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

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Episode 84: "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils"

Aired 3/22/2014, written by Dave Polsky (his tenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Sweetie Belle asks Rarity for help putting the finishing touches on some costumes for her play. Rarity agrees, despite being busy with outfits for Sapphire Shores.
  • Act 1: Rarity completely redesigns Sweetie Belle's costumes, and their brilliance overshadows all other aspects of Sweetie Belle's play. Sweetie accuses Rarity of deliberately outshining her.
  • Act 2: Still upset that night, Sweetie sneaks into Rarity's room and removes a critical stitch in Sapphire's crown. Luna then shows her in a dream the goodness of Rarity's intentions and the danger to Rarity's career if Sweetie doesn't mend her ways. SB awakens to find Rarity and the outfits already gone.
  • Act 3: The Cutie Mark Crusaders travel to Canterlot in time to snatch the crown away from Rarity, and Sweetie Belle meets Luna, who helps her repair and even improve the crown. Sapphire is pleased with her outfits, and Sweetie Belle confesses to Rarity and gains her forgiveness.

Character: The plot summary above doesn't do justice to the strong character work and interactions of this episode. By now, Sweetie Belle has been featured in nine episodes, alongside either Rarity or the other Crusaders, and she's as well realized a character as any of the Mane Six. While she definitely takes after her sister in certain ways (once again she settles into bed the same way Rarity did in Look Before You Sleep), Sweetie's differences really come out in this episode (e.g., her rant about ribbon colors). It's interesting to see this story follow closely on the heels of Somepony to Watch Over Me, but whereas Apple Bloom's desire for independence was a natural part of growing up, which Applejack actively resisted, Sweetie Belle's problem here is a matter of long-standing resentment which is based on her own misperceptions, and which Rarity isn't even aware of. The root of Sweetie Belle's grudge, revealed to us with a perspective-flipped flashback, involves Rarity's assistance at SB's fifth birthday party. It's a little odd that their parents aren't on the scene, but recalling the limited perspective Luna is presenting here, it's possible they're in the kitchen or something. In any case, the scene predates Rarity and Sweetie Belle's spat in Sisterhooves Social and sheds light on Sweetie Belle's desire to pitch in and do things for her sister in that story.

Sweetie Belle's act of revenge is a rare instance of one of the show's main characters deliberately doing something totally immoral and taking delight in it, with no magical corruption, bouts of insanity, or other extraordinary compulsion. The reason the attitudes and dispositions of the heart are so important from a moral perspective is that bad behavior starts there. In real life, all of us have moments like this, and it's a credit to the show's honesty that Sweetie Belle's attitude translates into a hurtful action.

(One minor but significant note: Sweetie Belle is getting more adept at using her magic. Likewise, Scootaloo is almost able to fly up to a high window.)

Rarity is the victim here, and her intentions are good all the way through. Yet it's one of her established bad habits that sets off Sweetie Belle's anger. As generous as she is, Rarity's typical way of showing generosity is to help without asking first, and to do so in her own style instead of a style appropriate to the pony she's helping. This isn't to discount the fact that what Rarity does for Sweetie Belle is an act of self-sacrifical love. But that sort of projection is one reason why sincere acts of love sometimes go unappreciated. The same flaw also shows up in other characters: namely Pinkie Pie, whose communication is hindered by her failure to realize no one else thinks lke she does, and Twilight Sparkle, whose allegiance to traditional teaching methods will discourage Rainbow Dash a couple episodes from now. Rarity doesn't learn the lesson here, so this problem is bound to show up again.

On a minor note, as we recall that Sweetie Belle lives not with Rarity but with her parents, we may assume she's sleeping in a guest room. This explains the queen-sized bed, and the toybox is there for Sweetie whenever she stays over.

Princess Luna's dream-walking with Sweetie Belle is somewhat different from her visit with Scootaloo in last season's Sleepless in Ponyville. Here she's guiding the course of Sweetie Belle's dream, showing her things Sweetie doesn't know about, including a possible future and elements from the dreams of Sapphire Shores. Luna's abilities hint at knowledge beyond what we might have expected from the royal sisters, but she leaves it to Sweetie Belle to fix her problem herself, showing up to lend a hoof only when SB has done all she can. Luna's warnings, referencing her past rift with Celestia, not only hint at a possible dark future for Sweetie Belle that needs to be avoided, but also suggest a possible "Atoner" motivation for Luna's dream-walking. I have to wonder, has Luna forgiven herself for what she did a thousand years ago?


Lesson: An abundance of potential lessons here: the fact that the nicest of us can be driven to be mean and nasty, the lengths to which we should go to make things right when we've done wrong, the possibility of good deeds being misunderstood (both ours by others and others' by us), the danger of holding grudges and even little acts of revenge, etc. Ultimately, the dialogue places the emphasis on jealousy. It's bad enough in and of itself, but it's often based on a misunderstanding the other person may not even remember, and it can lead to unforeseeable consequences. We also see how jealousy turns what could have been a night of celebration for Sweetie Belle into a night of hostility that ends with her punching her pillow in rage. About twenty years ago, a friend of mine said jealousy is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Like so many vices, jealousy isn't just unfriendly, it's self-destructive.

Most Aesop-driven children's shows address jealousy at one point or another. I appreciate the execution of this particular episode because of its realism. It's forthright about the experience and effects of envy and manages to be intense without a lot of exaggeration. What exaggeration there is can be justified by the dream setting of the second act. Adding to the credibility of this episode is the context of the series, both Rarity's Element and habits and Sweetie Belle's sometimes turbulent relationship with her. Their words and actions thus feel very natural.

This is one of several entries in the series where the scene of confession/forgiveness really stands out to me. "Please forgive me" and "I forgive you" are both explicit here, and neither party tries to downplay what happened. One special aspect to this scene is the fact that it all comes at Sweetie Belle's initiative, since Rarity doesn't even know wrong has been done until Sweetie Belle tells her.


Logic: Sweetie Belle's fifth birthday party establishes a new "preschool" body type for ponies, to add to the baby, child, teen, young adult, middle aged, and elderly types. Further, I believe this is the first time a pony's age has been numbered in years, aside from 1,000+-year-old characters. The other children's vocabulary sounds older than we'd expect of a human five-year-old (e.g., keel over, fiasco). Rarity still looks like an adult in the flashback, but this obviously takes place prior to the series. It's evident to me that Equestrian ponies grow in spurts, probably going from one body type to the next in a matter of weeks or months, then stabilizing for a number of years. If Rarity had an adult body type a couple years before season one, that helps us estimate the ages of the Mane Six, and with help from The Cutie Mark Chronicles and the time markers in the show, the age of the CMC isn't hard to guess. I'll leave the rest as an exercise for the reader. Connections: Sapphire Shores first ordered from Rarity in A Dog and Pony Show. Sweetie Belle's predilection for writing and trouble with fabric were established in The Show Stoppers. Rarity once shut herself up in the boutique for days in Suited for Success. Princess Luna previously appeared in Scootaloo's dreams in Sleepless in Ponyville.

 

Resonance: Everything's here, as is common for my favorite episodes. There's plenty of humor: the butchered Elizabethan lines in the play, the Crusaders' short-lived determination to be "gracious, modest, classy," the dig at show tunes, the CMC's interaction with the bodyguard, and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo's squeaky slide down the window. Within the dream sequence, I laughed at Sweetie Belle's pondering of the "maniacal laughing Rarity-cloud" and her cartoonish roll down the stairway in the form of a fluffy, white cylinder. The Crusaders' mostly successful zipline trick was fun to watch as well.

From the last scene of the first act onward, this is mostly a serious episode. Much of the dream sequence is very sad: We're reminded once again of Luna's past and the memories she has to live with, and both versions of the birthday party have their own sadness: first, Rarity's (supposed) appalling takeover of the party, then the fact that Sweetie Belle's guests were ready to ditch her, and either way, the fact that she spent the day of her party alone in tears after all her preparations. From there we move to the nightmare sequence, which is one of the most unsettling montages in the show. More reality-based than Scootaloo's nightmares, the images get more jarring even after Sweetie begs for Luna to stop. The final portion seems a lot longer than the 90 seconds it lasts, and it's that much worse since Luna is absent from that part of the dream.

Things lighten up a bit during the third act, but we still feel the tension of the uncorrected and unconfessed crime until the conclusion. But the CMC's antics lighten the mood a little to keep the story from being too intense, and the reconciliation scene is full of the best kind of warm fuzzies. One heartwarming moment that deserves mention is the fact that the Mane Six (even Rainbow Dash) help with Sapphire Shores' order, which is significant after what Rarity put the others through in the Manehattan episode.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: The title is, of course, a reference to the famous line from John Donne's Meditation 17—or the Hemingway novel, take your pick. (Just please don't say the phrase was coined by Metallica!) The creators made some bold decisions in the way this story's lesson is presented, and I'm impressed with the number of layers, implications, and secondary lessons that lie beneath the surface of the main story. This episode also illustrates the sharper, chillier atmosphere of Rarity and Sweetie Belle's relationship when compared to the Applejack/Apple Bloom episodes. That conflict and the fact that it's usually played for drama are an example of the wise risk-taking that raises this series above the level of many others. Then there are the little details: the return of Rarity's sewing glasses, Scootaloo's cute little hops after the play, Spike's attendance of the play and his kindness to the Crusaders afterwards, Opal's appearance, the dolphins swimming with Sweetie Belle, and the shot of the backup dancers sweaty and tired during rehearsal, offset by the encouragement and praise they get from Sapphire. One nitpicky criticism I could give is the human applause sound effects during and after the play (more claps than clops), along with the weird postures in the audience. Go back to The Last Roundup and check out the Ponyville crowd, standing and stomping, complete with camera shakes as their hooves strike the ground. That's how to do it.

On repeated viewings, I've been struck by the parallels between Sweetie Belle and Twilight Sparkle. Her magic-powered opening of the costume box reminds me of Twilight's opening of Smarty Pants' chest in Lesson Zero. The Christmas Carol-style dream recalls Twilight's visions in the season premiere. When Sweetie Belle follows Luna into a starry void, the setting and the ethereal music behind it are similar to the "Twilight zone" where Twi and Celestia meet in Magical Mystery Cure. Add to this Twilight's tutoring of Sweetie Belle in magic a few episodes back, and...I'm not sure what to make of it all yet, but the writers may be up to something here. It may simply be that unicorns' magical power requires a special degree of self-restraint that Sweetie has yet to learn, but we haven't seen Rarity struggle with that so far.

With all the aspects of this episode considered together, we end up with one of the series' best slice-of-life episodes. I rank it just above Lesson Zero and recommend it as a great example of what sets MLP:FiM apart as excellent, high-quality animation.

 

For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 5th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 25th of 147 stories overall

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