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

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Episode 29: "Lesson Zero"

Aired 10/15/2011, written by Meghan McCarthy (her fifth episode)
  • Intro: Twilight Sparkle and Spike gather materials for the day's checklist.
  • Act 1: Twilight picks up cupcakes for a picnic with her friends, briefly flustered by a lagniappe but pleased that the day is on schedule, until Spike reveals she hasn't written her weekly friendship letter. She is instantly struck with fear of being tardy.
  • Act 2: Twilight tries to help Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy but finds that they don't currently have any problems worthy of a letter. Growing desperate, she pleads with her friends at the picnic but they laugh off her concerns.
  • Act 3: In hope of creating a problem to solve, Twilight uses a spell to make the Cutie Mark Crusaders fight over a doll. The spell gets out of hoof and the entire town battles for the doll. At sunset, Princess Celestia arrives, reverses the spell, and sets Twilight straight. Twilight's friends defend her, and Celestia's solution is to have each of the friends write letters when (and only when) they learn something new about friendship.

Character: I consider this and Boast Busters to be the definitive episodes for Twilight's anxieties. Her relationship with Celestia predates her Ponyville friendships, and while her dialogue focuses on her objective responsibilities as a student, the personal angle is definitely there beneath the surface. We already saw in A Bird in the Hoof that Twilight sees Celestia's royal position as a volatile thing, though here her fear is made more credible as an outgrowth of Twilight's own personality. It's also worth pointing out that Smarty Pants is exactly the sort of doll we might expect Twilight to have had as a filly, and occasionally we even see Twilight being quite the intelligent donkey herself, or words to that effect.

She may not get to do much, but in terms of pure aesthetics, Princess Celestia is one of the most fascinating characters on the show, due to split-second facial expressions that are often open to interpretation, and a voice that is usually so warm and inviting it convinces you all is right with the universe, but also a voice that when cold is downright icy and makes you feel like no one loves you. It's implied that her rebuke of Twilight has just concluded as the library scene opens, so we're spared the lecture. Her "I'm listening" is the perfect response to the friends' objection, polite and inviting but revealing nothing about her own understanding of the situation. She plays her cards close as always, and it's ambiguous whether Twilight's forgone "punishment" is a real consequence her student would have otherwise faced, or whether the Princess was merely accommodating herself to the friends' expectations.

Spike comes off extremely well in this episode; he really deserves that prolonged hug he gets toward the end. Good in-character moments are given to Rarity and Pinkie as well. Nice use of the CMC just being kids rather than questingóand being friendly after the fighting we saw in the season premiere. Derpy gets more attention beginning in this episode and is now being treated more as a minor character than as a background pony. Even Big McIntosh and the Mayor get some love from the creators here.

Lesson: The stated lesson of this episode is built on the picnic scene in the second act, where Twilight's pony friends laugh off Twilight's genuine (though needless) fears, with the positive lesson demonstrated throughout the show by Spike who counsels Twilight every step of the way and calls for aid when he sees things are about to go south. First-season episodes had Twilight realize the importance of taking seriously Fluttershy (Dragonshy), Pinkie Pie (Swarm of the Century), and Rarity (A Dog and Pony Show). Very early on, she was the only pony to really pursue Applejack in Applebuck Season, and Rarity prodded her to notice Rainbow Dash's stagefright in Sonic Rainboom. Now it's Twilight's turn to be underestimated and dismissed. But subsequent episodes show that the friends have learned from their failing, with A Canterlot Wedding being a notable exception. That aside, they're here for each other.

Twilight has things to learn as well. Unspoken but right in our faces (especially in the Rainbow Dash scene) is the flaw of pride in Twilight's assumption that writing a friendship report requires solving somepony else's problem rather than learning a lesson herself. Willingness to learn may in fact be the "lesson zero" the title is referring to. This is something we can see building over time given Twilight's role in the Mane Six, and both this episode's events and the assigning of reports to the others should provide her with a healthy dose of humility.

Along the way, the story blends in elements of lessons we see in other episodes, most prominently the futility of getting worked up over nothing (dealt with in It's About Time) and the danger of trying to force the day to accord with one's expectations (demonstrated in The Best Night Ever).

Connections: By this point, all of the main characters have had collapses: Applejack in Applebuck Season, Fluttershy in The Best Night Ever, Pinkie in Party of One, Rainbow (sort of) in Sonic Rainboom, Rarity in Suited for Success, Spike in Owl's Well that Ends Well, and Twilight here.


Resonance: The exaggerated melodrama, wild takes, and some fourth-wall breaking by Spike give the whole episode an atmosphere of fun. Some big laughs come from Fluttershy's bear massage, Twilight Smeagol, Pinkie Pie's balloon basket, Sweetie Belle's mane comments, and Big McIntosh's abiding fascination with Smarty Pants. There are plenty of other little gags, such as Twilight's groans as she departs the picnic and her teleporting into the beach ball. (Thanks to storyboarder Raven for coming up with that one.) I literally cheered at Rainbow's mushroom cloud and at Celestia's ability to instantly restore the sanity of Ponyville's citizens.

On the more serious side, the sincerity of Twilight's fear of losing all that she values, including her friends, breaks past the humor at numerous points. Perhaps having seen the fragility of friendship in the Discord incident, she really is hurt at being laughed at during the picnic. "Twilight Sparkle!" is easily the most chilling line in the whole series. I kinda freaked out there on first viewing.

Serious can also be positive, though. Spike's staying by Twilight's side and then summoning the Princess are heartwarming, as is the well-earned hug he receives. So especially is the friends' determination to take the blame in Twilight's place without a second thought. One fan has also produced an endearing song based on the balloon basket.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Another one hit out of the park by Meghan, proving once again her excellence in handling complex characters. Tara's voice work is spectacular. Pacing is good here too, with plenty of time spent establishing Twilight's quirks and building up her tension. Also, the extent of Twilight's madness and the CMC's wariness of her create a dark moment that's more directly threatening than Pinkie's infamous turn in Party of One, and it's a move the creators probably wouldn't have been allowed to make in the earlier episodes. Done poorly, this episode could have been a transparently artificial way to move Twilight out of the spotlight to get the other characters headlining episodes and writing letters. But the story is so engrossing that we don't even think about its implications for the structure of the series until afterward.

By the second season of the original Star Trek the show was established enough in its premise, tone, and characterization that it could afford to do some broader comedy episodes, such as The Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action. As long as they didn't violate the "rules" of the show and its characters in doing so (as occasionally happened in Trek's third season), these entries became some of the show's most beloved stories despite being way outside the norm for the show. By its own season two, MLP has reached that point. From here on, we see quite of few of these not-so-serious episodesówhich, like this one, may still have their poignant momentsóbut thankfully they don't hijack the series and they usually keep our characters true-to-form. The precedent for powerful fun is set by Lesson Zero, and it's one of the best episodes so far.


Lesson Zero armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 5th of 26 season-two episodes
Ranked 45th of 233 stories overall

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