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

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Episode 171: "School Daze – Part 2"

Aired 3/24/2018, written by Michael Vogel (his tenth episode) & Nicole Dubuc (her fourth)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Recap.
  • Act 1: After a bit of sulking, Twilight Sparkle is persuaded to reopen the School of Friendship under her own rules despite the EEA. Her friends travel to the other kingdoms to persuade them to return but learn that the non-pony students are missing.
  • Act 2: As the various leaders begin accusing one another, Twilight and her friends discuss the disappearances and clue in on Sandbar as a likely lead. Meanwhile, Sandbar and the non-pony students hang out at the Castle of the Two Sisters until they are attacked by pukwudgies.
  • Act 3: The Mane Six, Starlight, and Spike arrive just in time to save the students from the pukwudgies. They announce the reopening of the school, but Chancellor Neighsay arrives to oppose her move. Shut down by Twilight's preparation and Celestia's support of the school, the Chancellor flees in a huff. Classes resume with teaching styles geared toward what is best for the students and their teachers.

Character: Let's get a quick run-down of the Student Six as they're established here. I can say from the outset that we have marvelous vocal performances from a mostly new cast, along with a unique blend of personalities here, not just facsimiles of the main characters:
  • Yona gets the most screentime here. While she exhibits much pride in her yak heritage, she's enthusiastically eager to try new things and even overcomes her fear of flying in about twelve seconds. Other than a brief tiff with Gallus, she's quick to befriend the other students. Her braids make for some great physical comedy, but her ebullience is what really makes her a joy to watch.
  • Gallus is at the other end of the spectrum. He's immediately recognizable as the sort of person who thinks it's cool to be cynical, snarky, and unimpressed. But there's warmth beneath the surface, and it's only natural to surmise much of his toughness is a protective facade that has allowed him to function in the griffons' traditionally unfriendly society. We've seen a similar duality in Grampa Gruff, so I'm interested to see where his character goes from here.
  • Smolder is drawn spectacularly cute but shares her tough-guy image with Gallus. However, hers is grounded not so much in cynicism as in competition, a cultural trait we've been led to associate with dragons. It's fitting, then, that what eventually draws her to soften toward Yona and Ocellus is being impressed by their talents. At this point, Smolder seems to be the main creative mind in the group, and she also bonds quickly with Gallus and Silverstream.
  • Ocellus is the best academic of the group but is otherwise quiet. But though shy and reserved, she doesn't seek solitude; she appears happy to have the others as friends. She also shape-shifts a LOT, complete with size changes, much of it simply for fun, so it's clear to me that the show's creators intend to make the most of having a Changeling in the supporting cast.
  • Silverstream is my early favorite in the student cast, if for no other reason than that she's just in love with everything in the world around her. I identify with her joy of discovery, and in fact my own motivation for teaching is my desire to share that joy with others. Perhaps that's why it's her idea to introduce Yona to the fun of flying.
  • My first impression of Sandbar was a little weak; he seemed to be just a generic nice guy. A closer look reveals he's similar to Spike in a lot of ways: skilled in gentle guidance and the first to lend a hoof when anypony needs help. There's also a little bit of a surfer-dude motif going on here, but it's not as pronounced as, say, Tree Hugger's mannerisms. I hope he keeps a distinct personality, since on a show about friendship, he'll need more than being "the friendly one" to stand out.

The first sequence with Twilight sulking and her subsequent conversation with Starlight Glimmer is a great snapshot of her character, and it shows how much of her resolve depends on the help of her friends. Starlight gives Twi encouragement in a literal sense, giving her the courage to do the right thing. And as a pep-talking straight-shooter who's overcome so many of her own missteps, Starlight is the perfect pony for this. Also, I like her reference to "tough love," since the word love isn't used often enough on this show. Let us not forget, these two former enemies now really love each other.

With the focus on Twilight and the new cast, it might be easy to lose sight of how trying an experience this school project is for the teachers, so I'm glad we get a scene to that effect—topped off with a sincere and direct apology from Twilight Sparkle for ignoring their insights and observations in Part 1. It's good to see her taking ownership of her friendship mistakes in a healthy way like this, even as she's prone to pity parties for her more task-related setbacks.

Princess Celestia is probably wise to let Twilight be the one to sort things out here (for the sake of the headmare's credibility), but I'm glad she contributes something to the final confrontation, and her armor-piercing question is backed up by the fact that Celestia was around when the types of ponies put aside their differences over a thousand years ago.

Other viewers have noticed the fitting choices of which pony goes to which kingdom to announce the reopening of the school. Sending Dash to Griffonstone and Pinkie to Yakyakistan are obvious moves. Fluttershy works with Thorax since he's the most gentle. (Notice he doesn't hurl accusations like the other leaders—very in-character.) Between the other two, Rarity is the better choice for Ember since they've met and they have Spike as a common friend. That leaves AJ with General Seaspray, who might prefer a pony renowned for honesty after the incident with Twilight in the Movie.

Finally, I enjoy the pukwudgies for their outright nastiness (though one is seen to be less hostile later). All by themselves they've made the Everfree Forest threatening again. I was surprised to learn they're not original to the show despite the cute name, but have their origins in Native American mythology.


Lesson: Now I'd like to tackle the School of Friendship part of the story. Full disclosure: My middle sister is the founder and principal of a private school operated by her church, and I've done my share of writing curriculum and teaching in school and church settings. Also, I learned best using traditional methods, but I realize most people don't think like I do and prefer something a little different.

Running a school requires more than bricks, books, and brains. Within its appropriate scope, it needs to serve the needs of its students so that they grow as people as they grow in knowledge. Teens like the Student Six need an outlet for physical exercise as well as creative expression. They're building their own sense of self-definition and self-efficacy. But they're also moving toward mature socialization, so they must have ways to participate meaningfully in the events they're part of and have positive interactions not only with their peers but with adults of various generations. Teens are also driven to test boundaries as they learn to balance their growing independence with their proper place in the world and develop a theory of mind that acknowledges other people's differing perspectives and sensibilities. All that is besides the actual curriculum, and schools aren't solely responsible for all this. But they are where young people spend the plurality of their waking hours outside the home, and a School of Friendship would need to be especially attuned to all these elements.

So what about the rules? It's worth noting that while the song in the finale says "The only rule here is to find your way," it takes a meter-thick manual for Twilight to flesh all that out. My guess is that seeking the student's best path to learning is the over-arching principle—the "only rule," if you will—as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach of the EEA. But to operate efficiently, any learning environment requires a few guidelines. Some examples:

  • What information you should teach should depend on what the students already know, what they're ready to learn, and the purpose for which they're learning it.
  • As you prepare for class time, consider what your students will be doing, and not just what you as the teacher will be doing.
  • The best teaching method depends on the teacher's personality and the students' various learning styles, but it should always be clear, well-prepared, and confidently and winsomely delivered.
  • There should be some means to assess whether the information is being understood and retained.
  • Praise loud, fix soft. And when fixing, correct the behavior, not the person. Always keep your cool and don't "power trip."
  • As teacher, don't take "I don't know" for a final answer. "I don't know" is everyone's starting point, and your job is to move the students from being unable to answer a question to answering the question correctly.

All that is to say, the ways to do school right are very basic and easily adaptable to a wide variety of topics, contexts, and learning styles. Most of it's more about good judgment than about method. But it takes some experience to learn to separate the principles from the teaching methods Twilight is used to, plus a mind that's open to diversity and new possibilities, something that may be beyond Chancellor Neighsay's capacity.


Resonance: As My Little Pony Part 2's go, this is downright breezy. Not a lot of serious drama, the "kingdoms at war" bit is fairly understated (though undoubtedly scary in-universe), and the only real peril is the pukwudgie attack. But the lighter mood doesn't mean a mundane story. These twenty-two minutes are packed full of fun. The attack provides our characters a chance to show themselves ready for combat. Points to Silverstream for saving Yona from the initial assault. All the teachers get their moments protecting the students. Even Spike gets in on the action, and I like seeing the two birds fetching a pukwudgie for Fluttershy to bother.

The comedy comes heavy in this episode. Pinkie is at the top of her game, with her apparent facility with pity parties, her line, "Do we still get to guess?" and a full set of personalized confetti cannons. And her exchange with Fluttershy makes me wish for an episode featuring shrimp. We get a delightful gag with five of the ponies trying to cram through the doorway to follow Sandbar, with Spike, Starlight, and Twilight tagging along casually. The students likewise entertain with Yona's wheel-hooved cupcake charge, Gallus's braid-tripping assist, and the sight of Yona Yak panting like a dog. The Bugbear is a terrific choice of form for Ocellus, and Silverstream's fascination with stairs becomes even funnier when she gives a perfectly valid reason for her interest.

Fluttershy gets a laugh for absently decking a pukwudgie with an EEA rulebook, and Yona gets one more smile from me by her "Not bad for pony" delivery and facial expressions. We also see Angel Bunny attending Starlight Glimmer's class for some reason, and he seems pretty happy about it. I'll also mention a couple heartwarming moments, as Silverstream misses her family and Thorax shows some tenderness to Ocellus during the conclusion.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Perhaps surprisingly, the writers didn't consult education professionals for the school arc but instead wrote from their own memories as former students. That's valid, inasmuch as the stories will probably be presented mostly from the students' perspective. Also, I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of realism here. Running a school is extraordinarily complex and emotionally taxing, involves a lot of unfortunate trade-offs, and any changes take more time than a series like this could reasonably accommodate. Part of the point of setting a story in a magical land is so that your story ideas and their presentation are not unduly restricted by reality.

The show's animation quality has been stellar for a long time at this point, so I didn't expect any major upgrades here. But we do get a few nice rotating camera shots. The story is nicely split into segments involving the Mane Six and company, the other kingdoms, the students, and the reopening of the school. The story does a decent job with the whole load of characters, but I'm glad we close on a moment with Twilight and her friends. In the end, School Daze is fun and engaging in both parts, and it also gets me curious and excited to see what Season 8 has to offer as the show sets out into new territory.

 

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.

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