|I think this is the first time I've ever seen the "feed them|
grapes and fan them" thing done that it wasn't all women
doing the serving. Also: Spike has a fanboy. Haha, get it?
And in ponies, we have something of a perfect storm: a story set in the Crystal Empire, which has not boded well in the past, that is also the second Spike episode in a row, and written by Dave Polsky, whose output has been uneven, to put it mildly: he's written on real gem, "Rarity Takes Manhattan," several fairly solid episodes, including the misunderstood "Feeling Pinkie Keen," and a few, let's be honest, total stinkers, such as "Over a Barrel," "Daring Don't," and most importantly for our discussion of this episode, "Games Ponies Play," which was both set in the Crystal Empire and focused on the Equestria Games.
Fortunately, "Equestria Games" falls into the "fairly solid" range, thereby achieving the rare feat of a Good Spike Episode. Spike manages to not be a jerk to anyone else for an entire episode, which immediately shortcuts the usual problem of Spike episodes not noticing that Spike is a jerk, and instead spends it acknowledging he has a problem and then attempting to address the problem. Specifically, he is suffering a crisis of self-confidence, and the only cure is for him to accomplish some kind of meaningful achievement.
In its own way, this episode is a step further along the same path as "It Ain't Easy Being Breezies." That episode was about the damage that saving instead of helping can do, and while it was from the point of view of the would-be savior, Fluttershy, it gives a great deal of screentime to a very strong character from among the "saved," Seabreeze. "Equestria Games" tops this by having the "saved" character be the main focus, and showing the damage it does to him and the process by which he recovers.
As I noted in my article on "It Ain't Easy Being Breezies," this is a difficult and delicate topic to address, because there is a significant political faction in our culture that uses the philosophy of Ayn Rand to argue against helping, and the arguments against saving are quite similar: that it creates dependency, undermines confidence and self-esteem, and imposes a submissive or servile state on the saved. The key to navigating this is to remember that these don't happen with helping, and are in fact how you tell the difference: saving imposes the will of the savior, which in turn forces the saved to be submissive, undermines their confidence, and makes them dependent. A helper, by contrast, allows the helped to decide what help is needed and how to use it, which empowers the person helped and prevents those negative effects.
The episode gives us two pairs of acts of helping and saving, and contrasts both, once in a silly way and once in a more serious way. The more serious contrast is in Twilight's actions. During the torch lighting, she saves Spike when he is crippled by performance anxiety. She has no idea what is causing the problem--she outright states that she doesn't know why he's not lighting the torch--but she can see that he isn't lighting it and fears that he will be embarrassed, so she rescues him by lighting the torch for him. Once he understands what's happened, Spike is devastated; he sees it not only as a failure, but as a vote of no confidence from Twilight. His resulting desperation to prove himself leads to him humiliating himself with the Cloudsdale anthem, pushing him even deeper into withdrawal from the outside world and unhappiness.
It is only when Twilight starts actually talking to him, asking him why he's upset and what would make him feel better, that it becomes possible for her and Cadance to help him. As Twilight puts it, he needs to do achieve something that has meaning to him, not others, in order to earn back his confidence, and only he can tell them what that is. They can offer help, but he must be the one to take it, rather than having it pushed on him by them or by circumstance, as with the falling ice cloud.
That ice cloud forms part of the second contrasting pair. Spike, from the start of the episode, is hailed by the people of the Crystal Empire as their savior. Which is true--he was the one who actually retrieved the Crystal Heart in "The Crystal Empire." But nonetheless the episode paints this as ridiculous--Spike, who the viewers know is the perpetual fifth (or, rather, seventh) wheel of the Mane Six, has ponies kowtowing to him, asking for his autograph, even fanning him and feeding him gems while he reclines! Spike, too, ultimately finds this empty; even when he saves the Equestria Games by destroying the ice cloud, he is unable to feel a sense of accomplishment from it. Unstated but implied is the contrast between his actions to save the Empire, which were spur-of-the-moment things that weren't asked for, to his failure when the Empire actually asked him to do something. He has internalized the difference between saving and helping, having experienced himself, and now he wants to be a helper rather than a savior.
Which Twilight and Cadance then help him become, repairing the damage Twilight did by saving him earlier. Twilight and Spike thus both learn the same lesson in this episode, but for once the gravity of Twilight's character is resisted, and so her learning occurs more or less in the background. The result is actually a little bit like a key episode for Spike, though not as much as the previous episode; he has repeatedly been described as Twilight's helper or assistant. "Helping" is the closest thing he has to an Element of Harmony, and this episode was about exploring the fail-state of Helping just as "Rarity Takes Manehattan" was about the fail-state of Generosity, "It's Not Easy Being Breezies" was about the fail-state of Kindness, and so on.
Which, with only the finale left to the season and, presumably, the key arc, raises the question: What is the fail-state of Magic? Of Friendship? What must Twilight overcome to earn her key?
Next week: Why we climb trees.
ETA: Corrected an error in the first name of the Toronto mayor.