Derivative Works Month Is Coming…

And I need suggestions on what to cover. I know I want to do the second volume of the IDW comic, but other than that I have no idea. I know I don’t want to do Equestria Girls yet and I don’t want to do the iPhone game at all, and as always no porn or gorn. “Ponies” isn’t technically a derivative work of Friendship Is Magic, though it is one of the franchise as a whole, so I’m on the fence about it.

Any suggestions?

Beyond the Inferno: Situational and Virtue Ethics in Fullmetal Alchemist

Warning: Extensive spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood spends a lot of time tackling some fairly complex ethical questions for a shounen series, not least of which is its examination of vengeance and situational ethics. Of course, situational ethics tends to get a bad rap, being characterized (much like ethical relativism, to which it is related but not equivalent) as a sophistic cover for amorality. But really, situational ethics is nothing more than the trivial observation that the context of an ethical decision can alter the outcome. On some level, this should be obvious; it is clear that curling one’s index finger caries different moal implications depending on whether the finger is pressed against the trigger of a gun or not. But FMA:B goes beyond the trivial in its examination, and as such, has earned some undeserved criticism for inconsistency on the question of whether revenge is justified.

A significant factor in this criticism is that we live in a culture where two major ethical systems dominate, the Manichaean and the utilitarian. In a Manichaean worldview, morality is determined by ingroup and outgroup status—anything which helps the ingroup or harms the outgroup is good, and anything which does the opposite is bad. The same action may thus be regarded as good when done to the outgroup, and bad when done to the ingroup, or vice versa. This is the moral view generally embraced by militaries (“support your comrades, kill the bad guys”), and can be found in quite a few places in our culture, such as most action movies and video games, the Harry Potter series, and the Republican party. Contract the ingroup until it consists of only the individual self, and you have capitalism, libertarianism, and objectivism.

At the other extreme, expand the ingroup to include all of humanity and you have the utilitarian view: anything which net benefits people is good, anything which net harms them is bad. It’s certainly a more progressive worldview than Manichaeanism, but still based entirely on the outcomes of actions. It does not matter why or how you benefit people, as long as you do. Which sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you realize that depending on whether you count misery as a small amount of happiness or a negative amount of happiness, utilitarianism either says that a world of 50 quadrillion miserable people is better than a world of 5 billion happy people, or it says that murdering severely depressed, unloved people is not only morally permissible but mandatory.

FMA:B, on the other hand, mostly follows an ethical system that is largely disfavored in our culture, virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, an action is good if it demonstrates that the person doing it has the qualities of a good person, and bad if it demonstrates they have the qualities of a bad person. This is where we come to the question of revenge, because FMA:B quite consistently argues that pursuing revenge turns you into a bad person.

Key to this are the characters of Scar and Mustang. Scar is the survivor of genocide; most of his people are dead, murdered by the Amestrian military and particularly its State Alchemists, their homeland of Ishbal is ruined and largely abandoned, and most of the survivors live in slums scattered throughout Amestris. Early in the series, Scar is introduced as an antagonist, murdering every State Alchemist (an organization which the main character joined long after the Ishbalan War) he can find. From the start, Scar is depicted as inhuman: nigh-superhumanly fast and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, cold, implacable, without even a name—he is known only by the prominent facial scarring he received during the attack that killed his family. As the series progresses, however, Scar slowly turns away from vengeance, ultimately adopting the twofold goal of making Amestris admit what it did to his people, and reform in order to ensure it never happens again. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, as Scar acquires companions—a cowardly, disgraced Amestrian soldier, a foreign child on a journey of her own, and ultimately Marcoh, a medical doctor driven by guilt over the experiments he performed on Ishbalan prisoners of war—and is thus given opportunities to demonstrate emotion and character depth. Key in his development are his two confrontations with the character Winry, whose parents—Amestrian doctors who tried to help the Ishbalans during the war—were Scar’s first victims.

In the first encounter, Winry learns that Scar is responsible for her parents’ deaths and points a gun at him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Details of the scene cause Scar to flash back (post-traumatic stress disorder is another recurring theme of the series) to the death of his family, in a way that places Scar in the position of the State Alchemist who killed his family, main character Ed Elric in the position of Scar’s brother who died saving Scar, and Winry in the position of Scar. Scar flees in confusion, and soon after spares Marcoh’s life in exchange for learning more about the Ishbalan War, showing that already he is acquiring motivations other than mere revenge.

In the second encounter, Scar is immobilized and wounded, and several characters are debating whether to kill him, given that he has information they need. Winry steps in and begins treating Scar’s wounds, stating that although she does not forgive him, it’s what her parents would have done. At this point Scar’s transformation begins in earnest, and the series begins moving him from antagonist to, arguably, tritagonist or even deuteragonist.

Contrasted heavily to Scar is Mustang, an Amestrian State Alchemist regarded as a war hero for his participation in the genocide of the Ishbalans. From the start, Mustang is depicted as somewhat morally ambiguous, but mostly good. He seeks to become the head of the Amestrian military dictatorship, but not solely out of ambition; rather, he sees it as the only way to institute reforms. His explicitly stated plan is to become dictator, transform the country into one where genocide and dictatorship are not tolerated, and then turn himself in to a war crimes tribunal for his actions in Ishbal. Early in the series, Mustang’s best friend, Hughes, is murdered, and Mustang spends much of the series pursuing the mystery of who killed him and why, although like most of the cast he spends much of the second and third phases of the series too busy dealing with larger events to spend much time on personal goals.

Relatively shortly after Hughes’ death, Mustang encounters Lust, who contributed to Hughes’ death but is not the one who personally killed him. Lust is an extremely dangerous fighter, among the series’ more lethal antagonists, and manages to permanently disable one of Mustang’s closest followers, seriously injure Mustang, and nearly kill Mustang’s right-hand woman Riza (who is also strongly implied to be his love interest) and their ally Al Elric, Ed’s brother. Mustang responds with a furious show of force, brutally and efficiently killing Lust in an agonizing fashion. The scene is deeply uncomfortable, but played as a triumphant victory nonetheless, and indeed it is the first real victory anyone has had against the main antagonists of the series.

Much later, in the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale, Mustang finally meets Hughes killer, Envy, who not only confesses but brags and taunts Mustang about the killing. Mustang proceeds to violently, painfully, and methodically demolish Envy in a lengthy fight sequence that spans two episodes. Unlike his attacks on Lust, which looked and sounded extremely painful but were nonetheless clearly Mustang trying to kill her as quickly as possible using whatever resources he had on hand (Lust finally dies mere centimeters from striking a killing blow on Mustang), his fight with Envy is clearly torture. He gives Envy time to recover between attacks, allows him opportunities to attempt counterattacks (all of which Mustang immediately defeats), and deliberately uses attacks designed to be painful and disorienting rather than lethal (such as burning out Envy’s tongue and eyes). The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and clearly the series very much intends it as such, because immediately after Envy’s defeat Riza, Scar, and Ed confront Mustang, persuade him that this pursuit of revenge and hatred is inappropriate for the man who will become the country’s leader, and force him to back off from striking the killing blow.

Finally, in the last episodes of the series, nearly the entire cast gathers to fight Father, the immortal power behind the throne of Amestris. Al sacrifices himself to save Ed, and Ed attacks Father in a berserker rage, seriously injuring him. There is then a brief fight between Father and another character, Greed, after which Ed strikes a final blow on Father, causing his body to be destroyed and his soul to return to the primordial chaos from which it originated. This entire sequence is again portrayed as a heroic act, with the assembled characters chanting Ed’s name as he fights Father.

Here, then, is the apparent inconsistency: Why is it wrong for Scar to kill State Alchemists, Winry to kill Scar, and Mustang to kill Envy, yet right for Mustang to kill Lust and Ed to kill Father? And the answer, of course, is context.

The latter two incidents have in common that the antagonist being killed is an immediate and deadly threat, is highly capable of defending themselves, and has only just caused serious harm to someone close to the protagonist doing the killing. The protagonist, in other words, is both acting in the heat of the moment and “punching up”—attacking someone more powerful than they. In addition, in both cases the protagonist has been well-established as a fighter, though Ed has been consistently portrayed as refusing to kill up until his fight with Father. Finally, they do not draw out the attacks more than is necessary; they are clearly acting to defeat the opponent, not cause them to suffer for its own sake.

All of the other incidents differ in at least one respect. Winry is consistently depicted as a non-combatant, as her confrontation with Scar makes clear: Ed tells her “these hands were made for healing, not killing” when he talks her down. Scar’s attacks on State Alchemists are based on old pain, and represent a premeditated plan; in addition, he targets all State Alchemists indiscriminately, not just those who participated in the Ishbalan genocide.

Finally, there is Mustang’s revenge on Envy, which of all of these scenes gets the most attention from the narrative, taking up the last seven minutes of episode 53 and the first ten or so of episode 54. That it gets this much time is especially notable given that, at this point in the series, there are no fewer than fifteen separate groups of characters being actively followed by the narrative, allowing an average of 1.47 minutes per group per episode—to give a single confrontation more than ten times that much screen time clearly marks it as both a major plot event and a key moment of character and thematic development.

All of which it is. The audience has minimal empathy with Envy in this scene, as he has been thoroughly vile throughout the series, killing beloved characters, taunting and tormenting others, and gleefully recounting his participation in multiple horrific acts, including deliberately setting off the conflict that culminated in the genocide of Ishbal. If anyone in the series deserves to die, it’s him—and yet the visuals repeatedly depict Mustang as a figure of terror, his face contorted in rage (including shadows noticeably similar to Scar’s scar) as he clinically describes precisely how little of a threat Envy is and how he plans to cause Envy maximum pain. After Envy attempts to flee, Mustang becomes much like a horror movie monster, unstoppable, implacable, and inescapable as he pursues Envy and just keeps hurting him, over and over and over again.

Mustang is consumed utterly by hatred, and the contrast between this and him fighting Lust (or Ed fighting Father) could not be clearer. In those scenes, the protagonist was immediately, furiously angry, but still recognizable themselves. They were not given over entirely to their anger, and thus still appeared human. Here, Mustang is monstrous, much like Scar in his early appearances, existing solely to make the enemy hurt without regard to any other concerns.

In both the fight with Lust and the fight with Envy, the effect of Mustang’s actions is identical: a lethal and dangerous enemy who has committed terrible crimes (and intends to commit more) dies painfully. However, the circumstances of that killing (the situation part of situational ethics) make it clear that against Lust Mustang is acting out of desire to protect his friends, loved ones, and allies, and anger at the immediate harm Lust has caused. In the latter, Mustang is acting out of desire to see his hated enemy suffer as much as possible. In other words, against Lust Mustang is being righteous, protective, loyal, and just; against Envy he is being sadistic. The former are virtues, the latter a vice, and thus under the series’ virtue ethos the former is right and the latter wrong.

This is primarily Scar’s argument in the scene where the other characters talk Mustang down, but it is not the only argument used against him. Ed and Riza instead use a slightly more complex variant of virtue ethics, in which the virtues themselves are situational—specifically, individual personality and social roles both influence what virtues apply for a particular person. This goes back to Winry’s “hands of a healer”; Ed’s argument in that scene is that it is wrong for Winry to kill because she is inclined to the virtues of compassion and empathy, and because her role in society is as a healer and maker of prostheses. The implication is that it would be wrong for Winry to kill, even in a situation like Mustang’s fight with Lust, because it would go against her core virtues and contradict her social role. Mustang, on the other hand, is neither particularly compassionate or empathetic, and as a soldier, his social role requires killing. However, as Ed points out, he seeks to become the ruler of Amestris in order to reform it. Is the kind of person who sadistically tortures hated enemies the kind of person who can transform a military dictatorship into a just and peaceful democracy?

The series is quite clear that the answer is no, and so Riza (whom Mustang ordered years ago to kill him if he ever became corrupted by power and ambition or strayed from the path of reforming Amestris) pulls her gun on Mustang and tells him that if he kills Envy, she will kill him, finish out the current mission, and kill herself. It is this ultimatum which finally breaks Mustang out of his berserker rage and forces him to back down from torturing Envy (who, for complex reasons outside the scope of this essay, commits suicide shortly thereafter).

Situational ethics, as I said, often gets a bad rap. Like moral relativism, it is frequently characterized as being a cover for underlying amorality. In truth, any sufficiently complex ethical schema can be gamed to justify basically anything, and so the extreme case of a complex ethos such as situational ethics or relativism does shade into amorality. On the other hand, simpler ethical schema lack flexibility and nuance, and so the extreme case of a simple ethos such as utilitarianism or deontology shades into extremism. FMA:B is not particularly inconsistent in its ethics, as critics allege; rather, it consistently portrays a complex virtue ethos in which the morality of an action is as much or more a function of the motivations, goals, social role, and emotional state of the person performing the action as it is a function of who the action targets or what outcomes it results in.

The Genesis Device

So, here’s a nerdery of mine that’s been surprisingly rarely referenced on this site: Star Trek.

So, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie by a wide margin, and probably the most accessible to non-Trekkies, despite being the one with the most references to past events) established the creation of the Genesis Device, which can turn a lifeless planet into a complete, habitable ecosystem within a matter of days–but if used on a planet where life already exists, that life is erased in moments and replaced. Thus, depending on the target, it’s either a device of mass creation or a weapon of mass destruction. Alas, Star Trek III reveals that the planet created at the end of Star Trek II is unstable, and it collapses; the Genesis Device is only useful as a weapon of mass destruction, precisely the opposite of its creators hopes.

But here’s my question: 60 or 80 years later, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the Genesis Device ought to be fairly common knowledge, something any of the more advanced/powerful cultures can build easily and the less powerful ones build if they’re determined enough, much like nukes on modern Earth. And, much like nukes, they are a doomsday weapon–any war fought with Genesis Devices would quickly annihilate both sides. So it’s odd to me that there’s little to no mention of the device in the later Star Trek series, as it could have served as a handy metaphor for nuclear tensions–all the major powers have Genesis Devices mounted on warp-capable missiles, but only as a deterrent to keep the other powers from using their Genesis Devices…

Also, did no one think to try using them as a weapon against the Borg? Could have been interesting…

Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just watched Gravity on Saturday (excellent movie, and only the second ever for which I can say it is worth paying extra to see in 3D), and I’ve been pondering whether it should be considered science fiction. Given my adherence to the cladistic view of genre, I’d say yes: it is clearly descended from the cinematic tradition of science fiction films, with its depiction of space as a sublime realm of awe and terror (compare 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien), its use of both strategic silence and sounds such as static, heartbeats, and heavy breathing to create tension (2001 again), even the use of special effects as the primary antagonist (Star Trek the Motion Picture, War of the Worlds (1953 or 2005), there are countless examples good and bad) are all drawn from the tradition of science fiction film. The characters, meanwhile, are straight out of the Golden Age pulps: the brave but inexperienced woman scientist, the old space cowboy, the reckless rookie who is first to die. The film is steeped in science fiction; the fact that nothing which occurs in it is any more fantastical or implausible than a heist film or cop movie is largely irrelevant in the face of that heritage. It’s like saying that ostriches aren’t birds just because they don’t fly.

The pony who holds my fate in her hooves (It’s About Time)

[insert joke about Past Twilight coming on to Future Twilight]

It’s March 10, 2012. The top song is back to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and the top movie is still The Lorax, with the surprisingly good (if you accept it for what it is) John Carter at number two. In the news, China ups its defense spending by a whopping 11 percent, the U.S. government takes steps to extradite the founders of MegaUpload, beginning the end of that particular file sharing service, and on the day this episode airs, famed French comic artist Moebius dies.

While on TV, we have “It’s About Time,” by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Like “Feeling Pinkie Keen” in Season One, this is a Twilight-centric episode that has Pinkie Pie in a supporting role, and involves a series of misfortunes happening to Twilight courtesy of co(s)mic forces of fate. In this case, a visit from her rather beat-up future self (from the distant era of next Tuesday, a full two days beyond Next Sunday A.D.) cues Twilight to begin desperately trying to avert the disaster she sees coming. Of course, in a tradition dating back to Greek myth, everything Twilight does to avert the future serves only to bring it about, because she has misinterpreted the nature of the warning.

In my article on “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” I discussed the way the show handles questions of fate, destiny, coincidence, and free will, questions on which I expanded in the chapter “Of Destiny and Doughnuts” in the My Little Po-Mo book. In the former discussion, I talked about the relationship between destiny and coincidence, arguing that the distinction between the two is purely subjective. In the latter, I discussed (within the context of cutie marks) whether free will can exist in a deterministic universe, arguing (following Daniel Dennett) that it can and does.

“It’s About Time” raises both questions within the context of an “ontological paradox” or “time loop.” Twilight had planned for a normal week, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic, and she takes a series of increasingly desperate actions to try to avert the disaster she believes is imminent, in the process steadily altering her appearance until she is a perfect match for her future self. At this point, she realizes that there was no disaster, just her own empty worries, and travels back in time to try to warn herself not to worry, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic…

The reason this is referred to as a paradox is because there seems to be no “origin” for Twilight’s panic. She panicked because she tried to tell herself not to panic because she panicked because… However, everything that happens is logically consistent. Events proceed in a circle, rather than a line, yes, but there is no contradiction–nothing that happens renders anything else that happens impossible. Indeed, there has been serious research by physicists on a simplified model of time travel, involving a computer model of a billiard ball encountering a “closed timelike curve” (presumably called that because “time warp” doesn’t sound science-y enough for the grant committee). Thus far, while they have been able to find scenarios where the ball travels back in time and knocks itself into the time warp, they have yet to find a scenario where the ball travels back in time and prevents itself from doing so. There is much reason to be skeptical, not least of which that no closed timelike curve has ever been observed, but it seems within the realm of possibility that it is possible to travel back in time to make yourself travel back in time, but not to travel back in time to prevent yourself from traveling back in time. Twilight, in other words, was always doomed to failure.

But what then of free will? Is future Twilight somehow compelled to say and do what she does, stripped of her freedom by the fact that she saw herself do it?

Much of the question comes from how we define “free will.” The construction I used in the book, and will continue to use here, can be expressed as “the capacity of an agent to identify potential courses of action, determine a preferred course, and act accordingly.” None of this requires mysticism, magic, or even a non-deterministic universe; even in a completely deterministic universe a specific agent can still identify the courses of action some other agent might take in the same circumstances, and reject that in order to take the action consistent with itself. This is, after all, the kind of freedom worth having–the freedom to act as one wishes to act, in accordance with one’s own values and preferences. Why would anyone want “free will” if it meant acting against oneself?

So, given that definition of free will, does Twilight have free will within the time loop? To put the question another way, is future Twilight destined to say and do what she does in order to perpetuate the loop, or is it a coincidence that the two ponies do what they did? To which the answer is, of course, yes–the distinction between the two is subjective, and so it is a matter of perspective.

Key to understanding this is to grasp that there are not two separate events, one in which past Twilight talks to her future self, and another in which future Twilight talks to her past self. There is only one event, one point in time and space which Twilight views from two different perspectives. Happily, the episode makes this obvious by allowing the audience to see the same event twice–and it is the same event, shot-for-shot identical. Nonetheless, like Twilight the audience has two different perspectives on the event. Although the position of the camera, the sound, the events depicted are identical in both scenes, the first time the scene plays we have been following past Twilight, and therefore experience it from her point of view, sharing her surprise at the sudden arrival of future Twilight and frustration at how little information she receives; the second time we have been following future Twilight, and so share her desire to see the past changed and frustration that past Twilight keeps interrupting with irrelevant questions.

Two perspectives, but one event. When Twilight encounters her future self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, bombarding her with rapid questions. When Twilight encounters her past self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, trying to get out important information but continually sidetracked by questions. These are the same event, and Twilight is acting freely in both.

Consider another perspective: there are three possible ways past Twilight’s morning could go. She could not encounter her future self, because her future self doesn’t travel back. Or her future self could travel back, warn her not to worry, and Twilight could agree not to worry, making sure in a few days’ time to go back and warn herself not to worry. Or, finally, the events we see could occur. Regardless, there is at most one encounter between the two Twilights, and they thus each get only one chance to choose their actions. Whatever they choose in that moment is what happened in that moment; since neither can do the moment over (traveling back a second time, if possible, would only mean three perspectives on the same event, not a new event), neither can choose not to do what she already chose to do.

It helps that the episode does not (unlike most time loop stories in science fiction) go around the loop multiple times, creating the illusions that the characters do as well. Instead, we see the event once from past Twilight’s perspective, and completely appreciate why she chooses to say and do what she does, and then again from future Twilight’s perspective, where again we can appreciate why she chooses to do and say what she does. Future Twilight is not trapped by anything other than herself, her own nature and choices–just because she happened to see her choices before she made them doesn’t change that they are her choices.

With this episode, the season’s exploration of time is largely over, given a fitting capstone in a return to the past of the series. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for the future; between “It’s About Time” and “Lesson Zero,” it is very clear to both the audience and the ponies that Twilight has a tendency to overreact and create disasters where none are needed. That knowledge of her character will be key to the season finale.

Next week: Unless of course referencing a 30-year-old game franchise counts as part of the theme of time.

MLP Comic, Volume 2

Apologies for the lateness. I always forget the weekend is not actually at the end of the week, but split between end and beginning. As a result, I saw that I had thoughts of the day queued through the second-to-last day of the week, and thought that included today. Sorry!

Just got the second volume of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic (thanks to the reader who sent it to me!) and it’s good! Not as good as the first, mostly due to the lack of humor and gloriously weird layouts, but good.

A Pattern I’ve Noticed

And by “noticed” I mean “lifted from JesuOtaku’s Twitter feed.”

The second season of Legend of Korra is actually really entertaining whenever Korra isn’t on the screen. Though, honestly, I still think the show would be better if they dropped the whole “avatar” thing and just made it the ongoing adventures of Asami as she pilots her mecha in lone battle against goofy-yet-evil industrialists and war profiteers.

Elements of Harmony 2: Applejack Is Best Pony

For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the second such essay.
As I discussed in the article on Rarity, the question of “best pony” requires a definition of “best.” That the concept of “best” is not set in stone should be obvious, unless you wish to contend that what makes he best cupcake also makes the best pony. “Best” thus necessarily must always be understood to mean “best for a particular purpose,” not in any absolute sense.

Thus, just as with Rarity, if we can find the purposes to which Applejack is best suited, we will understand why she is best pony. Now, I’ve made no secret of my apathy toward Applejack; I find her a boring character, the least entertaining of the Mane Six, and indeed less entertaining than any of the princesses or the Cutie Mark Crusaders as well. Pretty much the only character likely to serve as an episode focus I am less enthused by than Applejack is Spike.

So, clearly, the purposes for which Applejack is best pony are not my purposes as a viewer or a commentator. But by examining the character and her strengths, can we construct such a purpose? Because of course she has quite a few strengths; as I have said before, I feel apathy, not antipathy, toward her. I don’t dislike her or think her unworthy, I just don’t personally find her entertaining, precisely because of her strengths.

Applejack’s greatest strength and weakness, fairly consistently across episodes featuring her, is her determination. Since, as a general rule, if a pony is the focus of an episode they must have a problem to overcome, frequently Applejack’s determination is depicted as stubbornness. Applejack creates her own problems by excessive stubbornness, whether that’s refusing to accept help from her friends in Season One’s “Applebuck Season,” refusing to compromise or bend her sense of propriety and fair play for others in “Look Before You Sleep” and “Fall Weather Friends” (both also Season One) or holding herself to unachievably high standards in Season Two’s “The Last Roundup” and Season Three’s “Apple Family Reunion.” But at other times her determination is a strength, as when she refuses to give up and recruits her friends and family to help against the Flim-Flam Brothers in “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”

Applejack does not quit, and she hates to lose, regarding even second place as a failure (as witness her behavior in “Fall Weather Friends” and “The Last Roundup”). But she is not a total perfectionist: “Fall Weather Friends” opens with her playing horseshoes, visually referencing the saying that “Close only matters in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Although one of the most rigid of the Mane Six (Twilight has a tendency to become even more rigid when pushed outside her comfort zone), Applejack is capable of bending when necessary, as in “Sisterhooves Social.” In order to help her sister’s friend (who is also her friend’s sister) Sweetie Belle, she cheats at the obstacle course by secretly substituting a fresh pony for herself mid-race, and simultaneously throws the contest by having that pony be the significantly less athletic Rarity. Rainbow Dash, the most competitive of the Mane Six, would never do such a thing, but Applejack is willing to do so because in addition to her stubbornness, she has a strong sense of compassion.

Applejack’s compassionate, nurturing side comes out most in her interactions with her little sister, Apple Bloom. Given their lack of parents, Applejack serves as a surrogate mother to the significantly younger Apple, most notably in “Call of the Cutie” and “The Cutie Pox”–indeed, between her brother’s taciturn and self-effacing nature and her grandmother’s age and disability, Applejack is effectively head of the family and manager of the farm; though she regularly defers to her grandmother’s experience and advice, it is usually Applejack who represents Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple family in interactions with others.

Indeed, as the series has gone one Applejack’s “stubbornness” has increasingly been portrayed as a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes pathologically so. There are hints of this as early as “Applebuck Season,” but it is most clear in “The Last Roundup,” where Applejack refuses to return home or even explain to her friends what’s going on until she’s earned the money she promised the town, and “Apple Family Reunion,” where she works herself to the bone not out of a stubborn determination to prove Big Macintosh and Twilight Sparkle wrong, but out of a sense of obligation to provide her family with a “perfect” reunion.

That episode gives us a clue to a possible reason for why Applejack acts the way she does, in that it comes as close as the show likely ever will to outright saying that her parents are dead. The implication is very strong, and therein lies a key to Applejack’s personality and the first time her character becomes remotely interesting to me all series. Consider who was left on the farm after Applejack’s parents died: Her grandmother, elderly and disabled, full of knowledge but unable to handle the exhausting physical and emotional labor of maintaining the farm and holding the family together. Her brother, physically capable but too quiet and self-effacing to lead the family. Her sister, too young for any real responsibility. Applejack would have seen herself as having no choice; she had to take on the responsibilities of running the farm and leading the family, because no one else was available to do it. She herself was likely still quite young: given that the Mane Six have been friends for at least a couple of years by the time of Equestria Girls, which depicts them as high school students, and Applejack is already depicted as running the farm in the third episode of the series, she cannot have been more than the equivalent of a 15-year-old, and could have been as young as the age difference between the sisters, perhaps as little as five or six years. Nonetheless, she shouldered the burden because no one else was around to do it, and perhaps also to distract herself from grief.

There is further evidence that her shouldering of responsibilities could serve as a distraction and escape from grief, namely that she near-compulsively takes on new responsibilities. In both “The Last Roundup” and “Apple Family Reunion,” Applejack jumps at the chance to take on new responsibilities, even though the ones she already has are quite impressive for a pony so young. Something drives Applejack to take on ever more responsibility, and we’ve seen no signs that she has any particular future goal she strives toward; it thus seems likely that her drive is away from, not towards. She is still trying to race ahead of that loss, still distracting herself from fully experiencing it and beginning the healing process.

She is, in other words, the inverse of Pinkie Pie. Both are trying to escape past trauma, but doing so in opposite ways. Pinkie Pie buries herself in fun, playing her life away in a rejection of all responsibility, while Applejack devotes herself to work, becoming the kind of pony whose idea of a party is a chance to sell her apple treats.

But this dedication, coupled with her nurturing compassion and genuine desire to help others, points to the way in which Applejack is best pony: She is, of all the ponies in the show, the one who would make the best friend or family member. She is reliable, hardworking, stable, at least relative to the rest of Ponyville, caring, nurturing, compassionate, and honest. None of these traits open up a lot of avenues for character development, humor, or entertaining drama, but they are great traits to have in a companion, whether setting out an adventure or just trying to live life.

Like her determination at the diegetic level, Applejack’s greatest strength at the extradiegetic level is also her greatest weakness. That which makes her best pony also makes her boring: she is the best pony to have as a friend, so on a show where most episodes are about learning to become a better friend, Applejack has the least to learn. Within the terms by which the show defines growth, Applejack is already fully grown.

But once again, what makes for an interesting character to watch is not the same as what makes for a good friend. Applejack has the quality of the latter in spades. In this sense, she is unquestionably best pony.