Straight to a jump for spoiler concerns this time!
Episodes 25 and 26: Twilight’s Kingdom
I wish this had been a three-parter. A four-parter. A movie. And I don’t mean a short movie like Equestria Girls, but some crazy 150-minute modern epic. I’ll return to this thought later.
Twilight’s Kingdom is an amazing pair of episodes that proves you’re allowed to be flawsome as long as you’re awesome. It’s the second greatest two-parter, though I won’t dispute anyone who wants to rank it above The Return of Harmony; it’s more consistently excellent and, like season 4 itself, goes far and goes boldly outside the boundaries of anything the show has done yet.
And no, I’m not only talking about My Dragon Ball Pony vs. Capcom here:
The fight scene between Twilestina and Tirek has been and probably will be discussed forever—and deservedly so. It’s not only a masterpiece of visual animation and defying external expectations and internal precedent, but a scene with the potential to change the entire paradigm of the show in the future by taking it into grander adventure territories. Until now, I would have pointed to a shot like Pinkie Pie’s insane face in Party of One or Twilight’s Cheshire Cat face in Lesson Zero as the single-screen still most representative of the show: cute yet off-kilter, a curious shot that makes you wonder not just what the show is about, but what the minds of the creators are about. It’s taken about three seasons, but they just might have topped that now. It all depends on the future of the show, but more on that in a bit.
My personal favorite scene is just about as unusual:
Past villain meets current villain and both are ancient figures of legend. This is the sort of scene I’ve been both hoping for and dreading ever since Discord reformed. Like I said about the season premiere, I was worried that the side of good was too overpowered with the Elements of Harmony, four alicorns, and Discord. After all, Discord alone could probably have taken on Nightmare Moon, Queen Chrysalis, and King Sombra combined if he’d been available for any of them. Princess Twilight Sparkle resolved the Elements of Harmony question by getting rid of them and tried to dodge the Discord question by showing that he’s not all that willing to help—but what if he actually did help? Who could shake that thought?
Besides, Discord’s awesome. He’s a lovable troll, either the smartest or second smartest character in the show (more on that later), and a reality-warper. In a way I want to see him totally destroy some poor villain, not to prove that he’s a good guy now but because it would make perfect sense. I don’t want him to be the Genie in Aladdin followups: suddenly nerfed because that makes storytelling easier. If there’s no reason he should have lost his power, keep all of it and figure out a way to create credible threats anyway.
And this is exactly what happens on both counts: Discord completely outclasses Tirek in two moves. However, even though Discord has superior abilities, Tirek appeals to his desire for freedom and that seems to overcome his better judgment.
This scene probably couldn’t have been handled any better than it was. It explores villain motivations in a believable manner and isn’t quite as black-and-white as previous premieres and finales. Tirek’s lie is the best and most common sort of lie: a half-truth. Discord has changed as a result of his friends and change isn’t always for the better.
This scene is actually the key for all credibility in the remainder of the two-parter. There were only two major possibilities here: 1) Discord has tricked Tirek and will backstab him later by revealing that he never stopped believing in friendship or 2) Tirek has tricked Discord and will backstab him later. In this case, given the characters involved, the best thing is to not tip your hand too early which one is correct. There’s no point in this episode, right up to when Tirek inevitably betrays Discord and takes his power, that I believed a prepared Discord wouldn’t have been able to beat him one-on-one. He loses because he’s caught by surprise, not because he has inferior power.
It’s also because of this scene that Tirek is well-established as a menacing villain. He can play a game of power or a mindgame equally well. Like Cell in Dragon Ball Z, he starts off physically unthreatening and escalates through clever maneuvering so that we get a clear sense of his strength.
All this time and I’ve only touched on two scenes. Here’s a basic plot runthrough: Twilight doesn’t understand what her purpose as a princess is, Tirek appears, Celestia wants Discord to stop him instead of Twilight, Discord solves the Tree of Harmony puzzle before going away (but Twilight still doesn’t have her key), Tirek talks Discord back into a life of evil, Tirek absorbs the powers of ponies everywhere with the help of Discord, Celestia and Cadance and Luna put all their magic into Twilight so Tirek won’t be able to absorb it from them, Tirek betrays Discord, Tirek finds Twilight and they fight (and he blows up her library), Tirek uses Twilight’s friends as hostages, Twilight chooses her friends and gets her key, the Tree of Harmony box gives them all powers, they beat Tirek with an insta-win beam, and then the box sprouts a castle where Twilight will reign with her friends on their own thrones.
If ever there was an episode that can cause a clear-as-can-be divide between people who prefer adventure episodes and people who prefer slice of life episodes, it’s this. Twilight’s Kingdom is amazing, baffling, and flawed.
I’ve covered most of the amazing, but there’s one more thing to it: “You’ll Play Your Part,” a three-minute song in which all the princesses join in the most beautiful harmony you ever did hear. Oh, and we see cameos of the most adorable pony (Coco Pommel) and the best guest star (Cheese Sandwich), so there’s that!
This would be as good a lead-in as any to get to flawed aspects of this two-parter, but I want to touch on the baffling first. I obviously love Twilight’s Kingdom, but when I really sit back, I have more questions and confusions about this standalone two-parter than the rest of the season combined.
Is Princess Cadance’s magic even close to the same level of Princess Celestia and Luna? I’ve been assuming the answer is no, but considering there’s just as much of a need to give Twilight her power, I’m not sure anymore. This is a nitpick, but I have to bring it up in the chronological course of events.
After the princesses do give Twilight all their magic, Celestia insists that Twilight can’t tell her friends about it because letting them know would put them at risk. Um… huh? At this point Celestia already knows that Discord has joined forces with Tirek, so what’s stopping Discord from leading him to Ponyville? It seems like the safest thing for Twilight to do would be to tell her friends what’s going on and lead them away from Ponyville so Discord and Tirek can’t find them right away. Plus this entire notion seems to contradict the core message of Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 2, which was that Twilight always needs her friends.
So then Twilight tells her friends to encourage all the Ponyville ponies to stay indoors. Is this just some random thing she made up to get them all away from her or does she believe that this is going to help at all? I mean, wouldn’t staying indoors be really dangerous since the place you’d most expect to find a pony would be in her house? Ponies were evacuating to the Everfree Forest in Too Many Pinkie Pies and the Pinkie clones were just a nuisance, not a threat. (This is why I say I’d love a three-parter or a movie where they’d have time to properly address these sorts of things.)
Case in point about expecting to find ponies in their houses, why are Celestia, Luna, and Cadance all sitting around in the throne room just waiting for Tirek to get there? Why not have Luna and Cadance hide elsewhere? I mean, I know the meta-answer: because it’s awesome to have the three princesses staring at Tirek with defiant troll faces. That doesn’t mean it makes any sense, though.
Why does Tirek even know about Cadance anyway considering he’s been gone for a thousand years and Cadance isn’t much older than Twilight? Granted, he’s been outside of Tartarus since It’s About Time, so maybe he’s used that time to get caught up on current pony events, but then why would he know about Cadance and not Twilight?
I’ve always figured that Sunset Shimmer’s plan was incredibly dumb because even if every teenager on her side had coincidentally become a unicorn, it still wouldn’t matter because Celestia and Luna would be able to handle an army of a few dozen. Turns out that the combined power of princesses is just as strong as the combined power of Discord, an ancient evil, and hundreds of absorbed ponies. At a point like this you start to wonder what makes Shining Armor so special that he’s needed to create a force field in A Canterlot Wedding. He’s only a unicorn, after all.
All of these are just amusing quibbles, though; now I want to touch on what I see as the legitimate flaws. I’m not talking about minor nitpicks either, like how the castle at the end doesn’t seem to fit in Ponyville, the running time of a two-parter didn’t allow proper time to let the destruction of the library sink in, or the Rainbow Power forms are ugly. Whatever. Those are negligible points. I’m concerned with real, outstanding problems related to continuity or character motivations.
I consider “You’ll Play Your Part” to be the definitive Twilight song just as “Art of the Dress” is the definitive Rarity song, “Apples to the Core” is the definitive Applejack song, and Pinkie Pie has three definitive songs. That said, it’s much more fitting of season 1 or early season 2 Twilight than the season 4 one.
The idea is that suddenly Twilight has issues of self-image. At first glance this made no sense to me. At second glance I could almost accept it. At third glance, no, I’m certain this makes no sense. She just delivered a lesson to Spike about not being disappointed in himself in Equestria Games, one episode prior to her opening Twilight’s Kingdom being disappointed in herself.
“You keep saying you let everypony down, but we all keep saying you didn’t. You know who’s disappointed in you, Spike? You. And only you can make it right with you again. What would that take, Spike?” -Twilight Sparkle, Equestria Games
More importantly, Twilight has no reason to be disappointed with herself. Spike was right in Equestria Games; she never lets anypony down. Rainbow Dash was right in Testing Testing 1, 2, 3; she’s good at everything. Rainbow Dash was also right in The Crystal Empire Part 2: “Since when does Twilight Sparkle ever fail?” In Lesson Zero and season 1, that’s when, but other than that she’s saved the world multiple times.
All this and I’m supposed to feel sorry for her singing about how she wants to make a contribution? In the stellar episode Winter Wrap Up, Twilight had a legitimate concern about finding her place. We push for her to succeed because we see her failing. Here in Twilight’s Kingdom, her most engaging personal moment is probably when she’s screwing up the sun and moon.
I realize I’m spending a lot time on this flaw, but really, by this point maybe Princess Celestia and Luna should be the ones singing about wanting to make a contribution since they haven’t done anything for the entire show. Or how about the rest of the Mane 6? Applejack can lead stampedes away from town, outwit chimeras, and battle timberwolves; Rainbow Dash can round up parasprites in a tornado, nuke a barn with her own body, and break the sound barrier. Both are useless any time a real villain shows up—well, unless you count it as “useful” to stand in one place and let a beam shoot out of an Element of Harmony.
I’m guessing that the writers actually overthought their way into this. I completely agree with the fandom conception that Twilight turned into a princess and it didn’t seem to change her at all. However, that doesn’t make her, the individual pony, a failure. This two-parter mistakenly conflates the character with the profession, pretending that Princess Twilight can be disappointed in Twilight just because she’s disappointed in Princess. I’m not letting that slip by unchallenged.
All of this is also why the line “We can conquer any challenge we’re in” from Flight to the Finish‘s “Hearts Strong as Horses” rings so much more true than the line “There is no battle we can’t win” from Twilight’s Kingdom‘s “Let the Rainbow Remind You”: the Cutie Mark Crusaders actually A) operate as a team and B) grow as characters. When was the last time any of the Mane 6 other than Twilight improved her abilities anywhere near as impressively as when Sweetie Belle finally started using magic in Twilight Time or when Apple Bloom survived a lengthy encounter with a chimera in Somepony to Watch Over Me? The answer: not since season 1’s Sonic Rainboom.
If I were planning this show out for the next five years, at some point I’d actually have the CMCs grow up to surpass the Mane 6. How do you top an epic magic laser war? With emotional catharsis, a proper build-up, and real teamwork.
Next problem: Discord somehow doesn’t see Tirek’s betrayal coming and this defies everything we’ve ever known about him. Discord, along with Princess Celestia, is one of only two legitimate contenders for the smartest character in the series. Twilight’s been working on the Tree of Harmony box puzzle for an entire season and Discord figures it out in a single episode. He knows that Zecora has a potion to see into the past in Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 1, seemingly without having consulted her beforehand. This dude’s brilliant and he even catches Tirek making a Freudian slip about how he’ll rule Equestria, but he still doesn’t figure that Tirek just might turn on him?
I mean, this is the same guy who trolled Twilight in Three’s A Crowd by giving her a medallion that falsely symbolized their friendship. And here he is buying into his own trick played against him.
I also have a real problem with what it says about Twilight that Discord doesn’t learn a lesson about friendship until after he’s betrayed. Just as I don’t give Rainbow Dash full credit for earning her key because Twilight had to lecture her two times, I don’t give Twilight full credit for earning her key because it was Fluttershy who did all the groundwork of reforming Discord. Applejack needed no help with Silver Shill, Rarity needed no help with Coco Pommel, and Pinkie Pie not only needed no help with Cheese Sandwich, but is so broken that she inspired him years and years before any of this key stuff.
But now that Discord’s been betrayed, Tirek has captured all of Twilight’s friends. He bargains with her to give her friends back in exchange for all the alicorn magic. Makes sense so far, but then after he gets all the magic, I have an obvious question: why not just kill them off anyway? Or why not send them to Tartarus along with Princess Celestia, Luna, and Cadance? I mean, he’s a villain. He’s under no real obligation to uphold his end of the bargain.
And why would Twilight trust him to uphold his end of the bargain? She can see clearly that Tirek betrayed Discord after gaining his trust, so even if she accepts the trade, isn’t it very likely that he’ll turn on her immediately afterward? Plus Tirek doesn’t even let Discord go at first, so you seriously have to question his sincerity. (Why did Tirek even show Discord off if he believed Twilight wouldn’t want him back?)
So I don’t fully understand the character motivations of Twilight, Tirek, Discord, or Twilight again, but we’re not done yet. What was Princess Celestia thinking? Until now, every reasonable question about why she never seems to help out against big evils could be reasonably answered: she didn’t fight Discord or King Sombra because she wanted Twilight to grow stronger by doing so. She does jump in against Queen Chrysalis, but presumably that’s because the Elements of Harmony are far away and time is short, so she couldn’t expect Twilight to make it in time.
Twilight’s Kingdom presents a different story in which she sends Discord after the big evil instead of Twilight. I don’t believe that Discord can grow any stronger than he already is, so at this point I’m guessing that the most plausible explanation is that she wants Tirek taken care of immediately. If that’s the case, why not go along with Discord and help him get the job done?
Another alternative, though I’m not totally clear on whether it would work, would be to skip Discord, do the alicorn fusion dance immediately, and blast Tirek back to Tartarus while he’s still weak. The only question here is whether it’s really a fusion dance or a Potara earring fusion, where the princesses were giving up their magic permanently and the only reason they got it back is because it defused within Majin Tirek’s body. I tend to doubt that, though, because if they could give it up once then I don’t see why Twilight couldn’t redistribute it back to them.
This magical fusion thing is now a central question for most of the show in retrospect. Remember when Rainbow Dash got caught under a rock in May the Best Pet Win and freaked out that she’d be stuck there forever, but the viewers had no cause for concern because her friends were right there anyway? Now just about every threat seems like that rock.
Once upon a time, the manticore in Friendship is Magic Part 2 was pretty imposing, as was the Ursa Minor in Boast Busters. The dragon and rock slide in Dragonshy, the parasprites in Swarm of the Century, the cockatrice in Stare Master, diamond dogs, giant Spike, the Alicorn Amulet, a tornado in Wonderbolts Academy, the villains in Daring Don’t, Flutterbat, a giant worm dragon thing… all of these seem so small, quaint, and pathetic now that we know what the characters have been capable of this entire time.
Twilight’s Kingdom, as amazing as it is, treads very risky ground. Unless this is a turning point for the entire show seriously cranking up the danger levels from now on (which I’d be really excited for), how can any slice of life threat have any credibility now?
The credibility question compounds even further with some new facts established by this episode. Discord can apparently sense power levels and I’m pretty sure Princess Celestia can too since she knew that he’d teamed up with Tirek even without personally observing it. (For the sake of the argument, I’m assuming that her hall of memories from Magical Mystery Cure isn’t a Big Sister global monitoring system. If it is, then that only makes my point stronger.) It’s not only the monsters who aren’t threats anymore, but how did Inspiration Manifestation go on for so long without one of the princesses detecting the dark magic and intervening? Why did Spike need to notify Princess Celestia in Lesson Zero when she should have already felt the disturbance caused by the Want It Need It Spell? Couldn’t Princess Cadance have resolved the problem in Hearts and Hooves Day?
Just like the dragon balls could theoretically fix every problem, you really have to start wondering how many My Little Pony challenges of the past were totally under control without our knowing it.
Last things… I take real issue with following up an insane, epic fight scene with another instant-win beam just like the ones in Friendship is Magic, The Return of Harmony, A Canterlot Wedding, The Crystal Empire, and Equestria Girls. In the heat of the moment of that fight scene, it felt like everything had changed, but then we go right back to a glorified cheat code.
Maybe the weirdest part in all this is that the Mane 6 get new Rainbow Power forms but then don’t do anything except float in place. Once again, this is where being a three-parter or a movie would have helped. It could have offered time to answer an all-important question: what does Rainbow Power do? Can Rainbow Dash fly faster? Is Applejack stronger? Has Pinkie Pie become an indestructible force of nature? Or is it only good for beating bad guys? I mean, the Elements of Harmony seemed to be a kind of balancing force in the universe that could also coincidentally be harnessed for power beams.
This is as fine a segue as any into the final word on this finale…
For all my criticisms, Twilight’s Kingdom is amazing and I dearly, dearly hope that almost everything about it becomes a primary direction of the show. I don’t like that Twilight’s the only character capable of doing anything, but everything else I’ll take. I want this to be a gamechanger in exactly the way that Magical Mystery Cure wasn’t. I want season 5 to open up with an instant and powerful sense of change just like Justice League Unlimited essentially washed away Justice League before it. I don’t believe it’ll happen, though, and that kind of worries me.
Twilight’s Kingdom feels so substantial that I don’t want to see it swept under the rug as we pretend that nothing’s changed all along. I don’t mean we need a sudden influx of serious villains and the eradication of slice of life episodes. I mean that I want a sense of weight and importance to show its face outside of the start and end of each season. I mean that Twilight’s Kingdom is too great not to leave an impact.
This post went much longer than expected, so in the next and final installment, I’ll give various odds and ends thoughts on season 4. I’ll also post current episode and pony rankings that I’m sure I’ll look back on and laugh about later!