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

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Episode 170: "School Daze Part 1"

Aired 3/24/2018, written by Michael Vogel (his ninth episode) & Nicole Dubuc (her third)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Mane Six discover that the Map has expanded to include areas beyond Equestria that they visited during the Storm King's invasion. The need for non-ponies to learn about friendship inspires Twilight to establish a school where they can learn it.
  • Act 1: Princess Celestia approves of Twilight's desire to start a school and directs her to the EEA to approve her project. EEA head Chancellor Neighsay approves the school in the interest of protecting ponies, given the recent threats from outside, but he insists the school be run "by the book," according to EEA guidelines. Twilight reassures her friends of their competence as teachers as the students, including non-ponies, begin to arrive.
  • Act 2: The non-pony students are introduced, and everyone begins enthusiastically, but Twilight's insistence on traditional teaching leaves the teachers frustrated and the students bored. The non-ponies, now skeptical of friendship, get into a fight.
  • Act 3: Twilight's response to her friends' frustrations is to insist they try harder with the EEA's methods. On Friends & Family Day, the Student Six skip class just as Chancellor Neighsay arrives to inspect the school. As Twilight tries to distract Neighsay from the problems, the students begin to bond. Ocellus, a Changeling student, adopts a monstrous form to their delight, but this terrifies the guests gathered for Friends & Family Day, and Neighsay sees it as an attack. Furious that non-ponies were allowed at the school at all, he closes the school down.

Character: With this episode, the series gains a new featured setting, the School of Friendship. It also introduces yet another alternative cast. We started with the Mane Six and Spike and added the Cutie Mark Crusaders and eventually the human cast from the Equestria Girls releases. More recently, Starlight Glimmer has joined the mains, and now we have the Student Six. I'll save our first look at them for Part 2, but let's take just a moment to appreciate the challenge this presents to the series. Yes, it keeps things fresh, an important move for any show entering its eighth season. It permits the writers to cover basic friendship lessons that the other cast members will have learned by now. But it also gives us a vast number of characters to keep track of, with the danger that our beloved Mane Six might get lost in the shuffle. There's also Chancellor Neighsay's concern that managing a school may not be compatible with galloping off on adventures. The creators take a bold risk and a heavy burden by going this route; it's an idea that could make or break the series. But this isn't the first time the show has faced such a challenge, and by now I've learned to trust the writers' ability to keep the show true to itself through all sorts of changes.

Twilight Sparkle faces that same sort of challenge in-story, but it's a project that's very much in line with her duties as the Princess of Friendship. Now that Dash is a Wonderbolt, Rarity has boutiques in Canterlot and Manehattan, and Fluttershy has her animal sanctuary, it's nice to see Twilight end up right where she's fit to be. She never set out to be a Princess, but she's right at home running a school.

We also see a maturity to Twilight as she projects confidence in some challenging situations, especially before the EEA. There's still some anxiety there, but at least she has the EEA guidelines to fall back on. In actual fact, it seems the "by the book" approach Neighsay ordered has a regressive effect on Twilight, preventing her from using the resourcefulness she once displayed tutoring Rainbow Dash and instead driving her back to the traditionalism and stubbornness she had earlier in the series. Thankfully, she doesn't take this to Captain Queeg levels, but she's under a lot of pressure, and her need for the EEA's approval is energizing her old habits.

Two things to Twilight's credit here. The first is her insight in how to instill values. While some of the pony students have adult character designs, all the non-ponies appear to be young adolescents. Kids are impressionable, which is great when you can impress them with good ideas. And if you can reach the kids, you'll reach the families and also lay the groundwork for a generational change. Second, Twilight may be embarrassed about her school's academic issues, but she is not for one second apologetic or defensive about its inclusiveness. When the Chancellor goes off about non-ponies, her timidity vanishes and she stands up to him. It's true-to-character and exactly what I wanted to see.

Starlight Glimmer is mostly in the background here, but she's a good sounding board for Twilight, and guidance counselor seems like the perfect role for her. Spike's role is also not to be overlooked. He too is quiet for most of this, but he's right by the side of either Twilight or Starlight throughout.

The early scenes during the song show that the rest of the Mane Six each have the potential to be fun teachers, and I look forward to seeing that play out in upcoming episodes. Rainbow's continuing worries about being perceived as an egghead are a fun callback, particularly as we see the students catch wind of it later.

It looks like Chancellor Neighsay is our new antagonist, portrayed in the best Orson Welles-like fashion by the iconic Maurice LaMarche. He's not self-consciously evil, and he's not just a jerk for no reason; he sees himself as a defender of Equestria's way of life, of values like peace and friendship. He's that familiar sort of anti-villain who believes what he does is right and necessary for everyone, and he's dead serious about it because he believes it's so important. But what he believes is really, really wrong. And his hostility to non-ponies causes an international incident that makes the episode's cliffhanger an especially dark one.


Lesson: Non-ponies have been part of the Mane Six's friendship from the beginning. Bridle Gossip, the episode that gave us Zecora, gave us an early lesson about those whose appearance and customs seem unfamiliar, even threatening, to us. We ought not judge a book by its cover. Here that lesson is extended and made more proactive: Friendliness requires more than just accepting a handful of "non-ponies" who happen to be near us. A true celebration of friendship breaks down barriers by reaching out to the non-ponies "out there." Twilight and Pinkie got a taste of this earlier with the yaks, and the other guardians visiting the school represent various other allies we've met along the way. But the attitude behind this is important: Friendship isn't just "pony values"; it's a virtue, plain and simple. And so our goal in reaching out is not to make the world resemble us, but to humbly share the lessons we've learned by befriending others as they are.

Sadly, with outreach comes opposition. My mom grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas during the integration crisis of the 50s and 60s and even graduated from Central High School. My greatest challenge teaching in China was the racial tension between the Han and the Uyghurs among my students. My youngest sister left her job a few years ago to pursue a counseling degree so she can work with refugees and victims of human trafficking. So I find the messages here very relevant on a personal level.

Within My Little Pony, given the invasion by the Storm King and the fresh memories of hostility from dragons, yaks, and Changelings, there are bound to be ponies like Chancellor Neighsay whose patriotism takes the form of xenophobia. To him, Equestria is a light shining in an otherwise dark world, and he'd like to keep it that way, whereas the Princess wants that light to be shared. And he's not alone, judging by a killer line from Thorax that the Changelings are used to attitudes like Neighsay's.

The Map weighs in on Twilight's side here, which should be no surprise to those who've noticed its friendship missions are usually related to healing communities. This may or may not be the creators' intent, but you have to admire the logic of this: If friendship is magic, and we've seen how much magic is powered by emotion, then Equestria can best become a force for good in the world by making friendship its reason for being. A prominent role for Twilight Sparkle as Princess of Friendship is a vital step towards that. Between the school and last season's reveal of the Pillars as the source of the Tree and its Map, everything is coming together.


Resonance: Unlike some two-parters, this story doesn't plunge us into creepiness or impending disaster. But we do get some tension in the second half of the School of Friendship song, as the ill-suited "by-the-book" methods threaten to spoil this opportunity to show the value of friendship, just as it was beginning to work. And this episode closes with one of the series' more shocking moments as Chancellor Neighsay bluntly delivers unmistakable racism to the faces of the non-pony guests.

But even as Twilight's school faces so many problems, most of the episode is full of fascination and fun. Pinkie brings the laughs early as she accidentally knocks Applejack over in her enthusiasm over Mount Aris and puzzles Starlight with her post-Movie exposition. I also chuckle seeing Pinkie about to shoot Gallus out of a cannon and into a mattress only twenty-or-so feet away. The egghead drawing of Rainbow Dash is silly-cute, as is her set-up for Yona's trust fall. My favorite funny moment is Ocellus' impression of Rarity. It can't be easy to exaggerate a pony who's already so over-the-top, but she sells it. Bonus points for Ocellus doing this while being the shy one.

I love every time Princess Celestia praises Twilight, as she does here. We know just how much that means to her. It's also touching to see the statues of each of the Pillars inside the new school. Points too for the students' song; having them sing in unison gives a sense of community and commonality even before they've gotten to know each other. They're also kept together through most of the episode, so we already think of them as a team. I really liked seeing them asking questions about each other by the lake, which is a natural step toward friendship that would probably be regarded as beside the point in a guideline book intended for academic teaching. Finally, I want to call out a cute, split-second shot of Silverstream napping with Angel as the cutest moment in the episode.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I'm very happy that this season opens by incorporating the events of the Movie. It's also great to see a payoff for all the allies Equestria has gained over the years. The time and pace of the episode is well balanced between the story of the school and introducing us to these new characters. Key to that is the School of Friendship song, which is an entertaining way to quickly establish the flow of events and how the characters feel about what's going on.

I don't have any real criticisms here. You might think including non-ponies among students is central enough to Twilight's project that it would have been featured in her written proposal; I'll bet it was in there but that Neighsay didn't bother to actually read it. Given Rarity's statement in the cold open, I was initially expecting to see a student from Klugetown, but I realize it's more important to follow up with the cultures featured in the series proper.

I consider this the best opening two-parter in four years, and one of the most important. It doesn't just provide a thrill but moves the series in a new direction while keeping in step with the show's spirit and message. I also think it's on par with similarly heartwarming standalones such as season seven's A Health of Information and Discordant Harmony.

 

School Daze Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 5th and 6th of 26 season-eight episodes
Ranked 54th and 55th of 233 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

Previous: Equestria Girls: Forgotten Friendship School Daze Part 1 Next: School Daze Part 2