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

Previous: Brotherhooves Social Crusaders of the Lost Mark Next: The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows

Episode 109: "Crusaders of the Lost Mark"

Aired 10/10/2015, written by Amy Keating Rogers (her sixteenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Cutie Mark Crusaders sing about their determination to find their cutie marks. Pipsqueak interrupts to recruit them as campaign managers as he's running for class president.
  • Act 1: The CMC promote Pipsqueak and his promise to repair the school playground. Diamond Tiara promotes herself to retain the office, dismissing Silver Spoon's efforts to help.
  • Act 2: Pipsqueak wins, and Silver Spoon abandons Diamond Tiara, who is also scolded by her mother for her failure. The CMC witness Diamond's resulting breakdown and offer friendship to her. Pipsqueak interrupts to report the school board has denied his request for money to repair the playground. Diamond says she'll be reinstated and rushes to the schoolhouse, against the CMC's pleas.
  • Act 3: At the school, Diamond rebukes her mother's bullying, publicly calls the CMC friends, and has her father donate the money for the playground. She leads the students in the repairs, and the CMC receive their cutie marks for helping Diamond learn the meaning of hers. The Mane Six and many others celebrate with the CMC.

Character: This is one of many stories that simply could not happen on most other animated series. Typically in episodic cartoons, characters are static and supporting characters exist for the purposes of plot or to have a consistent type of interaction with the leads. If a character undergoes major changes, such as Dinobot's development throughout Transformers: Beast Wars, it's a rare and celebrated thing. But MLP is a series where events have lasting effects and where ponies can grow and change. All the main characters have learned a lot, and while the CMC's physical growth has been subtle at best, their internal maturing over the past couple seasons has been remarkable. This episode features changes to a couple of secondary characters as well. (And I'll mention here that the Cake twins are finally growing as well, or at least they're not diapered as in their last appearance.)

Getting back to the CMC, their maturity manifests itself in two key ways: grace and self-denial. Their compassion for Diamond Tiara doesn't arise from momentary sentiment. They follow her after her historic defeat, just to make sure she'll be ok. It's not an offer of friendship, but it's more thoughtful than even the Mane Six's occasional tendency to let one of their own run off to suffer alone. More to the point, it's a concern for her safety despite her uncaring behavior and her animosity toward them personally. She doesn't deserve their time or their care, but they offer it anyway. Once they know more, they're willing to endure her defensive, desperate put-downs in hope of breaking through and turning a foe into a friend. As for self-denial, they take their eyes off their own desire for a cutie mark to make clarifying others' life purpose a priority, and that is when they discover their own. For other ponies, getting a cutie mark is an affirmation of identity and a sign of growing up, but for the CMC, it's also literally a reward.

The CMC's purpose was set up earlier this season with Trouble Shoes, who appears in the montage, and it allows the CMC to continue as a team in future stories, "a journey that has only just begun," as they say.

After 16 appearances, we know Diamond Tiara, or at least we thought we did. She's never been just a generic bully. Her featured traits have been narcissism and self-promotion, her positive leadership ability eclipsed by a lack of scruples. It was never about blank flanks, it was never personal; the bullying was a way to succeed and to set herself above anypony else. Now we see where she gets it, by the example and direct pressure of her mother. (Her father's a more enigmatic figure; Diamond seems to admire him, and he's showing up in the background more and more; the writers may have plans for him, so stay tuned.)

A few seconds into The Pony I Want to Be, I wrote in my notes, "This changes everything!" However the episode turned, just a glimpse inside Diamond's head meant we could never look at her the same way again. For those who didn't pick up on the meaning of the title, the Lost Mark is Diamond Tiara's; she says she's stuck with a mark she doesn't understand. She had acted as though the tiara meant she had to be imperious. Instead, it points to true leadership. You know how a guy can jump up, holler, "Follow me," and charge into danger, but then halfway there he looks back and no one's behind him? That's failure. Diamond Tiara is the opposite of that; she can muster ponies to get things done. But she needs to learn to use that power to get the right things done.

Villains and bullies serve many purposes in storytelling, but in practical terms, bad guys ultimately have one of two potentially satifsying fates: redemption or destruction. Which of those two fates is more fitting for Diamond Tiara is a long-standing matter of controversy. Unlike most of the series' antagonists who've only shown up once or twice, we've seen Diamond be relentlessly and obnoxiously evil for years. How can all that ever be set aside? In-story, I support the CMC's efforts to help her because she's still a child. Left to herself, she'll only get worse, and she needs to be allowed to grow past her immaturities and leave them in the past. She needs dedicated friends who will stay close by. Her journey will be a hard one, not just because she has to live with her mother, but because she'll have to deal day to day with those she hurt, like Sunset Shimmer did. For that matter, the fandom currently seems more comfortable with Sunset's redemption than with Diamond's, perhaps because we only saw Sunset being bad for one movie. Yet Sunset was a bully at Canterlot High for years, too, and is, for all intents and purposes, an adult. If anything, it's Diamond Tiara who should be more easily forgiven.

Was the turn too sudden? Well, as with Discord's initial reform, I think Diamond is still in mid-turn. There is a thing called a moment of decision that can mark a permanent turning point in one's life, but time will test the turning. In DT's case, her walk through Ponyville, the night after her loss, the next day at school, the visit to the clubhouse, and the run back to the schoolyard are plenty of time for her to think things through and muster her first resolve. But the change is not that Diamond is all good now. It's that she wants to be good. This will be a learning process, but as far as attitudes go, that desire has been building for a while now and has been pushed to the surface by a rare loss of power and the loss of her only friend, the same things that happened to Discord. I have no idea what the writers intend for Diamond Tiara, but my suggestion would be to keep this gradual. Keep her prideful and arrogant, at least at first, but make her overly proud of her own goodness, sort of like a first-season Rainbow Dash, and build from there.

I've been a fan of Silver Spoon from the beginning. She's had a couple hope spots before, and I was extremely gratified to see her get some love here, with the implications of her solo and her breakup after the vote. Pipsqueak regains the panicky tendencies he had in Luna Eclipsed, and I'll just point out here that the fly that falls out of Pip's piggy bank is the series' first clear shot of a dead body.

I believe I mentioned once before how Cheerilee seems to leave Diamond Tiara alone and just let things play out. Things are open to interpretation here, but I ask the reader to consider, first, the difficult position Cheerilee is in with Spoiled Rich being on the school board, and the fact that we don't know what Cheerilee may be doing behind the scenes. Typically the best teachers don't work over their problem students in front of the other kids, and mere punishment won't do any good if the behavior is supported at home, but it's also true that many teachers in real life don't address bullying problems at all. I'll give Cheerilee the benefit of the doubt, but there's room to read her silence differently if you like.


Lesson: The lesson of this episode is the Crusaders' dogged pursuit of Diamond Tiara. There is a mistaken view of love and friendship that says if you care about someone, you should never tell them how to live or ask them to change who they are. But this series demonstrates time and again how love often means showing someone a better way to live, while still respecting their unique talents and personality. Notice the concept repeated throughout this episode: "the pony I want to be"; "I can be my better self"; "There's so much more still left to learn about yourself"; "you can be a better pony." If you're like Diamond Tiara, if you've been the bully, the loner, the basket case, the slut, the womanizer, the abuser, or the abused—if this is you, you CAN change. You are not damaged goods, and a past or a tough time growing up does not destine you to a life of problems, or of being a problem to other people. And if you're in the place of the Crusaders, know that you don't have to write an enemy off as irredeemable. You may in fact be the one caring voice that could get their attention. Not everyone turns around, but some do, usually in response to someone saying something unexpected.

This episode implicitly raises but doesn't answer the difficult question of how children can deal with bad parents (or at least, bad parenting). It's notable that after rebuking her mother, Diamond makes a polite request to deliver a note to her father, and there's no hint of sarcasm in the politeness. Necessary resistance to authority can be done with respect for that authority, but it's really tricky, and Diamond's sort of home life is thankfully outside my experience. I was blessed with a family more like the Apples, but it would be nice to see the show offer some more guidance for children in less healthy situations.


Resonance: There are a few gags in the animation, and "A vote for Diamond Tiara is a vote for MORE Diamond Tiara" is pretty funny. But this is one of MLP's most serious episodes. Even among all the dramatic moments in season 5, Diamond Tiara's sympathetic solo stands out, all the more so because it comes out of nowhere. We see Diamond looking longly at Cherry Fizzy bonding with Noi, and later at the Cakes, wishing she could have a family experience like that; my mind went immediately to friends of mine whose home life was nowhere near as loving as mine. When teardrops form the points on Diamond's cutie mark tiara, I wondered how much sadness was part of her destiny, and if she'd been crying internally this whole time.

Any viewing of this episode brings me joyful tears as well. Diamond's speech to her mother is beautifully delivered, and both reprises are touching and awesomely clever lyrically. The moments that get to me the most are the congratulations from the adults (Rarity's especially, given her frequent friction with Sweetie Belle), the wonderfully effective montage, and a perfect final shot tying into the end credits, with Celestia offering the photo to Luna, who has invested so much in the Crusaders by now.

I am impressed to see Sweetie Belle using her magic to levitate Pipsqueak, and the CMC flying on their shields is downright epic. Awesome points also go to the creators for every single song, especially the vocal harmonies, and for the backwards-running sequence that must have been as hard to draw as it would be to do in live action. Finally, I am very impressed with the design of the cutie marks: shields like a family crest, incorporating each pony's strengths while tying the trio together by featuring their mane colors.

One emotion I rarely experience strongly in this series is suspense. I honestly, seriously don't mind that most of the plots are predictable, since these are morality tales where character consistency is a higher priority than twists and turns. But here I had no idea what would happen. What first brought me to the edge of my seat was Pipsqueak's ill-timed interruption just as Diamond Tiara is about to cry and perhaps open up. It's the sort of moment killer that happens in real life. From there, we move into the chase, which in my judgment is the best scene and best song of the episode. I was so heavily invested in the CMC and Diamond; I felt like her soul was at stake, and I wanted to see the Crusader's courageous efforts with her pay off. And again, personal connection, I've been on both sides of that pursuit myself.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I am so thankful that such an important story was not rushed or overly complicated. It's just a simple story with only a few large scenes needed to convey what happens. I've already praised the music, but I want to mention the catchiness of the Pip chant and the clashing musical styles in the first act's big campaign number as elements of the episode's strength, since they kept my attention throughout the first and least dramatic part of the story. For no reason other than fun, act one closes with a shout-out to the end of Evil Dead 2. I also love the shot of the nine cutie marks, though it's still too bad Spike doesn't get one.

For its boldness in disrupting multiple status quos, its resonance due to masterful work at every stage of production, and its creativity in giving the Crusaders the best possible cutie mark earning story and providing a continuing role that's pregnant with possibilities, I'm placing this episode in the Genji tier, currently my second favorite episode of all time, after Amending Fences. Crusaders of the Lost Mark raises my estimation of MLP and gives me high hopes for the future of the series.

 

Crusaders of the Lost Mark armor rating: Genji Armor
Ranked 2nd of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 2nd of 147 stories overall

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Previous: Brotherhooves Social Crusaders of the Lost Mark Next: The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows