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

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Episode 65: "Magical Mystery Cure"

Aired 2/16/2013, written by M.A. Larson (his twelfth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Morning in Ponyville - Twilight Sparkle sings about her peaceful Ponyville life, until it is interrupted by Rarity trying to control the weather.
  • Act 1: What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me - Twilight's friends have swapped cutie marks and life paths because of an incomplete spell she was assigned to fix. I've Got to Find a Way - Twilight despairs over her friends' tragedy.
  • Act 2: A True, True Friend - Twilight surmises that the solution lies in having her friends help one another and thereby rediscover their true destiny. Twilight is able to complete the spell but disappears as the Elements of Harmony activate themselves.
  • Act 3: Celestia's Ballad - Twilight finds herself in a void where Celestia tells her she's fulfilled her destiny. Twilight reappears in Ponyville as an alicorn. Behold, Princess Twilight Sparkle/Life in Equestria - Twilight is crowned as a princess in Canterlot.

Character: This is the most controversial season finale for several reasons, and I may be in the minority for rating this so highly. So in the course of this review I'll address the three criticisms I've encountered the most for this episode.

The first has to do with Twilight becoming an alicorn princess. Though it would have made a fine surprise, this "twist" was the focus of the Coronation marketing for this episode, and it made the episode extremely controversial weeks before it aired. The result was what we call "poisoning the well," and it deeply hurt the show's reception. By contrast, I've seen responses of people who came to the show later and saw this episode blind, and those reactions have been glorious. Time will tell what the fourth season will give us and whether "Twilicorn" was a good idea or a jump-the-shark decision. We can't say for sure given what we see here, but within the episode itself, it's the culmination of Princess Celestia's teaching, and it rewards Twilight for all she's done in saving kingdoms, mastering powerful spells, and exhibiting leadership and strength of character.

On a more personal level, this episode settles a long-standing imbalance in Twilight's character. For years she has held Princess Celestia in high regard, seeing her for the powerful ruler she is, and her greatest fear has always been disappointing her teacher and being rejected. This anxiety has driven her to foolishness on multiple occasions. Here Celestia sings her first song (with all the warmth we've come to love hearing from her), and it's all about her pride in Twilight Sparkle. This, not her wings, is Twilight's dream come true, and for me it's the high point of the episode.

Spike is at his best here, and he only has to say a few words to Twilight to communicate a message of hope and ground it in the truths that make Twilight's solution possible. He's suggesting remedies while she's still down in the dumps. The rest of the Mane Six each get a chance to show sadness, joy, and a helping hoof for one another in ways specific to their personalities.


Lesson: A True, True Friend, with its focus on helping one another, is the message of the entire series in a nutshell. Fluttershy gives her own condensed version of the moral: "She's my friend and I'd do anything to help her." There are actually two sides to the lesson seen here. The first is, as stated, the willingness to do whatever it takes to help. But the second relates to Star Swirl's shortcoming and Twilight's solution: It's not necessary to share your friends' abilities in order to help out (which I gather was Star Swirl's intention for the spell); instead, you do what you can do, exercising the abilities you have in order to make up for what they might lack. Thus all work together and their destinies are fulfilled together.

There's something to be said, too, about the fact that Twilight's coronation is an achievement, the culmination of her own work, risk, and insight. Most fictional princesses have their crowns by birth or marriage. Without having it as her ambition, perhaps without even realizing it was possible, becoming a princess is something Twilight did for herself, largely by being a good person. If anything can be said to encourage Twilight, it's that her wings represent that she has achieved the excellence she's been striving for all her life. And she didn't just pass her test; she aced it.


Logic: The second criticism has to do with "cutie mark confusion." This issue actually has its roots in The Cutie Mark Chronicles, where we saw that Rarity's diamond cutie mark was originally associated with finding gems (for costumes she had already committed to make), and not with beauty or sophistication as we might have expected. Likewise, Applejack's apple mark has to do with her belonging at Sweet Apple Acres, rather than an apple-related talent per se. Rainbow Dash's cutie mark relates to racing, but her actual occupation is captain of the weather team. The other three main ponies basically live their cutie marks, but it's evident that the formula is not as simple as cutie mark = special talent = occupation.

In this episode Rarity gets Rainbow's cutie mark and is suddenly in charge of the weather, and Applejack gets Rarity's and ends up making dresses. I believe the solution to these oddities is the switching of both "cutie marks and destinies," and probably relates to Star Swirl's original intent for the spell. I have lots of head canon I could deliver here, but keeping that to a minimum, I take it as a given that Star Swirl intended that a cutie mark transfer would allow one to copy a friend's special talent in order to help the friend with a task. Instead, it transferred each pony's life purpose, which includes their occupations and (probably) each pony's memories, but not the talent itself. Recall that Fluttershy says she doesn't know anything about animals; she obviously doesn't remember her care for the animals in that cottage. It's not just a memory alteration, though, because their "true selves" and their hopes for the future are altered as well. That's why they're so miserable; they're failing at what they thought was their life purpose. (Whether their memory tells them they used to be good at it or never have been is unclear, but I'm leaning toward the latter, which is even sadder.) Their actual talents remain intact. All this is to say, it makes sense to me that the ponies would be trying to pursue each other's life path. Among other things, this would imply that Pinkie now has a false/alternate memory of being part of the Apple family. (In fact, Applejack's life is so closely tied to family that this almost has to be the case.)

If you don't agree with the last paragraph, there's a simpler alternate explanation, and that is that each pony was left to interpret her new cutie mark for herself. Applejack relates the diamond cutie mark to beauty and sophistication, and therefore fashion. And it's actually more natural for the average pony to interpret a rainbow-colored lightning bolt and cloud cutie mark as somehow relating to controlling the weather than to racing. Rarity might think of it as a sign that she ought to make the weather beautiful, thus her penchant for making cloud patterns in the sky.

Connections: Most elements of this episode were foreshadowed earlier in one story or another. And bravo to the writer for having Spike bring up the memory spell and Zecora's Cutie Pox cure, since viewers certainly would have suggested them if they hadn't been mentioned and ruled out. Some of the episode clips during Celestia's Ballad are too oblique or far away to make out, but I identified 21 episodes in the sequence: Friendship Is Magic part 1; The Ticket Master; Boast Busters; Look Before You Sleep; Winter Wrap Up; Suited for Success; Feeling Pinkie Keen; Green Isn't Your Color; The Cutie Mark Chronicles; The Best Night Ever; The Return of Harmony Parts 1-2; Lesson Zero; Luna Eclipsed; Sweet and Elite; It's About Time; MMMystery on the Friendship Express; A Canterlot Wedding – Parts 1-2; The Crystal Empire – Part 2; and Spike at Your Service. An additional 35 episodes can be glimpsed in the eyes of the ponies being returned to normal.

Note: The term "Alicorn" was not in the original scripts. Magic Duel had referred to the Uni-Charm and Meghan's personal term was "Pegacorns." Although the term appears in some early staff-related material, per Amy Keating Rogers they adopted the word because it was used by the fans.


Body Count: During her verse of "What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me," Applejack asks, "Could y'all give me a hand here?"

 

Resonance: There are a few gags here and there, and a couple awesome effects. But for the most part, if you're willing to immerse yourself in the story, this episode mostly brings tears of sorrow and joy. After a suitably simple cold open, we're treated to the saddest first act so far in the series. Especially powerful are the sorrowful voices of Pinkie and Rarity during their verses and the visuals of I've Got to Find a Way, with Ponyville's joy lost and the main characters' lives falling apart. Something about the harmonies in the last half of that number really bring out the tears.

But just as in A Canterlot Wedding, bringing us down to the depths is necessary to make us appreciate the characters' rediscovered happiness in the second act and feel like Twilight really accomplishes something. Four bits here really get me: Angel recognizing Fluttershy; the sun shining on Rarity just as she's bursting into tears, followed by her smile as she joins the others; the entire town cheering for Pinkie; and the close-up of Twilight basking in Celestia's praise during the ballad.

The coronation is just icing on the cake, but I must give a hooray to whichever writer or artist thought to include Twilight's parents at the ceremony. Of course they would be present for an event like this.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: A third criticism of this episode, and the one I heard most frequently when it aired, is that it's too rushed. It's well known that the third season was cut in half, Equestria Girls was in production, and the staff was a bit overwhelmed. It is easy to surmise that were this a 26-episode season, MMC would have been a two-part finale, and there's plenty of material to fill that space. Here's how the existing episode breaks down in rounded minutes and seconds:
4:30—Reveal of the cutie mark problem (+ intro)
3:00—Flashback and dwelling on the seriousness of the problem
6:00—Solving the cutie mark problem
1:00—Spell rewritten: Twilight disappears
2:00—In space with Princess Celestia
2:00—Alicorn reveal in Ponyville
3:30—Coronation and parade (+ end credits)

There are basically two ways to pad this out into a two-parter. If you want the "cliffhanger" to be Twilight's moment of despair, you need 13 minutes of material added to part one. You could add a little more background on Star Swirl, cutie marks, and the spell itself, a scene of the ponies discovering their switched cutie marks and making their transition to their new calling (which would explain better their mental state and the condition of their memories), show confusion from supporting characters such as Sweetie Belle and the Apple family, maybe a couple failed attempts by Twilight to solve the problem, and a better sense of the passage of time before they're boarding up houses and leaving Ponyville. Part two would just need a couple extra scenes in that scenario, perhaps simply raising the question of how Twilight's future relates to Ponyville and her friends, but still leaving the answer for season four.

If you want to break the parts at Twilight's disappearance, then you'll only need about half the added material mentioned above for part one or just slow the pace a bit, and part two would focus exclusively on Twilight becoming an alicorn, with a possible secondary story of the rest of the Mane Six wondering where Twilight is while she's with Celestia. In order to keep the story from being too thin, there may need to be an additional challenge for Twilight to face, or perhaps a true season cliffhanger as a crisis presents itself at the tail end of the episode, with Twilight and her friends heading off to face it as the credits roll. Would either two-parter have been a better story, or better received by bronies? Possibly, but the alicorn objections would still remain, and I can easily imagine critics complaining that it really could have been done in one episode.

Regardless of the original plans for this finale, I think it's great just as it is, largely because of the music. This is virtually a whole musical, with the songs telling the story rather than being breaks between the story points. The usual problems with "rushed" stories are that we can't follow what's going on or that we don't have enough time for events to resonate emotionally. The songs not only convey what's going on and how the ponies feel about it (handling the exposition), but they join with the visuals to make us really feel what's going on. Both pitfalls are thus averted. My own observation is that this episode feels like how Twilight would remember the events after the fact: A happy simple life disrupted by a sudden crisis, a brief time of confusion and despair, an epiphany, winning back her friends one after another, Celestia's praise as a prominent peaceful memory, and a whirlwind celebration that will remain one of the landmark moments of her life. The rapid pace of this episode, not giving us a chance to catch our breath, actually helps us identify with Twilight; this is how things seem to her. So even though it leaves some questions unanswered—questions Twilight hasn't had answered for herself—I believe the one-part approach to this story gives it a greater character focus, whereas a two-parter would get us too hung up on the events.

There are some similarities here with the third-season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another of my favorite female-led TV series. There, Buffy graduates from high school, all the students join together for a battle instead of having Buffy fight alone, the climactic battle throws the setting of the show into question (i.e., the high school is destroyed), and there's some question as to where the relationships and the central character's main task will go from here. Buffy's season three finale would have made a decent series ending, and is treated as such by those who didn't care for the later seasons. There are differences too, of course; the bunny Angel is not leaving to star in his own LA-based spinoff.

You could also compare the uncertainty many fans feel about this story with the third season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which left Picard a Borg about to be fired on by the newly promoted Captain Riker. The fourth season of TNG brought changes, but nothing as drastic as some had feared, and not even as much as on Buffy.

I've made this a "defensive" review in hope that skeptics will perhaps see this episode in a new light. I don't insist that you agree with the writers' decisions, but I hope that disagreement doesn't get in the way of the power of the story. It's not my absolute favorite, but it's up there and anything else I could say about it would be in praise of one aspect or another.

Meghan McCarthy has said she thinks of MMC as the first part of a three-part story. Since she's mentioned she thinks of Equestria Girls as a separate entity from the TV series, parts two and three will likely be the first two episodes of season four, for which we eagerly wait. What little has been revealed suggests she'll learn more about the other princesses as a way of understanding her own role. In any case, what I've learned from watching MLP is that the makers of the show cherish their work and are closely attuned to the importance of the spirit of the show and its characters and relationships. As long as that obtains, I'm inclined to trust the bulk of their work.

Okay, I do have one complaint. In the shot below, Daisy has about as un-ponylike a posture as you can get. Can a quadruped even do that?

 

Magical Mystery Cure armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 2nd of 13 season-three episodes
Ranked 19th of 147 stories overall

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