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

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Episode 160: "To Change a Changeling"

Aired 9/2/2017, written by Kevin Lappin (his second episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Starlight Glimmer and Trixie travel to the Changeling Hive to visit Thorax, at a time when the Hive is threatened by a dreaded Maulwurf. But they are captured by an unfriendly changeling.
  • Act 1: The ponies are delivered to Thorax, who explains the changeling is his brother Pharynx, who refuses to reform. Pharynx is disruptive and hostile to the other changelings, so the ponies offer to speak with him.
  • Act 2: Pharynx cuts the ponies short and later disrupts a "feelings forum" to say the pack is defenseless because it has gone soft. The changelings want Pharynx banished, but Thorax tells Starlight and Trixie how Pharynx protected him when they were younger. Starlight plants bait to lead the Maulwurf to the Hive so Pharynx can show his good side by defending the changelings. But Trixie informs her Pharynx has left the Hive for good.
  • Act 3: Since the other changelings are reluctant to fight, Thorax and the ponies search for Pharynx and find him in battle with the Maulwurf. The other changelings show up and join the fight, and the Maulwurf is eventually defeated. Thorax offers Pharynx the chance to train the changelings to relearn how to defend themselves, and he accepts and is tranformed. Thorax is still upset at Starlight for endangering the Hive, but she distracts him by asking Pharynx to tell stories of their childhood.

Character: I expect this episode will be remembered mostly for the humorous interactions between Starlight Glimmer and The Great and Powerful Trixie. But two things stand out for Starlight as an individual. The first is her constant proclivity for trying to reform and restore the wayward. As a former villain, she seeks out characters with a dark past, or even a dark present, to offer friendship. She's sharing what has been so valuable to her, and I believe she also needs to see others reform to remind herself that the change she experienced was real and that darkness truly is in the past. Reconciliation characterizes her in much the same way the Mane Six represent various Elements of friendship. In fact, since we're all imperfect, any healthy relationship needs a cycle of confession, repentance, and forgiveness, accepting each other's shortcomings as we periodically fail each other and need restoration. So you could think of it as a seventh Element of sorts, represented by Starlight Glimmer in Equestria, and by Sunset Shimmer in the Equestria Girls shorts and films.

Starlight's second trait featured this week is her leadership ability. Without necessarily intending to, she basically directs Trixie through the whole episode. She takes the initiative to lure the Maulwurf to the Hive. And she gives a rousing speech that draws on her experience leading her village prior to her heel-face turn. She shows a confidence I don't think she would have had without the events of To Where and Back Again.

Trixie's ego is the foundation for much of the comedy in this episode, as she and Starlight keep verbally poking at each other. Her status as a morally grey character permits her to not concern herself as much with doing the right thing, which allows for a dynamic we don't get with the Mane Six or the CMC. The purpose of these two's visit is to offer encouragement and support to Thorax as he's overwhelmed by leadership difficulties (which we know from Triple Threat include unreformed changelings) as well as the Maulwurf threat. It says a lot in Trixie's favor that she's willing to come along for this.

We also get a brief reflection from Trixie on her rivalry with Twilight: "She made me unsure about my place in the world." What does that mean, exactly? I'm reading between the lines here, but I think Trixie's not just about the spotlight; her showponyship is a way to convince herself of her own amazingness. That's implicit in her referring to herself in the third person; note how she switches to first person when humbled in both Boast Busters and Magic Duel. She coasts along just fine since her stage-oriented magic is more impressive than the simple magic most unicorns practice, but her exposure to Twilight's abilities, the ruining of her reputation, her time in a menial job, and her corruption by the Alicorn Amulet all reveal that she's not the "highest-level unicorn" she'd perceived herself to be. She still has her stage show, but now she's found her niche as Starlight's best friend (one sense in which she's above Twilight). Identity crisis is one thing she and Starlight have in common. With that considered, it's no surprise she accompanies Starlight on this trip after all.

What we see in Thorax here we also saw just two episodes ago in Triple Threat, but it's fun to see the other changelings. The pack is an entire society that's never known friendship, trying to reform and restructure themselves under a mild-as-milk leader. If most of them seem satisfied with that, it's because Thorax is their model for what friendship looks like. But that has its limitations, as pointed out by Pharynx.

Pharynx is fun as a darker character. There's a lot of wit packed into his lines, and he reminds me of a pouty kid trying to keep himself mad even after he's not really feeling it. His opening line "I'm not nice" is cheesy at first, but once we know him, the line works because being the "not nice one" is actually a point of pride with him. He feels a need to declare what makes him different from all the others. After he transforms, his darker coloration and his bluntness toward Starlight hint that he'll actually retain some of his edge after his reform.


Lesson: Many of the concerns Pharynx has about the changelings' reform are justified, and the lesson Thorax needs to learn is that good does not mean soft. How many times have our main characters had to step up and boldly fight threats that can't just be talked down? There's an important difference between gentleness and weakness. I talked about assertiveness and righteous anger in my review for Fluttershy Leans In. Gentleness means not being rough, not being a bully, enaging others graciously and not pushing your whole weight on people. It means in an argument not saying the thing you know will sting the most. You can press into people's lives for their good, assert yourself where appropriate, and even fight the good fight against evil without being a trampling hothead. Gentleness has partly to do with knowing when to confront someone and when to give someone a break, and partly to do with how to manage a confrontation in a manner appropriate to the person and situation. Even in the Maulwurf fight, the changelings have to attack in large numbers but also outsmart the creature and not just hit it with brute force. On a societal level, the changelings can conduct themselves peaceably while still being ready to defend themselves when necessary.

The other major issue in this story is the question of lost causes. We know from the scene with Starlight and Chrysalis that forgiveness and reconciliation are not unilateral things. They can only be offered, and the offending party can either accept or reject that offer. (Side note: That doesn't mean we hold a grudge when forgiveness is rejected. Bitterness corrupts, so we still release hard feelings against the other person even if the relationship remains broken.) This episode goes a step further, teaching that sometimes forgiveness is accepted only when it's offered in the right way. However well intentioned, grace can be condescending or it can be respectful. Pharynx's love for the changelings had to be acknowledged; it was in fact the root of his problems with all the changes. And he had to be shown how his own distinct abilities could contribute rather than be told to become just like all the others.


Resonance: This is a comedy, primarily dialogue-driven but with a lot of sight gags. Among my favorite lines are Trixie's reference to her "process," Trixie's "slightly longer" jab at Starlight, and Starlight suggesting Trixie has "come to terms with being second best." The changelings get in on the humor with the soup complaint and its call-back, and their predictable reaction to Starlight's news about Pharynx and the Maulwurf. The feelings forum is deliberately sappy and serves as an effective illustration that Pharynx has a point. Trixie ducking away from Starlight's apology is also good for a laugh. In contrast to MLP's penchant for genuinely frightening creatures, the goofiness of the Maulwurf fits the tone of the episode, though Pharynx's own alt-mode is quite intimidating.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I was going to say some things about teleporting, but in the interest of time, I'll save it for another episode.

I appreciate this story for showing reconciliation as a process with lots of challenges along the way, as well as a few obstacles that arise from this show being a tad more realistic than a stereotypical pro-social cartoon show. I'm also happy that it's Thorax and the changelings themselves who successfully gain Pharynx's respect, rather than having Starlight and Trixie strike the final diplomatic blow, as it were.

I want to mention Pharynx using his shapeshifting ability to good effect, something we've seen surprisingly little of from the other changelings. I'm guessing their default form is familiar and offers more maneuverability against larger targets, but it could also be that they're out of practice. Either way, I don't see this is a plot problem.

All in all, I consider this a superb, must-see episode of the series, ranking it along with the similar "friendship challenge" stories Hearthbreakers and Dungeons & Discords.

 

To Change a Changeling armor rating: Diamond Armor
Ranked 12th of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 52nd of 175 stories overall

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