Between Dark and Dawn marks the next chapter for the goal from the premiere: Celestia and Luna will retire, so the RM7 will take their place when they're ready. Capping the first half with this episode fits with the arc to a T, especially with the sprinkling of continuity throughout the season thus far. The fact that Gail Simone, one of the best comic writers, was invited to write the first Royal Sister episode of the show fits the grand nature of what S9 has felt for the past several episodes. If you're going to wrap it up, do it while on top.
Season 9A is the most consistently good half of the series: Over half of the first eleven were great, and what wasn't great was still good. Between Dark and Dawn increases the percentage of great episodes, and it's the third-best episode of Season 9, only behind both Sparkle's Seven and The Last Crusade.
So why is it so great? Time to break it down!
I know little of Simone's comic writing, but according to Voice of Reason in his latest At the Screening, she has really excellent comedic timing. Well, easy to see why: BD&D's littered with hysterical moments throughout. Some of the best are the following:
You know what's coming!
Wait for it…Spoiler
Timing couldn't be more perfect. The suspenseful music before stopping, the lighthearted jingle at the end, the voice of Celestia disappearing as she yells deliriously to the other side, Luna holding on for dear life.
Rainbow Dash: All the times we've actually needed their help, and they show up for this?
Y'said what everybrony was thinking. Celestia could've been involved everywhere, and they went with a simple trespass of Tank's hungry great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
While Luna and Celestia went on vacation for the first time in forever, several ponies reacted really hilariously. Three favorites include one stallion (Fond Feather) fainting as they walked by, one mare taking a selfie while Celly naps on her head, and a stallion backing away from them in the post office (a scene that I'll get to later). And it's easy to see why. They're the most famous ponies in all of Equestria, yet spend almost their whole lives cooped up in Canterlot Castle. So once you pass them when you least expect it…well, can y'blame 'em?!
Dash incredulously asking why the swanifying ceremony was so important.
In addition, this episode has a plethora of really goofy faces, taking full advantage of the cartoony medium. The fact that a very famous writer agreed to write for an episode and the overall absurd tone accompanying it gave the crew ample opportunity to go for it wherever. If I go through a lot of them, I'd be overloading slower browsers with all the pictures… Oh, what the hell!
- Y'know y'screwed up when Pinkie's cross.
Feelin' a wee giddy there, I presume?
Not feelin' the Aloha spirit, I guess.
This episode is loaded with detail, and this tiny one is no exception. Celestia glaring at the goofed-up face of herself. Luna fighting off fits of laughter. The sculptor not having any clue about his screw-up.
Luna doesn't like the thrills. That said, wait for that Luna face again.
Goth Celestia? How amusing.
Of course, the funniest of them all.
Recall Luna's face while riding Flim and Flam's roller coaster? That face comes back again, only this time with Celestia's excitement.
With all these faces, it's easy to see how much fun the storyboarders and animators had with these scenes. But even with all of them, they don't ruin the moment when it gets serious or turn gross. They push and toe the point of being uncanny without crossing that imaginary border. Each time they make that face, it's laugh-out-load hilarious. The little scores and voices help time them, too.
More to come later.
Swanversion of expectations.
One big strength of FIM that doesn't get much credit anymore is its ability to subvert expectations to the audience. Back in Season 1, the show built a reputation of flipping clichés on their head, such as making the prince a vain jackass, a female unicorn who works beyond the call of duty to deliver the best quality possible, or a realistic approach to sisterhood conflict. How does this episode do this? Via swans. Stereotyped as elegant and gracious, the swans here are not presented this way at all. They're impatient, and temperamental, and aggressive, all with enough agency to make the RM7 know their place. When they found out who was leading the gala, they honked crossly at them. These moat-wandering, spoiled, Pony version of castle gators commanded respect; when things didn't go their way, they let Twi and friends have it. Celestia knew it, and while they were on vacation, they have every reason to count on them to solve it without their help.
Fancy seeing you here!
As Twilight helps run Equestria while Celestia and Luna vacation, the first main thing they must accomplish is hosting the Swanifying Gala. But little did Twilight know that Fancy Pants (welcome back!), Jet Set, and Upper Crust would be there to help out. Granted, it was very dumb of her to reject their help without observing Celestia's scroll of instructions, yet this isn't purely her fault here. No one warned her that someone would come to assist her. For all she knew, they entered unannounced and had no idea how to help set it up. This was Twilight's first taste of how to run and eventually understanding how no one pony can run an important royal event, much less a kingdom, alone. Leaders need help.
Some rudeness aside, Fancy Pants was quite reasonable, and his sternness was completely justified.
- Neither he nor his aristocratic clients entered Canterlot Castle because they felt like it. They're familiar with the Swanifying Gala and lead the Royal Swanifying Committee. He knows how it works, and with Upper and Jet helping him, they can delegate for the gala so it can all be finished on time. Twilight turning them away surprised them and implicated that they know more that they do.
- However, their disorganization setting up the gala meant ignoring other critical points of government. By falling back, they can't help negotiate a deal with the street sweepers and help the carpenters complete their own jobs. So why does this matter to Fancy? Canterlot trusts him; Celestia wouldn't hire him to lead the committee for no reason. Everyone there — even down to the swans, who are promised watercress — are his constituents. By getting involved and lending his voice to those more unfortunate than him, their complaints amplify. Fancy makes sure they are heard and the RM7 listen.
- Plus, as head of the committee, the gala adheres to specific formal standards. With his experience, he can accurately judge if it holds up to it or not and mandate changes if they don't. The tablecloth decorations clearly don't, so Rarity had to delegate someone else to help her. When they realized what to do, he lets his monocle down and trusts them to finish the job.
While this may not be as entertaining as the A-plot, it's important, nevertheless. This is the first time they run a kingdom together, so this was good practice. Hiccups aside, they prove their worth for now.
But the meat of the story is Celestia and Luna. Now, this ain't the first time they shared a humongous portion of an episode. A Royal Problem dealt with long-standing friction between them, but for almost the entire 22-minute run, they acted like they hated each other, making up only after Starlight nearly scarred herself with a massive nightmare. Secondly, Starlight was the main character, not them. Most of it was in her point of view or sympathetic toward hers. Eight and a half seasons in, but FIM finally wrote them co-leading an episode.
In addition, this was A Royal Problem written much, much better. How? Instead of making them forget how much they loved each other, they loved each other both in the beginning and at the end. Their fight slowly progressed, crescendoing at their private picnic, without degrading them. The many moments throughout the episode not only showed their relationship, but added touches to their characters. Going over milestones one by one.
- For long-time watchers like myself, the criticism of Celestia and Luna being inactive, whether via capture or not appearing at all, makes some level of sense, especially during the Chaos Theory and Cosmo arcs and movie. This episode, self-aware, pokes a little clever fun at itself, setting the tone of both the episode as well as their relationship. Even though they're major beings in Equestria, they're still sisters. Each time they "helped" was always as a team. This shot — as they exchange eye contact and hold hooves — reminds us in a very funny, over-the-top manner.
Unless you read the comics, the show rarely explored them as a sibling bond and individual characters. Often they appear as royal heads only. That all changed with this one scene:
That said, the episode subtly lays the groundwork for their eventual fight. They disagree with how to spend that time on vacation, and it's easy to see their perspectives. Just like the Fifty Shades series, Princess Celestia's day shift is SOOOOOOOO boring! On the other hand, Luna spends all night settling nightmares and other forms of dreams so they can sleep. So adventuring and relaxation, respectively, would be welcoming changes to their routines. But most importantly, Luna says this:Quote
Princess Luna: Uh, I'm not sure how we can both be happy.
Here, doubt clouds above them, potentially leading to an argument. However, just like the Angry Swans, Between Dark and Dawn subverts expectations once again, cutting off the idea to make way for a compromise. When it's possible to introduce disagreement (i.e., Celestia's uncertainty toward the Hawaiian shirts and forgetting to warn Luna of the snack's awful flavor), they go back to being caring sisters once more.
"Lotta Little Things" is one of the best songs of the series. Similar in tone to The Smile Song, its happy jingle bounces off the sisters' hooves and into the viewer's mind, and the catchy lyrics accentuate its giddy tone. Also, the animation in two of the sequences is creative. Aside from the clever Easter Eggs (yes, I know about Capper, and Wicked's an awesome musical! ), by making the ground round like a globe, it reinforces the jolly mood of the song and shows how far they traveled to do those activities.
Beyond just the great lyrics, it also subtly advances their conflict.
At the start, they cooperate and have a world of fun together, and several of the shots are adorable! Celestia at Not-Toys-R-Us cuddling with all the humongous plushies as Luna giggles, Luna fails to create the illusion of holding onto the Great Horseshoe, Luna giggling at the Celestia & Luna sculpture shown earlier, Luna playing the banjo (with some of the most imaginative rhyming since Stop the Bats), and especially Celly and Luna huddling as Jack Pot and Big Bucks perform. <3
However, after the second chorus, they start subtly disagreeing more. Still seeking thrills, Celestia looks for more adventure. But Lethargic Luna is exhausted and wants to take a break. From that point forward, they begin to disagree on what "fun" is, like Celestia getting bored watching Wicked, Luna nearly dying from fright swimming with sharks and barreling down Neighagra Falls. The last lyrics succinctly point out this change in tone.Quote
Sometimes you can be a pill
And why's the way ahead always so steep?
The post office scene is one of the best of the entire episode. Beyond the zipline, this really showcases the vast difference of opinion of fun. Celestia's so used to it, but as stated in episode, Luna's traditionally asleep at night, so she never experiences it, so what's mundane to Celly excites her like a little filly. And this scene is loaded with comedy spots and the most adorable Luna has ever been.
A stallion slowly backing away from the line in surprise.
DERPY as cute as ever!
Luna wiggling her eyebrows at Celestia and singing "Wait for it…!".
Bored, Celestia takes out her pocketwatch as the secondhand ticks.
The whimsical "du-d-du" as she mails her postcard (which has their cutie marks on the written side!).
"It's about the PROCESS!" Now who trusts the process more, her or 76ers fans?
In addition to Luna at her most adorkable, it created a clever transition to make both of them stop seeing eye to eye and getting more and more angry at each other. They wanted to have fun, but with their sister there, the whole vacation was less joyful and more chore-ful. Their tug of war and ripping the bucket list in half symbolically marked the point where they stopped compromising with each other and quit enjoying being in each others' company.
Their picnic scene was the major boiling point. The moment Simone built up over the first two-thirds. Luna's accusation was childish, but the episode shows us several moments to understand where she's coming from, such as taking part in more extreme events late in the song, getting extremely upset at her makeup being ruined, and then being forced to leave an opera in the middle of a performance. What did Celestia do? Shout and use the Canterlot voice in her face. So it's completely believable of her to feel unwanted.
However, what she also did was accuse of her of believing Celestia wants nothing to do with her at all, and despite the huge disagreement with each other, she clearly doesn't want her to stay sealed in the moon. Celestia wants to enjoy life and not feel cooped up in the castle. But because their anger feels so raw, emotion dominates logic.
Also, because that anger feels so down to earth, it's hard to watch. Compared to their fight from A Royal Problem, it wasn't petty. However, unlike Twilight and the gang from The Mean 6, they don't immediately make up. Spending several long hours alone, they're deservedly reminded of how much they need each other. Canterlot isn't complete with one Royal Sister.
But as the fight shows the hardships of sisterhood, the late-night scene at the mountain proves they still love each other. Luna reminiscing the times Celestia taught her to watch the stars to search for the lucky ones allowed the story and characters themselves to close the conflict without rushing. They talked to each other, expressed why they felt the way they felt, and became a closer unit.
Does this warm you?
…I'll take that as a yes.
Between Dark and Dawn is a phenomenal addition to FIM's growing lineup of great episodes. Great humor, great characterization, and great heart. Whether it's the B-Plot of The RM7 struggling to run a gala at the most inopportune time to Celestia and Luna distancing themselves and later reuniting, there's a lot to unpack and love. The little details add extra shape to the atmosphere and story, like ponies fainting or taking a selfie upon seeing them or Luna teasing Celestia in the post office, and help improve a good episode into a great one.