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

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Episode 181: "Marks for Effort"

Aired 6/2/2018, written by Nicole Dubuc (her fifth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Cutie Mark Crusaders observe the fun activities at the School of Friendship and decide they want to attend it themselves.
  • Act 1: The CMC show up in class at Twilight's school but are told they already understand friendship and need to attend regular school instead. The Crusaders begin misbehaving to convince the Mane Six of their need to learn friendship, but all their attempts fail.
  • Act 2: The CMC meet a foal named Cozy Glow who is struggling with her friendship classes. They tutor her through basic concepts and help her prepare for an upcoming test. She seems to catch on but fails her test, and Twilight angrily calls the CMC to her office.
  • Act 3: Twilight believes the CMC taught Cozy Glow the wrong answers as part of their ploy to get into the school. But Cozy Glow confesses to Starlight Glimmer that she failed the test on purpose for just that reason: to make the Crusaders look bad at friendship so they could attend. She is reassured that she meant well, and the CMC are given an apology and made honorary graduates of the school.

Character: Right off the bat, I like seeing the CMC's positive view of school, thanks in large part, I'm sure, to Miss Cheerilee. The Crusaders also give us a positive outsider's perspective on the School of Friendship. I enjoy their boldness in just inserting themselves into Twilight's class as they do.

They're back to their old ways as they scheme to convince the adults that they're bad at friendship. They can annoy like the dickens, but their personal growth just won't let them misbehave convincingly anymore when it comes to interpersonal discord. It's a valid observation that we got a sincere Crusader fight as recently as Surf and/or Turf, but I actually found that one of the less convincing aspects of that story myself. Besides, it's really the CMC's bad acting and breaking character that does them in, not so much that their fighting was flat out of character.

Our new character is Cozy Glow, whose expressions and mannerisms are too cutesy even for this show. The buzzing of her wings as she hovers is also cute in an appealing way, but the golly-gee dialogue and the freckles and curls are a bit much. Unsurprisingly for Friendship Is Magic, all that is deliberate: She is said to be based on Mary Dahl and Shirley Temple, who also inspired the character of Darla Dimple of Cats Don't Dance. Cozy Glow's as much a schemer as the Crusaders as we find out after her test, and it's reasonable to wonder how much of her sugary appearance is all part of the act.

Our first hint that there's more to her than meets the eye is her chess piece cutie mark, followed in short order by her immediate suspicion of the CMC's willingness to help. There's a dark side to her thoughts that peeks out here and there, and it's evident that she's in need of the school's perspective on friendship. Some viewers speculated that Cozy Glow might actually be Queen Chrysalis in disguise, back to take her revenge against Starlight Glimmer. That's not quite what's going on, but we'll get a better understanding of what makes Cozy Glow tick as the season progresses.

Twilight Sparkle is seen from the youths' perspective as the authority figure, and from that viewpoint her motives and decisions are mysterious. I like that dynamic in a CMC episode. Her anger at the Crusaders is very effective, coming out of nowhere as it does. On first watch we're as shaken and confused as the Crusaders; why would she suspect them of setting Cozy Glow up to fail? But on reflection, the Crusaders have been misbehaving lately and might be jealous of the new student. Such a plot would be more malicious than we're used to from the CMC, but we have seen them veer off into villainy a time or two.

Twilight's honorary graduate idea seems like a weird way to resolve things. There's some rationale to her explanations, and it's done with the appropriate amount of ceremony, but I'm only halfway convinced that it makes sense. By contrast, the assignment of the CMC as friendship tutors fits perfectly, and I think just giving them that and a more explicit apology from Twilight would have been a better fit for the situation.

One of the most entertaining scenes gives us our first real look at Starlight Glimmer as school guidance counselor. Her hilariously and thinly veiled appreciation for Cozy Glow's deviousness recalls her fondness for the amoral Trixie as well as her continued struggle to escape her own past habits. Also, possibly coincidentally given the way these episodes are parceled out, we get a clever callback to The Parent Map as Starlight offers a security blanket and empathy cocoa to the new student. From this scene alone, I could definitely see these two becoming friends.

Spike's wings get some attention here, and we get some fun glimpses of teaching from Pinkie, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rainbow. They're definitely out of focus this week, but they're all very much in-character.


Lesson: There's a fun twist in this plot, as it looks like the CMC are going to solve their dilemma by helping a student, finding the same sort of fulfillment in tutoring that they have found helping ponies with cutie mark problems, and that new student is going to begin learning about friendship herself along the way. But something much more interesting happens instead, as Cozy Glow turns out to have some scheming of her own in mind.

The running theme through the early and late parts of the episode is the issue of acting up to solve a problem. While I don't buy into the theory advanced in some parenting seminars that this explains most childhood misbehavior, I would agree that kids do this a lot, especially children of the well-intentioned variety. Scheming and manipulation of their elders is nothing new for the Crusaders, but those tactics have rarely if ever paid off for them, and it's a bad fit for them at this point given the level of maturity they've displayed in other episodes. So I'm glad that they so quickly pivot to a helping role when presented with the opportunity to do so.

Cozy Glow's part of the episode shows how a scheme can backfire, as her own sacrificial effort to get the Crusaders into the school gets them in trouble. It's not clear at this point that she's learned her lesson, given Starlight Glimmer's ambivalent response and the Crusaders ending up with a decent consolation prize of sorts. But I think the message comes across to the viewer well enough that being devious isn't really compatible with the life of friendship we ought to aspire to.


Resonance: Like so many CMC episodes, this story is one of mild comedy. That's not surprising since their problems tend to be down-to-earth and none of their personalities is particularly over-the-top. Most of the effective humor comes from the adults: We get some good physical comedy from Pinkie Pie, and I really enjoy her and Fluttershy's reaction to the CMC's poorly orchestrated fight. "Repeaty Belle" is a nice continuation of Rarity's penchant for portmanteau nicknames (though "Flutterbat" is still my favorite). Mrs. Cake's love for rainbow sprinkles is hilarious to me since my love for organization has led to similar situations at work. Spike's brief commandeering of Twilight's class is funny as well. One little actiony moment I appreciate here is Cozy Glow chasing down Pipsqueak's kite.

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: There's some clever foreshadowing in the title; "Marks for Effort" hints that the Crusaders aren't going to get what they're aiming for but will get some credit for their aspirations. Yet the plot develops in some unpredictable ways, which is important in such a mild episode, to keep things interesting. While it's more low-key than Surf and/or Turf, this is one of the better CMC-focused episodes. On balance, I think the adults' recognition of how far the Crusaders have come in understanding friendship is enough to offset any concerns about them regressing during the schemy first half of the show. And the overall premise is a good answer for any viewers who might naturally wonder why the Crusaders aren't students at the School of Friendship. I'm not really satisfied with the conclusion, but we do get a fun peek at how Starlight functions as a guidance counselor, and this episode introduces a new supporting character we'll be seeing a lot more of from here on out. Overall in terms of quality, I rank this episode below The Break Up Break Down but above The Parent Map, with Somepony to Watch Over Me being the closest match in terms of Crusader-focused content.

 

Marks for Effort armor rating: Golden Vest
Ranked 16th of 27 season-eight episodes
Ranked 140th of 233 stories overall

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