With the Cutie Mark Crusaders now in the business of solving others' problems, their stories have a lot of potential to expand the lore of what "cutie marks" are, how they work, and what they mean to the inhabitants of this world. Last season, we got "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks," an adorable episode which fulfilled all of that potential and then some, exploring one of the two biggest issues imaginable for the Crusaders. "Marks and Recreation" follows up on the other half of the equation, but it lacks all of the things that made last year's episode such a delight.
To be honest, I'm ready to declare season 7 a total wash. With only two episodes and the finale left, I don't see much hope that it'll step out of its usual formulas and finally pick up some humour or subtext. "Marks and Recreation," like many episodes this season, is didactic and not very funny, featuring only a few very flimsy jokes and a plot which hops from formula beat to formula beat all without providing anything of interest. This should have been a personal story on par with "Fault," but what we've got is yet another of those episodes where a dull new character needs to be taught what's right. I just can't deal with that.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders are running a successful day camp when one day, a young Pegasus named Rumble shows up and declares his opposition to the entire idea of Cutie Marks. Soon, he has turned the entire camp against the CMC, and they need to find some way to get it back.
The appeal of "Marks and Recreation" is dependent on two factors: Rumble's motivations, and the Crusaders' reactions to his actions. The former falls into issues I've been complaining about for a while: watching characters having no doubts and doing everything right isn't very interesting. Not everything the Crusaders do to deal with Rumble is successful, but the episode never suggests they might be in the wrong, and it's very interested in shoving them into a "mentor" role, something which I have always maintained as the death knell of this show's characterization, because the show often uses it as an excuse to shift focus onto new characters or tell overly moralistic stories, halting the characters' growth in the process.
Still, this is hardly the worst example of the this mentor problem in the show. The Crusaders at least make mistakes, if only minor ones, and there's slivers of doubt here and there. The bigger issue is that the story beats are all overly familiar. This is yet another story where the main characters need to protect their work from an external threat which only escalates a third of the way in, and it's yet another episode where an ideological challenge actually stems from personal issues. For the Crusaders, there's no insight or novelty. and without allowing them to doubt their actions or values, it doesn't provide anything they haven't done plenty of times before. Whereas, "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks" was built on self-doubt and anxiety, this has the CMC just make the mature choice and move on whenever the story threatens to become interesting.
Rumble, on the other hand, suffers from a lack of development and a charmless personality. It's hard to be invested in his issues, because on one hand we barely know him, and on the other hand his concerns with Cutie Marks are never taken that seriously. His main complaint is that cutie marks limit your options in life, but we've seen the CMC exploring other options before, so that doesn't ring true, even on the rare occasion where the episode lends validity to his criticisms. Eventually, he turns out to be the one limiting others' options, and by then his points have clearly been discredited.
The thing is, the moral here has potential. Cutie Marks have always been a metaphor for maturity, so dealing with how life changes with adulthood could be an interesting take on the concept. When Rumble's criticisms are revealed to be projection, it reflects how he's afraid of growing up. But his motivation suffers from his lack of development. Is he jealous of his brother? Does he feel inadequate? Why does he feel he must be a great flyer? Answering these questions has potential, but they're never expanded upon.
As a consequence, Rumble comes across as stubborn and selfish and little else, which makes him difficult to sympathize with. Growing up is scary, but his fears come across as childish and self-centred, simply because the episode doesn't give us enough time to really know him, and what little we understand about him is eventually just explained to us outright. It doesn't help that Thunderlane himself is little more than a bland sibling archetype, leaving us even less idea what their relationship is like. In their scenes together, we're not shown some secret insecurity on Rumble's part. He just upends the Cutie Mark camp because, as said, he's stubborn and selfish.
Honestly, though, all of that could have been fine if it just had a better sense of humour. There's few real jokes on offer, and when it does conjure up a proper gag, it's nothing more exciting than a pony who likes to draw circles a lot. This sort of pedestrian humour comes across as very lowest-common-denominator, and it's absent from long stretches of the episode which rely heavily on Rumble's antics to hold attention. Unfortunately, because Rumble is such an underdeveloped and charmless character, that doesn't work either, despite a catchy song in the middle. With that said, the episode definitely builds energy during this song, and it'll work splendidly when removed from context. Might even be my favourite this season!
But that's not true of the rest of the episode, which remains tiresomely on point from start to finish, building up to a moral which is admittedly acceptable enough, though not expressed as satisfyingly as it could have been. Because the Crusaders never doubt themselves, and because their role in the story is to teach Rumble the value of Cutie Marks, the episode has a broadly instructional feel which makes it a real drag outside of the musical number. It's obvious from early on that the episode will never provide any insight about cutie marks, so why waste the time? It would have been way more fun if we saw Rumble feeling insecure, or perhaps if Thunderlane was the focus character instead. In the latter case, we could focus on him worrying about his brother, which might have led to actual insight.
Alas, "Marks and Recreation" isn't that, and instead is yet another crushingly dull entry in what's shaping up to be a crushingly dull season. The jokes are flimsy, the characters are flat, and while there's nothing wrong with the character interactions, the episode's just much too airless for that to amount to much. This season's new formulas were interesting at first, but now they've gotten just as familiar as the old ones, and they simply don't have as much to offer. Ultimately, I'll take a fun-but-unpolished episode like "A Health of Information" over this any day. Sorry.