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

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Episode 144: "Celestial Advice"

Aired 4/15/2017, written by Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco (their sixth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Spike distracts Starlight Glimmer while Twilight Sparkle measures her room for a mirror gift.
  • Act 1: At a medal ceremony honoring Starlight's team for saving Equestria, Discord prompts Twilight to consider her plans for her pupil. She consults Celestia and suspects that she needs to send Starlight away.
  • Act 2: Twilight contemplates sending Starlight to the Changeling Hive, the Dragonlands, or to study magic with Sunburst, but fears disaster in each case. Celestia responds to Twilight's panic with laughter.
  • Act 3: Celestia explains that she had similar fears about Twilight. In the end, Twilight announces Starlight's graduation and allows her to choose her own destiny. Starlight chooses to stay in Ponyville until she feels her own readiness to leave.

Character: Twilight has had a remarkable character progression over the course of this series, specifically with regard to her confidence. She began as a know-it-all about magic but struggled with anxiety about her friendships and her studies under Princess Celestia. Over time, she became comfortable with her role as lead bearer of the Elements of Harmony, but simultaneously developed an overall humility.

As princess, she gradually came to accept her role without it going to her head (with the exception of one out-of-character slip) and her bond with Celestia is strong. Yet she still struggles with long-standing nervousness about her pupil Starlight Glimmer, in much the same way she fretted about her own studies as a unicorn. The most obvious reasons for such anxiety are Starlight's past as a powerful villain and her being an emotional powder keg with few qualms about using her magic when she shouldn't. But the show has focused just as much on a more personal reason for Twilight's fears: Twi sees her ability to turn out a successful student as a measure of her worth as a princess, since that's the role Celestia played in her life. To her credit, Twilight's fantasies show that she basically trusts Starlight's judgment at this point; none show her returning to villainy. But our princess is worried her student will get in over her head. And while this episode explores Twilight's feelings, it does nothing to really resolve them. So expect Twilight's anxiety to continue. I can only hope it doesn't come to overshadow the more positive aspects of her personality.

This is the closest we've come to the long-awaited Celestia episode. Like season four's opening story, the big takeaway scene for this season premiere is the wonderfully revealing flashback—in this case, Twilight's Canterlot years from the royal perspective. This humanizes (or should I say, ponifies) the Princess in a way we haven't seen before, without in the least chipping away at her respectability. Even more, it shows just how sincere and heartfelt is the tenderness Celestia has expressed toward her pupil. When she says she needs and prizes Twilight, those aren't just words. The flashback also nails down that the rest of the Mane Six were friends at least to some degree before Twilight came to Ponyville, and strongly implies, as fans have long suspected, that Celestia arranged the Summer Sun Celebration preparations in Ponyville specifically to bring Twilight into contact with these very ponies to bear the Elements of Harmony.

Just for fun, I'll mention that Celestia's gaze up at the Mare in the Moon and her line, "I must send her away" can be interpreted in two ways. (1) It may be that Celestia was now unable to bear the Elements herself and had to send Twilight because only she, with five friends and the spark of friendship, could activate them. Or (2) Celestia might have been able to defeat Nightmare Moon herself, but instead allowed Twilight to have the honor and the resulting bond with her team for Twilight's own good. The idea that Celestia has deliberately delegated the saving of the kingdom to Twilight for her pupil's sake fits with her sending Twilight instead of Luna to the Crystal Empire, and it also matches the overall tone of the scene here, which focuses exclusively on Twilight's need for friends. So for now I'm going with that reading until the show gives us more evidence either way. Besides, I much prefer to think Celestia is self-restrained than to suppose she's been forcibly powered down.

I have just a couple thoughts on Starlight Glimmer here. First, I like her rapport with Discord. While it's not 100%, she does seem to find his antics amusing, and it's not hard to think she sees in him something like what drew her to Trixie. Second, Starlight continues to be cautious and introspective about her learning process. When she says she's not ready, the impression I get is not one of irrational panic but of an honest self-assessment. She appreciates her teacher's trust but knows she needs more time. It's to both her and Twilight's credit that the final scene plays out the way it does.

A few short observations: Spike returns as the snarky but childlike voice of reason here, my favorite characterization of him. Discord's motives are ambiguous as usual: Was he really trying to drop hints that Twilight should assign Starlight to him, or was he just playing his trickster-mentor role once again? Either way, this is about the most benign we've ever seen him, even as he's stirring things up. It looks like Thorax and the Changelings may be sticking around for a while, perhaps as go-to's for some of the more basic lessons about friendship. The bugalope forms still look really weird to me, but they're more fitting than a cuter design would have been. Finally, I like the attention given to continuity as we see Sunburst, Ember and Torch, the Our Town ponies, the Crystal ponies, Twilight's Canterlot friends, and even a photo of Owlowiscious. It all reminds us that these characters have a long history by now, and the writers aren't shy about drawing on that for future stories.


Lesson: Broadly speaking, this episode is about fears for the future of those we care about, and the necessity of trust in the friends we've come to know, as well as honesty about what is best for them. Twilight's ultimate decision to leave the choice in Starlight Glimmer's hooves is part of that trust. The most obvious application for young viewers is understanding their parents' perspective. The fact that both Celestia and Twilight feared for their charges demonstrates just how common those fears are. Children "leave the nest" not just when they graduate and move out on their own, but when they go off to their first day of kindergarten, start spending more time at friend's houses, go to their first summer camp, get their driver's license, and have their first date.

On a more personal level, children who have taken the show's lessons to heart may be investing in their friends, teaching them about friendship, essentially mentoring them. At some point, they need to be equals again, and the teacher needs to give the learner space to be his or her own person. This is definitely a good friendship lesson to have in the later seasons of the show, and it's also a good lesson about leadership, which becomes ever more important to understand as viewers mature.


Resonance: Overall, I'm dazzled by the cleverness, fitness, and subtle personality implications of so much of the dialogue. Lewis and Songco have proven themselves to be among the show's best character writers. Twilight's concern for Starlight and Celestia's for Twilight are really touching. We even get some tears from both teachers, but the show doesn't get melodramatic about it. Most of the feels this time around come from thinking about the story after the fact. The watching of the episode is just lots of fun, with plenty of gags from Discord, a neat bit with a flyswatter, the Ember-Starlight interaction, and Celestia's laughing fit. Starlight VA Kelly Sheridan also gets to have a blast hamming it up with "bad" bad acting and funny accents. There's also some genuine plot suspense as the episode really does leave us wondering what's going to happen to Starlight's part in the series.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It remains to be seen just how much the show will focus on Starlight Glimmer going forward. In season six, she had nearly as much screentime as Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Rarity, and more than Twilight Sparkle. She's still often left out of the Mane Six's adventures, and show creators have said they consider her a featured supporting character, but functionally she's become part of the main cast, appearing in over a third of the episodes since moving to Ponyville. Unfortunately for all that, she's had a somewhat mixed reception. I'm hoping more fans will come to accept her as they have Sunset Shimmer.

And since I brought it up, I appreciate the fact that each of MLP's reformations has gone in a slightly different direction. Luna is the atoner, privately broken and punishing herself for her time as Nightmare Moon (until season five), yet bringing up her past when it helps her identify with other struggling ponies. We haven't really followed up on Diamond Tiara, but she seems ok. Trixie enjoys being a shade of grey, rarely a villain, never truly reformed, happy to have a friend but also eager for good-natured mischief, as we'll see next episode. Discord's mischief is not so good-natured; he's purely self-interested but restrained by his need for companionship and the happiness he's found with Fluttershy. Sunset Shimmer's solidly good now and basically is to the Equestria Girls films what Twilight Sparkle is to the TV series. As for Starlight, she's mortified at what she did and wants to leave it behind; she wants to be good now. But she knows she needs help, and her exceptional power requires exceptional care in how she solves problems.

Celestial Advice is an unconventional but perfectly legitimate way to start a season: a stand-alone episode in which nothing really happens, but we get to spend about twenty minutes exploring characters and their world, to set the tone for the season's stories. As much fanservice as there is in this episode, none of it seems out of place and it all serves to enhance and illustrate the presentation of those characters. And I believe the series really needed an episode like this to explore canonically the Celestia-Twilight relationship and the parallels between the two characters. It doesn't quite have the wonder and sense of fulfillment of Magical Mystery Cure, but it's more personal and more in line with the general tone of the series. All things considered, I rank this just below the epic two-parters The Crystal Empire and A Canterlot Wedding.

 

Celestial Advice armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 7th of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 31st of 175 stories overall

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