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!

How in tarnation are we supposed to tell which is the real (Leap of Faith)

To be fair, I’d react the same way to being given something
by someone whose name is literally “Shill.” I mean, come on.

It’s March 29, 2014. The top song still Pharrell Williams with “Happy” and the top movie is Noah. In the news, an ongoing Ebola outbreak in Guinea spreads to Liberia, Ukrainian forces begin withdrawing from Crimea, effectively ceding it to Russia, and the first same-sex marriages take place in the UK.

In ponies, Josh Harber returns for his third outing (both this season and overall), “Leap of Faith.” Despite the title, this episode is largely about the importance of skepticism and extending the principle of honesty not just to interactions with others, but to oneself.

Applejack is struggling with two distinct problems in this episode. The first is what it means to be honest. Naively, we might say that being honest is a matter of saying and believing true things to the best of one’s ability, but that simply passes the buck on to the next question, of what it actually means to be truthful. Which is, in turn, a vast philosophical question way outside the scope of a twelve hundred-word essay about an episode of My Little Pony, so we will simply outline a few ways in which it is a problem and then move to how Applejack deals with it.

Consider these two statements: “Value is in the eye of the beholder; one person’s trash may be another’s treasure,” and “Platinum is worth about $1,200 per troy ounce.” Both are true (as of this writing in the case of the latter), yet they appear to contradict one another. However, that is because they are being artificially placed next to each other; generally these statements would never appear together because they apply in different contexts. A person who states a specific dollar value for an ounce of platinum is almost certainly speaking in terms of the commodities market, while a person making the former statement is most likely speaking philosophically, probably in the realms of aesthetics, ethics, or politics. To try to argue against either statement by proposing the other is likely to result only in confusion, since each statement is inapplicable to the other’s context.

But there we are dealing with fuzzy, human-made concepts like value. Surely the hard sciences can provide some hard truths? Not so much, unfortunately. Consider gravity. For an engineering project, say the construction of a bridge, gravity is a constant acceleration of 9.8 meters per second per second. But if you’re trying to put a spacecraft into orbit, then the acceleration due to gravity varies based on one’s distance from the Earth according to Newton’s laws–and for astronomers taking advantage of gravitational lensing to study distant galaxies, it instead functions according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Now, one can argue that these are just successive refinements–applying the theory of general relativity does give one a figure for the surface gravity of the Earth very near to 9.8 meters per second per second. But that’s not what engineers actually do; they just use the 9.8 figure, because it’s more useful to them–it is a better model, so we could argue that it’s true in that context.

Or not. We could equally well argue that the statement about value being in the eye of the beholder is clearly false, and the value of platinum is determined by the market. Or we could argue that the market is trying to impose consensus on something that is inherently a matter of individual judgment. Or…

The point is, the question is difficult, so being honest is difficult. And that’s exactly the situation Applejack finds herself in: it is true that Granny Smith is more athletic and healthier as a result of drinking the tonic. And it’s also true that Flim and Flam are selling a “tonic” that contains neither medicine nor magic, and employing the unscrupulous and duplicitous tactic of paying a shill to give false testimonials on their behalf to up their sales. There is, in other words, a case to be made that the tonic helps Granny Smith, and a case to be made that Flim and Flam are liars.

It’s debatable whether Applejack has a responsibility to tell Granny that the tonic isn’t helping her, when it is–it’s just that the process by which it’s helping her, namely the combination of the placebo effect and a confidence boost, could be easily replicated in ways that don’t require paying money to con artists. However, it is definitely dishonest of her to help Flim and Flam continue to lie about their tonic’s healing powers–and it is a lie, as demonstrated by the number of ponies who appear in their audience multiple times.

This puts Applejack in a rare situation for her, which is quite welcome in terms of making her character more interesting: an actual dilemma. She is torn between not wanting to hurt Granny Smith, and her drive to be honest and not support liars, which leaves her no choice but to deceive herself into believing that no harm will come of Flim and Flam’s lies. This is where the episode becomes, in many ways, a response to Season One’s “Feeling Pinkie Keen.” There, Twilight refused to believe in a phenomenon that was actually (unlike real-world claims of psychic powers) demonstrable and measurable, and her closed-mindedness resulted in her coming to harm. Here, Granny Smith’s belief is instead what nearly brings her to serious harm, because she chose to believe (the titular “leap of faith”) in a falsehood.

Applejack’s mistake was in treating Flim and Flam’s “miracle cure” like an article of faith, which is to say a statement with no material consequences. What I mean by this is that the material universe is actually the same place whether Granny Smith has confidence in herself or not–her capacity to swim was there all along, and she actualized it by believing she could do it. However, there is a big difference between a universe where Flim and Flam’s tonic can actually reverse the effects of aging, illness, and injury and one where it cannot–in the former, leaping facefirst from a great height into a pie tin of water might not end in disaster, while in the latter it definitely will. And Applejack knows for a fact that she lives in the latter universe, because she’s seen Flim and Flam making their tonic and met Silver Shill.

Ultimately, of course, Applejack decides to be honest, which here appears to mean acknowledging and respecting the universe in which one actually lives, as reasonable a definition as any, and in the process she teaches Silver Shill a lesson and receives the penultimate key. This is the least spiritual episode in the key arc, but that makes sense for Gevurah, the sephirah of Strength; it is the capacity for judgment and the imposition of limitation, the separating out of that which is false, and so its episode is devoted to skepticism and tracing the limits of the spiritual, which is that it must not be dishonest. It is fine to believe, for instance, in a drink that boosts confidence, but only so long as one is aware that confidence comes from the belief, not the drink. A drink that grants superpowers, by contrast, is right out. Which is to say, the role of the spiritual is here established to be in shaping our perceptions and attitudes, but only material action can shape the material. It is not enough to think, to feel, to wish; we must also do, and our doing must be shaped by honest appraisal of the material effects of our actions.

Next week: Which is not to say that our perceptions don’t matter or are entirely of our own choice, either…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Become instant best friends… uncheck (Maud Pie)

My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is now on sale, see the Books page in the sidebar!

My Little Po-Mo blog posts are drawing ever closer to their end. But don’t despair! The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 will pick up immediately after. Patreon backers can see it right away! 

Keep the Rainbow, she’s here for the Rocks.

It’s March 15, 2014. The top song is “Happy.” It is by Pharrel Williams and not rock music. The top movie is Mr. Peabody and Sherman. I only go to movies about rocks. There is news. Sbarro’s goes bankrupt. They make pizza. The best pizza ovens are made of rocks. Rockets are fired into Israel from Gaza. Rockets are not tiny rocks. I will never make that mistake again. Tasmania and South Australia have state elections. Mt. Augustine is the largest rock in the world, but it’s in Western Australia. Some people say Uluru is the largest rock but they are wrong.

This episode is “Maud Pie.” It was written by Noelle Benvenuti. She has no other credits in television or film. It introduces Maud Pie. She is Pinkie’s sister. She always speaks in a comedic monotone. She is quite terse. She takes things literally. She is difficult for the other ponies to get along with. 
She is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen (let me put it this way: I forgot this episode had Tank in it) and there’s no way I could keep that up for an entire essay, nor am I so cruel–or so enamored of Maud Pie–that I would inflict it on you even if I could. 
Maud is a fascinating character, one who catapulted quickly to immense popularity after this episode, despite this being her only major speaking role to date. The reason is simple: she is hilarious, quite simply the funniest thing on the show to date. 
Analyzing humor is both notoriously difficult and somewhat dangerous: rather like mystical experience or a game of Mau, to over-explain the rules is to kill them. But the most striking thing about Maud is that there really is only one joke to her: she is extremely deadpan while saying and doing very odd things. This episode, effectively, is a series of escalating gags in which Maud does something strange while showing no apparent emotion. The excessive flatness of her affect serves to emphasize the strangeness of her behavior by contrast, and this dissonance creates the humor. 
It is interesting to compare her to another character who has extended the same joke across several entire seasons of another show, Parks and Recreation‘s April Ludgate. As played by Aubrey Plaza, who is an absolute master of this kind of humor, Ludgate is a cynical, angry loner who uses her deadpan comments about death, suffering, and her hatred of all humanity as a defense mechanism against engaging emotionally with the people around her. Her relationship with the goofy, childlike, playful Andy (Chris Pratt) is the key to the other side of her, the genuine emotion hidden under the snarky shell, but she still generally maintains the same way of communicating. The primary difference once Andy is in the picture is that she participates willingly in his ridiculous games, because that’s how she shows that she loves him. 
The similarities to Maud are quite noticeable, with the major difference that Maud isn’t a cynic (which is to say, a disappointed romantic defending against further disappointments), so she has a very different set of odd statements for her particular form of the joke. In her case, the oddity contrasted with her deadpan delivery is twofold: a passionate interest in rocks, and a unique aesthetic that values directness and simplicity–thus, wearing a dish towel as a scarf because he likes the pattern of stains on it, smashing apples instead of peeling them, or–best of all–her poetry, which consists entirely of brief declarative sentences about rocks. This distinction makes sense; after all, Equestria is a far less cynical place than Parks and Recreation‘s Pawnee, Indiana.

Nonetheless, it is understandable why the Mane Six (Pinkie Pie excepted, of course) don’t like her: one of the few traits shared by all of them is emotional availability. All of them are quite expressive of their feelings and generally willing to talk them over with others. Maud’s comedic lack of affect and tendency toward terse statements that shut down conversation are both anathema to the relational styles of the other ponies. Compound that with the way her mode of enjoyment of shared activities clashes with theirs (most obviously, that she easily beats Rainbow Dash in their competition yet does not care about winning), and a clear personality clash is afoot.

Unfortunately, that is where this episode commits its one major stumble. As I have alluded to before, I believe quite strongly that Friendship Is Magic needs to counteract the notion that friendship is therefore mandatory, because that is both a very prevalent and highly toxic notion, particularly among young girls. I want an episode that ends with a character writing, “Today I learned that sometimes two ponies will never get along, and that doesn’t mean that either one of them is bad. They just don’t go together, like chocolate ice cream on a pizza. It’s okay to be friends with someone that doesn’t get along with your other friends, as long as you make time for each of them. And it’s okay to not be friends with someone the rest of your friends like.” This episode comes as close as any has yet to expressing this concept, but fumbles the landing: instead of concluding that it’s okay for Pinkie’s Ponyville friends to not get along with Maud, so Pinkie can spend her time with Maud and then go back to her other friends, they instead abruptly decide the exact opposite, that their shared caring for Pinkie Pie ought to be enough common ground for them. In other words, after an entire episode of setup for the lesson that Friendship Is Not Transitive, they declared by fiat that no, actually, it is transitive.

Still, it is a stumble, and one more to do with my wishes for the show than an actual flaw in the episode. Maud remains an extremely entertaining character, and the episode is still a great deal of fun. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Next week: Dream on.

I AM a big pony! (Somepony to Watch Over Me)

Yeah, over a day late. I suck. A few quick items:

  • I got a nice bit of mainstream recognition: I was quoted and My Little Po-Mo referenced in last week’s New York Magazine
  • My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 is on sale, see the Books page.
  • I’m nearing the end of My Little Po-Mo, which means I’m nearing the beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09. In fact, I’m already writing it, and backers of the Patreon can read it as I write it instead of waiting until February when it officially launches.
The third danger of the Fire Swamps is the
Chimera of Fairly Typical Size, Actually.

It’s March 8, 2014. The top song is Pharell Williams’ “Happy,” which basically is what it promises, but goes on too long and suffers from the usual excess of chorus. The top movie is 300: Rise of An Empire, which I have no desire to experience enough of to form an opinion. In the news, Gravity and Frozen collect a number of well-deserved Academy Awards between them, the murder trial of Oscar Pretorius begins in South Africa, and conflict between Russia and Ukraine in Crimea continues even as Russia continues trying to pretend it’s not them.

On TV, newcomer Scott Sonneborn pens “Somepony to Watch Over Me,” an Apple Bloom episode that mostly continues exploring the same themes as the previous week’s “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezy.” Both stories involve a character who neither needs nor wants care (Apple Bloom here, Seabreeze last episode) having it thrust onto them by a larger, more physically and socially powerful caretaker (Applejack/Fluttershy). However, where last episode divided itself between Fluttershy and Seabreeze’s points of view, this episode is strictly from Apple Bloom’s. Applejack’s position, while not entirely unsympathetic, is depicted as being both wrong and rather absurd, to the point of worrying that Apple Bloom doesn’t know she has to open drawers in order to use their contents.

Like last episode, this is a critique of saving rather than helping. However, unlike last episode, by focusing on Apple Bloom the critique becomes less what it says about the savior, and more about what it does to the victim. Normally, when I talk about saving vs. helping I talk about the would-be savior, because they are the active party, the one who needs to be persuaded to do differently. But that does rather miss the point, which is that saving is often harmful and always disrespectful.

That’s key to this episode. From Applejack’s perspective, she loves her sister, cares about her, and wants to protect her. But from Apple Bloom’s perspective, Applejack isn’t saying, “I love you,” she’s saying “I don’t trust you.” Applejack is, in effect, repeatedly telling Apple Bloom that she isn’t good enough to take care of herself, which in turn leads to Apple Bloom going to great (and rather dangerous) lengths to prove that she can actually take care of some things on her own.

In some ways, being excessively cared for can be nearly as damaging as being insufficiently cared for. In particular, it can be very damaging to one’s self-worth; we need meaningful achievement in order to feel good about ourselves, but no achievement can be meaningful without the possibility of failure. If we only ever do easy things where success is guaranteed, then any adversity can seem overwhelming. Fortunately for Apple Bloom, she has often been allowed to attempt things on her own, in particular in her adventures with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and so she is able to face down adversity in the swamps.

Interestingly, the chimera has similar issues to Apple Bloom, given its comment on having a sister always looking over its shoulder (literally, in this case). This is fairly standard “the villain is a twisted reflection of the hero” stuff, which in a sense the season has been doing all along, given its play with qlippothic shadows, but the use of a chimera for Apple Bloom’s reflection is particularly interesting. As a three-headed monster, it is a reflection not just of Apple Bloom but of the Cutie Mark Crusaders as a group, three frequently bickering individuals who nonetheless form a united whole and usually act together.

The chimera is also a third instance of the episode poking gentle fun at the show’s conventions. The first is the “hats and bows closet,” a quick visual gag that references the common practice throughout television animation of giving characters very prominent and unchanging costume elements that they rarely or never change, thus making them more visually distinct despite the comparatively low level of detail relative to live action. The interrupted song is a slightly longer gag, poking fun at the show’s ambivalence about whether musical numbers are diegetic (as, for instance, “Giggle at the Ghosties” in the series premier clearly is), extradiegetic (as most musical numbers in musicals are, and for example “Winter Wrap-Up” and “Smile” must be), or something in between or other.

The chimera pokes at a third gag, the relative harmlessness of most of the monsters. Certainly there have been monsters that posed an immediate physical threat to the heroes, such as the hydra or the Changelings, but dragons, for example, are more bullies than all-devouring forces of destruction. The chimera, given its desire to eat Apple Bloom’s pies, seems at first to be another such defanged monster–but then it announces it intends to eat her as well, as a side dish.

These gags appear initially to be just that–standalone gags that don’t really amount to much. The episode largely conforms to the Cutie Mark Crusader formula, with the Crusader getting in over her head, getting bailed out or set straight by the adults, and ultimately not learning any particular lesson. Which is where the fourth and best of the episode’s gags comes in, because this time Apple Bloom didn’t need to learn a lesson. She was in the right all along, and it’s Applejack who learns her lesson–which means we finally have an episode in which Applejack needs to grow and learn, in which she actually develops as a person and as a character, and it’s not even an Applejack episode!

Unfortunately, those four little gags are pretty much all this episode has to offer. True, it offers a fresh perspective on the importance of not trying to impose assistance on people who don’t want it, but we just had an episode about that. Ultimately an episode about stepping back and letting the Cutie Mark Crusaders grow up must ring false, because if they grow up they cease to be the Cutie Mark Crusaders; the show cannot allow them to grow up because it would eliminate their function as characters, which is being roughly the same age and social status as the target audience. This is about as good a job as can be done with that brief; fortunately, in just a few episodes Sonneborn will get a chance to try something much more interesting and novel.

Next week: Monochrome Rocks!

Oh, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be more assertive. (It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies)

In this picture, Clara is cleverly disguised as the Hub logo.

It’s March 1, 2014. The top song is still Katy Perry with “Dark Horse,” and the top movie is something called Non-Stop, which appears to involve Liam Neeson and hostages on an airplane or something. Most of this month will be pretty bad for movies, I fear.

In the news, the U.S. military announces plans to reduce the army to pre-World War II levels, Ukraine crisis reaches a peak as Russian military and pro-Russian local militia forces seize control of strategic locations in Crimea, and Australia officially ends its involvement in the Afghanistan War.

On TV, Natasha Levinger returns to pen her second episode, “It’s Not Easy Being Breezies,” a worthy follow-up to her fan-favorite freshman effort “Pinkie Apple Pie.” This time, her talents are turned to a “key” episode, and so we are once again in the realm of the Sephiroth.

Fluttershy, back in the premiere, was associated with Chesed, “loving-kindness,” which is perhaps the most perfect match out of all the characters. In Judaism, chesed is a tremendously important concept, being the emotional and mental state which underlies charity, one of the most important elements of Jewish ethics. The essence of chesed is helping those who cannot help themselves, not out of ego or a desire for reward, but because it is necessary. It is healing and comforting the sick, feeding the hungry, aiding and supporting those in need, while maintaining throughout an attitude of patience, gentleness, and love. It is, in other words, Fluttershy through and through.

The importance of this principle is emphasized by Chesed‘s position on the Tree. As the fourth sephirah, it represents the point where the rarefied, purely spiritual and mystical upper sephirah first enter the realm of the active and material. It is, in other words, the point at which spirituality begins to translate into action, which is to say that at the root of all true spiritual activity is a sense of love for others and a desire to do good in the world.

Because Fluttershy so perfectly encapsulates the essence of her Element and her sephirah, then, Levinger deviates in an interesting way from the usual formula of the “key” episodes. Up until now, every episode in the arc has involved one of the Mane Six failing at their Element and rediscovering it through teaching another. This episode, however, contains a subtle difference: rather than failing to be kind, Fluttershy is being inappropriately kind. The unnamed Breezies take advantage of her kindness, exploiting her willingness to continue caring for them in order to avoid the difficult journey home.

This is an idea that could easily go very badly wrong. The Breezies are small, weak, and foreign to Equestria, fragile creatures that Fluttershy is determined to protect and care for. This could easily become some horrifying Randian parable, in which the “mommy state” represented by Fluttershy, in its determination to care for the Breezies, makes them dependent and perpetuates their helplessness, encouraging them to stay where they are safe and cared for instead of continuing their journey. Or it could have an equally horrifying anti-immigrant read, in which the Breezies are foreigners taking advantage of local charities and services to live “where they don’t belong,” and must be denied those services and forced to go “home.”

Thankfully, it navigates deftly through these traps, first through the strength of the surprisingly nuanced character Seabreeze. Seabreeze belies the weakness of the Breezies by being equally small and fragile, but with a ferocity, bravery, and determination beyond most of the ponies we’ve seen. He serves as the tough drill sergeant of the Breezy group, yelling and insulting them as a form of encouragement, trying to drive them to continue their journey home. But interestingly, his positive qualities are shown to not derive from him being a Randian ubermensch, but rather from homesickness and fear, which also leads to his cruelty towards the other Breezies.

This demolishes the Randian read, but what of the anti-immigrant read? That read has its own obstacle: it must contend with the fact that the Mane Six become Breezies themselves to accompany them on their journey home. If the Breezies are immigrants, then the episode seems to be saying that the solution to any problems involving their presence in the community necessarily requires first seeing things from their point of view, in turn rendering any anti-immigrant reading incoherent.

No, the Breezies are not some sudden, disturbing invasion of conservative politics into the utopian realm of Equestria. There has been a running theme this season of invasions from outside the show, but nothing that dark or alien. Instead, they are something we have seen several times already in the “key” episodes: qlippothic shadows from the Hermetic understanding of the Sephiroth. In this case, the qlippah of Chesed is Gamchicoth, the Devourers, who seek to consume and waste the bounty before them instead of participating in charity. This helps explain the presence of Seabreeze among them; rather than an exception, he is an intensification, wasting Fluttershy’s offering by rejecting it and self-destructively trying to set out alone. With the help of Fluttershy, however, Seabreeze is able to penetrate this corrupt state and reache the sephirah within its qlippothic peel, learning the value of sometimes being kind, gentle, and supportive to his companions on the journey home.

Fluttershy, on the other hand, has to learn to limit her loving-kindness, to recognize that sometimes kindness becomes enabling. It is a difficult and narrow path to tread. On the one hand, if you do not allow the helped to determine the form of help you provide, then you are saving rather than helping, imposing your will and ego rather than proceeding from a place of loving-kindness. On the other, sometimes providing the help someone wants, rather than what they need, can become destructive, even abusive (in either direction). Fluttershy learns from Seabreeze the necessity of placing limits on her kindness, which is to say that the sephirah must have a shell. The notion of a protective shell around a sephirah is, of course, the Jewish conception of the qlippah–which is to say that Fluttershy has discovered the function and necessity of the qlippoth.

This is a powerful lesson, and powerful foreshadowing as well: to defeat the shadow one must embrace the shadow. The Sephiroth require the qlippoth. To truly ascend the Tree of Life, one must accept the Tree of Death. A rigid and exclusionary utopia is no utopia; harmony, in the end, cannot be harmony unless it can accept discord.

Next week: How to make Applejack interesting.