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

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Episode 101: "Princess Spike"

Aired 6/20/2015, story by Jayson Thiessen (his second episode) and Jim Miller (his first); written by Neal Dusedau (his first)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The princesses introduce the Grand Equestria Pony Summit, but Spike's word to the audience is ignored.
  • Act 1: With Twilight Sparkle badly in need of some sleep after preparing the summit, Cadance asks Spike to ensure she's not disturbed. Spike silences everyone in sight, including a tree-trimmer and a worker repairing a water main. Spike is asked Twilight's opinion on a dispute, but she's in no condition to answer questions.
  • Act 2: Spike gives his own answer on Twilight's behalf and, after being listened to without question, takes Twilight's duties upon himself for the afternoon. This leads to self-indulgence until a fallen tree breaks the water main, flooding the summit hall.
  • Act 3: Angry summit delegates storm Princess Twilight's quarters, forcing Spike to admit his errors. The delgates forgive Spike and help him rebuild a fragile crystal statue, and we cut to credits just as Spike feels a sneeze coming on.

Character: We've had several episodes now centered on Spike as the victim of multiple disasters, either due to clumsiness, character flaws, or simple unfortunate circumstance. But in other episodes, Spike is super-capable, determined, and resourceful, worthy of the title Number One Assistant. I've commented on this paradox before, but here we see it in action, as Spike succeeds in his primary mission of ensuring Twilight gets her rest, but does so with calamitous results.

Like it or not, at this point we can't say this duality is out of character for Spike. It has become the norm for him, especially in his featured episodes. I believe he's being written this way for comedy, which makes him a tough character to use to teach lessons, but I'll get to that later. Let's just take Spike seriously for a minute:

To defend his actions in this episode, Spike says he overreached because it felt so good having ponies care about his opinions. It's similar to the motivations that drove the Cutie Mark Crusaders to abuse their relationship to the purple Princess in Twilight Time. It also makes a lot of sense, given Spike's worth and anxiety issues we saw in Power Ponies and Inspiration Manifestation, as well as the simple fact he's a dragon child in a world of adult ponies. We don't see him interact with other kids, and the adults naturally don't see him as being on their level.

We can add to Spike's flaw formula a lack of self-restraint and his tendency to get in over his head. He also fails to appreciate the responsibilities that come with authority, although that's true of just about anyone who hasn't had authority before. All these flaws are inherent in the fact that Spike is, in fact, still a kid. That may also explain why Spike was so reluctant to simply tell inquiring ponies that Twilight was asleep.

It's well known by now that bronies don't look too fondly on Spike episodes, and this episode has led me to reconsider why that happens. I believe it's related to how the writers handled Spike's immaturity. Other characters on the show spend their featured episodes sometimes in the right and sometimes in the wrong, and the thinking that leads them astray is something people of all ages deal with. But in the majority of Spike's episodes, Spike isn't just wrong, but wrong due to immaturity that only goes as far as it does due to Twilight's absence. In two of these cases (Owl's Well That Ends Well and Power Ponies), I believe Twilight is the one at fault for Spike's dilemma, though Spike is treated like the one with a lesson to learn. As I've said before, given his maturity level, it reflects badly on his guardians to leave him totally alone anyway, and that's especially the case when we consider what trouble Spike gets into when unsupervised. In other words, the problem isn't that everyone treats Spike like a kid; he is a kid. The problem is that they treat him like an adult, and regardless of whether his intentions are good or ill, he's not ready for that. In contrast, when Twilight is present, Spike really shines and sometimes even surpasses her, and that's the Spike that I and most bronies prefer to see.

Princess Cadance's role in this episode is decent, in that we see that at least somepony is checking in on Spike. Once she sees that he's out and about, she suspects right away that something's up, and the mischief montage in the next scene is kept short enough that she probably hasn't left him alone for very long. I'm glad Cadance calls Spike out on his excuses. It shows she's still kid-savvy from her foal-sitting days and not one to be easily fooled.

The Grand Equestria Pony Summit is the biggest example we've seen so far of Twilight's duties as Princess of Friendship, and it succeeds as delegates from across Equestria work together to rebuild the crystal statue. I'll mention here what I think is the episode's strongest feature, which is all the creativity invested in making the delegate ponies memorable characters.


Lesson: The stated lessons here are Spike abusing his relationship with Twilight (as Cadance points out), and letting power go to one's head and only thinking of one's self, as Spike confesses. The problem I just mentioned about lack of supervision is unaddressed but amply demonstrated, and it raises the question, when is a child mature enough to be left alone? In Somepony to Watch Over Me, we saw Apple Bloom being responsible and trustworthy, only going astray when pushed by Applejack's overprotectiveness. Spike, by constrast, is more like Sweetie Belle in Sisterhooves Social, trying to be helpful but messing up each time because she didn't know any better. And so I think the best lesson we can take from Princess Spike is that maturity includes not just obedience and noble intentions, but also good judgment, something we'll develop under adult guidance, and until then we need to turn to adults for the important decisions.

That's all well and good, if that's what the writers were aiming for, but Spike's innocent lack of judgment disrupts the delivery of the episode's stated lessons; because Spike's "princess complex" and self-indulgence don't cause any problems, at least as far as we can tell. All the calamity came from his sincere efforts to help, but the episode treats it as if the opposite were the case.

The apology is also problematic, in that his words have nothing to do with why the ponies are upset with him. Spike is told to "make it right," which is a fine lesson; forgiveness is based on repentance and restitution. His best effort at restitution is trying to rebuild the statue, which is a touching scene. But the "repentance" aspect is missing. What I mean is, especially as we grow, we need to learn lessons from our mistakes before we move on. As viewers, we need to know Spike won't do this again, and without at least a promise to that effect, I think the delegates are a bit too quick to let this go. What we really need is to see Twilight actively working with Spike on his character flaws, whether in dedicated episodes or as a side scene in other stories. But as things stand, I fully expect Spike to get himself in over his head again in his next outing.


Resonance: Again, I can't help but be impressed by the distinctive looks of the new ponies, and of the crystal statue. Twilight's half-asleep talking is the funniest part of the episode to me. Near the end, I liked the animation of Spike's face as he tries to shout quietly, and it's fun to hear Fancy Pants describe his retinue as an angry mob. It made me warm inside to see Twilight relaxed and rested for a few moments after getting up. This is a very mild episode, but there were a lot of little things that kept me thinking, "Boy, it's neat that they did that," some special moments like the parallel between Cadance's entrance to Twilight's in the first episode, and little details like Cadance with a wet mane and the fact that the delegates are all wearing lanyards. This episode really seems to have been a labor of love for the folks on the animation end of things, and I appreciate their going all out to make this an enjoyable entry in the series.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Am I taking this episode too seriously? Perhaps, but without any more emotional resonance than that, there's not much else to go on. And we saw just the previous episode that the staff can fill 22 minutes with nonsense without running into these issues. The fact is, for various reasons, most reviewers and commenters in the brony community don't care for this particular Spike formula, and they experience collective Altschmerz each time it comes around. I've considered the possibility that this is just a kid-appeal thing; perhaps children just love watching bad things happen to Spike. But I still wonder whether the right lessons come across in that context.

My advice to the writers would be to put Spike on a totally different track. You don't have to reboot the character, but feature Spike paired off with an adult pony who can keep him in check so that he can put his talents to their best use in saving the day. Alternately, in keeping with this season's theme, you could focus on his identity issues and the fact that as a dragon he has no cutie mark. Who then is Spike, and is his purpose in life only to help others? The answer then would be that helping others is everyone's purpose, and Spike's flexibility and willingness to do whatever that might involve are the traits that make him truly special. By now, of course, season five is in the can and the writing for season six is probably just now wrapping up, but I'm hoping the writers have something like this in mind.

The episode has going for it the creativity I've already mentioned. It's about as enjoyable as Hearth's Warming Eve, Games Ponies Play, and Family Appreciation Day, but like those stories its substance issues draw down my assessment of its quality, and it ends up right on the border between the Iron and Leather tiers.

 

Princess Spike armor rating: Leather Armor
Ranked 26th of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 126th of 147 stories overall

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