One of The Return of Harmony's biggest strengths is its clever execution of the Discorded Mane Six. Discord manipulated each and every one of them — sans Fluttershy for humor's sake — into exposing a major internal weakness, such as Applejack fearing no one loves her and running away from the idea and Rainbow Dash fleeing the labyrinth and leaving her friends behind to protect Cloudesdale. Twilight's slow progression of losing her denial that her friends still cared and had some good left in them was a masterpiece of a villain's accomplished deeds breaking down a strong character's confidence so much that she abandoned the Magic of Friendship.
Now with Discord a good guy, warping the Mane Eight into Discorded versions of themselves doesn't make sense anymore. But Mike Vogel brings the idea back in clever fashion while still keeping their presence fresh in The Mean 6.
- Chrysalis crafts a spell to create copies of them. Poorly crafted, apparently.
Instead of creating exact mirrored personalities of every Discorded Six, three of Chrysalis's Mean Six are switched up a little in order to be unpredictable and to increase potential for both friction and comedy.
- Rather than be Rainbow Ditch and wrap up major delusions of Cloudesdale being safe and protected, Mean Dash — who I call "Lazy Dash" — is completely apathetic of everything around her. No matter the interest or urgent, she'd rather fly and sleep.
- Pinkie Pie in both TRoH and TM6 is a major grump, but Mean Pinkie in TM6 — "Bordie Pie" — finds everything so boring instead of being Chef Hater Pants.
- TM6's version, Twilight Snarkle, stands out the most for a few reasons, one of which is how much she completely differs from Twilight Quitter in TRoH. She's very snarky with a very keen ability to tap into someone's weak spot to make them pay attention to her. More about her later.
- Vogel uses Chrysalis's desperation and status to recap past events. Occasionally, Season 8 hides its exposition very organically, The Mean 6 being one of its smartest iterations. Rather than just have Chrysalis spill everything, she explains to still photos of the RM6 of what she used to be, what happened to her now, and what she wants to do next. Each lines oozes with a wide range of personality, from extreme cockiness — i.e., her little prance with matching music — to a lust to conquer Equestria to a deranged thirst for Starlight's pain and destruction. Now that she no longer controls her kingdom and is all alone, she'll do anything to reclaim her credibility as threat to Equestria, and creating half-baked clones of changelings exemplifies her desperation and status.
Chrysalis has always been a mixed bag. Very threatening with a slab of ham as her thorax, but often woefully incompetent. Whenever she's ready to conquer Equestria, she overlooks one major flaw in her plan or concentrates more on her own ego over conquering the kingdom. In ACW, she sent Twilight to the same dungeon as the real Cadance and didn't take SA's bond with Cadance so seriously. Rather than capture every single threat to her revenge, she willingly left Starlight behind.
So, why is The Mean 6 her best role by far?
- The episode wisely uses her current status as a solid alibi for why Plan A lacked a major failsafe. When Snarkle criticized her for not attacking the ReMane 7 at the School, she knew right away that trying to destroy them would backfire big time. Defeating Celestia in ACW was by luck, which she and TM6 are aware of. The Elements of Harmony are Equestria's key for maintaining security, but very few are acutely aware of how powerful the Elements are. Until later in this episode, she had no idea the Elements feed the Tree nor of its existence.
- Among the collection of eccentric villains, she plays the straight woman. Comedy drives the communication between the Mean 6 and Chrysalis; how they respond and react to each other determines the joke's effect. Aside from Snarkle, Chrysalis is the most competent of the Evil Seven, but Chrysalis's quick temper and Snarkle's ability to force QC to depend her really makes her stand out.
Without an army anymore, she must not only create something from scratch, but also depend on them. Each clone is headache-inducing and willfully disobedient, but must keep them alive, because they are the possible source to take down the ReMane Seven. Yet, Chryssie knows she can start over and adjust to spell to force the Mean Six to obey her, hence her threat to kill Snarkle just before Act 2 closes. But once she runs out of patience and loses control, she's incredibly threatening.
(BTW, kudos to DHX for outlining Chrysalis's shadow as Rarihoard, Boredie Pie, and Liarjack nod nervously. Really emphasizes her intimidation.)
The Mean Six, however, share her spotlight and are all great in their own ways.
Flutterbitch (or Flutterbrute, for tact's sake) remains just as funny as ever. Nasty, self-serving, sarcastic, and menacing — and a really big bully. Forced a lost bird to walk and climb back to his nest his nest, then told animals living nearby she hopes they freeze to death, and then followed up with classic flower-flattening. She taunted animals and relished it, which Discorded Flutterbitch didn't do (instead smugly cheering Angel on for flattening Twilight).
Liarjack would make Discorded!Liarjack feel jealous. Each of her lies are bigger, more outlandish, and meaner. What started out as a small swindle grew grander and grander. Watching AJ try to string together an impromptu lie explaining Flutterbitch, Rarihoard, and Snarkle's whereabouts is just one example of the hilarity, but how our heroes respond to her meanness is where they're strongest. More about that later.
Lazy Dash: *yawn* Come get me when I should care.
Despite few lines, she made the most of it. My favorite is this:Quote
Twilight *waving*: Rainbow Dash, I think something's wrong with Pinkie.
Lazy Dash: Not my problem.
During RoH, Greedity was a great source of comedy. Rarihoard makes her look sane. Look at her faces!
Creepy, ain't they?
So why do they work, unlike this, this, this, or THIS? Because of who the source of the joke is. As Rarihoard hogged onto more and more stuff, the more obsessed she became. Her faces accentuated her lust for anything, especially when she caught eye of Applejack's wagon, an immediate trove of treasures. Similar to Return of Harmony, comedy is plentiful in The Mean 6, Rarity's deranged faces a source of it.
Grumpie Pie was excellent, and Bordie Pie was just as great. Andrea Libman performed really well emphasizing hooooowwwww boooorrrred she is. But the post-production knows how to counter-balance her boredom with some humor, too: In the beginning of the video linked above, her hair subtly squeaks as she moves her head.
But the best one, without question, is Twilight Snarkle. While the ReMean Five are comic antonyms of the ReMean Five, she's the most fleshed out. Extremely calculating, power-hungry, and very snarky, she balances out her villainy through manipulation. Chrysalis cannot defeat Twilight alone; Snarkle understands this through her questions and snarky comebacks.
This little bit demonstrates their chemistry masterfully:Quote
Twilight Snarkle: You were close enough to pull hairs from their manes. Why not just take your revenge then?
Queen Chrysalis: They've defeated my army. I know better than to strike alone. I need—
Twilight Snarkle *taunting*: Friends?
Queen Chrysalis *growling*: Servants! And the power of the Elements!
Even when she ain't with Chrysalis, she figures out a way to deliver a shot at her, enforcing her hatred of her and her servants:Quote
Snarkle: "Permission"? You need us way more than we need you, *mockingly* your Majesty! The others are fools. But with me to lead them, there's no reason we can't find the Elements and keep the power for ourselves!
There are many ways to create a great villain, but the foundation is being a great character; that is highlighted very well through her ability to manipulate a very naïve Pinkie Pie in Act 2. When an evil alicorn evilly rubs her feathers together like hands…
…you know ye got her good. >)
At the same time, she acts like the straight mare, showing off how dynamic she is. Her sour impatience progressed to anger as Pinkie recaps the events of Twilight's Kingdom creates great friction between them, especially after the fact that Pinkie doesn't know that at all.
Oh, yeah, the "bzzt!" sound effect is really funny. XD
But the Mean Six aren't alone. The ReMane Seven star here, and they were all done very well, particularly in one aspect: the conflict. From the opening shot, everyone was tense, particularly Twilight. Because "Shutterbug" pushed them ten minutes behind schedule, Twilight slowly lost her cool, and then rolled her eyes when Shutterbug exaggeratedly pleaded for forgiveness.
To briefly go on a tangent, Shutterbug/QC's haste to collect their hairs contained several great jokes, like yanking on Dash's tail hair a little too hard, picking out a loose strand from AJ's hat (and not putting it on her head), and this lightning-quick meta reference:
But it wasn't just the opener. The beginning of their trek alone is an excellent exercise of foreshadowing.
Rainbow Dash questioned Twilight's activities as "fun." Even though all seven agreed to camp, Twilight's plans were kept secret, apparently with little input from anyone. Granted, Twilight designed this camp night to be a surprise, but it made Dash a little uncertain. Adding the nervous rubbing of her hooves helps, too.
Pinkie Pie accidentally scared the daylights out of Fluttershy so badly that she hyperventilated, just moments after FS declared her happiness for quiet time with everyone. Unlike Filli Vanilli, this was quick, performed once, and with no ill intentions whatsoever. Not to mention Pinkie warned everypony she was playing beforehand.
- Starlight sulked the entire time. While her friends were grouped together in front, she lagged behind and grumbled at the swampy weather and bugs. It's her first camping vacation…and showed to hate it without saying it outright.
To talk a bit regarding two of the RM7:
- Pinkie had one of her most likeable roles of the last two seasons, and how she behaves embodies the Element of Laughter. She's so happy to be with everyone and so eager to participate in Twilight's camping retreat. Teaching inside that school meant having few free days to spend quality time with everyone, so she takes the opportunity to take advantage of it. Watching her smell those roses so deeply and then roll around in them like a little baby (and avoiding any thorns ) is unbelievably adorable.
- Being a massive Starlight brony since she first arrived, it makes no sense avoiding her. In the last few outings, she's been very relatable, and this is no exception. Her immense distaste for camping is really relatable, especially with her reasons why (bugs and humidity ain't no fun), and struggling to keep AJ's gear and cloak on invited nice slapstick. As they trekked deeper into the Everfree Forest, her anxiety, exhaustion, and lack of enjoyment became more and more evident. More about her later.
Speaking of anxiety, the whole second scene progressed the tension further while maintaining their close relationships.
- Rarity and AJ mildly spar over AJ not having anything to keep their manes neat.
- Even though Pinkie is so cute rolling in the rosebushes, Twilight is less than enthused and got really cross with her for nearly kicking her into the muzzle by accident. But Pinkie's having way too much fun that she doesn't notice and scampers deeper into the forest, building up more tension between them.
- Fluttershy wanders off into the forest to help a lost bird without telling anyone, leading everyone into splitting up to search for her and Pinkie and further testing Twilight's will.
At this juncture, TM6 was really good. When they separated and met another Meanie, it became great.
Even though the ReMean Five are sorta cookie cutters, they're dynamic, too, evident by their interactions with the Mane characters and environments.
As I wrote previously, Lazy Dash spoke little and wasn't on screen much in the second act, but generated more conflict by ditching FS in the woods and shooing away Twilight while she leaned precariously over the pond.
Throughout the episode, nobody suspected something was wrong with their counterpart, except Dash and AJ with "Rarity." Because she grew madder as she possessed AJ's camping gear, they worried for her sanity. As I wrote previously, Rarihoard's deranged expressions are a great source of dark humor, but how Dash and AJ behaved bewilderingly around her adds an extra layer into the jokes.
Liarjack's encounter with Starlight and Rarity is the only one to not be comedic, and their first scene marks the episode's initial transition in tone, which will be discussed below.
Flutterbitch/Flutterbrute never bumped into or talked into a Mane character, but like Fluttershy, a bird has to return to his nest and got lost. But while Fluttershy helped out their sibling, she got lost and walked around in a proverbial circle, giving the story a grand opportunity to use Flutterbrute to accidentally damage her rep in the forest. Doesn't help when Lazy Dash ditched her (and made FS break the fourth wall in confusion). Yet, because Fluttershy has no idea someone who looks just like her threatened the animals and destroyed the daisy patches, who can blame her for feeling so upset when the animals curse, growl, and yell at her? Ya can't.
Snarkle and Bordie talked to one apiece: Pinkie and Twilight, respectively.
- Bordie, being Equestria's most boring pony, did what she's great at: insulting something exciting as lame and uninteresting. Because Twilight spent a great deal of time and effort preparing the campsite and when to have it, to have her Friendship Retreat blown off like that by someone she's supposedly close with hurts, thus making her actually wonder if it was worth scheduling it after all.
- Conversely, the tone in the Snarkle-Pinkie tandem was predominantly comedic, using the characters' responses, cartoon logic, and behavior to accentuate it. Originally, Snarkle took delight to Pinkie spilling all the secrets to the Tree of Harmony and the Elements, but the more eccentric she behaved, the angrier she became. Her anger over Pinkie's attitude evolved into callousness for Fluttershy, including telling her to stay on schedule and "get over" her anguish, accelerating the switch of the once comedic tone of the episode into emotional, dramatic, and harsh.
When Pinkie accused Twilight of being selfish and ruining everyone's fun, their anger and grief felt really raw. Twilight doesn't cry often, so when she does, long-time viewers will notice. But here, it feels somewhat different. Her hurt didn't just bleed from within, but grief, too. For the first time in years, her friendship with Pinkie was brought into serious question. Regret for not just going out to the retreat, but also possibly formatting the idea of spreading the Magic of Friendship in the first place.
Why was Fluttershy's hoarse "CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?!" so crushing? Because of their exchange. Cushioned by her minutes-long fright, she noticed her friendship with Pinkie and Twilight slowly starting to crumble…and she couldn't bear it.
And whose emotions were also raw? Rarity and especially Starlight.
Think about this episode in Starlight's perspective. She never liked camping previously, but accepted their invitation, because she has been not only an invaluable asset to the School, but also a fantastic friend. She wears AJ's classic camping poncho, struggles like hell to keep the camping gear, but stays quiet out of respect. But that evening, "AJ" tells her her story of how great she is as a camper in Equestria, accuses her of being silly with that gear, and then laughed at her because she thought her look stupid.
How would you feel if she were you? Something like this, I presume?
If your answer's yes, I can't blame you. Someone she apparently trusted mocked her at her lowest moment all day long. Starlight felt USED! And Rarity did the right thing sticking up for her and sternly threatening to "AJ's" face a long talk about her heinous behavior, one of her most powerful moments of the entire series. A role reversal of…
…but without the terrible dialogue and broken setup.
In fact, their entire argument in the forest — including the crying — felt real. All day long, they anticipated for quiet time with each other in Twilight's Friendship Retreat, but the Mean Six accidentally exacerbated their friendships further to the boiling point. Their anger with each other was grounded, had weight, and — unlike NCC — wasn't petty whatsoever. This is how you have adult teachers in a cartoon argue angrily without sacrificing their dignity.
BTW, kinda funny how Chrysalis almost accomplished her plan to destroy Harmony without even trying! How genius is that?! *ahem* Okay, got a little carried away here.
Yet, when their friendship was bound to collapse, Twilight mustered what makes their friendships strong: Despite their differences, disagreements, and arguments, deep down, they care for each other and will help them. Vogel did an excellent job taking his time wrapping up all the conflicts each Mane pony had with someone else, airing their grievances, and maturely settling them one by one.
Still, FS rightfully worried no one likes her, so how do they resolve that? By everyone running up to her and roll in the dirt with a hearty laugh. It brings great closure and proves she's one of them.
Yeah, neither group figuring out they were talking with duplicates feels a little anticlimactic, but it makes sense, and the criticism of it misses the episode's point. If they figured out who their doppelgangers are, then Vogel contradicts the moral he's teaching: the strongest friendships get through difficult times with one another. The RM7's friendship is so strong, because they use their strengths to get through. No matter the obstacle, the Mane Eight understand the heart of their friendships and work together.
On the other hand, the Mean Six are collectively selfish. Despite Snarkle's warning them to follow her lead, they only look after themselves, and their lack of cooperation cost them their sapience.
How can you also tell how close the RM7 are?
- The Friendship Retreat is in complete tatters, but all they can do is laugh it off.
This small exchange:
Starlight Glimmer: Come on, everypony. We can fix this campsite in no time.
Applejack: Spoken like a true camper.
Starlight Glimmer: Eh, don't push it.
Applejack and Starlight Glimmer: [chuckling]
Their trust in each other's so ingrained, they lightly tease each other hours after they settled their fight.
Season 8's first half is the most consistent in quality for the entire series. The Mean Six is just one example why. Its storytelling is outstanding with excellent dialogue, comedy, drama, and heart. A Hearth's Warming Tail is excellent and was Vogel's best episode; TM6 leapt over it. Bravo!