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Thoughts on S4:E1+2: Princess Twilight Sparkle

This is, without a doubt, the most heavily hyped set of episodes thus far.  After all the endless controversy that the Season 3 finale brought to the fandom, these episodes have a lot of work to do.  Even moreso than the S3 finale, these episode bear the burden of making us believe that yes, all of the changes to the status quo that the third season made can work.  It needs to answer all the questions about Twilight’s new role as well as cover what’s up with Discord.  There’s a lot of ground to cover in just two episodes, and given FIM’s previous issues with pacing, there’s a lot of potential for things to go horribly wrong.  But have they?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I personally think that they tackled just about every major issue that they needed to, and addressed pretty much everything that had to be addressed, and they did so in a very interesting and fun way.  The premiere isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s very very good, and as far as I’m concerned, it manages to live up to expectations.  So let’s cover exactly what worked and what didn’t, starting with the stuff that worked.  Spoilers abound.  

PRINCESS Twilight Sparkle

This is the big one.  The decision to turn Twilight into an alicorn princess is easily the most controversial move the show has made, and this episode basically has to sell us on the fact that it’s a workable plot point.  It has to show how her new role will affect her both as an individual character, and in relationship to the rest of the cast.  We want to know whether or not she’s still the same adorkable, OCD, nerdy, socially awkward unicorn that we’ve been following for the past three seasons.

The episode wastes no time in addressing both of these.  Twilight’s difficulty with flying is brought up right off the bat and it makes it plain that she still has a long way to go in terms of the new powers and abilities she’s received.  She isn’t suddenly a ridiculously powerful demigoddess.

But more importantly, it tackles her relationships; one of the first pieces of dialogue in the episode involves Twilight expressly not wanting the rest of the group to treat her differently, and she certainly feels that her friendships aren’t affected at all by her ascension.  She sees herself as basically the same.  It also extends to the rest of the populace as well; when Celestia and Luna go missing, she’s obviously uncomfortable at the notion of being the one giving orders.

It really gets emphasized when the rest of the group sends her off, and Discord convinces her to go back to them.  What finally causes her to snap and go try to find them isn’t due to any kind of anger at her friends. She doesn’t go to find them because she thinks they need her help, or because she wants to prove her worth or ability. She goes back to them because she doesn’t want to receive special treatment as a result of being a princess.  Ultimately, she places more value on her role as their friend than on her role as an alicorn.  She’s a friend first, and a princess second.

And on a more individual level, Twilight is basically unchanged as well.  She’s still generally awkward (again, see her attempts at flying), persnickety (the checklists return), and stresses easily (although she’s getting better).  She’s certainly developing (she didn’t have a mental breakdown), but at heart she’s still exactly the same as she was in the previous seasons.  

Furthermore, the episode does a very good job of balancing her new and old roles.  It acknowledges all of the responsibilities of becoming a princess and shows her beginning to grow into that role, but still shows that becoming a princess hasn’t forced her to give up what made her likeable and relatable to begin with.  She isn’t portrayed as a straight-up princess; she’s portrayed as an awkward nerd who found herself in a position of authority and is struggling to balance her responsibility with her friendships.  It’s handled very subtly (the show never goes the blatant route of “PRINCESS” or “FRIENDS” that many shows would have gone with) and in a way that makes sense for the character.

So in short, yes, I think it proved that Twilight’s characterization as a princess can work very well.

Note: I know a lot of people are complaining about how Twilight has been singled out and is the chosen one etc.  While I can understand why people might not like that approach, I also think that we’re long past the point where that should be surprising. Twilight has always been the central character of the show. Every multi-parter revolves around her development, and in the pilot episode she’s shown getting a crown while everyone else gets necklaces.  She’s been the center of the show’s narrative from day one.  Honestly, half the point of the episode boils down to “Even if Twilight does get special treatment, she’s still the same character”.    Now then, moving on.

The Return of Discord

So, the other big thing in this episode: Discord. After “Keep Calm and Flutter On”, pretty much everybody was wondering what was going to happen to him.  A lot of people were afraid that it would mean Discord being “defanged”, so to speak.  He’d lose most of what made him entertaining, and also represent a staggering power on the protagonists’ side that pretty much removes any threat.  Well, this episode pretty much puts those fears to rest.

In short, while Discord is “reformed”, all it really means is that he’s no longer actively malicious.  He’s still manipulative, somewhat untrustworthy, and more than willing to use (or not use) his powers to entertain himself rather than actually be helpful. But at the same time, he’s toned down just enough to make it believable that he’s on the ponies side.  The reformation did take, but the change is subtle.

This is important, because flipping a characters’ moral alignment completely is a good way to basically remove what was interesting about them.  In addition, knowing what we know about Discord, having him suddenly turn into a boy scout would have been too out of character.  No one would believe it.  Thankfully, the episode takes this skepticism of his motives into account; even the ponies don’t entirely buy it, and furthermore, they turn out to be (partially) right to suspect him.

It might not seem like much, but it’s really kinda refreshing for a children’s cartoon to admit that when you suspect someone with a history of wrongdoing, you might actually be on the right track. As opposed to most shows, that probably would have gone the “you should have trusted him!” route.  This episode finds a balance between the two; Discord is better than he was, but he still has a way to go.  There’s a degree of ambiguity that keeps his development from stalling while still letting him maintain his chaotic tendencies.  

Plot and Story

One of the main things that gives this premiere an edge over the S3 premiere is that from the beginning it chose a plotline that would draw far more interest from the audience.  One of the weaknesses of the “Crystal Empire” episodes was that the stakes weren’t high enough.  The mane six were trying to save a group of ponies that we, the audience, had never heard of before and as a result weren’t as invested in.  The Crystal Empire literally appears out of nowhere.  

So from the start, “Princess Twilight Sparkle” has a leg up; we care about what happens to Luna and Celestia, and we care about whether Ponyville can survive whatever is going on.  There’s also much more tension because the princesses aren’t there as a safety net; the cast has to either figure out what’s happening or all is lost.

The other advantage is that PTS turns the lack of a true villain into a benefit.  Whereas “Crystal Empire” pretty much showed all of Sombra’s cards (he was an advancing wall of doom, basically); you knew who was behind it, but the reason wasn’t too interesting. Sombra did it because he’s evil.  But in PTS the lack of any real villain basically IS the plot of the episode. We don’t know where the vines are coming from or who summoned them, and the entire goal of the cast is to figure it out.  We were right there with them as they tried to think of what to do.  We get to vicariously experience the story through the cast.

In addition, the writers have finally gotten their pacing down; the final resolution of the plot doesn’t feel rushed, or like a Deus Ex Machina that just magically solves everything in the end. The tree does zap away the problem of course, but it was clearly foreshadowed that something would happen, and rather than introducing a purely new magic like the Fires of Friendship or the Crystal Heart, it ties it in to an existing part of the mythos, giving the elements themselves some background.  Speaking of which, it’s time to move onto:

Worldbuilding

There are two main things that get developed here, the elements themselves, and Celestia and Luna’s backstory with Discord.  The elements themselves finally get an origin, which doesn’t explain a lot, but it does put some limits on their power and turns them into a sort of counterpoint to the Everfree Forest; the forest is chaotic, but the tree keeps it in check.  It gives them a purpose outside of “convenient plot device” and also gives the cast a real reason to give them up. That’s also important because it means the show will have to come up with other means to resolve plotlines other than “fire the orbital friendship beam”, which will give some more variety to later episodes.

But what’s really great is how it ties into the history of the alicorns, which is quite interesting.  At first I thought that the flashbacks were slightly gratuitous in that only the third one was really important (as it revealed the tree of harmony), but in retrospect all of them are important.  By showing how integral the elements are to Equestria’s history, it gives the scene where they give them up more impact.  Not to mention that showing Discord gives a bit more foreshadowing to the fact that he’s behind everything.

Another benefit is that in general the setting gets so much more depth when the various aspects of it are developed. It shows that say, Celestia and Luna’s history is important in universe, rather than something that gets glossed over in favor of moving over to something new. We get to learn more about established elements of the setting, which allows us to look on them in a new light rather than taking everything as it is when it’s introduced.  Things like Nightmare Moon’s appearance and Celestia and Luna’s old castle take on new importance in light of this episode.

Characterization

Twilight’s development is fairly obvious; she’s starting to grow into her role and seeing how it’s going to affect her.  There’s isn’t a whole lot more to say about that.  What’s really interesting about this episode is how it develops Celestia, Luna, and Discord.  We already covered Discord earlier, so we’ll move on to Celestia and Luna.  The flashbacks really don’t show a great deal of their backstory, but Celestia and Luna’s relationship gets developed a bit.  It’s confirmed that yes, Celestia was extremely reluctant to banish her sister and that what she really wanted was to bring her back to normal.

But the most subtle little piece of characterization is the shot of Luna raising the moon. Her body language (specifically the hoofy-kicks) speaks volumes about her. She’s really into the whole “raising the moon” thing, and actually showing her in the midst of it makes the whole Nightmare Moon thing make sense for her character.  It shows why she would feel so slighted by her subjects not caring about the night by demonstrating how enthusiastic she is about it.  It gives both sisters some motivation that had only been hinted at before now; Celestia wants her sister to be reconciled to the rest of Equestria, and Luna wants to be appreciated.  We knew these things earlier, but this is the first time where it really gets shown onscreen.

Now then

We’ve touched on most of what worked about this episode, but there are still a few things that could’ve been improved a bit. I wouldn’t say that any of the issues truly damage the episode, but there’s definitely room for improvement in a few areas.

Splitting the Party

The bit of the episode where Twilight gets sent back to Ponyville while the rest of the cast goes on without her is without a doubt the most visible flaw in the episode. There are two problems in it that most people point to: that it makes Twilight out as too “special”, and that it throws off the pacing of the episode.  

The first problem, I can understand why people think this, but personally I don’t see it.  The entire point of it is that Twilight doesn’t want any special treatment and shouldn’t be treated differently due to her position.  Feeding into this is the idea that Twilight is more valuable than the rest of the group, and that the meaning of the scene was that the rest of the cast couldn’t function without her.  While that’s sort of true, I don’t think the intent was to show that Twilight was more important or more powerful; if she was, she would have saved the other six from danger, not vice versa. The point is that all six of them need each other; Twilight is just as useless without them as they are without her.   She does have a special role, of course, but she’s had that role from the start of the show, and while she is instrumental in solving the plot, it’s only a byproduct of the fact that her element of Harmony is the hub that the others focus around, just like it was in the pilot.

The second problem is more of an issue, namely that the entire matter arises out of nowhere and is solved awfully fast.  First off, there’s little build up to the group deciding to send her back; she’s in danger once and they decide to send her back. It’s too little impetus to decide to send her back. The decision does have reasons (let’s face it, she’s the only remaining national leader), but so far she really hasn’t been in enough danger to justify sending her off, and there’s no indication what she’d be able to accomplish separate from everyone else anyway.  The entire concept isn’t even raised until nearly halfway through the second episode, when up to this point it had focused more on Twilight trying to figure out what to do in the absence of Celestia and Luna. It’s good that they wanted to address this, but it just sort of popped out of nowhere.

Compounding it is the fact that the conflict is resolved literally three scenes after it’s raised. There’s very little that actually happens between the beginning and the resolution.  Twilight talks to Discord and decides to go after them, and that’s it. The entire conflict lasts for like ten minutes, max, and none of those involved have any resistance to that.  As soon as Twilight shows up, the rest of the cast decide that it really is better to have her around, and they move on.  The entire thing goes by so quickly that it doesn’t get a chance to add much.  What might have helped would be to have stretched it out longer; if they had decided to keep Twilight from entering the forest at all, then she would have had more time to stew over it, and the other five would have had more time to realize that Twilight’s element is kind of important.  The little scene does add some context for Twilight’s relationships with her friends, but it feels like they just shoved it in without incorporating it as smoothly as they could have.

The other characters

While Twilight, Celestia, Luna, and Discord were all developed well, the rest of the mane cast is relegated to a supporting role. Which is nothing new, but compared to say “Return of Harmony” they don’t quite get as much individual attention here. They get occasional character moments, but on the whole most of them don’t get much focus. Oddly, Applejack seems to get a bit more attention; she seems to act as the spokesman for the rest of the group, which is cool as she’s probably the most stable character in the group.

The individual moments they get are good, but they don’t get a whole lot of them. It would have been really nice to have seen a bit more of their reactions rather than just the surface level interactions. Similarly, Zecora shows up all too briefly; rather than actually having some interactions she shows up just long enough to fork over the potion and then disappears.  It was great to see her again, but it would have been even better to see her contribute more to the episode.

Overall

This episode had a lot to live up to, and for the most part I think it managed. Yes, it did focus on the alicorns in the cast, but given Twilight’s ascension is the single biggest change ever made in the show, it makes sense that it would have that focus.  It does a good job of examining how it affects Twilight, and also takes time to go into more depth about the setting as a whole.  Some of the things that it covers could’ve been executed better (give the mane cast more to do), but on the whole I think it’s a very strong start to the season, especially in how it sets up further developments (that appear to treat all the cast members equally).
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:icondashofrainbow235:
dashofrainbow235 Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2013  Hobbyist Filmographer
I understand what you're saying about Twilight being chosen to be an alicorn. If not My Little Pony, then this show would be called The Twilight Sparkle Show and if the Mane 6 were a band they'd be Twilight and the Sparkles!
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:iconazreal258:
AZREAL258 Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2013
I like your anaylsis it's very in depth and addresses a lot of issues, personally I was glad Twilight became an Alicorn she really deserved it.
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:iconjapaneseteeth:
JapaneseTeeth Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. :)
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:iconazreal258:
AZREAL258 Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2013
I can't wait till they open the box I bet it's new elements
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