Today Sparkle's Seven is Season 9's greatest episode. Everything fell into place and was written so, so well. But writing just this much only really undercuts the mastery of its storytelling and humor.
Setting the Tone.
Within the first minute, Haber and Dubuc establish the episode's whimsical tone, beginning with this little whammy.
Spike's so excited to receive Shining Armor's letter that he burst in Twilight's office, accidentally spooked Starlight enough to cause her to drop a stack of papers on the floor, and unroll his scroll with extreme glee. All punctuated by a very happy trumpet score in the background. Ten seconds in, the audience begins to have a quick impression of what its tone, atmosphere, and overall direction could be: casual, fun, and possibly exciting. The crown may be a toy, but Spike's face and Twilight's subsequently surprised reaction reveal how important it is to them: It establishes a friendly sibling rivalry between her and older bro Shining Armor, which the montage shows they had a huge amount of fun to earn it. That toy crown's nostalgic, a will to be impressive during the week, and improve if you miss it. Being a bro himself, Spike's excited to see SA revive it, even if for one more time.
Spike *reading note*: "Meet me at Celestia's castle to decide who deserves the crown once and for all."
Before the open ends, Sparkle's Seven alerts us of the stakes: Whoever wins the crown this time officially wins Sibling Supreme. Forever. It effectively delivers on the episode's direction and tone without wasting one precious millisecond.
Speaking of tone…
What do Best Night Ever, Lesson Zero, Pinkie Pride, Slice of Life, Saddle Row Review, and Break Down each have in common? They're filled to the brim with comedy and among the best episodes in part of or because of it. Sparkle's Seven ups the ante hundredfold. Everywhere it goes, it's ripe with humor. To go over a few early examples:
- Starlight's last, quizzical line.
- Celestia's beat after Princess Luna takes a verbal shot at her (along with a small stare at her as SA gloated).
Suddenly, I'm hungry for pudding…
- Princess Luna whinnying like a horse.
Recall his fans giving that poor robin having trouble flying near the Royal Sisters's castle? Here's the next scene!
Eeyup! Same robin, dazed from crash-landing, walking near the castle instead! Going a little dark there, eh, story?!
- Pinkie cutting off Rarity and Dash's film noir scene (a very clever callback to Rarity Investigates!) and breaking the fourth wall during the cartoony space scene.
Spike: He guessed your whole plan!
Twilight Sparkle: WHAT?! *reads letter* Pinkie party, Rarity costumes… "Signed, the future Sibling Supreme"?! Oh, come on!
Spike imagining himself as a spy teaming up with Fluttershy to steal his crown.
From the start, Sparkle's Seven doesn't let up on any comedic opportunities. If they find a spot, they were going for it, be they succeed or fail. Varying the humor — rather than relying on one type — by equally including sound effects, the score, little Easter Eggs caught on repeated rewatches, different camera/animation techniques, and dialogue catches the audience by surprise, a crucial ingredient to good-quality comedy, and increases its replayability. The cartoony medium also helped accentuate their faces, going extreme without becoming uncanny.
One will be covered in more detail right now.
The Many Faces of Equestria!
Despite the boatload of comedic variety, their faces drive most of it. Haber, Dubuc, and the animators successfully take advantage of the animation medium and exaggerate them without becoming gross, uncanny, or out of place. The only question: When's the right time? Thanks to its absurd tone, whenever they surprise us.
Act 1's full of them, but some of my favorites occur during the second. Here are just a few.
Earlier, AJ claimed to possess an alter ego named Apple Chord and would use it to distract the Canterlot guards while the others snooped inside. But after telling her story, Dash realized she wasn't telling the truth, leading to this awkward mouth. Does a face like THAT tell you she wants to be Apple Chord? Nope! Onstage, one uncomfy dudette forces herself to live a lie long enough for her friends to get inside.
- This one is sequential: Twilight and Shining Armor's exchange outside the castle. Suspected she was up to something, he questioned her. How did she respond? By sniffing a nearby flower with a cunning grin. Shining scooted away, peeking as she innocently waved to him. What makes this so interesting? Because it adds to the friendly yet passionate rivalry between them. Silly, yet serious in showing a tight, competitive relationship.
Twilight realizing Rarity's scheme fell apart.
If that doesn't accurately describe her sinking loss of hope… Poor Twilie.
Yeah way! Uh huh!
But my favorite moment, until the end, is the Dash and Rarity scene. Realizing in shock that the café was closed during the afternoon catalyzed their moment to spy on the episode's first truly suspicious event: Luna replacing two Canterlot guards with Zephyr Breeze. At first, one might wonder why she'd hire someone like him to take part, but then you become reminded of SA's words from earlier: ponies guard every door, so it makes sense for ponies to replace them while they're out to lunch.
That said, it's Zephyr we're talking about here…!
But we'll talk about that later. The true gift of this scene is how they react to him. Including, well, how shall I say it? Uh…eeyep?
When I first watched Sparkle's Seven, I laughed. The second time around, I nearly fell to the floor from laughing so hard. Sneaky sneaky, DHX! XD
Ironically, they also made Zephyr, one of the worst characters of the series, actually pleasant to watch. Sure, he's still a diva, but he's much more self-confident now (clever subtlety). His ego's no longer patronizing; only Dash finds him annoying. Why does the way they present him matter here? Ashleigh Ball wanted Rainbow Dash to interact more with Ryan Beil (Zeph's VA). They showed great chemistry in FB, and Dash helped get his life back on track. SS's the first Pony ep we see him in since then, so the question is will his development stay or not? Sparkle's Seven answers that question with nuance.
Oh, and do I need to post a couple of more faces?
I'm the Youngest One(s)
Like past episodes such as HW Club, Best Night Ever, Lost Mark, and TT123, the third act really elevates it. The first pivotal moment occurs just following the commercial break, when Spike tells Fluttershy he sometimes feels forgotten and uses their rivalry to back up his point. Immediately, two innocent moments from the cold open impact the story: baby Spike drawing gold stars below their chart and his wish to take part in it right after Twi's flashback.
But there's more than that, as well. For most of the series, Spike's family presence with Twilight's more like an afterthought. In Season 1, Spike's primary occupation was assisting her in her studies. At one point, Twi wanted to wake Spike up from his sleep and request him to retrieve her quill, implicating he's a slave. Thanks to the ending, Princess Spike sent misandric messages in a pro-feminist show. Have we come a long way since then? Yes. But his arc felt incomplete, and episodes like Zeppelin (Iron Will believed Spike wasn't family enough to reward him a ticket!) and Father Knows Beast only created more Q's than A's.
- Long-time continuity backs up his doubts.
- FS, recalling her strained sibling relationship with Zephyr, understands his feelings.
- Twilight — so determined to win the Hard-Won Helm — accidentally ignores Spike's "little brothers" line minutes later.
Thanks for proving his point, everypony.
Fortunately, this scene was an extra cog to one of two big reveals in the climax:
Under everyone's noses, Spike stole the crown, shocking everyone.
But he wasn't alone.
AIN'T THAT TWIST SO…GLOOO—RIOUS?!
So how does this make any sense?
- Recall the first bit of foreshadowing mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Celestia and Luna share very strong differences of opinions of Shining Armor's security. Celly really liked it, but Luna was unsure and, as stated in Act 1, wanted to test it with her, but she chose to summon Twilight instead. Everyone was so caught up that they overlooked its fatal flaw: They're so focused on outside threats they overlook inside ones. Spike quickly realized it, and observing how Luna and Celly couldn't stop nonverbal arguments with each other, he concocted an inside plan with Luna to prove it to everyone. And boy, did they take serious advantage!
- Knowing his vanity would distract him from doing his job, Luna replaced two experienced guards with Zephyr for the afternoon shift.
- Spike tore Pinkie's hot-air balloon with his claws, not only further sabotaging Rarity's plan, but also providing enough of a distraction for AJ to steal a Royal Guard medal (which Rarity later used).
- Luna keeping Celestia and SA out of the Throne Room long enough for Spike and Fluttershy to explore the catacombs, escape, and invade. At one point, they got lost, and Dash pulled down every wall sconce to try to escape, so he mapped out the catacombs and noted all the traps and secret passageways.
- Spike's wits are essential to his character. Sparkle's Seven explores 'em in a completely new way: strong forethought. He not only rightfully predicted Rarity's plan will fail, but also Twilight's and SA's. All they needed to do was play it out, let SA catch Twi off-guard, and then *snaps fingers* capitalize.
He won the Hard-Won Helm of the Sibling Supreme fair and square. Kudos to both SA and Twilight for acknowledging them as their little bro all along.
But give credit to Luna, too. From a storytelling perspective, her little disagreement with Celestia fueled the spy parody that Tabitha St. Germain suggested. Her tiny shots and glares at her sister foreshadowed the climax and smoothly tied into both Twilight's rivalry and Spike's plight. Celestia's decision to ignore her justified her reasons to behave sourly made sense and gave her a solid alibi to help corrupt their flawed security system. By one-upping her older sister, she won well-earned bragging rights herself.
Typically great episodes offer more than simply the story. Little details, smaller jokes, and intentional subtexts increase layers and replay value, giving viewers a reason to rewatch it either now or in the future. Beyond the dazed bird example…
This whole episode is a parody of spy film, mostly inspired Ocean's 11, a classic film remade twice. According to Applegeek, Kaperon TSB, and @Justin_Case001, there are several references to not only Ocean's 11, but other spy and action films at large.
- Rarity's "unexpected" speech parodies George Clooney's "The house always wins" speech from the 2001 remake. Credit to Justin Case for finding this.
- DHX recreated this classic Ocean's 11 poster.
- After Shining tells his sis of all the security measure, Twilight uses mathematics to figure out how to break through, parodying a moment from the blackjack scene during The Hangover. Credit to Kaperon for discovering that.
- Luna stroking the goose satires the Bond-villain-strokes-the-cat cliché, and like Applegeek himself, I have a good hunch the goose (with his pink, skin-toned feathers) is supposed to resemble Dr. Evil's sphinx from Austin Powers (another Bond parody).
This episode is also one subtle, yet gigantic, parody of itself, a great catch by @CloudMistDragon. FIM doesn't shy away from admitting how predictable their stories are sometimes. Whether your enjoyment of the product is determined by that is up to you. (Nowadays I rarely ding it for this, as the journey factors more.) Shining Armor accurately predicts her whole plan, is prepared for any other unpredictable folly by them, expects them to put their plan into action, and lures them into the Throne Room until the last minute. This self-deprecation is easily the smartest showcase of Shining's experience with security and wits.
Simultaneously, it winks at those in the fandom who use the "predictability" card through Rarity's and Twilight's plans without being condescending. Was her plan unpredictable, yet in character of everyone? 100%. But Plan B had many major problems, notably inexperience and lack of cooperation. OTOH, Twilight's plan, while predictable, was well thought-out and highly tailored to their talents, cleverly commentating how a well-crafted, predictable story is more valuable than an unpredictable one. Ironically, this allegory subtly foreshadowed the unpredictable plot twist. Nice swerve, DHX.
- Very clever use of time is shown through the flashback. Back then, the family's Hard-Won Helm was shiny and new. Today, it's cracked, dented, and busted. Listen very carefully when Spike dons it; there's a small ruffling sound to further indicate its worn-out condition. Methinks SA enjoyed it a little too much, eh?
- During her heated argument with RD, Rarity stopped briefly to say "hi" to Spike and continued her diatribe, stopping after completely realizing who's there.
(BTW, I haven't watched any of the Ocean's 11 films, Hangover series, or Mission: Impossible series. So I had to get the references from elsewhere. Nevertheless, ain't that tantamount to its high quality: not fully getting the references, yet finding it all funny, nonetheless?)
So much describes this new classic. The characters are perfectly in character, including Zephyr (who's actually funny). Every joke lands perfectly, and is sometimes funnier on rewatches, with my favorite being Dash begrudgingly dressing in style. It got serious at times, rounding its story without becoming melodramatic and maintaining its lightheartedness. Several stories are simultaneously intertwined flawlessly, including its satire of spy films, itself, and allegory. On top of it all, its moral on listening to your loved ones and making sure they don't feel left out is executed so well.
How awesome it really is to see Spike treated with so much dignity once again. Regardless of all of Season 6's well-earned criticism, Spike's writing was top-notch. Thank Haber for partially why. Whenever he's the editor or writer, this small dragon gets the respect he deserves. Thanks to Weseluck, Sparkle's Seven addresses a series-long concern related to his family and provides a solid alibi to craft a devious deed to win the game. If it doesn't prove how far he's come since Princess Spike, I don't know what will. He gets Spike, period.
But don't leave Dubuc hanging, either. She co-wrote the ingenious Shadow Play with him. Sparkle's Seven continues to show how well they work as a team, and the former's inspirations clue us all. Its top-notch dialogue, successfully multi-layered stories, and brilliant executions from top on down are all found here.
And finally, thank you to all the voice actors who stayed with this show for so long. You all dedicated so much of your time to building FIM's success, and your voices are iconic to the very same characters. It's so fitting to have the 200th episode dedicated to you, and watching it was a huge honor.
Thank you, all, for contributing to this all-time great and show that commenced western animation's renaissance.