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

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Episode 157: "Fame and Misfortune"

Aired 8/12/2017, written by M.A. Larson (his eighteenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: When Twilight Sparkle draws on an old friendship lesson to resolve a dispute between two fillies, she looks up her old Friendship Journal, which is now tattered and worn.
  • Act 1: With Starlight Glimmer's help, Twilight magically creates fresh copies of the journal for each of the Mane Six and gets their permission to publish it. Sales are spectacular, and Twilight gives one copy to the two fillies. But she then encounters fans who only have the journal to get her autograph, and readers who despise Rarity's entries.
  • Act 2: Pinkie Pie finds herself thought of only as a comedian, Rainbow Dash is mobbed by foals, Fluttershy is being bullied by critics, Rarity's business is failing, and Applejack can't get a moment's rest from ponies presuming upon her hospitality.
  • Act 3: Blaming herself for her friends' plight, Twilight addresses a hostile crowd outside the castle and tries to explain that she and her friends are simply normal, flawed individuals trying to learn and teach lessons about friendship. As the crowd continues bickering over their preferences, the two foals thank Twilight for the lessons they've learned, and Fluttershy reminds Twilight and her friends that they can't control other ponies' opinions of them.

Character: I've mentioned a time or two that I liked seeing the ponies write down their lessons, whether as letters to Princess Celestia or entries in the Journal. It makes the point of the episodes clearer to the viewer but is also helpful for the characters: Writing is organized thought. In putting pen to paper you're forced to consider what idea you want to express and how best to put it into words. And then you've created a record of those thoughts for yourself and others to return to. That's especially helpful for the Mane Six as they've become teachers of friendship over the past few seasons. But keeping up a journal takes discipline; I've never been able to stick to it. So it's understandable, though still disappointing, that the Mane Six have let theirs gather dust and various other debris. (I'm not knocking the show here; from a Doylist perspective, ditching the journal has allowed the writers to find fresh ways to deliver an episode's moral and keep the series from being too formulaic.) And it's a happy and short logical leap from rediscovering the journal to wanting to share it. Twilight's valuing of books and learning work to everypony's betterment here, at least for those who are teachable.

Of special note here is the song, where we get to hear each of the Mane Six describe themselves and their imperfections in their own words. Applejack acknowledges being overly honest and eager to please (two traits that often work against each other). Fluttershy admits the slow pace of her building confidence. Pinkie notes that her constant joking around causes others to question her sincerity; they can't tell when she's in "serious mode." Rainbow (fittingly) has the most positive take on herself, tying her big ego to her confidence, and Rarity knows she's a stuck-up drama queen. Twilight makes it through the song without confessing any quirks of her own, but that's ok since she's been berating herself through most of the story.

As far as these characters have come, we may forget that the series first introduced each one with predominantly negative characteristics. In the premiere, Twilight was a self-righteous ivory-tower know-it-all who wasn't interested in friendship. Rainbow Dash was a temperamental show-off who was quick to be suspicious or laugh at others. Rarity was superficial and pushy; Fluttershy was utterly indecisive and timid almost to the point of paralysis. Pinkie was friendly but random and prone to cause misunderstanding. Applejack got a positive introduction in the first story, but her prideful stubbornness was the focus of the fourth episode. Yet their potential as bearers of the Elements was also visible from the get-go. Their resemblance to the Elements they represent has always been a "work in progress."

Starlight Glimmer wasn't around in the journal-keeping days, but she really shines here as she takes Spike's usual place as Twilight's encourager and confidant. (Spike's not around for this one, and considering the "meta" aspect of the story, that's probably for the best.) I love the support she gives to Twilight, as well as her standing up for Rarity and Fluttershy. Trust Starlight to be the one bold enough to straight-out tell Twilight to cut out the self-blaming. But you have to feel for Twilight here; nothing hurts her more than thinking she's caused harm to her friends, and they're too waylaid by the fallout from the journal to give her their own reassurances that she's not at fault.

Writer M.A. Larson has confirmed this is a "meta" episode, a story about the MLP series itself and people's reactions to it. (He's also mentioned that he doesn't care for metafiction himself but was assigned the premise nonetheless; ironically, he also ended up writing the very meta hundredth episode, which was originally going to go to Amy Keating Rogers.) The result is that the crowds here represent the viewers, and perhaps more specifically, the more negative aspects of the fandom, whereas the more positive side is seen in the two foals, Toola Roola and Coconut Cream. For what it's worth, the worst of the bunch are outsiders and others we don't usually see in Ponyville. Most of the familiars are only there to support their favorite pony.

I want to make one observation before moving on: Here and in other episodes, when Fluttershy gets assertive, she sounds downright vicious, whereas Pinkie's yells just sound like she's upset. I think it's a marvelous way to differentiate the two characters, since it hints at what's going on inside the characters in their more composed moments: frustration in Flutter's case, and volatility in Pinkie's. I wouldn't want to be on either's bad side; if one of them went totally off the deep end, Pinkie might lash out unpredictably, but I fear Fluttershy would be calculating and ruthless.


Lesson: Honestly, if you watch this show for something other than the friendship lessons, I think that's okay. The series is fun, it's pretty, it's exciting, it's uplifting, it's excellently done. But Twilight is singing my song when she says the lessons are the point of this whole enterprise. And it's easy to overanalyze. When I was in seminary, I sometimes found myself evaluating sermons in church instead of applying the message to my life. Too easily I forgot I was there to hear the Word because I needed to learn and grow. On a more earthly level, MLP offers viewers the chance to become a better person. From the writers' perspective, the morals aren't just a marketing ploy (yes, that thought even makes it into the episode) or a gimmick to get an "E/I" bug in the corner of the screen. This series has changed lives, and even saved lives, by its message, and in my experience, the viewers who've contributed the most to the fandom have done so out of gratitude for how MLP has guided them toward becoming a better person. Every fandom includes people like those in the angry crowd, and the impulsivity and false sense of distance of the Internet cultivate the negativity online. But the fans I've met at conventions have mostly come together to celebrate the positivity of the series' lessons and its valuing of friendship. They get it, and I love seeing the creators' faces light up when they meet people who are paying attention and learning.

As for the anti-friendship Twilight encounters, these are all things that ought to be called out. As it's said on TV Tropes, some anvils need to be dropped. I have my theories as to why attitudes of entitlement and tribalism are so visible in today's culture. They're flaws that are easy to see in others but hard to discern in one's self. Becoming aware of it, seeing it for what it is in a context that may reveal if you've become a part of it, is the first step to escaping the negativity. Bullies can become kind; broken relationships can heal; friends can reconcile. But it's the heart that must change first, and to do that it has to soften.

The song "Flawless" carries its own lesson, that not just neutral differences but even flaws can bind and strengthen friendships and make people special. That doesn't make them not flaws or discourage self-improvement. After all, in its simplest form, learning involves getting something wrong and then getting it right. Nobody gets to skip step one. And the events of your life, your choices and your habits, both good and bad, are what have made you who you are. Even the worst things about you are still you. Poets have likened lives to woven tapestries that are a mess of knots and criss-crosses on the reverse side but form a masterful picture on the front. That image gave us a quote from everyone's favorite captain: "There were loose threads, untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life." Help your friends become their best self, but love them as they are.

Near the very end, Fluttershy slips in a lesson for the Mane Six, one that helps resolve Twilight's dilemma and is a good reminder for anyone who creates a work for public consumption–and the public criticism that comes with it: Others will think what they will, of us and of what we've created. All we can change is how we let it affect us. The course of your life is set not so much by what happens to you as by how you respond to it. (Naturally, there are exceptions.) And that doesn't mean you have to just put up with others' hostility. There's no shame in "staying in the friendship moment" among true friends, doing something else you love with those who appreciate your efforts.


Resonance: Reactions to this episode are bound to be subjective, depending on how you see yourself, and how you believe the show's creators feel about their viewership. Some will take offense or feel underappreciated or even under attack. Others will give the same "go get 'em" nod that Twilight gave Glimglam. I found myself cheering. The abundant negativity is offset by the silly and clever ways it's presented, and the main character's effort to deal with it is mature, well-intentioned, sensitive, or at least entertaining.

My heart is warmed by the presence of Fluttershy fans in the crowd, and the visual pun of Fluttershy "coming out of her shell" in a Birth of Venus reference is my favorite single moment of the episode. I laugh at the double fakeout we get during Twilight's summation, as her lofty speech is first interrupted and the song is met with short, stony silence before everypony goes back to bickering. Other little fun bits include Rare Find getting a surprise free sundae and Rarity addressing Applejack as "pony who still likes me."

There's fodder here for drama too, depending on how seriously you want to take the characters' predicament. For example, as much as Rarity's grief is played for laughs, anypony as image-conscious as she is would feel quite a sting from the sort of criticism she receives. Having seen a few episodes ahead as I write this, it's no surprise to me that Rarity suffers something of a relapse later in the season.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It's probably appeared a few times before, but this is the first time I really noticed the new playground since Crusaders of the Lost Mark. I was happy to notice that the published journal apparently includes some older lessons (prior to season four).

The creation of the Mane Six's journal copies is beautifully animated, and I love the visuals for Flawless. There's some clever parallel animation going on in the choruses, with only two recurring shots. And I'm not sure whether this is intentional or not; if it is, it's pretty funny: As Applejack attends to would-be family members on the farm, we see Candy Apples, who's already an actual member of the family. Perhaps in all the excitement she forgot this?

Amidst all the analysis, let us not forget that the writers, actors, directors, and even Hasbro execs are real people who desire neither to be idolized nor demonized, or to have the worst motives assumed about them. Their work and public presentation are fair subjects for fair critique, but let's keep it constructive. Many of them are wonderful people; all the ones I've met have at least been courteous. But if you find some of them less than impressive, consider that even their flaws may have somehow contributed crucially and positively to the content we enjoy.

This may be my most controversial near-favorite episode, though frankly I'm not too concerned. I rank it just above Slice of Life, just five spots below the Genji tier, which gains it Crystal Armor.

 

Fame and Misfortune armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 6th of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 20th of 175 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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