Sunday, December 30, 2012

Just make the whole thing, you know, cooler. (Fall Weather Friends)

If Twilight's "42" means she knows the Ultimate Answer,
does this mean Carrot Top has a license to kill?
Identity Crisis and Transmutation

Two episodes after the shattering impact of "Swarm of the Century," My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is starting to recover. "Winter Wrap-Up" was a retreat from the new possibilities and dangers both represented by fully embracing the fanbase, but "Call of the Cutie" was a rebirth. It introduced a new stand-in for the brony contingent, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and also suggested two possible ways forward: the safe, comforting, Generation 1 throwback represented by Applejack, or the hip, flashy, Cartoon Network-esque show represented by Rainbow Dash.

These two opposing visions of the future of the show cannot coexist; they must do battle as thesis and antithesis, so that a new vision of the show can fully emerge.

The great work continues....

Xanthosis

The third stage of the magnum opus is "yellowing," the conversion of the base materials to gold. In this stage, the work is no longer devoid of identity, shining by reflected light, but beginning to glow with a light of its own. Powerful binaries unleashed in the previous stage, such as the male/female binary of anima and animus, here conflict until they at last unite. Xanthosis is the dawn, the moment at which something new begins.

It's January 28, 2011. In the three weeks since the last episode, Katy Perry's "Firework" has traded its top spot on the Billboard charts back and forth with Bruno Mars' "Grenade," so things have been explosive all around. Sadly, that terrible pun is still less terrible then the song, which consists primarily of the singer whining about getting dumped and taking pains to mention all the violence he'd happily have protected his significant other from, but now he can't because she dumped him. Love is a protection racket in Bruno Mars-land, apparently. How charming.

Meanwhile in film, the top movies are The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached, and The Rite, none of which I saw, and reviews of which suggest that I missed out on nothing whatsoever. In real news, a shooting rampage at a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona kills six and injures another 14, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The usual desperate flailing ensues as everyone points at their favorite culprit du jour, because systemic change of the kind that could do something to fix a culture that fetishizes violence and loves bullies is hard and scary. More on that two seasons from now. NASA data shows that 2001-2010 was the warmest decade in history, and the government of Lebanon collapses. Protests and civil resistance in Tunisia, which have been building since last month, lead to the ousting of the ruling regime and democratization. Protests rapidly spread to Jordan, Yemen, and especially Egypt, which tries to restrict the social media protestors are using to organize. As this is the same social media people use to share cat pictures and organize after-work happy hours, the net result is to create more unrest. Egypt 0, Magic of Friendship 1.

On TV, we have the return of my nemesis, Amy Keating Rogers, with "Fall Weather Friends." Happily, it is an Applejack-centric episode, and we've already established Rogers writes her well. Unfortunately, it's Applejack engaged in a conflict Rainbow Dash, so we have to deal with moderately obnoxious levels of writer bias, but in the end it's still one of Rogers' more tolerable episodes--nothing particularly special, but watchable at least.

The main flaw in this episode is the way it depicts the conflict between Applejack and Rainbow Dash. From the start, Applejack is depicted as calmer and a better sport, willing to accept challenges and meet trash-talk with trash-talk, but also willing to accept whatever outcomes occur as long as the competition is fair. Rainbow Dash, on the other hand, uses every unfair move she can think of, staying within the rules of the competition but rejecting its spirit. Ultimately, Applejack only cheats when she believes Rainbow Dash is doing so, which is pretty forgivable, while Rainbow Dash cheats (at least in spirit) from the start. It's hardly a test of athleticism to use magic, after all, and pegasus flight is quite clearly magical--their wings aren't anywhere near large enough to support a creature that size, even given the evidence (see "Applebuck Season" and "The Cutie Mark Chronicles" for examples) that they weigh much less than their size suggests.

Of course, underlying their competition is the tension we've already noted in the last couple of articles: Applejack represents business as usual, a slow-paced, gentle, rather boring show in which Lessons Are Learned and everyone is always nice. Rainbow Dash is fast and cool and fun and utterly devoid of scruples or heart; she will play by the rules, but will try to get away with anything she can.

The two approaches cannot coexist peacefully; by sharing the same space, they undermine one another constantly. The existence of Rainbow Dash creates obstacles for Applejack and the existence of Applejack creates obstacles for Rainbow Dash, reminiscent of but more fundamental than the Applejack-Rarity conflict. The conflict between Rarity and Applejack is one of class roles and expectations; it is about conflict in the ways the two ponies construct their worlds, and thus can be resolved by a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The conflict between Applejack and Rainbow Dash is not as simple, because it is a conflict of personalities and essential natures. A world which contains both of them is necessarily a world which contains conflict. It seems as if they cannot coexist.

And yet they can. At the end of the episode, Applejack and Rainbow Dash are still competing, still conflicting--but happily, and with useful results, namely the transformation of the seasons. This is the essence of the alchemical process of xanthosis (also called citrinitas, which sounds like an energy drink, while "xanthosis" has an "x" in it, so that's the term we'll be using), the combining of conflicting opposites to create energy and open the path to enlightenment.

So it is here. As the leaves yellow around them, Applejack and Rainbow Dash clash, Honesty against Loyalty, sincerity against catering to the growing geek fanbase. Throughout, Pinkie Pie and Spike mirror their conflict, Spike trying to announce the race honestly, albeit enthusiastically, while Pinkie Pie acts as the living incarnation of a fan-forum discussion thread, alternating between absurd over-specificity about trivia (What percentage of a nose is Applejack ahead by?) and bizarre, albeit amusing, tangents (fudge, hot dogs).

In the end, however, neither approach is workable. Applejack and Rainbow Dash tie for last, while Twilight Sparkle (continuing the role she spontaneously adopted last episode as the voice of reason) synthesizes their approaches with a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach that would not be out of character for Applejack, and a proud nerd-cool Hitchhiker's Guide reference on her flank. She comes in fifth, and she's happy with that.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is never going to be the most popular show on television. It's never even going to be the most popular show among nerds. It's also not content to be G1 My Little Pony; it's going to be exactly as cool as it wants to be. It's going to pace itself, be honest and sincere while also being fun and showing the occasional sly reference. It's not Applejack or Rainbow Dash, but rather the point of tension between them. Sometimes it may drift a little too far in the Applejack direction and become overly sentimental, sometimes a little too far in the Rainbow Dash direction and become cold and too cartoony, but always the opposing force is there to act as a balance and pull it back within an episode or two.

It seems like we have found our answer to what the show is becoming, a metastable balance between warm sincerity and knowing geek chic. That is often the case with xanthosis; the gold has been created, and so the work seems complete. But it isn't, because the mere creation of a bit of gold has never been the goal of true alchemy. The ultimate goal remains; the show is not a philosopher's stone yet. It has been transformed, but does not yet have the power to transform.

The final phase remains.

The great work concludes...

Next week: The power of creation, the voices of the fans, and cooperative transformation as we complete the final phase of the magnum opus, rubedo. Also, fancy dresses.


2 comments:

  1. Is it just me, or is having autumn two episodes after the end of winter just a little disorienting?

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    1. Sorry I took a few days to get back to you; I was at a convention this weekend.

      It is a bit odd, isn't it? I think the episodes in the first season are generally in chronological order, because character development seems to generally stick from episode to episode. And yes this episode is where it is, suggesting that either several months passed between "Winter Wrap-Up" and this episode, or that the seasons work differently in Equestria.

      Of course, I'm glad it did work out that way, since we get the leaves changing color just in time for the yellowing process of alchemy, but it does make the timeline of the first season a little bit wonky.

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