees as a role model, but whose spell has quite maliciously disrupted her friends’ destinies. (Note that each of them has quite possibly the worst possible job for their personality: Rarity must work outdoors, Rainbow Dash needs to be a caretaker, Fluttershy has to make people laugh at her, Pinkie Pie is forced to do constant chores entirely by herself, and Applejack is obligated to make the dresses she hates wearing).

But Twilight saves them using the same technique Celestia used to save her from Discord, and from that experience gains the inspiration she needs to complete the spell–finishing the work Starswirl couldn’t, a form of the Atonement with the Father, the reconciliation with the parent that the young adult comes to post-rebellion. By finishing the spell, she triggers her own Apotheosis, ascending into the heavens to be granted divine power, and returning to the world as the leader she was foreshadowed to be all the way back in “Winter Wrap-Up.”

And that’s where, for those trained by TV and movies to expect the standard-issue Hero’s Journey formula, this all starts to feel wrong. If Twilight has accomplished her destiny, and completed the journey, what else is there? The formula is fulfilled–how can there be any more show after this? Twilight becoming an alicorn and a princess is series finale material, not a mere season finale with another season to come already confirmed! Won’t she have to leave Ponyville to take up whatever her new duties are? Won’t this unbalance the friendships of the Mane Six that are the core of the show? From that perspective, this is a narrative collapse, a direct challenge to the ability of the story to continue.

Yet the episode itself takes great pains to assure us that no such collapse has occurred. There is no conflict after her transformation, just celebration, a coronation and an assurance that “Everything’s going to be just fine!” How can this be?

The Hero’s Journey is, supposedly, a metaphor for adolescence, for leaving the safety of childhood, acquiring skills and learning one’s destiny, pulling away from the guidance and protection of one’s parents and establishing oneself as an adult. This is supposed to be the universal story, the monomyth–but life doesn’t end at 20. It’s barely begun. The problem with treating the Hero’s Journey as the only story–or, rather, one problem among many–is that it robs children and adults of all their stories, and creates a culture in which adolescence is the only narrative.

You may have noticed a glaring omission, verging on outright lie, in my description of “The Crystal Empire”: Twilight didn’t defeat Sombra. Spike did. Indeed, the entire point of the test Celestia set Twilight to complete was for her to learn to lead rather than try to do everything herself, to let others act when they are in a better position to do so. The Hero’s Journey is all about the hero becoming independent, shaping their own destiny–precisely what Starswirl tried to do with his spell. But instead Twilight shows her friends how to help each other recover their lost destinies, and then they help her open the path to hers. The mistake in Starswirl’s spell was in treating destiny as something that he creates and completes himself, but it’s not.

Oh, each person does define their own destiny, that much is clear. Given the same cutie mark, Rarity embraces a destiny as a weather manager, while Rainbow Dash maintains weather management as her day job and pursues a destiny as a racer and stunt flyer. That’s the diegetic reason so many background ponies have the same handful of cutie marks–even if they look identical, they are still different destinies because the ponies that bear them are different, and thus necessarily interpret them differently.

But no one achieves their destiny alone. Everyone has caretakers as a small child; the Hero’s Journey reduces parents to archetypes, but they’re not. They’re people. The companions met on the path are not The Companions Met on the Path, to be placed in a box and labeled; they are individual and unique people to be related to. The Hero is not the only one on a Journey; never forget Lesson Zero, that everyone is the main character of their own story.

“Everything is going to be just fine” because the Hero’s Journey is not the monomyth. There is no monomyth, no magical formula to crafting Story, which is far too large and wild a thing to be pulled down and trapped in little cages. Season Three has flirted repeatedly with the formulaic, from the Return of Fan-Favorite Rival to the Very Special Episode, from the Parody of a Popular Movie from Decades Ago to the sitcom flailing of the four episodes prior to this finale, and at first glance “Magical Mystery Cure” is just as formulaic. But it is also a denial of the formula, a declaration that there is story to be found beyond this and every other formula.

Season 3, especially toward the end, showed serious signs of illness. The show seemed to be losing its magic. It needed, desperately, a cure, a restoration of magic–and this episode delivered precisely that, by adding precisely what the show, by becoming increasingly formulaic, was losing: mystery.

After this episode, it is impossible to say what the show will do next. What could be better than that?

ETA: “Du jour,” Froborr, not “de jure.” Kind of a bit of a difference in meaning, there.

Guest Post: Magical Mystery Cure: The “Con” Position

Alicorn Priest was kind enough to volunteer an alternate perspective on “Magical Mystery Cure,” specifically the “anti” or “con” position on the episode.

Hey, everyone! I guess I’m doing a guest post while Froborr is taking a break. He wanted me to do a retrospective on Magical Mystery Cure to share my take on the whole alicorn debacle. And believe me, I was pretty upset! I mean, they really should have kept it the way it was. I know there’s this mindset to give the fans what they want, but this was uncalled for! They had used the term “princess” this whole time to represent a winged unicorn, and then they just go and have Rarity use “alicorn” out of nowhere. That’s just indefensi–

Wait, what’s that? Nobody cares about that? Oh, my bad.

No, you wanna know about the angry response to Twilight becoming an alicorn. That I can do as well. I think the best way to go about it is to talk about the effects we expected from such a monumental change. (In hindsight, not so monumental, but still.) Those can be roughly sorted into four categories:

  1. How will this change affect Twilight specifically?
  2. How will it affect her friends and the other main characters?
  3. How will it affect the setting of Equestria?
  4. How will it affect the structure and theme of the show?

I think Froborr did a pretty good job of explaining why all of these things would be fine, but let me try to explain what we were seeing in the naysayers camp. Looking back a year later (has it really been that long?), all of these fears almost seem ridiculous. Back then, though, they seemed all too real.

First, Twilight herself. Remember, we knew nothing about what would happen to Twilight other than a picture of her with wings at first. All we had was the precedent of Celestia, Luna, and Cadance (who we considered a last-minute change). What would Twilight become if she became an alicorn? Well, a goddess. Her magical powers would increase significantly, she would have to rule over a kingdom as the other princesses do, and she would become something different and separate from the rest. This is sort of bleeding into the other categories, but Twilight would lose much of what made her character interesting and relatable. She was a young student trying to balance her schoolwork with interacting with friends. She frequently got flustered and had to go to her princess for help. If Twilight becomes a princess, we asked, what then? Who would she be? Even before the season 3 finale, Twilight was getting the ignominious title of Mary Sue thrust upon her. What would she be if she became a goddess solely because of how awesome she was? On another token, what would be left for her character to explore now that her fundamental question had been answered? The second episode told us that her goal was to learn about friendship and the magic within it. But “Magical Mystery Cure” stated without a doubt that all of that was over. All that could possibly be left for her would be reveling in how awesome she is now. What kind of story is that? (Watch everything after the “Princess Twilight Sparkle Cometh” to see what I mean.) A lot of us like Twilight a lot; would becoming a princess mean we wouldn’t see her as much any more? Would she go the same way as Celestia, Luna, and Cadance?

But that’s not enough. Raising Twilight, by comparison, lowers all of the other characters as well. Twilight may be my favorite (mane 6) character, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the other characters or appreciate their place in the story. What makes Twilight so special that her studies are what propelled her to godhood? Not Rainbow Dash, the mare who performed the mythical Sonic Rainboom? Not Applejack or Fluttershy, who run huge businesses without any assistance? Not Rarity or Pinkie Pie, who bring joy to an entire town? Why does Twilight get her arc wrapped up when there are so many other interesting characters worth exploring? Twilight was the bond keeping them all together. What happens when she becomes a princess and leaves to take on her destiny? And that’s not even getting into the other characters. Creating yet another alicorn cheapens the total effect of the other alicorns. One wonders what Mayor Mare actually would do, considering Twilight would be the highest-ranked official in Ponyville. Who else can I pin through Twilight’s change? It wrecks Trixie’s position as foil. Nope, I’m out of ideas.

I’ve sort of already talked about the setting. I’m writing this before “Twilight’s Kingdom” comes out, but as Equestria Girls put it, Twilight’s probably going to have her own area to rule like Cadance and the Royal Sisters do. …Where, exactly? But along with that, being able to achieve apotheosis brings up some very strange questions. So few ponies actually pull this off, despite pursuing one’s special talent being the entire focus of the society? Twilight and Cadance can do it basically on accident, but hundreds of thousands of ponies can’t do it despite pursuing their personal talents just as ardently? Or is it just ponies with vague concepts like “love” and “friendship” for cutie marks that can get it? And, Celestia forbid, it makes Celestia and Luna even more bizarre. Did they achieve apotheosis too, or are they some greater version of alicorn? If the former, why are they immortal, then? Seriously, it’s such a bizarre thing that nobody would have pegged for this society had this episode not come out. It’s borderline antithetical to the very idea of “do what you do to the best of your ability.” Clearly, a lot of ponies are slacking off.

Lastly, the meta-argument. I don’t remember who said it exactly, but someone said once that “Magical Mystery Cure” would have worked pretty well as a show ender, since it wraps up the critical question of the entire show. But season 4 had already been confirmed by that point, so the show has to keep going from there. But where is there to go when the guiding idea is gone? “Friendship is Magic:” that’s what Twilight was trying to understand that. In “Magical Mystery Cure,” she outright says that she understands it perfectly: “From all of us together, / together we are friends. / With the marks of our destinies made one, / there is magic without end!” So… what then? Where do you go from that? With Twilight a princess, what will the stories be about? How can they be the same if Twilight is so much more powerful? Or what if she’s gone entirely? What kind of show would it be without Twilight Sparkle?

No, to all the haters and nay-sayers, it was clear that things couldn’t be for the better. Twilight would finally be a Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and she would leave all of her old friends in the dust. The setting and the story would be broken into a gazillion pieces. Anything they did to explain it would only prove that it was ruined. And then Equestria Girls happened, and it showed that Twilight wasn’t perfect. She still had questions left to answer, and she was still trying to be modest and personable. But Equestria Girls wasn’t perfect, and we still thought that there wasn’t much hope. No matter how much she pretended, Twilight was still a princess, and that meant she was inherently better than everypony else, right? And then “Princess Twilight Sparkle” answered that exactly. Discord outright forced her to consider that position, and she rejected it. The rest of the season, from “Castle Mane-ia” and “Three’s a Crowd?” to “Twilight Time” and “Trade Ya!” kept up the precedent. Looking back, all of the fears I had seem ridiculous now. Of course Twilight would still be Twilight. Of course she’d still stay with her friends in Ponyville. Of course they’d come up with a concept like the diary to keep the characters thinking about friendship and magic. But before season 4, we had no idea the writers had it all under control. Perhaps we should have had more faith.

Alicorn Priest writes: Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope I gave a good insight into the cynic’s perspective to “Magical Mystery Cure” and season 4. PLUG: If you like my writing style or my analysis, check out my reviews here. I’m not nearly as good as Froborr, but I do have some good ideas here and there. END PLUG. Anyways, by the time you read this, “Twilight’s Kingdom” will be come and gone. Crazy how it goes, huh? Fingers crossed that it was good. And then we get another long break, with only Rainbow Rocks to tide us over. Hey, at least it’s not as bad as Sherlock and Doctor Who, right? 😛

I don’t know when she changed, but she changed! (Magical Mystery Cure)

A couple of pieces of site business: First, Alicorn Priest, please e-mail me about your guest post. You should be able to find my e-mail by clicking on my name at the bottom of this post; if not, it’s hidden deep within the comment policy, which is linked to the right. Second, this is the last new post by me this month. I am burnt out on ponies and need a break, and the near-simultaneous end of the third season of reviews and the fourth season of broadcast seems the perfect place to do it. I will still have pony articles every Sunday, but they will be either guest posts or book versions of Season One articles. 

Which brings me to the third item: I need guest posts! Please send ’em if you’ve got ’em! Anything within the general scope of thinky things re: My Little Pony is fair game.

Finally: Spoiler warning. In the course of writing this article I think I realized What’s In The Box. I do not explicitly state it in the article, but it’s fairly easy to figure out if you follow the article’s logic and extend it out through Season Four. So you may want to wait to read this for a week.

Or I could be completely wrong. Perhaps this episode contains
no foreshadowing at all. We’ll find out in a week!

Though much has faded with the generally glowing reception of Season Four, there was and to an extent still is some contention regarding this episode, most of it centered on varying reactions to Twilight’s apparently sudden ascension to what seems to be a position of leadership. Although I am firmly in the camp of adoring this episode, I shall endeavor to treat the “con” position (which will hopefully get a full airing in a guest post soon) with a measure of charity. Most of this episode’s critics are, after all, engaged in that most time-honored of geek activities, ritualized hatred as a demonstration of devotion. (Yeah, I failed to last even one sentence treating them with the promised compassion.) But at the core of this complaint is a fundamental optimism. To posit that the show is risking losing some essential part of itself in search of new toys to sell is to suggest that at some point this twenty-two-minute toy commercial had, and therefore conceivably could still have, integrity.

Ultimately, the fear here is that the show faces a loss of integrity due to the (fairly obvious in the latter half of Season Three) lack of leadership, and therefore lack of anyone able to stand up to toy demands by Hasbro. The two episodes prior to this were effectively a two-parter about the Mane Six, reduced to utter fecklessness, making a hash of a major event while a greedy creature tried to scam them behind their backs, without them ever noticing; certainly there is some call for restraining any excessive optimism. But on the other hand, if we extend to the episode the basic charity of not assuming that our perceptions are reality, that an unexpected change is necessarily a sudden change, what emerges is a very fun, musically outstanding episode that explores both Twilight’s compassion for her friends in need, and how she has helped to inspire their devotion.

Notably, that devotion is not to her–at least not the devotion that matters, which is to each other. Starswirl the Bearded’s mangled spell undermines the integrity of the identity of each (Twilight excluded) of the Mane Six. Twilight’s (rather brilliant) solution is not to restore their memories (and thereby destinies, the past being what defines the future) and true selves, but rather to exploit their compassion for each other to get the “right” pony for each job to do that job. Each of the ponies in turn takes over leadership of the group (and song) while nudging the next pony in line to, as an act of charity rather than a part of their identity, help the pony after that with a task that is rightly the middle pony’s specialty. A mite confusing written out, but straightforward enough of a pattern in the episode; it is the relatively old idea sometimes stated as “pass it on”; that is, doing something for others not in hopes of a return for oneself, but in the hopes that they will elect to do good for still others, demonstrating once against that perhaps the greatest enemy of capitalism (which would necessarily include toy companies that view artistic creation as part of a marketing strategy) is optimism.

It may seem curious to keep talking about the fundamental optimism of an episode which posits Ponyville effectively falling apart without the devotion of the Mane Six. Most disturbing is that the ponies of Ponyville are apparently unable to maintain a civil society without the constant amusement provided by Pinkie Pie (which has always been an act of charity), to the point that this appears to be a more immediately upsetting loss than the imminent collapse of the town’s first business and producer of its main exports, Sweet Apple Acres. This is where more negative fans might point to the lack of integrity in Season Three, in the original sense of the word: it simply does not hold together tonally or fit in well with the established continuity of the show or the kinds of stories it was created to tell. Are the Mane Six, we start to worry, depicted as being so important just because they’re the main characters–are we, in other words, headed down a road where the majority of ponies are not fully real the way the main characters are, in direct contradiction to Lesson Zero and the necessity of recognizing other persons as other and as persons? Happily, not necessarily; it is equally possible to trace the path by which all of the Mane Six, even (especially!) Pinkie Pie, have slipped into positions of community leadership not solely because of their adventures or their abilities or even because of their status as main characters, but because when they see a problem they immediately move in to offer help–from the heroic to the mundane, all united as an expression of pure compassion.

Said compassion alone, however, is not enough; that really would be an excess of optimism! Far more is required, and to understand precisely what, we need to go back to the first time one of the Mane Six volunteered themselves into a position of leadership over more than just the Mane Six themselves. I refer, of course, to “Winter Wrap-Up,” the beginning of the most profound period of change in the development of the show, the first of the four episode stretch over which it exorcised its own false destinies and sprouted its own wings and horn, if you will. The transformation of Twilight Sparkle in this episode is tremendous; remember that her early character was defined almost entirely by devotion–to Celestia, to her studies, to her new friends–and that she thus came across very much as the stock character of the bookish, intelligent, socially awkward “nerd girl.” If, then, we are to point at episodes which violated the integrity of the show and Twilight’s character, we must look not at the episode where the character who could already cast spells enabling her to walk on clouds, teleport, and grow wings went on to grow some wings, but rather at the episode where the bookish awkward girl metamorphosed (ultimately permanently, though that was not obvious at the time) into the organizational maven and de facto ruler of Ponyville as a result of what amounts to a single act of charity.

But I do not actually advocate, as a general rule, looking at episodes without at least attempting charity. In both that episode and this Twilight’s biggest concern, as it has generally consistently been, was compassion; she was upset less at being left out and more at being unable to help, though admittedly at least part of that was because her inability to help activated her underlying insecurity. Nonetheless there is a clear thread of continuity running through the character of Twilight Sparkle. (It is, perhaps, more debatable whether there is such a thread running through the episode. One of the most prominent complaints about the episode is its lack of internal integrity; the argument is that it is rushed, that it falls into two distinct halves that could have made a two-parter. This is nonsense, and I’ll discuss why in a few paragraphs.) Consider again the method by which she helps her friends restore their memories and selves in this episode, by getting them to help each other. It is no accident that this accomplishment–and the ensuing surge of shared joy and optimism–is what triggered Twilight’s apatheosic ascension. As I said, she was a character defined by devotion to her studies, defining her identity as Princess Celestia’s student. From there, by means of the route opened by “Winter Wrap-Up,” she evolved over the course of the second season into someone who could help others to learn (one old, and still somewhat current in Britain, definition of “Master”)–in essence, the second and third seasons are her graduate coursework. Now she is a step beyond that, doing the same thing Celestia did to her in “Return of Harmony” by mailing back the friendship lessons: Teaching others how to teach (one way to understand the nature of a professorship). But her subject of study has been the fundamental building blocks of society itself; is it any wonder that what the spell actually does–which, if you pay attention to the wording of Twilight’s version, is a direct contradiction to Starswirl’s “one alone” formulation, combining the destinies of many into a single focal point–is turn the caster into a ruler? Isn’t organizing others to help one another and themselves, precisely what Twilight has specialized in since “Winter Wrap-Up,” the very essence of leadership?

And so it is, her life’s work done, her goal achieved, Twilight Sparkle dies.

To be continued. [cue happy credits music]

I’m bored. (Games Ponies Play)

This is pretty much what the whole episode feels like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPIKE WANT! (Just for Sidekicks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: The even worse “A” side.

Sometimes it can be hard for a shy pony like me to stand up for myself (Keep Calm and Flutter On)

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare… which
of course makes Fluttershy the doormatmouse.

It’s January 19, 2013. The top song has not changed since last year, while the top movie has changed three times, consecutively Texas Chainsaw 3D, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mama. I’ve only heard of the first two, and none of what I’ve heard gives me any desire to see them. In the news since last episode, schoolgirl, blogger, and international cause celebre Malala Yousafzai is released from the hospital following her shooting, British authorities confirm over 200 sexual offenses committed by deceased children’s television presenter Jimmy Savile over a fifty-year period, and on the day this episode airs, Al Jazeera reports that the number of children killed in the Syrian civil war is over 3,500, out of more than 60,000 dead so far.

You may have noticed that there’s a pattern in the news stories I chose for this article. There’s a reason for that, but first let’s discuss “Keep Calm and Flutter On,” story by Teddy Antonio, teleplay by Dave Polsky, and directed by Jayson Thiessen.

There is a read in which this episode is completely innocent. In that read, Fluttershy is a patient parent or teacher dealing with a recalcitrant child. She is patient and kind while the lonely, undisciplined child acts out, until his growing attachment to her brings his behavior more or less under control.

The advantage of this reading is twofold. First, it’s relatively non-problematic. It’s consistent with Fluttershy’s characterization as a caretaker, and explains why Celestial thought Fluttershy was the mare for the job. Second, it’s a relationship familiar to the primary audience. A four- or six-year-old hasn’t had much opportunity to experience friendship, but parents, tantrums, and possibly teachers are familiar concepts by that age. 
Unfortunately, that reading has the slight snag that there is no textual support for it whatsoever. Fluttershy positions herself as a friend to Discord, treats him as a houseguest rather than a family member, and, most importantly, is by far the younger and less powerful of the two. She is definitely not Discord’s mother-figure. While she does chide him for his misbehavior, it is no different from the way she chides Rainbow Dash at the dinner party in the episode, which is to say, she’s treating Discord as an equal. 
This is deeply troubling, because Discord spends the entire episode acting like a controlling, abusive boyfriend. He starts by asserting dominance over and marginalizing Angel, who, depending on which episodes you go by, is either Fluttershy’s caretaker or her prior abuser (or, of course, both). He then begins pushing Fluttershy’s boundaries, using her kindness and hospitality against her. He continually tests how far she will let him go, trashing her home and property, and when she objects, he acts like the aggrieved victim. This is classic abuser behavior, calculated to make his victim start doubting her own feelings and beliefs, thus making her easier to control. For similar reasons, he tears down her friends and acts out at the dinner party to force her to take his side against her friends, isolating her.

Discord’s motive is perhaps not that of the typical abuser. He is more interested in isolating and controlling Fluttershy because it takes all of the Mane Six working together to use the Elements of Harmony against him, and thus so long as Fluttershy is kept away from her friends and under his thumb, he can wreak havoc as he pleases. On the other hand, it is an entirely selfish motivation, in which any possible affection he feels for Fluttershy (which affection he does seem to feel, if the end of the episode is anything to go by) is secondary to his desire to wield power. In that sense, this is a fairly typical abusive relationship.

In that sense, the show does a good job of showing how our sexist culture encourages and supports man-on-woman abuse in a way that other forms are not quite as supported. Our culture constructs the gender binary in large part by contrasting hegemonic masculinity with emphasize femininity. Hegemonic masculinity constructs masculinity as being about the possession and expression of power and dominant status. Put another way, expression of masculinity are expressions of power and vice versa, hence masculine associations for activities such as hunting, fishing, war, community leadership, business, and so on–activities where a man can assert his power and dominant status through status in a hierarchy, killing enemies, or providing meat for the tribe. Note that, for instance, preparing food for one’s family is not seen as particularly masculine, but running a restaurant kitchen is an almost exclusively masculine occupation–the former is not a position of social dominance, but the latter is. By contrast, emphasized femininity encourages women not necessarily to embrace a submissive role (though that element is certainly present) but to exaggerate gender differences and play to men’s desire for power. To quote R.W. Connell’s Gender and Power, which introduced both concepts, this emphasis can be seen in “the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes [e.g., in popular entertainment or as an adopted posture in courtship and sex–note that much of our culture’s concept of flirtatious body language for a woman involves making herself look smaller, weaker, or more childlike], compliance with men’s desires for titillation and ego-stroking in office relationships, acceptance of marriage and child care as a response to labor-market discrimination against women.”

This plays out in Discord and Fluttershy’s relationship in this episode (which is, of course, non-romantic, but they are living together for the duration of the episode, so many of the same concepts apply). Discord spends the entire episode trying to assert his power and dominance. He deliberately usurps Angel’s role in the home, taunts and torments him, just to demonstrate his power, while also trying to manipulate and isolate Fluttershy so that he can dominate her as well–and the end goal for all of this is to eliminate the one thing that limits his power, the combined power of all six Elements of Harmony. Fluttershy, meanwhile, is deliberately exaggerating her (traditionally feminine) traits of kindness, meekness, and nurturing, playing along with Discord’s hegemonic posturing in an attempt to get him to become dependent on her friendship.

The rest of the Mane Six, especially Rainbow Dash and to a lesser extent Twilight Sparkle, are horrified by this arrangement. Equestrian gender roles do not generally work like ours, and so in-character this is probably their first encounter with such toxic gender norms. They can see that the practical upshot is that Discord is taking more and more power and control, which forces Fluttershy to go to greater lengths to appease him, all the while convinced that she is in control even when it is plainly obvious to an outsider that Discord is using her. Fluttershy’s determination to reform Discord puts her in the position of trying to figure out what she can do to make him behave, which has the effect of absolving him of responsibility for his behavior–there is little difference between Fluttershy’s “I’m sure I can reach him if I keep treating him nicely” and “If I didn’t burn the pot roast, he wouldn’t have needed to hit me.” She is being abused, and like many abuse victims, resisting her friends’ efforts to get her out–which isolates her still further and makes her easy to control.

So far, so good, but this is where the episode runs afoul of the existing norms and rules of the show. The best ending is for Fluttershy to realize that her relationship with Discord is toxic, get her friends, and turn him back into stone, but within the show that ending cannot occur, because it closes off future plot lines with a popular villain and suggests that there are things friendship cannot do. Instead, when Fluttershy threatens to terminate their relationship, Discord spontaneously reforms and everyone becomes friends. So remember, little girls, if fifteen years from now your abusive boyfriend feeds you the “please, baby, don’t go, I promise I’ll change” line, you should definitely stay, because he’s totally going to actually change and isn’t just desperately saying anything that will keep you in his power.

And as disgusting as the ending is in that respect, it is toxic in more immediate ways as well. There is enormous pressure on young children, especially girls, to be “friends” with everyone. This episode suggests that there is a responsibility to be friendly even with people who are horrible to you and your friends, that Fluttershy’s approach of suppressing her aggressive feelings and allowing people to walk all over her to maintain their friendship will actually get them to like her enough that she can then shift the relationship to a more genuine and equal friendship. This is precisely the nonsense that forces girls into the “alternative aggressions” documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out, creating the toxic culture of overt “niceness” and covert nastiness, rumor-mongering, and ostracizing that explodes among girls around puberty and ruins the latter portion of the school experience for so many.

Later episodes temper this somewhat by making clear that Discord is still colossally self-centered, manipulative, and sadistic, albeit more of a morally ambiguous trickster than the outright villain he was in his first appearance. In the fourth season, he is still devoted to testing the boundaries, going as far as he can without quite losing the support of Fluttershy, but at least it appears his contact with her is rather more limited.

Even in a purely narrative view, deliberately ignoring the toxic implications about gender, friendships, and abuse, this is still part of Season Three’s flailing desperation, in this case the standard desperate-TV show trick of bringing back a popular villain–yet it reduces the most powerful, dangerous, and effective villain in the show to an abusive boyfriend.

And yet this is not the nadir of the flail.

Next week: Quite possibly the worst thing Spike has ever done. And that’s still not the nadir either!

That’s future Spike’s problem (Spike at Your Service)

Spike the Dragon. Messes made, feelings ignored.
Ask about our discount creepy clinging plan!

It’s December 29, 2012. The top song is still Bruno Mars with “Locked Out of Heaven,” and the top movie continues to be The Hobbit. In the news, Syrian warplanes kill hundreds of their own civilians in the Hama province; children’s television producer Gerry Anderson, creator of such classics as Thunderbirds, dies; and the U.S. government begins flailing in an attempt to avoid crossing the so-called “fiscal cliff.” (Spoilers: They fail.)

In ponies, we have “Spike at Your Service,” with story by Dave Polsky, teleplay by Merriwether Williams, and direction by James Wootton, and normally at this point I’d start talking about how this is yet another episode where Spike is entirely self-centered, places his needs in front of everyone else’s, depicts himself as a victim, and ultimately learns nothing. All of which is true, but boring.

Instead, consider this episode in light of the previous Spike-centric episode, “Dragon Quest.” In that episode, Spike more or less rejected his draconic heritage. He still identifies as a dragon, but prefers associating with ponies, and wishes to continue with the pony lifestyle in which he was raised. Most importantly, he has rejected the values and culture of the dragons and embraced the values and culture of ponies, even while continuing to assert that he is a dragon. This necessarily involves some adaptation; Spike is a different species, and cannot live entirely like a pony. He will never get a cutie mark, for example, and while he clearly does have magic (being able to send messages by burning them, for instance), it fits into none of the normal pony categories. Spike must therefore adapt the pony lifestyle to suit himself, while also to some extent adapting himself to fit into the pony culture.

Thus the “Spike the Dragon Code,” an attempt by Spike to construct a moral schema that can serve as a guide to his behavior as a dragon within pony society. This code bears no relation to the behavior of the dragons we see elsewhere in the series, because it is purely Spike’s invention, and based on what he knows best, individual service.

Like “Owl’s Well That Ends Well,” this episode hovers on the edge of the uncomfortably problematic nature of Spike’s relationship with Twilight Sparkle. While character ages are difficult to nail down in this series, Applejack’s flashback in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” has Bic Mac and Granny Smith see her off, not her parents, implying they were already dead. If true, that in turn means that Spike must be younger than Apple Bloom. Both have chores assisting an older pony in their work, but Apple Bloom is frequently shown playing or attending school, while Spike almost never is. His life appears to consist near-entirely of serving as Twilight’s assistant, which is particularly disturbing given that she appears to be the closest thing he has to a mother-figure.

Spike’s default mode of relating to ponies, as well as his default method to express affection, is service. The show depicts this repeatedly in his crush on Rarity, we expresses by giving her gifts or assisting her in digging up gems. So it is not surprising that the moral code he creates, or at least the part we get to see, is constructed on concepts of debt and service. He owes Applejack his life after she rescues him; therefore he must give her that life in the form of service.

Where his code falls is in failing to recognize that Applejack doesn’t want that service. She is uncomfortable with it from the start, but Spike ignores her concerns and blithely begins “helping.” Applejack, by contrast, finds herself trapped because she doesn’t want to hurt Spike’s feelings by pointing out how counterproductive his attempts to help are or how uncomfortable she is with the whole idea of keeping what amounts to a slave. Her feelings are trampled on, in other words, because she refuses to trample on his. Spike, however, is overjoyed to work for her, since he is demonstrating that, despite being a dragon, he is still a moral being and a member of her society.

Spike has constructed a deontological ethic, which is to say one based on a list of a priori (a term in philosophy that means, roughly, “prejudice I don’t want to examine”) rules. This is in stark contrast to the show’s usual depiction of correct behavior, which is generally mostly a virtue ethic (that is, based on cultivating certain virtues, such as honesty, loyalty, friendship, and harmony) with some admixture of consequentialism (that is, an ethic based on doing what produces good consequences, such as avoiding harm to others). His behavior is thus naturally found wanting by the show, as any rigid adherence to a single meta-ethical approach will inevitably result in behavior that violates the standards of the other approaches. In Spike’s case, that means forcing Applejack to put up with the negative consequences of Spike’s morals, because her own morals initially prevent her from stopping him. 

There is a tendency, particularly among proponents of deontology, but also just in the culture generally, to treat morality as a non-negotiable, a priori fact over which individuals have no control. “I have to do it,” we say, “it would be wrong not to.” Which is nonsense on two fronts: First, most people do things they believe are wrong all the time. Second, a moral schema is itself a choice. It may be an active choice–a deliberate decision to adopt a particular philosophy or religion, for instance, or even constructing one’s own morality as Spike does–or a passive choice not to examine or modify the morals with which one was raised, but it remains a choice. It follows, therefore, that a person bears moral responsibility for their choice of moral schema, and “My morality told me to do it,” is not an adequate response to criticism of one’s actions.

This is an important point for the show to address, because the argument in favor of maintaining our culture’s gender norms is usually couched as a moral position, that it is a priori wrong for people to behave in ways contrary to those norms. Such arguments (especially when they are couched in religious terms) tend to be treated with kid gloves, as if the people making such arguments are not responsible for the suffering they create by imposing their morality on others, because they are regarded as somehow not being responsible for their morality.

In the end, Spike stops trying to impose his code on Applejack. He recognizes that while it is fine to let his morality drive his behavior–hence resuming his role as Twilight’s assistant at the end of the episode–he does not want to be the kind of person who imposes himself on others when he’s not wanted. His deontology, in other words, has been tempered with consequentialist and especially virtue-ethical elements. Maybe there is hope for him after all.

…Or maybe two episodes from now he will abandon morality entirely and spend an entire episode acting out of pure selfishness.

Next week: Speaking of relationships with deeply uncomfortable subtext…

Now hold on, everypony. We’ve done our best to improve supply this year. (Apple Family Reunion)

In the ancient legends of the fritter homeworld, they
call her “The Oncoming Storm.”

It’s December 22, 2012. Top of the pop charts is Bruno Mars with “Locked Out of Heaven,” the video for which fakes video tearing and chromatic aberrations to simulate an aging VHS tape, the filmic equivalent of an old photo album. Number one at the box office this weekend is still The Hobbit.

In the news, right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe is elected prime minister of Japan, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar hits, which the Mayans never believed indicated the end of the world, and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” becomes the first YouTube video to hit a billion views, which very well might. And, of course, the winter solstice was yesterday.

The winter solstice is a strange time. As the shortest day of the year, it is also the point at which the days begin getting longer, and is therefore celebrated as the sun’s birthday (or the Son, if you’re Christian and into puns). Traditionally, it marks the midpoint of winter as well, the day at which the time of cold, snow, and carefully rationed food is half over.

However, at least where I grew up around the middle of the U.S. East Coast, it’s not the middle of winter at all, but very nearly the beginning. It is quite rare to see snow or freezing temperatures before the last third of December, and the peak time for snow is the end of January and beginning of February.

Either way, it is a moment of transition, a signpost that there is cold and darkness ahead, but light and warmth beyond that. “Apple Family Reunion” (written by Cindy Morrow and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus an appropriate episode to show here, because after this come four episodes ranging from problematic to abysmal, and then the catastrophe of the season finale (though whether it was eucatastrophe or dyscatastrophe is a matter of some debate). Although the episode itself is bright and entertaining and has one of the season’s better musical numbers, a pall of death hangs over it. The episode carefully steps around mentioning Applejack’s parents, and in doing so clearly marks the outlines of their absence.

It is perhaps the most skillfully executed part of the episode. To a small child who knows little of loss, the appearance of paired shooting stars twice in the episode mean nothing. To a teen or adult viewer, however, the fact that Applejack’s parents do not appear at the reunion and are carefully not mentioned, as well as the timing of when the stars appear–once when Applejack’s thoughts are on absent family and her personal history, and then again at the end of the episode after the reunion’s successful close–makes those stars a confirmation that her parents are dead.

Fans being fans, a proliferation of memes comparing Applejack to Batman shortly followed.

Which is part of what’s going on here. Among other things, my article on “The Return of Harmony” was a sort of Gnostic parable, with Faust as Sophia, Hasbro as Ialdabaoth, and Discord as Christ. This was largely a joke, but at the same time, well, look at the third season. The second season at least had Faust involved with the scripts, and between that and the growing confidence of the cast and crew it managed to be stronger than the first season. But the third season? “Magic Duel,” “Wonderbolts Academy,” and “Magical Mystery Cure” stand out as being excellent episodes in the third season, but would not have made it even into the top five episodes of the second season.

With Faust’s departure, the soul, the magic, is leaking out of the show–and it’s flowing into the fandom. Barely two weeks after the end of the season, the massive fan project “Double Rainboom” will be released. While not very good itself, the resources created for the project such as Flash puppets, and even more importantly the proof of concept that large fan projects coordinated across massive numbers of volunteers are workable, had an enormous impact on the fandom, spawning numerous other creative endeavors, the output of which far outstrips the norm for such a relatively small fandom.

However, there is a problem here. If the magic leaves the show entirely and its quality plummets, then there is no fandom, and all that creative energy just fades away. The show must recover some of its lost magic, or find a way to generate new magic and explore new directions, if it is to continue.

There are basically two ways to do that: experimentation or a return to original principles. The entirety of the season up to this point has been the former, more or less alternating between trying to force Friendship Is Magic into new territory outside its comfort zone (high-epic fantasy in “The Crystal Empire,” after-school special in “One Bad Apple,” surreal psychological study in “Sleepless in Ponyville”) or pulling the standard-issue stunts of a flailing TV show (“evil” twins in “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” the return of a fan-favorite one-shot character in “Magic Duel,” the “boot camp” episode “Wonderbolts Academy). All of these episodes represent trial-and-error attempts to throw ideas at the viewers and see what sticks.

And then there is this episode. The day after the solstice, the episode after the midpoint of the season, where Applejack keeps trying to force the magic into her reunion instead of just letting it happen. Again and again she throws activities at her family or tries to “improve” the old familiar activities they enjoyed in past reunions, making everything bigger and flashier, and in the process all she does is drive the magic further and further away.

In the end, only catastrophe can save her. The barn comes crashing down, her family comes together, songs are sung and memories are forged, and a barn indistinguishable from the original rises again. After that comes a return to the traditional reunion, the activities that worked before. Quieter and calmer than what Applejack had planned, but with space to fit people into it.

And so we can take away two things from this. First, we once again need a catastrophe, a massive and tumultuous change that can then turn out, from the far side, to be not that big a change after all. Second, Friendship Is Magic needs to calm down, stop panicking about losing its parent, and return to what it does best: selling toys to little girls while being vastly better than anyone ever expected a show designed to sell toys to little girls to be.

Too bad we’ve still got four episodes of standard-issue TV flail-stunts to get through first.

Next week: My two least favorite major characters get an episode together. Whee.

The Wonderbolts will never let a loser like me join! (Wonderbolts Academy)

The Kickstarter is very nearly over, and still has $45 to go as of this writing! There is a serious chance Volume 2 could not happen! If you haven’t already donated, please think about doing so–and if you know anyone who might be interested, please point them at the Kickstarter!

She eats dreams.

It’s December 15, 2012. The top song is Rihanna’s “Diamonds” one last time, and the top movie is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a mess of padding and poor pacing that cannot decide whether it wants to be a faithful adaptation or an Epic Fantasy of Epic Epicness, and thus fails to be either. In the news, McKeeva Bush, the Premiere of the Cayman islands, is arrested for fraud as part of a corruption investigation; the British government pays 2.2 million pounds to the family of Sami al-Saadi, who, along with his wife and children, was kidnapped by MI-6 and sent to Libya to be tortured; and a shooter kills 28 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 children and himself.

It is, it seems, a day for confronting one’s own darkness, and in its own small way, Friendship Is Magic does the same–with, of all things, a Top Gun homage. “Wonderbolts Academy,” written by Merriwether Williams and directed by Jayson Thiessen, is largely about Rainbow Dash testing her limits, or, rather, having those limits tested by the (thus far) one-shot character Lightning Dust.

Of course, there isn’t much difference between Rainbow Dash pushing her limits and Lightning Dust doing so, as Lightning Dust effectively is Rainbow Dash. She is brash, bold, fast, prone to showing off, self-confident to the point of arrogance, brave to the point of recklessness, even colored similarly, with a lightning-bolt cutie mark and a glowing trail when she flies. The only real difference is that she lacks Rainbow Dash’s tendency to complacency and laziness, making her recklessness all the more dangerous.

Lightning Dust goes straight to the over-the-top, slightly violent solutions to all the problems she and Rainbow Dash face in this episode, while Rainbow Dash finds herself in the unusual role of playing the voice of reason. The episode thus fits into a general pattern of episodes (of which “Read It and Weep” is the most obvious example) of Rainbow Dash being forced outside her normal behavior patterns and reluctantly growing as a consequence. In this case, however, it is not immediately obvious how Rainbow Dash has grown, unless one recognizes that Lightning Dust stirring up a tornado to clear the skies, and thereby unknowingly seriously endangering Rainbow Dash’s friends, is precisely equivalent to Rainbow Dash kicking a dragon in the face, causing it to attack her friends.

Lightning Dust, in other words, is pre-“Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” Rainbow Dash, utterly unconcerned about the possibility of collateral damage from her actions. She is all of Rainbow Dash’s competitiveness and callousness, handily externalized so that Rainbow Dash can confront and try to restrain her. She is, in short, an instance of the Jungian Shadow, the externalized representation of everything an individual tries to deny about themselves.

Of course, it is the nature of the Shadow that, as a part of the self and an expression of internal conflict, it cannot be defeated by confronting it directly. Conflicting with the Shadow will always ultimately result in strengthening it, and so it is only by surrendering that Rainbow Dash defeats Lightning Dust. It is only when Rainbow Dash–who began the episode by saying that she would never quit–announces that she is quitting the Wonderbolts Academy that Lightning Dust is defeated. Rainbow Dash is unwilling to pursue her greatest dream if it means risking the well-being of her friends; this is an act of extreme loyalty, and Rainbow Dash’s reward for choosing her true essence, her Element, over her ambition is to be allowed to continue pursuing her dream.

Lightning Dust, meanwhile, whose only crime is being exactly like the Rainbow Dash we first met at the beginning of the series, is driven away in disgrace, forbidden to chase that same dream. It seems excessively harsh–until, again, we remember that as the Shadow she is a part of Rainbow Dash, and as Rainbow Dash’s past self we already know that she will go on to play at being a superhero, learn some humility (through, admittedly, some truly awful treatment at the hands of her friends), discover the joys of reading, and then return to the Academy to confront her own past self. We know this will happen, because it has already happened.

For Rainbow Dash, this episode is an exorcism and a maturation. Lightning Dust did exactly what the Academy instructor expected her to do, and pushed Rainbow Dash into discovering where her limits are.

For the series, this season has served much the same function. Two episodes in the first half of the season, “The Crystal Empire” and “One Bad Apple,” can be regarded as failures, and both fail because they are trying to do things that simply cannot be done within the confines of a cartoon that sells toys to small children. The back half of the season, meanwhile, contains the worst four-episode run in the series to date, and follows it with the most divisive episode of the series. Within this run, however, are clear signs of ambition, including the first real experiments at something like real continuity–not just something like the Gala, which had a few vague references followed by an episode where it happened, but rather one episode which relies entirely on the Season 2 premiere to make sense, followed by two episodes that actually occur simultaneously, allowing numerous references between them.

Most experiments fail, after all. The entire point of experimentation is to create instructive failures and learn from them, and that is what the back half of this season will be. A series of failures, encountering and accepting the series’ limitations, but in turn opening the door to a new direction for the series which will enrich and enliven Season 4.

But first, it will be necessary to slog through all those failed experiments. At least there’s one episode left before they start!

Next week: A guest post, because I’ll be at a con. Week after that, Applejack. Yay.