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

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Episode 175: "Surf and/or Turf"

Aired 4/21/2018, written by Brian Hohlfeld (his first episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Map activates the cutie marks of the Cutie Mark Crusaders for a mission to Mount Aris.
  • Act 1: Twilight Sparkle accompanies the CMC to Mt. Aris with a permission slip for Silverstream's parents to sign. They soon meet Silversteam's brother Terramar and their father, and Sweetie Belle is captivated by the hippogriffs' home of Harmonizing Heights. But their mother still lives in Seaquestria, and Terramar can't decide which place to live.
  • Act 2: The CMC conclude that their mission is to help Terramar decide which place to live. Upon visiting Seaquestria, Scootaloo prefers underwater since swimming is like flying to her. This sets Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo against each other, driving Terramar to despair.
  • Act 3: Twilight approaches the CMC and questions the situation, and the CMC realize they have made Terramar's problem worse. As both parents ask Twilight to join them for activities, they realize Terramar's dilemma and assure him he is welcome to go back and forth between homes as he likes. The CMC's mission is thus successful.

Character: Let's talk about hippogriffs. The setting of this episode demonstrates how thoroughly My Little Pony: The Movie is being integrated into the story of the TV series. After seeing how Equestria Girls, the comics, and the chapter books are all cordoned off aside from the occasional shout-out, I'm thrilled to see Mount Aris and Seaquestria remain in view and make solid connections with Equestria. They've even built a jetty for the Friendship Express.

Twilight Sparkle's curiosity about hippogriff culture is my own, because their society isn't just mysterious; it's in flux. Not much is made of the timeline here, but when Twilight is eager to see Silverstream and Terramar's baby pictures, she mentions aquatic pony development, which gives us an idea just how long the hippogriffs were underwater hiding from the Storm King. After that long a time in seapony form, it's understandable both that some residents prefer the life they've known in Seaquestria, and that others are delighted to return to their original form on Mount Aris. The pearl pieces they all wear allow them to switch modes at any time, but it's natural that most have chosen a stable life in one home or the other.

It's interesting how bothered Terramar is by the weekly Happy to Be a Hippogriff festival. Most likely it reflects his own indecision about his form, but there's a larger concern that the land-dwellers' pride in living as hippogriffs may lead to division or resentment from those who have remained seaponies, thus making the name Harmonizing Heights bitterly ironic. Given the Friendship Map's penchant for community-related problems, it wouldn't surprise me if Terramar becomes the key to harmony between these two presently diverging societies.

Terramar being the griff with the relationship problem, he is very much in the spotlight throughout the episode, receiving nearly as much screentime as his sister did in School Daze. He is the very picture of well-intentioned teenage angst. He feels confused, alone, and under pressure, and he's apparently kept it all to himself since it seems his parents aren't aware of his trouble until the end of the episode. I find it realistic that in Act 3, Terramar doesn't immediately accept the Crusaders' apology since he's still stressed out from their fight over his potential homes. But he still continues to be receptive to their advice and is willing to give new solutions a try. He's a role model of teachability.

Despite about thirty different hippogriff designs in view, the only others we get to know here are Sky Beak, whom we saw once before, and Ocean Flow. The nature of their relationship isn't clear, and Twilight even points out there's a lot we don't know about their culture. So we can't assume any personal reasons for their separation. Since Silverstream was introduced as the Queen's niece, it's possible the family's royal duties and assignments are partly responsible for their living apart. I find it interesting that Sky Beak has sort of a Shining Armor vibe as one of the guys, while Ocean Flow has a very high-society tone of voice.

Both parents greet Terramar with subtle rebukes about not being around enough, though the pressure this puts on him is almost certainly unintentional. Parents miss their kids, after all. And they sound very sincere in their apology to Terramar for giving him the impression that he had to choose between their homes at all. It takes a lot of integrity to apologize to your children. Meanwhile, the pressure Terramar mentions feeling is that every other griff his age knows where they belong, a sense that's surely familiar to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. In his case, the best way out is to make his back-and-forthing a deliberate choice, rather than a prolonged case of indecision.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders play a role similar to Spike's in Triple Threat: They don't really do anything to help the problem the Map sends them to address; they actually make it worse. But their overall showing is still positive. They're nicely sympathetic when Terramar explains his problem, and they're quick to see their fault in Terramar's exacerbated dilemma after a simple, gentle question from Twilight. I like how Apple Bloom provides the Movie-related exposition as a story from Applejack. That speaks not just to their relationship but to how she's picked up her skills as a storyteller. Notice how she draws the attention of other ponies on the train. Ultimately she embellishes things a bit, but she's the knowledgeable, level-headed member of the group throughout the story, and I appreciate anytime the writers give her that role. Sweetie Belle's magic is growing, to the point she can use it to write. I really don't understand Sweetie Belle's distaste for Seaquestria, and I would think she'd be more sensitive to Scootaloo's flight-related interest here. Scootaloo's realization that swimming in seapony mode is like flying is a heart-rending moment and a reminder that her handicap is something she always carries with her, even if it's rarely addressed directly.

Twilight Sparkle is literally along for the ride, since the trip is too far for the CMC to go by themselves, but she's also there to learn more about the culture. I'm honestly a little surprised she receives such a warm welcome, given the circumstances of her last visit. Nevertheless, for all her struggles in recent episodes, I'm really happy to see Twilight having the time of her life on Mount Aris.


Lesson: The point of this story isn't so much a moral (aside from the Crusaders' bias and feuding) as it is an exploration of a family issue that's common in real life. The analogy of Terramar's identity struggles has multiple applications. Within a family context, it's not just about parents who've split up, but also parents from different cultures, or different racial or religious backgrounds. Terramar provides a point of identification for young viewers in those situations who feel they have to choose one side or the other. Sadly, the third option Terramar chooses of a blended life isn't always left open to them, but the episode helpfully chooses to focus on the upside of both possible situations. The choice wouldn't be so hard if both places weren't so wonderful. We're also spared any antagonism from Sky Beak and Ocean Flow, whose relationship is left ambiguous but who are affectionate toward Terramar and each other, and seem to value Terramar's happiness even if it means less of his company.

Rosy as the scenario is, I'm proud of the creators for addressing this topic, since none of our main characters come from separated or single parents. (For what it's worth, at least two of the Mane Six left home as foals, three if we count Applejack's stay in Manehattan, and possibly four if Fluttershy never got back up to Cloudsdale after her fall. And we don't know how much time Twilight spent away from home while at Celestia's school. Also, Spike's basically adopted. I'm guessing Rarity's the only one with what you could call a traditional upbringing. So there's actually a variety of backgrounds there when you think about it. Just none like Terramar's. And we'll meet Starlight's family in a couple weeks.)

Getting back to this episode, the lesson is spelled out that "you're more than just where you're from or who you live with," and that having "family and friends who love you" is a benefit not to be forgotten when appraising your life. When you're in a bad place and that's all you have, remembering that can be a great comfort, even when the purpose of your hardship remains unclear.


Resonance: Terramar's vocal delivery really sells his anxiety and despair from feeling he has to decide between homes. The drama could have been stronger if his dilemma has been more about his parents directly rather than about locations, but I think that implication comes across as we see him interact with them over the course of the episode. A lot of this one is just taking in the beauty of the setting and the creativity in the designs. The background music upon arrival in Seaquestria is awesome, and we get a fantastic song with great lyrics from Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. (Only, sorry Scoots, but tortoises can't swim. Those are turtles.) Apple Bloom has the cutest seapony form, in my opinion; it's the bow that does the trick.

We get a nice, heartwarming moment when the Crusaders silently reconcile. The comedy is pretty light this time around, though Scootaloo's joke at the end is the perfect punchline for the episode. I chuckled at the mention of salmon juice, since we're so used to our characters being vegetarians. As I mentioned, Twilight's enthusiastic enjoyment of her trip is great to see, and her eagerness to look at the griffs' baby pictures is hilarious.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: After a couple episodes with significant issues, I consider this a successful return to form for My Little Pony. Its lesson handling, use of characters, and warm tone are all what I like to see.

There are easy comparisons with the episode Triple Threat, another Map mission in which the character called contributes more to the problem than to the solution. But whereas I took issue with Triple Threat's placing blame on Spike that belonged at least partly to Starlight and Twilight, here it's plain the Crusaders really are to blame for messing things up, and they're right to own that. But I think Triple Threat has stronger comedy and that really touching scene between Ember and Thorax. Here, the antagonism between Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo strikes me as a little artificial, and I think we could have still gotten the same plot and an equally good song without them getting petty toward each other. But it's an excellent episode despite those minor issues, and I end up ranking it a little short of Triple Threat, about even with Flight to the Finish.

 

Surf and/or Turf armor rating: Gold Armor
Ranked 13th of 26 season-eight episodes
Ranked 114th of 233 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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