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

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Episode 104: "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?"

Aired 7/11/2015, story by Jayson Thiessen (his fourth episode) and Jim Miller (his third); written by Scott Sonneborn (his fifth)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Princess Luna transforms into Nightmare Moon under the influence of a being called the Tantabus. The being escapes just before Luna is restored by the Mane Six. Luna awakens, revealing the event to be a dream, but she is alarmed that it ended happily.
  • Act 1: The Mane Six are tired the next day, having all had a nightmare involving the Tantabus. Luna appears, explaining that the being is growing in strength and seeks to access the real world.
  • Act 2: Luna enters the dreams of each of the Mane Six that night, but the Tantabus evades her attacks. Pinkie's dream includes all the residents of Ponyville, which allows the Tantabus to access all of their dreams as well.
  • Act 3: Luna creates a shared dream for all of Ponyville, and everyone uses the endless possibilities of the dream world to fight the Tantabus, to no avail. The being is found to be sustained by Luna's guilt for her actions as Nightmare Moon, and it is defeated only once she forgives herself.

Character: Princess Luna was introduced to us in episode 1 as the jealous sister who became Nightmare Moon. In the years since, she has become much more than that, most recently as a guide to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. But her past conflict with Celestia is not easily forgotten. Recall that Luna tried to destroy her sister and shroud the kingdom in eternal night. It's not clear just how long this rebellion lasted; Twilight's vision of Nightmare Moon's banishment may represent an abbreviated version of the events, or just the final confrontation. A thousand years later, NMM escaped, imprisoned Celestia in the sun, and declared eternal night once more, placing threats and obstacles in the way of the Mane Six as they sought the Elements of Harmony that ultimately restored her.

Here we learn that Luna's guilt and her fear that she might rebel again have compelled her to punish herself with nightmares. She counts the Tantabus' escape and its potential harm to Equestria as proof that she is no better than she ever was. Her determination to atone for her mistakes is why she's so reluctant to let the Mane Six (or her sister) help.

Luna comments several times about how much the Mane Six suffered because of her. Was it really that bad? Well, she caused a rock slide and incited a wild animal attack, but otherwise her interventions merely blocked their path to the Elements, and nopony got hurt. In all likelihood, after years of dreams in which she confronts the Mane Six and wins, whatever horrible things that might involve, she probably feels as though she's harmed them many times over.

The Tantabus that Luna creates is similar to the idea of a homunculus and recalls literary figures such as Frankenstein's monster. Its habit of feeding off an emotion reminds us of the Changelings that feed off love. Many have remarked that its appearance resembles that of the Nightwalker form of the Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke. We're not told the extent of its powers in real life, but if it's as capable of bringing forth one's greatest fears in reality as it does in dreams, it's easily the most frightening villain in the series.

One concern I've had this season is that in the ensemble episodes, the main characters' interests and mannerisms get a little too stereotyped: here, a dress dream for Rarity (obvious), a pet dream for Fluttershy (equally obvious), an apple dream for Applejack (ahem). By now the characters each have a range of known interests so the writers shouldn't always be going to the same things. For example, Twilight's dream could have involved praise from Princess Celestia, or memories with her brother, or mastering a new spell, rather than the cliché of books. Pinkie's dream was good, and Rainbow's dream had the clever reference to her voice actor's flute-playing ability.

I also have to wonder why we don't see Pinkie confronting the Tantabus along with the others during the townwide dream sequence. Her part may have been cut for time, but her absence is conspicuous since she's the one who made that fight necessary in the first place. One nice bit of character work is the fact that Fluttershy is the first to call on the Ponyville residents to help fight the Tantabus. Fluttershy often expresses confidence in others' abilities and is the pony most willing to acknowledge her own limitations and ask for help.


Lesson: At first I thought this might be yet another lesson on letting one's friends help. That's in the background, but the reason for Luna's reluctance is the atoner angle. Luna's actions and her isolation, indeed the Tantabus problem itself, all arise from her guilt, and the reveal at the end is nicely foreshadowed by her apologies over the course of the story.

As I've said before, forgiveness is an inherently relational concept; it's reconciliation between two parties. That being true, you can't forgive yourself any more than you can kiss yourself on the cheek. And so I'm trying to break the habit of using language like "forgiving one's self." Put more precisely, this story is about moving beyond regret and feelings of guilt. The evil things we do deserve retribution, and without that just consequence, the fact of our guilt hangs over us. But there is forgiveness where that guilt is resolved another way, a way that allows reconciliation. In Luna's case, her lessons are learned and any damage she caused as Nightmare Moon has long since been undone. Nopony holds anything against her, even the townsponies who were once afraid of her. For Luna, forgiving herself, if you want to use that term, is really a matter of accepting the forgiveness of everypony else.

Learning to accept grace is difficult. MLP writer Josh Haber once mentioned at a panel his struggle to deal with how much of his success is the result of friends helping him out, passing his scripts along, and the fans who have made the show a phenomenon. He's grateful, but it leaves him feeling like he owes everyone everything he has. That sense of indebtedness can also weigh down someone like Luna who feels she was too easily forgiven. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that grace cancels a debt; it does not create one.


Resonance: I picked up on the guilt angle early on, but I was caught off guard by how dramatically the lesson was presented at the end. After Amending Fences, that makes two teary finales in a row. A couple viewers may also have sniffled at the return of the Golden Oaks Library and Scootaloo once again taking the opportunity to fly. The nightmare imagery is cartoony enough not to be too terrifying, but oh, that sunflower...

Most of the episode is taken up with fun. I like the pet shenanigans, Twilight being knocked into the tub, the intimate apparel behind Spike as he sends the letter, and Pinkie's snoring. The ice cream bit was a delightful way to finish off Pinkie's dream (extra points for this actually being important to the story). I laughed at Basil and at the giant Angel (for a moment, anyway), and at Dash's offhand backhoof, as well as her rocking in her bed after the flower incident.

Somewhere in the production process, the message must have gone out that the creators could really indulge themselves in the third act, and thus the battle sequence is one awesome moment after another. Eight moments that stand out: Lyra and Bon-Bon as a Pushmi-Pullyu, Berry Punch growing concerned as her balloon head floats away, the return of Flutterbat, Big McIntosh enjoying his alicorn form, hero Spike, Derpy as his trusty steed, Filthy Rich's dream attack, and Fluttershy riding monster Angel.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Beyond the obvious ties to Inception, the story has easy parallels to Nightmare on Elm Street III, as well as the G.I. Joe episode Nightmare Assault, which ends with Low-Light having his first good sleep in ages, just like Luna. The town joining in the fight also shows up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season finale. Big Mac's transformation music is essentially a shortened version of Sailor Moon's, and the closing shot is a clear Fantasia reference. And while we're on connections, the first cake to be monsterized in Pinkie's dream was also seen in Party of One.

I like the design of Twilight's and Luna's bedrooms, including the drawn curtains proper to the fact that Luna sleeps during the day. The episode is structured well for story immersion, in that none of the dreams are interrupted by ad breaks, even though it means act three is ten minutes long. Even at that length, the final battle leaves us wishing for more. I believe the writers and animators crammed in as much as they could without confusing or overwhelming the viewer. The end result is an action-packed, fun-filled episode that turns suddenly serious to drive home a powerful lesson. With more original ideas for the Mane Six's dreams, this could have been one of the season's best episodes. Even with that shortcoming, it still rates as highly excellent.

 

Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep? armor rating: Diamond Vest
Ranked 14th of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 59th of 147 stories overall

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