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

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Episode 70: "Flight to the Finish"

Aired 12/14/2013, written by Ed Valentine (his first episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Ms. Harshwinny and Rainbow Dash announce that Cheerilee's class will compete to carry Ponyville's flag for the Equestria Games.
  • Act 1: The Cutie Mark Crusaders decide on a presentation focused on Ponyville's three types of ponies, confident they can win by sheer determination. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon expect to win instead.
  • Act 2: The Crusaders' first run-through goes so well that their rivals intervene by mocking Scootaloo's inability to fly. Scoot is convinced that the CMC can only win if she can learn to fly. Her obsession ultimately causes the three to break up.
  • Act 3: Dash learns Scootaloo has dropped out and leads Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle to retrieve her. Scootaloo rejoins the team and the CMC win the competition.

Character: This is the second episode to focus on Scootaloo's insecurities. But unlike Sleepless in Ponyville, it's not just about impressing Rainbow Dash; her own sense of self-worth is at stake. The courage and determination the Crusaders sing about in "Hearts Strong as Horses" (with Claire Corlett doing her own singing now) characterizes all three of them, but Scootaloo usually exceeds even this by her confidence and initiative. Her weakness, shared with the other Crusaders, is her focus on trying as hard as she can to grow up. In the early days this meant all-day crusading for cutie marks. By now, the "blank flank" routine is old news, ineffective as a taunt, and the actual desire for a cutie mark is almost an afterthought in this episode. However, both Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are behind in other important ways: We have yet to see Sweetie Belle use magic, beyond a spark in One Bad Apple and a horn on the fritz in Princess Twilight Sparkle—Part 1. And Scootaloo has only used her wings to hover, slow-jump, and propel her scooter. It makes sense that this would be a sore spot for her, and she's not the type to open up about things like this, so it's no surprise she hasn't brought it up before now.

One other observation about Scootaloo: Insecurities are often the result of self-focus and lead to even more self-focus. Others notice the resulting obsessive self-centeredness but fail to see that you're hurting. As you become bitter over your predicament, your whole demeanor is very off-putting and that leads to isolation, which makes the insecurities even worse. It's a very realistic downward spiral that storytellers seldom pick up on, but it's called out explicitly in this episode.

Sweetie Belle is sympathetic to Scootaloo's plight, at least compared to Apple Bloom, and only reluctantly goes along with the team's short-lived break-up. As we saw in Sisterhooves Social, AB has strong family support and a purpose at Sweet Apple Acres; a cutie mark is the only thing she lacks. So Apple Bloom doesn't quite understand what the big deal is. Sweetie Belle also remembers the pain of her break with Rarity in that episode, but neither she nor Apple Bloom quite grasp Rainbow Dash's sense of loyalty until they're reminded of it. They're portrayed very much as children here, feeling the situation as we'd expect them to but without the conscious set of values the Mane Six have ,developed. This is as it should be, and it justifies the inclusion of these fillies among the cast as a way of teaching lessons the adults have presumably already learned.

Rainbow Dash's role in this episode furthers her efforts at developing self-restraint, and her back-and-forthing is hilarious. But it's not just a gag: she's given an in-story reason for her vacillation, and it furthers the plot by giving mixed signals to the Crusaders, leaving them uncertain about the quality of their performance. Rainbow isn't one for lectures, but her words to Scootaloo at the end make up one of my favorite speeches in the entire series. She recognizes that what Scootaloo admires about her isn't her flying ability but her smooth confidence, and that's something Scootaloo already possesses, as noted above. As this series progresses, I hope to see more of the Mane Six serving as mentors and teaching the lessons they've learned.

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon are verbal bullies as usual, and this episode follows the pattern of making Silver Spoon just a tad less certain about all this than Diamond Tiara. It's a follow-the-leader situation that leaves me thinking Silver could be reformed if we could just get her away from Diamond. Alternately, if Diamond Tiara ever discovers kindness, Silver Spoon is sure to follow. What I like most about their portrayal here is its consistency with previous episodes in showing that their bullying isn't personal but is a means to an end (winning the competition).

On a minor note, I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees a bit of Marlene Dietrich in Ms. Harshwinny's mannerisms.


Lesson: Front and center is Scootaloo's predicament, and many fans expected this to be a Very Special Episode about dealing with disabilities. Instead, the show wisely tackles the issue with its usual tone and in the context of friendship. Scootaloo's flying is possibly only delayed, but in any case we all have different abilities and skills. Everyone is a necessarily different piece of the pony puzzle, a point also made in Winter Wrap Up, Magical Mystery Cure, Equestria Girls, and other episodes. "That was me, you're you" is one of the most concise ways of communicating this, and I have already found opportunity to use the expression in my own teaching.

Related to this is the issue of individual identity vs. group identity. If you're thinking of Ponyville as diverse because it includes three types of ponies, it's easy to describe it with generalizations such as, "Earth ponies are strong, pegasi fly, and unicorns can use magic." But Pinkie Pie and Cheerilee are much more than just earth ponies, Derpy is not your average pegasus, and Snips and Snails could hardly be described by simply noting that they're unicorns. You, reader, are not primarily white or black, American or Canadian, or even brony. You are defined by your own individually characteristic patterns of thought and behavior. The patterns that statistically pervade a group define the group as a category, but not necessarily the individuals within it. Moreover, your obligation toward another person comes not because "So-and-so is in the same group as me," but because "So-and-so is my friend" (or simply a fellow person).

That brings us to the other featured moral of the episode, interpersonal loyalty. "A team never leaves a friend behind." Rainbow Dash is shocked and appalled at the Crusaders' failure here, and her in-character solution is to lead by example and get the team back together. Tone-wise, the story handles this well by pulling drama out of a rare conflict among the CMC, spending just a moment on a mild sting of rebuke, and following up with a triumphant payoff that leaves the team stronger and more unified than it was before.


Connections: Ms. Harshwinny and the Equestria Games were introduced in Games Ponies Play.

 

Resonance: Kudos to the creators for their effective but restrained use of the tearjerker moments we were all expecting from this story. It's played light compared to what it could have been, but Scootaloo's moment watching the other fillies fly and her despair at the end are quite powerful due to the voicing, animation, and music. The fact that the animators are no longer using the too-familiar stock effects for teary eyes really helps.

Standouts for the humor here are Bulk Biceps startled by a butterfly during the song, and everything involving Ms. Harshwinny. I wouldn't have expected her to be one of my favorite characters to watch, but there you go. The scooter-skiing through town during the reprise is pure, distilled awesome, retracing and outdoing Scootaloo's previous tricks from The Show Stoppers and Sleepless in Ponyville, and it's nicely capped off by a cut to the end of the performance in the Crystal Empire. That whole sequence is masterfully done. I believe Tim Packford and the other storyboarders get the credit for that sequence.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: This story is an excellent example of MLP's ability to lightly touch on a sensitive issue, drawing hard realities into the world of Equestria and raising the topic for discussion, without making the episode ham-handed or overly serious. Once again this season we see a new writer (with a few episodes under his belt from The Fairly OddParents and Ultimate Spider-Man) capturing the tone of this unique show. The care with which every stage of production is done here is remarkable.

It's worth noting that the Crusaders actually win this competition, which would be a given on any other series, but major characters rarely come in first on MLP:FiM. Here it works because of the buildup and timing of the team's reunion, and it helps set up whatever the writers have planned for the Games story arc. I am delighted to see my favorite minor pony, Roseluck, reintroduced in the background here (twice) after a long absence; she last appeared in Putting Your Hoof Down. I do hope to see more of her.

Animation is high-quality as usual, and I smiled when I saw the fillies on the train actually sitting like ponies. That makes up for Scootaloo doing sit-ups earlier. (Seriously, a pony should not be able to put its forelegs behind its head. It hurts just to look at it.)

I'm trying not to be too generous with the ratings this season, but Flight to the Finish thoroughly earns its Diamond equipment. A wonderful episode, and the new best to focus on the CMC sans the regular cast.

 

Flight to the Finish armor rating: Diamond Vest
Ranked 11th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 62nd of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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