Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Two things no one appears to have noticed about The Very Soil...

Yes, I know, if I have to tell you how clever I am, I'm not actually that clever. Well, I guess I'm not actually that clever. The two things that no one has noticed, or at least no one has commented on:
  • The article titles.
  • The OTHER trick I pulled in the article on Episode 10.
The Very Soil will resume next week, but only if you tell me I'm clever. 

P.S.: There is going to be a book version. The book will contain revised articles and also new articles, much like the My Little Po-Mo books. I have no release date, even an approximate one.

Edit: Happy Walpurgisnacht! Too bad I didn't think to time the articles so that one of the last two eps fell on today. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Oh yeah, I have a blog...

For those who don't follow me on Twitter, I finished the first draft of My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 in the wee hours of Sunday morning and sent it off to my editor. Now I'm tired and therefore going to be kind of lazy this week. I already have something small queued up for Wednesday, and there will be the usual liveblog chat thingy Saturday. Other than that, no guarantees about content this week. I'm not actively calling for them, but if anyone wants to submit a guest post, now would be the ideal time.

Actually, you know what, I am going to actively request a guest post: Is there anyone who really hates Twilicorn? Or who at least hated it at the time? Want to write about why? Because, spoilers, I'm going to be overwhelmingly positive about it in my next article (as in, I believe it saved the show), and it would be cool to have a counterbalancing opinion.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I'm bored. (Games Ponies Play)

This is pretty much what the whole episode feels like.
It's some day or another. Who even cares?

Look, for a solid month now I've been reviewing episode after episode of mediocrity, slogging my way through such gems as The One Where a Character Helps Another and the Second Character Gets Clingy, The One Where a Fan Favorite One-Shot Comes Back and Is Less Interesting, and The One Where a Character Blows Off Their New Job and Creates a Disaster. And for all of them, I've tried my best to find some interesting take, some novel idea or recurring theme to pull out and spin into a post for you.

But now we have The One Where Everyone Is Facepalm-Inducingly Incompetent, and I'm done. There's nothing interesting to be said about this episode. The most interesting thing about it is its complete lack of anything interesting--but if that's interesting, then the episode doesn't completely lack anything interesting, and therefore loses the only thing that makes it interesting. It is a perfect eternal circle of mediocrity and failure.

It's not actually the worst episode of the show. It's not even the worst episode of the season. After all, this season contains an episode that can actively hurt the children watching, possibly two. But that at least is interesting and gives me something to write about! So no, this is not the worst episode. It's not even the worst episode for me to try to write about--it's not going to leave me feeling physically ill and emotionally exhausted the way, say, writing about "One Bad Apple" did.

So it's not even superlatively bad. It's just bad.

I suppose I should actually talk about what makes it so bad, which largely breaks down to two problems. The first I've already alluded to: this is an "idiot plot." This unfortunately named term describes a plot which only works because every character is completely incompetent, such that if any one of them did one completely obvious thing, the plot would unravel entirely. In this case, the plot only occurs because it never occurs to any of Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie to introduce themselves to the false Game Inspector or for her to introduce herself. Yes, this episode's plot requires Pinkie Pie to not try to befriend a person she just met, even though they spend an afternoon together. It also requires that none of them ever once use the words "Equestria Games" or "Game Inspector."

Given Rarity's side plot about struggling with Princess Cadance's hair, what seems to be happening is that the episode is trying for farce. In farce, an assortment of characters with their own incompatible agendas and perspectives (which is what the episode title is referring to--Games People Play is a moderately famous book about the psychology of "mind games" and hidden agendas in relationships) act foolishly, repeatedly misunderstanding each other and making mistakes. Most characters are depicted as being completely incompetent, and any characters who are competent generally fail anyway due to bad luck or reliance on incompetent characters.

Which, so far, is a fairly good description of the episode: Ms. Harshwinny is competent, but stymied by the incompetence of the welcoming committee and repeatedly splashed by passing ponies. Rarity keeps trying to take shortcuts, ruining Cadance's hair. The welcoming committee welcome the wrong pony, while repeatedly failing to check whether they have the right pony, and that wrong pony inexplicably fails to inform anyone that she is suffering from claustrophobia, and instead just keeps making excuses to try to go outside and meekly going along when the other ignore her excuses.

The problem is that most of these threads are extremely repetitive. Farce works by means of a form of suspense; as each character's antics become more ridiculous, it becomes more obvious to the audience that the situation can only end in disaster when the disparate threads finally collide. This anticipation builds, until finally it is released in the climax, which pays off the anticipation in an eruption of chaos. To see this structure executed well, watch a performance of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors or Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, or just pick any episode of Arrested Development at random.

This, unfortunately, is not what happens in the episode. The closest is the thread of the not-Games Inspector's claustrophobia, where her reactions do become steadily more absurd, culminating in a ridiculous chase through the streets with a pot on her head, which results in Rainbow Dash being flung across the city (and, when Rarity hears her crash into the dome but doesn't see her, the funniest moment in the episode). The thread in which the welcoming committee doesn't know that she's not the Games Inspector, however, is more frustrating than funny, and Rarity's first and second failed attempts at Cadance's hair look basically the same as far as the audience can see. Worst, however, is the Harshwhinny thread: she is dragging her luggage past a puddle when someone runs through it, splashing her. Later, this happens again. That's her entire thread.

Eventually, everyone ends up at the spa for no particular reason, which is where the rising anticipation of disaster (which has not actually been rising, due to the lack of escalation in most of the plots) should pay off as the threads collide and interact chaotically. Instead, the claustrophobia thread has already peaked and the welcoming committee have realized they have the wrong pony without ever really getting any humor out of it. Rarity has perfected Cadance's hair off-screen and without apparent fuss. And then Harshwhinny and the unnamed, claustrophobic tourist resolve the main issue between themselves, such that everything works out for everyone. The episode, in other words, just skips having a climax and goes straight to the denouement, fizzling out with a whimper to make room for Applejack and Twilight Sparkle to deliver the punchline to the previous episode.

So it fails at farce. Do we at least get something resembling a character arc for, well, anyone? To which the answer is, "Well, sort of." Rainbow Dash seems like the best candidate--she's heavily invested in getting the games to come to the Crystal Empire as a way of compensating for a childhood disappointment, and she gives a little speech at the end about how she made things worse. But an arc is more than just a sequence of events; it requires causal connection, and there just isn't one here. Rainbow Dash doesn't drive the Game Inspector away by being overenthusiastic, doesn't get carried away by her vision and miss something important, or otherwise cause the apparent loss of the games; she and the others simply don't think to ask the name of the pony they meet. No, the closest thing we get to an arc is Rarity's almost entirely offscreen plot, in which she starts out taking shortcuts in her efforts to properly prepare Cadance's headdress, and then either realizes she needs to stop taking shortcuts, or discovers the right shortcuts, and gets the headdress right. She messes up, she learns, she gets it right; that's an arc; it's just a very basic one that we don't actually get to see most of--but in this episode, that's the best we get.

There is no word for this except "mess." And coming after three straight episodes of mediocrity, in a season that had already before that seen as much bad as good, a nasty doubt surfaces: Is this show even worth watching anymore? It is clearly floundering, casting about desperately for quick fixes and easy answers. Whether this is a result of Equestria Girls pulling resources or the loss of direction engendered by the departure of Lauren Faust (who left before Season Two began airing, but was nonetheless involved at the writing stage of most of that season's episodes), it remains a clear and serious problem for the show.

If something doesn't change, it's difficult to justify the show continuing. It needs a new direction, an injection of energy, some bold, maybe even controversial, departure from the formula in order to pull itself out of this rut. But that seems unlikely, given how very safe it's been playing these last few episodes, sticking to recognizable sitcom formulas. Even with the season finale next episode, it would be too much to hope for some kind of dramatic alteration to the show's basic premises.

Next week: But we do get a surprisingly lifelike facsimile thereof.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

MLP Livebolog Chat Thingy: "Inspiration Manifestation"

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. Afterwards, I will update this post with the chatlog.

Chatlog below the cut... sort of...


Friday, April 25, 2014

Continuing with Felda...

The Dragons of Industry, as I am currently leaning toward calling it, is starting to take shape. What I'm currently thinking of doing is following one character at a time, telling their story as it intersects with and is shaped by others, then backtracking and telling another character's story. To take the obvious comparison, imagine if Game of Thrones were structured so that, say, all of Ned's chapters were first, then all of Arya's, and so on. I don't know yet whether each character's story would be a section in a single book (can't really call it a novel if I structure it this way) or one novel in a series.

The years passed largely without incident. Felda's family worked their fields, took the crops into town. Her younger brothers, when there wasn't planting to do or crops to bring in, walked down to the village school four miles away, learned their letters and numbers and the history and literature and songs of the Taufen. The only real change from how things had been before was that when Felda's father took their crops to Weizenstadt, he no longer spent a week there or more, no longer had to sell from a patch of the market square and watch as whatever inn he stayed in ate his profits one night at a time; now he delivered them at the Guildhall, along with Felda's mother's meticulous records in official Guild ledgers, and received in return the family's salaries and operating costs for the year.

And of course there was Brom, now Felda's constant companion. Mother wouldn't allow him in the house, but he slept beneath Felda's window--in the second year after they joined the Guild, they rebuilt the house; it had three bedrooms now, one Felda's own--and from dawn until dusk, while she did her work, he was by her side.

Every few weeks, that first year, somebody came up from Weizenstadt to teach Felda and Brom how to work the fields together. There were at least half a dozen teachers, but they largely blurred together in Felda's memory in later years; they were all tough, and stern, and stubborn, hard workers themselves who demanded Felda do the same. She rather liked them, but they rarely stayed more than a day.

The first visits were frustrating. It was hard for her to learn to work with Brom, so very different from anything she'd done before. Her first tutor, a broad squat woman named Gertr whose bondling was a rust-red, short-legged, floppy-eared hound the length and girth of a pony, worked patiently with Felda, sympathizing with her struggles by claiming it had taken her much longer. Unfortunately, then Felda made the mistake of calling Brom by name.

"Never name it!" the woman shouted. "No wonder you struggle at reaching across the bond--your bondling is not a pet, or a companion, it is you. Do you name your hand? Call out to it when you want it to do things? 'Here, Hans, lift my spoon for me?' 'Hans, wipe my bottom please!' No, of course not! You will it and it does, because it is a part of you!"

Felda wilted in the face of the woman, a head shorter than her but broad and muscled as a particularly fit brick wall. "I--I'm sorry. I just thought he--"

"He!" snapped the woman. "It's 'he,' is it? Do you make friends with your nice, big, strapping bull? Are there no lads your age in this village? Do you fuck it?"

Felda stared in open-mouthed horror. "No, I--"

"From now on, it has no name, you understand? It is as much an it as your hand, you hear me?" Gertr frowned as Felda hesitated. "Understand!"

Felda bowed her head. "Yes, ma'am." She noted to herself to be careful not to mention Brom by name around her teachers again.

Nonetheless, by the time Gertr left, Felda had made little progress--the best she could do was sense Brom's location, which was interesting, but not particularly useful.

Her progress continued to be slow, and it became increasingly obvious that she was lagging. Bit by bit, however, she learned to do more, seeing with Brom's eyes, hearing with his ears, feeling the air in his fur and the soil beneath his hooves. But that was nothing compared to what happened with her fifth tutor, Elmun. 

He stood out from the others; he was younger, a tall, skinny boy all knees and elbows, only a couple of years older than Felda herself. His bondling was a badger, which snuffled about his feet continually while he struggled to explain what he wanted Felda to do. "Your affinity was never strong," he explained. "But the bonding changed that." He gestured at the space between himself and his bondling. "There's a connection now, invisible, but real as the connection between your eyes and your hands. You've learned to see and feel across that connection. Now I want you to try to feel the connection itself."

Felda closed her eyes and concentrated. By now, her connection to Brom was effortless and  automatic; she felt his heartbeat as constantly as her own, saw his surroundings as clearly as Elmun in front of her. But this was different; she knew where he was, so she tried to envision the connection between herself and Brom as a sort of thread extending from her to him and back. She focused on that thread, until she could almost see it--

She gasped, and her eyes snapped open. Thousands of threads, from tough cables to delicate filaments, stretched between her and Brom, shining and humming. Brom himself was like some complex, abstract tapestry, mighty cords of incredible strength anchoring a web of un fathomable complexity. But his threads were woven in her and through her and into the ground, where they vanished into a still vaster tapestry, a singing, pulsing, glowing, ever-moving, constant, infinite, eternal...

Elmun caught her as she swayed. "It can be a little overwhelming the first time," he said gently. 

"What is it?"

He smiled. "That, Felda, is Earth."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Addenda to Tuesday's Post About Piracy

Two additional thoughts I either forgot about or didn't think of until after posting:
  • Although of course there is a fairly obvious legal difference, I do not see any moral difference between using AdBlock while watching a free, ad-supported streaming service like Crunchyroll, and just pirating the shows. In both cases, you are circumventing the distributor in order to eliminate the cost (monetary in the case of piracy, time in the case of AdBlock) of accessing the show, and in both cases, while the immediate and obvious victim is the parasitic and predatory for-profit industry that distributes the work, in the long run they are quite good at passing those losses along to the actual creators.
  • No one ever needs access to a creative work. It is debatable, as I noted in the previous post, whether people have a right to access others' work, but it is never a need; no one has ever actually died from being unable to watch the next episode of Mad Men. "I needed it" is a legitimate justification for theft--it is justified for a starving person to steal food, for example. But merely very much wanting something is not actually justification for taking it; regardless of whether a given act of media piracy is right or wrong, its rightness or wrongness is unaffected by how much the downloader wants to watch it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Equestranauts" Showcases Biggest Problem of Brony Community

Apologies for extreme lateness, I am once again ill. 

The recent Bob's Burgers episode "Equestranauts" offered a very funny take on the brony subculture, as the titular burger joint owner had to pretend to be an adult fan of Equestranauts, an action- and friendship-packed show designed to market horse toys to little girls, in order to get back a toy a collector swindled out of his daughter.

Quite a bit of the episode is a simple, fairly gentle lampooning of convention culture in general and bronies in particular. The usual exaggerations for fictional depictions of conventions are in play, of course, most notably that cosplay is depicted as de rigeur rather than an expensive and time-devouring hobby pursued by a few. Notably, however, there does seem to be some awareness of the quirks of bronies. Admittedly, both Tina and Bob (especially Bob) are subjected to gatekeeping by defensive fans, more commonly a phenomenon of the science fiction, comics, and gaming fandoms, but here said gatekeeping is actually possible to pass, after which they are basically accepted into the community.

That community itself is depicted as, in large part, harmless silliness; unusual, perhaps imperfectly socialized, men hanging about and being faintly ridiculous. Most are welcoming and friendly and just looking to have some innocent fun feeling out over their favorite cartoon; only Bronconius is portrayed negatively. 

Where the episode is most interesting, however, is in its climax, where the Equesticles are called out for allowing Bronconius free reign as he swindled little girls, pushed people around, and generally acted like a selfish, domineering jerk. And there, perhaps accidentally, the episode accurately depicts the bronies' biggest problem, the paradox of tolerance. 

This old philosophical problem is simply summarized: some people are, for whatever reason, frequently aggressive, controlling, and intolerant. Perhaps more importantly, most people are occasionally aggressive, controlling, and intolerant, and the more they get away with the behavior, the likelier they are to believe it is acceptable. There are few constraints on individual behavior more powerful than this aggressive intolerance; thus, a community which tolerates all behavior by its members is necessarily one which is experienced as intolerant by most members--put another way, in the absence of an asshole control mechanism, assholes run rampant. 

Bronies, as a group, are extremely reluctant to police other bronies. A combination of factors, including the show's themes of friendship and harmony, and statistical tendencies for bronies to be likelier than the general populace to be poorly socialized, victims of bullying, and neurotic, combine to create a subculture where most people are unwilling to rock the boat, even to deal with someone walking the boat. An embattled mentality, mostly originating with extremely negative mainstream media coverage early in the fandom and attempts by 4chan to expunge Friendship Is Magic-related discussion, has created a culture of defensiveness, where criticism of bad behavior by individual members is treated as an attack on the community (which, to be fair, it sometimes is, because there is a natural tendency for said individuals become the most visible face of the community to outsiders).

For example, there is a frequent implication in mainstream media coverage that the majority of bronies have a deviant sexual interest in children (sometimes more than an implication, as in Amanda Marcotte's characteristically knee-jerk Slate piece on Equestria Girls), which is hardly the case. (My own surveys and interviews suggest that very few bronies actually consume clop, for instance.) However, there are sufficient numbers of bronies that it is statistically certain that there at least a few members of the community who are sexual predators, and it falls on the community to identify and out them. Unfortunately, reports of such behavior at brony conventions are frequently rejected outright as "trolling" or outsiders trying to make trouble; a wagon-circling effect occurs which denies that such individuals exist within the brony community at all.

Derpygate is another good example of this phenomenon; fans expressing legitimate concerns regarding the use of an ableist slur in the show and conflation of physical and mental disabilities were met with accusations of trying to "censor" the show or "erase" the disabled, fan campaigns treated it as a personal attack on the character in question, and in some cases the concerned fans were subject to vicious harassment, to the point that some of the people involved in the show had to issue calls for it to stop. And yet, two years later, it is by and large the individuals who had those concerns who are remembered as the villains, for daring to question whether the show and its fandom are the perfect paragons of politeness, harmony, and equality bronies like to paint themselves as.

The instinct to circle around and protect a member of the community is not in itself problematic, but it must be tempered by a willingness to recognize that some members don't deserve protection, and that sometimes the community itself is to blame. If we do not call out the Bronconiuses in our ranks, others will--and they will assume they represent who bronies are.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Assorted Contradictory Thoughts on Media Piracy

Otaku Journalist has been running a series on anime piracy lately, and it's gotten me thinking.

I am fairly confident the following are all true:
  • People have a fundamental right to participate in their culture, which necessarily means they need access to cultural products.
  • Radio chased folk culture into an alley and murdered it a century ago, replacing it almost entirely with commercial mass media. The Internet has revived a zombie version of folk culture in the form of fandoms, but even fandoms have a commercial product at the core.
  • The relationship between industry (any industry) and consumers is a predator-prey relationship. The industry wants your money, and uses products as bait to get it. They will take as much as they can get away with, and care nothing about you or the products except as a source of money.
  • The previous point applies to an industry (or a corporation within that industry) as a gestalt entity. The motivations of the people working in the industry vary; many actually do care about their customers or creating quality products.
  • Generally speaking, people should be rewarded for their labor.
  • We as a culture undervalue creative work severely. We have come to expect that content will be free, and thus it is increasingly common that writers and artists are expected to work for the privilege of having their work published, as opposed to actually getting paid. (A growing number of news sites, for example, from fan-news sites like The Mary Sue to major general-audience national sites like Huffington Post and USA Today (web edition only), do not pay their writers.) This is unsustainable.
  • Physical media (books, tapes, DVDs, etc.) are rivalrous and excludable, i.e. private goods. Digital distribution is non-rivalrous and most non-excludable, i.e. a public good. Generally, governments are significantly better at managing public goods than private enterprises are.
  • The idea of handing management of the arts over to the government is fundamentally horrifying.
  • Most people who say they use piracy solely as a way to sample media, and buy the shows they enjoy once they become commercially available, are lying most of the time.
Conclusion: Piracy is a convoluted mess where everyone on all sides is both right and wrong, and there doesn't really seem to be a solution.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sunday, April 20, 2014

SPIKE WANT! (Just for Sidekicks)

For all that I don't particularly like this episode, this is quite
possibly the cutest, funniest image in the series. I can add
nothing to it; it is absolute perfection. I bow to its glory.
It's January 26, 2013. The top song is still Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven," thankfully on its last week, and the top movie is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I haven't seen on the grounds that movies with titles that interesting rarely live up to them. In the news, the annual World Economic Forum begins, where the world's major political and business leaders meet to solve all the worlds problems, if by "solve" you mean "accomplish very little" and by "all the world's problems" you mean "as defined by the  most successful international corporations"; European scientists successfully use DNA as a data storage medium, which as far as gimmicks go is a pretty nifty one; and, continuing the national policy of punishing the people who report horrific government crimes as opposed to the people who perpetrate them, CIA agent John Kiriakou is sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing details of the U.S. use of waterboarding to torture prisoners.

Meanwhile, in ponies we have "Just for Sidekicks," written by Corey Powell and directed by James Wootton. Which is the second Spike-centric episode in three episodes, contains little to no presence of the Mane Six, and is the third consecutive episode to be, well, kind of not-good. There's almost an interesting structural trick being played across this and the next episode, in that this is a sort of "B side" to "Games Ponies Play": the two episodes take place simultaneously, following different characters, and the climax of this episode puts its characters in the same physical space as teh "Games Ponies Play" characters. Unfortunately, neither episode does much of interest with that structure, they have little to nothing in the way of thematic links, and are both fairly terrible episodes, so the structural experiment cannot be regarded as a success.

No, this is yet another sitcom flail, in this case the hoary old "character takes on a new job they think will be easy, fails miserably" story. Indeed, like "A Dog and Pony Show" before it, this is an episode-length reference to a classic folktale, "The Man Who Does His Wife's Work," tale type 1408 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index. In that tale, a man insists that his wife's work is easier than his, so they trade for a day. He then proceeds to make an utter mess of a number of household tasks, notably including cooking and taking care of animals, just as Spike does in this episode (though, obviously, the impetus for him doing so is very different).

That this story is sexist should be fairly obvious, but note that it is as much or more harmful to women as men, despite that it depicts a man as a bumbling fool when confronted with "women's work." The problem is that it defines as "women's work"--the is, tasks which women must do because only women can be good at them--vitally important support tasks which are done at home for no pay, while men must "reluctantly" therefore take on the burden of all the tasks which require going out into the world and earning money. While our society does allow women to work outside the home and earn money, our entertainment (particularly sitcoms and romantic comedies) still quite frequently depicts men as incompetent at household chores, and it shows. Women still do the bulk of housework, even though they are now working outside the home as well, and while married men (on average) live longer and earn more than unmarried men, women see no such benefit.

So, once again we have a sexist traditional folktale, which retains a toxic power in the present day, being used as the basis for a Spike episode. However, we also have a significant callback to a second-season Spike episode, "The Secret of My Excess." More accurately, we have a significant lack of callback which, in its own way, is a callback. In that episode, Spike's greed, a traditional defining trait of the European dragon, causes him to begin transforming into a gigantic monster. In this episode, even though his greed makes him unable to stop eating gems long enough to finish his cake, and drives him to graspingly attempt to scam his friends into paying him to do a job he has no intention of doing, his size remains unchanged.

There are a few possibilities as to why. The most boring is that "The Secret of My Excess" is simply being ignored. Another possibility is that Spike's greed for gems is a gluttonous desire to consume, while his greed for presents was an avaricious desire to possess, but that seems rather to be splitting hairs--certainly, the dragons of story and song seem to spend as much time devouring livestock and maidens fair as they do accumulating and sleeping on piles of gold. A more interesting possibility, however, is that the reason he does not change is that the metaphor of "The Secret of My Excess" is reified here. In other words, where in "The Secret of My Excess" Spike was acting like a profit-driven entity in a capitalist system, in this episode he is actually running a profit-driven enterprise, and so the metaphor of him swelling ever larger and more bestial is replaced by him taking on more work and hiring employees. (Unpaid interns, actually, but more on that in a bit.)

Spike wishes to acquire gems, and he sees running a business as a way to do it. However, he doesn't want to expend any effort; he wants to gain without losing anything--he wants to take out more than he puts in, which is of course the definition of profit. A naive construction of capitalism can be stated as such: In Idealized Econ 101 Land (next door to the universe where hockey rinks are frictionless and cows are spheres of uniform density), A is good at procuring fresh water and less good at raising food; B is good at raising food and less good at procuring water. (It does not actually matter which is better than the other at each task--even if B is better than A at both, it is still more efficient for each to specialize in their personal top skill.) A gets the water and B grows the food, and they trade with each other. Both get more food and more water than if they'd tried to do everything independently; everyone profits.

In reality, what happens is that the one who is more ruthless or has an initial resource advantage establishes themselves as the employer, and the other as the employee, which is to say a hierarchy forms in which one has power and the other is subservient. For example, A realizes that zie can go longer without water than B can go without food, and zie takes advantage of that to force B to work for hir. A claims ownership of both the food and the water, and B is an employee (or, given that this example suggests a pre-industrial world, a slave or serf).

Thus, while in theory it is possible for profit to be mutual, in practice it is usually a mechanism by which entities with power acquire more. And Spike here is interested purely in profit, at the expense of his customers (who are, ostensibly, his friends) and the animals with whose care he is being entrusted. In this respect, he is once again a perfect match for a real-world corporation. Thanks to Dodge v. Ford Motor Company (a 1916 Michigan Supreme Court case which stands alongside such gems as Plessy v. Ferguson and Citizens United as being among the worst and most destructive decisions by American courts), corporations face a legal requirement to maximize shareholder returns (that is, profitability for the investors) rather than productivity or the good of customers, workers, or the community--or at least, such is the usual public understanding of the case. The reality is slightly more complicated, since while it establishes that corporations have a duty to maximize their shareholders' profits, it also establishes a fairly stringent burden of proof on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the directors of the corporation have violated the business judgment rule, which has little to do with maximizing profits.

Regardless of the extent to which that particular court case is to blame, modern corporations do by and large exist to make money, with employing workers and serving customers treated as an unfortunate obstacle to that goal, to be overcome as quickly and with as little expenditure as possible. (Again, this is not to say that any given employee behaves this way--many individual employees care about their customers, and some managers and even the occasional executive care about their employees. Rather, this is a description of the behavior of the organization as a gestalt entity.) This is precisely how Spike operates throughout the episode, bemoaning the loss of every gem even as he dismissively ignores the advice and requests of the Mane Six and repeatedly tries to find the minimal-effort, minimal-cost way to make sure that the pets are still more or less intact when their owners return.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when he recruits the Cutie Mark Crusaders to help him. In persuading them to work essentially for free (the gem he provides them is to pay for the supplies they need to take care of the pets, not any sort of wage for the CMC themselves), he suggests that they might earn a cutie mark. In other words, he persuades them to do unpaid labor for them by promising that it will be educational for them and implying a future career that he has no intent of actually helping them attain. This is an increasingly common scam in the real world, particularly against young people in the creative professions. Designers and illustrators are promised "exposure" for their work or encouraged to enter contests where only the winner gets paid, but all the entries become property of the contest owner; meanwhile, news and review websites such as Huffington Post, USA Today, and The Mary Sue, among many, many others recruit eager young writers desperate to get their foot in the door, publishing their work and earning ad revenue from it, but never paying the writers a dime. In both cases, the effect is to devalue the work; writers and illustrators seeking to get paid for their work find themselves competing against the victims of these scams, and it is nigh-impossible to compete against someone willing to work for free. Essentially, these corporations are tricking their workers into screwing themselves out of ever getting paid, precisely by promising that if they do well enough they might someday get paid.

Fortunately, this is Equestria, which is to say a brighter, happier world than our own, and so Spike does not end up (as he would in real life) a successful entrepreneur with sufficient wealth to distort both the political and economic systems in his favor. Instead, he is punished for his attempt to take out more than he put in by, ultimately, being forced to put in far more effort than he intended, and end up with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, as usual he appears to have learned nothing in the end, as he once again eats his gem before he can put it in the cake. Then again, doing awful things and learning nothing in the process is the norm for Spike episodes by this point.

Next week: The even worse "A" side.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Trade Ya"

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. And I'm actually going to be here for this one! (Assuming everything works from the Library of Congress, which initial testing suggests will work.) Afterwards, I will update this post with the chatlog.

Chatlog below the cut!


Friday, April 18, 2014

Felda 2.0

I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda's first scene has become as a consequence of that change.

It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn't like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother's call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she'd ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.

"Hello, Felda," she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn't like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman. 

The second sentence was the one the woman didn't say: "Pleased to meet you," perhaps, or something that started "My name is."

"Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild," Felda's mother said. 

"I already talked to the Guild recruiter," Felda answered. "I said no."

Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn't count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren't jokes were, in Felda's opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn't laugh at all. 

"Oh, I'm not a recruiter," said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said "recruiter" that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying "farmer" in the same way. "I'm a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I'm here to talk to your parents about joining us."

If Felda hadn't already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. "We won't sell," she said firmly. "This land's been ours since--"

"Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes," the woman interrupted. "Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the  Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I'm sure. We're not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters' Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management."

"Then what are you here for?" asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren't they saying anything?

"I'm here to offer you an opportunity," Ms. Ansfel explained. "You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy's records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That's borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you're putting a crick in my neck."

"Yes, the recruiter told me." Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. "I don't want to be a mage."

"No, I can see that from the recruiter's report." Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda's dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. "And I can't blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it's years of training before you start casting the simplest spells."

"Are you ever going to answer the question?" asked Felda's mother. 

Ms. Ansfel simpered. "Of course, my dear." She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. "Don't touch, please," she warned. 

Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she'd ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery. 

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked. 

"Indeed," said the Guildswoman. "A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda."

Felda put a hand to her mouth. "--to me?"  A dragon's egg. A dragon's egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles--

"Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only..."

As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did. 

"What do you want from us in return?" her father finally asked. 

"Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?"

Felda's father's eyes narrowed. "You're about to tell me it's the Crafters' Guild, I suppose."

The woman shook her head. "No! It's the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?"
She smiled broadly at Felda's family. Seeing no response, she continued, "Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we've had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we've also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want--for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques."

Felda's mother frowned. "It sounds like you want to... experiment here."

Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. "Oh, don't worry. We're not talking about... legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you're imagining. We're talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation--and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I'm sure you know."

"What... I would be able to do?" asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn't help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?

"Imagine, if you will," Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda's pareants, "an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you--whichever of you you decide--will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children's hours will be limited until they turn 16..." she looked down at her papers. "Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us." 

"And in return you get our farm," Felda's father said coldly. 

"Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We're more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing." Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again. 

"No deal," Felda's father said firmly. 

"But papa--" Felda began. 

"He's right," said Felda's mother. "It's our farm. Doesn't matter what they offer, it ain't worth giving 'em our farm." She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. "Don't be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman's a snake."

Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon's egg, but the woman spoke before she could. 

"Ah, here we are!" she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. "Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see." 

"How do you know that?" demanded Felda's father, looking slightly purple. 

"And you've missed your payments for the last four months." Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly. 

"Old Greta would never--"

"Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It's quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I'm afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well..."

"I don't understand," said Felda's father. "Our loan is with them, how--"

Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.

"As of last week, I'm afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I'm afraid the choice isn't actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It's a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us." At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. "Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!" She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. "It's not a bad deal at all. You'll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You'll be on the cutting edge!"

There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She'd never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she'd ever been good at was reading--and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better--she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.

She wanted that egg like she'd never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she'd spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn't have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman--all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She'd like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.

"Very well," said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. "This is yours, child."

Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.

No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.

"Stop," she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn't see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?

The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief--and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing...

Felda woke.

She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. "Mama?" she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. "Papa?"

"Baby," her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. "You're awake! It's been nearly an hour..." But she came no closer.

Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.

Something large above and behind her did as well.

Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn't noticed its breathing before because--she gasped. It whuffed.

Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.

Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda's own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.

The great bull--her bondling!--lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog's but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. "Mama, papa, there's no need to be afraid," she said, smiling. "I want you to meet Varick."

It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.

And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.

It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The End Is Nigh

So, it looks like I'm finishing Season 3 the first weekend in May. Unfortunately, that means Derivative Works Month will be out of sync with the calendar month, but there's not much I can do to shift it around. I have two things I definitely want to do, and two I am strongly leaning toward doing, so my card for the month is basically full, but feel free to suggest things anyway. It may be that I like your suggestion than either of my two probablies.

I do like the balance I have right now, though: each of the things I'm reviewing is a different medium, two officially licensed and two fan-made.

And I'm not going to say what they are, I like keeping you on your toes. =P

After that, Season 4 reviews start in June. Some time in early 2015 I finish the season, at which point this project ends. It's possible I'll return to go through Season 5 after it ends, but no guarantees.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

That nourishes human hope (My Very Best Friend)

My friend and co-panelist on Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3, Kit, is going to be doing a panel on the Utena and Madoka movies at Otakon! If you're at the con, you should go, she is way smarter than me and actually trained in this stuff. Also, she could use some help getting to grad school. (I am eyeing some of those rewards greedily, biding my time until I get my tax refund...)

Yep. None whatsoever.
In the final episode of Madoka Magica, failure is victory is loss is triumph.

We open with the same tableau that ended the previous episode. Four figures remain, the key players in this apocalypse, for apocalypse it is: Every timeline we have seen has ended with a fight against Walpurgisnacht. There is nothing beyond the fight with her, because Homura keeps resetting the universe before the future can occur. Homura is the first figure, broken and bleeding, the sad clown who is endlessly victimized by her desperate attempts to find meaning in an absurd and uncaring universe. Laughing at her mockingly is the instrument of her defeat, Walpirgisnacht, the harlequin who signifies that absurdity. Between them is Kyubey, the director, author, orchestrator, the master manipulator who choreographs their dance to please his unseen audience and thus derive power and sustenance from their emotional arcs.

But then there is Madoka. She has been inert, the prize the others fight over, but now at last she makes her choice. And what a choice it is: death. She will become death, the destroyer of worlds, slaying all witches at the moment of their birth, until ultimately there are none left but she herself, and then she will kill herself. 

But Madoka is not Sayaka. This is not suicide; this is the transcendent death, the death of the ego that gives access to eternity and unity. There is no more Madoka; she is an existence without beginning or end, and within her all things are one. 

First, however, a long-promised cake. That was the agreement between he and Mami, after all: that if Madoka could find nothing to wish for, they would share a cake. But Madoka just made her wish; why cake with Mami?

Because Madoka has solved the paradox. To become enlightened, to escape the karmic cycle of hope and despair in which the magical girls are trapped, one must shed all desire. But if one sheds all desire, including the desire to transcend, why would anyone transcend? Madoka has found the answer: the death of ego, the erasure of the self-other distinction, which eliminates desire because the subject doing the desiring and the object of the desire are one and the same. "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." Though she made the wish only moments ago (insofar as that concept can mean anything now that she exists equally throughout all of time), she no longer has any wishes, so she receives enlightenment and cake. 

There is more to this scene than cake, however. Madoka is handed back her notebook of costume designs by Mami, the protector and signifier of the traditional magical girl show. When Mami died, Madoka stopped talking about becoming a magical girl as a way to find purpose; instead, it became a sacrifice she repeatedly considered making for the good of others. By returning the notebook, Mami is symbolically passing the role of guardian of the magical girl tradition to Madoka, while at the same time restoring the idea that being a magical girl can be a calling rather than a sacrifice. 

Because one thing Madoka most definitely is not, is a martyr. She is not a Christ-figure, suffering and dying as a way of absorbing the sins of others; she explicitly destroys the witch-aspect of herself which carries that suffering. She is egoless and transcendent, and thus cannot suffer. Her role in this Faustian take is that of Gretchen, and as such she is more of a Marian figure, pure and unsullied, interceding to obtain a state of grace for others. Except even that is not quite accurate, because Madoka doesn't intercede or plead mercy for the magical girls. They still become witches and die; the only change is that their witch-forms do not exist in this world, because Madoka erases them at the moment of creation. They still suffer and still despair, still die--but such is the nature of living in this world. Madoka's role is as guide and teacher, a psychopomp who carries the magical girls out of the world before they can become a problem for it. With her in her pure land, they learn, and perhaps someday transcend as she has. Meanwhile, on Earth, things are imperfect, but better. 

"Daijobu." "It will be all right." This is what Madoka tells Homura just before she appears in the final form variously dubbed Madokami or Godoka by fans (though Madokannon would be more appropriate, as she is more Bodshisattva than divinity). It is a powerful phrase in the iconographic roots of the show; in.Cardcaptor Sakura it was the ultimate spell the hroine created at the end of the series, an expression of hope of nigh-limitless power. Madoka is already carrying out her duties as the warden and guardian and magical girls past. At the same time, however, her transformation sequence is brief, unsexualized, and strongly implies her costume to be made from an Anthony--the familiars that dominated the witch's labyrinth in the first episode, the first instance of the strange and wild new aesthetic the show introduced.

Madoka is becoming a bridge between the old genre and the new. She speaks the assurances of the old genre to the representative of the new one. She gives her ribbons--chosen for her by Junko, who has repeatedly been paralleled to Mami--to Homura as well. It is not a complete restoration of the magical girl tradition--the new world is still dark, and being a magical girl is fraught with dangers and likely to end with death--but a partial restoration, acknowledging that there were good stories, good characters, and true themes to be found among magical girl shows past.

Chief among those themes is hope. Na├»ve hope, the optimistic belief that things will get better, is a trap, yes. Anyone sitting around and waiting for a savior or a lucky break is doomed to disappointment. It is the nature of an entropic universe that if things can get worse, they will, and things can always get worse. But there is another form of hope, the hope embraced in the end by Homura: if things can and will get worse, that necessarily means that at this moment, the universe is not at maximum awfulness; there must be something good in the world right now. That good can be sought out. It can be fought for, preserved for a little while. Entropy can be reversed locally.

Madoka has attained enlightenment and divorced herself from this decaying world. But she has not abandoned it; the world she creates is better. Not perfect, because a perfect world is a world devoid of story, but better. The magical girls still inevitably die, but so does everyone else; what's important is that they now have a far better idea of how the system works and a much better relationship with each other and the Incubators--notably, the fact that wraiths drop a number of little magic-restoratives rather than one big one encourages the magical girls to work together. Teams are likely the norm in this new world, rather than solitary girls as in the old world, and since the Incubators can no longer derive energy from the despair of the witches, they have no incentive to make the girls suffer or hide from them how the system works.

Even Junko is shown in a new environment. We have seen her driven and determined before, concerned, caring, but this final sequence is the first time that we see her being happy. Some have interpreted this scene as Junko being a very different person in the new timeline, less driven and more nostalgic, but there's little reason to believe this is the case. It seems highly unlikely Madoka would replace her mother with a different woman, and far more likely that this is what Junko is like when she's relaxing and having a day out with her family. Her dynamic with Madoka's father is unchanged--he cares for Tetsuya while Junko deals with the outside world, in this case talking to Homura--and so it is likely that she is still the primary earner, the driven executive. It is simply that we can now see that she also contains within herself nostalgia and serenity and wistfulness; she contains contradictions, just as the magical girls/witches contain both curses and blessings, as this ending is both happy and sad, a win and a loss.

Seeing Junko and Tetsuya helps Homura to understand that there can be good things in what for her is a dark, Madoka-less world. She continues on, affirmed in her knowledge that Madoka is all around her, even if she cannot see her. She does not fight for hope in the normal sense, but out of love, and duty, and hope in the Havelian sense that whether or not she succeeds, her life makes sense as long as she fights. And so she fails to save Madoka, and in her failure succeeds in empowering Madoka to save herself. Madoka saves herself by sacrificing herself, and Homura loses her--but someday, when Homura expends the last of her energy and loses her last battle as a magical girl, she will be together with Madoka again.

But this is not for Homura alone. Someone else has been working, trying to stave off decay, but increasingly concerned that their efforts are doomed. "I am full of hatred toward men's so-called happiness," Urobuchi wrote in the afterward to Fate/Zero volume 1, "and had to push characters I poured my heart out to create into the abyss of tragedy... In order to write a perfect ending for a story you have to twist the laws of cause and effect, reverse black and white, and even possess a power to move in the opposite direction from the rule of the universe." The implied author of that note and this series is a deeply depressed individual, spiraling into a creative abyss brought on by despair.

"Only a heavenly and chaste soul that can sing carols of praise towards humanity can save the story." And now, in Madoka, all things are one. This is fiction, a creation within the mind of an author (even the gestalt implied author of a collaboration);  the author is that one. Madoka loved something in the world enough to deem it worth saving, and she is part of that author. Homura will accept that love as reason enough to keep moving and working, and she is part of that author. Just as Homura is not suddenly all smiles and laughs in the new world, this is not a panacea--but it is enough to keep going for a while longer.

--Don't forget. Always, somewhere, someone is fighting for you.
--As long as you remember her, you are not alone.

The projector winds to a stop.

There will be a brief hiatus, followed by the first of several posts on Rebellion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt

This is an article I originally posted on The Slacktiverse on October 19, 2012. It has been lightly edited for typos and is otherwise identical to that post, because this is still everything I have to say on the subject.

I skipped Passover this year. There was a lot going on–Anime Boston was that weekend, and my food processor was broken so I couldn’t make the sauce for the lamb, and so on–and I didn’t think I would miss it. After all, it’s an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn’t exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it’s an empty, meaningless ritual I’ve participated in every year of my life except this one.

Oh, and except that it’s not empty or meaningless at all.

Passover is the only time I say prayers. Sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English–depends on who I’m celebrating with–every year, I ask call God the King of the Universe and ask hir to bless the matzo and the wine. I sing about how any one of the miracles God performed in the course of freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage would have been enough, but zie kept on performing more.
The rest of the year, if I find myself somewhere that people are praying (a religious wedding or funeral, say), I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I don’t join in, because that would be dishonest. But on Passover I say the prayers and sing the songs, because that is what you do on Passover.

The prayers and songs, considered in isolation, are meaningless. But they are part of the package of Passover for me, and that package is deeply meaningful, because of its central theme, which as far as I am concerned is the central theme of Judaism: Because I was a slave in Egypt.

I wasn’t, of course. No Jews ever were; the story is just that–a story, not history.

But when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me about their participation in the civil rights movement. Stories of my mother fighting apartheid in her native South Africa, my father hitchhiking thousands of miles from Arizona to join the March on Washington. They did this, they told me, because “never again” means “never again to anyone.” They taught me that, because of the Holocaust, because of pogroms, because of the Inquisition–because of all the times and places in which Jews were persecuted–Jews have a special responsibility to aid other persecuted peoples.
This is a pretty problematic attitude, of course. Everyone has a responsibility to help the victims of persecution, especially if you yourself are among the privileged. But still, there’s something worth pursuing there.

You see, I’ve never been persecuted for being Jewish. Oh, there was apparently some time in elementary school when I came home crying because some other kids accused me of killing Jesus, and there was a nasty kid a few years later who broke one of our windows, but these are isolated incidents. There was no pervasive pattern of intolerance; I’ve never felt less-than because of being Jewish, or missed out on a job opportunity, and I’ve certainly never been put in a labor camp or chased out of my home. Why, then, should I feel any sort of kinship with the victims of persecution?

Because I was a slave in Egypt…

You see, every year at Passover, we recite the story of Passover. There’s a bit in there where it says you are supposed to tell the story as if it happened to us–not our ancestors, fictional or otherwise, but to us. It doesn’t matter that the Egyptian bondage never happened to me–I am still to take the lessons of it to heart. I am still to open my doors to any in need.

“Never again” means never again to anyone.

I don’t recall my parents ever explicitly drawing the connection, but it’s clear to me. So the Exodus never happened? Well, the Holocaust didn’t happen to me, either. My family left Europe decades before the Holocaust began. As far as my own experience is concerned, both events are equally just stories.

But not meaningless. Because I was a slave in Egypt, I support gay marriage and immigration amnesty. Because “never again” means never again to anyone, I oppose the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.

Of course there are excellent secular reasons to do those things. I like to think that, if I weren’t Jewish, I would still do those things for the secular reasons. But as it is, I do them for the Jewish reasons: Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Got cable, started watching Cosmos...

It's pretty basic, but then it's supposed to be. First episode annoyed me with a couple of inaccuracies (its depiction of the asteroid belt is VASTLY too crowded, and it's not true that the Sun powers all life on Earth--there's a handful of organisms that ultimately derive their energy from geothermal sources), but on the other hand I really liked the animated segment on Giordano Bruno. It could have been slightly clearer on this, but it still got across that he was a mystic and a fanatic, who by coincidence happened to be right. The early history of science is littered with such; it's as close as I've seen a popular science work come to admitting that there's a reason so many of the founders of science were monks, alchemists, and astrologers.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sometimes it can be hard for a shy pony like me to stand up for myself (Keep Calm and Flutter On)

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare... which
of course makes Fluttershy the doormatmouse.
It's January 19, 2013. The top song has not changed since last year, while the top movie has changed three times, consecutively Texas Chainsaw 3D, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mama. I've only heard of the first two, and none of what I've heard gives me any desire to see them. In the news since last episode, schoolgirl, blogger, and international cause celebre Malala Yousafzai is released from the hospital following her shooting, British authorities confirm over 200 sexual offenses committed by deceased children's television presenter Jimmy Savile over a fifty-year period, and on the day this episode airs, Al Jazeera reports that the number of children killed in the Syrian civil war is over 3,500, out of more than 60,000 dead so far.

You may have noticed that there's a pattern in the news stories I chose for this article. There's a reason for that, but first let's discuss "Keep Calm and Flutter On," story by Teddy Antonio, teleplay by Dave Polsky, and directed by Jayson Thiessen.

There is a read in which this episode is completely innocent. In that read, Fluttershy is a patient parent or teacher dealing with a recalcitrant child. She is patient and kind while the lonely, undisciplined child acts out, until his growing attachment to her brings his behavior more or less under control.

The advantage of this reading is twofold. First, it's relatively non-problematic. It's consistent with Fluttershy's characterization as a caretaker, and explains why Celestial thought Fluttershy was the mare for the job. Second, it's a relationship familiar to the primary audience. A four- or six-year-old hasn't had much opportunity to experience friendship, but parents, tantrums, and possibly teachers are familiar concepts by that age. 

Unfortunately, that reading has the slight snag that there is no textual support for it whatsoever. Fluttershy positions herself as a friend to Discord, treats him as a houseguest rather than a family member, and, most importantly, is by far the younger and less powerful of the two. She is definitely not Discord's mother-figure. While she does chide him for his misbehavior, it is no different from the way she chides Rainbow Dash at the dinner party in the episode, which is to say, she's treating Discord as an equal. 

This is deeply troubling, because Discord spends the entire episode acting like a controlling, abusive boyfriend. He starts by asserting dominance over and marginalizing Angel, who, depending on which episodes you go by, is either Fluttershy's caretaker or her prior abuser (or, of course, both). He then begins pushing Fluttershy's boundaries, using her kindness and hospitality against her. He continually tests how far she will let him go, trashing her home and property, and when she objects, he acts like the aggrieved victim. This is classic abuser behavior, calculated to make his victim start doubting her own feelings and beliefs, thus making her easier to control. For similar reasons, he tears down her friends and acts out at the dinner party to force her to take his side against her friends, isolating her.

Discord's motive is perhaps not that of the typical abuser. He is more interested in isolating and controlling Fluttershy because it takes all of the Mane Six working together to use the Elements of Harmony against him, and thus so long as Fluttershy is kept away from her friends and under his thumb, he can wreak havoc as he pleases. On the other hand, it is an entirely selfish motivation, in which any possible affection he feels for Fluttershy (which affection he does seem to feel, if the end of the episode is anything to go by) is secondary to his desire to wield power. In that sense, this is a fairly typical abusive relationship.

In that sense, the show does a good job of showing how our sexist culture encourages and supports man-on-woman abuse in a way that other forms are not quite as supported. Our culture constructs the gender binary in large part by contrasting hegemonic masculinity with emphasize femininity. Hegemonic masculinity constructs masculinity as being about the possession and expression of power and dominant status. Put another way, expression of masculinity are expressions of power and vice versa, hence masculine associations for activities such as hunting, fishing, war, community leadership, business, and so on--activities where a man can assert his power and dominant status through status in a hierarchy, killing enemies, or providing meat for the tribe. Note that, for instance, preparing food for one's family is not seen as particularly masculine, but running a restaurant kitchen is an almost exclusively masculine occupation--the former is not a position of social dominance, but the latter is. By contrast, emphasized femininity encourages women not necessarily to embrace a submissive role (though that element is certainly present) but to exaggerate gender differences and play to men's desire for power. To quote R.W. Connell's Gender and Power, which introduced both concepts, this emphasis can be seen in "the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes [e.g., in popular entertainment or as an adopted posture in courtship and sex--note that much of our culture's concept of flirtatious body language for a woman involves making herself look smaller, weaker, or more childlike], compliance with men’s desires for titillation and ego-stroking in office relationships, acceptance of marriage and child care as a response to labor-market discrimination against women."

This plays out in Discord and Fluttershy's relationship in this episode (which is, of course, non-romantic, but they are living together for the duration of the episode, so many of the same concepts apply). Discord spends the entire episode trying to assert his power and dominance. He deliberately usurps Angel's role in the home, taunts and torments him, just to demonstrate his power, while also trying to manipulate and isolate Fluttershy so that he can dominate her as well--and the end goal for all of this is to eliminate the one thing that limits his power, the combined power of all six Elements of Harmony. Fluttershy, meanwhile, is deliberately exaggerating her (traditionally feminine) traits of kindness, meekness, and nurturing, playing along with Discord's hegemonic posturing in an attempt to get him to become dependent on her friendship.

The rest of the Mane Six, especially Rainbow Dash and to a lesser extent Twilight Sparkle, are horrified by this arrangement. Equestrian gender roles do not generally work like ours, and so in-character this is probably their first encounter with such toxic gender norms. They can see that the practical upshot is that Discord is taking more and more power and control, which forces Fluttershy to go to greater lengths to appease him, all the while convinced that she is in control even when it is plainly obvious to an outsider that Discord is using her. Fluttershy's determination to reform Discord puts her in the position of trying to figure out what she can do to make him behave, which has the effect of absolving him of responsibility for his behavior--there is little difference between Fluttershy's "I'm sure I can reach him if I keep treating him nicely" and "If I didn't burn the pot roast, he wouldn't have needed to hit me." She is being abused, and like many abuse victims, resisting her friends' efforts to get her out--which isolates her still further and makes her easy to control.

So far, so good, but this is where the episode runs afoul of the existing norms and rules of the show. The best ending is for Fluttershy to realize that her relationship with Discord is toxic, get her friends, and turn him back into stone, but within the show that ending cannot occur, because it closes off future plot lines with a popular villain and suggests that there are things friendship cannot do. Instead, when Fluttershy threatens to terminate their relationship, Discord spontaneously reforms and everyone becomes friends. So remember, little girls, if fifteen years from now your abusive boyfriend feeds you the "please, baby, don't go, I promise I'll change" line, you should definitely stay, because he's totally going to actually change and isn't just desperately saying anything that will keep you in his power.

And as disgusting as the ending is in that respect, it is toxic in more immediate ways as well. There is enormous pressure on young children, especially girls, to be "friends" with everyone. This episode suggests that there is a responsibility to be friendly even with people who are horrible to you and your friends, that Fluttershy's approach of suppressing her aggressive feelings and allowing people to walk all over her to maintain their friendship will actually get them to like her enough that she can then shift the relationship to a more genuine and equal friendship. This is precisely the nonsense that forces girls into the "alternative aggressions" documented by Rachel Simmons in her Odd Girl Out, creating the toxic culture of overt "niceness" and covert nastiness, rumor-mongering, and ostracizing that explodes among girls around puberty and ruins the latter portion of the school experience for so many.

Later episodes temper this somewhat by making clear that Discord is still colossally self-centered, manipulative, and sadistic, albeit more of a morally ambiguous trickster than the outright villain he was in his first appearance. In the fourth season, he is still devoted to testing the boundaries, going as far as he can without quite losing the support of Fluttershy, but at least it appears his contact with her is rather more limited.

Even in a purely narrative view, deliberately ignoring the toxic implications about gender, friendships, and abuse, this is still part of Season Three's flailing desperation, in this case the standard desperate-TV show trick of bringing back a popular villain--yet it reduces the most powerful, dangerous, and effective villain in the show to an abusive boyfriend.

And yet this is not the nadir of the flail.

Next week: Quite possibly the worst thing Spike has ever done. And that's still not the nadir either!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Favorite vs. Best

Since there's no new episode of Friendship Is Magic today, have a short post instead.

Do you distinguish between your favorite examples of a genre or form and the best examples? I was musing the other day about the fact that my five favorite anime and the five anime I consider the best of what I've seen are the same five anime, but if I were to create actual top five lists, they'd be different.

In fact, here are those lists, plus an explanation of why the anime is where it is.

Favorites:
  •  Princess Tutu: The most badass anime about a ballet-dancing duck ever. Also, super-secret ultra-hidden direct Neverending Story reference.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: It makes me laugh, it makes me punch the air and cheer, and certain episodes make me cry no matter how many times I watch them. Also it just looks great.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Total brainsink. I can just watch and think about it for hours. Also, it's absolutely visually stunning.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: Compelling, emotional, intriguing, great fight scenes, and an utterly kick-ass soundtrack.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Explosions, giant plot twists from nowhere, and an emotional continuity that more than makes up for the plot spending most of the middle part of the series meandering aimlessly, and then, just as it's finding its feet again, collapses into total incoherence.
Best:
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: The most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched, easily surpassing any other TV show or film.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Packs more thematic complexity, character growth, and intriguing ideas into 12 episodes than most series manage in 50.
  • Princess Tutu: Masterfully constructed as a pastiche of dozens of classical ballets and folktales, and yet despite the fact that in each episode the characters are playing out the roles of characters in a given source story, there is also a strong character arc for each of them across the series as a whole.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: The last two episodes are a staggering work of absolute genius and the best-executed narrative collapse in all of anime.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: A masterclass in creating a sprawling, complex plot with a massive cast (by the Promised Day arc, there are fifteen separate groups of characters being independently followed by the narrative) and still making sure that everything is driven by the choices of the characters, and every character's choices are consistent with their distinct and idiosyncratic personality.
How about you? Do you distinguish between "favorite" and "best," and if so, what are some examples?

Friday, April 11, 2014

I don't even know for sure what this is part of, if anything...

I leap from rooftop to rooftop, my skirt fluttering in the wind and my twintails streaming behind me. The city beneath is quiet, at least here in the touristy parts of town. The moonlight bathes everything in eerie, fantastic silver, punctuated here and there with the almost-warm yellow glow of a streetlamp or the cycling colors of a traffic light. Buoyed by magic, I bound across the city's rooftops almost effortlessly, scanning with preternaturally sharp eyes and ears--and other, stranger senses--for the tell-tale signs of an infarction.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I'm Shannan, a fourteen-year-old freshman at Benjamin Banneker High, a good student at a good school. I like mythology and mint ice cream and cheerleading, though I didn't quite make the squad. I guess I can be a bit of a klutz sometimes, and I'm kind of shy, but I do all right.

Oh, and at night I transform into Magical Pretty Girl Annan and battle the forces of the Dark Between to keep them from penetrating into this world. So there's that.

It's hard sometimes, and scary, and lonely, especially now that Shea and I are the only ones left. But there are advantages. Even untransformed, I heal ridiculous fast, and I'm faster and stronger. Then when I use the magic to transform, I change completely. I come out looking more like a twenty-year-old model or an actress than a random teen, all big blue eyes and five-foot-long strawberry-blonde tails and cream-colored legs and Jake Henderson would probably drool all over me if he saw it. Plus I get even stronger and even faster, so I can easily jump fifty or sixty feet straight up, I've got all kinds of neat magical powers for fighting infarctions--it's a pretty great deal Shea gave me!

I leap down near the corner of 9th and F. During the day this is right on the edge between downtown offices and tourist shopping, but at this hour it's completely deserted. I transform back and check my watch.

Not enough time to get to Metro before it closes; looks like I'm either calling a cab or walking home. Of course I don't have my purse--I've learned the hard way you don't want to bring that with you when you transform, it tends to get lost. So a cab isn't really an option. Fortunately there's no particularly bad neighborhoods between here and home, but still, I try to do everything the way my long-ago self-defense instructor suggested. Walk confidently, briskly but not quickly enough to look scared. Don't get squirrely and start looking around. Stay calm, and don't act like prey.

My self-defense instructor was basically full of shit, but at least I can pretend I'm doing something. Luckily, the closest I get to encountering another person is someone zipping past on a bicycle on the other side of the street. If you're going to walk around the city alone at night, one o'clock on a Monday morning at the tail-end of winter isn't a bad time to do it.

And of course, I could always just transform if I got in trouble, but I don't like doing that if I can help it.

Regardless, after a little over half an hour of walking I'm at the door to my apartment. I open it, flick on the light, nod to the cockroaches desperately scurrying under the fridge. I'd do something about them, but I heard they eat bedbugs, so instead I occasionally make a crumb-trail from the fridge to the couch in the hopes they'll get the hint. They haven't yet.

"Home sweet shitpile," I say, and flop down on the couch. I've learned from experience that if I let them bite me now and here, they won't do it as much when I go to bed. I should probably eat something, but I have to get up for work in five hours. Maybe I should try to sleep instead.

Oh! I should probably introduce myself again. I'm still Shannan, thirty-four-year-old SAS application developer for a government agency (I would tell you which one, but then I'd have to be embarrassed about that not actually being grounds for killing you or even a secret at all, really). I'm also chair of our office's branches of both BIG and FEW. I still like mythology and mint ice cream, but I never did make that squad, so for cheerleading substitute softball. And I still have that shy streak, too, but I'm not klutzy now that I'm not growing three inches in one year.

Twenty years ago I made a deal, and gained the power to become Annan. Twenty years of growing up, definitely older and hopefully wiser. College, jobs, dates here and there, a couple of boyfriends, the normal stuff, except for the whole slipping out at night to do battle as the only defender of humanity for hundreds of miles.

And in all that time, Annan hasn't aged a day.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What do Aragorn, Danaerys Targaryen, and Dream of the Endless have in common?

In case you missed it, yesterday's The Very Soil entry went up late.

They're all relatively rare instances of heroic kings in an era when the everyman hero is far more common. Fascinating article on the typical folkloric king in the European tradition, and the ways in which these modern instances of the hero-king both do and do not conform to that tradition. Link below, and it's definitely worth clicking through to the PDF of the full article, if only to see serious, scholarly work saying in effect, "Yeah, this is a hero on a journey, and Campbell's bloody useless to understand it."

http://www.medievalists.net/2014/04/05/returning-king-medieval-king-modern-fantasy/

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Perhaps hopelessness is (The Only Thing I Have Left to Guide Me)

Sorry this is so ridiculously late. I just COULD NOT WRITE last night, which meant I had to do this during lunch and bathroom breaks and such at work. Also, this one proved to be a struggle to write, because there is SO MUCH happening in these final episodes.

"Hail Hydra."
We begin at the end, with the wheel of fate. It is everywhere in this episode. The great grinding gears of Walpirgisnacht are the cycles of hope and despair that transform the magical girls (back) into witches, and they are the endless cycles of reset time Homura creates. Both are the wheel of fate, as is the round clockwork buckler Homura uses to travel in time.

At the far end of the episode from them, Kyubey explains that Homura created Madoka. With every rebirth, Madoka carries the karmic burdens of the previous cycle into the next. In the Classic Buddhist explanation of rebirth, it is like lighting one candle with another; nothing of the candle is passed on, but the flame, the flame is the same. (That Homura's name means "flame" is no accident.) In other words, though Madoka carries no concrete memories from time to time, only a few vague impressions no doubt arising from her deep connections to the one person who does remember previous timelines, and though she is physically recreated in each timeline, she still maintains the connections to the world of the previous timeline. And since these worlds are being created and destroyed for her, it is the weight of the entire world she carries. 

And it is a weight. In the end, these connections to a world hurtling headlong to destruction can lead only to suffering. The rising entropy of the world feeds into Madoka, transforming her in successive timelines from an inexperienced, but outgoing and confident, magical girl to an uncertain and unpowered sidekick whose associated heroines keep dying. 

And why does this happen? Because Homura tried to protect her. Homura is a Christian (or, at least, attended a Christian school). Like Kyoko, she has absorbed the belief that it is possible for one person to save another--that there is something to be saved from, and somewhere to be saved to. It is a fundamentally dualistic proposition--here is bad, but there is good. But as Kyubey has made clear, we are in a Buddhist world. What both Kyubey and Homura have failed to understand is that in a Buddhist universe, the decay of the material world is an illusion because all binaries are illusions. The past is the present is the future. Decay is life. Magical girls are witches. The material is immaterial, and the other is the self. Homura cannot save Madoka because there is no Madoka to save and nothing from which to save her. All things are One--and since this is a fictional story, that One is the narrative itself, and in turn the gestalt entity within which that narrative exists, the implied author.

We no longer have a Mami to contrast with Homura, but we do have the woman who kept being paralleled to Mami in the early episodes, Junko, who has two very important scenes in this episode. In the first, she discusses Sayaka's disappearance and its effect on Madoka with Madoka's English teacher. In this scene, she seems to parallel Sayaka more than Mami: she is gently chastened for her inability to stand by and do nothing, for insisting on doing rather than being, and a shot from the teacher's point of view is bathed in blue light and framed to focus on her hair clip, with the result that she even looks like Sayaka.

Hovering above Junko throughout the conversation with Madoka's teacher is a reproduction of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Notably, the position of the two characters aligns Junko with God and the teacher with Adam; at the same time, the red lighting on the teacher's side and blue lighting on Junko's causes God's red mantle (which has been compared by scholars to both a uterus and a brain) to be barely visible; it is instead Adam who appears wrapped safely in red warmth. This image foreshadows Junko's second scene in the episode, in the shelter, when she realizes that she has to stop protecting Madoka and start trusting her. It is a tragic scene, culminating in possibly the single densest shot in the series, a simple image of Junko's mom-jeans-and-sweater-clad crotch, lower abdomen, and hand, Madoka's mother reduced to a womb. The hand reaches out as if to grab Madoka, pull her inside--and then stops, and we cut back to Junko's face. The woman will not be idealized (read: reduced and objectified) as a mother; she overrides her own mothering tendency and makes the active choice not to act, to allow Madoka to risk the life Madoka owns. Watching, we feel Junko's pain as she lets go, but we also feel the profound respect and trust she is showing toward her daughter.

But Homura has been doing the opposite, pursuing a Christian ideal of salvation, in which the higher protects the lower, a permanent womb. She is trying to block Madoka from choosing the self-sacrifice she knows Madoka would make; if Junko is showing respect and trust toward Madoka, what is Homura showing towards her?

The answer, as of all people the supposedly unempathic and unemotional Kyubey notes (revealing once again that he has plenty of intellectual empathy, just no emotional empathy, a not entirely inaccurate first-order description of a sociopath), is that it has long ago ceased to be about Madoka. Homura herself described her journey to protect Madoka as a labyrinth, and the inside of her apartment resembles nothing so much as the surreal interior of a witch's labyrinth. Extradiegetically, magical girls began as witches; diegetically, they all end as witches. Homura can transcend time. In Homura, all things are one, the past, present, and future become a single wheel. She is, in other words, both magical girl and witch, trapped in a labyrinth that is the narrative of the series itself. In that role as magical girl/witch, she brings both wishes and curses, at once protecting Madoka and ensuring her destruction.

But what transforms a magical girl into a witch is the transition from hope to despair, from the optimism that things will work out to the realization that death and decay are inevitable and inescapable, and Homura has never experienced that transition. Homura has never had hope. She was a weak and sickly child who became a magical girl out of desperation and a sense of duty, wishing to become not Madoka's savior but her protector. Even in her wishes, she does not imagine that she will actually succeed, only that she will try. She is entirely and innately hopeless, and as such she is immune to despair--because like all other binaries, hope and despair are one. Thus it is not hopelessness that finally breaks Homura; rather, the realization that she is making things worse causes her to doubt her path for the very first time. For her, it is the transition from determination to doubt that threatens to bring about her transformation.

And there laughing at her is Walpurgisnacht, the witches' Sabbath, the wheel of fate, the Harlequin. In the old commedia dell'arte, the Harlequin is a trickster figure, mocking all authority and order, and competing with the stern, sad Pierrot for possession of the beautiful Colombina. Like the Harlequin, Walpurgisnacht will dance forever with Homura, laughing at her and snatching away Madoka, her Colombina, defying rules or containment, a living symbol of the irreducible unpredictability and chaos of life. There is no higher and lower in the face of a trickster, only people. Rules are broken. Systems come crashing down.

And it is in this moment that Madoka arrives to make her wish.