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

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Episode 176: "Horse Play"

Aired 4/28/2018, written by Kaita Mpambara (his first episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Princess Celestia is overjoyed at Twilight Sparkle's offer to put on a play in honor of her upcoming regnal anniversary, but surprised when Twilight suggests Celestia be the star.
  • Act 1: Twilight assures Celestia she's fit for the role despite a lack of acting experience, but her friends express misgivings. Rehearsals reveal Celestia is a disaster as an actress.
  • Act 2: Against her friends' suggestions, Twilight refuses to address Celestia's ineptitude directly, instead placing her in an acting workshop where she improves not a bit. As the play's effects go awry just before the first performance, Twilight explodes in frustration, insulting Celestia within her hearing.
  • Act 3: Twilight pursues an angry Celestia, apologizing and receiving a stern rebuke. But Celestia does return to direct the play with Fluttershy taking her place.

Character: There was a time when I wondered if Princess Twilight had mastered friendship so well she would run out of lessons to learn. That's clearly not the case. In fact, considering a number of recent failures since late last season, it seems like she's regressed a bit. Now that's not a criticism of the writing. If the Mane Six were so solid on friendship that everything was cheery and perfect, it would be unrealistic and, frankly, boring. And there's a lesson even in that: Character development in real life isn't a steady upward slope. There are ups and downs, periods when we slide back to being less mature or less purely motivated than we once were. And that's why as long as we are in this life, we need to be always reforming.

At the same time, our slip-ups aren't arbitrary, nor do we just unlearn our lessons. There are patterns and reasons for why we regress, and this is one of MLP's best late episodes because the writer has clearly taken this into account. Twi's first error is a simple misjudgment. She makes the leap from Celestia's enthusiasm about having a play to assuming her greatest honor would be to star in it. She doesn't seem to contemplate a middle ground: that Celestia could be involved in the play (perhaps as a consultant or advisor on the historical events) without necessarily being cast as herself.

Her second error actually arises from her focus on friendship. She wants to offer a kind return for all Celestia's done for her, so she's determined to make this happen. She dismisses Celestia's and Spike's warnings because she's convinced the Princess's friendliness and her team's help will overcome any obstacles. This actually shows she's remembering her recent lessons and successes, where that turned out to be the case.

Twilight's third and final error is refusing to directly address Celestia's hopelessness in her role, not just to spare her feelings, but because she would be breaking a promise to her and failing to make her dream come true. From the very beginning, Twilight's core desire has been personal excellence in achieiving her goals, and her accompanying greatest fear is falling short of others' expectations of her, most especially Princess Celestia's. She's now in a position to use her long-established determination and resolve to fill Celestia's heart with joy. Ironically, the path she chooses ends up breaking that heart. She lets this one noble intention override the other elements of friendship, but this is because of her strengths, not in spite of them.

This episode finally reveals how long Celestia has been on the throne: 1,111 years as of this season. This helps clarify all the "thousand" and "over a thousand" references we hear about various events. Evidently the founding of Equestria, the Royal Sisters' taking the throne, Star Swirl's disappearance, the reign of Discord, the finding of the Elements on the Tree of Harmony, the defeat of King Sombra, and the banishing of Nightmare Moon all happened over the course of barely a century. The story of the play also indicates that Celestia was simply one of Star Swirl's students, who discovered she could raise the sun without losing her magic. How this relates to her cutie mark and her alicorn status, and where Luna fits in, are left unresolved for now.

Princess Celestia is the most wonderful thing about this episode. It's a thrill to hear Nicole Oliver get to put her own exhuberance and comic talent to use, but also equally impressive to hear how perfectly she conveys Celestia's anger and heartbreak later on. I love how extensive and straightforward her talk with Twilight is; this is the kind of dialogue I live for. I also enjoy the confidence Celestia shows as she puts the ponies to work to save the play.

Acting is something I haven't done since junior high, and I have immense respect for the talent it takes to do it well. Any voice actor will tell you the training and experience it takes to excel; it's not just about wearing costumes or making funny voices. And it's not uncommon for non-actor celebrities to do a poor job playing themselves. Celestia was evidently around plays enough to know this, and she very specifically cautions Twilight about the fact she has no acting experience. She only appears confident about her acting once Twilight tells her she's doing great. The fact Twilight places her in this position of oblivious ineptitude is more sad than funny, and I think the tone of the scenes brings that drama across pretty well.

Spike is prominent here. In rehearsal he's in a director's chair as he was once before, but ultimately he's the narrator, as he was when Celestia cast Twilight and her friends as the star of their own play. It's funny how things come full circle, and in fact all three plays are set in the same general time period. This is "good Spike," the one who's helpful and loyal to Twilight, acts as a stand-in for the audience's questions and observations, and generally handles his comic relief status with aplomb. It's great that he keeps his sense of humor even as the Ponyville crowd proves to be as fickle as ever.

Fluttershy's narration in rehearsal is excellent, but her penchant for stagefright is not forgotten. Celestia masterfully calms her down for the actual performance, a nice callback both to Celestia's apparent soft spot for Fluttershy, and to Flutter's previous turn as Celestia in Testing Testing 1, 2, 3.

Applejack too is at her best this week. She was going to be honest with Celestia right away, and she maintains her integrity throughout the story. But when the truth is discovered, she forgoes the chance to say "I told you so" and instead rallies the team to make something of the play while Twilight reconciles with the Princess. I love how Celestia even guesses that Applejack had advised Twilight to tell the truth from the beginning.

Off to the side we have a couple more groups to notice. The Student Six are included here. It's not relevant to the plot, but I would have liked to see the students share their thoughts about getting to share the stage with Celestia.

Last we have the Method Mares, returning from Made in Manehattan. They're put to good use here: Celestia ends up using their advice on three occasions. But their dismayed response to the Princess's struggles helps set up a serious way of perceiving the situation. It's in the background, but Raspberry Beret is actually crying from frustration, and it's not played for laughs. Her one chance to work with royalty has come to...this.


Lesson: You can't miss the moral on this one. But any heavy-handedness is offset by the skillful way the message develops. As I mentioned, it's a totally understandable and in-character dilemma for Twilight, but just as understandably upsetting a betrayal from Celestia's perspective. And to Twilight's credit, rather than ignore the problem or just plain lie, she takes a mostly valid approach by giving her mentor a workshop, though it's still not approached honestly and her false assurances exacerbate the situation.

The word "trust" comes up a time or two, and Twilight's fault is compounded by the fact that as director she's trusted by the other actors to give honest feedback so that they can bring forth their best performance. It's true that people don't need to hear every critical thought that crosses our minds. I haven't contacted the writers with a list of my least favorite episodes. But friends often lean on each other and trust each other to help them be their best selves. If we see a friend struggling, slipping, or simply starting down the wrong path in a matter we know won't end well, we owe it to them to say what we need to say—lovingly, mercifully, and humbly. After that, it's on them, but if we give them false assurances, we bear responsibility if we encouraged them toward a bad outcome.


Resonance: I've mentioned the serious undertone in the midst of all the fun of this episode. It's subtle until we get to the climax, and then it's a major gut punch. This is a break we've only seen before on a couple brief occasions. Twilight and Celestia are about the closest of any two characters in the series, and it hurts to see her let down the pony she practically worships in her effort to repay her for all she's done. It's just as sad from Celestia's perspective. She has always been extremely understanding and forgiving. But Twilight's stubbornness in her dishonesty isn't just disappointing; it contradicts all the years Celestia has invested in her, and Twilight absolutely knows better.

But there's plenty of happy in this episode as well. We even get a sonic rainboom of excitedness from our favorite Wonderbolt. There's cuteness in the form of the Student Six's costumes and performances, and even though I prefer my ponies posed as quadrupeds, Celestia has an adorable sitting posture during the workshop. And the shot of Fluttershy showered with roses in appreciation is so wonderful I almost teared up.

If you want to watch this episode for the laughs, there's plenty of funny, including more cartoony faces. Pinkie Pie crawls into her party cannon for no apparent reason at one point, and Starlight puts in an inadvertent jab at Twilight for not being a "Princess princess." Silverstream's melodramatic fainting and subsequent corpsing are hilarious, as is the firework cameo from Trixie. Don't miss Pinkie blowing out Twilight's smoldering horn just as she reaches her breaking point. Luna is amusingly unimpressed with the raising of the sun, and one of the audience's "wows" has a little laugh to it that I chuckle at. And this is the second episode in a row to close on a decent punchline.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: For what it's worth, I don't think Celestia's final lines suggest she was only pretending to be a bad actress earlier. She's genuinely hurt in the reveal scene, and I just don't think she's so unkind as to put Twilight through all that as a secret test of character. That's more Discord's thing.

What stands out most for me here is the portrayal of Twilight and Celestia's relationship as a full-on friendship rather than the teacher/student dynamic we've seen so much of. Their nighttime flying scene is beautifully drawn and colored, as is the updated Canterlot throne room. With a great lesson delivery, keen character work, and the best dialogue I've seen this season, I count this my favorite episode of the year so far, just edging out the season premiere.

 

Horse Play armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 4th of 26 season-eight episodes
Ranked 54th of 233 stories overall

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