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

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Episode 61: "Spike At Your Service"

Aired 12/29/2012, written by Merriwether Williams (her sixth episode); story by Dave Polsky (his fourth)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: With lots of reading to do, Twilight gives Spike some time off.
  • Act 1: Spike knocks a hot air balloon loose and chases it into the Everfree Forest, where Applejack rescues him from Timberwolves. Spike then declares a Jar Jar Binks-style life debt and offers to help with AJ's chores. Refusing AJ's insistence that he's "paid in full," Spike does the baking and takes his leave of Twilight to become Applejack's servant.
  • Act 2: AJ has Spike deliver the pie he baked to Rarity, where Rainbow Dash drops by and suggests having Spike help her with the difficult task of building a rock tower. Spike is undaunted, so AJ visits Twilight for help. On her advice, AJ proposes arranging for Spike to "save my life."
  • Act 3: The Mane Six fake a Timberwolf attack, but Spike isn't fooled. But real Timberwolves attack and AJ's hoof gets stuck in the rock tower. Spike saves Applejack's life for real and returns to the library as Twilight's number-one assistant.

Character: In Dragon Quest, Spike attempted to learn about his dragon heritage and all but renounced it after his encounter with a few adolescents. He's been happier and better adjusted in his appearances since, but now we see he's crafted a "Spike the Dragon Code," presumably in hope of improving the reputation of dragon-kind. I'm uncertain whether to count this as an inconsistency, given that Williams wrote both episodes. People from a slighted or despised group (whether dragons, bronies, nerds, blacks, Calvinists, you name it) may use different strategies over time to try to redeem themselves and their fellows in the eyes of others, and claiming a distinct set of values for your group is a common enough way to do it. So it makes some sense, but it could have used some set-up. We haven't seen many disparaging remarks about dragons or any indication that anypony looks down on Spike. He's thoroughly accepted and only recently was a public hero in The Crystal Empire. I think we need some justification for an effort like this. There also seems to be some inconsistency as to whether Spike came up with the code himself or whether it's common to dragons.

This code is also something we've never seen before and will likely never see again. Why, after all, does Spike not also owe a life debt to Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Princess Cadance, and any other pony who's saved his life in the past? Wouldn't that even apply to Owlowiscious?

A more glaring inconsistency is Spike being a walking disaster area all of a sudden. That used to be Sweetie Belle's territory, whereas Spike has been a skilled "number-one assistant" for a long time now. We've seen the occasional pratfall and accidental flames, but the balloon chase was a bit over-the-top for what's normally a level-headed character—it would have been degrading for any other character but Pinkie and the CMC—and the baking scene was a little too reminiscent of a similar scene in Sisterhooves Social. (Still very funny, though.) Spike's sudden clumsiness also interferes with the lesson, as I mention below. Applejack's fine here, and I'm relieved that unlike the behavior we saw in The Mysterious Mare Do Well, she actually tries talking to Spike on several occasions, saying exactly what needs to be said as clearly as possible, before resorting to scheming.

Ah, the scheming. Nopony seems to question it (though to be fair, we cut to commercial just as Twilight's about to introduce the idea to AJ). But my main issue this time around is the incompetence with which it's pulled off, spot-on roar not withstanding. It's played for laughs, so I'm sure it's deliberate comic relief, probably to off-set the frightening image of the wolves. But if I try to take the episode seriously, I'm not sure whether I'm more bothered by the lameness of their Timberwolf or the fact that Spike almost bought into it. The Twilight who once reassembled a bursted dam could probably have compiled a fairly convincing wolf from stray twigs using her magic.

(Note: Per Meghan at Unicon 2013, this was originally conceived as a Rarity/Spike episode but was rewritten for Applejack as it had Rarity being too "mean" to Spike.)


Lesson: This really could've used a letter. Applejack gives the lesson to Spike early on: "That's what friends do for each other. You don't need to repay the favor." This episode pits Applejack's "grace ethic" against Spike's "debtor's ethic," with the message that a life of giving of one's self out of love is more noble than a life of repayment and keeping score.

But the delivery of this message is complicated by two issues. The first is the fact that, despite the moral statements at the beginning and end, Applejack seems more concerned about the discomfort of having a "servant" than with the root of Spike's misguided thinking. She's never voiced any concern about Spike being Twilight's assistant, so at least on the surface it's liable to be confused with Applejack's issues with being helped from way back in Applebuck Season.

The second and more obvious problem is that Spike's help always ends up being pointless or causes more harm than good. A better way to make this a "noble" issue for Applejack would be for Spike to be providing or offering excellent help that AJ really needed, but for AJ to put off Spike's service anyway out of principle. Instead we see a series of blunders that compromise Spike's character and the message of the episode.


Connections: Timberwolves were first seen in Family Appreciation Day. Body Count: After the briefing, Applejack says, "Everybody get it?"

 

Resonance: For all the character and lesson problems in this episode, it nevertheless has a lot of fun and awesome moments. Rarity's pie-tasting, Spike pumping Applejack full of air, Pinkie's mustache fixation, and Rarity somehow finding herself inside the party cannon are all worth a laugh or two. Both Timberwolf attacks are among the best action sequences in the entire series, and I was impressed by Rainbow's krayt dragon, er, Timberwolf call. The non-Flash CGI used for the Timberwolves this time around gives them an appropriately other-worldly look that made their scenes feel dangerous. I hope this is used sparingly, but here it works.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Wow, what happened here? On the positive side, this episode is as finely animated and choreographed as any other, and it took me several viewings to catch all the subtleties. Also, I'm not as bothered by the CGI effects as some viewers. There's also a good balance between scariness and sensitivity to younger viewers, as the opening fight is scary but in an exciting, action-packed way, and the later encounter has its suspense broken by the wolf's comical death scene. (I'm sure the studio wouldn't have let Spike immolate the wolf with his fire breath, thought that totally would have made the episode for some of us adult viewers.)

Friendship Is Magic episodes are sometimes rushed but never just sloppily thrown together. The creators have proven that they love what they do and put all their effort into it. I'm sure the writers have their own reasons for making this episode the way it is. But I have enough disagreements with the plot and characterization that it distracts from my enjoyment, except for select scenes. This one goes to the bottom of the list, at least for this season.

(Note: As much as the show's creators care about their work and interact with fans, it's possible they may come across this review. If you helped make this episode and I'm offbase in my understanding of it or have overlooked its strengths, you're welcome to give me the "Marshall McLuhan from Annie Hall" treatment and show me the insights I've missed.)

 

Spike At Your Service armor rating: Leather Vest
Ranked 13th of 13 season-three episodes
Ranked 145th of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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