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

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Episode 92: "The Cutie Map Part 1"

Aired 4/4/2015, story by Meghan McCarthy (her nineteenth episode), written by Scott Sonneborn (his third) and M.A. Larson (his thirteenth)
  • Intro: The Mane Six and Spike discover a holographic map in the new castle's throne room.
  • Act 1: Images of the team's cutie marks on the map prompt them to travel to the location indicated, where they find a village of smiling ponies, all with an equals sign in place of their cutie marks.
  • Act 2: The townsfolk introduce themselves as a community of total equality, with no disagreements and no special talents. The leader Starlight Glimmer welcomes the Mane Six to join them and discover "true friendship."
  • Act 3: Secretly dissatisfied ponies meet the Mane Six and mention their cutie marks are kept in a vault. Starlight leads the team to the vault and forcibly replaces their cutie marks with the equals sign, rendering them powerless.

Character: Most of the two-parters in this series end up focusing on Twilight, but here the Mane Six are clearly working as a team. Twi does get the most screen time, as she uses her diplomatic skills to speak for the rest of the Team and voice concerns in a polite and friendly way. She's very definitley the grown-up here, and it's a little jarring to see how Starlight and Double Diamond talk down to her in such a patronizing fashion right from the get-go.

Pinkie and Rainbow Dash throw themselves right into the adventure before they reach the town, and once there, they're the most vocal in their skepticism. As the most competitive, Dash is naturally the most easily turned off by the whole sameness thing, and Pinkie knows insincere smiles, having used them before to hide her own pain, and she does it once here, too, out of social necessity. Rarity's superficial here, but there's not much else for her to be in this context. AJ mostly keeps quiet but conveys plenty with her face.

Fluttershy is well used here, and her decision to join the others "in case they need me" is a nice bit of foreshadowing for Part 2. It's very believable for Fluttershy to accept the equal ponies' kindness at face value and try to see the good in everypony. It also gives us a familiar character to be the devil's advocate. Her assertive side comes out as a result, as she gives some needed rebukes and makes some valid points along the way.

The friends get into a little squabble here, which helps make sort of a corollary to the show's main point, that genuine relationships are messy but allow each pony to be herself and to grow by hearing the others' insights and perspectives.

This episode effectively plays us like a Baldwin grand in the third act, starting with the basement scene: We expect to see Sugar Belle dropping the mask and unloading her real emotions on the Mane Six, but instead they're approached in the dark from three sides and it looks for all the world like a trap. Oh, but they're rebels, but reluctant rebels, dissatisfied but still under the influence of the town's philosophy. We then see Starlight leading the team to the vault, so we think they might have been plants after all. But then we find out Starlight doesn't know about the meeting. Nevertheless, it is a trap, and so our suspicions are confirmed, but only after a lot of zig-zagging.

Amidst all this, we're introduced to three delightful named ponies, and especially with Sugar Belle there are some subtleties in the vocal delivery and animation that allows us to practically read her mind upon subsequent viewings. They're the shining new faces for this episode, while Starlight Glimmer and Double Diamond become more interesting in Part 2.

Concept: I'm saving most of my comments about the lesson for Part 2, since there's really just one theme here. But I want to talk a little about the cult concept present in this story. From the Montanists to Millerites, Shakers to Branch Davidians, cultic movements have been around for centuries. Political movements can also be cultlike, as you can see on a small scale with the Symbionese Liberation Army of the 1970s, or even nationally, as with Pol Pot's Cambodia during the same period.

Of course, the falsely happy, egalitarian commune shows up a lot in fiction as well. I grew up watching Captain Kirk encounter societies like this on Star Trek, and the story usually ended with him destroying the computer that was running the whole thing.

The reason I think these stories are so attractive, and the reason it's so surprising to see it handled so seriously on a kid's show, is because the real-life instances of this sort of thing involve major suffering, often torture and death in the political examples, and mind control and suppressed emotions in the religious ones. I meet weekly with a family who a few years ago were members of a religious cult. They still have some deprogramming to do, and the adults suffer from post-traumatic stress.

This episode steers clear of overt religion, politics, or economics, but for anyone familiar with the real-life analogues, what Starlight Glimmer is doing is terrifying. Ponies have come to her for the same reason people are drawn into these movements: they're searching for something missing in their lives: compassion, joy, truth, purpose. And they think they've found it.

By the way, just a little nitpick: At least for Americans watching, communistic socialism may be the first thing that comes to mind with all the equality talk. That might be more the case if the Equal Ponies' special talents were available for everypony to use, rather than removed entirely. But that wouldn't serve Starlight's purpose of retaining absolute power. Keeping everything under the control of the leadership is more akin to National Socialism. So yeah, Starlight is basically a Nazi pony.

Resonance: This story really capitalizes on the creepy while somehow managing not to call out that particular word in the main ponies' reactions. In Part 1 it's mostly smiles and stares, but amid the half truths of the propaganda song we get the chilling line, "You can't have a nightmare if you never dream." Here and there we get early hints that many of the ponies aren't as care-free as they seem and that they're downright scared of Starlight. The cognitive dissonance of the dissatisfied ponies is also really sad when you take time to think about how long they've been living with that.

This is a mostly serious episode, but there's still some fun to keep things from getting too intense. We get Spike stepping on the map, Pinkie under the giant rock, the "end of Equestria" joke (at least I thought it was funny), and Rarity's reactions to Twilight teleporting in front of her, and to Party Favor giving her a little too much attention.

One other thing this story has going for it: Often when I rewatch an episode, either in a reaction video or just straight, I tend to skip the slow spots. But here, every scene's got something, whether a striking moment or an important development in the story. It's rare in most TV series to see a two-parter so constantly giving us something to react to, and it's especially rare to see an episode with three writers be this tight and unified.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I'm glad the staff is said to belong to Meadowbrook instead of Star Swirl the Bearded. As much as I've enjoyed the Star Swirl thing, let's remember he started out as a figure in "obscure unicorn history," but lately it seems he's the only ancient pony who ever did anything. Here we have another mage with nine (actually eight) enchanted items, which has fanfic fuel written all over it.

We have yet another animation bump as the series becomes even more beautiful. Effective, true-to-life, dramatic, and provoking all kinds of curiosity about what lies beneath the surface, this is a great Part 1, and its strengths carry over to Part 2. I do have some minor concerns about the presentation that I'll get into in the next review, but the down-to-earth feel of a story in a quiet village is a nice contrast to the kingdom-saving, overlord-defeating adventures we've had in other premieres and finales. All together, it's not quite the series-changing powerhouse that The Return of Harmony was, but it bests the series premiere and ends up at the tip-top of the Diamond tier as of its airing.

 <1p> The Cutie Map Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Diamond Vest
Ranked 12th and 13th of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 92nd and 93rd of 233 stories overall

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