|Ha ha ha! Kiss the Twilicane, you unworthy peasants!|
The Letter: Dear Twilight,
Ever since you were cursed by Discord at the moment of your birth, we’ve all been anxious about your development. Now that you’ve turned 16 and learned the truth, it seems strange to be telling you things that you might already know, but I thought you’d best hear it from me--hear my side of the story as well--so you can make up your mind fairly. What we did back then, we did only because the fate of the nation, of all our people, was at stake, genuinely and seriously. It has weighed heavily upon me ever since, and I have subsequently strived to make your life a pleasant one, filled with knowledge and love. And friends. That I had failed in the latter until just recently is only one of my many sins, for which I will perhaps never have the time to fully atone for. None of us are perfect, though we may strive and strive towards it. The crown is heavy, and the burden is such that it can never be settled to make everyone completely happy. No doubt you will find this out yourself as your reign continues. If you will allow me to beg one last favor, please come to the castle at your convenience. I promise that it will be worth your while.
Yours with love and affection,
What is it? The five part finale to season 28, a masterful pulling together of years’ worth of disparate plots by Meghan McCarthy.
Is it worth watching? An emphatic yes. If you’ve followed us this far on the journey, there is little chance you’ll be able to stop, or that you’ll want to.
What else was happening? 5-9 May 2014: Top songs this week include “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “Old Man Avenue” by Gross Domestic Product, “We Love You Kim Jong-Un” by the Ponchobo Electric Ensemble, and “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel. Top films include Neighbors, Callin’ You Liars Out, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Heaven is for Real, the book the latter is based on an object lesson in both effective targeted marketing and how children will repeat anything you tell them with their own modifications, including that Jesus rides around on G3 Rainbow Dash while in Heaven. Bestselling books include Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Pitteky, A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren, The Target by David Baldacci, and Cypher Horizon by R.A.M. Faerthingale. Scientists insert two new nucleotides into E. coli bacteria, which reproduce to create a new organism with six DNA letters, rather than the usual four, which they hope to use to create living vaccines, basically innately crippled forms of diseases which could be fought and easily defeated to grant immunity but which could not themselves naturally reproduce, thus helping to eventually eliminate all disease. God was not available for comment, but no doubt some of his alleged followers were heard somewhere chanting “Fire bad!” A star remarkably similar in size to the Sun and terribly close in intergalactic terms is located in the constellation of Hercules, and may offer clues to the creation of our own Sun and help in detecting similar stars.
Speaking of stars, this episode focuses almost exclusively on our protagonist in a way that we haven’t seen in quite a while. The other main characters are quite literally pushed to the sidelines to allow her the spotlight and give her journey the conclusion it has been building to.
The Faustian bargain of three-dimensional personality and flashy animation which began in full four seasons ago has come around completely, and the questions we’d been asking since the last season’s finale about Twilight’s princesshood--which had nearly been lost in the shuffle of the more dominant personalities and Olympic fever--are finally addressed. These are not the answers that Lauren Faust would have given, but just as General Firefly has passed the mantle down to her daughter Rainbow Dash, so has McCarthy taken up the reins and made the show her own. All the strange different directions and aborted attempts at finding a new vision that plagued season 27 are solidified under her executive production.
Continuity-savvy watchers will note the many references to past episodes littered throughout, which makes sense for a season finale that celebrates 30 years worth of episodes (the first special debuted on 14 April, 1984): Cerberus leaving his post from "It’s About Time," Twilight’s anxiety about what she ought to be doing from "Winter Wrap Up" and not knowing what to do from "Lesson Zero," Tirek and Scorpan from Rescue at Midnight Castle, the banishment of Queen Megan and the Great Rewriting of Pony History from "Discord’s Diary," Luna and Celestia’s journey to plant the Rainbow of Light in the Tree of Harmony from "The Magical Alicorn Princesses" (which was better detailed in supplements CL-2: Little Keep in Ponyland to CL-10: Night’s Dark Terror of the MLP RPG), Twilight getting named after her mother and Celestia’s prediction that the little filly would go far in the world from "Foal Follies," Spike’s return to the Crystal Empire and his rebirth without a British accent from My Little Pony Crystal Princess: Twilight’s Egg, Discord’s theatrical performance from "The Mysterious Rainbow Magician"... Could it be anything less for an episode which is the culmination thus far of a long running series? McCarthy did her homework on this one!
Changes and evolutions are strange beasts. A great deal of season 28 has been about justifying Twilight’s new alicorn status to the fans, just as season 25 spent its opening episodes setting up the new status quo: introducing the new characters, moving the new older Twilight from Canterlot to Ponyville, introducing the newly winged and athletic Rainbow Dash and the no-longer-royal Rarity, who had acquired Rainbow Dash’s fashion sense cutie mark in season 24’s "The Great Mark Mix-Up." Such cast shake-ups are familiar to anyone who watches soap operas, or to fans of Doctor Who, the various regenerations of the Doctor and his various traveling companions signifying changes in the tone and style of the show itself (including that very odd British radio-only MLP spin-off where Twilight and the Doctor have adventures together). But to listen to the fans, one would think that the show may as well have been cancelled the moment a character makes an entrance or exit. You can find copious evidence throughout the Internet about these later day arguments, but few present day fans remember the drama surrounding "A Very Minty Christmas" over Minty’s newfound love for socks, even though it kicked off a popular meme that runs to this day, or Cheerilee's divorce in "Cute from the Hip," a subject thought “too adult” to discuss with children, even though a good 50% of them either would or already did live through it. Heck, I’ll transcribe here for you an early voice of dissent from the “Pony Express” letter column in the Winter 1993 issue of MLP fanzine Hoofbeats:
...though it is nice to see G.A. Bloom “back in the saddle”, as it were, it is hard to see Tales as anything but a stale disappointment of staggering proportions. The plots are hackneyed trash that was cliche back when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was considered fresh, the characters don’t take advantage of any of the progress that’s been made in animation since the program started running full seasons in '86, and, frankly, the new humanized civilization angle is just hard to swallow. Maybe after 7 seasons it’s time to put the old writers out to pasture or, worse, just send the show off to the glue factory?
Of course, it’s literally impossible for the target audience to have actually followed the show for the nearly 30 years that it’s been on the air. Even those of us who didn’t age out of it usually drift in and out for periods of time, catching up when the show is good, and drifting off when it’s bad or our interest wanes, watching reruns when we’re curious to see what we’d missed. And seeing how the target audience wasn’t born when the show began, and, in fact, some of the target audience's parents weren’t born when it started, some recapping for an episode of this density is obviously necessary. The tried and true way to do this is via the cold open, giving relevant little clips of the previous episodes and perhaps a voiceover explaining the situation. Instead, this episode does the brilliant trick of incorporating the recapping into the episode itself, making it a plot point, giving us a bowdlerized version of the events of Rescue At Midnight Castle, sanitized and divested of all references that imply previous heroines or the existence of humans, rewritten to make Celestia and Luna the heroines of the story, and working in the previously unmentioned banishment of Tirek to Tartarus.
(Aside: And ain’t that a thing to just casually reveal in a flashback? “Oh, by the way, Celestia has the power to banish people directly to hell.”)
Having escaped, Tirek makes his reappearance as a mysterious cloaked figured in an alley, draining Rare Find of all his magic and leaving him and his oranges lying colorless and blank flanked. He becomes slightly larger as a result. Easily one of the scariest scenes the program has done in its entire run. This is a recurring metaphor that the series has used, greed correlating to size, from Fluttershy’s father and his horde in "Dragonshy," to Spike’s tremendous growth spurt in "Secret of My Excess." The show has preached moderation and personal growth by giving, a tradition practiced most famously by the Irish kings, the immensity of the gift being directly proportional to the honor bestowed to the giver. Thus, it should not surprise us that Tirac’s acquisition of power is shown visually by his growth from a hornless, bent and cloaked figure barely able to creep from the shadows into a towering monstrosity with gigantic curved horns who has no trouble burning down the Everfree forest with his power. (His updated appearance’s resemblance to "Putting your Hoof Down"’s forceful and egotistical Iron Will cannot be coincidental.)
(Aside: Odd, in this framework, that Celestia is the largest pony we ever see, considering her complete lack of care for possessions without practical purposes or sentimental value.)
Power, in Ponyland, is measured directly by one’s ability to control the world. Thus, just as Tirek has stolen the power of the cutie marks from the ponies -- even the otherwise “non-magical” Pegasi and Earth ponies -- he has stolen that which is able to give them control over their world. Without it, nature will creep back in, the clouds will move on their own, civilization will gradually fade away, perhaps even language and conscious thought will be lost, just as it threatened to do in the season opener "Princess Twilight Sparkle." They will just be regular ponies. The show may as well be a documentary that runs on Animal Planet. Nothing will make them special or unique individuals anymore.
(Aside: and how are we to square the later events, where it turns out that the combined power of the 4 alicorn princesses is equal to that of literally every other pony in Equestira plus Discord? That’s quite an imbalance in favor of the royalty, all things considered...)
Speaking of specialness, Twilight feels overshadowed by the other princesses, and not unjustly so. They have things to do, places to be, dignitaries to meet with and kingdoms to run. All Twilight does is save the world every few months, and apparently this is nothing special or unique either. And as we learned in "The Crystal Empire," it is necessary for her to allow others to do so. We get a visual reminder of this at the very beginning of the episode in the form of a gigantic statue of Spike right as they enter the crystal palace. One might say that Celestia was making sure that Twilight knew it, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad things depends on if you are in the “Imagine a hoof stamping on a face forever/she’d won the battle over herself, she loved Princess Celestia” camp or not.
(Aside: the “go-to” example of this manipulative tendency is in season 25’s "The Ticket Master," in which Celestia sends only two tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala, when she ought to have sent seven. A lot of people assume she was being a jerk, as she’d met Twilight’s friends last episode; they were the reason she was letting Twilight stay in Ponyville, and she knows that Twilight has six total. But if she had, however, she would have deprived Twilight of a valuable lesson about friendship and asking for things (the non-diegetic reason being, of course, that if she’d just sent enough tickets there wouldn’t be a plot to write an episode about). A much better example of this kind of benevolent manipulation can be found in season 23’s "Twilight Sparkle" by Thomas Zahler and Ronda Pattison, where Celestia sends Twilight to serve as the assistant to the reclusive royal archivist Summer Mane, delaying a test that Twilight was anxious about. Twilight manages to ingratiate herself to the crotchety and anti-social mare, and the two slowly become friendly, discussing their favorite books and such, until Twilight’s curiosity gets the better of her and she looks in Mane’s office, which she had been forbidden to do. Within she finds a typewriter, confirming suspicions she had been having. Twilight is discovered by Mane, who is furious, withdraws all of her previous affection, and demands that Twilight leave the next morning, regardless of any consequences. Before she leaves, Mane explains that she was once a famous novelist, Jade Singer, and Twilight explains that she had already put that together, based on Mane’s glasses, love of swing music, smeared cutie mark, and brand of typewriter. Mane had written Twilight’s favorite book, in fact, and she wondered why Mane had never written another. Mane explains that the pressure of the book having been such a big success meant that it would be nearly impossible for her to measure up with her second. How could she stand to fail? Twilight can empathize, of course, having been the most promising magical prodigy that Ponyland has ever seen, and the stress of being tutored personally by Celestia leaves her in a constant state of worry and anxiety. But with her friends supporting her when she fails and congratulating her she she succeeds, she can get through it (she’s referring to Spike, Shining Armor, and Cadence here). And now that Mane has a friend of her own, Twilight bets she’ll be able to as well. Back at the castle, Celestia explains the entire situation, that Jade Singer had been a friend of hers whose instant success had become too much for her, and who Celestia was happy to allow to work anonymously at the archives while she got her strength back. And now thanks to Twilight, Celestia has her old friend back, and Jade is writing again. It is left unspoken that this is exactly how Celestia wanted the situation to turn out, and it is difficult to criticize her for introducing two people who would solve one another’s problems and leave one another happy. But at the same time, the degree to which Celestia always seems to know exactly how to solve the problems, exactly which people to introduce to one another, precisely which information to give to which people... And as Celestia herself never personally solves things, and always allows others to do so... And the tone of her voice when she explains that the other three princesses will be giving all their magic to Twilight... Well, Uriel sitting in his watchtower in the sun never fell, did he? But then all he was charged to do was observe.)
Said jealousy has another, darker implication. This season’s opening cliffhanger left us with a stark reminder that the now friendly and helpful Princess Luna was once Nightmare Moon, driven by her spite and resentment to try and usurp the throne and control the entire kingdom. Couple that with the various hints we’ve gotten throughout the series that Twilight is quite a bit more powerful than we imagined (Why does she know a spell that drives ponies insane in Lesson Zero? What possible purpose could it serve to know such a thing?), and her symbolic placement opposite her sister-in-law Cadence in this second generation of alicorns--her darker color scheme and relative isolation compared to the quite-literal princess of love further echoing the Celestia/Luna split--and one could easily see the series taking a darker turn.
We’ve seen quite a bit of Cadence this season, helping Twilight and her friends rebuild the Castle of the Two Sisters, acquiring all the missing parts that had been scattered across the world and transformed into various objects that happened to be in the possession of the ponies they met. Whether her addition as a semi-regular cast member is a welcome change or the Worst Thing Ever is no doubt something you have an opinion on, but for our purposes it continues the theme of growing up in a way that is rarely mentioned: as we age, our relationship to former authority figures changes. If you haven’t already, you’ll find that around the time you hit your mid-20s, almost no one really cares how old you are. You’re just an adult. The age thing becomes trivia; experience and ability are counted far more than raw time. Cadence was once Twilight’s babysitter, but now that Twilight is grown, they can just be friends. The old power dynamic is replaced.
(Aside: we’ve mentioned before Starswirl the Goateed’s fantastic essay about how the program is fundamentally Platonic in its conception, from the three tiered system of ponies explicitly mirroring the three classes of Plato’s Republic, the advocation for a life of hard work and friendship through dialogue and the constant search for understanding of the self. One could even only-half-jokingly suggest that the friendship which is most frequently advocated in the program is Platonic. Interestingly, this episode takes Platonism one step further by putting Aristotelianism to task for its failings, starting with Aristotle's notions of friendship. In The Nicomachean Ethics (Books VIII & IX), Aristotle describes friendship between unequals as fundamentally impossible, because one should only be friends with a person of higher standing if they are more virtuous, and even if so, the higher will be the more loved of the pair, the higher being unable to love the lower as much, and the friendship being, really, not an actual friendship at all. The lesser will always want something from the higher, and one should never want something from one’s friends, one of those statements that sounds intuitively correct until you start to unpack it a little (I wouldn’t want my friends to only be friends with me so they can borrow money, or because they like using my stuff. I would want my friends to know that I’d be there for them in a crisis, financial or otherwise, and would hope they’d do the same for me. Is a friend who has a life changing crisis, especially one outside of their control, suddenly a bad friend? Certainly not). Needless to say, alicorn Twilight is clearly of a higher standing, vastly more powerful, more influential, and in many other ways unequal to her friends. The high ranking athlete/government worker and prestigious local business owners don’t come even close to approaching demi-goddess and personal servant of the goddess-empress of the domain, who can reshape reality with her thoughts, travel through time, and alter people’s minds, let alone the party-planning pastry chef or veterinarian, and yet there is no suggestion at all that simply because of who she is that Twilight ought to treat her friends as less than herself, or that her friends should expect more or less from her. Clearly something’s going on here. Aristotle’s other obsession is with the concept of friends being “a single soul dwelling in two bodies”, that your friend (because you can have only one True Friend, maybe two if you’re very lucky) will be essentially an extension of yourself, from whom you will want nothing, receive nothing, and desire nothing. Which of course ignores entirely the joy that can be found in difference and diversity in favor of a monomania that in real life tends to be rather unsustainable. My friends are not myself. I love my friends for the sake of themselves, for the pleasure of their company, and also because I know I can rely on them the same way they can rely on me. We are a safety net for one another. One can have more than a single close friend, and one can live in a community of virtuous people who are all mutually beneficial to one another. And, in a world where the Goddess walks on four legs and frequently needs our help, we too can be friends with her and she can love us, even if she doesn’t quite suit his definition of a God. Where Aristotle isn’t wrong, he is inadequate. If God were omnipotent, any statement about her limits or constraints is by definition ridiculous, no matter how “logical” (think about it for a moment if it’s not clicking: “all-powerful” trumps “logical” or “comprehensible”). And if she is not, then it is by her actions and deeds that she will be judged by us, not her raw power. [Continued.])
But then it’s shifted directly in the complete opposite direction: instead of being just another princess, Twilight ends up the only princess. In the end, she ends up the only pony who has anything special left at all. All of the magic, all of the power, is handed over to her. This sort of thing, I can say from personal experience, can be an obsessive-compulsive’s worst nightmare.
To proceed, we’ll need to discuss a little about what obsessive-compulsive disorder is, and how it works. To speak in clinical terms, obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that often result in irrational repetitive behaviors designed to ward off them off. An intrusive thought is an unwanted idea, image, or obsession that lodges itself into the forefront of your consciousness and refuses to leave. Imagine being unable to stop thinking about hurting someone, or worrying if the bump your car just made was a pothole or a person you just ran over, or that if you don’t lock your doors and double check and triple check them that your house will be robbed... Those are extreme examples, but you get the idea. The sensation is not dissimilar to watching a horror film and afterwards sitting up unable to sleep because you can’t stop reviewing images or scenes from the film whenever you close your eyes. Logically, you know that it is just a film, and that if you turn out the lights and go to sleep, nothing will happen. But you just watched it in the film, and you can’t stop thinking about it... Sometimes, you perform an action which makes the thoughts go away, or distracts you from thinking about it, or which you believe makes the situation go away, but “Pure O” OCD is very common, in which no compulsive behaviors manifest. This is as accurate a summary of OCD thinking in comic form as I’ve ever encountered.
And so for someone as obsessed with not making mistakes, this is the literal description of a nightmare: Twilight had just been handed the keys to the kingdom. Everything depends on her, everyone is watching, everyone will know if she screws up. No one can help her. And she can barely control herself. She has so much power, she could easily destroy the entire town, perhaps the entire planet, with a careless swing of her horn (by bringing the sun too close and roasting the world, though thankfully this thought doesn’t occur to her when she’s making morning happen). This isn’t just her usual fear of getting sent back to pony school, and it can’t be fixed by her usual warding behaviors of retreating into the world of books, getting support from her friends, or allowing Spike to enable/berate her into functionality. If she screws up, the sun doesn’t rise, three people she cares about deeply remain trapped in hell, her friends will be enslaved, magic will leave the world forever... Just a little while ago, she was anxious about waving to strangers at a distance and unfurling a banner. Even her signature ability, teleportation, becomes completely unstable, flashing her all over the place. In a direct reference to the first scene of Rescue at Midnight Castle, Twilight sits on the edge of a cliff and teleports herself down. But then her powers go haywire, sending her all over Equestria, and finally leaving her wedged inside a cracked rock, where Tirek calls her out to battle.
By this point, we’re solidly in Tirek’s realm. The show has lost any semblance of the pastoral problem of the week pacing, the gentle caring of a group of friends working together to help one another with their problems. The message of friendship is turned into one of alienation as Discord betrays Fluttershy, his only real friend, and who herself never even considered it possible, and is in turn himself betrayed by Tirek, who no longer needs him, their one-sided relationship a nasty warning about some of the people you’ll meet out there, rather than a lesson about giving others the benefit of the doubt. Pervert the message, now that Tirek has won: Magic destroys friendships.
(Aside: Of course, it is never perfect, this analysis. There is always room for more, for difference, for change. It is never a meeting of exact equals who want nothing, who only give, who receive incidentally. We disagree, argue, interpret differently... and that’s wonderful! Allow me to quote at length from the initial article I wrote back in high school for my column in the fanzine Plot Watcher’s Monthly (S. Below, "Jacques’ Little Ponies." April 1999, p.6-13):
Il n'y a pas de hors-texte. “There is nothing outside the text” is one of the most useful, yet misunderstood statements about art that has ever been made. There are at least two ways of interpreting it: the first, that the work must be taken in isolation, that nothing is to be considered but the work itself, and that this self-contained capsule must accommodate within it all possible things that could come into consideration--all exterior entities: the intentions of the author, the circumstances surrounding the work’s creation, the knowledge of the reader, later works that reflect upon this one... all of these are to be ignored or denied. The Text On The Page Is All There Is.
The other--the correct one, when read in context in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology--holds that the phrase means that literally nothing is outside the scope of the text, that everything is to be interpreted and synthesized, and that simply because a certain school of thought or philosophy hadn’t been codified yet, that because the author stated outright that their work absolutely means this and nothing else, that because a connection seem tenuous and strained and more like an excuse to write about something entirely different, doesn’t mean that they aren’t somehow related to the topic at hand. There is nothing but interpretation, nothing but new perspectives to see and new things to learn and discuss.
To unfurl our flags and state our beliefs early on, we will be adopting the latter interpretation wholeheartedly and unreservedly, the former seeming more like a straightjacket and an excuse to ignore a much more interesting drunkard’s walk through history so that one has a convenient excuse to shut down discussion. Each and every reader will bring to the text a collection of experiences and understandings and historical baggages far different from any other reader, and will experience the work in a way much different from any other. The idea that those particular idiosyncrasies should be discarded in favor of advancing a single political philosophy, a particular literary school of thought, or even what the authors themselves consciously stuck in, seems sheer folly.
Derrida's signature idea, Deconstruction, is itself a somewhat tricky concept to define. What it most certainly doesn’t mean is the popular definition, which seem closer to “Doing it sincerely, but with an ironic veneer,” or “Doing it straight but with a lot more blood and darkness.” To cut it into the simplest terms, deconstruction involves interpreting an ideal in such a way that not only does it elucidate what the author intends, but also brings up the host of unexamined beliefs and conjectures that come part and parcel with it. Rather than the work being re-constructed from its disparate parts to assemble the intended meaning of the author, is instead de-constructed to reveal all of its spongy bits and contradictions.
Take, for example, Derrida’s famous example in Dissemination, the “War of Drugs”, which implies by its very nature that drugs are bad (we are declaring war on them, after all), and that a natural, drug-free body is better than a drug addled one. It seems to follow from a commonsense point of view, but if you take a moment to think about it, clearly neither of those two things are necessarily true. There are good drugs; the ones I take to control my migraines are wonderful, for example. And that ideal “natural body”, well, what does that mean, exactly? Shall we stop performing surgery on patients who need it, simply because surgery is “unnatural”? or deny ourselves drugs which reduce pain? While it is easy to classify a synthetic substance like ecstasy as unnatural, both marijuana and poppies are grown quite naturally, far more naturally than many of the foods we eat every day; is that not also a contradiction against the “natural” ideal? And for that matter, is not the very act of eating food or drinking liquid, that we should ingest anything at all, in some sense a pollution of this “natural body” ideal? Our bodies have never been “pure,” in the sense of sealed off from all external contamination -- every few seconds we inhale air that contains who knows what. The ideal is just a shortcut to keep from having to do all the messy thinking and hard examination. The real question is not “If...” but “Which drugs will we be taking?” or “What are drugs, anyways?” or “What do you mean, precisely, by ‘Natural’?”
And so it is with works of art. The author is blind to many of the unquestioned assumptions their work makes, and the things that their work says about the culture in which it was produced. The language itself, the metaphors used, the actions and their symbolism... All these things mean different things to different people at different times. To see an example of this, pretend a work was created in a different time period and by a different person: it will yield a host of completely different assumptions and interpretations about the work and its place in history--the most famous instance of this being the Borges’ short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," imagining Don Quixote rewritten as a great post-modernist epic about the absurdity of life and the quest for authenticity simply by being copied verbatim by an author in the 1920s (that this story was written in 1939, when Derrida was 9, and Roland “Death of the Author” Barthes still a tubercular student at the Sorbonne, has not escaped your author).
What this means, of course, is that it is possible to do fantastic work, locating hidden meanings and unexamined prejudices hidden inside works, and that complete bullshit is able to be hoisted aloft as though it were the most precious and sacred cow. This is dangerous work. Here there be dragons. Ponies, too.
Because that’s the territory we’re staking out here: My Little Pony.)In the end, both Twilight and Tirek are alone. Suffused with more power than they know what to do with, boiled over with rage, and, it would seem, literally trying to kill one another, they battle. The show has had combat before, from the kicking and slamming of "Friendship is Magic Part I & II" to the explosive party cannonfire of "A Canterlot Wedding." But it’s never been like this. We caught a glimpse in "Princess Twilight Sparkle," when Nightmare Moon and Celestia did battle, but even that was nothing compared to the drawn out violence we see here. Twilight is no longer afraid to charge straight in, the way she was hesitant to during her battle with the hydra in "Feeling Pinkie Keen." And what an intense battle it is! Explosions, energy blasts, lightning fast dodging, a pumping soundtrack, with none of the multi-episode cutaways and boring exposition that makes a fight take two weeks as often happens on Dragon Ball Z or Naruto. Is it that the show is trying to appeal to male audiences as well? Or is it that females like explosions too? Or perhaps trying to break down appeal on gendered lines like that is far too reductive and simplistic. If there’s one thing My Little Pony has done well throughout its years on TV, it’s defy easy classification to its actual viewers while appearing at a distance as silly piece of fluff that can be offhandedly dismissed as just another girl’s show. But it’s hard to not pay attention when mountains are being blown apart and forests are being razed.
(Aside: even more so than the Changelings from "A Canterlot Wedding," the violence and cruelty that Discord and Tirek display towards the ponies recalls the utter sadism present in some minor and distant quarters of the Brony fandom. Rather than simply hiding themselves in plain sight and taking over when no one is looking and living off their love and affection like the changelings, Tirek actively pursues and sucks the life from his victims, draining them mercilessly and leaving them collapsed and unmarked, taking that which is special and innocent and wonderful and twisting it all around inside himself so that he can simply take more. Cupcakes, anyone?
But then, he’s only one guy. One jerk who can be told to go away until he stop being a jerk. Or can be asked why he’s like that, and helped to change, if you’re feeling up to it. Both are acceptable answers.)
Like all things Platonic, it was inevitable that the show would need to face Derrida. After all, was it not Discord’s friendship that allowed Tirek to attain his power in the first place? And if “Friendship is Magic,” why are the unicorn class, those most predisposed to magic, the ones most likely to be cold and brusk and shallow around one another? And is friendship, in its most unmoderated, unqualified, and Pinkie Pie-esque form, really something that is always good? Of course it falls apart under examination. No one can hurt you like your friends can. Who else have you opened yourself up to? Made yourself vulnerable to? Shared secrets with and shown parts of yourself that you don’t broadcast in public? Especially in a culture like the US, where profanity has been overused to the point of ubiquity and common insults barely carry any weight, who but your friends would know the proper things to say to really make you cry? And just having friends doesn’t solve all your problems. Tom Chirella’s excellent article about the “boy crisis” and homelessness in the July 2014 issue of Esquire makes no mistake that these young men have plenty of friends and are always happy to make more; it is in everything else that they are lacking.
(Aside: [from above] In fact, given Aristotle’s obsession with inner natures and essential properties, isn’t it synchronistic that it is Tirek’s exploitation of Discord’s doubts over this very concept that lead him to destroy all the friendships and goodwill he had built up since his last rampage? Is this what our “true nature” leads to, the acceptance that some people just are the way they are and can never change? Certainly a magical draconequus who reshapes reality at a whim with all the cares of a small child is unequal to a gentle and shy pegasus who can barely bring herself to fly, her tail dragging on the ground whenever she walks and her voice rarely rising above a whisper; they are unequals in both sheer power and in moral character. And yet in the world of My Little Pony, they can meet for tea regularly, and though their friends might think it strange, there’s no implication of judgement from her circle once they’ve realized it’s safe and beneficial for all that the conversation and exploration continue. Starting in this season’s opening credits, Discord now makes an appearance in Fluttershy’s window, as if the link between the two characters wasn’t strong enough. [continued])
Alone and isolated, is this what Twilight has become? Is being special just about being able to destroy evil and banish it to hell forever? And if so, is she really special, or just another in a line of fighting princesses with magical powers? But really, that’s not true, is it? It isn’t external things that make us who we are. An extra pair of wings doesn’t make a character special. Fighting powers and magical blasts are accessories, not definitions. A crown or a title doesn’t make someone suddenly worthwhile or worthless. At the same time, though, we’re not watching a documentary of ponies. This is explicitly not a feature on Animal Planet about the habits of steppe ponies, nor even a more realistic fictional treatment like Farley’s Black Stallion series (the apocalyptic final novel, The Black Stallion Legend (1983), aside). Many of the viewers will never go near a real horse in their entire lives. We’re interested in the characters because we can relate to them, or because their situations intrigue us.
(Aside: [cont. from above] Aristotle’s concept of friendship is defended quite elegantly by essayist Michel de Montaigne in Of Friendship, wherein he describes his friendship with judge and author Estienne De La Boitie in glowing terms, literally using Aristotle’s concept of two-souls-in-one to describe how they felt towards one another, and how nothing, nothing, compares: not marriage, not fatherhood, not brotherhood, not homosexual love, and certainly not the passing acquaintances and everyday relationships we all too casually refer to as “friendships.” Indeed, their friendship is described in almost supernatural terms, with the affection occurring almost immediately upon the reading of one another's work before they met in person and continuing until the moment of Le Boitie’s death four years later, never to be replaced by another in Montaigne's heart (though one wonders how it would have worked out if La Boitie hadn’t died like one half of the couple in a romantic story, and how the friendship looked from his perspective). The description calls to my mind the scene in The Muppet Movie where Kermit and Rowlf meet for the first time, and we just know that they will be friends, because of who they are and how they are joined, in the gnostic sense. Or, to draw us back to the topic of this essay, season 25’s "Cutie Mark Chronicles," where it turns out that Rainbow Dash’s initial sonic rainboom is what gave all the main characters their cutie marks, binding them together years before they even met. But unfortunately for both the ponies and the Muppets, Montaigne insists that one can have only one real friend. Having five (or six, if Spike counts) would be four (or five) too many. And if friendship can only be induced through an almost supernatural combination of coincidence and kismet, how can one ever hope to locate it? Is friendship really magic?)
Of course, one could argue (quite persuasively, as Froborr has), that the “true” content of a story, of a history, doesn’t matter nearly as much as the moral or the lesson that is being learned. Those who learn history will not be doomed to repeat it if they are properly taught morality. Those who learn kindness are less likely to fall into old patterns and hatreds that have festered for centuries. Those who are raised alongside one another with an appreciation for their differences but a recognition that everyone is special and deserves respect are likely to view history through the lense of “How could anyone have believed that?” The legend of the founding of Equestria from "Hearth’s Warming Eve" teaches ponies to calm down, put aside their differences, seek commonalities, ignore cultural hatreds, and work together for their common good. Who cares if it’s literally what happened or not? From a moral perspective, the good is more important than the perfect. The “real” version can go into the history book, and the “instructional” one into the children’s heads. Just learning doesn’t address the real life inequalities that are still present in the world, of course, but it does help people see that those inequalities are real and need to be addressed, because no one should have to live the way many do, and knowledge is almost always the first step before action.
(Aside: [cont.] In fact, My Little Pony argues that one of the primary reasons to have friends is so that you can rely on them when you are in need. If you need help harvesting your apple orchard because you bit off more work than you can chew or so you don’t lose it to a pair of charlatans, if you need to get an infestation out of the town before it destroys everything, if you need them to cheer you on while trying your hardest in a competition, if you need them to watch your sister and her friends for the night or rescue you from being turned to stone by a basilisk, if you need them to help you carry back a huge load of gemstones you’ve looted from a pack of thugs... The point is a maximization of the social good where no one is left behind, differences are respected and appreciated, and everyone learns and helps one another. This is far more like Francis Bacon’s conception of friendship, where a friend is someone who will listen to help you calm down and relax, will discuss and bring their experiences to the table thus making you wiser than your would be alone, and will do the things for you that you cannot objectively do for yourself, like praise you or admonish you. The fruits of friendship are many, and are delicious--even if Bacon prefers pomegranates to apples. Compare the main characters’ relationships to the chilly and back-biting air of Canterlot, with its fussy, shallow, and cruel unicorns who’ve no time for anything but the latest trend and little appreciation for individuals as individuals. They aren’t all like that, sure, but enough are that it’s no wonder Celestia wanted a princess who knew about friendship to rule the land. Compare Discord’s friendship with Fluttershy with the one he thought he had with Tirek: the one he had with someone utterly opposite to him offered innumerable benefits both to himself and to the world around him, while the one he thought he had with the being close to his own temperament, the one who encouraged him to just be himself, consequences be damned, merely resulted in his being used for all he was worth and discarded when he wasn’t of any more use. Sure, someone will protest, Discord and Tirek weren’t really friends, in the Aristotelian sense. But did Discord know that? He certainly thought they were. As close as brothers, even. “Look at this nice necklace he gave me.” Another advantage of having more than one friend: if and when you are betrayed, you have other friends to turn to.)
Which makes the ending of the episode all the more sensible, given the earlier themes that have run through the season and the series, and indeed, the overall message of the series itself. It isn’t fighting that will get you to win, not really. Fighting lets you continue the fight. It is not that one shouldn’t defend herself when attacked, or that one shouldn’t protect her friends, but that when it comes to ending the conflict, killing the enemy once and for all simply isn’t a workable solution. Putting a bullet in the head of everyone who doesn’t like you just paints a target on your own. It just encourages both sides to further take up arms and harm others. It is only by giving up her power, that which allows Twilight to harm others, that which she can barely control, in favor of her friends--including the one who, mere episodes ago, proved himself to be such a nuisance it nearly ruined the free time she had to spend with her sister-in-law--that she can unlock the power to truly banish Tirek from the land once and for all. In the real world, resigning and choosing your friends over raw power doesn’t result in magical glowing and rainbows and banishments to hell, but neither does raw power turn you into a gigantic cen-minotaur who can burn down forests and imprison ponies in floating blue orbs, presumably to finally finish transforming them into stratodons and get the old chariot up and running again.
It might be more satisfying, on a certain level, were Twilight to incinerate Tirek into a pile of moon dust, or blast an explosive beam through him with a shower of sparks and smoke, but that’s not what will solve the problem. Her people, united against him, telling him what’s unacceptable and what they won’t tolerate, will. Because this show isn’t Sailor Moon or Power Rangers, and its violence is never of the sort that ends problems; it is only a vehicle to the ending, if it comes up at all. Tirek’s banishment comes through the power of a united front refusing to accept his power over them. They have mastered themselves, and they trust one another. What power can he have over them? Twilight has won the battle over herself. She loves not just Princess Celestia, but all of her friends. Friendship is magic, and Tirek sold out his only friend for a temporary gain that, in the end, brought him nothing. Had he not sold out Discord, he might have won. He’ll have plenty of time to reflect on that in Tartarus, if it ever occurs to him.
Deconstruction isn’t meant to be something one fights against tooth and nail, bitterly clinging to the ideal like a drowning person to a scrap of wood. It was always intended to be a joyous and life-affirming activity that brought about a deeper understanding of the world and the people in it. That so many who practice it can only find darkness and insecurity in everything speaks more about them than it does about the works themselves--if you don’t believe me, deliberately try to find an optimistic reading of a dark work; I bet you will. We all tend to find what we look for. We do not necessarily lose our ideals by understanding them better. Simply because they have a dark side, because they can be turned against us, does not mean that they are bad or unsuitable. We simply understand all the sides, rather than wearing blinders and keeping ourselves from questioning, examining, analyzing, and determining if it is still good anyways. We do the examination, we do the hard work of sussing all the ins and outs, the vicissitudes of the situation, the implications of what we say and do, the exceptions we can make because we are humans and not robots or deontological Kantians. It is difficult, but it is honest. We do not pretend to stand in the false light of fanaticism, we do not pretend to grope with the closed eyes of nihilism, we simply walk in the twilight and navigate as accurately as we can, making adjustment to the mental map as we go. Remember just how many of Plato's dialogues end with no conclusion being reached? Perhaps they aren't so different after all.
The reveal that Twilight was being raised by Celestia to take over for Luna’s duties, but instead derailed Celestia’s plans by breaking Nightmare Moon's spell and saving Luna, can’t possibly have been Faust’s intention when she took over the show, but it works surprisingly well as a first reveal to set up the even bigger reveal that Celestia and Luna are leaving the world completely. We all expected a different ending, of course, with Luna and Celestia resuming their leadership positions and a return to the usual status quo, not retiring themselves to the sun and moon to rebuild their now lost power, secure in the knowledge that the planet they encircle is safe in good hands. Even after all this, somehow it still doesn’t seem like Twilight is ready. Sure, she can defeat horrible monsters, and she’s rebuilt the Castle of the Two Sisters alongside her sister-in-law in one of the most naked bits of foreshadowing I’ve ever encountered (but then I remind myself that the target audience probably isn’t very familiar with that particular device and likely found it neat that there was a clue hidden in front of their faces the whole time), and has assumed the mantle of princess of the night, but it seems like something got crossed somewhere, like there were different directions the story was supposed to go instead. Which Fyre-Flye herself even admits.
(Aside: The still raging “Ready/Not Ready to be The Princess” debate brings to my mind something I read, where an adult child asked their parent when they finally felt like an adult. And the parent replied Never, that life just kept happening and there was no big revelation where suddenly you felt grown up and all your problems were easy. But what happened instead was that as you get older you’d have a problem and you’d think “Wait, I’ve been through this before. I know what to do in this situation. I can handle this” and the longer you live, the more situations are like this. Nothing gets any easier, you just have more experience and you learn what works and what doesn’t.)
But that’s the nature of change. Twilight has wings now. She’s a princess. She’s planted the elements of harmony and grown a new tree. She rules the night and Cadence rules the day. Her friends are her trusted advisors with thrones of their own, and will insure that nothing escapes her dominion. Her mom writes the Daring Do books. We can look forward to her further adventures in season 29 as she tries her best to administer a kingdom beset on all sides by horrible monsters, incompetent functionaries, duplicitous businessmen, an overworked sister-in-law, and perhaps another old foe from the past: a funky, grunky, gooey, oozy monstrosity that’s just Twilight’s shade of purple? This is the show for the foreseeable future. The old library has been replaced by a new castle.
We’re living in Twilight’s Kingdom now.
Surely you saw this coming?
- When I speak of Celestia as a Goddess, I mean in the same sense as I do when referring to Superman as a God: a moral, aspirational figure with vast power who exists in the realm alongside the “regular” people, and who frequently needs their help despite all their vast power. Superman’s best superhero friend may be Batman, but his real best friend is Jimmy Olsen. You are free to make any inferences you might make about my religious beliefs from this.
- “Jesus performs the same sort of folklore wonders that Superman or Johnny Appleseed does. The miracles of the Old Testament God would be easy enough for Superman to perform. Again, there’s this disconnect between the God people going to church picture – nativity scenes, walking on water, healing the sick – and the ones the theologians have decided on, this abstracted figure. And, you know what? If it’s within the power of both God and Superman to save a kid down a well, and only Superman does … well, I don’t know about worship, but I think Superman’s the better being.” --Lance Parkin, “Counting to Nothing,” comments section.
- Yes, this does mean vis-a-vis all the above that I would rather live in a Platonic tyranny ruled by Celestia and Superman than a monarchy of Aristotelians I’ll never be friends with. The only circumstances I can think of in which the “good dictator” might be acceptable require a being of fictional purity and goodness and near omnipotence as the head of state. The things I never thought I’d use my philosophy degree for...
- Aristotle does have some quite lovely things to say about friendship, it’s just that in his writing, he comes off as the sort of person who never really had this sort of close friend, and is describing what he observes from afar, as usual. As with many things, Aristotle makes declarative statements that he has no way of backing up: “A play is best when it takes place it one day, in one place, with one plot.” “Women have fewer teeth than men.” “Spiders have six legs.” “A single deep friendship is always better than multiple less close ones.” “Friends can never need things from one another.” He is correct quite very often, and justifiably seen as one of the two founding pillars of Western philosophy, but in many places it is in spite of, rather than because of, him that we advance.
- Though I give him a hard time above, the Essays of Montaigne are absolutely worth your time. Even when he is wrong, misguided, or outdated, his style, wit, and charm are not to be missed. I can say with complete honesty that this style of writing would not exist were it not for him. Estienne De La Boitie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is likewise an excellent read for anyone interested in the early origins of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance.
- Derrida is a pain to read, and while sadly I don’t possess enough French to judge for myself whether this is his fault or that of his translators, everything I’ve read suggests that his native French is just as obscurantist as his translations read. The easiest point of entry that directly involves Derrida himself is probably Deconstruction in a Nutshell, a moderated interview with Derrida by John Caputo. Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference are the two “main” books of his vast output, but I can’t recommend them for pleasure reading, or even as an introduction to his thought.
- I had an entire extra section based on a reading of Rare Find losing his oranges coupled with Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the last vestiges of an older menace trying to suck the life from an inevitable rise that through sheer demographics will transform the landscape of at least my country once a generation dies off, Tirek being defeated by rainbow powered women, and an even deeper gay reading of the events, but unfortunately that’ll have to wait until next time. Until then, read Jeanette Winterson even if you skip all the philosophy. She kicks ass.