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

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Episode 183: "A Matter of Principals"

Aired 8/4/2018, written by Nicole Dubuc (her sixth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Twilight Sparkle announces a Spell-venger Hunt at the school for six ancient artifacts, but her presentation is interrupted when all the Mane Six are summoned by the Map.
  • Act 1: Twilight appoints Starlight Glimmer to be headmare while the team is gone. Discord appears and insists on helping out, hiring problematic substitute teachers and wreaking havoc at the school.
  • Act 2: Starlight refuses any more help, but Discord soon reappears as a student and then as a track coach, deliberately causing trouble. Starlight banishes Discord with a powerful laser and begins the Spell-venger Hunt. Ocellus and Smolder locate the first artifact on a suit of armor that mysteriously comes to life.
  • Act 3: The hunt is further disrupted when Discord, in ghost form, causes paintings to come to life and chase students around. Starlight pacifies Discord by apologizing for not trying to include him and appointing him vice headmare. Just then, the Mane Six return and reveal that their Friendship Mission was a ruse concocted by Discord in the first place.

Character: As we saw during the Changeling takeover and its aftermath, Starlight Glimmer and Discord play well off each other, and he seems to have a particular interest in her, perhaps more than in Twilight Sparkle. The nature of his interest is unclear; it may be their common villainous past, similar to what drew Starlight to Trixie. Yet she finds him as troublesome as Twilight does, and that's a great foundation on which to build a fun Discord-Starlight episode.

As for Starlight Glimmer, we're seeing her at her best here. She handles her sudden assignment from Twilight Sparkle without freaking out too much. I'm happy that Twilight gives voice to her recognition of Starlight's leadership qualities. That ought to relieve Starlight of any need to prove herself, although that sense will still inevitably be there, especially as Discord keeps rubbing it in. Starlight handles her role well, maintaining the students' safety as her top priority and keeping things mostly on track. She displays her usual quick thinking and resourcefulness in handling Discord, and while I have issues with the ending, she's probably right in concluding that finding a constructive role for him is the fastest way out of the chaos.

Spike's along for the ride, in sagely sidekick mode. He has something special to contribute in this episode, since he and Big Mac have developed their own friendship with Discord, in the form of guys' nights and romance-adjacent misadventures. He's not afraid to call out Discord's misbehavior, but he also knows that, generally speaking, the only way to stop Discord is to give him a reason to come down on his own.

So let's talk about Discord. He's seemed to be doing well in his most recent appearances. For the record, his last four major appearances are The Break Up Break Down (where he was generally helpful), Discordant Harmony (which featured his devotion to Fluttershy), Celestial Advice (where the purpose of his meddling was to gain Starlight Glimmer as a roommate), and To Where and Back Again (where he nearly sacrificed himself to help save Equestria).

He's definitely his own character, but in recent seasons there are parallels to Pinkie Pie's early development: His overall intentions are good, but he's insensitive and dismissive of ponies' customs and preferences. His unconventional approach is too much for most ponies to handle, and he needs to learn that friendly ends must be achieved by friendly means.

That's unfortunately not the Discord we get here. Even as Spike points out Discord's usual behavior pattern, his motivations in driving Starlight to discouragement are entirely self-focused. He's lashing out in ways that are petty, mean-spirited, and put young students in fear for their lives. If we're to take Starlight's diagnosis at face value, it's because Discord feels left out. He does drop a hint of that early on. But after so long a time it seems to come out of nowhere. The school's been operating for months now.

The two possible precedents I see for Discord's attitude are his asking about a throne for himself when the Friendship Castle first appears, though coming fresh off his alliance with Tirek, he's quick to agree he's not ready for a seat at the table, and he lets the issue drop. Second, he throws a fit at the Grand Galloping Gala out of jealousy when he learns Fluttershy has chosen Tree Hugger as her guest and thinks he's being replaced. But I don't think those incidents are really parallel to what he's doing here.

I actually prefer the writer's earlier idea for the episode. This is apparently a heavily edited story, and Nicole's original idea was a pride-and-prejudice angle: Starlight Glimmer is in over her head but is too proud to ask for help (similar to Twilight's frequent conviction that "I have to do this alone"), while Discord is prejudiced against Starlight, thinking that since she hasn't been reformed as long as he has, she's not ready for the job and should hand the reins over to him. I could really see that working, and it could have involved some interesting points on what maturity looks like. Instead, we're left with petty motivations that have Discord regressing to a tantrum, making his antics highly unpleasant to watch, at least for me.

Our supporting characters provide some refreshing moments. It's nice to see Spitfire and Iron Will again. Yona's very cute while being overly aggressive, and I like seeing Gallus's apparent intersest in griffon history. Trixie's fun as always, though I'm curious how she seems to understand what telephones are. I'm assuming Maud Pie had a scene that was deleted, since she's introduced as a substitute but then disappears from the story. Cranky seems out-of-character here; it's natural to see him grumpy, but I'm confused as to why he's having the students wait on him hand and foot, to use a human expression. He's usually good-natured underneath the rough exterior.

I do have one little nitpick on Twilight Sparkle. I'm not surprised at all that she already has a plan for managing the school with all the Mane Six called away. But then, why does she look so alarmed right before we cut to the theme song? Did she forget? I realize the need to hook the audience with a moment of "Oh no, what do we do now?" but it might have been better to have Twilight herself off-screen and just have the others look anxious in that moment.


Lesson: So in the last episode, the main action point of the lesson was that it's better to end a squabble with your friends, to just stop fighting, even if you don't understand what happened or don't think you did anything wrong. And while in real life, that could use some definition and a few qualifiers, it's generally in line with my own philosophy. Well, this week's story ends with Starlight offering an apology to Discord, even though he's the one who's been misbehaving. And it's not a huge surprise; reconciliation is sort of her "big thing." Does her solution further demonstrate a wise prioritizing of friendship like last episode? Or is Discord too easily forgiven? It certainly wouldn't be the first time the show has left extreme bad behavior without any apparent consequence.

My family had an extended discussion over the ending of this episode. My parents, one of my sisters, and I have all spent time teaching in school settings, and my other sister is a professional counselor. And we've all had to deal with people, including adults, acting out because of feeling left out, boredom, lack of attention, frustration in learning, problems in other areas of their lives, as well as more ignoble reasons such as a desire for power or jealousy of other students. And it's important to seek constructive solutions rather than simply punish. Nevertheless, just giving the student what they want is usually not the answer, since it reinforces the bad behavior. And the motivation is absolutely key to determining how best to respond.

In Discord's specific case, Starlight is probably doing the only thing that would bring peace to the situation, and if it hadn't been cut short, his position as Vice Headmare would permit Starlight to guide him toward balance and sensitivity. I could see her becoming a good mentor for him.

The larger concern is the question, what is the episode supposed to be teaching its young viewers? The best I can come up with is, "Don't let your friends feel left out; if you don't let them help, they'll cause trouble instead, and that will be your fault." And while that may be true sometimes, that's a little too self-interested a motivation, and it would also undercut the point of that whole Gala episode with Fluttershy. And if the viewers are the ones feeling left out, we certainly don't want them following Discord's example. (The more generic lesson that poor communication can cause problems to spin out of control doesn't really work since it's not the main issue at hand and it's already been handled better in plenty of other episodes.)

Again, my problem isn't with Starlight's solution itself. But the way the ending plays out seems to put Starlight at fault, as though she's actually in need of forgiveness here, and I strongly disagree with that. If Discord was unjustly left out of the school doings, it was by the Mane Six; Starlight had nothing to do with that. She didn't ask Twilight to appoint her instead of Discord. She is explicitly following her superior in handling things as she does, and when she restrains Discord, it's to protect the students from danger. Besides, classrooms need to be kept free of distraction. Discord taking his frustrations out on her without giving a single care for her concerns and responsibilities, and then suggesting the chaos he creates is a failure on her part—to just wave off all of that is just very troubling in a show about friendship.


Resonance: Despite my issues with the ending, there's still fun to be had in this episode, especially on first watch when I was expecting a grand payoff. Discord giving Starlight her mentor's mane is a hilarious moment, and I enjoyed the bananaphone shout-out. The ambidextrous marmoset really ought to be a recurring character. I laughed at Yona playing with her braids (12:45+) and Silverstream giving an apple to the dragonsneeze tree. I also chuckled at the death glare from Pinkie Pie at the end.

Some awesome moments as well, most notably Starlight's earth-tearing banishing spell, and the fact that she can take down a Bugbear in one shot. The Spell-venger Hunt prize is also awesome: a private tour of the Canterlot Archives with Princess Celestia. It's also great seeing the Student Six helping each other both before and during the hunt.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: We get a couple nice shows of continuity, as Starlight mentions being "old save-Equestria buddies" with Discord, and Trixie is confronted with a real Ursa Major.

The artifacts also deserve a mention: By this point I've seen the rest of the series, and they do become important to the larger plot. They seem similar in concept to the Six Pillars' signature items, which were also called artifacts, except that these figures seem to be counterparts of the Student Six. I feel like there's an untold story there, and I'm a little disappointed that they get overshadowed by everything else going on, not just in this episode but even later on. I do like that we get images of the artifacts' namesakes via the portraits animated by Discord. And note that we've seen King Grover's likeness once before.

I'm aware that fans have a lot of different takes on this episode (as with quite a few Discord episodes, actually). I think I've said my piece. All I'll say further is that this was the point I began to be concerned about the dip in the series' quality; not since early season 5 had I felt let down by three episodes so close together. If you enjoyed it and thought it was handled well, that's great. For myself, I'd rank it somewhere in the vicinity of Feeling Pinkie Keen and Inspiration Manifestation.

(Note: As much as the show's creators care about their work and interact with fans, it's possible they may come across this review. If you helped make this episode and I'm offbase in my understanding of it or have overlooked its strengths, you're welcome to give me the "Marshall McLuhan from Annie Hall" treatment and show me the insights I've missed.)

 

A Matter of Principals armor rating: Leather Vest
Ranked 26th of 27 season-eight episodes
Ranked 217th of 233 stories overall

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