|She eats dreams.|
It is, it seems, a day for confronting one's own darkness, and in its own small way, Friendship Is Magic does the same--with, of all things, a Top Gun homage. "Wonderbolts Academy," written by Merriwether Williams and directed by Jayson Thiessen, is largely about Rainbow Dash testing her limits, or, rather, having those limits tested by the (thus far) one-shot character Lightning Dust.
Of course, there isn't much difference between Rainbow Dash pushing her limits and Lightning Dust doing so, as Lightning Dust effectively is Rainbow Dash. She is brash, bold, fast, prone to showing off, self-confident to the point of arrogance, brave to the point of recklessness, even colored similarly, with a lightning-bolt cutie mark and a glowing trail when she flies. The only real difference is that she lacks Rainbow Dash's tendency to complacency and laziness, making her recklessness all the more dangerous.
Lightning Dust goes straight to the over-the-top, slightly violent solutions to all the problems she and Rainbow Dash face in this episode, while Rainbow Dash finds herself in the unusual role of playing the voice of reason. The episode thus fits into a general pattern of episodes (of which "Read It and Weep" is the most obvious example) of Rainbow Dash being forced outside her normal behavior patterns and reluctantly growing as a consequence. In this case, however, it is not immediately obvious how Rainbow Dash has grown, unless one recognizes that Lightning Dust stirring up a tornado to clear the skies, and thereby unknowingly seriously endangering Rainbow Dash's friends, is precisely equivalent to Rainbow Dash kicking a dragon in the face, causing it to attack her friends.
Lightning Dust, in other words, is pre-"Mysterious Mare-Do-Well" Rainbow Dash, utterly unconcerned about the possibility of collateral damage from her actions. She is all of Rainbow Dash's competitiveness and callousness, handily externalized so that Rainbow Dash can confront and try to restrain her. She is, in short, an instance of the Jungian Shadow, the externalized representation of everything an individual tries to deny about themselves.
Of course, it is the nature of the Shadow that, as a part of the self and an expression of internal conflict, it cannot be defeated by confronting it directly. Conflicting with the Shadow will always ultimately result in strengthening it, and so it is only by surrendering that Rainbow Dash defeats Lightning Dust. It is only when Rainbow Dash--who began the episode by saying that she would never quit--announces that she is quitting the Wonderbolts Academy that Lightning Dust is defeated. Rainbow Dash is unwilling to pursue her greatest dream if it means risking the well-being of her friends; this is an act of extreme loyalty, and Rainbow Dash's reward for choosing her true essence, her Element, over her ambition is to be allowed to continue pursuing her dream.
Lightning Dust, meanwhile, whose only crime is being exactly like the Rainbow Dash we first met at the beginning of the series, is driven away in disgrace, forbidden to chase that same dream. It seems excessively harsh--until, again, we remember that as the Shadow she is a part of Rainbow Dash, and as Rainbow Dash's past self we already know that she will go on to play at being a superhero, learn some humility (through, admittedly, some truly awful treatment at the hands of her friends), discover the joys of reading, and then return to the Academy to confront her own past self. We know this will happen, because it has already happened.
For Rainbow Dash, this episode is an exorcism and a maturation. Lightning Dust did exactly what the Academy instructor expected her to do, and pushed Rainbow Dash into discovering where her limits are.
For the series, this season has served much the same function. Two episodes in the first half of the season, "The Crystal Empire" and "One Bad Apple," can be regarded as failures, and both fail because they are trying to do things that simply cannot be done within the confines of a cartoon that sells toys to small children. The back half of the season, meanwhile, contains the worst four-episode run in the series to date, and follows it with the most divisive episode of the series. Within this run, however, are clear signs of ambition, including the first real experiments at something like real continuity--not just something like the Gala, which had a few vague references followed by an episode where it happened, but rather one episode which relies entirely on the Season 2 premiere to make sense, followed by two episodes that actually occur simultaneously, allowing numerous references between them.
Most experiments fail, after all. The entire point of experimentation is to create instructive failures and learn from them, and that is what the back half of this season will be. A series of failures, encountering and accepting the series' limitations, but in turn opening the door to a new direction for the series which will enrich and enliven Season 4.
But first, it will be necessary to slog through all those failed experiments. At least there's one episode left before they start!
Next week: A guest post, because I'll be at a con. Week after that, Applejack. Yay.