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

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Episode 169: "Shadow Play Part 2"

Aired 10/28/2017, written by Josh Haber (his nineteenth episode) & Nicole Dubuc (her first); story by Josh Haber
  • Intro: Recap.
  • Act 1: The Pony of Shadows disappears to turn the world to darkness. At the castle, Star Swirl recognizes the Map's magic, and the pillars explain that the Tree of Harmony grew from a seed they planted. They hatch a plan to use the Elements of Harmony to banish the Pony of Shadows, and Twilight Sparkle develops a spell that will allow them to do so without returning to Limbo themselves. But Starlight has reservations about assuming the enemy must be banished.
  • Act 2: The Map indicates the Pony of Shadows' location. As they prepare for their mission, the pillars tell Starlight of his origin as their former companion Stygian. Star Swirl dismisses Starlight's hope that Stygian could be reformed, and Twilight backs up his skepticism.
  • Act 3: All the heroes bring the Elements to confront the Pony of Shadows. During the confrontation, Twilight catches a glimpse of Stygian trying to escape the Pony's power. She and Starlight leap into the shadows to recover Stygian and do so with the help of the pillars and the rest of the Mane Six. The shadowy form left behind is banished, and Star Swirl offers apologies for his assumptions about Stygian. After reuniting with the Royal Sisters in Canterlot, the pillars leave to explore Equestria and catch up on current events.

Character: With all the characters in this story, we'll need to start with a bird's-eye view. So much of this episode is driven by Twilight Sparkle's idolization of Star Swirl and her desire for his approval. It cuts deep that he's dismissive and even resentful of her for messing up his spell, freeing the villain, making the pillars' ultimate act of self-sacrifice pointless, and putting the world in danger once again... It's understandable that he's a tad irked, and he's also not familiar with all the good she and the others have done. But I'm really happy to see the rest of the Mane Six standing up for Twilight, as well as Spike and Starlight offering their encouragement. I welcome moments like this when Twilight's friends are here for her.

Now that everypony's here together and we know the connection between the pillars and the Tree of Harmony, let's review how these ponies line up, Element-wise. In Friendship Is Magic we're told, "There are six Elements of Harmony, but only five are known: Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Honesty and Loyalty." And later, "...the spark that resides in the heart of us all, it creates the sixth element: the element of Magic." In Magical Mystery Cure, Celestia uses different vocabulary for these same virtues when she tells Twilight, "You've displayed the charity, compassion, devotion, integrity, optimism, and of course, the leadership of a true princess." Here Somnambula tells us these Elements "are reflections of our own elements of hope, strength, beauty, bravery, healing, and sorcery." Putting these together, we get this:

Pinkie PieLaughter/OptimismSomnambulaHope
Rainbow DashLoyalty/DevotionFlash MagnusBravery
Twilight SparkleMagic/LeadershipStar SwirlSorcery

Comparing these traits highlights the series' values, particularly MLP's understanding of what constitutes true beauty, strength, and bravery, as well as how laughter contributes to friendship. As for Twilight and Star Swirl's element, we were told way back in the first season that whereas the other five Elements are identified as virtues or components of loving relationships, the sixth has the utilitarian purpose of uniting them to release their power. The leader's purpose among the six is to keep the other five ponies bound together harmoniously so that they can reach their full potential. Twilight became a Princess by completing one of Star Swirl's spells to accomplish just this, whereas the Pony of Shadows represents Star Swirl's failure at his task.

I love how, true to form, Starlight Glimmer carries the redemption angle of the story. Once or twice I've suggested that she and Sunset Shimmer add a seventh color to the Element rainbow. Whether you want to call it reformation, reconciliation, or recovery, the potential to turn an enemy into a friend is one of the major themes of the series; in fact, it's the Magic of friendship demonstrated at the return of Nightmare Moon. Luna, Starlight Glimmer, and Stygian were all corrupted by various colors of jealousy, probably all of which arose from misunderstandings and lack of appreciation. And so just as each of the Mane Six has her counterpart among the pillars, so Starlight Glimmer can be set alongside Stygian.

Let me add here that I'm happy the pillars aren't just ancient precursors of each of the Mane Six, but have their own unique personalities and backstories. That'll be important if they have a continued presence on the show.

Ok, it's Star Swirl time. What we see of him should not be unexpected. Princess Celestia once explained to Twilight that the reason Star Swirl was unable to complete his spell was that "he did not understand friendship like you do," thanks to the lessons Twilight had learned in Ponyville. The pillars may have been gathered by Stygian to be the world's champions, but for whatever reason, their bond did not shape Star Swirl in that way. And as a result, he's about to make the same mistake as Twilight did in Part 1, rushing into an unnecessary spell that could bring trouble and tragedy. (It's not explicit, but the wording of Twilight's discovery suggests she might have been pulled into Limbo in place of the pillars if her spell had been seen through. To say nothing of the loss of Stygian, the disappearance of the Elements, and the potential death of the Tree of Harmony.)

Star Swirl's resistance to alternative solutions stems from pride. He's the one willing to make the hard choices. He takes pleasure in resigning himself to "what must be done." And so he demonstrates that even self-sacrifice can be selfish if done for one's own glory. Defending Equestria requires more than exercising magical power and doing the right thing. There's got to be a heart behind it, a wisdom he has yet to obtain.

Admittedly, we don't get to see much villainy out of the Pony of Shadows. At least in the person of Stygian, it seems he's stopped before he can really do anything in either timeframe. But if there's anything to the legend Applejack once told Rainbow Dash, the shadowy form that overcame Stygian could be the same power that once took hold of Luna. I'm told we get more backstory on these newcomers in the comics, so some of my wonderings may be answered there.

Lesson: We've pretty well covered the redemption angle by now. My favorite parts of that side of the story are (1) Starlight spelling out to an oblivious Twilight just why that possibility of redemption is so important to her, since it's such a powerful moment for Starlight. So many times she's tried to distance herself from her past, but here she owns it because it gives her point solid credibility. And (2) is the closing exchange where Twilight apologizes to Starlight, saying exactly what needed to be said. I love it when even in the midst of kingdom-saving, MLP brings things back to the personal. One reason we have friends is to keep us on track with our principles in trying times.

Stygian makes a point of his own once he's finally able to tell his story. His chilling message is, "The darkness welcomed me when nopony would." People we push away will seek acceptance elsewhere, sometimes in the worst places, and the darkness may drive them to make the worst decisions. It's a heavy thing, that when someone cares about you, you have their life in your hands, in a way. That doesn't diminish their responsibility for their own decisions, but there are consequences to unkindness and exclusion that we may fail to contemplate. Star Swirl adds to that lesson when he says that "in turning away from others, you hurt yourself as well."

Resonance: I find loads of emotional resonance here. As you may have gathered, a lot of my personal philosophy shows up in this episode, but to be honest over the past five years that philosophy has been shaped by MLP, so it's really no surprise. But it had me calling out a big "YES" more than once. I love seeing Twilight and Starlight combine their powers in their first encounter with the Pony of Shadows, and it's awesome to see the Sirens' banishment from Equestria's side. Twilight abandoning her pride and leaping into the Pony of Shadows without hesitation is one of her best moments. There's not much overt humor this time around, but Fluttershy's concise expression of support for Twilight (delivered to Star Swirl) is worth a chuckle. I like the Quasimodo pony. And Twilight's stumbling over Star Swirl's name after the climax is also hilariously true-to-life.

My heart is warmed by how graciously Star Swirl admits his errors to Stygian and Starlight, and how he compliments Twilight in the throne room. His words in Celestia's presence must have meant the world to her. On the sad side, Stygian's tale implies some major blind spots in the pillars' practice of their virtues, and their realization that they misjudged him will likely have them wrestling with feelings of guilt for a long time. That error not only turned Stygian to evil but led to them all "disappearing without a trace," leaving their homes and loved ones far behind. How could this strange distant future be any replacement? And my affections are with Starlight Glimmer throughout this ordeal as her mentor falters and the redemptive reality she clings so anxiously to is called into question.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Fluttershy makes an astute observation that the Elements survived their use possibly because they were used for friendship rather than for banishment. I think there's something to that. Celestia and Luna used the Elements to turn Discord to stone, and Celestia to banish Nightmare Moon sometime later. After that, the Elements themselves are turned to stone, abandoned in the old castle, and the two sisters are "no longer connected to the Elements" even after Luna's return, which is what allows Discord to escape. When the Mane Six use the Elements to re-petrify Discord, they're not brought out again except to free him and then to summon him for help before being returned to the Tree of Harmony.

I'm very impressed by these episodes, and this two-parter grazes but just misses the Genji tier by the pacing of part 1 and my wish that somepony from the Mane Six had given friendship some consideration here. (Granted, Spike does play a sort of mediating role for Starlight, so it seems some thought went that direction.) That leaves Shadow Play the second best story of the season, after The Perfect Pear.


Shadow Play Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 2nd and 3rd of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 15th and 16th of 233 stories overall

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