Sunday, December 14, 2014

Like you wanted, remember? (Trade Ya!)

I was really disappointed when the mallet didn't squeak.
It just looks like it should, y'know?
It's April 19, 2014. The top movie and song have remained unchanged in the two weeks since last episode. In the news, astronomers discover the first moon outside our solar system, Boko Haram attack a Nigerian school, killing two guards and kidnapping 200 girls, and the Supreme Court of India ruled that the government must recognize the existence of and ban discrimination against hijra, a third gender that broadly corresponds to the Western concept of transgender.

In ponies, we have "Trade Ya!" by Scott Sonneborn, one of the more structurally complex episodes of the series inasmuch as it has a full A, B, and C plot, as well as an implied background D plot. For the sake of clarity in discussion I'll lay out the four plots briefly, so that henceforth I can refer to them solely by letter: All four plots are set against within a giant annual swap meet. In approximate order of screentime, plot A follows Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as they engage in a chain of deals in an attempt to acquire a rare first-edition book Rainbow Dash wants; plot B follows Rarity and Applejack as they pool their resources in order to trade more effectively, only to conflict over which of two items, each of which will require everything they have in trade, to get; plot C follows Twilight and Pinkie Pie as the former tries to get rid of books she no longer has space for and the latter tries to prevent her from making a bad deal; and plot D is Spike spending the entire day at one stand, dithering over which comic to trade his mint-condition copy of Power Ponies for, only to finally pick one just as the swap meet is ending.

At first, the episode appears to be a farce. As I've discussed before, the farce is characterized by complex, usually multi-threaded, plots rich in absurdity which eventually pile up into a ridiculous climax. Characters often work at cross purposes or pursue incompatible goals, only for the whole thing to collapse into a resolution that collides them all and, improbably, leaves everyone satisfied, except possibly the villain if there is one. However, this climactic collapse never materializes; the closes we get is Twilight presiding over an impromptu hearing to determine whether Rainbow Dash's final trade was legitimate under the rules of the meet, at which the A plot is finally resolved, but by that point the C plot of which Twilight is a part has already been resolved. More to the point, although in the end everyone is happy, no one except Spike actually gets what they want.

Instead, the episode becomes an examination of desire and value. Each of the threads (excluding D, which as I said is only ever implied by background events) involve characters who value very different things, for very different reasons, and generally fail to understand or appreciate the values of others.

In the A plot, for instance, we have the chain of deals Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy perform. Rainbow Dash's lucky horseshoe is a perfect example of an object which has value to Rainbow Dash, as she considers it a good-luck charm, but no one else can perceive this value--to them, it is a rusty old horseshoe. The pony with the crystal chalices then turns this onto the audience; she wants a rusty old horseshoe, not because she perceives it as a good-luck charm (maintaining that as a value only Rainbow Dash sees in it) but because she specifically wants a rusty old horseshoe. The audience never learns what she wants it for or why it needs to be rusty and old; we know only that she wants it enough to trade a chalice for it, thus making us the ones who cannot see the value she sees in it. Rainbow Dash then breaks the chalice and she and Fluttershy have to fix it; the viewer, naturally assuming that the sculptor wants the chalice for display purposes or to drink out of, assumes that he will likely reject the crudely glued-together chalice, but instead he happily accepts it and then smashes it with a hammer, so that he can use the crushed pieces for his mosaic made of smashed crystal chalices. Our assumption about what a crystal chalice can be valued for has proven false, further undermining the notion that we can judge value for others. After a few more trades, they finally get the orthros (a cute reference to the chimera in Sonneborn's previous episode--in Greek myth, Orthros was Cerberus' two-headed brother and Chimera's mate), but the pony with the rare book no longer wants it unless Fluttershy will come to Manehattan with her to train it. Even when we know what others value, it can shift without apparent warning!

The B plot goes beyond how values vary from person to person, and examines a straightforward conflict in values. After Rarity and Applejack pool their trade goods, they each find an item that will require the entire pool: a pie tin that is very slightly more efficient than normal pie tins for Applejack, and an antique brooch of which Rarity already owns a perfect replica. What's interesting here is that the show aligns the audience against empathy; rather than both items seeming like reasonable things to want, instead it is the arguments the ponies make against each other's items that seem reasonable. Both Rarity and Applejack are completely sincere in seeing their respective absurd items as being completely worth the trade, so by emphasizing that absurdity the B plot serves to highlight the arbitrary nature of value.

The C plot moves from examining differences of value between people to differences in value over time. To Twilight, the books initially have negative value--she does not want them, she wants the space that she'll get once she gets rid of them. (So that she can fill it with more books, naturally.) Even a broken quill is worth more to her than the books, because it occupies less space. Meanwhile, the other ponies at the swap meet seem not to value the books very highly at all, if a broken quill is the best offer Twilight gets for them.

But then Pinkie Pie gets involved, and starts trying to make the ponies at the event value the books more by playing up Twilight's celebrity status, which predictably annoys and embarrasses Twilight. Pinkie succeeds, gathering a large crowd to bid on Twilight's collection, but then she plays up the books' value so much that it backfires: the books are now worth too much, and none of the other ponies have anything worth trading for them! But Twilight is content, because she's realized that the books have value to her after all, as mementos; each is a reification of her memories of the events she associates with them.

All of this then serves as background to the brief trial scene. The value of things--of anything and everything--has been depicted as subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, which is a direct challenge to the premise of the show, which is about depicting the value of friendship, of varied interests and personalities, of kindness and generosity and loyalty and honesty and laughter. But if value is subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, then is the entire show to this point a lie?

And the answer is no. Because even though Twilight is forced to rule that the trade of what amounts to Fluttershy's indentured service and an orthros for the rare book is, under the rules of the swap meet, both fair and binding, Rainbow Dash's plea that she values Fluttershy far more than she could ever value the book touch everyone present. All the material objects depicted in the episode, their value is subjective and arbitrary because it's not a part of them; it can't be, because value is intangible, created by the valuer, while the objects are tangible. Again and again, this episode shows us that the objects desired by various ponies don't have value of their own, but have it placed into them by other ponies. It's not Twilight's books that are valuable, it's celebrity or memory. Not the brooch, but age; not the pie tin, but efficiency and saving time.

It is basically a more sophisticated version of both "The best things in life are free" and "It's the thought that counts": value, this episode is saying, is intangible, and therefore only intangible things have value. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy's friendship is the most obvious case, but the resolution of the B plot on the train ride home shows the same principle: Rarity and Applejack each used their half of the trade goods to acquire a lesser version of the item the other wanted. Both their explanations of their choice of gift suggest they haven't completely understood the other's reasons for their desires--Rarity thinks Applejack values age, when what she wants is a specific kind of plate that's no longer made; Applejack thinks Rarity wants something similar to what she already has, when what she really wants is age--but as Rainbow Dash points out, the real value is the effort they made for each other.

Is the episode right? It's difficult to say. On the one hand, it is right that value is not inherent in objects, but constructed onto them by individuals and societies. On the other, that doesn't mean that intangibles have inherent value either; for example, one person may value familial relationships more than friendships while another values friendships more, so the value of friendship isn't any more inherent than the value of a birdcall. That does not mean, however, that the show is in any sense being dishonest when it portrays friendship as highly valuable. The key here is that value is not just individually constructed, but also socially constructed. Shows like this are part of that social construction; they are a way for people who value friendship, and value the valuing of friendship, to encourage it in the wider society. So no, it's not dishonest; the show has never pretended that it's not trying to change the society around it. That's what being utopian means.

Next week: Oh for fuck's sake.


  1. Hang in there... only three more weeks... you can do it.

    1. Thanks. I just queued up Sunday's post, and it was surprisingly easy to write? I mean, considering that it's my pick for worst episode of the season, yet I didn't take the easy way out and savage it.


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