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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! LO-FUCKING-L! 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! 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. Ruling a kingdom ain't easy, whether it's for celebrating the agency of swans or manipulating position of the sun and moon. That FACE is Twilight at her most exasperated. 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. The AliTeam! 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: How is this important? This is the first time the audience ever watched them act like actual sisters throughout a scene. They may be wearing regalia, but they're not behaving like royalty here. A tight connection between them is revealed, and nowhere nearly as muted as their hoof-holding during Slice of Life's moral recitation. Reading to bow their hair, they share immense excitement for the upcoming trip and offer grand ideas to share their moments together. 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: 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. 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. Luna prancing like a little filly while waiting. (Awwwwwww! ) 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.
Note: Credit to @CloudMistDragon, @Justin_Case001, Kaperon TSB, and Applegeek for this review. 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. Rather than doing simply a breakdown of the episode in a strength/weakness structure or a long essay, I'll break down specific points, ala my Movie review and Zeppelin analysis. 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. 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… Twilight: "For…ev…errrr…" 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). This face… 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. Her small whine sells it quite well. 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? Oh, eeyup! 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. The Miscellaneous 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?) Conclusion. 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.
Note: Credit to @Truffles, @Sparklefan1234, @PathfinderCS, and Silver-Quill for this review, which I C&P'd from here with extra edits. This review has been revised to include a little more content. Sludge may be the most hateable non-villain of the series, if not one of them with Svengallop, Garble, Zephyr, and Spoiled Rich. Garble's someone to just hate, but Sludge you love to hate. This slob knows how to con others with no remorse. He wants to lives the luxury life and make you work for it, all the while tugging the right strings to make you fall for his tricks and divide you from who you love at your most vulnerable state. While he freeloads, he's not a stereotype, as he always cleans up after himself and trades his laziness for his brains. Smart, calculating, and very manipulative, he catches himself, remains convincing, and uses Spike's want for biological parentage to bypass all doubts. Several clues indicate his scheming ways before he became more brazen: He stopped jogging on the treadmill to chug the fresh cider…with hilarious results. XD The Wonderbolts held him above them, but he won't fly until Dash lectures him. He doesn't admit to being his father until after he fully recovers (just as he's about to depart) and walks with Spike back inside. Just by his stops and gestures, he's making up his backstory as he goes along, including not answering other questions the RM5 asked, but his tale's canonically logical, and his tears sound real, adding a layer on uncertainty. Silver-Quill brings up this point. Look at the image below: In this shot, she's nearly as tall as Torch, a monster-sized dragon. In the next, she's nearly as tall as Sludge, who's much smaller than him: After his song, he cackles, cutting into Act 3. ^ The synopsis gives away a very important clue: "dad" and "real" are in skeptical quotes. Dismisses Spike after being asked if he wanted to do anything with his son and then casually accuses him of not being a "real" dragon, cutting deeply into his psyche. His name has negative connotations related to muck and sewage. Despite being clean, his personality perfectly fits his name. Because he's so conniving, I'm really glad he's not his father; if he was, he'd be a deadbeat. However, as excellent he is at crafting a façade, this leads to a few big problems I have with it, echoing from @Truffles's review, @Sparklefan1234's comment, and Discord conversations with @PathfinderCS. Spike's hurtful comeback to Twilight absolutely crushes her, but doesn't have the weight. From the beginning of Act 3, the RM6 were already suspicious of him thanks to his sleazy manipulation of Spike and major holes in his backstory previously. Unfortunately, they can't prove anything, and Spike grew so close to him that telling him the truth without being delicate risks fracturing his relationships with the ponies. They must give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he doesn't brainwash him further. Emotionally, the delivery of disappointment feels stilted, further hurting its importance. Spike doesn't truly figure out he was being used until after his conversation with Smolder, and their plan takes place off-screen. Afterwards, everything starts falling into place. Because he figured it out late and needs Smolder's off-screen advice for some closure, the pacing feels a little off. No one can blame Spike for being so disappointed with Sludge revealing to be a phony. After getting so acquainted with him, his reveal's a major slap to his face. Yet, just before it concludes, he starts getting over it and feels mostly satisfied with the only family he has. But as this and DQ demonstrate, wanting to know his family roots matters to him, and he thought he was so close to actually figuring out who his biological father is. Heck, he revealed his scroll of things to do with them and was so happy to do them. As a result, Father Knows Beast's ending feels really hollow and forced. Sludge's backstory, even with the holes, is plausible, and you can fill in the cracks with them. His sobs after telling them his story also feel real. The script and Allspark even built interesting and complex lore behind it with a very unique art style of its own, suggesting a degree of reality into his tale. At the time, he looked very sympathetic and acted like he wanted to reunite with his "lost son." So for FKB to use the Liar Revealed trope feels like a gigantic letdown, and Sludge's reveal alone is anticlimactic. Previous clues indicate he set Spike up, but one big unmentioned red flag is stating he searched everywhere for him. Why does it hurt the story? Because he never recognized Spike nor said his name until after he fully healed. It was only a matter of time before Smolder and Spike craft a plan to out himself for being the fraud that he is. I don't like to harp on predictability in FIM nowadays, because the journey determines the episode's success above the destination, but that blatant piece of foreshadowing really risks sucking the audience out of the story. It's no surprise why many, myself including, feel dismayed. By revealing to NOT being his dad, the episode reverts to the status quo. After all this time, Spike's past remains a mystery. So despite a competent, nicely written story with a nicely song, great comedy (i.e., Sludge chucking SG out of the castle as she bathed ) and one of the best non-villain antagonists of the series, the resolve feels hollow. More could be done to tighten the plot or not feel so isolated from the rest of the series. At the end, I still feel uncertain whether I like it or not. Even after I submitted my initial review in the discussion thread. Nevertheless, it's got some big positives. Spike is very good here. He really wants to do the right thing and tries so hard to impress his "father." Here, we see his vulnerable side and one other flaw rarely exploited that well: his naiveté. He became so devoted with reuniting with what he thought was his biological father that he overlooks when he becomes a sleazy slob. Despite telling Twilight off, her worry clearly was on the back of his mind, evident by expressing his confusion towards Smolder. (This is also the first episode to refer to Spike as an orphan.) The audience sees his personality, how it was shaped, and (despite accusing her of being a fake parent) sympathize with them. His commitment for Sludge was genuine, which made his disappointment feel more crushing. Twilight has one of her more mature secondary outings of the series. Throughout FKB, Twilight is more than Spike's friend, but mom, too (and he sees the others as his family). From thinking he let her down after he was quiet and turned away for so long (punctuated by a really funny pillow reveal XD) to hugging him after he admits to being orphaned. Spike's health and well-being matter to him and will do anything to make sure he's safe, even if it means probably upsetting him. When he revealed Sludge ditched him and wasn't his real dad, she consoled him immediately, equally upset with the results. These shots really show their love for each other: Unlike Sludge, Smolder represented authentic dragondom despite their rough reputation, and she was great at it. When Twilight had trouble instructing Spike how to do tricks, she's there to help, explained that their parents teach them to fly when they're ready, and Spike offers a thank-you pillow to her, who doesn't sleep with pillows. Also, she knew Sludge phonied everything and worked with Spike to out him, because he treated her as his servant instead of his son. When he fled, she comforted him. Sludge is a fantastic, competent, and clever antagonist. No need to repeat. This is Dragon Quest (S2's worst episode by far) done right. How so? Recall the sexist implications and xenophobic stereotyping of dragons by the Mane Six. In DQ, while the RM5 watched dragons, they mocked Spike for looking "feminine" and proudly claimed that he's unlike the "other dragons" because of it. This sexism and xenophobia crossed over to teenage dragons, who are are written to represent dragondom, with Spike disowning his identity until Gauntlet of Fire. These implications are nonexistent here, and Haber wisely dignified dragon culture. Sludge claims he teaches Spike how to be a "real" dragon, but in reality, Sludge is a false representation of dragondom, while Smolder is. Guess who's in the right here. DQ's lesson actively uses racism in a positive light and treats the dragons other than Spike himself as savages in comparison to ponies, creating imperialistic implications that ponies are inherently superior. Thankfully, FKB handles a similar moral much better, this time focused on family over individuality, but Spike neither forgets nor abandons his dragon identity or sees dragon culture as a bad thing. Suspicions aside, they supported Spike's dad and worked with Spike to fulfill his wishes. They were all really charitable throughout the second montage: Pinkie and Fluttershy vs. Spike and Sludge in buckball (Granny Smith the ref): Rarity & Dash mimicking HW Day so they trade presents: Spike & Sludge bake and eat cupcakes together. Accusations of xenophobia from the ponies to dragons in DQ by bronies are justified, courtesy of their racist and sexist language. In FKB, no one acted like that at all, including Twilight. As mentioned previously, everyone's focused solely on Sludge being a terrible person, not because they believe dragons are primitive. When TS expressed concern, Spike retaliated with false accusations, which he apologized for. In DQ, Fluttershy agreed to watch the dragon migration after Dash agonizingly watched the butterfly migration, but punted her chest and cowered away. Here, Fluttershy actively helps him heal and no longer outwardly fears larger dragons. Disappointment aside, is Father Knows Beast a good episode? I believe it is. Compared to the rest of its post-Matter streak, it's the weakest of the bunch, especially so after its excellent run from Road to Friendship to Sounds, but it's still competently written. Hopefully, it'll continue to hold up on its own and age better in the future, but right now, don't expect me to watch it again anytime soon.
Note: Credit to @Jeric, @PathfinderCS, and @Captain Clark and conversations with them on Discord for this review. 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. Gladly. Despite few lines, she made the most of it. My favorite is this: 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: Fantastic the episode's overall dialogue quality is, their organic exchanges really sell the chemistry. Kathleen Barr — QC's VA — and Tara Strong take advantage of the script to craft excellent tension between each other. Chrysalis rightly couldn't stand Snarkle and the others for being so uncooperative, while Snarkle rightly kept her on a tightrope so she can take out Chrysalis when she least expects it. Very clearly, they can't stand each other. 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: 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: 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!