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

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Episode 153: "A Royal Problem"

Aired 6/10/2017, written by Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco (their eighth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Cutie Map summons Starlight Glimmer to Canterlot Castle, where she perceives tension between Celestia and Luna.
  • Act 1: As Twilight uses a spell to watch over her pupil, Starlight spends time with the royal sisters and finds that each fails to appreciate little things the other does. Her counsel the next morning gets them arguing. When the sisters accuse each of not understanding the other's job, Starlight impulsively switches their cutie marks.
  • Act 2: Starlight convinces the angry sisters to swap roles for a day. Luna suffers through a parade, a ribbon cutting, a failed photo shoot, and two conferences. That night, Celestia visits her subjects' dreams and finds Starlight is having a nightmare where the sisters are at war as Nightmare Moon and Daybreaker, Celestia's evil form.
  • Act 3: In Starlight's dream, Celestia barely protects a sobbing Starlight and peeks into Luna's dream, also a nightmare, and rescues her by pulling her into Starlight's. The sisters reconcile and Luna helps Celestia use her power to end the fight. The next morning, the sisters' cutie marks return, and Twilight appears to get the whole story from Starlight Glimmer.

Character: I am just old enough to remember a common pattern in sitcoms and cartoons, where the husband was a businessman and his wife was a homemaker; and each thinks the other's task is easier. Then, whether by design or by accident, the wife goes off to work while the husband stays home to clean house and take care of the kids. Inevitably, both scenarios are disasters and the two come away with a better understanding of each other, usually with the unfortunate implications that men are incapable of housework and basic parenting, and that women don't belong in the workplace.

Times have changed, but swapped roles make for good storytelling and even decent real-life team-building. By now, Celestia and Luna have been on screen for totals of 66 minutes and 47 minutes, repectively. But as much as we've seen them, they have almost always been at their strongest and most serene. Here, the use of role-swapping allows us to see each one's weaknesses and insecurities while also taking a walk through each pony's typical daily duties.

Celestia, as the face of the government, is THE Princess in the eyes of Equestria. As such, she bears the brunt of diplomatic duties and the requisite photo-ops. True to the depiction of Equestrian society, we don't see either sister setting policy: Their roles have more to do with facilitating friendly relations among ponies (as well as with non-ponies), and acting as guardians of the populace, although this latter task is often delegated to the Mane Six and various other agents. This episode reveals that Celestia's smiling serenity is sometimes an act, from which she's only free to depart when she's alone, or in times of major crisis. Yet she genuinely does care, as evidenced most subtly by her making pineapple pancakes the day after Luna eschews her decorated breakfast in preference for a whole pineapple.

It's also implied that Celestia has honed her wisdom over the centuries by a need for quick thinking, as the sheer number of ponies she deals with leaves her little time to correct mistakes or study a problem before offering a solution. I find this an interesting additional reason that Celestia may have been so trusting of Twilight to make her own decisions so early in her friendship training: That takes a lot of quandaries off Celestia's plate; she needs only to read the letters after the fact. More directly in this episode, we surmise that Celestia has had to learn to just accept when she's made a mistake and move on to the next thing, which can cause more anxiety than the mistake itself.

The presence of Daybreaker in this story has a host of implications for Celestia. I'll just touch on a couple: First, it seems Daybreaker only appears after Celestia reacts to Nightmare Moon within Starlight's dream. And while both evil forms address Starlight (and each other), Daybreaker speaks mostly to Celestia. To me, this suggests that Celestia is nightmaring, too. She must be unfamiliar with Luna's dream-entering process. That tells me that while Celestia raised the moon at bedtime during Nightmare Moon's banishment, she slept, leaving nopony to attend her subjects' dreams for those thousand years. I haven't been following MLP fan fiction in recent years, but I suspect this consequence of Luna's absence is largely unexplored.

Second, even as Celestia doubts her power to bring Starlight's dream under control and calls out Luna to be the braver and psychologically stronger pony, Daybreaker's role indicates that Celestia's unrestrained magical power is beyond Luna's and more than we've ever seen. Recall Superman's famous "World of Cardboard" speech; even when fighting Chrysalis, she probably had to hold back for the safety of the other ponies present, or to avoid killing Chrysalis outright. With apologies to C.S. Lewis, Celestia is not a safe pony, but she's a good pony.

Protecting ponies' dreams is Luna's nightly task. We've seen her visit the dreams of all the Cutie Mark Crusaders, the Mane Six, and on one occasion create a group dream for all of Ponyville. That last incident showed us the limit of Luna's power. We've seen her draw on her own experience to advise ponies on fear, jealousy, and self-acceptance. Celestia acknowledges the difficulty of Luna's task: "You have to battle nightmares and work in the darkness and do it all alone!" Yet a key weakness revealed by her fish-out-of-water scenario is a natural consequence of her solitude: She's not accustomed to masking her emotions. Her effort to do so in the cold open isn't exactly successful.

We also gain new insight into Luna's long-established jealousy of her sister. However friendly and loving Celestia herself may be to her sister, that jealousy persists because Luna believes Celestia's job is easy, fun, and luxurious, consisting only of receiving her subjects' adoration. Adored she is, but we see how perilous such a position is when a scowl from Luna tanks the funding for the students' field trip. And anyone who's ever had the job of cooling down a long, heated argument while keeping one's own head knows there's nothing fun or easy about that. After her experience, it will be a long while before Luna envies such attention.

There's so much more this episode shows us about these two ponies and their relationship, but let's allow a moment for Starlight Glimmer. Her willingness to confront Twilight is something we saw early on (in No Second Prances), a marked contrast to Twilight's worshipful attitude toward Celestia. Within her dream, Starlight is consumed with guilt and sorrow, which lines up with her established tendency to fret over her mistakes. What most impresses me about her role in this episode is her skill in counseling. She's been taught well, using several real-life techniques that at the very least got the princesses talking about their real problems with each other.


Lesson: By example, the episode teaches conflict resolution and putting yourself in someone else's shoes. The explicit lesson has more to do with Starlight Glimmer's action in switching the sisters' cutie marks. But what is that lesson? Starlight makes the point that her action gives the princesses a needed opportunity, and it does solve the problem. Celestia has commended Twilight Sparkle's acting on instinct once before, in similarly ambiguous circumstances. But it's also a deeply personal magical act performed without permission, analogous to an involuntary whole-body transplant, done by a pony with a history of similar magical violations. Twilight thinks she's crazy, and Starlight's concern in her dream is that it was a mindless, impulsive action that should have been thought through. Still, without Starlight's boldness, who could have gotten the princesses to understand each other? Even the resolution scene is ambivalent:
  • Luna: The map was wise to send you, Starlight. Nopony else would have been so bold as to do what you did.
  • Starlight: That's a nice way of saying I came dangerously close to messing everything up.
  • Celestia: It was just what we needed. The experience has made us closer than ever.

So was this the worst "bad call" since Carter Burke, or should viewers seek to emulate Starlight's willingness to "go with her gut"? I suspect this episode is deliberately written to get us to work this out in our own minds. My personal interpretation is that, as with Applejack's honesty last week, the same trait can be both a strength and a weakness. Starlight's boldness requires a secondary skill, personal discipline, to think things through when possible, plan for contingencies ahead of time, and establish boundaries for one's self that one will reflexively respect except when overridden by absolute necessity. In this case, Starlight might have let the ponies have their fight and presented her role-swap idea to each pony sometime later. That's certainly a more ethical approach, but it would have deprived us of a very fun scene.


Resonance: The entirety of Twilight Sparkle's role in this episode is the funniest thing ever. She very nearly steals the show. I'd like to see her revisit the lesson from Games Ponies Play and deal seriously with her anxiety, but as long as it's this much a delight to watch, I'll take all I can get. (And one nervous "No......" of hers deserves special mention.)

A Royal Problem offers a lot of humor sprinkled throughout. The dreams stand out for me, most notably DJ Flurry Heart, the return of The Smooze, and Dr. Hooves apparently hiding from a statue. We also get a glimpse of Applejack's parents, by the way. Luna's unorthodox method of eating fruit gets a laugh, as does a comically threatening "What?" from Celestia. I also chuckle at Starlight Glimmer shutting herself up at the end of the mark-switching scene, and the list of duties unrolling over Luna's defeated head. And if we're going to talk about non-consensual magic, we have to mention Twilight's penchant for dragging ponies around. It's the resigned look on Starlight's face that sells the joke there.

There's lots of awesomeness, including a spectacular magic fight and an amazing, hammy performance by Daybreaker. I really like her look, even though it's basically just Nightmare Moon with the colors inverted. Quieter but no less impressive is Luna's off-screen handling of the mayors. It takes a lot out of her, but her dreamwork must make her a skilled counselor.

There's lots of drama in this episode, too. I still find the backstory of the royal sisters, told in the opening moments of the series premiere, to be the most heart-wrenching tale of the series. There's nothing sadder than regret over losing family, coupled with guilt over having caused the loss. Celestia carried that weight for so long, and Luna is fully aware of her own part in the conflict. You wish they could just love and appreciate each other now. But this story presents us with the harsh reality that the sisters probably don't get to spend much time together due to their schedules; it's as though they don't really know each other. (In a way, it's like a married couple who work different shifts.) Moreover, that presents a real barrier to communication; you don't bring up serious issues because you want to enjoy what little time you have.

Starlight Glimmer's collapsing in failure in her dream is a major tear-jerker, though it also shows just how good a heart she has. She genuinely cares about the princesses and the kingdom of ponies who would suffer by their corruption. Also, Luna's nightmare is seriously frightening; we know how much Luna loves children, and I really don't like seeing the Princess of the Night scared.

The darker moments of the episode make the scenes of reconciliation all the more heartwarming. There are some really sweet things said in this episode, delivered just the right way so that it comes across as sincere and not sappy. Also sweet: I wonder whether it's Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle who's dreaming of the two flying together?

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It's assumed in this episode that ponies normally go to sleep right at nightfall. That actually makes sense. Here on earth, the darkness lasts a few hours longer than we need for sleep; when the moon is raised manually, it only makes sense to match that up with adult ponies' bedtime and let the sun rule the entire waking day. It's like the ultimate Daylight Saving Time. The times we've seen ponies out at night, they're likely staying up later than usual; or else, for events such as the Grand Galloping Gala, the moon may have been lowered early for ambience.

And we might as well mention the Map. I like that the writers are still making use of it. As mysterious as ever, it surprises viewer and pony alike by summoning Starlight Glimmer. Naturally it makes sense to call the Mane Six and even Spike, since they all have thrones surrounding it. But Starlight Glimmer and Trixie have also interacted with the Map magically and so, I guess, are potential agents of friendship. (I'm not sure what that means for the ponies at the spa, however.) Other possible callees may include the original possessors of the six keys—Miss Pommel, Spitfire, Cheese Sandwich, etc.—or objects of previous Map missions, such as Gilda.

In light of the evident omniscience of the Map and its sending precisely the right team on every mission so far, I understand Twilight's extreme deference to the Map by not accompanying Starlight. She can't help but cheat a little, but she still tries to hold back from advising Starlight, and for the sake of the mission that turns out to be a good thing. I do hope we get some answers someday about the mind behind the Map. Who knows? It may be connected to the magical nature of Equestria itself.

A Royal Problem is, without question, one of the very best episodes of My Little Pony. It has everything and is almost perfect. I would have liked a little clearer take on the lesson for the benefit of younger viewers, which is the only thing keeping it out of the Genji tier; but I can see reasons for the ambiguity so that's a very, very close call. I rank it almost equal with The Mane Attraction as one of the top Crystal Armor stories of the series.

 

A Royal Problem armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 4th of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 16th of 175 stories overall

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