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

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Episode 89: "Equestria Games"

Aired 5/3/2014, written by Dave Polsky (his eleventh episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Rainbow Dash gives a pep talk to Ponyville's team on their way to the Equestria Games.
  • Act 1: Spike learns that he's a hero in the Crystal Empire and is asked to light the torch for the Games. But he gets nervous and is unable to breathe fire.
  • Act 2: Twilight relieves Spike by secretly lighting the torch with magic. When she confesses this to Spike, he is dejected. After Ponyville takes silver in the aerial relay, Spike tries to redeem himself by volunteering to sing the anthem, but he doesn't know the Cloudsdale anthem, and he has to ad lib, to the chagrin of all.
  • Act 3: Spike sulks in isolation until the final event, but Twilight drags him out just as a stray arrow from the ice archery finals freezes a cloud that threatens to fall on the stands. Spike melts the cloud with his fire breath but is still depressed until Twilight convinces him only he can forgive himself. He comes out of his slump by lighting the fireworks for the closing ceremonies.

Character: Surprise, this is a Spike episode. And even though that was the last thing viewers might have expected from the long-awaited Equestria Games, I believe it's one of the best presentations of Spike in a featured episode so far. Spike has been wrestling with identity and confidence issues at least since Dragon Quest, and I take this story as sort of a sequel to Power Ponies. As Spike is beginning to mature (he hasn't been called a baby dragon in a long time), he's wanting to be part of the team, wanting to be useful, but finds respect hard to come by. Consequently, any praise he gets immediately goes to his head. Come to think of it, we saw this all the way back in the meteor shower scene of Owl's Well That Ends Well. Yet his ego is very fragile and he gets down on himself in much the same way Rainbow Dash does in the third act of Testing, Testing.

I appreciate the fact that none of Spike's fumbles here are the result of incompetence. He's a very capable dragon; he just succumbs to nerves in the first case and to presumptuousness in the second. I also find it easy to identify with Spike during the anthem scene. My dad told me he once had to ad lib a forgotten verse for a song he did at a wedding, and I've ended up doing a song in the wrong meter a couple times thanks to miscommunication with the accompanist. If you've ever had to perform regularly, there are times you forget lyrics, something goes wrong with an instrument, or a song is just poorly received, and you just have to tough it out. In those situations the song seems to take FOREVER and you can't think about anything but it ending. (And most likely, neither can anyone else.)

Twilight gets to sit with the other princesses in this episode, and I like the fact that she's still a little self-conscious as she takes her seat. Cadance's wave is a comforting move that brings her smile back. Twilight is also on point in her reactions to Spike's dilemma. Let's remember Twilight was in Spike's place once before...during the exam where she hatched Spike's egg. Once again, it's Cadance who calls for someone to help when Spike's fire won't light. Cadance's special concern for Spike throughout the episode is touching, and it reminds us that she's been a close friend of Twilight's family since before Spike came along.

Twilight does make a significant error in this episode, and I consider it a storytelling problem. She lets Spike go off by himself right after completely deflating him. Twilight should know that Spike needs to be NOT alone in times like this, and she's more than just his friend, she's his guardian. This is offset somewhat by the lesson that only Spike can make things better for himself, but Twilight doesn't come to that conclusion until a later scene. Maybe he's not in the mood to be encouraged, but at least cry with him or something. I think the scene where she finally goes and gets him is played well, but it's too long in coming. I belabor this point not just because of Twilight, but because a show about friendship really needs to pay attention to things like when a friend should or should not be left alone, and not just let a depressed character wander off because that's what the story needs them to do. I've sort of let that pass in previous reviews, but it's especially glaring here.

The other characters get little bits here and there. Dash's attempt to balance her enthusiasm in the teaser fits in with her season-long character development and may be intended as a payoff to the whole professionalism thing we got in Flight to the Finish. Scootaloo's follow-up brings the scene back to acceptable levels of Dashiness. The Crusaders are fun to watch in this episode, and I find it endearing that they're the ones who check on Spike, because they definitely know what public humiliation feels like. However, given what happened in Inspiration Manifestation, I would have loved to see Rarity spending some time with Spike, not to fish him out of his room, just to be with him the same way we saw him with her during her sulking last week. Perhaps we could just see her returning from such a visit and letting Twilight know he's still down.


Lesson: There's a nice early twist on the lesson aspect of this episode. After the torch-lighting scene, we're led to expect that Twilight's covert magic would be the issue, either a temptation to cheat (which we see addressed with the disabling spell) or trying to hide what she did throughout the story. Instead, she comes clean about her assistance right away, first to the ponies and then to Spike, and she does so without any thought of hiding it. As Spike tries to make up for his early failure, we're left hanging as to what lesson's going to be learned from all this, and I was impressed when I finally heard it. (I actually have "whoa" written down in my notes from the first viewing.) The lesson is expressed well both by Twilight and by Spike. To quote: "You keep saying you let everypony down, but we all keep saying you didn't. You know who's disappointed in you, Spike? You. And only you can make it right with you again." And from Spike's journal entry: "No matter how many times others tell you you're great, all the praise in the world means nothing if you don't feel it inside. Sometimes to feel good about yourself, you gotta let go of the past."

In a way, it's very similar to the lesson of Daring Don't (which was also written by Polsky), but whereas that moral focused on comparing yourself to others, this one has more to do with your own self-evaluation. Is it still a friendship lesson? Yes, because you can't be friendly if you can't accept expressions of love and appreciation from your friends, and you're less likely to do things for them if you think you'll only make things worse. In my own philosophy, my solution is maybe just don't think about yourself as much, period. But a healthy level of self-esteem works, too.

There is another minor lesson that's evident when we compare Spike's two incidents, and it's the difference between failure and fault. Fault exists when we've done something we shouldn't, or not done what we should. Spike "rushing in where angels fear to tread" in the anthem scene is a prime example. It's worth noting that the fault is the same whether the end result is failure or success. But failure can also exist without fault, as we see in the torch sequence, and when that happens, there's no cause for guilty feelings. In moments like that you just have to laugh at life's cruelty and move on.


Logic: Why no help from the princesses during the main crisis? Well, that's why we see that disabling spell earlier in the show, and it's even called out during the event as we're told there's no time to deactivate it. The princesses we know would insist on taking the spell themselves if it's required for all unicorns. They'd only need their powers briefly for sun and moon raising. And if you look closely, we do see Celestia and Luna flying to the ice-cloud at the end of the far shot. Connections: This concludes the Equestria Games arc that began with Games Ponies Play and also included Flight to the Finish and Rainbow Falls. Spike previously saved the empire in The Crystal Empire—Part 2, although he has made two visits since: a secret one in Just for Sidekicks and the one in Equestria Girls, whose story is generally kept separate from that of the TV series.

 

Resonance: Everything we see of the games themselves is awesome, which really makes me wish this was a two-parter. The ice archery event takes the cake, though. Just lots of wonderful fun. Ponyville's entrance is great, as is Twilight's cheering in response to it. Also awesome are the immediate heroic actions by the pegasi to stop the cloud-turned-iceberg, and the royal sisters flying up with them. Fluttershy also does some impressive flying at several points in the episode. Perhaps most impressive of all is the animators' managing to include 250 characters in this episode, including tons of cameos in the handful of large crowd shots we get.

The humor of the episode is effective as well, at least for me. "Mr. The Dragon" is comedy gold. I dig Spike's Streisand impression when he sees the statue of himself, and no one can act casual like Rainbow Dash. The torch scene feels like drama more than comedy, but the anthem scene is hilarious. I love the fact that the song just KEEPS GOING. It's cringe comedy done right, and it works because Spike sets himself up for it so presumptously. I find heartwarming all the nice things done for Spike or said to him in this episode. He both needs and deserves it.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: With so much build-up to this episode, both in the Hub's marketing and in the three previous Games stories, most viewers wanted and expected an episode focused on the events themselves, especially with some of our favorite ponies competing. I had thought the Games might be the setting for the season finale, and when this episode was announced, I still thought we'd be getting a real spectacle. By turning the focus to Spike, who has a reputation for getting weak stories, this show disappointed many as anticlimactic. As I've said above, Spike does very well this time around, and I love the story's lesson. But the torch sequence and a few other Spike-centered scenes seem too drawn out at the expense of scenes that could have shown us more of the games' events. What was Thunderlane up to? In what events was Appleloosa competing? Where are the crystal athletes? I think one good solution would be what the writers did last season with Just for Sidekicks and Games Ponies Play. Give us one episode focused on Twilight and Spike at the Games (and maybe the CMC), followed by one that takes place at the same time but focuses on the rest of the Mane Six and gives us a front row seat to the contests. And voila, you'd have two great episodes for the price of one.

There's a lot of clever writing in the episode as it stands. The anti-magic precaution makes a lot of sense and it's nice to know Equestria has that technology, though the gruffness of the guards and Rarity's annoyance prompt obvious parallels with the debate about the purpose and effectiveness of America's TSA. We've seen a lot of winning this season, whereas first-place finishes seem to have been actively avoided earlier in the series. So I'm happy to see the relay team take silver, with a medal count victory as compensation, and I'm especially happy to see Dash and Spitfire on good terms here after the ambiguity of Rainbow Falls' ending. Ms. Harshwinny's throwaway line about rock concerts may be an intentional foreshadowing of the upcoming Rainbow Rocks movie, even though I haven't noticed Spike pop up in any of the film's promotional shorts.

All in all, I consider this the most entertaining Spike-featured episode so far, even though I give it a relatively low ranking overall. The pacing issues and the misstep of a child character being left alone to sulk, as well as the anticlimactic conclusion to this story arc, keep this episode out of "excellent" territory. I rank it alongside Castle Mane-ia and Party of One, which are likewise fun episodes with multiple minor issues. Anyway, on to the finale.

 

Equestria Games armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 22nd of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 109th of 147 stories overall

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