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

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Episode 54: "The Crystal Empire Part 2"

Aired 11/10/2012, written by Meghan McCarthy (her eleventh episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Recap of Part 1.
  • Act 1: Twilight Sparkle instructs her friends to keep the Crystal Fair going while she searches for the Crystal Heart. Spike joins her but promises not to help, given the terms of Celestia's test. They search inside Sombra's castle and find a hidden staircase. A door at the bottom leads to Twilight's worst fear.
  • Act 2: Spike rescues Twilight from the door trap, and they find another staircase going up. Twilight uses an anti-gravity spell to speed their travel as the fair begins to run out of steam. At the top, Twilight finds the heart but is trapped by dark crystals.
  • Act 3: Princess Cadance's force field collapses, and Sombra attacks. Twilight sends Spike to deliver the heart, and Cadance rescues him from King Sombra. The crystal ponies activate the Crystal Heart, destroying King Sombra and restoring the ponies and their empire to their natural, pristine appearance. The Mane Six return to Canterlot, where Celestia announces Twilight passed the test through her self-sacrifice.

Character: The primary characteristic of the crystal ponies appears to be emotional fragility/volatility. This could be explained as psychological trauma from King Sombra's rule. However, (1) the ties between their emotions and their appearance and (2) the way the Crystal Heart operates point to this moodiness being their natural state. There are all sorts of story possibilities here. While it may seem like a weird character choice from our real-life perspective, recall that the show takes place in a world where bitterness and resentment turned Princess Luna into Nightmare Moon, where the Elements of Harmony are emotionally activated, and where dragons grow up by becoming greedy. I imagine their crystalline fragility helps to balance out the vast power they possess, which they could otherwise tap into on a whim. And since the other pony types use more physical/environmental sorts of magic, one wonders whether the Elements of Harmony and other emotionally-oriented magical relics might have their origin among the crystal ponies. But that's getting into headcanon (and is at least partly nixed in the fourth season).

If it isn't already obvious, all of Sombra's strategies reveal that he uses fear as his weapon, after the fashion of Grand Moff Tarkin. This is what allows Twilight to deduce that he hid the Crystal Heart in his castle, where anypony would be most afraid to look for it. The door's fear trap is also target-specific, proffering some good character moments. Twilight's worst fear, that of being expelled by Celestia, is precisely what we would expect and it's well portrayed. The princess can be a real terror when her voice goes cold like that. Even though it's pretty obviously a hallucination, it still hits emotionally. The same can be said of Spike, who already went through something like this for real in Owl's Well that Ends Well.

Twilight is at her best here, solving riddles and using some lateral thinking that proves that even a bookish pony isn't restricted to doing things "by the book." I liked seeing her warmth toward Spike here, since in some episodes he seems to be at the edge of her notice. Like A Canterlot Wedding, this episode shows how far her magic has come since the beginning of the series. She can now self-levitate, and she demonstrates her ability to mimic powerful spells, which is crucial to locating the hidden staircase. The writers also don't forget her ability to teleport; they just circumvent it with Sombra's booby-trap.

The friends are obviously in the background here, but they all have little moments that are perfectly attuned to their personalities. I really liked the Rainbow Dash-Fluttershy material here. We also see some good irony, in the fish-out-of-water sense: As bearer of the Element of Honesty, Applejack is ill-suited to be pulling the proverbial wool over the crystal ponies' eyes. Her failure at it is therefore appropriate to her character. We also see how the characters' friendship has developed since the first season, as encapsulated by Applejack's "rarity" pun and the warmth between these once-feuding ponies. It's the last of several points in this two-parter where the friends' quirks don't annoy each other as they once did.

Finally, Shining Armor's devotion to Cadance is his defining trait at this point, and their ability to work together without words suggests they've been working together as a team for a long time. Cadance's understanding of Twilight shows through in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot where she reacts to Shining Armor's "just a test" assurance to Twilight and nudges him for it. (Notably, Twilight doesn't react to the line the way she did in the previous episode.)


Lesson: Self-sacrifice is the message here, and it's so central to good friendship, as well as good leadership, that it's a little surprising the writers waited this long to focus on it. Perhaps they were specifically saving it for a season opener. The magic door reminds us that failing in her studies is Twilight's greatest fear, and yet this is exactly what she risks by sending Spike to deliver the Crystal Heart. Tara Strong's vocal delivery as Twilight makes her decision causes us to feel the lesson rather than merely understand it. The fact that Celestia deliberately set up the test this way makes it a test of leadership, not of Twilight's magical or puzzle-solving abilities, but of her ability to put others' interests (the whole kingdom's, in fact) ahead of her own.

Connections: The episode closes with Luna showing Celestia what we later learn is the spellbook of Star Swirl the Bearded, and Spike saying, "I knew that everything was going to be fine." That book and that line foreshadow the season finale yet again.

 

Resonance: Everything's here. The serious bits are the door's effects on Twilight and Spike, the jagged black crystals, and the pony who bolts in panic and cowers before Sombra. But there's plenty of pleasantness and fun to balance it out: For laughter, we have Pinkie's flugelhorn tantrum and Rarity's pride in making a hay-and-drinking-straw hat "work." For awesomeness, we have Shining Armor throwing Cadance and the amazing effects sequence of the Crystal Heart's activation. I also loved seeing Celestia and Luna touching horns at the sight of victory. True, they're secondary characters, but the show benefits from little moments like that.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: The creators take some risks in the darker moments of this episode, going farther than they could have gone in the first season. The magic door in particular is chancy because young children may not be able to follow the fact that it's a hallucination. Due to the music and the constant growling, Sombra is also every bit as menacing as Queen Chrysalis, and he doesn't have any charm to offset his fearsome appearance. Also, he dies, which is a first for this show. However, children who have been with the show from the beginning are a couple years older by this time, and there are enough episodes that the writers can take some chances with a story now and then.

The quality of the animation here is stellar, and the animators are definitely moving away from pre-established movement cycles and emotional expressions that we've seen dozens of times by now. Sombra's defeat is extremely well done. Were this a little longer, it could have been a decent theatrical release. This story has all the strengths of A Canterlot Wedding with a stronger message element and music that's just as good, it has enough quieter moments to be a little more typical of the series and keeps everypony in character, and it advances the "Twilight arc" which is the main storyline of the series. It definitely raises the bar for two-part MLP stories.

 

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

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