Let’s talk about evolution. No, not the inexplicably controversial–despite being as close as any model can get to solid fact–biological theory; I mean something more basic. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between evolution and change.
Frequently, talk of evolution implies some ideal of progress, but that’s not really accurate to the concept; certainly biological evolution has no sense of going from “bad” states to “good” ones. Likewise, the evolution of a character might make them less appealing to the audience (to use one definition of “bad” character) or involve a decent into villainy (to use another). The real definition of evolution is simply cumulative change, that is, a series of changes, each building upon the last.
Some characters evolve within their stories, while others merely change. To use pony examples,within the first season Applejack does not evolve. She changes in “Applebucking Season,” but her change is circular: ultimately she returns to the state she was in before the episode. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, evolves. She is a different pony after “The Elements of Harmony” than at the beginning of “The Mare in the Moon,” and she retains these differences after. She changes again in “Winter Wrap-Up,” and again retains elements of those changes for the rest of the series.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, transformation and change are recurring themes in the first season. There’s several non-exclusive reasons why this should be the case, but one is particularly notable here at the end of the season: The show itself has been evolving, and many individual episodes reflect this continual change.
|No, really, it’s not a magical girl show after all.|
It’s May 6, 2011.Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is back at the top of the charts, and while still not great, it’s a massive improvement over last week. Speaking of massive improvements, we have an actually good movie dominating the box office for the first time in what seems like ages: Thor, which is exactly as gloriously silly and overwrought as a movie about a Norse god (who’s actually a space alien) becoming a superhero ought to be. In the news, the biggest story broke Sunday with the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Sony’s in trouble again with the news that hackers may have stolen the account information of nearly 25 million Sony Online users, and the Canadian elections create a Conservative majority, because when times are tough people like strong, decisive leaders who will do everything in their power to make things worse.
The final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic‘s first season is unquestionably Amy Keating Rogers’ best, the aptly titled “Best Night Ever.” At heart, it’s about disappointment and recovery; about planned and hoped-for events going awry, yet ultimately turning out as good or better than planned.
Obviously, the Grand Galloping Gala itself is such an event, at least for our main characters. The episode depicts its development into and beyond disaster as effectively an evolutionary process. The Mane Six enter the Gala with certain expectations, but events shatter those expectations. A period of chaos ensues, forcing the ponies to come up with something else that turns out to be just as good as what they planned–at least for the Mane Six themselves, Spike, and Celestia. Granny Smith will have to find another way to pay for that new hip, and all the other Gala attendees had their evening ruined, but then it wouldn’t be a Rogers episode without some failure to think through the implications or empathize fully with out-of-focus characters–and it wouldn’t be a My Little Po-Mo article about a Rogers episode if I didn’t complain about it. (Also: While this is, by far, her least bad attempt, I still hate how Rogers writes Rarity. There, anti-Rogers quota achieved.)
The episode opens with an elaborate musical number which (besides being the best song of the season) neatly encapsulates the series’ evolution so far. Back in “Elements of Harmony,” Pinkie’s musical number was tongue-in cheek and the responses of the other ponies suggested that they were not only aware of the prevalence of musical numbers in cartoons, they were familiar enough with the trope to be sick of it. It was a moment for the show’s makers to demonstrate that while they may be doing a musical number in My Little Pony, they’re still cool and detached. By contrast, “At the Gala” is an enormous production number unironically indulged, a celebratory moment shared by every pony on the screen. There is no effort to be cool here; it is gloriously emotive and sincere.
As a general rule, musical numbers are nondiegetic, which is to say that they are not “real” from the perspective of the characters. A musical number is a narrative technique to convey a character’s emotions to the audience, not a part of the plot; it is generally safe to assume that anything that happens in a musical number isn’t real unless something in the show signals otherwise. “The Elements of Harmony,” however, signaled otherwise from the beginning of the first musical number of the show, making it clear that Pinkie Pie was really singing, the other characters knew she was singing, and they were as weirded out as any of us would be on encountering a musical number in real life. For the rest of the early first season, Pinkie Pie was the only pony who sang, and the audience could assume all her songs were diegetically “real.”
“Winter Wrap-Up,” along with all the other changes it initiated, had the entire population of Ponyville singing a song together. On the one hand, this musical number (also called “Winter Wrap-Up”) has to be at least somewhat nondiegetic; there is no way ponies across town from each other could coordinate their timing to trade off verses as they do in the song. On the other, groups of laborers often use music to coordinate their efforts, so it’s entirely plausible that the song is at least somewhat diegetic. As the season has gone on, however, we’ve gotten more songs from non-Pinkie Pie characters, such as Rarity’s “Art of the Dress.” Here in “Best Night Ever,” we have no less than three songs, which is quite a few for a 22-minute cartoon. It’s not quite a full-fledged musical episode, but it’s close enough to make clear that this is no longer a show that’s too cool for musical numbers. Musicals, after all, are on the surface silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy–an excellent description of My Little Pony‘s appeal.
But “silly, sincere, and endearingly cheesy” is not the show we began with twenty-five episodes ago. Oh, those elements were all present in the series premiere, but they shared the stage with an attempt to be cool. To judge by the series premiere, we were watching an unusually funny magical girl show, a spiritual successor to The Powerpuff Girls that shifted the anime influence from the character designs to the plots. The natural expectation would have been for the majority of episodes following to involve battles with monsters and villains, ending with an encounter with some kind of uber-villain or major crisis in the season finale. Certainly a comedy or character-building episode here and there, and of course there’s no getting away from the friendship lessons that are the show’s raison d’etre, but the original conception of the show seems likely to have been driven by sanitized violence. Perhaps a preschool version of the greatest Western magical girl show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Mane Six would have battled monsters that symbolize the challenges of growing up, drawing power and support from their friendship with one another, and “Dragonshy” would have been a typical episode rather than an interesting one-time experiment.
That might have been a good show, but it didn’t work out that way. Immediately after the premiere, we started focusing on the characters themselves, without symbolic monsters to act as crutches. Unable to be My Little Buffy, the show cast around for other things it could be, and a season of evolution began. It spent a few episodes exploring the characters and discovering its capacity for sincerity in a world where even the children’s shows are cynical and bitter, but found itself trapped in the tension between being a utopian idyll that stayed true to its characters, and a meme fountain and growing pop cultural icon. That crucible triggered its alchemical transformation into a new kind of show, and it has spent the latter half of the first season trying to figure out just what kind of show exactly that is.
“The Best Night Ever” doesn’t try to answer that question. Instead, it ruminates and reflects on the journey thus far, which in itself is a partial answer. The show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic started as would have ended its first season with some kind of massive conflict with a major villain, probably one threatening a narrative collapse–something not too different from the second season premiere. That’s just how TV shows–especially ones that earn a geek cult following–work in the 2000s. Instead, we have an episode entirely devoid of antagonists, where the only conflict is that between the unrealistic expectations of the characters and the reality of what occurred.
It never occurred to me, the first time I watched this episode, to be disappointed in it. But in a sense it is a failure to fulfill a promise given when Nightmare Moon was defeated. All the rules of normal television say that this episode should have involved a battle with an even bigger villain and ended with another use of the Elements of Harmony. That’s what we’ve been trained to expect, and therefore to want, by the last decade-and-a-half of television, by everything from Buffy to Teen Titans to even Adventure Time. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, per se. It’s appealing and it works and there’s lots of variety in how it can be done–but it’s not the show My Little Pony evolved into.
The show My Little Pony evolved into ends its first season with a rumination on where its been. We get a mini-character collapse from Fluttershy, we get a deflated (albeit less literally this time) Pinkie Pie desperately trying to get a party going, we get a glimpse of why Twilight Sparkle might not have thought much of social interaction in Canterlot. It’s something like a greatest-hits album of the season, touching on an essential element of each character lightly and then moving on (except, of course, with Rarity, but at least she gets to tell someone off fairly impressively).
But this isn’t a clip show, even in spirit. It does actually have something to say. The Gala is a constraining structure that traps the ponies, forcing them into paths they don’t want to take, and only by unleashing chaos can they break free and change it. This is no less true of the series. Last time they made a major change, it required a complete alchemical transformation. Now a new challenge is looming, because last week proved something utterly devastating to the premise of the show: Twilight can’t learn a friendship lesson every episode. It’s too constraining, and it prevents the other characters from meaningfully evolving if their crises and their character-building episodes must conclude with Twilight learning a lesson.
There’s also the issue that, if Twilight has to learn a new lesson about friendship every episode, sooner or later the writers are going to have to start either teaching lessons Twilight never needed to learn or repeat old lessons. Either way, it undermines Twilight’s evolution and forces her into mere change.
To break free of the constraints of Twilight’s friendship lessons is a major challenge. It’s a core element of the premise of the show–I referred to it above as the raison d’etre, and from the Hub’s point of view that’s true. Part of the purpose of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is to fulfill the Hub’s obligation to provide educational programming; remove the thirty seconds of “Today I learned…” from the end and it no longer fulfills the requirements.
There is, of course, the solution of having the other characters learn lessons as well, but within the show that runs into the issue that Twilight was assigned to Ponyville to learn friendship lessons. It’s her job, and she can’t just let others do it for her.
The show appears to be trapped, just as Celestia was trapped by the constraints of the Gala. And just like Celestia, the solution is to invite in an outside element that brings chaos. This element has many names, but at its core it is the essence of change. It is time and entropy and death and rebirth, that which laughs at constraints and dissolves the old order so that a new may arise. It is chaos, and it is dangerous and tricky.
Pinkie Pie called it by name last week, invited it in: “Okie doki, Loki.” Possibly unintentional on the part of the writers, to be sure, but Pinkie Pie can walk through end-of-episode irises and hang off the top of the frame; she can tell where the show is headed. It needs an injection of chaos, a narrative collapse that permits a new narrative to be built from the ruins. The problem is that chaos is rarely cooperative. That’s why it’s so frequently depicted as a Trickster–once invited in, it does what it wants, and we have to be prepared that what we get might not be what we expected, even if odds are good that it’ll be as good or better.
The show is going to try to get that injection of chaos; it’s going to get a big ol’ storm instead. Discord is coming.
Next week: To celebrate finishing off the first season, I’m taking a break from episode analyses for a month. But that doesn’t mean an end to My Little Po-Mo articles! Instead, April is going to be Fanworks Month. Every Sunday I’ll apply the same techniques I use for the episode analyses on a different fanwork. Some might be major fan favorites, others my own idiosyncratic preferences; some might be video, others fanfics or comics–every week will be something different. Then in May we’ll pick up where we left off with the beginning of the second season.
So what fanwork am I doing next week? I’ll give you a clue: All the way across the sky. What does it mean? Find out April 6!