I have a present for you this Christmas evening: A little glimpse on how MLP:FiM is promoted in China.
As its many knock-offs show, MLP:FiM is very popular in China, with small shops selling everything from off-color clay figurines of Princesses Celestia and Luna to almost official-looking play sets of tea parties with Rainbow Dash and Rarity. This fandom does not hesitate to share the knock-offs of the toy line, and to wonder why Hasbro does not crack down on the peddlers more. I have taken many photos of the merchandise on my trip, but very likely others have found these a hundred times over.
Surprisingly, I have found that comparatively little of MLP:FiM merchandise other than toys from China gets shared, especially the books. (This seems to be true of other countries and languages too, but of course, this is an American/Canadian (and therefore English) production.) For a show that emphasizes values and therefore a concept of culture, the lack of analysis of books in other languages is rather surprising. Many of us love the show for both the morals and the way it presents the morals, and while the values it presents are very universal, it is still informed by a Western philosophical tradition (and perhaps even an Anglo-Saxon one, as language does shape thought). To see how the East (or China more specifically) treats the morals of the show and their presentations would be quite enlightening.
I first bought the second book in the series “MLP: Presenting You 18 Good Habits” to help me learn Chinese using stories I was already familiar with, but soon became interested in the way it presented the stories in themselves. I eventually got the whole series.
The covers are elegant and simple: A floral pattern dominated by one color, based off the member of the Mane Six that graces the center.
The series is published by the Tongqu (lit. “childlike”) Publishing Company Ltd., a joint venture of the People’s Post and Telecommunications Publishing House and the Danish publisher Egmont, and apparently only has offices in Beijing. So far as I can tell, this company only has a Chinese distribution. It specializes in children’s books, with IP licenses not only for MLP:FiM but Thomas and Friends, Astro Boy, and various Disney properties, as well as publishing their own original material.
Each book is 120 pages long, containing adaptations of three episodes from the show with a common theme of a class of good habits.
The first one, “Good Habits of Learning,” which appropriately shows Twilight Sparkle in thought, contains “Read It and Weep” (loving to read ardently), “Rarity Investigates!” (observing and reflecting), and “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3” (having right study methods). Second has Pinkie Pie delivering “Good Habits of Living,” and features “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” (eating a healthy diet), “Hurricane Fluttershy” (exercising), and “Flutter Brutter” (taking care of oneself). The third one, with Rainbow Dash reclining casually on a cloud, is (rather ironically) titled “Good Habits of Working,” and comprises “Somepony to Watch Over Me” (working independently), “Sonic Rainboom” (being earnest and down-to-earth), and “Newbie Dash” (developing team awareness). Fourth has the soft-spoken Fluttershy presenting “Good Habits of Speaking,” through the stories of “Luna Eclipsed” (speaking politely), “Putting Your Hoof Down” (learning to say no), and “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” (not taunting others). In the fifth, Rarity dresses three episodes as “Good Habits of Relationships”—“Amending Fences” (valuing friends), “Make New Friends But Keep Discord” (not monopolizing friendship), and “The Gift of the Maud Pie” (empathizing with others). Finally, Applejack brings us “Good Habits of Safety,” gathering “Appleloosa’s Most Wanted” (staying away from dangerous places), “Viva Las Pegasus” (not falling for sweet talk), and “A Friend in Deed” (not doing dangerous games).
The books start with a preface, “Good Habits for Achieving a Good Future,” written by Xue Lei, a National Psychological Consultant, Learning Competency Instructor, and Early Childhood Education Instructor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Psychological Institute (among other things). (I have not been able to find her listed on the CAS website, perhaps because of her status as an instructor.) She is associated with the Faber and Mazlich series of parenting lectures and workshops based on “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” which both explains quite a few features about these books and gives it somewhat less of a Chinese slant than I hoped. In the preface, Xue notes that the key to good behavior for “the long prop-up” is not changing bad habits but developing good habits, and that stern lectures tend to backfire. She then goes on to explain the set-up of the book, and concludes with two quotes about cultivating good habits, one from the American psychologist William James, and the other from the Chinese journalist and author of children’s books Ye Shengtao. Curiously, though she describes the stories that follow as “vivid and interesting,” she doesn’t give any explanation of why she chose the stories from MLP:FiM in particular as her vehicle of cultivating good habits. So far as I can tell, however, she has not drawn from other franchises for similar series of books.
Each story, after a title page, begins with an introduction of the major characters in the story. Remarkably, the series often varies the description for the same character, highlighting facts about the character that are relevant for the story that follows. For example, in “Read it and Weep,” Twilight Sparkle is noted as often encouraging other ponies to read more books, because “she knows most ponies do not know the historical legends.” For “Amending Fences,” however, her introduction focuses on her not caring much about friendship before coming to Ponyville, and even “Hurricane Fluttershy” describes her as “able to make all sorts of precision instruments.” At times, especially if it involves one-shot characters like Zephyr Breeze or Gladmane, the introductions end up giving away the story that follows, but not enough to completely spoil it.
The stories are written in a colloquial, brisk style, using plenty of common Chinese idioms to add spice and informality. (They editors are particularly fond of using the phrase “bugan-shiruo,” meaning “not to be outdone.”) As one might expect, the stories follow the events in the episodes, but there are some exceptions. These likely are to keep each book at their 120-page limits, but perhaps also is a matter of style. Notably, the cold open from “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3” is mostly omitted, despite its great characterization of Twilight and RD, instead going straight into reading the Wonderbolts history book. The reader does not really understand the significance of the test until RD fails Twilight’s pop quiz. In the adaptation of “Sonic Rainboom,” Twilight does not warn Rarity about the fragility of her wings, and their melting in the sun comes as a genuine surprise to the reader. Foreshadowing and other hints at possible futures thus do not appear to be favored devices. The hyperbole gets toned down too: A few of AJ’s protective measures from “Somepony to Watch Over Me” are skipped, as is Fluttershy’s encounter with the tourist in “Putting Your Hoof Down.” At times, the stories assume the reader is familiar with the show, despite the character descriptions at the beginnings of each—“Viva Las Pegasus” begins with “The Map once again called out…” even though it is the only Map episode to be featured in this series.
The changes are not just limited to omissions. In “Read it and Weep,” Rainbow Dash actually invites Fluttershy and Twilight in when they come to visit her at the hospital, instead of the two knocking and entering themselves. This of course softens the interruption, so the reader is not as attached to RD’s annoyance at being stopped from reading the Daring Do book. The changes and additions are particularly common when necessary to fit the intended good habit. Sometimes these additions and changes are fairly creative and fitting: When, in “Crusaders of the Lost Mark,” Diamond Tiara announces her about-face and gets her father to pay for the playground, she explains that her cutie mark talent is not only about getting other ponies to do what she wants, but even makes a point of the fact that it is a tiara, that she thought it meant she could “dictate to everyone without regard to [their] feelings, even speaking meanly.” This rendition thus emphasizes the flaw of arrogance because of social status more than the actual episode does. (I almost suspect, because it is published by People’s Post and Telecommunications, that it’s Communist Party meddling.) Others are completely shoehorned: For “A Friend in Deed,” the lesson that Pinkie Pie takes from her antics with Cranky is not that everyone has their own way of expressing friendship, but “[to] never do a dangerous game again!” which she even swears on a Pinkie Promise. Earlier, the editors even interpret the Smile Song at the beginning of the episode as not just that she likes seeing everypony smile, but that as long as she can make everypony smile, her friends will let her do whatever she wants, framing her as more careless than the episode would suggest. One shoehorned, but still fun, addition is in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” where, to make the episode better fit the “healthy eating” theme, the editors add a pony getting a stomachache from drinking the Flim-Flam Brothers’ cider.
The pictures, as expected, come from screenshots of the show, one (sometimes two) per page. More than occasionally, the pictures do not perfectly correspond with the actual text per page, sometimes even omitting key information. Again in “Read it and Weep,” the page where RD starts reading Daring Do in fact has a picture of RD trying to resist reading the book. A picture of RD wearily starting to read does appear on the next page, although the text describes RD’s reactions to be far more exciting. For “Putting Your Hoof Down,” the text mentions Angel Bunny several times, but only one screenshot with him appears, and there the corresponding text doesn’t mention him. Even more puzzling is the omission of Applejack from any screenshot from “Flutter Brutter,” even though she is listed as one of the described characters at the beginning. It seems as though the editors were less concerned about matching the text with the picture and more content to just remind the reader of what she (or he) had seen in the show.
The pictures are largely unedited, but there is at least once instance where something is added: Princess Luna in front of the spider target game in “Luna Eclipsed," using an obvious vector to make clear that she was the one making the spiders real.
With the exception of “Rarity Investigates,” each story has at least one line that summarizes the moral of the story, highlighted in colored text, a direct commentary to the reader put in a heart-shaped blurb in a screenshot, or both. The blurb commentaries do not always serve the same functions. Some summarize the moral, others make a tangential point, and yet others give direct advice. Some are self-aware that the ponies are not perfect role models: For “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3,” in the scene where RD blows spitballs at Twilight during her flashcard lesson, the editors give this warning: “Throwing spitballs [lit. marbles] at other people is very dangerous, kids, you cannot imitate it!” One unusual case, from “The Gift of the Maud Pie,” describes the characters’ own thoughts when Maud retrieves the party cannon.
A few are even addressed to the parents rather than the children, such as in “Somepony to Watch Over Me," where, as a caption to Apple Bloom taking care of the chores before Applejack returns, the editors say “Kids are more capable than we imagine. Give kids a free hand to do what they can for the housework.”
From the stories themselves we turn to the more unique aspects of the books. One of the most interesting is a section called “Pony Voices from the Heart" which summarizes in four frames the story from the perspective of one of the characters, often, but not always, from the one who had to learn something from the events. For a show that emphasizes character development, this approach is quite fitting, to further help the reader empathize with the characters and therefore better internalize the message.
Next is the section called “Pony Classroom," which further explains the good habit that the story is supposed to inspire, with three “tricks” each providing a way to develop the habit, and some lines for the child to write down any additional tricks that she can think of. Here the editors are freer to use screenshots out of context, which is usually not a problem but can result in some awkward deliveries. One of the stranger ones, shown to the left, is in the healthy eating tricks after “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” where the second one takes a screenshot from “Spice Up Your Life,” where Rarity and Pinkie are trying the Zesty Gourmand-approved cuisine. The caption that follows reads “Don’t be a picky eater, focus on matching meat and vegetables, and eat vegetables, meat, and fruit of all sorts.” Given that “Spice Up Your Life” was an episode about not eating the same things over and over again, it’s a surprise that it wasn’t used as the story. At the same time, it seems very odd for our vegetarian friends to tell us to eat meat. (It is also interesting in itself that Chinese children also are picky about eating meat, when Western parents would just expect their children to eat their fruits and vegetables. Having tried a lot of authentic Chinese cuisine while in China, I suspect it is because in many meat dishes the bones are chopped up and cooked with the meat.)
After that is a section called “Magic Practice Camp,” which presents the kids with a series of hypothetical situations that they are to judge either right or wrong, based on what they have learned. For the ones that are wrong, it further instructs the kids to discuss with their parents what should be done instead. What is particularly notable about this section is that the editors appear to have made a real effort to make the hypotheticals gender neutral—that is, both male and female characters are presented as virtuous and not-so-virtuous about equally. (I qualify this tally, though, because, especially as a non-native speaker, it is difficult to tell which names are male and female, and many Chinese names can be both.) This is interesting because in previous pony storybook publications from Tongqu, the audience was blatantly gendered—one series from 2015 was called “My Little Pony Teaches You to be a Perfect Girl.” Even more interesting is that there is no answer key in the back to accompany the questions. Though nearly all of the hypotheticals are not morally ambiguous, it still shows that the editors are more concerned with getting the children to think and interact with their parents in a dialogue, rather than to come up with the right answer. (Either that or there wasn’t room in the 120-page limit.)
What Xue considers the most important part of the books is the “Good Habit Cultivation Chart,” to encourage children to “progress a little every day.” In this four-week chart, she instructs the reader to make a small goal for oneself to develop the habit just taught, and to color in the cutie mark each day that the goal is met. Interestingly, these pages never vary per habit, always using RD’s cutie mark. I find it cute, though that Applejack always heads the chart, as a sort of watchful eye over the reader to ensure that she (or he) is honest in filling in the marks. But what is most puzzling to me is the application of such a chart to the negative injunctions in the safety book, as not playing dangerous games, avoiding dangerous places, and not believing sweet talk always require someone or something else to provide the temptation to do otherwise. There is no reason to believe that a child will encounter such situations every day, unless the goal is not to put a fork in every electrical socket one sees.
Each book ends on three notes: First is a reflective send-off of sorts, headed by these sentences: “The cultivation of good habits requires unremitting persistence. The ponies will always be there for you to cheer you on.” These are followed by a blank space next to one of the Mane Six, so the children can draw or paste a picture of themselves next to them.
Next is a gallery called “Pony Fan Artwork Exhibition,” which celebrates the artistry and creativity of those who love the show (and the books). I am not sure if these children send these pieces of artwork to Hasbro’s China offices or to Tongqu, as the book doesn’t invite them to send their own artwork to any particular place. In any case, some of the artwork is quite impressive for those from three to eleven. One six-year old (not pictured here) created a traditional Chinese shadow puppet of Fluttershy with the help of her teacher. She must have had her stage fright in mind, for she comments “Although Fluttershy is timid and shy, I hope that she can be as happy as I am every day.” Many of these young fans also like writing letters to Princess Celestia of the moral lessons they have learned in real life. Unlike the hypothetical characters, all the fans featured are girls, but it’s hard to find a young boy who is into MLP:FiM anyway, so that’s not a huge problem.
Finally each book provides a paper cutout craft of one of the Mane Six, somewhat boxy but still cute.
Although the editors designed each story to be read on their own, there are some indications that the stories also flow from each other. Most obvious is the order of the books: Learning how to learn is of course fundamental to developing good habits, so that is taught first. The basic needs of living are explored in the second book, followed by the habits of good working, which support the basic needs of living. The higher-level ideas of communication with others and forming relationships come next. The only book that completely bucks the Maslow hierarchy of needs is the last book on safety, which should have come in either between the habits of living and the habits of working, or before the habits of speaking. (To its credit, there is a blurb in “Somepony to Watch Over Me” where the editor advises the reader, as Apple Bloom encounters the swamp chimera, that “safety is most important.”) It is also interesting that “Somepony to Watch Over Me,” the story about working independently, directly follows from “Flutter Brutter,” the story about self-care, as a natural expansion of the idea.
I have already hinted my puzzlement at why “Spice Up Your Life” wasn’t used as the “healthy eating” story. I suspect two things: First, the Flim-Flam Brothers, as symbols of capitalist dishonesty, are easier, safer targets than the voice of authority that Zesty Gourmand brings. Further, Saffron Masala and her father are clearly inspired by Indian culture, and because of the border disputes between China and India, the Chinese are more likely to see India unfavorably than favorably, so having a story featuring them might get some backlash. (I did not see a single Indian restaurant when I was in China. At the same time, I do not know how "Spice Up Your Life" was received there.)
What puzzles me even more is why “Wonderbolts Academy” wasn’t used for the “don’t play dangerous games” lesson instead of “A Friend in Deed.” As I have already said, the editors had to really shoehorn that lesson in. Meanwhile in “Wonderbolts Academy,” not only does Lightning Dust purposely take extreme risks, but RD feels overshadowed by Lightning Dust because of all the risks she takes. It’s hard to interpret the fire in “A Friend in Deed” as anything more than an unhappy accident, and certainly that accident wasn’t morally significant the way that the tornado in “Wonderbolts Academy” was. Perhaps, in light of using “Newbie Dash” for the “teamwork awareness” lesson, the editors found themselves debating whether it was a good idea to show RD retrogressing on her implied awareness in “Wonderbolts Academy” on how the Wonderbolts really should operate. Maybe they thought that RD had too many episodes centered around her at that point. Maybe they just saw “A Friend in Deed” as more fun for the kids. Maybe they also thought that the scenes where Pinkie Pie keeps on waiting for mail from RD to be too distracting from the main story. It puzzles me in any case.
(I should further note, however, that this series is not the only set of pony-themed moral development books that Tongqu has recently published; there is one that focuses on making children feel proud of themselves as unique, and another that seeks to impart a more general “wisdom.”)
While far from perfect, “Presenting You 18 Good Habits” manages to capture a lot of what makes MLP:FiM so appealing to many bronies: the engaging stories, the impact of the morals, the empathy we feel with the characters, and the creativity it inspires. And probably because it was made with the parents in mind, it is no wonder it attracts fans like me, more than many English-language pony publications. (Or, at least, those who know at least a little Chinese.)
Happy Hearth's Warming Everypony!
In my last blog I indicated that I would be back in five weeks following my trip to Canada. Those five weeks turned out to be five seven months as my life has been a busy succession of classes, tests, job searches, interviews, and law school applications. Admittedly, I could have found time to go on in between, but my fear of a negative reaction to my last blog post restrained me from doing so. It was the rediscovery of my old Yahoo! mail account (where the Forums send me all their notifications) that prompted me to finally come back, after seeing that the world still accepts my right to express my opinions no matter how small or unreasoned they may appear to be. And while I did avoid the discussion on Rainbow Rocks here, I'm in time to see the speculation and hype over the new season, which has not eluded me.
Though I tend to avoid spoilers whenever possible, the itch to know can still get to me. And as far as I'm concerned, the season opener looks like it could be an interesting one, filled with the moral philosophy, challenges and questions that attracted me to the show in the first place and the world-building that keeps me coming back.
The commentary on the spoilers on Facebook somewhat disturbs me. More than once people have expressed surprise that the show would explore "communism" in a kid's show. The enforced equality depicted there is not communism, not even in its Marxist-Leninist corruption (even that concept allowed for, and even in theory was based on, the individual development of one's own talents). Rather, it is best described as an extreme manifestation of "Tall Poppy Syndrome" where those that are talented are considered to be too distinguished from others. Further, it is unclear whether the most critical part of any communist regime, the common ownership of the means of production, is actually implemented. All we know is the equality of talents for any particular member of the community, which does not necessarily preclude private ownership.
So anyhow, I'm back, and hope to take part anew in the larger brony community.
Dear friends and all those who may pass by,
Three days from now, less if we count by hours, I will be leaving the Ozarks for Canada. Specifically, to Quebec, where I will engage in a five-week French language immersion program at the prestigious University of Laval. I hope that while I am there I will not only to improve my proficiency and fluency in the French language, but to experience Quebecois culture by participating in a great number of social activities, and most of all, to demonstrate to my parents that I can, in fact, live independently of them by be able to commit to and take seriously such an intensive program while taking care of myself and looking after my priorities.
It is for this reason that I will be taking a hiatus from MLPForums for the next five weeks, starting on July 5th.
In fact, as much as I love being on the forums, I must take a break from it in order to preserve whatever sanity I still have left and to build up whatever I have lost ever since I became a brony. Trying to immerse myself in a different culture and language seems to be one of the best ways to do it.
As I continue to mature (currently I’m 23 years old and still an undergraduate), I realize that in many ways, my participation in the brony culture has been more destructive than I was, at times, much less willing to admit. Much of this stems from both a simple, naïve fascination with the show and its fandom and an almost Hegelian desire for recognition within the fandom. In several ways, these two are intimately related.
Had people not touted the merits of the show with an almost evangelical zeal, I likely would not have given the show a second thought. Of course, this statement is true of many a brony around here, and might as well be true of any cultural meme—nothing becomes popular solely on its own merits. Nor is its popularity necessarily proportional to its own merits—an example often told by economists to illustrate this point often note that an opera star like Renee Fleming is really only slightly better objectively than many a lyric soprano out there, which somehow gives her so many more fans and so much more money. Someone, perhaps a critic, perhaps just a casual opera fan, somehow picks up on some subtle difference, and suddenly the whole opera world goes wild so long as she maintains even that marginal difference of competence. Such it is with television shows too.
What differentiates me from the critics and the more astute cartoon fans out there is that I have virtually no experience with children’s cartoon shows than this. And yet I tout myself as a critic who actually believes that this show actually is considerably better than most of its competition when I really have no justified basis of doing so. Nor do I even have much experience with television in general; as the only shows I watched with any sort of frequency are the Pokemon anime series, The Simpsons and The Bullwinkle Show reruns. The latter two, of course, have their popularity for many of the same reasons that MLP:FiM does, but of course each are quite removed from MLPF:FiM in numerous respects—though the Bullwinkle Show was created as a children’s show, it might as well have been for the adults given its constant stream of Cold War satire and stuff children would never be able to understand. The Simpsons, of course, was never intended for children, even if it today (and even back in its inception when there was more of a focus on Bart than Homer) it remains one of the more family-friendly “adult” cartoons out there. (Curiously enough, Kyorena has compared MLP:FiM’s character sensitivity to that of The Simpsons, one of the most laudatory praises I have yet seen.) As far as the Pokemon anime series goes, I watched it at too young an age, not being mature enough to have contempt for it whenever it engaged in bad writing like the other two. Indeed, all I can say is that it is mediocre at best, certainly that its character development pales that of MLP:FiM, but without any specific examples. (And even for the latter two I did not criticize on a regular basis even when it was deserved.) Meanwhile, many of our most respected MLP:FiM critics have extensive pedigrees in other fandoms, both past and present, giving them not only a wider variety of entertainment to draw from, but, in many cases, more appropriate ones.
In short, as much as I like to believe otherwise, I am barely qualified to be a serious critic, having never engaged much in television to extend my credibility and inform my judgments.
What I do have, though, that perhaps gives me the façade of credibility, is my philosophy major. Thus I have instilled in me a variety of ideas on what is ethical behavior and principles and what is aesthetically pleasing, but most of all how to reason on these sorts of issues, with an emphasis on intellectual integrity and not only a respect of alternative viewpoints, but a sincere consideration of them without any privilege to one’s own. These, of course, are integral to being a responsible critic of any show. I, in fact, have failed more in this regard than I have passed. While I have absorbed particular criticisms of an episode and its aesthetic and ethical implications and in many cases, have accepted them as valid and even superior to my own at least by their own logic, I never make much of an effort to instill in myself a systematic aesthetic philosophy to the point which what I like is logically “correct”. This results in a haphazard and capricious application of such principles that merely justify a raw, irrational impression of an episode that might as well depend on what I ate (or didn’t eat) for breakfast.
Why else, then, would I criticize “Pinkie Pride” and call the Remane 5’s abandonment of Pinkie Pie morally equivalent of what happened in “Mare-Do-Well” when I knew full well of the differing circumstances? Although I still hold on to Twilight’s complacency in allowing the Goof-Off to go on as problematic, much of my dislike still hides a mere hatred of the hype that surrounded Weird Al’s appearance. Why else would I still put “Maud Pie” in my “Near Love” pile because I am somewhat sympathetic to the Maud hype and I liked the unconventional humor when I increasingly believe that it portrayed the conflict incorrectly and dishonestly (that is, by putting too much blame on the Remane 5 and not enough on Maud and Pinkie Pie themselves)?
All this is further exacerbated by my near total identity of myself not only by my bronyhood, but also by a desire to be a reputed and distinct critic within the fandom. This is where my previous assertion of “an almost Hegelian desire for recognition” comes into play. I refer to the idea that in order for one’s consciousness to be satisfied, in the early stages of its development, it must see itself as the sole source of truth (or at least philosophically superior) and expect others to do so. For those of you who have studied Hegel, you’d immediately recognize this as the beginning of the master-slave dialectic. I, of course, have never gone so far as kill other critics in order to support my own (and of course, I might be killed myself) or even enslaved another so that his criticisms would necessarily flow from my own, but in my own mind, I have already won the death struggle, engaging in a perceived battle where I just declare myself the victor and thus assert my own superiority just for my sake. I have believed that just by asserting my own against theirs and not even caring to come to honest terms with them I have demonstrated myself as superior. I have thus negated them on a philosophical level, and now I realize the contradiction that Hegel said I would. Although I politely adjusted my criticisms when critics actually confronted me, it still took a lot of soul-searching to come to terms with myself.
Even today, I still keep awake at night worrying about defending myself from criticisms. In one particular instance, where I was trying to defend my assertion that Fluttershy’s stage fright in “Filli Vanilli” was not necessarily discontinuous from past precedent, I kept on worrying that my reputation was at stake. I pained myself over possible rebuttals and my rebuttals to them. My innate, immature fears still linger, though without the blatant arrogance.
This is perhaps understandable given my desire to go into law, as a lawyer necessarily has to do this all the time if he or she wishes to win a case. That goes into another reason why I feel I must at least go into hiatus for a while: why should I care when I can direct my talents into more productive realms? Why am I not honing my skills arguing how Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was decided so wrongly at every level? Why am I not investigating the latest developments in theoretical chemistry? (And above all, why am I not doing it in French?) My other asserted passions have been lost to Twilight Sparkle et. al. and their creators.
I need to save myself from this obsession. Perhaps in time I will figure out how to make my views coherent and how they can coexist with more productive realms. Perhaps I will meet people interested in law, philosophy, chemistry, and yes, MLP:FiM while in Quebec. Of the latter I will not make it the single-minded interest that creates my identity while I am there.
I need rehabilitation.
Au revoir. Je regrette de devoir y quitter pour un temps.
1. I'm off to Quebec and I will take a five-week hiatus from this site.
2. I feel that I've failed to live up to critical standards in my writings and qualifications.
3. I realize that failing to live up to these standards, as well as my obsession and near total identification with it, has caused me a good deal of pain.
 In fact, I liken the common criticism of some character being “out-of-character” as an analogous implication of one of Kant’s forms of the Categorical Imperative, namely that one should treat another person (or cartoon pony) always as an end in itself and never merely as a means (in the show's case, a mere plot device). This, of course, is an imperfect analogy, as Kant grounded this in free will and autonomy, and we can't necessarily say that a cartoon pony whose existence is completely dependent on another actually has this. However, we recognize that ponies have been created with a certain personality in mind, made in our image as rational as we are, and that we think of them as autonomous beings once this personality is put in place.
 In reality, I considered myself inferior, but hid it out of arrogance.
Season 4 has been an overall good journey, filled with many enjoyable episodes including some truly inspired ones, though not without some major bumps and potholes along the way. Here I will attempt, in the fashion of many a great reviewer, to rank each episode and attempt to defend its merits or demerits. I'll admit that this list is perhaps a month overdue due to my reluctance to post opinions about the finale despite its overall quality, which were too conflicted for me to rank.
But here we are. Enjoy, and feel free to argue about any of these.
1. Filli Vanilli—Say what you will about Pinkie Pie being an asshole, she was. And yet I still found her “visions” of stage fear funny and compelling, and one can argue that it at least contributed to the theme by demonstrating that there will always be manifestations of your fears in whatever path one takes. And like Fluttershy eventually deciding to become open about her musical skills, I too will not let it deter me too much from loving this episode. The songs in this episode are just awesome, and it was totally a moment of inspiration (though admittedly a fairly common trope) to merge the two main songs into one to make a strong cap to the themes of this episode. And of course, who can’t at least appreciate a callback to Poison Joke or Big Macintosh actually having a significant role in this episode?
2. Pinkie Apple Pie—This episode is a charmer the way the best of Disney/Pixar is. The dynamic between the Apple Family, both within themselves and with Pinkie Pie, is superb, and we get ourselves an old, tired theme made new with a good deal of whimsy and fun. The ambiguity of Pinkie’s status as an Apple only helps to heighten the effect the theme of that irreducible and firm love that comes in a family relationship, and Pinkie’s role as a “perfect fool” by being too engrossed in this love to be affected by the other Apple’s petty arguments also makes this a truly inspired work by Natasha Levinger. I also can’t help but think of the “Ship of Theseus” reference that the plot implies as the Apple family’s wagon changes and eventually gets destroyed along with their apparent relationships along the journey. Some of the acting and dialogue was a bit too “rash” for my taste, but it’s just taste.
3. For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils—Easily Dave Polsky’s finest episode, not just this season, but of all time. The nightmare sequence, especially Rarity’s downfall, is a thing of beauty and inspiration, and the rest of the episode has much candy for both the eye and brain to feast upon, especially its humor of good wit and the welcome presence of Luna, whose role takes on an even greater significance as she more personally connects with Sweetie Belle’s problems than she did with Scootaloo in “Sleepless in Ponyville”. Rarity is in supreme form this episode, her worries, skill, and generosity shining throughout. I used to only put this in my "near love" pile, since Polsky falls into a critical “tell, don’t show” trap early on by simply stating that Sweetie Belle had worked hard on her play—had we been show Sweetie Belle actually fretting over a detail that she didn’t already pass its responsibility to Rarity, her situation would be at least a bit more sympathetic by a further expression of her credibility. But it is definitely an inspired effort nonetheless, and a true standout of the season that greatly deserves its praise.
4. Maud Pie—I like it when shows like this take risks like this, and for the most part, this episode succeeded, though not without some bumps along the way. It seemed to be a bit of a stretch to have the Remane 5 finally warm up to Maud because she loves Pinkie Pie as they do, as it never seemed to address the basic problem of why they weren’t enthusiastic about her in the first place. I think it can be assumed, however, that they also thought it was best to connect with Maud through the rock candy and not the other way around, brought about by the love, realizing that it was also best to actually take interest in Maud’s interests rather than to expect the other to be interested in yours. But I liked Maud herself in sort of an ironic way, and I commend this episode for making her drabness and one-track mind interesting, and it just had a good heart to it.
5. Rarity Takes Manehattan—This was the first truly good episode that Dave Polsky ever wrote—not only do we get to see Rarity’s Element finally tested or explored in a meaningful way, but I can’t help but enjoy the not-quite anti-capitalist subtext underneath Rarity’s exploitation of her friends in helping her make the dresses and her believing the cruel world of “everypony for herself” as an impenetrable reality. And who can’t feel for her as she realizes her Pyrrhic victory in not seeing her friends show up? Great as it was, the episode seemed to be riddled with logical lapses (for example, if Rarity believed that her friends had already gone back to Ponyville, how could she have thought to get tickets for Hinny of the Hills for them the very same day?), but fortunately they can be overcome by this episode’s heart and soul.
6. Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3—Were I judging from the third act alone, this would easily be my favorite episode of the season. The Wonderbolts history-in-flight scene is a sequence of pure beauty and unity, and cleverly, in the best tradition of MLP:FiM, demonstrates the usefulness of all ways of studying by incorporating them all, without denigration of them. Yet the episode got off to a very rocky start with some awkward acting and dialogue and by the time Twilight and RD were arguing, and even a while afterwards, the episode seemed to drag. It also irked me a bit that all the others knew Wonderbolts history with virtually no explanation or self-aware lampshading. This episode can easily rise up in my rankings tomorrow though.
7. Twilight’s Kingdom—I actually have a lot of problems with the two-parter finale, a lot. It actually puzzles me that the episodes have gotten the laudations it did considering how (1) it took the easy way in by having directly telling the significance of all the special journal entries and (2) the only way to explain the action of the plot coherently is if Discord and Celestia had actually set up the whole thing to provide another test for Twilight to deserve her kingdom. The most cursory analysis, then, reveals a rather sketchy and poorly thought out plot. And yet I still consider it a very worthy work, actually using Discord as more than a troll and exhibiting his dilemmas in both helping and betraying Equestria, not to mention the significant world-building that demonstrates the magic inherent in all ponies, long speculated but now confirmed, which serves to both build up the contrast between selfish tyranny and egalitarian friendship in the course of transfer of power. I just love to wax philosophical about this episode, and for that reason I still rank it as high as I do.
8. Bats!—This episode was just a fun little romp with one of the series’ best songs in both melody and artistic conception. It had a tendency, however, to abuse its artistic license in ecology and to give short shrift to AJ’s side of the argument, in such a way that the arguments on both sides are very weak. At least it ends up with its heart in the right place, stressing long-term thinking with a safely pony-centric view against personal pressure brought about by Fluttershy’s transformation. Plus, I can’t help but enjoy the B-movie feel of it all, and the great camerawork and artistry done on the Flutterbat hunt.
9. Simple Ways—I’m not sure why I rank this episode as high as I do, as I found Rarity’s obsession over Trenderhoof too over-the-top even for her and I felt that the actual festival was put too much in the background to the (incomplete) love triangle plot. Perhaps I have become too desensitized to the “love makes you crazy” trope from all my knowledge and appreciation of opera to just find it amusing every time and not care whether it is really in character for her or a mark of idiocy. While it started off weakly, it quickly developed into a fun-nay ride with better than average dialogue and good Rarijack dynamics.
10. Inspiration Manifestation—Leave it to Meghan McCarthy to give us another one of her classic descents into madness in this modified “Midas Touch” episode. Spike, too, was a gem here despite his foolishness and immaturity in not telling Rarity that she’s making things worse, if only for his good intentions and reasonable fears given his previous relationship with Rarity. Owlicious has a good role here too as conscience, whose “tut-tuts” only become wittier as the episode progresses. In addition, the episode was just plain funny, and I, as an aspiring patent attorney, can’t help but nerdgasm over this episode airing on World Intellectual Property Day. It’s not unreasonable to believe that this was purposeful. Rarity, however, was more of a fool here than Spike, since she should have at least been more attentive to the puppeteer’s specifications beforehand, and Spike’s indecision went on for longer than was really necessary. Originally I considered this episode in my “love” pile but on further review I’ve decided that it doesn’t deserve to be called “inspired”. What would have made this episode truly inspired is if Spike was part and parcel to the spell (that is, having a role in casting or maintaining the spell) rather than just being the delivery boy so that the relationship between him and Rarity could be better reinforced and better support the intended moral.
11. Princess Twilight Sparkle—There are several episodes that I prefer more of a “meta” analysis than a “literal” one, and this two-parter is one of them and easily invited it. While Twilight’s friends convincing her to stay behind seemed extremely strange, it is at least explained by not only their wrestling with Twilight’s new status but also our fandom’s own as well, addressing the fears of inequality at least satisfactorily enough to keep us optimistic for the new season. The “alicorn magic milk” was a bit contrived but at least was interesting to see and fosters interesting headcanons on how the Princesses store memories. Discord provided this episode with a good deal of wit that goes beyond randomness, although the critical lack of information when the six needed it seemed quite disturbing. Oh well, he’s not quite a saint yet. Plus, the visuals and music were simply splendid; so much that I originally considered this episode a “masterpiece”. As one can see, my view is much more qualified now.
12. Somepony to Watch Over Me—Don’t fool yourselves, Applejack was completely out of character this episode, even for me, who only really considers it a problem when it’s also a storytelling flaw—although there are perfectly good explanations that fans have offered into why she acted the way she did, it still was inadequately developed in the episode itself, nor are these fan explanations necessarily implied within. I must also admit that the moral/ending was a bit botched as it seemed to imply that doing dangerous things is a sign of maturity, but this is somewhat offset by AJ still being upset at her decision, so at least that is not completely endorsed. Better wording might have helped. That being said, we do have a number of very witty moments in this episode and a touch of heart that keeps this episode in my “like” pile, but only barely.
13. Twilight Time—This was technically a good episode with a straightforward logical progression and some very good aspects, including the development of the CMC’s development of their talents in a more controlled way than their usual crusading, and of course the reappearance of Diamond Tiara’s more cleverly manipulative side we have not seen since “Ponyville Confidential”. Yet this wasn’t the sort of episode that demanded such a serious tone, and it seems to lack the energy that is prevalent to many MLP:FiM episodes and quite bored me. I also felt that Twilight Sparkle was too “perfect” here, forgiving the CMC too easily and too much “in control” (despite this actually being a positive development in her character, it doesn’t make her particularly interesting), although her wham line condemning the tagalongs was simply golden.
14. Pinkie Pride—Please don’t hurt me, but I actually want to hate this episode. Even if we grant that this is a better musical than “Magical Mystery Cure”, that aspect alone did absolutely nothing for me. I personally found the songs very annoying and cliché without any real inspiration or melody. There was something fundamentally wrong about Twilight being complacent in allowing what should have obviously been suspicious behavior (that is, challenging the new guy that isn’t really a threat to a goof-off) well after the initial hype should have worn off. I also got a sense that Pinkie was not in prime form here as a party planner, thus making the comparison a little unfair given that poorly drawn banner at the beginning. But I can’t condemn this episode to Tartartus. Cheese Sandwich was an extremely well-done and charismatic, if over-the-top, one-off character, and the episode itself had an adequate (if with somewhat too predictable and badly delivered dialogue and devices at times) development. Finally, it exudes an aura of greatness that seems to defy describing, so it at least deserves some of the raving it has gotten.
15. Leap of Faith—At first, I didn’t really care too much for this episode, as its dialogue and plot was unusually predictable, even for this show, and it seemed to lack any real humor to speak of. These days, I have learned to find the funny parts, although it is still considerably less than usual. While the Flim-Flam Brothers seemed to step down a peg from their “honest but too haughty and manipulative” business persona to straight-out con men, this can at least be analogized, if a bit weakly, to Trixie’s own desperation and takeover of Ponyville in “Magic Duel”. On more positive notes, AJ’s dilemma is very nicely demonstrated, and Silver Shill provides a great challenge to AJ’s element, I would say even more than Flim and Flam themselves.
16. Equestria Games—This episode, at the end of the day, had only its visuals, whatever it actually did show of the Games, and the moral going for it, which are enough for me to rank it as high as I do. Other than that, this is a quickly forgettable episode. I don’t care all that much that the episode didn’t actually focus on the Games and thus didn’t live up to its hype, but even if I did it would be the least of my problems with this surprisingly weak episode from the same person who had previously given us “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils”, “Rarity Takes Manehattan”, and “Twilight Time”. (Then again, he also did “Daring Don’t”.) The episode did a lot of collateral damage to get where it did, from not adequately analyzing Spike’s actual stress in not lighting the torch, Twilight not apparently suffering consequences for doing it for him, the unnecessarily long bad rendition of the Cloudsdale Anthem that should have ended in the middle with Spike being drummed off the field in disgrace, and the climax that virtually handed Spike the Most Convenient Way to prove himself worthy of his esteem. I really did expect a better performance out of this one.
17. Trade Ya—Although it is nice to see Twilight actually doing something as a princess this episode and Rainbow Dash’s and Fluttershy’s search for trading items and subsequent “inadvertent” indentured servitude fairly appealing (though Fluttershy was too passive here and thus out of character given her previous character development), this episode was a bit of a dud. The humor mostly fell flat for me, but its biggest sin was not doing anything to connect each of the subplots together in a meaningful way except for a blatant sermon by Rainbow Dash explaining the intended theme of the episode. On top of that, Rarity and Applejack’s friendship “fallout” was plain petty on one level and badly developed on another, stopping even before the climax could be reached and only resolved when we no longer care about it. Twilight and Pinkie’s “fallout” was somewhat better, but Pinkie was sort of annoying here and too aggressive, and Twilight pulled a “sour grapes” in not trading her books, as it completely ignored the original purpose of her trying to get rid of them in the first place (is she going to try to get rid of all the new books later?).
18. It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies—I don’t know if Levinger thought that reverting to a more G3 style would positively augment the introduction of the Breezies, but if it was, it was a poor decision. Seabreeze, of course, made the episode watchable with his insistence on going home over the desires of his cohort, as well as both him and Fluttershy actually learning how to be compassionate and show tough love at the same time, which makes the moral unusually complex. I won’t go into all of this episode’s faults, but the dialogue, scripting, and acting at times was especially poor, and there really was little point in the transformation scene except to fill up time with a too blatant awareness that the episode had to end soon. I do think that the revival of ponies actually taking an active part in keeping the environment stable has been overlooked in this episode as this season has been overall lacking in such references, even if the mechanics of it itself seem to raise a lot of serious and critical questions regarding its plausibility.
19. Power Ponies—Superhero episodes are usually a turn-off for me, although for this episode I have to give it credit for it only being in an alternate reality and for the Mane 6 being genuinely shocked over their transfer into the comic book world and the humorous sequence of them getting used to their powers. It also benefited from a very good and witty cold open. Nonetheless, the theme itself is executed as humdrum as Spike’s character itself, with far too much repetition of the “worthless” name calling and self-pity, and of course, the rather predictable way in which Spike proves that he isn’t, further hammered by the obviousness in how the Mane-iac was going to fail in her efforts by not capturing Humdrum!Spike. The dragging pace of this episode and the rather generic developmental structure further made it a very humdrum episode. It is episodes like these where we can’t help but think “Gee, this really is a Saturday morning cartoon show.”
20. Castle Mane-ia—I have never been a fan of Scooby-Doo, and perhaps that already biased me against this episode. For a series well regarded for its generally superb development and presentation of conflicts, it was more than offsetting to sit through the Mane 6 exploring the Everfree castle and falling into its traps waiting for an actual plot to arise, especially when Twilight’s research gave us promise of perhaps some secret of the castle that they would have to discover or overcome, which barely figured in as nothing was actually done about the traps. (I’m actually surprised that Twilight never actually got into any traps herself—she seemed to be there mostly for contrast with the others—funny in a way but hardly significant in the end.) The ending, however, bugged me the most. The delivery of the moral was just plain poor—monotone voices, excessive repetition, and a sense that it was more directed to the audience than something the ponies actually see as significant for themselves. Its execution almost reminded me of the “Simpson Family hidden camera” scene in “Burns’ Heir” where Mr. Burns tries to convince Bart that his real family doesn’t love him anymore, with its obviously bad acting and convenient directness.
21. Three’s a Crowd—This episode suffered from a juvenile plot with even more juvenile characters. Cadence and Twilight gave Discord too much benefit of the doubt when they know full well Discord’s reputation as a troll. And like in “Trade Ya”, the moral was delivered through sour grapes—“Eh, the Crystal Empire’s too boring anyway”—nullifying the point of Cadence’s and Twilight’s time together, as one would think that if Cadence wanted to do something more exciting than seeing the Starswirl exhibit, she would at least mention it to Twilight. If nothing else, Cadence’s about-face seemed to be poorly developed. A lot of minor points bugged me here: the song was terribly sung and had a boring melody, and Discord’s humor was mostly reduced to randomness that no longer becomes interesting as the episode progresses, and I was disappointed that we didn’t actually learn more about Starswirl the Bearded through this, and also missed an great opportunity to directly address the common “Discord is Starswirl” headcanon.
22. Flight to the Finish—A largely forgettable episode with a forgettable song, this at least should get some credit for addressing Scootaloo’s apparent inability to fly. Other than that, this episode dragged on forever, not actually developing its conflict until well into the second half of it. It also bugged me that few of the other entries into the flag-bearing competition were actually shown, and that of Diamond Tiara’s and Silver Spoon’s was especially lacking, as showing it would have at least given them a bit more motivation to psychologically sabotage the CMC’s efforts rather than just as designated bullies. Rainbow Dash was also extremely annoying in her enthusiasm for the competition, although we are supposed to dislike Mrs. Harshwhinny’s insistence on professionalism. At least she was genuinely supportive of the CMC, and especially Scootaloo, throughout.
23. Rainbow Falls—While I do think that this episode gets too much hate, its poor rating by the community is very much deserved. Rainbow Dash’s conflict, while reasonable, didn’t have the circumstances surrounding it to make it convincing, especially his Ponyville teammates’ apparent inability to improve themselves during the course of the training. (Their sudden incompetence in flying is also fairly disturbing.) If anything, a better conflict would have been for RD to replace his own members of the team in order to hedge his chances against Cloudsdale—it would have been a far more interesting conflict of loyalties. Spitfire became a certified jerk in this episode for keeping Soarin’'s recovery of her wing from RD for no real reason, and her tempting of RD itself was just plain questionable. Various plotholes abounded here as well, such as the apparent inconsistency in how teams qualify for the Games, Rarity’s fashion was horrible, and most of the Mane 6 had absolutely no reason to be there. Its biggest killer, though, was RD’s blatantly obvious faking of his injury which only Twilight Sparkle apparently had enough brain cells to see through. When idiot plots become this obvious, especially to force a moral, an episode clearly has something wrong with it.
24. Daring Don’t—Dear Celestia this episode was an insult—I could write books on how bad this episode was. Making A.K. Yearling and Daring Do the same pony just called into question too much of the world we had already built up to this point, even within the episode itself. We either have her publishers being complacent in constantly putting her life in danger, or she exploited a fan into getting in her book even when she can’t guarantee that anypony would be so engrossed in the series to force her to actually finish her book. (If nothing else, it just reeks of a forced plot.) Rainbow Dash was a total creep for no good reason stalking her idol, and yet she gets rewarded with the highest honors at the end because Yearling has a perverted idea on how to get a story going. Plus, plot holes abound that make me think Polsky and his editors wrote this episode drunk, and to top it all off, the episode seemed to stereotype fandoms such as ours as all obsessed. I find it amazing that anyone can actually like this episode, but I will admit that some of the action scenes were fairly cool.
Well… it was difficult for me to find a good quote to incorporate into the title. It’s somewhat hard to review an episode where nothing, whether good or bad, really stands out or leaves an impression in my mind in more than an intellectual way. Perhaps I expected the whimsy of “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” to return for the Flim-Flam Brothers's second appearance, but even the optimism I tried to keep up while watching seemed to leave me. Not that I didn't find anything worthy of laudation, but if I said I genuinely liked the episode, I would be lying as much as Silver Shill would be about Flim-Flam’s tonic.
This time, I’ll try to incorporate both styles of review that I have implemented in the past, first starting with the semi-organized stream of consciousness style of my earlier work and then summarize my feelings through a brief strength-weakness listing at the end.
On the Characters
Increasingly, we get the feeling that for many episodes in this season, the plot largely dictates the character’s actions. Not so for “Leap of Faith”—nopony can be said to be out of character, nopony has their traits Flanderized for the sake of the plot, and even when neither of these happen, we never get the feeling that a character’s action is convenient for the story at hand. Applejack, for example, is as initially suspicious of the tonic as we would expect her to be, as in “Three’s a Crowd” vis-à-vis Discord’s “blue flu”, like with the Keepers of the Groves of Truth in “The Return of Harmony, Pt. 1”, and yes, of the Flim-Flam Brothers’s motivations in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000”. Better yet, she doesn’t lie to herself so easily, only doing so when Granny Smith’s happiness and confidence is known to be improved. (Lying to save relationships is not new here for Applejack; one can argue the information omissions in “Party of One” and “The Last Roundup” are precedent to this as both also were pressured by a fear of a crack in relationships.) Many can say this is less obnoxious than other examples where she casts out her irrational self for the sake of family as we see her crumble for her high point, just like Rarity’s excellent example in her own key episode. Better yet, we root for her integrity to ultimately carry the day—maybe the memories of her learning to come to terms with the truth in “The Last Roundup” played a role here as she realized that what she stands for has been grievously violated. So here we have her character development consistent, but the growth that she has shown has been reconfirmed.
Granny Smith, for her part, is as easily manipulated as ever, recalling how her pride was manipulated in “The Super Cider Squeezy 6000”, although this time, it is more personal as it relates to a desire to relive her younger days as an Aquapony. Apple Bloom, too, also is as delightfully naïve here as the last time the Flim-Flam Brothers came to town. It’s also good to note that the closeness that she has with Granny Smith has only gotten stronger since “Family Appreciation Day” as she looks up to the amazing things that her grandmother (was) able to do and we have no doubt that she enjoys her time with her throughout.
And now for our antagonists: It seems that Flim and Flam’s cider business had gone the same way as Trixie’s magic acts after their Ponyville mishap and like her, they are resorting to more desperate measures to support their shady business dealings. Of course, here the Flim Flam Brothers are considerably less sympathetic than in their first appearance, perhaps due to the implied (and our speculated) fall from grace (more explicitly stated in “Magic Duel”), but they don’t need to be. (And come to think of it, maybe they were never meant to be so.) They still are the ethically questionable salesponies they have ever been but worse, becoming true con men in the process. Perhaps even more remarkably and paradoxically, they maintain at least some of the honesty that they originally had in “The Super Cider Squeezy 6000” by being completely candid to AJ about the contents of the tonic and their justification for why they are doing it. This helps set up AJ’s dilemma well, perhaps in the most ironic way. And of course, they are quite cunning in using AJ to help promote their product even more. They know that AJ is a pony in Ponyville with a reputation of trustworthiness, and we feel positively outraged when Flim and Flam speak of Applejack’s approval of the tonic—manipulative and helps us feel even more inclined that the truth must be told someday.
This time around, they have a shill, quite appropriately named “Silver Shill”. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the episode to me, but also the character where I am most conflicted about. We can’t help throughout but speculate on why he joined the Flim Flam Brothers’s act in the first place, although given the tendency for ponies’s cutie marks to drive their life, he’s probably as sympathetic as the Flim Flam Brothers here in that regard. And yet we still get the same impression of him that we get of characters like Gil from “The Simpsons”—spineless but lovable because they seem to be in conflict with their own weaknesses of will, letting his observations of other characters affect the presumably better part of his psyche. Maybe he never wanted to be a shill, but it’s what his cutie mark is telling him, and he wants to find ways to justify it, at least until Applejack finally convinces him to see the truth. (Speaking of which, it is often implied that a pony’s cutie mark is largely dependent on a pony’s identification with a talent. This seems to means that if a pony somehow has this changed, the cutie mark would change as well. I get a feeling that this should have happened to Silver Shill when he sees the light, but since it never appears to, it might ultimately be a more permanent thing.)
On the Episode’s Plot and Aesthetics
So… what went wrong despite these laudable points of characterization? The plot of “Leap of Faith” is nicely structured, keeping a coherency stronger than that of “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000”, but yet seemed to lack the whimsy of the earlier episode, especially in the song, which was nowhere near as catchy as the original episode’s “con song”. The “Placebo effect” plot seemed to be played too straight in my mind, without the energy and humor of the old episode. Yet something should be said about this: “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” is an episode about the sometimes irrational nature of market dynamics but still coming out mostly positive in the end, and the humor and energy of it served to support this theme. “Leap of Faith” is, by contrast, an episode about the virtue of honesty, plain and simple, and how it should never be compromised by the potential that a lie can actually be beneficial in some way (although we are also taught that it can still be harmful, as Granny Smith’s almost-certain death plunge can attest), and ought to be done with a considerably more serious tone as it is here.
So the moral is well done and the feeling of the episode fits the seriousness of the theme. But in the process I was less impressed by it and more driven by a neutral “check”, “check”, “good”, “check”. The aesthetics, characters, and the plot worked to serve the theme, but it just felt dry. I cannot remember a time when I was less amused or even moved, for better or for worse, by the progression of an MLP:FiM episode. AJ’s internal conflict regarding the tonic is understandable, but only on an intellectual level. We do share sympathy for AJ’s desire to keep the truth about the tonic, but it feels somewhat remote. Then again, a flood of feelings is not necessarily in line with the aesthetic of the episode. Maybe I’ve been too used to the flood that I’ve experienced in other episodes. Intellectual appreciation is good but favoritism is a feeling, and if the feeling is not there, I cannot completely favor it as far as aesthetic worth goes. And since I see MLP:FiM as fundamentally a comedy, the lack of even comic relief that ties well with the plot seems to stick out. (The comedy that is there, like Lyra's upside-down "10", felt more like an afterthought than organic to the plot.)
I will say, however, that the ending where AJ reveals the truth about the tonic seems to come off as a bit too heavy-hooved, as it seems to too starkly state what the audience has already figured out. But I suppose it is necessary to be heavy-hooved in such a context, but it still felt a bit awkward in my mind.
AJ’s key being a bit is quite a delightful surprise. Such an item is both ordinary and practical as AJ herself is, and the sentimental value that it has for AJ is quite in line with most of the other keys that we have seen. Still, we can’t help but worry that this will be lost soon because it is really too practical, and AJ is not necessarily the type that would keep such an ordinary thing hidden because of its sentimental value.
Before I wrap up, let me return to Flim and Flam's con song. Though I found it to be as underwhelming as the rest of the episode in general, I think that it is, in many ways, more daring than the one in "The Super Cider Squeezy 6000". There's a nice incorporation of spoken but rhymed lines that flow more like a sales pitch, and it also doesn't seem to be treated so much as a song than rather reflective of the sales pitches's aesthetic-- in fact it is interesting that it abruptly stops with a convinced customer, in this case Granny Smith, which means that it needs not go on any longer because it has accomplished what it intends to do in the first place.
1. The characters feel very organically connected to the plot and are its real driving force. No character is forced by the plot to do anything to make it go, it is truly a character-based episode that is ultimately what MLP:FiM is about.
2. AJ’s internal conflict is quite sympathetic to the audience.
3. The episode’s overall aesthetic was appropriate for its theme.
4. The moral is an excellent one in reaffirming the virtue of honesty despite the practical benefits of lying.
1. The moral comes off as too heavy-hooved in its wording that doesn't introduce anything new for the audience to realize.
2. The aesthetic is almost too serious for a show such as this and doesn’t exactly invite positive feelings of liking, thus the impact is diminished.
3. Flim and Flam's con song is not as catchy as the original one (though it does have many interesting qualities).
As a good key episode but nothing to gush over, this was ultimately an episode for the mind and not the heart, but even the mind may need a little bit of a placebo to get it to trust the truth, which seemed to miss me. But perhaps this episode will impact me deeper later on in the future as I reconsider what I consider important in judging the quality of an episode. I guess I must face the truth someday that the best sort of episodes may not be the ones I like the best.
(And yes, I'm surprised it took me this quickly to write a review for this episode. I guess there was less for me to sort in my mind than usual.)
As the most anticipated episode of the season since “Pinkie Pride”, “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils” like the former, has plenty more to its merit than the starring/appearance of a fan favorite (in this case the Guardian of Night and designated dream watch-princess Luna), and may in fact be one of the most immediately and universally likable this season, doing nothing that would obviously cause a fan or even casual watcher to raise an eyebrow of alarm to seriously question the quality of the episode. Though I didn’t genuinely enjoy it as much as I should and thus am more inclined to highlight its faults, it is the duty of a reviewer to at least call attention to the points that did work and praise it for those things just as much.
I depart from my usual style of reviewing here in order to facilitate reading, adopting a straightforward strength/weakness listing as opposed to a semi-organized stream of consciousness approach as exhibited in my reviews for “Pinkie Pride”, “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies”, or (to a lesser extent) “Maud Pie”. This new approach, of course, is already a staple of several intelligent and well-regarded reviewers on this site, and their insight has not been sacrificed due to its simplicity.
1. If there was ever an episode to demonstrate to the Rarity neighsayers that the fabulous dressmaker does indeed have a generous heart, this is the one. Throughout the episode we see Rarity as self-sacrificing to her little sister, from her willingness to fix Sweetie Belle’s dresses for her play despite having Sapphire Shores’s order nearing deadline to saving Sweetie Belle’s fifth birthday from being a total bust by giving out party favors in the dream sequence. This demonstrates not only that she is generous but is generous because she cares for others. This caring demonstrates that generosity is really a strong friendship (or perhaps in this case, sisterhood) virtue because of the connection to others that belies it.
It is also good to note Rarity's patience with Sweetie Belle demonstrates an improvement of the relationship between them since "Sisterhooves Social", even as she is upset that Sweetie Belle tried to ruin her dresses. This patience helps to greatly reinforce the imperfect but fundamentally understanding relationship that the two have with each other.
2. When I first read the plot teaser before the episode aired, I worried that Sweetie Belle would completely vandalize Rarity’s dresses and get sadistic pleasure out of seeing Rarity cry and rage, at least until Rarity finds out her sister is responsible. Fortunately, Sweetie Belle is a lot more subtle in her havoc-wreaking and wisely removes herself from Rarity’s potential rage by foreseeing that her finding out should only be revealed when Rarity is out of town giving the headdress to Sapphire Shores. Not only does this open up a good avenue to potentially make the situation right and prevents Rarity from completely disowning her sister, it also demonstrates that Sweetie Belle is considerably smarter than many commentators tend to give her credit for. Although perhaps in my own prediction Sweetie Belle could have planted evidence to make it so, say, Opalescence had ruined the dresses and thus accomplish the same characterization, her simple undoing of the stitch is more in line with her personality (she’s not really manipulative) and the behavior is strangely less contemptible.
3. The episode not only exhibits many hallmarks of the nouveau Polsky, but is strongly appropriate for the subject matter. The “nouveau Polsky” to which I refer is characterized by a more subdued style of humor (at least in comparison with his earlier episodes) combined with a stronger emphasis on exploring character’s states of mind and motivations, such as in Polsky’s two episodes before this one, “Rarity Takes Manehattan” and “Twilight Time”. Like in “Rarity Takes Manehattan” (but unlike in “Twilight Time”, but that’s for another time), the premise here is heavy enough that humor deserves to take a background role and lose some of either its wackiness or punch and give a chance for the states of minds of the characters to carry the story and provide the entertainment and cathartic value. In other words, “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils” is not laugh-out-loud funny, but its entertainment value derives from more fundamental aspects that work for the story itself, as it asks us to focus rather on Sweetie Belle’s jealousy of her sister with just a dash of good humor.
4. That being said, the episode has stronger humor throughout than the two previous nouveau Polsky episodes and is thus more enjoyable in that regard. Whoever figured that “Make me a dress, Rarity” would become an accidental line of alarm to an increasingly unstable Rarity (“You know I don’t do that anymore!”)? One of my personal favorites, however, is Sweetie Belle’s excuse of being ignorant of Sapphire Shores’s hits: “I prefer show tunes.” How clichéd and yet how appropriate it is for Sweetie Belle at the same time, who made such a valiant effort to get her name in the echelons of playwrights? Nothing in the previous two Polsky episodes have quite the same punch as these, and yet they are sprinkled appropriately enough for it not to drown the more serious aspects of the show.
5. The reappearance of Sapphire Shores deserves some laudation. The series has a tendency to create one-off characters that will never appear again (except maybe in the background) for the purposes of a single episode and we are almost expected to forget about them in the future. (Rarity episodes seem to be especially guilty of this, as it seems that every other week Rarity has somepony new to swoon over.) Not only does Sapphire Shores, whose only significant appearance before was in Season 1’s “A Dog and Pony Show”, play an important part in the plot, but we actually learn more about her than we expect—that she has an entourage of backup singers for her acts, her lucky animal being a dolphin, and that she is not only popular but has enough power to sway public opinion in areas outside her field (at least as predicted in the dream sequence). Though I’m personally not a fan of the Pony of Pop, I do hope that this example will continue in other episodes so we can better get a feel for pony popular culture.
6. Despite all its faults that I will state later, the dream sequence does several things remarkably right. Luna does not completely hold Sweetie Belle’s hoof in her journey by providing running commentary about the things that happen both past, present, and future, which is not only good for Sweetie Belle but also respectful of the audience’s intelligence. In addition, Luna’s shield protecting Sweetie Belle works on at least two levels—it not only establishes her control of the Dreamsphere well, but also serves to subtly set up the message that Luna wants to convey. The lightning bolt the Rarity cloud sends, of course, is a projection of the cruelty that she mistakenly believes Rarity is having. By stopping the bolt from hitting Sweetie, Luna conveys the message that Sweetie’s ideas are ill-founded and that they shouldn’t let them torture her.
7. Although it’s becoming more common now as Season 4 marches on, the Mane 6 do not show up where they are not needed, leaving us to better concentrate on Rarity and Sweetie Belle’s relationship and the latter’s mindset and its development. (When they do however, I can’t help but be reminded of “Rarity Takes Manehattan”, where the Remane 5 are forced to help Rarity make new dresses for an important fashion show. Fortunately here it is far more positive.)
8. The title itself deserves heaps of praise. Not only does it avoid the inspiration malaise that some of the episode titles this season suffer from, but it creates a strong hint of the themes that are explored in the episode. Because we are familiar with the Hemingway book enough, we are amused by the inclusion of “Sweetie Belle” for “Bell” but at the same time overlook the substitution of “Tolls” for “Toils”. To ignore this would be a grievous mistake for what we lose in understanding. In realizing this, we actually ask ourselves for whom Sweetie Belle toils. Initially, Sweetie Belle only toils for her selfish desires and thus causes the conflict between her and Rarity. Once she realizes her fault however, she sheds her selfishness and instead toils for Rarity, cementing the growth that she gets in her episode and exhibiting the further closeness that she has for her sister.
1. Unless you are actually in the target demographic or know what it feels like to be overshadowed by an older sibling, you might actually feel too detached from Sweetie Belle’s conflict, thus the impact of the plot is considerably less. Where Polsky fails in this regard is that he falls into a “tell, don’t show” trap early on in the episode. We know that Sweetie Belle worked hard on her play—writing, acting, directing, even costume designing. We don’t see her struggle in her ambitions, which can cause the audience to wonder if Sweetie Belle was really working as hard as she says she was. If we saw Sweetie Belle editing a line during the last minute in the script and going over it with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo we would get a stronger sense that Sweetie believed her efforts to be in vain when she realized that Rarity’s revised costumes stole the show from her.
Admittedly, we do begin to feel sympathetic to Sweetie Belle as we see what happened during her fifth birthday party. However this comes far too late in the program to really have hard hearts changed, and it doesn't help the fact that Sweetie Belle was late to her own party. Oh well, kids aren't the most self-aware types of people anyway...
2. Since we aren’t exactly invited into being sympathetic to Sweetie Belle’s mindset but only directly asked to be so, Rarity comes off as being much more favored and in the right than she needs to be. This is not a weakness in itself, as it can also be seen as helping us to be more contemptuous of Sweetie Belle’s actions, but if this episode is supposed to be seen as being an episode to develop the relationship between Rarity and her sister, the one-sidedness of the conflict is considerably less memorable. In relationship episodes such as “Sisterhooves Social”, “Sleepless in Ponyville”, “Somepony to Watch Over Me”, and “Maud Pie”, we might get the feeling that one party is more in the right, but neither party is totally innocent when it comes to (mis)understanding, doing questionable actions, or committing relational faux pas, thus we can be at least sympathetic to both parties’s perspectives. “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils” seems to be maverick to this trend. “Sleepless in Ponyville”, the other Luna-dreamwatching episode, is perhaps most similar in that Rainbow Dash, like Rarity here, can’t be said to have learned anything about relationships in this episode. However, she is arguably guilty of not recognizing Scootaloo’s fears and behavior earlier, thus inadvertently exacerbating them to one of her biggest worshippers. Rarity, by contrast, does absolutely nothing questionable. Ultimately, this point is more of a peeve for me, but since it so strongly relates to the lack of sympathy given to Sweetie Belle, I include it here.
3. The dream sequences do not have quite the impact that it should. Part of this is related to the fact that we are not as inclined to be sympathetic to Sweetie Belle as we should, but also because there is some aesthetic weakness to the “feel” of the dream. The Rarity cloud is not as menacing as we might expect it to be in Sweetie’s mind, and though I can’t put my finger on what exactly went wrong, some of the scenes feel too “real” for a dream sequence. Perhaps it being too structured due to the nature of Luna’s lesson for Sweetie Belle means that it loses some of the more impressionistic aspects of a dream that aided to the effectiveness of Scootaloo’s dreams in “Sleepless in Ponyville”. Of course, I really shouldn’t complain as it the sort of dream realism is also a feature of the A Christmas Carol reference it is supposed to reflect, but still, something seems missing. Maybe we can say that some parts of it, such as Future!Rarity’s reveal of the headdress to Sapphire Shores and its subsequent breaking, lasted too long as we quickly are treated to Rarity’s confusion but is extended longer than necessary. Rarity’s actual downfall is a true dream sequence however, quick paced and with the punch to leave an impression in memory.
4. Two very minor plotholes can be noted. First and most importantly, we know that Sweetie Belle knows that Rarity’s new wardrobe for Sapphire Shores and her entourage is important to her big sister, and that she helped get materials and fabric to help make the dresses, but it isn’t clear that she was necessarily privy to the finer points of Rarity’s work, such as the stitch in the headdress. We can safely assume that Rarity showed her this without any potentially contradictory evidence otherwise, but it would have been worth making this knowledge clearer to Sweetie Belle. The other one is less important but at the same time less reconcilable. It seemed that the bodyguard to Sapphire Shores conveniently went out to lunch without a replacement as soon as Sweetie Belle needed her friends to help her play “Keep Away” from Rarity. Perhaps the two found a back door and just snuck past the bodyguard, but the security on the compound was a bit too serious for this to be plausible. Then again, we did see only one bodyguard….
5. Perhaps I lied a bit when I said there was nothing here to make even a casual viewer raise an eyebrow, although in the end it is more a matter of exaggeration than in the fundamental idea itself. We hear of a standing ovation for Sweetie’s play but we later learn it was only for the dresses. It may be understandable that the theater patrons found the dresses to be the strongest part, but for the bulk of their showering praise to go to that seems to be a little too exaggerated given that the theater patrons presumably came to judge the play, not the costumes. We might wonder, are ponies that distractable? It is fortunate, though, that the exaggeration does not exactly become problematic or overplayed unlike Applejack’s overprotection in “Somepony to Watch Over Me” as the audience is more cool-headed about explaining their praise of the dresses. Still, we can call into question the collective intelligence of the audience here.
6. Two points about the ending: What was Luna doing at Sapphire Shores’s compound anyhow? How did she know Sweetie Belle would be there? Something of this reeks of mere plot convenience, although we can say that Luna takes Sweetie’s predicament personally and thus really took to following her around. In addition, the new dolphin stitching does not really appear to be an improvement over the original “Masonic” eye in the headdress as it clashes with the rest of it. But hay, Sapphire Shores was pleased, so who’s to argue?
Mr. Polsky is sure getting good at digging himself out of the hole he has carved himself. While “For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils” is imperfect in more than just the most minor ways, it still shows that he is continuing to redeem himself from the notorious episodes of seasons past. I’m already seeing a brighter future in store for Polsky, as well as this series in general with fine episodes like this.
I am indebted to a short review by Whatevs for bringing up some very good points regarding Sweetie Belle and Rarity's relationship as it relates to previous seasons and also in bringing up points that help me better address my own concerns.
So, my review of "Maud Pie" is finally done! Here's the second part of it, where I explore some observations of the characters in the episode besides Maud and some aesthetic and other miscellaneous notes.
Click here to see the first part of my review
On the Other Characters
To say that Pinkie Pie wasn’t a blubbering fool here as she has been in other episodes this season is rather a moot point, as this is an episode that needs more than random Pinkie to even begin to work. Nonetheless, Pinkie does stand out here, at least in the beginning. Her invitation of her friends to Sugarcube Corner to help taste-test rock candy bracelets was delightfully reminiscent of the apple cider campout in “The Super Cider Squeezy 6000”, with the early morning “rush” (although it’s Pinkie that creates most of the action here) and her bouncy enthusiasm as she describes the endeavor. Her introduction of her sister Maud continues this bouncy charm, although perhaps her fast-talking doesn’t exactly convince us to take her all that seriously. In some ways, her flat-out description that, say “she likes books and is smart like Twilight” is, descriptively, almost as bland as Maud herself, and doesn’t exactly tell us much about her.
As the plot marches on, however, Pinkie seems to be surprisingly low-key in the background, especially after the rock hunt. Sure, she brings Maud around her friends’ homes to introduce her to them one by one, but she never seems to take much notice of how the friends are uncomfortable with her. Of course, this is the Pinkie Pie who continued to have fun in face of the Apple family arguing endlessly on who is to blame for ruining the road trip in “Pinkie Apple Pie”, but even so there is no active encouragement here as there was in that episode. Of course, the emphasis is supposed to be on the Remane 5’s awkwardness with her, but one can’t help but wonder where the bubbliness from the first act went.
Pinkie has always been something of an engineer (“Griffon the Brush-Off”, any time a party cannon features) but her huge Fun-Time contraption is perhaps her biggest achievement to date in this field. Perhaps she really did take some “bigness” hints from Cheese Sandwich, although not necessarily the coherence of them. Did she wonder if there would be any real bonding going on if every pony incorporated was basically confined to their own space? The idea in its execution already seemed to be a failure even before the rock slide began. Still, we got to hand it to Benvenuti for reviving an old overlooked talent of hers, and with that, certainly underlining the general characterization of Pinkie here as an absent-minded but secretly brilliant eccentric that once endeared me to her.
For the most part, the other characters are mostly characterized by their interests rather than any of the “softer” personality traits that really define a character. Still, as interests are being pitted against each other, it wouldn’t make sense for much else to distract us. A few more subtle traits do stand out. Rarity seems to have had her worst fashion day since “Rainbow Falls” here, with the ugly rock hat that she apparently threw together at the last minute before the picnic. Curiously enough, her exchange with Maud just makes it worse, when she becomes nonplussed that Pinkie’s sister is just satisfied with wearing a dirty rag over her back rather than having a fancy new dress made for her. Rarity hasn’t experienced such a flat-out rejection since “Suited for Success”—hers is probably the most convincing of the awkwardness scenes for precisely this reason—she probably has more confidence that she can satisfy a customer better than a customer can satisfy his/herself, so this is a direct blow to not just her comfort with Maud, but also her own pride. Although we don’t really know, I’d garner that Rarity was perhaps the most inclined to reject Maud on her experience.
Rainbow Dash gets a lot of character nods this episode, at least in comparison to some of the others. We know that she hasn’t lost her love of the race, as indicated by her confusion that Maud “doesn’t care about winning”. Somewhat more subtly, we have her “igneous” pun. The question of how Winston Churchill figures in the Equestrian universe aside, we’re treated to a surprising expansion of her intellectual palette. It’s likely that she’s reading quite a bit beyond the Daring Do books, browsing a bit of basic geology on the side just because she likes to read. And yet, with the exclamation “ask me how I know that!” we still get a little hint that she’s still somewhat embarrassed of being an “egghead”.
There is not all that much to say about Twilight Sparkle, Fluttershy, or Applejack here—they are either flatly about books, animals, or apples. Twilight is a bit more refined though, as 1) her social graces that she has developed over her time in Ponyville haven’t been forgotten, and 2) she plays the role of the big puzzle-solver with her realization of what she and her friends have in common with Maud. Why the latter seemed to please me I don’t know, as it seems to be one of those moments where she becomes too smart in order to tidy up at least one of the plot’s loose ends. But at least this is truly in the spirit of friendship, which she has studied and would have a natural interest in promoting. Perhaps the question about why all the Mane 6 would suddenly become friends with Maud via their love of Pinkie Pie is more of a question of the others going along with Twilight when she realizes this. Then again, Friendship is a sort of an inexplicable Magic.
The deadpan humor perhaps is among the episode’s strongest points. They help serve the awkwardness of the situation well as it contrasts Maud with the more bouncy Mane 6. Personally, I didn’t find the jokes getting old, as each time it was handled quite differently, whether it is through a collective search for a rock, the making of a dress out of an old dirty rag against the “better” taste of the fashionista, or throwing a rock further than anypony should be able to throw it and still not getting excited about it. Some of these have more layers than others, as hinted at previously, built up and revealed, and thus kept me quite interested throughout. The rock poems in particular really struck me. They had somewhat of an avant-garde styling but with a feeling that the poem is exactly what is being said, telling little more than the existence of the rock and its color. As Fancypants might say, “rustically charming”.
The dialogue was very good for the most part, although there were times when the writing fell into the “tell, don’t show” trap such as the Remane 5’s discussion of Maud saving Pinkie and what it means. One would have liked a more subtle awe at Maud’s power rather than just telling the audience what just happened. It’s easy, of course, to explain this as just their attempt to make sense of the situation by just expressing whatever comes to mind, but in some ways, it still felt a bit unnatural. It was good, however, that the moral is mostly left unstated, leaving the audience to better reflect on the actual content of the story to determine what the authors were trying to say. The only problem with this one, is that the ideas of looking past one’s idiosyncrasies to embrace them for who they are and learn to appreciate that was certainly one for the journal. Maybe in a pre-season 4 episode it would have become a letter to the Princess, but now since the Mane 6 are writing for posterity, it seems somewhat too trivial to write. That still seems unlikely to me, as many of the journal entries thus have been quite personally stated.
The appearance of the pets was quite a nice treat. Although they only appear for one scene, it was quite a nice allusion to the playdates that were apparently regular in “May the Best Pet Win!” but have seen to fallen out of the radar. (Then again, it was more of a picnic that the pets were invited to, but I’m sure play was at least part of the agenda.) And it was certainly amusing to see the pets feel both a bit neglected after Maud comes into the scene but also tired—not sure why, because it was sort of an awkward way for the Remane 5 to give the first true sign that something was not working between them and Maud. Who knows, it might just be part of the general feeling of awkwardness we are to experience.
The similarities with “A Friend in Deed” also extend to Pinkie’s description of Maud and the rock candy tradition. In the episode, we see a sequence where Pinkie tries to make sense of Cranky Doodle’s rejection of Pinkie through a series of faux-construction-paper cutout animations describing the process by which Pinkie makes friends, only to realize that the last step (becoming friends) hasn’t been fulfilled. In “Maud Pie” we are treated to a series of crayon drawings of Pinkie learning to make the rock candy bracelets, and then her assertion that the others will soon become “best of friends” with the rock candy bracelets made. Of course, the dissonance is not realized until later, but we still get a sense of foreboding even here that Pinkie’s ideal plans will just not work out sometimes.
The art and animation in this episode is mostly passable but not stellar. Rainbow’s face when protesting “He’s a rock”, probably meant to allude to the old Flutterage face in “The Best Night Ever” seems to be rather awkwardly drawn to the point where it seemed pasted on. I also kind of expected the rock candy to shine in the light more, at least in the end where it could even allude to the classic “spark” of friendship just to reinforce the moral with a bit of kitsch. Then again, it wouldn’t be deadpan enough.
With well-done (if somewhat unconventional for the show) humor and an abundance of subtle nods to past episodes and character developments, Benvenuti puts out a very interesting first effort that was definitely worth the needed rewatch. With a couple tweaks to the moral and ending so the connection between the Mane 6 and Maud could be stronger, this would definitely fit in one of the finest episodes of the season. Even with that it still ranks high with me.
It really was a happy accident that the livestream site I used to watch “Maud Pie” for the first time went bust in the middle—it actually forced me to watch the episode a second time, if just to get the parts that I missed. I was glad I did—watching the missing parts really helped me appreciate the parts that I did see that I previously misjudged, to the point that I now consider it to be one of the finer and more immediately likable episodes in Season 4 thus far and thus inspired me to write perhaps my first truly serious review of an episode.
I have split my review analysis in at least two parts. This first part will cover Maud Pie herself and the plot and theme; the second part will cover the depiction of the other characters and other miscellaneous observations on the episode (among them the dialogue, humor, and Rarity's atrocious hat). A possible third part will encompass things that I missed in the other two parts as well as try to address criticisms I have seen others make of the episode. Hopefully one can more easily digest 2,000 words at a time rather than all 6,000 or so at once.
Let’s start with Maud, our designated plot catalyst. Even on my first viewing I loved her deadpan demeanor, which so greatly underlies her almost single-minded obsession with rocks. Probably even more impressive about her is the way she is done. Immediately we know that something isn’t quite going to work out with when she barely even notices Pinkie’s friends and instead inspects a nearby rock: “Hmm. Sedimentary.” Here we have, in an economy of words and emotion, an introduction that just nails Maud’s character almost completely and gives us a good idea on how the future events are going to play out to get us into the mindset of the Mane 6 sans Pinkie. Even though she’s all about rocks, her obsession with them never gets boring (at least not for me) as we find out her many ways of enjoying rocks, from her pet rock named Boulder (despite being very small) to rock observation in the woods to rock poetry. The only one such that bothered me was her use of rocks to peel apples. That almost seemed to make a mockery of her obsession with rocks that almost seemed unbelievable even for her. Fortunately this doesn’t last long nor gives us any real contempt of her. Perhaps her deadpan demeanor saves it since she is obviously not intending to sabotage AJ’s apples but rather innocently (although not in a cute way) doing what she thinks best. One can’t help but wonder if that’s what the Pies use to cut things down at the rock farm, if so they probably don’t use cutting tools for fruit.
In the Rainbow Dash “bonding” segment we are treated to an important foreshadowing of the climax and also an expansion of Maud’s character. Here Rainbow and Maud hold a shot-put style contest to see who can throw rocks the furthest. Much to our surprise, Maud wins by literally miles. That Maud has great prowess with rocks not only makes her obsession with rocks more believable (as it clearly indicates a talent with it, and growing up on a rock farm isn’t enough) but by giving us an effective setup to Maud saving Pinkie from her ill-fated rock slide. It is also, of course, at the right time too, when some people may get really tired of Maud obsessing all day about rocks and see it more as a gag than a characterization.
Curiously enough, it’s what the artists do for Maud that is perhaps even more impressive. We rarely see Maud’s cutie mark (and when we do it’s only at the climax and easy to miss) because she covers it up with her dress. As cutie marks are a sign of one’s talent, concealing it almost all of the time does three smart things: 1) it augments Maud’s deadpan character by not having us focus on a possible source of pride for Maud and demonstrates that it’s something that she really doesn’t want to call attention to, 2) it prevents us from being distracted speculating on her special talent so we can focus on what she actually does within the show (although we are almost certain it has to do with rocks), and 3) from that, the impact of her throwing the rock very far and saving Pinkie by hammering through the huge rock falling down is far greater—it is not as if anyone could see it coming through a cutie mark. It is at the climax that her cutie mark finally can be seen, and there couldn’t have been a better time to reveal it. (Even then we’d have to admit that Maud’s prowess with rocks is impressive even if the cutie mark was shown earlier.)
Another thing to note: Maud’s ending line about not actually liking candy but loving Pinkie Pie shows that she is considerably more empathic than we previously thought. This indicates that she understands her sister’s demeanor and is willing to support it by doing something that doesn’t necessarily interest her, or at least, the candy itself is not the issue, but rather the bonding that goes on making and trading the bracelets. A friend of mine said of this that Maud "is truly wise in the ways of friendship", but I would add to that sisterhood as well.
The biggest problem I have with Maud is that her deadpan demeanor may have been overplayed, at least in relationship to the ending, as it makes it too ambiguous whether Maud genuinely likes Pinkie’s friends now or if she is merely being as aloof as usual. At least it keeps her character consistent and to deviate from it would have been something of a predictable cliché.
On the Plot and Theme
Let’s leave Maud to her rocks for a moment and focus on the plot (no, I won’t go there). This is the one part where rewatching the episode completely overturned a perception I had. I had actually been a little late to the episode because I had to bike to a public library and log in to one of their computers to livestream the episode. (My own dorm had its electricity shut off for maintenance and everywhere else on the school campus was closed.) The rock friendship bracelets I originally dismissed as a corny and completely girly gimmick, something I had thought this show has so often deliberately tried to avoid. Fortunately Benvenuti and McCarthy haven’t thrown out the show’s defiance of girly stereotyping, and I had simply foolishly believed that I didn’t miss much from the beginning, given some of the other weak episode beginnings this season. Making friendship bracelets is still a girly thing, but it’s given far greater significance than just “oh, here’s an idea, Maud likes rocks, let’s make rock friendship bracelets!” We are clearly shown that it is a tradition that Pinkie and her sister hold dear and that it would be simply poor not to have it shared with her good friends. It’s sort of funny how the other Mane 5’s time as taste testers had made them less enthusiastic about making rock candy bracelets, at least until Pinkie tells them of the tradition. Even then they aren’t totally hyped, although hopeful. After all, they want to please Pinkie as well as her sister. This perfectly sets up everything, as can only be shown further on in this review.
And things go wrong when Maud arrives, of course. Significant to mention is the first line we hear her say and the Mane 5’s reaction. Admit it, it is really difficult to make friends if you don’t care to even introduce yourself and instead occupy yourself identifying a random rock. This is perhaps even more of a turn-off than her demeanor and obsession with rocks for anyone. Maud literally has less social grace and savvy than when Twilight first came to Ponyville! And given that we are dealing with a group that is centered around friendship, Maud’s mannerisms do little to help them. Fortunately Twilight has developed enough social grace of her own to try to look past that and introduce herself and her friends. Yet no chemistry happens. I need not tell what happens next as it just repeats what I have said earlier.
Eventually, the rock candy bracelets become full circle with the rest of the plot—once the Mane 5 realize that they do have something in common with Maud, namely, their love of Pinkie Pie, they take to making them anyway. This ending has several layers to it. The “bonding” part is perhaps the most obvious, although it just goes beyond the lukewarm reception the Mane 5 originally gave Maud. I presume that Maud had at least some expectation that the rock candy necklaces would be made, especially since they are a tradition between Maud and Pinkie that was obviously going to be shared. What is significant here is that even though the Mane 5 tried to be best friends with Maud, they did so in a rather one-sided manner, letting their expectations of Maud get in the way of actually taking an interest in her before they could truly judge her. The rock candy bracelets should actually have been the first step to making friends with her. (A weakness of this view, of course, is that it diminishes the ritual that Pinkie had in mind. However, given that Maud is fond of rocks, recognizing and accepting that fact and going there (rather than trying to avoid it by focusing on even more difficult traits) may in fact help bypass other barriers to friend-making. That she showed slightly more enthusiasm at the end regarding the rock candy seemed to make evident this point. Besides, Pinkie already spilled most of the beans early on because the other Mane 5 are already among her best and closest friends, so the qualification of “something only the bestest and closest friends can share” would not be obviously betrayed here.)
Perhaps more important is how in some ways, rejecting Maud was, in a way, rejecting Pinkie Pie as well. As we’ve seen in a number of episodes, the most recent being “Pinkie Apple Pie”, Pinkie stands for an optimistic acceptance of all quirks and looking past conflicts to emphasize the relationship that ponies have with each other, naturally spreading happiness. Looking at this light, it is not just upsetting to her that Maud has been rejected, but her whole raison d’être gets dealt a huge blow, especially from her friends directly telling her that they cannot be friends with Maud. Thus we are even gladder to see the Mane 5 admit their own mistake as it directly relates to Pinkie Pie, a close friend, rather than just Maud, the new friend. This way also helps drives home how the Mane 5 realize that they do care for Pinkie as something they have in common with Maud. (To put differently, given how Pinkie was sort of naïve in trying to get the other Mane 5 to like Maud, their opinion of Pinkie was subconsciously lowered by not liking Maud, and something that was thankfully saved by Maud saving Pinkie.)
As evident from this we can find another weakness of the plot and theme—it seems to blindly negate the more subtle reasons that the Mane 5 didn’t initially warm up to Maud. Maud is not completely innocent in not making herself initially likeable to the others, as indicated by the rather self-absorbed introduction, not to mention that Maud doesn’t adjust her own behavior in order to make herself more likeable. In other words, the Mane 5 were actually quite justified in not warming up to Maud. At best I would argue that with the Mane 5 as hosts and Maud as the guest, the Mane 5 had more responsibility to adjust their behavior than Maud did of her own, a sort of a social grace faux pas that seemed to be unfortunately committed upon seeing Maud’s strange behavior. (And again, they had to be sensitive to Pinkie.)
Overall, I find the plot to be maturely and quite tightly handled, despite some qualms with how we are supposed to judge Maud ourselves and whether the Mane 5 were justified in doing so, but that doesn't bother me too much.
Click to go to Part 2
If you're reading this, you're likely to believe from the title that this blog will have a running theme of reporting and musing on matters of modern physics and political philosophy. Yes, those are among my favorite subjects, but I intend to write on a much broader range of topics, and not just wonder about them in their own fields, but also to influence my thinking cross-field. Fundamentally, I write this less as a soapbox to influence others, as some other blogs tend to be, but as a personal journey, to both expand my own knowledge and learn how to think again, and hope that whatever connections I make in my fancy will lead to greater understanding of this world, and perhaps to yours.
I will admit certain hazards in this endeavor-- various fields have different standards of critique and analysis in interpreting the world (or at least their pet subject), so whatever assumptions that may fly in one area of knowledge may not be acceptable in another, and would necessarily lead to a wrong conclusion when applied in a different sphere. For this I hope to uncover whatever assumptions seem to strike me as odd or inconsistent (although the two are not mutually exclusive) and test against the knowledge of the time. Even then it is often far too easy for me to overlook the most basic presumptions that might need to be questioned, so I will need input every so often.
On that note, and as an example of the sort of style of musing that you would expect from me, is this:
I've recently begun to believe that one of the most overlooked ideas in our culture is that the pursuit of knowledge is a collective endeavor-- too often we treat the people with the "big ideas" as somehow wholly coming up with, and in effect owning, the idea, as if intellectual property had discrete, material qualities like say, an automobile. And yet every so often one hears stories about the lab assistant who saw the connection between two variables and her superior and eventual Nobel Prize winner did little more than refine it, even outright steal it altogether (though I doubt few of them were out of malice). Practical legal issues of ownership aside (especially for an aspiring patent attorney such as myself), such appearances that are spotlighted tend to obscure such problems as these, and perpetrate the idea that those who get the rewards automatically have all credit associated with them.
Certainly later posts will be longer and more thoroughly researched, likely taking some inspiration from personal, real-life events.
Oh, and yes, I will use this on occasion to gain feedback on my art. I've got a fanfiction idea that seems not to have been done before on FiMFiction, so I'm excited to bring a fairly new idea into the vast literature out there. Of course, even if the general idea has been done before, it'd still be legitimate and copyright-able, right?