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

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Episode 53: "The Crystal Empire – Part 1"

Aired 11/10/2012, written by Meghan McCarthy (her tenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: A messenger from the north brings urgent news to Princess Celestia.
  • Act 1: Twilight Sparkle frets over Celestia's summoning her to Canterlot for a test. She arrives and is briefed on the return of the Crystal Empire and the need to protect it from King Sombra. Told it must be her alone who saves the empire, she worries that she's not prepared for the task. But Celestia also sends her friends with her.
  • Act 2: In the snow outside the empire, King Sombra in a misty form attacks the Mane Six and wounds Shining Armor. Cadance's force field is weakening and the residents have amnesia, leaving the Mane Six in the dark until they find a book in the library.
  • Act 3: The book describes a Crystal Fair, which the Mane Six put on immediately. As the crystal ponies wander around tentatively, one of them reveals that the fair's purpose is to activate the Crystal Heart, which Sombra has hidden away.

Character: Twilight's anxieties are on full display here. The creators know they're taking this a little over the top, as one of her groans sends the Golden Oaks Library about a hundred feet in the air. We understand her misgivings, recalling her entrance exam from The Cutie Mark Chronicles. But the irony here is twofold: Not only is the real "test" far more consequential both for Equestria and for Twilight personally, but she actually considered herself prepared for the academic test she was expecting. While she still handles the Sombra crisis with her own style as though it were a research paper—an approach vindicated when the key information is in a book in the library—she shows herself to be a capable leader, and her friends follow her lead without a second thought.

Though still a kid who doesn't necessarily lock on to all that's going on (e.g., The Failure Song), Spike is once again at Twilight's side as a smart, capable, and calming presence. This has been his consistent presentation for quite a few episodes now, in contrast to the variety of Spikes we saw in the first season.

It's sad to see Cadance look so exhausted after she was introduced in much the same condition last episode. We're right with her when she says she and Twilight need to meet under better circumstances. Shining Armor spent most of his first appearance brainwashed, but here we see a self-sacrificing hero who's as dedicated to his bride as he is to his other duties. This is a couple I won't mind seeing more of.

King Sombra, "whose heart was black as night" (no offense, Luna), only gets a few seconds here outside of cloud form, but the image of the ponies in chains and the fear on the crystal ponies' faces whenever they think of him are enough to establish him as a dangerous enemy. As a rule, "evil" is not particularly interesting as a character trait. But it helps to distinguish him from antagonists such as Nightmare Moon, Trixie, and Discord, who all have motives that aren't evil per se but which make them adversaries to the good. Even Queen Chrysalis had the excuse of wanting to feed her subjects. No, King Sombra is evil, self-consciously and proudly evil, licking his lips at the chance to resume his oppression. He also seems to be, for lack of a better word, infectious as his dark power creates black shards everywhere it goes.


Lesson: There are some good leadership lessons to be had here. There's good opportunity for discussion in the fact that Twilight is bringing all her friends along and they are working as a team, and yet Twilight's been told that she has to be the one to solve the crisis when the time comes. The other major issue for this episode is Twilight being assigned a task she doesn't feel prepared for. She embraces this with the help of her friends but also by making use of the skills she knows she has, which anticipates her solution to Star Swirl the Bearded's spell in the third season finale. Even though it's not stated outright, I think the academic approach she takes illustrates this principle well.

Logic: Yeah, the book probably should have mentioned the importance of the Crystal Heart before the last page. It's sort of like instructions that read, "Pull the green lever. But first hold down the red button." Connections: There's some nice foreshadowing at the end of the briefing as we see images of the sun and moon behind Celestia and Luna and an image of stars behind Twilight in the next shot.

 

Resonance: Appropriately for a story that highlights Twilight's academic inclinations, this episode involved me more intellectually than emotionally. I was interested to see how the story would develop. It plays like a mystery, and there's no question about the stakes: the Canterlot castle scenes are packed with awesomeness, and every mention and glimpse of Sombra inspires a sense of dread. Shining Armor has a gripping hero moment outside the force field, and the final seconds of Sombra advancing on the empire are as foreboding as the end of A Canterlot Wedding's first part.

Most of the jokes here pass quickly but are hilarious for the brief time they last. Rarity's crystal-related freak-outs and Twilight's swooning over the library are pitch-perfect character moments. Pinkie carries most of the humor, as usual: most strikingly with her Fluttershy costume (and Fluttershy's reaction to seeing her skin lying on the ground), her inexplicable enthusiasm over the librarian ("I LIKE HER!"), and her attempts to play the flugelhorn.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: The thirty-second cold open is a nice way to start off the new season with a bang. This is followed up shortly by the briefing, in which the flashback is the most exciting moment of Part One despite being exposition. As with the first and second season finales, we have good songs here. The first elaborates on how Twilight is feeling, and also serves to establish her character for any first-time viewers. The second introduces the fair and covers its preparation. I was surprised how catchy the fair song turned out to be, as basic as it is. As simple a thing as the Mane Six bobbing their heads during the chorus makes all the difference.

So often in TV and movies, there's this moment of calm before the storm, or otherwise some quiet tension between the failure of the defenses and the onset of the threat. But here, Sombra wastes no time and immediately barrels into the empire from all sides the instant the force field comes down. I was impressed. Overall, this episode of set-up is fun on its own, has a lot of character moments big and little, and leaves us on the edge of our seats to find out what happens next. The fact that so many things set up here have a payoff later makes it a superb start to the season.

 

The Crystal Empire – Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 3rd and 4th of 13 season-three episodes
Ranked 20th and 21st of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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