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

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Episode 72: "Bats!"

Aired 12/28/2013, written by Merriwether Williams* (her seventh episode)
* The episode originally aired with opening credits listing Meghan McCarthy as the writer. Meghan issued a correction the same day via Twitter.

    Storyline:
  • Intro: Applejack is excited to begin apple bucking but finds many of the apples destroyed by vampire fruit bats.
  • Act 1: AJ summons the Mane Six to get rid of the bats, but Fluttershy objects and proposes designating part of the orchard a sanctuary for them. The others side with AJ, and Twilight finds a spell that will stop the bats from eating AJ's apples. The spell requires that Fluttershy use the Stare, but she refuses on principle.
  • Act 2: The ponies round up the bats and Fluttershy reluctantly helps Twilight with the spell, but more apples are found eaten the next day. They ultimately discover Fluttershy has been turned into a vampire bat pony.
  • Act 3: Flutterbat evades the others until they use mirrors to force her stare back onto herself. Twilight returns her to normal, and the Mane Six implement Fluttershy's sanctuary solution.

Character: In one or two other reviews, I've expressed concern that Fluttershy is too often taken out of character because her normal personality makes her a challenge to write interesting stories for. However, I don't believe that's the case here. Fluttershy is in character (i.e., not a bat pony) for about 60% of her screen time, and the basic theme of the show is based on a positive aspect of her usual self. Morever, her turn as "Flutterbat" is one of the most well-received ideas so far this season, and it's the closest we've come to following up on the appearance of Luna's bat-winged charioteers from Luna Eclipsed. In this episode we see Fluttershy taking a stand on her convictions, arguing her case with about the same mix of emotion and logic that Applejack uses, and staying with her friends even during their disagreement. However, her friends push her to her breaking point and she compromises. Her words and actions as Fluttershy all feel very real here.

Applejack is likewise well-handled. Yes, we know she has control issues, but there's more. She's steadfastly defending her farm, and there's nothing a farmer despises more than crop-damaging pests. With the rest of the family absent, the trees have been left in her care, and with the harvest in jeopardy, she has no time for sappiness or discomfort about what has to be done. Her dependability compels her to protect the farm at all costs. And yet she doesn't fully lose sight of the priority of friendship; she's not reverting to the antagonism we occasionally saw from her in season one. Her tone toward Fluttershy is pretty gentle and even apologetic. It's the bats that have her upset. By the third act, she no longer cares about her prize apple. "I just want my friend back."

It's hard to watch the rest of the Mane Six turn on Fluttershy. Obviously they're wrong to do so; that's the point of the story. But is it out of character? I don't believe it is. They're initially called to the farm to help Applejack, and in their view Fluttershy is just predictably squeamish on account of being an animal lover. In any case, the situation appears desperate, and they may be thinking of Dragonshy or Magic Duel, or other occasions when Fluttershy's been scared or hesitant. They're still friendly to her, but in their view she just needs to overcome her issues with what she needs to do. They're not really listening to her argument.

Several times we see the other ponies nod in unison, in a very pronounced fashion (and with creaky sound effects), to show their solidarity with Applejack, but specifically directed at Fluttershy as a way of pressuring her to go along. The thought is, "We're all behind our friend; why aren't you?" This sort of thing happens a lot in real life; we basically boast of our loyalty and support as a way of making sure our opponents know they're in the minority and need to fall in line. The payoff comes in the last scene, as the team gives a final group nod in response to Fluttershy's delivery of the lesson.

On a minor note, though nothing is said here, I appreciate the fact that Spike is placed next to Rarity for much of the episode. His crush has been in the background for a long time, but it hasn't been forgotten.


Lesson: Contrary to what one might expect, this story is not really an ecology lesson. There's no "green agenda" here, although the point in dispute is whether certain animals are pests or good for the crops. (Even that question isn't really answered in the episode itself.) The creators have remembered that this is a show about friendship, and thus the main lesson here is how to handle contentious issues. This can be seen as a companion episode to Putting Your Hoof Down. In that story, Fluttershy struggles with standing up for herself in a way that's still respectful and friendly, whereas here the focus is on the way friends should respond when they're the ones being stood up to. It's Applejack's right to manage Sweet Apple Acres as she deems best and to ask for help when she needs it, and both she and Fluttershy have a right to make their case. The issue is the pressure put on Fluttershy to compromise her principles. The image of the ponies dancing in a circle around Fluttershy chanting "stop the bats" gives a chilling but realistic impression of what their pressure feels like to her.

Friendship is usually based on some common ground, but it does not require unanimity, and one pony who disagrees with a group is not necessarily in the wrong. While other children's shows have definitely left the impression that you should "go along to get along," MLP has gone out of its way to teach respect for individuals' differing values, priorities, and interests. As seen in this episode, that principle has application beyond the usual scenario of kids pressuring other kids to misbehave. People of all ages have difficulty disagreeing respectfully about any number of things, and we all need the reminder. This episode furthers the show's emphasis on the true nature of friendship as involving consideration rather than mere collectivism.

One thing missing here is the actual best way to approach these conflicts: seeking a creative alternative solution. The way the episode is set up, Fluttershy is pushed into going along with Applejack's solution, and at the end, everypony goes along with Fluttershy's instead. The impression is that one pony had to "cave" to the other. In fact, there's a third, minimally compromising option that both ponies might have found agreeable: use the Stare and spell to control the vampire fruit bats, but only long enough to get the sanctuary built. This is what happens in the long run (assuming the spell was removed at the end of the episode), but it would have been nice to have a line near the end to the effect that they should have proposed the idea sooner.

Finally, I think we all recognize the need for Fluttershy to pressure Discord into doing things he doesn't want to do, from time to time.


Logic: Some quick Internet research on real-life bats suggests that many farmers do consider them a nuisance but that, generally speaking, the fruit damage they prevent (by eating insects) is usually greater than the damage they themselves cause. They are family creatures, and vampire bats help the sick and injured among their own number. The seed-spreading is true-to-life as well. Many species do in fact spit out the seeds, and those that are ingested are eliminated elsewhere. Of course, only the show's characters know the habits of Equestrian vampire fruit bats, so let's take a look at AJ and Fluttershy's arguments:
ApplejackFluttershy
She's first of all concerned about her prize apple.She asks the VFBs to leave the apple alone; response questionable.
VFBs care about nothing except eating.VFBs care about their families.
VFBs are nothing but big, ugly, mean monsters.VFBs spread apple seeds, leaving stronger, faster-growing trees.
VFBs will seek to eat the entire orchard.VFBs are just hungry and will be content with a dedicated sanctuary.
The VFBs will destroy too much while the sanctuary is being built.(no response)
A previous infestation devastated the farm, led to winter rationing.(no response)

On balance, Fluttershy seems to have the better argument except for AJ's last two, unaddressed, points. Twilight's spell holds off damage as they build the sanctuary (as noted above), so that issue's solved as long as Fluttershy is agreeable to a short-term use of the spell, and as long as the bats stay in the sanctuary. The Apples' previous experience with the bats is the clincher. Here is evidence of what the bats can do. In addition, we could mention that as a farmer, Applejack ought to be well aware of which animals are good for an apple farm and which are not, and that Fluttershy's past mistake with the parasprites shows that her judgment on this very issue can be compromised by her love of small creatures. So the argument now stands in Applejack's favor. Unless...did the bats do more harm than good in the long run? If Granny Smith were there, she could answer that question. One bad season might have been worth it if the result was significant growth of the orchard in the seasons to come. Applejack admits in the final scene to having been shortsighted, so it's possible she only heard part of the story or was cherry-picking the short-term effects of the incident.

 

Resonance: The Danny Elfman-style song is very well done if you're familiar with his style. As a matter of personal taste, I'm not actually that fond of the style myself, but the general reaction to it has been extremely positive. The nighttime sequence that takes up most of the last half of the episode is really gripping, with suspense and fun in equal measure.

As for specific moments, the funny bits are spread around this time: Rarity's hazmat outfit and her first words to Flutterbat (as well as the use of the word Flutterbat on the show; I did not see that coming), Pinkie's "fruit bat roundup" jingle, Dash's think-of-the-cider outburst, Twilight's "stake-out" pun, and everypony's bat signals. A few of the jokes, such as the bat reading the magazine, Spike's misplaced you're-welcome, and Pinkie's vampire accent, fall flat for me. But I do like the Tron shout-out and Fluttershy's exchange with Pinkie after she returns to normal. Applejack's statement "I just want my friend back" adds poignancy to the Flutterbat scenes and clarifies her attitude toward Fluttershy. All things considered, her friend really is more important to her than the farm.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Like many of the early first-season episodes, Bats! shows just how unpredictable an MLP story can be. At first it seems like it will be a heavy-handed "green" episode where Applejack learns about basic ecology. But the arguments are too evenly balanced for it to be that simple. As the plot develops, we see the peer-pressure lesson coming into the foreground, and then everything goes off the rails as Fluttershy begins to transform. It's not until the final scenes that we come back around to the real point of the story. On repeated viewings, I began to see the Flutterbat sequence not as a diversion from the point but as a metaphorical illustration of it: Once the group forces Fluttershy to violate her conscience, she becomes something she's not and the ponies lose the friend they care about. They only win her back by making her look at what she's become and who she really is deep down.

That's brilliant, but I remain concerned that Flutterbat will cause younger viewers to miss the point of the episode. I wouldn't expect children to pick up on the metaphor, and a single sentence in the last scene isn't quite enough to drill the message home after ten minutes of seemingly unrelated excitement. In other words, I think this episode isn't "heavy-handed" enough with the friendship angle. An extended apology scene once Fluttershy returns to normal would make all the difference.

I have a couple other things against this episode, plot-wise. The first is the contrivance of having all the other Apples gone, on Apple Bucking Day of all days. They're said to be in Appleloosa checking out the competition for the fair. Besides the fact that fairs are usually scheduled after harvest (for obvious reasons), the trip seems horribly timed even without the bats. To the viewer, it's clear this is really just a way to keep the dispute among the Mane Six. But I just can't believe the family would leave Applejack alone on the hardest-working day of the year.

Second, while supposedly trying to catch Fluttershy, the Mane Six spend a lot of time just running, watching, and ducking. Twilight should be able to freeze Fluttershy like she did in Castle Mane-ia (granted, that episode and this one were probably written about the same time without coordination) or make better use of her teleporting. Rainbow Dash had no trouble gathering the bats earlier but doesn't make much of an effort with her friend. If anything, this most daring pony seems frozen in shock for a lot of this. I'm not saying their efforts should have succeeded, but we should at least have seen more trying.

Finally, I'm not really fond of the "stinger" endings we're seeing this season. Things introduced during the course of an episode, such as PTS2's keyhole box, are suitably tantalizing and fit well within the story since we see the characters react. But the closing shots we see in Castle Mane-ia, Power Ponies, and this episode come across as fourth-wall breaks. They only happen so we the viewers can see them and wonder what they mean. To me that cuts against story immersion, and worse, leaves me wondering whether there will be a follow-up or not. Is the zoom onto Fluttershy's fang a one-off gag or a plot point that will lead to her key later in the season? If the latter, I'd rather the fang just be visible in a close-up without being made obvious. If the former, why do it at all? As enjoyable as the bulk of the episode is, the stinger leaves a bad taste in my mouth; the final scene would have been better if it just ended with Pinkie's vampire joke.

In my judgment, this is the third episode this season to have crystal-quality entertainment weighed down by leather- or iron-level issues. Whereas Castle Mane-ia and Power Ponies still come out of the analyis as excellent episodes, I think this one evens out to an average MLP: strong, but not exceeding my expectations for the series as a whole, and quite a bit shy of what I'd expect for a fourth-season episode.

 

Bats! armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 23rd of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 112th of 147 episodes overall

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