Sunday, May 12, 2013

All the ponies in this town are crazy! Do you know what time it is?! (Lesson Zero)

WWF: Wildlife Wrestling Federation
It's October 15, 2011, and when's the last time I got to start an article like that, huh? Adele still wants to stalk "Someone Like You," and the top movie is Real Steel, about which all I know is that when we first saw the trailer, before they said the title my then-fiancee thought it was a live-action Medabots movie and I thought it was going to be Rock'em Sock'em Robots: The Motion Picture.

In real news since the last episode, Google, unable to decide whether they are Skynet or SEELE, make a deal with Israeli antiquities authorities to publish some of the Dead Sea Scrolls online. China launches their first space station module. The war in Afghanistan turns 10. And, continuing the odd synchronicity between Friendship Is Magic and Occupy, the day this story airs is the day Occupy goes worldwide, with coordinated protests in Sydney, Rome, Bucharest, Taipei, Tokyo, Toronto, Berlin, and Madrid.

And with ponies, well, I may as well just say it: This is my absolute favorite episode of the entire series, and a major reason why I still consider Meghan McCarthy my favorite writer on the show. Not that I make any pretense to objectivity in my other articles, but it's completely out the window on this one. So with that warning aside, let's just dive right into "Lesson Zero," shall we?

First off, the animation in this episode is just astounding. Twilight's facial expressions get progressively more hilarious as the episode goes on, and the big chase sequence is far more varied and frenetic than the equivalent back in "The Ticket Master," with a lot more variety in how the ponies in the crowd move. Tara Strong nails it, too, working her way up steadily from "Twilight is worried" to complete freakout, so that by the time she is merrily chewing the scenery in the third act it manages to feel natural despite being made of pure, industrial-grade ham. Then, the instant Celestia shows up, she dials it straight back down to sad, contrite Twilight. Tabitha St. Germaine is also deliciously hammy, with her successively more over the top declarations of events as "the worst possible thing."

As far as the story is concerned, it is a natural follow-up to the previous episodes. "The Return of Harmony" was a narrative collapse, as I said in the article on it, but perhaps it would be best to examine what that means in this less gonzo essay. The term "narrative collapse" originates with professional overreactor Douglas Rushkoff, who uses it to describe what he sees as the modern state of living so much in the present that we can no longer handle linear stories and need constant interruptions and cutaways, as in Family Guy or reality shows. Because apparently we're all just imagining the explosion of dramas with season-long linear arcs in the last few years?

Anyway, Philip Sandifer of TARDIS Eruditorum has rather cheekily repurposed the phrase into something actually useful, a new kind of conflict in a serial work that relies on the audience's awareness both of the premise of the work and its artificiality. Generally speaking, conflict occurs in fiction when something threatens the well-being of the characters or interferes with their ability to accomplish their goals. Note that this conflict occurs entirely on the level of the story itself--it is a threat that originates within the world of the story, and all of its impacts are within the world of the story.

Given an ongoing story in a serial format, such as a TV series, however, there is an option to do another kind of collapse once you've fully established the premise of the series and the kinds of stories it can tell: introduce a conflict that threatens not only the characters, but the show itself--a conflict that, if not resolved favorably, destroys the ability of the show to tell stories in the same way that, according to Rushkoff, the supposed overemphasis on the present destroys our ability as a culture to tell stories. For example, from the perspective of the characters, Discord is threatening because he can hurt them and prevent them from achieving their goals. However, from the perspective of the viewer, there is an additional and greater threat, that he will end the characters' friendship and obviate the premise of the show.

Of course by the end all is better and the characters' friendship is restored, but on the other hand there's a sense in which Discord does successfully destroy the show. That's the thing about narrative collapse: it always carries a heavy price. A restoration can never be quite the same as the original.So "Lesson Zero" starts with Twilight Sparkle discovering that cost, that difference between the restored and original shows: There is no friendship lesson for her to learn.

Diegetically this isn't that big a deal, and Twilight's overreaction is thus played for comedy. But non-diegetically it's a serious problem. Part of the show's remit is to help fulfill the Hub's legal obligation to provide educational programming for children, and tacking friendship lessons onto the ends of stories is how it accomplishes that. Finding a friendship lesson really is as important as Twilight makes it out to be.

Twilight's real error is the assumption that she has to be the one to learn it. Of course, it's a reasonable assumption for her to make, as throughout the first season she was, but remember what triggered this latest (and more or less final, at least so far) attempt to reboot the show, namely an episode that ought to have been a lesson for Pinkie Pie and had to be shoehorned into one for Twilight. It thus makes total sense that there's no friendship lesson for Twilight this week, because that lesson is going to someone else.

This is where the title comes in: "Lesson Zero." There are several meanings here, of course: Most obviously it refers to the absence of a lesson, which is the crux of the plot. But it can also be read as referring to the lesson learned, which is much more interesting. If it were "Lesson One," that would imply that this week's friendship lesson is for some reason necessarily the first, but "Lesson Zero" goes further, implying that this lesson is before the first friendship lesson. In other words, what we have this week isn't itself a friendship lesson, but something that must come before all other friendship lessons, thus enabling the rest of the Mane Six to start documenting their own.

But does this week's lesson support that interpretation? On the face of it, "If your friend is panicking about something, take it seriously even if you don't agree they should be panicking," isn't any more fundamental than most of the lessons in the first season. But what it's really saying is vitally important, and something all too often forgotten, which is recognizing the subjectivity of others. It's wrong of them to assume that, because they would not be hugely upset in Twilight's shoes, Twilight will not be; Twilight is a different person from them, and therefore what matters to her is different from what matters to them.

In other words, it's about not making assumptions regarding what other people need and want, about recognizing that other people are both <i>other</i> and <i>people</i>. That is to say, it's the underlying lesson that Fluttershy and Rarity needed in "Green Isn't Your Color," that Pinkie Pie needed in "Party of One," and that Spike needed in "Owl's Well That Ends Well." And it absolutely is fundamental enough to make a case that it must precede starting to learn about friendship at all: You cannot truly be a friend to someone unless you recognize and respect their subjectivity, open yourself to the fact that they are different from you, and actually communicate instead of making assumptions about what they want and how they feel.

And now the field is wide open for the characters. It doesn't just have to be about Twilight's growth and Twilight's concerns anymore; the show is fully free to use any of the characters to explore any aspect of the magic of friendship. It is finally done becoming, at least as far as anything can ever finish becoming, which is not all that far at all. It already transformed itself into a philosopher's stone, but one curiously limited on what it could transform. Now, however, it can transmute any of the characters--but remember, the characters were created to represent the "ways of being a girl." And since there's nothing true of all women that isn't true of all people (other than the trivial "they're women," obviously), it follows that they represent ways of being a person.

This is what we have been building up to for a season and change, the true alchemy of Friendship Is Magic. It's time to start changing the world, one brony at a time.

Next week: An outsider is uncomfortable and unable to fit in at a party. Clearly this will have no relevance to teen and adult geeks in the slightest.

12 comments:

  1. Hasbro dropped the E/I (Educational and informational) standards for the second season. This is the first episode that didn't have to follow those regulations, which someone on the production side (forgot who, sorry) said is the reason why this episode was able to be so extreme with it's comedy.

    Oh, right, almost forgot: (Joke about the title.) :P

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    1. Oh, interesting! I did not know that.

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  2. At this point in my viewing experience, I had mostly resigned myself to the idea that the show's various Friendship Lessons would be one of those things that wouldn't translate, for me. Through most of this episode, I'd been expecting the lesson to be something like "don't sweat the small stuff", so I was plenty gobsmacked when it actually turned out to be "don't dismiss what other people consider important because other people aren't you." It's like, even if the rest of the show had sucked, it would have mostly been justified for that moment, because it explains something that is both vital and often unsaid, and therefore proved itself as something that is smart instead of just being clever. It doesn't hurt at all that the episode is, yes, very funny.

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    1. something that is smart instead of just being clever

      Thank you! This is exactly how I feel about it, and worded much more succintly than I could have.

      One of my friends hates this episode, because he's a big fan of Twilight and it depicts her in a negative light, according to him. I disagree, obviously; my contention is that the entire point of the episode is that Twilight isn't wrong to be unhappy about being late, and judging her rather than helping her is the problem!

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  3. Real Steel is actually a surprisingly good movie. The fighting robots are actually a side event, for the kids and the lowest common denominators to be distracted and kept happy by, while the real story takes place. A well written and acted piece about family, responsibility, and being a role model.

    Now then it's not great, it's more like Shakespeare. An old story you're familiar with told well and spiced up with fantastic elements and more modern sensibilities that most people couldn't tell you what it was actually about because they only know the surface facts or a scene or two.

    For example, Romeo and Juliet is often held up as a "great romance". Really, it's more of a commentary about how teens are more in love with the idea of love than the other person. They know nothing about each other beyond their names and that they're good looking, and yet the two are perfectly willing to ruin their own lives and the lives of those around them for "true love".

    Shakespeare wrote up the drama of teen romance, and made it actually be every bit as dramatic and serious as the teens themselves think it is.

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    1. it's not great, it's more like Shakespeare.

      DOES NOT COMPUTE.

      Romeo and Juliet is held up as a "great romance," but it's worth noting that it describes itself as a tragedy in the title and then opens with a lengthy (and hilarious) scene of two guards making pun-tastic sex jokes. It's a parody, and a hysterically funny black comedy once you figure out that it's not supposed to be taken remotely seriously at all.

      Perhaps some day I will watch Real Steel--I *am* a sucker for stories about fatherhood after all, and ones which use science fictional elements to tell very down-to-earth, human stories. (Which is why I consider Frequency one of the all-time great science fiction movies.)

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  4. I just re-watched this one tonight, and what has struck me every time is how thorough a depiction of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder dealing an intrusive thought it is. Both my spouse and I are afflicted with it, and everything from the inability to communicate why a particular thing is important to others to the spiral of potential consequences that seem simultaneously absurd but completely possible is spot on.

    There's a phrase used in psychology, "Going on the Journey," that's often used to describe the reactions of others to someone freaking out like this. It's not limited to OCD, but also finds usage in schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, and dementia, and probably others also. The options one has in reaction are to either "go on the journey" with the person, treating their suspicions as valid and trying to talk them down from within the logical structure they've created for themselves, or to refuse to go on the journey with them and try to get them to realize that what they're thinking or freaking out about is absurd and isn't worth their time. In this one, Twilight's friends took the latter route, while Spike took the former. Both options are correct depending on the circumstances, and knowing which one to do requires a great deal of attention and intimate knowledge of the person suffering. Note how Spike spends a good portion of the episode trying to talk her out of it and getting her to calm down, pointing out the silly things she's done so far and the absurd consequences she's coming to, in the hopes that she'll notice, and when it doesn't work, goes to the other option.

    It shouldn't be too surprising that it's Spike, who has known Twilight for most of her life, and "knows who she is when she's at home," who comes up with the functional solution. Getting Princess Celestia to come and tell Twilight not to worry works within her intrusive thought's own structure because it is only the Princess who can tell Twilight that it doesn't matter if she sends a weekly letter or not, which is not all that dissimilar to my spouse accompanying me to each door to double check that they're locked, and telling me that I can't go check again because we already did that and don't need to do so again, because they're locked and hence we can't get robbed from carelessness.

    As he says, "Obviously Spike did not have to learn a lesson, because he is the best, most awesome friend [an OCD sufferer] could ask for. Unlike everypony else, he took things seriously..."

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    1. This is a good reading! I like it. It did occur to me that Twilight might be an attempt at depicting OCD behavior, but not being OCD or a psychology expert myself, I had no way of saying if it was a good depiction or if the show was giving good advice, especially as the show has a fairly mixed record with regards to the psychology I do know about (either from personal experience or research).

      So thanks for this reading--good to know this is one to add to the "accurate" pile!

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  5. It's interesting I found this just as I was beginning to start work on my own analysis of the moral this episode and why it's my favorite lesson of them all.

    I too go with the perception that the title "Lesson Zero" implies that the lesson of this episode is fundamental to all the other ones. I basically view it as suggesting that before all else, real friendship requires a sense of empathy. Even if you don't necessarily agree with your friend's worries or concerns, you still shouldn't just dismiss them or mock them but instead try to understand and empathize with them. And that, of course, requires you to have that understanding that other people have different concerns and sensitivities than you.

    A good example for me is Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash in "Griffon the Brush Off". The two of them bond over pranking others in good fun, but Pinkie Pie states that Fluttershy is off limits because she is sensitive about it. I honestly find this rather interesting considering how often on the Internet people will get mad and offended because someone else found a supposed "joke" to be offensive. Often this leads to people complaining that those offended are just thin-skinned and can't take a joke, among other insults. Yet here we are with a positive example of characters understanding another person's sensitivities regarding jokes and respecting those sensitivities by leaving her out of them instead of trying to force her to "lighten up".

    Also, as a political science major, I also find it interesting that, with some modifications, I can also turn the lesson into one of the foundations of modern democratic theory XD. The idea that people can have reasonable, sincere disagreements about things serves quite often as a reason for the need for the democratic process as a procedure to deal with these disagreements (Jeremy Waldron is really big on this viewpoint)

    In short, the implications of this lesson go beyond just friendship but can pretty much apply to any interaction between people.

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    1. I basically just want to say "yes, absolutely" to everything you said here.

      Also, as a political science major, I also find it interesting that, with some modifications, I can also turn the lesson into one of the foundations of modern democratic theory XD.

      This doesn't surprise me. As you say, it's all interactions between people; it makes sense that at least some principles would apply to both large-scale adn small-scale interactions.

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    2. Also, where do you do your analysis? Do you have a link?

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    3. Beh, clicking on my name was supposed to be a link, but I've never used Blogger before so =P.

      There's either my wordpress blog: http://analysisismagic.wordpress.com/

      Or Tumblr blog (link to which is on the Wordpress blog). Not much difference, but on the Tumblr I may occasionally post minor stuff. And I also post my stuff on the MLP Analysis Subreddit, which is how I found this place actually as someone posted one of your articles on it.

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