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

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Episode 68: "Castle Mane-ia"

Aired 11/30/2013, written by Josh Haber (his first episode)
  • Intro: Twilight Sparkle finds no information on the keyhole box in Ponyville's library, but a letter from Celestia directs her and Spike to a library in the ruins of the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters.
  • Act 1: Tied in a "Most Daring Pony" contest, Applejack and Rainbow Dash go to the castle where AJ tries to spook Dash with tales of the Pony of Shadows. Rarity arrives separately, with Fluttershy and Angel in tow, hoping to restore some tapestries. The sight of Fluttershy's form behind a tapestry is mistaken by AJ and Dash as a ghost.
  • Act 2: A trap door separates Rarity and Fluttershy from Angel, who ends up with Twilight and Spike and uncovers the royal sisters' journal. The journal reveals the castle to have been designed as a spooky funhouse, and its various unpredictable features, some triggered by a robed pony playing an organ, leave the other ponies rattled.
  • Act 3: The sound of panicking ponies draws Twilight's attention. She calms and gathers her friends, and they discover that Pinkie is the one playing the organ. Returning to the diary, Twilight proposes the Mane Six begin a journal of their own.

Character: Except for the absence of Pinkie in the middle section, this is about as balanced an episode as one could ever get. I really like the character pairs here: Twilight and Spike have their usual dynamic. The competition between Applejack and Rainbow Dash is endemic to their characters, so it really ought to be an ongoing thing; I'm happy to see it brought back. Also appropriately, their rivalry has a more friendly vibe to it than it did back in Fall Weather Friends. Rarity and Fluttershy were always a natural pair and need more time on screen together.

Major Fluttershy points here as we see the two sides of her personality in perfect balance. She's as easily spooked by the castle as anypony, but when Angel hops inside, her only concern is for him as she rushes in. She later refuses to leave until she's found him, and we can hear her voice getting raspy and halting. (See, she's been calling him for hours, and now she's a little hoarse.) Her courage and strength of character really shine throughout the episode. Some of the regular show writers have found in-character Fluttershy difficult to write, but Haber understands her right off the bat. As for Angel, it seems the series' creators are getting better at showing the rascal's affection for her.

Twilight is true to form here, given her love for books and research, and her dismissal of Spike's overactive imagination. Her ability to freeze all her friends in place near the end recalls Princess Luna's "BE STILL!" from Luna Eclipsed, except that here we see Twilight's magical aura around the characters. I'm hoping the writers don't forget she has this ability during the challenges they're sure to face near the end of the season.

We get a rare sense of Celestia and Luna's young personalities from the journal. The castle included places for them to play, and it seems Luna once understood that it's often fun to be scared. The somewhat macabre sense of humor displayed by the Hall of Hooves adds a layer or two to their personalities. I got a kick out of the fact that the organ can pitch anyone on Luna's throne out into the courtyard. I imagine there were a lot of pranks pulled in the early years. Taking what we learn here and applying it to Luna Eclipsed, I think we can conclude fairly that Luna's memory of how things were was shady or corrupted; in the moon she lost her knowledge of herself and only remembered things the way she as Nightmare Moon would have thought of them. It wouldn't surprise me if Luna spent the entire first season in a sort of rehabilitation given the identity issues involved.

Lesson: This episode was such a fun romp that I had to go back and re-watch to get the message out of it. Two lessons, in fact, are given explicitly in the last scene. First, a good friend can help you rein in your imagination. You know all those stories where one character is spooked and the other says "Oh, it's nothing"? In those stories the first guy is usually right, but in real life we need the second guy to keep us from getting carried away. Life is full of shocks, fears, and uncertainties, and we need someone to remind us that most of that doesn't really matter in the end. There's a time for empathy, to just be there with somepony in their darker moments (as we saw in Lesson Zero), but there's also a time to say, "Okay, you really just need to calm down."

Second, as Twilight says, knowing something about the past makes it easier to deal with problems in the present. To most ponies, Equestria's past is known only as myth and legend, and only Twilight seems to show any concern for history. Even then, basic facts such as the fate of Princess Celestia's sister and the origin of the Elements of Harmony were kept from Twilight until a crisis presented itself. You should know the history of the world, your culture, your family, your friends, and yourself (how you got the way you are now) for precisely the reason Twilight states. Most major problems and issues have come up before and will again later. Some folks have been defeated by them, some have triumphed over them. Finding out what made the difference gives you an edge in the here and now.

Logic: Along the lines of the second lesson, Rarity's desire to restore tapestries there suggests Twilight may be rubbing off on her. I'm hoping this is hinting at a major shift in Equestrian attitudes toward history. (If restoration were already a "thing," the castle would be first on the list.) With the return of Princess Luna, Discord, and the Crystal Empire, it should be obvious to the populace that a general knowledge of their own past would benefit them. Connections: We see some nice continuity in the design of the castle. The Tree's canyon from Princess Twilight Sparkle—Part 2 is just outside, and the rope bridge and element stand from Friendship Is Magic, part 2, are also on prominent display.


Resonance: Too much funny stuff here to list it all. The out-loud laughs for me were Fluttershy apologizing to Rarity for triggering the secret door (since that's exactly how she would react), Twilight trying to walk with all the other characters riding/clinging to her in fear, and Spike being catapulted toward the end. Oh, and the bell ringing. Lots of scary-but-fun moments, too. I'm not too frightened of spiders, but bees creep me out; that scene was hard to watch. Angel's concern for Fluttershy's hurt wing is touching, as is Fluttershy's fear-exorcising determination to find him when he goes missing.

I'm of two minds about the climactic panic scene. Most of it's hilarious since we know there's no real danger and everypony's okay, but seeing Fluttershy sobbing over what she thinks is the death of her pet bunny is just a tad too dark for me. It's funny if I shut off my empathy and just try to appreciate the scene, but that's hard to do with my favorite yellow pegasus.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Like other fourth-season episodes, this was live-tweeted by the writer and other show staff. Haber acknowledges the episode as a Scooby Doo tribute. (And yes, crossover fan art of the ponies dressed as the Scooby characters popped up within hours.) That show's sense of humor translates very well onto MLP, and the creators did a great job keeping the main cast true to their own characters rather than simply transposing the Mystery Machine bunch onto them. And even with the callbacks to first-season concepts, we're continuing to see positive movement among the characters. This is an excellent first outing for Haber.

This episode alters the show's format much as Lesson Zero did. In the first season, Twilight would document the team's friendship lessons in a letter to Princess Celestia. In the second season (and just a couple third season episodes) the main characters wrote their own letters. Now that Twilight and Celestia are more or less on the same level, the letters might seem out of place. The solution, evidently, is that the characters will record their lessons in a journal/diary for themselves. The main advantage of this for the characters' sake is to always have available their own personal history. Recall how Twilight recovered from her corruption by Discord in The Return of Harmony Part 2, by reading her old friendship letters. I expect some of the journal's entries will be recited or read back at various points in future episodes, to remind us why they're writing their lessons down.

Room for improvement? My main complaint is the coincidences required to have all the characters at the castle at once. Close on the heels of a we-do-everything-together lesson, we have Twilight and Spike going back into the Everfree without the other ponies even knowing about her trip. Three completely independent circumstances bring the rest there on the same night, even though most of them are supposedly afraid of this place. Granted, it's necessary for them to spook one another the way they do, but such contrivances are unusual for the series and I suspect this could have been done better.

My other complaints are fairly minor. The characters don't seem to have enough to do, so they just do the same things over and over (mostly running and screaming). It seems odd that Celestia would direct Twilight to the castle to find "a book" without giving any clues as to what the book is and where it is to be found, especially since there are hundreds of books there and the intended one is only revealed when Spike falls backward in his chair. We know Celestia can be cryptic, but there's really no need for it here. It's not really made clear whether Rarity wants to restore the tapestries as historical artifacts or purely for her own profit; it seems she has both in mind. In our world you usually need authorization for that sort of thing, and I'm sure Indiana Jones would object. ("It belongs in a museum!") Thankfully, this is clarified in Power Ponies, where we see all the Mane Six set to work restoring the castle. Finally, I'm not sure what to make of the shadow at the end. Is this a mystery to be revealed later, or just a familiar tag to put on the end of a scary story, never to be followed up on? I'm guessing the latter, which will annoy fans who like all their loose ends tied up (though the restoration project begun in Power Ponies gives me some hope).

Overall, this is a good episode, but not quite as impressive as it could have been. Gold tier originally, falling down to Iron when scaled with subsequent episodes.


Castle Mane-ia armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 21st of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 183rd of 233 stories overall

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Previous: Princess Twilight Sparkle—Part 2 Castle Mane-ia Next: Daring Don't