A couple of pieces of site business: First, Alicorn Priest, please e-mail me about your guest post. You should be able to find my e-mail by clicking on my name at the bottom of this post; if not, it’s hidden deep within the comment policy, which is linked to the right. Second, this is the last new post by me this month. I am burnt out on ponies and need a break, and the near-simultaneous end of the third season of reviews and the fourth season of broadcast seems the perfect place to do it. I will still have pony articles every Sunday, but they will be either guest posts or book versions of Season One articles.
Which brings me to the third item: I need guest posts! Please send ’em if you’ve got ’em! Anything within the general scope of thinky things re: My Little Pony is fair game.
Finally: Spoiler warning. In the course of writing this article I think I realized What’s In The Box. I do not explicitly state it in the article, but it’s fairly easy to figure out if you follow the article’s logic and extend it out through Season Four. So you may want to wait to read this for a week.
|Or I could be completely wrong. Perhaps this episode contains
no foreshadowing at all. We’ll find out in a week!
Though much has faded with the generally glowing reception of Season Four, there was and to an extent still is some contention regarding this episode, most of it centered on varying reactions to Twilight’s apparently sudden ascension to what seems to be a position of leadership. Although I am firmly in the camp of adoring this episode, I shall endeavor to treat the “con” position (which will hopefully get a full airing in a guest post soon) with a measure of charity. Most of this episode’s critics are, after all, engaged in that most time-honored of geek activities, ritualized hatred as a demonstration of devotion. (Yeah, I failed to last even one sentence treating them with the promised compassion.) But at the core of this complaint is a fundamental optimism. To posit that the show is risking losing some essential part of itself in search of new toys to sell is to suggest that at some point this twenty-two-minute toy commercial had, and therefore conceivably could still have, integrity.
Ultimately, the fear here is that the show faces a loss of integrity due to the (fairly obvious in the latter half of Season Three) lack of leadership, and therefore lack of anyone able to stand up to toy demands by Hasbro. The two episodes prior to this were effectively a two-parter about the Mane Six, reduced to utter fecklessness, making a hash of a major event while a greedy creature tried to scam them behind their backs, without them ever noticing; certainly there is some call for restraining any excessive optimism. But on the other hand, if we extend to the episode the basic charity of not assuming that our perceptions are reality, that an unexpected change is necessarily a sudden change, what emerges is a very fun, musically outstanding episode that explores both Twilight’s compassion for her friends in need, and how she has helped to inspire their devotion.
Notably, that devotion is not to her–at least not the devotion that matters, which is to each other. Starswirl the Bearded’s mangled spell undermines the integrity of the identity of each (Twilight excluded) of the Mane Six. Twilight’s (rather brilliant) solution is not to restore their memories (and thereby destinies, the past being what defines the future) and true selves, but rather to exploit their compassion for each other to get the “right” pony for each job to do that job. Each of the ponies in turn takes over leadership of the group (and song) while nudging the next pony in line to, as an act of charity rather than a part of their identity, help the pony after that with a task that is rightly the middle pony’s specialty. A mite confusing written out, but straightforward enough of a pattern in the episode; it is the relatively old idea sometimes stated as “pass it on”; that is, doing something for others not in hopes of a return for oneself, but in the hopes that they will elect to do good for still others, demonstrating once against that perhaps the greatest enemy of capitalism (which would necessarily include toy companies that view artistic creation as part of a marketing strategy) is optimism.
It may seem curious to keep talking about the fundamental optimism of an episode which posits Ponyville effectively falling apart without the devotion of the Mane Six. Most disturbing is that the ponies of Ponyville are apparently unable to maintain a civil society without the constant amusement provided by Pinkie Pie (which has always been an act of charity), to the point that this appears to be a more immediately upsetting loss than the imminent collapse of the town’s first business and producer of its main exports, Sweet Apple Acres. This is where more negative fans might point to the lack of integrity in Season Three, in the original sense of the word: it simply does not hold together tonally or fit in well with the established continuity of the show or the kinds of stories it was created to tell. Are the Mane Six, we start to worry, depicted as being so important just because they’re the main characters–are we, in other words, headed down a road where the majority of ponies are not fully real the way the main characters are, in direct contradiction to Lesson Zero and the necessity of recognizing other persons as other and as persons? Happily, not necessarily; it is equally possible to trace the path by which all of the Mane Six, even (especially!) Pinkie Pie, have slipped into positions of community leadership not solely because of their adventures or their abilities or even because of their status as main characters, but because when they see a problem they immediately move in to offer help–from the heroic to the mundane, all united as an expression of pure compassion.
Said compassion alone, however, is not enough; that really would be an excess of optimism! Far more is required, and to understand precisely what, we need to go back to the first time one of the Mane Six volunteered themselves into a position of leadership over more than just the Mane Six themselves. I refer, of course, to “Winter Wrap-Up,” the beginning of the most profound period of change in the development of the show, the first of the four episode stretch over which it exorcised its own false destinies and sprouted its own wings and horn, if you will. The transformation of Twilight Sparkle in this episode is tremendous; remember that her early character was defined almost entirely by devotion–to Celestia, to her studies, to her new friends–and that she thus came across very much as the stock character of the bookish, intelligent, socially awkward “nerd girl.” If, then, we are to point at episodes which violated the integrity of the show and Twilight’s character, we must look not at the episode where the character who could already cast spells enabling her to walk on clouds, teleport, and grow wings went on to grow some wings, but rather at the episode where the bookish awkward girl metamorphosed (ultimately permanently, though that was not obvious at the time) into the organizational maven and de facto ruler of Ponyville as a result of what amounts to a single act of charity.
But I do not actually advocate, as a general rule, looking at episodes without at least attempting charity. In both that episode and this Twilight’s biggest concern, as it has generally consistently been, was compassion; she was upset less at being left out and more at being unable to help, though admittedly at least part of that was because her inability to help activated her underlying insecurity. Nonetheless there is a clear thread of continuity running through the character of Twilight Sparkle. (It is, perhaps, more debatable whether there is such a thread running through the episode. One of the most prominent complaints about the episode is its lack of internal integrity; the argument is that it is rushed, that it falls into two distinct halves that could have made a two-parter. This is nonsense, and I’ll discuss why in a few paragraphs.) Consider again the method by which she helps her friends restore their memories and selves in this episode, by getting them to help each other. It is no accident that this accomplishment–and the ensuing surge of shared joy and optimism–is what triggered Twilight’s apatheosic ascension. As I said, she was a character defined by devotion to her studies, defining her identity as Princess Celestia’s student. From there, by means of the route opened by “Winter Wrap-Up,” she evolved over the course of the second season into someone who could help others to learn (one old, and still somewhat current in Britain, definition of “Master”)–in essence, the second and third seasons are her graduate coursework. Now she is a step beyond that, doing the same thing Celestia did to her in “Return of Harmony” by mailing back the friendship lessons: Teaching others how to teach (one way to understand the nature of a professorship). But her subject of study has been the fundamental building blocks of society itself; is it any wonder that what the spell actually does–which, if you pay attention to the wording of Twilight’s version, is a direct contradiction to Starswirl’s “one alone” formulation, combining the destinies of many into a single focal point–is turn the caster into a ruler? Isn’t organizing others to help one another and themselves, precisely what Twilight has specialized in since “Winter Wrap-Up,” the very essence of leadership?
And so it is, her life’s work done, her goal achieved, Twilight Sparkle dies.
To be continued. [cue happy credits music]