MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

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Episode 158: "Triple Threat"

Aired 8/19/2017, written by Josh Hamilton (his second episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: As Spike prepares to welcome Dragonlord Ember to Ponyville for an official visit, Thorax shows up, having been invited by Spike to discuss his leadership problems.
  • Act 1: Fearful that Thorax and Ember will hate each other, Spike sends Thorax on a tour of the castle with Twilight Sparkle as Ember arrives. Ember has Spike and Starlight Glimmer take her to the castle as well. As Spike tries to confer with Twilight in the throne room, the Map assigns him a friendship mission somewhere in Ponyville.
  • Act 2: Spike goes to seek out a friendship problem while Twilight and Starlight try to keep his guests distracted. Hungry for food, Thorax finds Spike at the café and begins discussing his problem. Spike excuses himself and runs into Ember, and the two get into an argument. Thorax moves in to protect Spike, but Ember thinks he's attacking him.
  • Act 3: As each guest learns the other is defending Spike, the truth comes out. Angry at Spike's deceptions, the two leave in a huff and end up resolving their leadership issues together. They return to resolve matters with Spike, and the Map reveals that this was the friendship problem he needed to solve.

Character: Spike just cannot seem to get a break! I'm not referring here to the quality of his episodes, but rather their common theme of having him stress out over nothing and suffer from problems of his own making, as often as not with the best of intentions. At least that means he's in character here, but it reinforces my impression that to find Spike at his best, you need to seek out Twilight Sparkle episodes, not Spike episodes.

Except for one Freudian slip, Spike isn't being selfish here. He's trying to do his duty and keep his friends from fighting, which (in his mind) could have implications for international diplomacy. The scheduling mixup is unavoidably awkward, since Spike could give neither leader his undivided attention even without his fears. But where does Spike get in his head that the whole thing is a bad idea? Twilight and Starlight get him going. And while Starlight tries to walk it back once with a "maybe they'll like each other," a couple sentences are all it takes for Spike to persuade her that these two can't connect. Twilight gently tries reeling Spike in once but then volunteers to give Thorax a tour, and then we're off to the races. From then on, they're as devoted to keeping the leaders apart and piling up fibs and distractions as Spike is.

They should know better, but nopony's perfect. Scheming is something the Mane Six fall into from time to time, and they may just be letting Spike learn his lesson, after all. But fast-forward to the end of the story and the two adult ponies let Spike take the full blame for his friendship problem, never apologizing to him or Ember and Thorax for their part in the deception. Starlight even reminds Spike the issue is his fault. Nor is this the first time Spike's been presented as the character with a lesson to learn while Twilight has a share of blame that goes unaddressed. (It happened before in Owl's Well That Ends Well and Power Ponies.)

So I have that against the episode, but put that aside and I'd say it's excellently written and fun to watch. Triple Threat's special strength is the spin it puts on an old cartoon/sitcom cliché. So we're trying to keep two characters apart with outlandish lies and excuses, all of them delivered in a sort of panic. That part's standard. But Josh Hamilton's brilliance is allowing Spike to play the comedy trope in the usual cartoony way while having Thorax and Ember respond as one would in real life. They notice, ask questions, and repeatedly call him out on it, much as Filthy Rich keeps doing to young Applejack in Where the Apple Lies. Even better, once Spike's house of cards collapses, it's not just an embarrassing moment that the characters have a good laugh about. They're hurt; they're upset at him, rather than at each other. Their disgust with Spike is even part of what draws the leaders together, and the real challenge of the episode is making things right again. I also like the resulting twist that the friendship problem the Map has Spike fix is his own.

Thorax gets some further development here that accords well with his first appearance. He's not just nice; he's almost compulsively conciliatory and instinctively imagines himself in others' shoes—a fitting virtue for a shapeshifter. (He's also just a little on the slow side.) And as new as he is to friendship, he's all the way over on the gentle side, lacking the boldness and confidence he needs as a leader.

Ember has a very different problem, running into morale issues and lack of dragony motivation from her subjects, because she knows only competition and conquering. Recall also that she wasn't sure about the friendship thing last time we saw her. I like her insistence that "I can say I'm bad at friendship. You can't say it about me!" Their personalities may be polar opposites, but her insecurities and Thorax's are the same.

Thinking of these two puts me in mind of an unmentioned justification for Spike's concerns about the stakes in a falling out. Spike betrayed Thorax once before, probably the worst thing he's ever done. Ember once left Spike, and his history of trying to be friends with other dragons is spotty, to say the least. He was also witness to the yak declaration of war that resulted from his player piano deception. So yeah, he's been there.


Lesson: But as I'm sure we've all experienced, once you're on pins and needles around someone, your fear of fallout becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People typically take your kid-gloves approach to mean that you don't trust them or, at best, are uncomfortable being around them. Think back to Twilight Sparkle's unjustified fears of Princess Celestia's wrath way back in A Bird in the Hoof and Lesson Zero. How do you suppose Celestia would have felt knowing Twilight harbored that sort of anxiety about her? I like to imagine Twilight and Spike had a conversation about precisely that following this episode. In short, the message of Triple Threat is that your worry hurts other people. For the sake of your friends' happiness as well as your own, it needs to be addressed.

A word of caution here: I know many people who suffer from anxiety and depression on a clinical level. I went through depression myself years ago. Where chemical imbalances and major traumas interfere with normal functioning, you can't just get over it and stop worrying, any more than you can wish yourself out of pneumonia. There's no quick fix, and it wouldn't surprise me if MLP addressed that directly someday, but it's beyond the scope of this episode. So if that's where you are, please understand that I'm not speaking to the treatment of serious conditions. All of us face the temptation to worry through the ups and downs of life, and the key is learning not to feed our fears or escalate our internal tension by imagining the worst possible scenario the way Spike does. Avoid turning stress into distress by focusing on the positive. I find that an attitude of trust in someone who's worthy of it is the quickest route to contentment for me.

More generally, this story warns against negative thinking. As Spike says, "I was so worried about how it could go wrong, I didn't even think about how it could go right." Inconveniences and mixups are good opportunities to develop the habit of turning a disadvantage into an advantage. Sorry, that lesson's from Star Trek again (specifically, the episode Loud as a Whisper), but it's just as relevant here. As things turn out, Thorax and Ember needed each other's perspectives to work through their respective leadership issues, and what better time to improve relations between changelings and dragons than this one?

Problematic though it is for Spike's responsibilities toward his guests, I like how Spike throws himself into trying to find and solve friendship problems. I probably would have tried to wrap things up with my guests first and not given the Map another thought until afterward. Nevertheless, in looking to give advice and counsel, he knows he's playing to his strengths. Guidance is his natural talent, and availability to help wherever needed is his most prominent virtue. So that little plotline allows Spike to be a role model even in a story where he's the cause of the real problem.


Resonance: MLP has had mixed results in its cringe comedies. It works for me this week, for a number of reasons: the timing of everything, the ironies, the right balance of levity with dramatic weight and suspense. And the animation has a sense of force and style that I can't quite put into words. I love the monkeywrench the Map throws into everything, just as Spike is at his wits' end already. Thorax's motormouth tendencies are an entertaining quirk, especially since we hadn't heard any other worker-level changelings speak at all prior to his introduction.

Ember's awkwardness gets me laughing pretty hard, as she stumbles to express herself, utterly fails at guessing pony customs, and is so highly insistent on the rightness of her confusion of Starlight with Twilight. (I'll just mention here that the extreme variety of dragon body types Ember is used to helps her point a little.) Lots of fun moments are present throughout the story; Ember about to attack the trumpets, the running gag of Ember's distaste for hugs, the long battle charge between opponents only a few feet apart, and the resolution of the chair dispute are just a few worth pointing out.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It still holds true that all the Map missions so far affect communities and not just individuals. The implications of that for the purpose of the Tree-Chest-Castle-Map aren't hard to guess. I believe we're developing a theme that was laid out at the end of The Cutie Re-mark, that a friendship doesn't just affect the people or ponies in it, but everyone around as well. A society is essentially a network of relationships; it may be more than that, but it's certainly not less than that. If too many people live primarily for themselves, or if they care more about feeling like a good person than about actually doing good, you end up a long way from Equestria. Okay, I'm preaching again, but all that's to say that I believe this episode is a piece of a larger puzzle.

I'm also impressed by the unspoken indications of kindness on the leaders' part, as Ember is concerned for the feelings of her dragon subjects, and the near-pacifist Thorax doesn't hestitate to charge into battle to protect Spike.

There's a lot going on in this story, enough to make it an excellent episode despite my concerns about Twilight's and Starlight's part in Spike's troubles. I can understand this story not being a favorite for those who heavily dislike this Spike formula or who can't stand cringe comedy. I believe this is about the best that can be done with either, and in terms of overall entertainment value, for me it balances out to about the level of Friendship Games and The Saddle Row Review.

 

Triple Threat armor rating: Gold Armor
Ranked 18th of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 79th of 175 stories overall

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