Usually I talk games here, but special circumstances demand I take time to comment on another topic: the just-concluded-yesterday finale of season 4 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the most surprising and creative season yet!
Just a few words about myself since this is my first show review… And probably the only show I’ll review! (Until season 5.) I don’t watch TV other than this.
The sacred brony question is, as always, who are your favorite ponies? I’ll tackle that topic and also my general approach to enjoying MLP.
I started watching MLP on November 18, 2012 and by the end of November 20th, I’d binged on the first two seasons and the first three episodes of season 3.
(How do I know that? Because I saved the log of when I first talked about the show with the friend who recommended it! So I can say this next part in all confidence…)
Even as early as midway through season 2, my favorite three ponies were always Pinkie Pie in first place, then Rarity, then Rainbow Dash. My opinions do change—Applejack’s moved down, Fluttershy’s moved up, and individual episodes get better or worse as I rewatch them—but those three have always been the bedrock of the show, at least as I experience it. In every episode, I’ll give a take on any of the three who show up.
Approach to the Show
There are two ways of interacting with fiction: what I call being a relational fan, who projects herself into the situation as an empathizer, or an entertainment fan, who watches from a greater emotional distance as a mere observer.
I’m primarily an entertainment fan.
What does that mean in pragmatic terms? I love Nightmare Moon, the Flim Flam Brothers, Angel, Queen Chrysalis, and Diamond Tiara. I love Pinkamena, Crazy Twilight, Gala Fluttershy, Discord Fluttershy, and Hero Rainbow Dash (in The Mysterious Mare Do Well). I love Sleepless Applejack, Gilda, Discord, Lightning Dust, and Sunset Shimmer. I love Iron Will Fluttershy and she trashed my two favorite ponies.
I know some people take a while to warm up to My Little Pony, citing episodes like Bridle Gossip, Swarm of the Century, or Winter Wrap Up (episodes 9, 10, and 11 respectively) as when the show started to click for them. Not me. I agree that around there is when the show solidified its core values and consistency, but when the opening theme played for the first time and suddenly we’ve got an electric guitar in the background right after watching that fairy tale storybook intro, I got it. I knew what they were going for and it was awesome.
I’m primarily an entertainment fan.
What does that mean in pragmatic terms? Evil beats boring. That and I’m an emotionless robot or something.
Season 4 Overview
From a meta-perspective, I’d say season 4 was about taking the show in many new and unexpected directions. This is best exemplified by two facts: extensive use of brand new writers (10 out of 26 episodes were written fully or partially by people who had never touched the previous three seasons) and extensive use of concept-driven episodes.
From an in-universe perspective, I’d say season 4 was about building up the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Rarity (especially compensating for season 3 missing a Rarity episode), and Pinkie Pie—and attempting to build up Applejack. These were the characters who faced challenges unlike anything they’d already dealt with, so we didn’t merely have a good time with them, but learned more about them. (By contrast, season 3 mainly built Rainbow Dash, Spike, and maybe Fluttershy.)
With that in mind, let’s hop to individual episode reviews!
Episodes 1 and 2: Princess Twilight Sparkle Parts 1 and 2
Grade: B+ and A- (average: B+)
When I first watched the season 4 opener, I thought for a couple minutes that it was the best two-parter yet, but then I remembered that The Return of Harmony happened—and then I remembered that A Canterlot Wedding also happened. Still, I had that initial love for the episodes not only because they blow The Crystal Empire out of the water, but because they are quite fun: Twilight’s flailing around in the sky (reminiscent of her many struggles in Winter Wrap Up), Discord’s trolling, flashbacks show that Princess Celestia actually did stuff in the past other than standing around a lot, and most of all, the deus ex machina power finally disappeared.
If there was one issue plaguing the adventure episodes before this, it’s that the Elements of Harmony could beat everything. Nightmare Moon, Discord, the changelings (if the Mane 6 had actually been able to reach them), Discord’s return… At some point the show needed to ask what the Elements couldn’t defeat. There probably wasn’t a better point to ask than now, either, since I worried coming out of season 3 that any villain would be a pushover now that the side of good was loaded up with four alicorns and Discord. Great to see that resolved.
Although I prefer Part 2 to the taking-its-time Part 1, my most major problem with this season premiere does show up in Part 2…
So Applejack leads a charge to send Twilight home because the team doesn’t need her and she’ll get killed or something. Listen, Applejack, I’m as tired as anyone of Twilight’s Sailor Moon act where she always has to be the one who saves the day, but this might be the dumbest idea you’ve ever had. Don’t you remember from Friendship is Magic and The Return of Harmony that you need all six Elements of Harmony?
It gets worse, though, because for some reason every pony except Pinkie Pie voices agreement with her. And then it gets worse than that because Twilight agrees to go home even though she also knows the Elements aren’t worth anything without all six gathered together. And then it gets even worse than that because Discord convinces her to go back to her friends in all of about a minute, so it’s not like the situation even had time to build to an emotional climax.
The lack of proper time is just a nitpick, though; G1’s Rescue at Midnight Castle crammed 75 minutes of plot into one episode and it’s totally fine because at least I understood what they were going for. The problem here in Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 2 is that the only character motivation I believe in the entire sequence in Discord’s. None of Twilight’s friends are going to send her home and she’s not going to agree to it.
Still, the major good far outweighs the major bad, which only lasted a minute.
…but what about the minor bad?
Pinkie Pie Focus
Half a stumble out the gate for Pinkie here in season 4 as Princess Twilight Sparkle gave her the Wonderbolts Academy treatment of showing both her most in-character and most out-of-character lights. Back in that episode, her groundless worry about Rainbow Dash forgetting her showcased her perfectly, but standing in front of a mailbox opening and closing it for days on end undermined all of that good will. In PTS, her party letter nailed her characterization, but her random daydream about cake frosting undermined it.
Seriously, it’s like a Homer Simpson line. “Mmm… donuts.” How did this scene even get approved? Who didn’t see the difference between an obese caricature of an average American male and a genki girl pony in a land of magic who’s even more physics-breaking than said magic?
“The real Pinkie Pie never sat that long in one place her whole life.” -Twilight Sparkle, Too Many Pinkie Pies
“Enough chitchat! Time is candy!” -Pinkie Pie, Luna Eclipsed
Pinkie Pie doesn’t stand there dreaming about cake frosting. She teleports out or superspeeds out to buy a cake and then, like in Swarm of the Century, devours it in one gulp like Yoshi or Garfield. In some ways this scene is even worse than Wonderbolts Academy because at least there her obsession resolves around a friend, which makes sense for her character.
Not to much to say about her in the season premiere, but later episodes would very quickly compensate…
Rainbow Dash Focus
I tend to love Rainbow Dash most when she’s not the center of an episode and Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 1 demonstrates why. I love her unwavering, arrogant certainty that she’ll defeat the Everfree clouds—and I love when she can’t live up to her hype, which happens all the time except in her own focus episodes. Like I said, there are few things I dislike more than when a single character constantly gets to take down all the big threats, but one positive coming out of Twilight’s overpowered self is that I can be sure that right after Rainbow Dash announces her awesomeness, she’ll get foiled time and again in ten seconds flat.
Episode 3: Castle Mane-ia
Josh Haber debuts with a super strong episode that expertly utilizes all of the Mane Six. Castle Mane-ia is a perfect opening act for the creativity showcase that season 4 would become over time, tackling a haunted castle in a much more consistently dark setting than Luna Eclipsed (where we knew there was nothing to fear) and Sleepless in Ponyville (where we kept cutting between night and day scenes). In a sense, nothing like it had been done before.
With Pinkie Pie acting as judge, Rainbow Dash and Applejack battle over the title of most daring pony—but as we all know from “Giggle at the Ghosties,” Laughter Pony herself is more fearless than the two of them any day! (Power Ponies and Pinkie Apple Pie later in season 4 will only back this up.)
Still, even if Pinkie Pie can’t name herself the winner, I can only say that if she’d been following a certain other character instead of those two, she’d find that one pony is too fabulous for this silly “fear” thing…
To me, Castle Mane-ia will always be a secret Rarity episode! Her righteous indignation and personal crusade stole the show flawlessly. A torn parchment is scarier than any ghost or shadow!
Even disregarding her, Fluttershy’s presence also gave real perspective to the folly of the most daring pony contest—even she was too consumed with worry for Angel to show any fear of the same locations that had poor Rainbow Dash and Applejack quivering.
Pinkie Pie Focus
This is what’s called “maximizing your time.” For a pony who barely participated in the episode, she flat-out delivered, showing off more advanced mathematics than Twilight Sparkle could dream of and a savant’s ability to play a new instrument without learning anything about it. Honestly, the only difference between Pinkie Pie’s skill level and that of Apple Bloom in The Cutie Pox is that Pinkie can control her own brokenness.
(Sidenote: I knew it was either Pinkie Pie or Princess Luna at the organ, but I figured Princess Luna. Would have been fun either way!)
As I said, this wasn’t a showcase episode for Rarity, but it might as well have been. Josh Haber has said that he likes writing Rarity and it’s very apparent; while he writes all of the characters competently and in-character, he goes above and beyond with portraying her as a lovably hammy character not seen this side of Secret of My Excess.
“But this! This is a crime against fashion!” -Rarity, Secret of My Excess
“Of all the castles in Equestria, this is by far the most ungrateful!” -Rarity, Castle Mane-ia
In some ways, Rarity gets closest of all the ponies to breaking the fourth wall without actually breaking it like Pinkie Pie; she’s something like Han Solo in Star Wars, poking fun at the stories she stars in even while wholeheartedly participating too.
Rainbow Dash Focus
Rainbow Dash resumed her season 1 rivalry with Applejack, but since I’m convinced they’ll never portray either pony as better than the other, I’m not sure how much I care. What I am sure of is that Castle Mane-ia, like the premiere, shows again how fun Rainbow can be when she’s boasting one second and running scared the next.
Also, I absolutely loved when she said that she and Applejack couldn’t be tied for most daring pony. It raised an interesting epistemological question about the nature of language and metaphysics in relation to the objective and subjective external worlds, which calls to mind the work of, among others, Willard Van Orman Quine—
Oh. Sorry. Forgot that’s only interesting to philosophy lovers like me. =P
Episode 4: Daring Don’t
The fourth episode in a row featuring all of the Mane 6! Rainbow Dash got more of the spotlight, though, and deservedly so. This was also the second episode in a row tackling a concept that the show hadn’t seriously touched: small-scale, personal action-adventure. We’ve seen epic adventure in episodes like A Canterlot Wedding Part 2, but other than the fiction-within-fiction structure of Read It and Weep, Daring Don’t felt to me unlike any episode that preceded it, continuing the string of creative episodes.
Other than maybe A Friend in Deed, I’ve never been more surprised by common fan reactions than here. I’m not immune to broken suspension of disbelief—when I saw Family Appreciation Day I couldn’t shake the question of how some ponies like Granny Smith have aged so much in a world of magic where Princess Celestia is apparently immortal—but I have no trouble buying the concept of this episode: Daring Do is real and is having amazing adventures without anypony witnessing them. It’s precisely because she thwarts the villains every time that nopony believes they exist; think less Indiana Jones and more James Bond, a hero whose job is to prevent incidents in the shadows that will never become public knowledge.
I really like the idea that various adventures might be going on across Equestria unbeknownst to us; it makes the world feel grander. It calls to mind a certain issue of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comics in which Princess Celestia and Spike thwart a certain threat while the Mane 6 are off doing something else.
Pinkie Pie Focus
I stand firm in my belief that Pinkie could have soloed all of Ahuizotl’s army. Other than that, good zinger to close out a geek session between Rainbow Dash and Twilight.
Disappointingly, nothing happened with her in this episode. The same goes for Fluttershy and Applejack, which is one legitimate knock against Daring Don’t; all of the Mane 6 were included in this Rainbow Dash episode, but Twilight was only needed for a pep talk, Pinkie for a comedy moment, and the other three for even less than that.
Rainbow Dash Focus
Yet more of Rainbow Dash at her best, this time stroking her own ego and then rapidly degenerating into a raving fangirl once she’s on the spot. Unlike Princess Twilight Sparkle and Castle Mane-ia, though, this time there are real emotional consequences for her failure and she grows as a character because of them. In fact, even though her key shows up in Rainbow Falls and Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3 is thirty times better than that episode and Daring Don’t combined, I’d actually say that in terms of showing character growth, Daring Don’t is season 4’s closest equivalent to a Sleepless in Ponyville or Wonderbolts Academy.
Episode 5: Flight to the Finish
Written by new writer Ed Valentine, Flight to the Finish perfectly personifies (ponifies?) that my opinions of characters are not set in concrete. While I’ve always liked the Cutie Mark Crusaders to varying degrees, they’ve shown consistent improvement (I was at my lowest enjoyment level in Stare Master) and I didn’t fully understand just how much they’ve grown on me until seeing them on the verge of breaking apart.
This episode is actually so good that it kicked half the Mane 6 out of my top 9 ponies so that the Cutie Mark Crusaders could take their place. My new “Mane 6”: Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo. Like I’ve said, I’m an entertainment fan and it takes a lot to get an emotional reaction out of me. I know that people despise Diamond Tiara for this episode, but I don’t. I still love her.
…but that’s why it says so much so that this is the first season 4 episode that did get an emotional reaction out of me. Everything from Rainbow Dash visiting Scootaloo to the end of the reprise is so stirring that it touched even my blackened heart.
In fact, it’s so stirring that I began to understand why, in Book X of Plato’s Republic, he concludes that the ideal society would ban moralistic art. In Plato’s view, moralistic art is a charming and persuasive system of teaching ethics that’s created by people who are experts only at charm and persuasion, not at ethics. Of course, in his day, he was thinking of Homeric poetry. In the modern world, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic would be Plato’s worst nightmare. You see, with the aid of color, music, and—
Oh. Sorry. Forgot that’s only interesting to philosophy lovers like me. =P
The only major issue with this episode is Ms. Harshwinny scene going on too long for what it needed to accomplish, but frankly, that doesn’t matter.
I haven’t felt this positively about anything in an episode this side of “Smile Song” (heard it in 2012), which was the most positively I’ve felt about anything in any medium since the ending arc of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (played it in 2010), which was the most positively I’ve felt about anything since episode 13 of Toradora! (watched it in 2009), which was the most positively I’ve felt about anything since the first time I heard the gospel message (2002).
What all of these share in common is an incredibly idealistic message of love, so much so that a comment from TVTropes regarding Sakura Wars has stuck with me for years:
You’d be hard pressed to find any work produced from the 90’s onwards that is this far up the scale of Idealism.
Bear with me here: I’m going to talk philosophy for a bit, but in a serious way, a toned down way, and a way that relates to the show.
Two things about me: 1) I’m a natural loner, so in some sense these messages of friendship, love, and unity should have no effect on me, but 2) whether present Christian or past agnostic, I’ve had an eye toward the transcendental as long as I can remember. I believe that’s why an episode like this gets me. I wasn’t making fun of Plato earlier; I’m actually deeply fascinated by the groundwork he laid for our understanding of metaphysics and abstract objects, just as I was eleven years old and fascinated by Chrono Trigger‘s Doreen questioning the reality of the external universe.
What is love? A series of synapses firing in the brain? A series of chemical reactions in the body? A series of interactions between people? Those are possibilities and some people believe they’re correct, but hey, it’s also a possibility that our universe is an advanced app on the iPhone 489.
As for myself, I believe that love is something real in and of itself, just as math is real and evil is real. In other words, we don’t believe that two plus two equals four just because the human brain says so (even though it does say so), but because two plus two actually equals four and you would know this even if you’re a super-advanced alien fifty times smarter than us. We don’t believe that genocide is an evil human act just because that’s a natural instinct (even though it is a natural instinct) or just because culture says so (even though culture does say so), but because it’s actually evil and it would still be evil even if Nazis had conquered the world—and it’s still evil even for a person who’s a serial killer and lacks a psychological sense of empathy.
I don’t believe that love exists just because my imagination or subconscious wants it to, but because love does in fact exist. This is the common sense explanation. This is the Occam’s Razor explanation, as I was recently pondering. It’s an uncomplicated argument in the vein of G. E. Moore’s “Here is one hand” argument in which, to refute philosophers who say there is no external world, he raises both his hands, saying “Here is one hand. And here is another.”
Flight to the Finish is one hand. I believe love exists because I see it and comprehend it—and if anyone is going to tell me that actually I’m in the Matrix being fooled, then they have a lot of explaining to do to convince me of their side. Right now, love is about as clear as it gets.
And if you don’t believe that evil exists, well, once again Flight to the Finish is one hand. Philosophy over, back to the review: Diamond Tiara really developed here. Until now we’ve seen her as a jerk (Call of the Cutie), as arrogant (One Bad Apple), and as power-mad (Ponyville Confidential), but never have we seen such pure evil from her until this point. She mocks the disabled Scootaloo, who can’t fly, just to stop her and her friends from winning a competition.
One could make a convincing argument that Diamond Tiara is actually the greatest evil the show had seen to this point other than King Sombra. Would a world of eternal night under Nightmare Moon truly be so awful? I like the night time. A world under Discord would be crazy, but it’s not like he was seriously hurting anypony except for the Mane 6, so maybe he wouldn’t have done much to them either if they weren’t capable of using the Elements of Harmony. I’m still not fully sure what a world under Queen Chrysalis would have been like, but she had a whole army and still managed to not hurt anypony, so beats me what kind of ruler she would have been. King Sombra at least was so evil he enslaved the population, but Diamond Tiara is actually more evil than Trixie after Trixie was corrupted by the Alicorn Amulet.
And this is a huge part of why the Cutie Mark Crusaders formula works so well. They have much less power than the Mane 6 and yet face an antagonist far more sinister—an antagonist who can’t simply be blasted away with magical power. Diamond Tiara is only half the formula. Her brilliance is that she keeps within the confines of the law, making her evil technically untouchable, but the true antagonist is what she creates to do her dirty work: fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
I’ve occasionally read complaints that the bullies don’t get any comeuppance in this episode, but that just makes it stronger to me—and here’s why.
Scootaloo: I didn’t want to ruin their [Sweetie Belle’s and Apple Bloom’s] chances to win just because I couldn’t fly.
Rainbow Dash: And who said you had to?
Scootaloo: But flying is what pegasus ponies are supposed to do!
You could interpret this exchange to mean that Scootaloo just dodged the question, but I don’t believe so. Who said she had to fly? Technically, you could answer Diamond Tiara, but that’s not the point of the episode. If it was, it’d be very weak indeed. We don’t even see Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon’s routine. I would have liked to see it, mind you, but the point isn’t whether they put together a better or worse routine than the Cutie Mark Crusaders. The real moral is, when it comes down to it…
Sooner or later, in a world of free speech, you’re bound to encounter those who will make you question your own self-worth. The enemy is your own inner monologue. Diamond Tiara is just one character who can bring it out, but if it wasn’t her, it would have been somepony. Maybe it would have been one of the jerks from Putting Your Hoof Down. We can infer from that episode and Magical Mystery Cure that Ponyville would be full of awful grumps if not for Pinkie Pie’s presence. Canterlot’s full of snobs, as we see in Sweet and Elite, and we’ll see in a few episodes that a certain other city in Equestria isn’t any better.
The point is there’s no short supply of haters. The point is they’ll put out messages that cut you deep and they’re actually within their legal rights, even if not their moral rights. You’ll have to reckon with society forever, so build up that resistance to criticism in whatever form it might take. My resistance to criticism is a philosophical core. Scootaloo’s resistance is a bond with her friends. Diamond Tiara’s resistance is inflated self-esteem.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders have developed over the show; unlike in season 1, they’re little more than mildly annoyed at being called blank flanks. We know that they’ll eventually get their cutie marks, though, so Scootaloo’s issue is far more poignant: it could well be that she’ll never fly. Metaphorically speaking, neither will we. The criticism will be there. You have options to deal with it. Pick your favorite.
Flight to the Finish is the episode most emblematic of season 4 as a whole. Even when the season isn’t going off the rails with insane concepts like Castle Mane-ia and Daring Don’t, it remains surprising and touches on subjects that are new territory for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Flight to the Finish is brilliant. If I was a relational viewer, it would probably be my favorite episode ever. I’m an entertainment viewer, though, so it’ll have to settle for my third favorite of season 4 and top nine or ten of the series.
Rainbow Dash Focus
As the only one of the Mane 6 showing up in this episode, Rainbow didn’t disappoint. Other than maybe Twilight, she’s shown by far the most growth of the Mane 6 and this is a perfect showcase of how. Her playing a mentor figure to Scootaloo would have been nearly unthinkable in season 1 and it’s a joy to see her develop.
We cover Power Ponies through Pinkie Apple Pie!