An Overthought Overview of MLP:FIM Season 2, the first half.
This is going to be a bit different than most of the other reviews, as I don't really have the skeleton of an episode to hang all of my observations on. So here's my plan to keep everything organized: I'll start by listing how the primary characters have been affected by focus in the new episodes, then go to trends indicating how the season as a whole seems to be going, and end with a general overview and stuff like best/worst/overrated/underrated episodes, etc. Hopefully this will turn out well.
Character Focus in Season 2
The way the different characters have been utilized thus far in the season is obviously going to influence how they're perceived between this season and the first season. Some of them have really benefited from the increased screentime and utilization, some have fared...less well. I'll start with the ones that benefited most and move on from there.
There really isn't any denying that Rarity has basically owned the first half of this season. She basically gets two episodes ("Sisterhooves Social" and "Sweet and Elite") to herself, and is rather important in the plot of "Secret of my Excess". I have to admit that I wasn't a huge fan of her in the first season, and the episodes she got in this season moved her up in my list quite a bit. All of her episodes are high quality, and give the character a lot of additional depth. Not to say that her first season episodes were bad, but this season rounds her out quite a bit.
"Sisterhooves Social" and "Secret of my Excess" go a long way in defining her interpersonal (interponysal?) relationships. The former episode is important in showing that she doesn't necessarily need other ponies to help her get over her primary flaws. She recognizes her selfishness on her own. Granted, she needs Applejack's help to figure out how to go about fixing it, but she figured out that something needed to be fixed all on her own. Given that her greed is one of her most obvious flaws, it's really good to see her fighting it herself without having to be hit over the head with it; she recognizes her own flaws and takes steps to fix it. It's also one of the first times that she voluntarily puts aside her dressmaking completely as a sign of her generosity. Yes, she was certainly generous in "Suited for Success", but she was still cast as the fashionista. In "Sisterhooves Social", she puts that whole deal aside. As for "Secret of my Excess", it's mainly in the fact that the way she reacts to Spike is adorable, and also shows how much she cares about him, even if she doesn't reciprocate his crush. It's an indication of how much she values his friendship. "Sweet and Elite", on the other hand, gives some more depth to her motivations and shows exactly what it is she's trying to accomplish in life.
In short, in this season, her character gets explored pretty thoroughly, and she gets a relatively positive portrayal despite her shortcomings, and when her faults are presented, she overcomes them and becomes a more well-rounded character. The fact that all of her episodes are some of the most well written so far is just the icing on the cake.
2. The Cutie Mark Crusaders
This group has always been a bit of an issue for the fandom; quite a few people dislike them. I'm personally pretty ambivalent about the group, but I think they've been handled much better this season than last season. There are two main reasons that people complain about the CMC, and this season is much better about averting the issue. Hopefully the writers can keep it up.
The first problem is that the CMC take screentime away from the main cast. Which is a pretty valid complaint when you look at episodes like "The Show Stoppers", where the main cast are only tangentially related at best. It's not really a badly done episode, but unless you find the CMC entertaining, you aren't going to appreciate it much. The non CMC ponies are there, but they don't really do a whole lot; they're practically side characters. If you come for the mane cast, you'll be disappointed.
There's only been one CMC (as the CMC, at least, I'll get into that in a moment) episode so far, but it's not so centered on them that it excludes the other ponies. Both Twilight and Applejack actually have some plot importance, which makes perfect sense given the plot of the episode. It manages to be CMC (or at least Apple Bloom) focused, but actually incorporates the other ponies rather than leaving them on the sidelines.
The other problem (that bugs me a whole lot more) is that after their introduction, the CMC are basically one-note characters; literally all they do when they're on screen in the first season is obsess over their cutie marks. The quest for the cutie mark isn't a bad thing, but when it's the only thing the characters do, it gets old really fast and makes the characters seems flat. Apple Bloom sorta manages to avoid it due to showing up in "Bridle Gossip", but other than that, when the CMC show up in season one you know you're in for Cutie Mark shenanigans.
Season 2 totally averts this. In the "Return of Harmony, Part 1" we see them interacting without the Cutie Marks ever come up. Same in "Lesson Zero", where we finally get a scene of them hanging out without obsessing over the Cutie Marks. This is awesome because it shows that there's more to their friendship than just the Cutie Marks; they're friends even when they aren't crusading. Even in "The Cutie Pox", we got some insight into their relationship when we see Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle react to Apple Bloom getting a Cutie Mark. We actually get to learn a bit more about how they interact.
Sweetie Belle in particular is doing much better as of "Sisterhooves Social". She was definitely the least developed of CMC before that point; Scootaloo's strong personality dominates most of the scenes she's in, and Apple Bloom has a head start on Characterization due to "Bridle Gossip". When we finally got an episode focusing on Sweetie Belle and Rarity, we finally get a sense of what she's like when she isn't with the CMC. Apple Bloom also gets a boost from that episode, as we finally see her and her sister in each other's company without getting into a fight.
Scootaloo, unfortunately, gets rather shafted. While this is sad, it's also understandable. Unlike Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo has no direct connection to the main cast, so giving her a focus episode is more problematic in incorporating the main ponies. It's hardly impossible; I could easily envision an episode where she gets jealous of her friends' sisters and tries to get Rainbow Dash to adopt her or something. The thing is that for that to happen the episode would have to justify it somehow and explain why Scootaloo gets the limelight; with the other CMCs the connection is present and obvious, and needs no explanation. She does get a bit more focus at the beginning of "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well" as the head of the Rainbow Dash fan club, but it's quite a minor scene. Hopefully she'll get a bit more time later in the season.
Spike pretty much does the same thing that he's been doing for the past season. His best moments are probably in "Lesson Zero" and "Secret of My Excess". In "Lesson Zero", he basically serves a foil to Twilight's insanity, and basically ends up saving the day by contacting Celestia. It pretty much validates the idea that he's not just Twilight's assistant, he cares about her and worries when she starts going off the deep end. It also shows that Spike can hold his own, as it were; there are some areas where he actually functions better than Twilight does.
Then we have "Secret of My Excess". Granted, it isn't exactly his finest hour, and the majority of the episode shows him acting unlike himself, but it still gives us some insight into his character, primarily in terms of his relationship with Rarity. The fact that she's the one who snaps him out of his whole "I'm now a giant monster" phase by reminding him of how much he cared about her is pretty telling of how much he values her friendship, especially given that he still seems to care even after she learns about his feelings. He doesn't benefit quite as much as Rarity or the CMC, but he's probably a bit better off now than he was at the start of the series, as his relationships with the cast get beefed up a bit.
4. Twilight and Applejack
Now we get out of the benefit section and into the "break even" section. Twilight actually gets her focus reduced a bit (there's finally an episode that she doesn't appear in), but that merely places her on the same level of the rest of the ponies, so she doesn't suffer a whole lot as a result of it. She gets two good episodes to herself, but they don't give as much insight into her character as Rarity's episodes do. "Lesson Zero" shows her at most her most extreme, but it doesn't necessarily give us much more about her personality other than showing the extent of her OCD.
Applejack doesn't do too badly, but she doesn't get much of a leg up either. She was woefully underused in season one, and she does a bit better this time around, being the only pony to show up in every episode in the season so far. Granted, she doesn't have much of a big role in any of the episodes except for "Sisterhooves Social" and "The Cutie Pox", but she's involved enough across the board that she doesn't feel quite as neglected as she did in season one. Those two episodes probably did the most for her. The former shows how she's gotten over the issues with Rarity that she had in season one as well as how she's willing to sacrifice quite a bit (her place in the race) to help her friend out, as well as developing her relationship with her sister. Ditto for "Cutie Pox", she's obviously proud of Apple Bloom for getting her Cutie Mark, as well as obviously worried about her well being when things go south. Though at the same time, she's not in the spotlight; she's just a very strong supporting character.
5. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy
Unfortunately enough, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy haven't done spectacularly so far, primarily due to lack of focus. This isn't to say that they haven't had good scenes; Pinkie Pie's role as Puddinghead in "Hearth's Warming Eve" was hilarious, and Fluttershy's half of the song in "May the Best Pet Win" was epic, but neither of them have gotten anything even remotely resembling a focus episode. All of their scenes are supporting; they haven't really played a large role in any episode so far. They haven't been written badly, they just haven't shown up much. They've done well in the scenes whether they do appear; they're entertaining, but they don't really do anything particularly notable outside of the occasional joke. And the jokes are funny, but they don't have quite the depth of characterization that most of the other ponies get.
6. Rainbow Dash
Out of all the main ponies (and Spike), Rainbow Dash probably got hit the hardest. She gets two episodes to herself, but neither one really does a lot for her. It doesn't help that neither one is particularly awesome; "May the Best Pet Win" was good, but not particularly awesome, and I think "The Mysterious Mare Do Well" is one of the weaker episodes of the entire show, if not the weakest. The bigger problem is that neither episode really shows Rainbow Dash at her best.
"May the Best Pet Win" is the lesser problem; while Rainbow Dash's whole "I want to hold a pet contest" thing is understandable (she needs a pet that can keep up with her), it can't really be denied that she was a bit of a jerk, especially to Tank. The episode handles it relatively well, though, as she realizes she's been a jerk and ultimately makes the right call at the end of the episode. It's hardly the most stellar example that the show has given us, but it's still pretty good. The problem is that it gets followed up immediately but a much bigger issue.
"The Mysterioius Mare Do Well" ends up doing quite a fair bit of damage to Dash's character. She isn't out of character, per se, she's been egotistical before, and it's believable that she'd start grandstanding during her heroics. The problem is that pretty much the entire episode shows Dash at her worst; she falls from genuine hero into "only doing it for the accolades" far too quickly. She basically does one or two actual heroic acts before her head puffs up to the size of a zeppelin. Even worse, she doesn't even figure out the lesson on her own; the rest of the cast has to drag it out of her. They basically just tie her down and tell her what it is she's supposed to be learning; one comes away from the episode feeling like Dash never really got it, and just parroted back what the cast told her so they'd stop with the Mare Do Well thing.
On their own, these episodes wouldn't be too bad, but it's compounded by the fact that they directly followed each other, as well as the fact that Rainbow Dash's other scenes in other episodes don't exactly counteract the jerkishness that she displays in these episodes. She's not a jerk all the time, but she gets so little screentime otherwise that she doesn't get to do much in the other direction. Even in her minor scenes, she's still kind of a jerk; in "Luna Eclipsed" all she does is go around zapping ponies with her cloud, and in "Hearth's Warming Eve" her only non-play scenes feature her rambling about how it should be the "Rainbow Dash Show". Her best moments are in "Lesson Zero" when she wrecks AJ's barn (at AJ's request) and when she tries to help with Giant!Spike in "Secret of my Excess". Those are legitimately good scenes, but they're so small compared to the rest of her screentime that she doesn't come across well.
It's hardly a lost cause, and I really don't think that Rainbow Dash is a big jerk, but we really need some Rainbow Dash episodes that show her good side, because that part of her character has been really out of focus this season.
Trends so far.
Okay, now that we got the character stuff out of the way, we can move on to more general stuff, like the overall way the season has been telling the stories. There are two main trends that I've noticed so far. The first is a bit nebulous, and is probably just me overanalyzing the show. The second is more concrete and has a bit more potential to actually be a bit of a problem if it keeps up.
The first thing I've noticed is that the conflicts of this season seem to be more situational rather than character-based. Rather than the conflicts being the direct result of interaction between the characters, most of them originate in certain characters being placed in particular situations. Now obviously the situations are tied closely to character interaction, but the focus seems to be different this season. For instance, out of all the season two episodes so far only "Sisterhooves Social" and "Hearth's Warming Eve" are based around conflicts between the members of the cast (you could make an argument for "Mysterious Mare-Do-Well", but there's so little interaction between Rainbow Dash and the rest of the cast that I'm not counting it here. "Luna Eclipsed" also kinda counts, but that's mainly Luna's conflict with the town as a whole rather than conflicts between specific ponies). All the other ones are the result of a cast member being subject to certain circumstances (Discord's escape, Twilight forgetting her friendship report, Apple Bloom getting the Cutie Pox, Rarity's travelling to Canterlot, etc.). These situations tend to result in plotlines that aren't as focused on character interaction.
There are three basic types of conflicts. Paraphrased for the show they are:
- Pony vs. Self
- Pony vs. Pony
- Pony vs. Environment
While all of these are entirely valid conflicts, this season seems to focus almost entirely on type one and type three. Here's my breakdown of each episode's conflict type
Return of Harmony parts 1 and 2: Type 2. The primary conflict is between the ponies and Discord. Thing is that this is highly atypical of the series because Discord is a straight-up villain, so it's kind of an isolated incident, as every other conflict is primary social rather than the sort of active antagonism that Discord Causes
- Lesson Zero: Type 1. Main conflict is Twilight's stress over getting the report in. It boils down to Twilight's stress vs. Twilight's inability to get her work done.
- Luna Eclipsed: Type 3, more or less. It's mainly between Luna and the town of Ponyville as a whole, so I'm filing it under the environment category.
- Sisterhooves Social: Type 2. Primary conflict is Rarity vs. Sweetie Belle
- The Cutie Pox: Type 1. Conflict is caused by Apple Bloom's desire for her cutie mark and her inability to deal with not having one.
- May the Best Pet Win: Type 1. Conflict is focused around Rainbow Dash's desire for a pet. There's a bit of type 2 in there with her interaction with Tank, but that's secondary to her self-realization that her pet-choosing criteria is off.
- The Mysterious Mare Do Well: Type 1. This one is tricky, as there's some obvious direct conflict between RD and the Mare-Do-Well that could put this one in type 2 territory, but the thing is that the MDW is basically there solely to make the conflict between Rainbow Dash's heroism and her ego stick out even more. The other thing is that Rainbow Dash never really interacts with the MDW all that much; they're in competition, but the the lion's share of the episode is focused on RD stewing in her own juices, so while it's a mix of types 1 and 2, type 1 is dominant.
Sweet and Elite: Type 1. Rarity's desire for Canterlot connections vs. her loyalty to her friends. Fairly obvious.
- Secret of My Excess: Types 1. It's basically about Spike overcoming his own greed. Like "Mysterious Mare Do Well", there's some type 2 in here, but Spike doesn't really butt heads with the other ponies in the fashion that type 2 usually implies. To fully qualify as type 2, there'd need to be more direct interactive conflict between Spike and the ponies outside of when he goes crazy; it would be more like "Spike gets mad at Twilight when she rebukes him for being greedy" or something along those lines
- Hearth's Warming Eve: Type 2. Obviously, it's about the conflict between the different pony tribes.
As you can see (unless you disagree with my classifications, which is entirely possible; there's wiggle room on some of these), there's a pretty big emphasis on internal conflicts rather than ponies getting into conflicts with each other. It isn't a bad thing, but I'd love to see more "Sisterhooves Social"-esque episodes where the conflict stems from the differences in the ponies personalities. In the first season, we had more of those types of episodes by this point; "The Ticket Master", "Griffon the Brush Off", "Boast Busters", "Look Before You Sleep", and the like. I'm not saying that any of season 2's episodes are bad because of it; they all stand on their own, it's just that after having that many internal conflict episodes, I really want to see an episode that consists mainly of the ponies bouncing off of each other. I might be biased, as the character interaction is my favorite part of the show, but I do think that some variety in the conflicts would be good.
The second trend is more related to the general way characterization and focus have been handled this season, that being that in almost every episode (the exceptions being "Return of Harmony", "Luna Eclipsed", and "Hearth's Warming Eve", kinda), the character that gets the primary focus is shown in a rather unflattering light. In "Lesson Zero" Twilight resorts to sabotaging children and mind-controlling the town, in "Sisterhooves Social" Rarity spends the first half of the episode being angry at Sweetie Belle, in "The Cutie Pox" Apple Bloom steals a potion from Zecora and then lies about it, in "May the Best Pet Win" Rainbow Dash is mean to Tank until the end, etc. Yes, they learn the error of their ways by the end of the episode, but it's still a bit disheartening that whatever character ends up in the spotlight doesn't really show their good side.
Note that as with the first trend I brought up, showing the characters at less than their best is hardly a bad thing in and of itself. If you want rounded characters you have to show both the good and the bad. The issue is that this season seems to be focusing on the bad side. It's entirely possible to create a good conflict without having a primary character start being a jerk. The most obvious way of doing that is to have character outside the cast who creates the problem, and have the ponies learn their friendship lesson by learning to deal with that. It worked for "Griffon the Brush Off" and "Boast Busters". Or they could have a conflict between the ponies that isn't based on "X being mean to Y" at all; they could go the route that "The Ticket Master", "Applebuck Season", and "Winter Wrap Up" went, where the conflict is due to being unable to be as nice or helpful as one would like. Or you could go the route that "Luna Eclipsed" and "Party of One" went, and have the conflict result from misunderstanding. Basically, I think we could do with some more episodes that show the cast in a better light; it's entirely possible to do episodes where everypony comes out looking good, but we haven't really had any this season so far.
Again, nothing wrong with the individual episodes, but having almost every episode so far structured so similarly is making me really itch for episodes like "The Ticket Master" or "Stare Master". I want to get an episode focusing on Rainbow Dash that doesn't make egotistical or mean, or an Applejack episode that focuses on how much of a hard worker she is, or a Pinkie Pie episode that focuses on her making her friends happy rather than existing solely to wink at the viewers. It's practically unfair to the characters to focus solely on their flaws or relegate them to the background. There's a lot more that can be done with them than has been done so far.
Okay, before I get to the best/worst/whatever episodes, keep in mind that this is solely what I think about it. Everybody is going to prioritize different aspects of the show when describing how good or bad it is, so I'm pretty certain that a lot of people won't agree with me. I'll start with the more negative ones, so that we end on a positive note.
Most Overrated Episode: "Luna Eclipsed"
I'm going to get so much flack for this one...Okay, first off "most overrated" =/= "bad". And it has nothing to do with Luna. The way the writers handled her was brilliant and enormously fun to watch. Thing is that the episode had a rather glaring flaw (to me at least) that gets glossed over because everyone is too busy gushing about Luna. And really, that's just a testament to how well her character was handled. But still, a problem is a problem.
In this case, the problem is that the plot's resolution doesn't really fit the rest of the show. The issue is that Luna isn't accepted because the townsponies are too terrified of her. The resolution is "oh, they weren't really scared, they were just pretending". Putting aside the fact that even if it made sense it would be a cop-out and kind of a mean thing for the town to do, I don't think it works. Earlier in the episode there's every indication they are well and truly terrified of her, to the point of mass panic. And given how easily Ponyville breaks into fear-inspired chaos, I find it rather hard to believe that Luna wasn't actually scaring the crap out of them. I can buy Pinkie Pie just pretending to be fearful, but not the entire town. It's annoying problem in an otherwise amazing episode.
Weakest Episode: "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well"
Let me just preface this by saying that the episode is hardly horrible. It's mediocre at worst, and it's still entertaining (especially the scene with the peanut butter), and has the same level of animation as the rest of the show. That said, there are quite a few nasty issues that really cause some problems. The big one is the way RD is portrayed. I can accept that she can get that egotistical, but I'm really having trouble believing that she can get that egotistical in such a short period of time. Tack on the fact that she doesn't even remotely get the moral until the others spell it out for her, and she really looks bad as a result.
Then we have the fact that Ponyville itself is so inexplicably disaster-ridden that it feels like a totally different setting. And the fact that the cast's decision to use "create a superhero identity" as Plan A for dealing with Rainbow Dash rather than trying to talk her down first doesn't make them look too good either. Cap it off with the fact that most of the episode had very little interaction in favor of RD just stewing in her own juices, and it doesn't fit together very well.
There is some good in there, though; the concept of the Mare-Do-Well is solid, it just wasn't executed well. There were also quite a few good visual gags, and the callback to the Pinkie Sense was nice. But still, I think the issues outweigh the good bits by a fair margin. It's a nice episode to watch for the gags and superhero references, but the characterization is uncomfortably off.
Most Underrated Episode: "Sisterhooves Social"
This episode got sort of a "meh" reaction when it came out, for any number of reasons. Being such a low key episode after the earlier episodes were all more epic in scope, building partially around an undeveloped side character, losing 4/6ths of the main cast, including the one pony who had been in every previous episode, having a rather unoriginal sitcom-ish plot...there are lots of things working against it. But still, the more I think about it, the more I think that it's one of the better episodes of the season.
Putting aside the lack of Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and the other ponies, the episode is a goldmine of characterization and relationship building. We finally get insight on Rarity's relationship with her sister, which had previously been reduced to "Sweetie Bell gets in Rarity's way"; it feels more rounded out. Same goes for Apple Bloom and Applejack; all previous interactions had Apple Bloom getting up to Cutie Mark related mischief, but now we get to see them simply as sisters. Then there's the friendship between Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. We get to see what their friendship is like when they aren't worrying about their blank flanks. Lastly, Applejack and Rarity get some serious development; their friendship has come a long way since "Look Before You Sleep", and it's amazing to see them when they aren't at each other's throats.
While it's a much more restrained episode, it's honestly a good thing at this point in the season. The first four episode were all incredibly over the top; it's almost relaxing to reduce the conflicts from things like reality warpers, mass mind control, and the visiting princess to a simple sibling conflict. It's also a good example of what I was talking about earlier about conflicts that don't have to necessarily make the involved parties look too bad. Yes, Rarity is harsh to her sister, but this episode is probably the lightest in that regard; her frustration with Sweetie Belle is really quite understandable, and she realizes the problem on her own and spends half the episode trying to make amends for it. And while the plotline is hardly enormously original, it's strongly written and everypony who's involved comes out better for it. Needless to say, I wouldn't like Rarity as much as I do if not for this episode.
Strongest Episode: "Lesson Zero"
Okay, I actually came pretty close to putting "Sisterhooves Social" in here, too. But in the end, I think this episode did more with the time available. Weirdly enough the best thing in the episode is probably the way that Spike and Twilight's relationship gets built up. It's one of the first times in the series that we see Spike actually complimenting Twilight by making up for her neurosis rather than solely acting as her assistant. It gives Spike more of a purpose in the show than just being a plot device for the Princess to contact Twilight with. He makes a very good foil for Twilight, and this episode takes full advantage of that.
The other main thing I like about it is that it manages to squeeze so much in. We get to see Twilight's breakdown from beginning to end, and despite how extreme it is, I never found it rushed or unbelievable. It certainly goes to the absolute ends of Twilight's insanity, but I don't think it ever reached out of character territory. And aside from that, the episode managed to sqeeze in decent scenes for most of the other ponies. Even though they don't really get focus, it wouldn't have played out the same without their presence.
Going on from that, the episode has all sorts of minor scenes that are entirely entertaining in their own right; Rarity's drama queen act, Fluttershy "fighting" the bear, and Rainbow Dash wrecking Applejack's barn are all entirely entertaining scenes on their own merits while still contributing to the overall episode. Moving on, it's also the first episode that really shows the Cutie Mark Crusaders simply being themselves rather than worrying about their cutie marks. It's a huge step forward for the characters. Throw in a laundry list of cameos and popular minor character, from Derpy to Big Macintosh to the Mayor, and you have a solid episode. Does it have problems? Yeah, but every episode has issues. The one that everyone tends to bring up is that the animation is so exaggerated, but that really never bothered me; it's only in this one episode, so I see it as bringing something unique to the table rather than too much of a problem, but that's almost purely personal preference. I wouldn't be happy if the entire show was animated like that, but I think that it worked so well with Twilight's breakdown that it just ended up being hilarious. In the end, I don't really have any major complaints about it.
I'm sure that a lot people are going to disagree with me, but that's fine. This entire review series is essentially just filtering the show through my head, and it's inevitable that my take on it is going to be different. All I really have left to say is that despite all my critiques of it, I've really enjoyed the season thus far. Yes, I wish there was a little more variety in the storytelling, but ultimately the episodes themselves stand perfectly well. I'd hate for people to get the idea that I dislike the season because this overview is so critical. Chances are I'd be able to come up with just as many issues with season one if I analyzed it this closely.
Long story short, the season does have it's problems, but it's still awesome.