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

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Episode 23: "The Cutie Mark Chronicles"

Aired 4/15/2011, written by M.A. Larson (his third episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: The Cutie Mark Crusaders try zip lining.
  • Act 1: Scootaloo suggests finding out how Rainbow Dash got her cutie mark. On the way, they hear the cutie mark stories of Applejack and Fluttershy.
  • Act 2: Fluttershy finishes her story, and Rarity and Twilight Sparkle tell their own tales.
  • Act 3: As Twilight's story ends, the Crusaders are joined by Pinkie Pie, who tells a story of her own, before finally hearing from Rainbow Dash. The stories are tied together as the ponies learn their marks are all tied to Rainbow Dash's first sonic rainboom.

Character: This is THE character-based episode as it lays out the back stories of each of the Mane Six (and Spike), narrated in-character. While we know the cast's personalities very well by this point in the series, the flashbacks allow us to understand some underlying causes for why the ponies think and act the way they do.

Most of the cutie mark discoveries relate clearly to talents we frequently see demonstrated. Rarity's penchant for finding gems has only been seen in A Dog and Pony Show at this point, and some would say it's only tangentially related to her job. (She does regularly work gemstones into her designs, however.) One good theory I've encountered is that Rarity's true talent is finding beauty in the most unlikely of places, as illustrated by the jewels inside the rock.

One thing overlooked by the Crusaders, and possibly a coincidence on the writer's part (though I suspect it was intentional), is that the experiences of the Mane Six may have been special, dramatic, and tied together because they would be the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. The evidence for this is a demonstration of their Element when their cutie marks were received: Honest Applejack gives up her high-society pretense to be faithful to her real home and family. Kind Fluttershy calms and comforts the animals after the explosion. Generous Rarity finds a wealth of jewels and uses it in dresses for the school play. Magic-Element Twilight shows herself to have incredible raw magical power. Laughter-Element Pinkie throws a party that causes her family to laugh together for the first time. Loyal Rainbow Dash defends Fluttershy's honor. I'm sure I'm not the first to make this observation. While other ponies may have more mundane stories related to their everyday talent, the Element bearers have an additional layer to their origin stories that might not apply to the Crusaders. (For the record, if I were to assign a virtue to each of the Crusaders, it would be initiative for Apple Bloom, determination for Scootaloo, and passion for Sweetie Belle.)

By this point, Scootaloo seems to be the de facto leader of the CMC as well as the tomboy of the team. This is the first time we've seen the CMC with all the Mane Six together; they're all on screen at the same time just before the group hug.

Going a step beyond what we see in the show, the creators have given two different stories about the dragon-egg test: (1) that it was routinely given to Princess Celestia's students as a sort of Kobayashi Maru, an impossible task meant to teach a lesson on either the limits of power or how to handle failure. (This would explain why Twilight faced such a difficult challenge as an entrance exam to Magic Kindergarten and is in keeping with the Princess's indirect/"trixter" way of approaching things.) Or (2) that it was a special challenge given only to Twilight, on Celestia's suspicion that she could be the bearer of the Element of Magic.


Lesson: The "special connection" message is more a metaphysical statement on a purposeful course of events (fate? providence? destiny?) than a moral lesson. And it's one I happen to agree with, but that's neither here nor there. The writers don't present this as a lesson per se, and the episode works perfectly without having a moral foisted on it. While the focus is more on self-discovery, the friendship element is definitely there in the way their stories are interrelated. If we insist on a moral, the best candidate comes ironically from Scootaloo: "These namby-pamby stories aren't getting us any closer to our cutie marks! They're all about finding who you really are and boring stuff like that. " You've got to admire her steadfast determination to missing the point.

Logic: Most of our show-derived understanding of education, growing up, and cutie marks and their role in society appears here. Guesses as to when these events occurred and the age of the ponies involved vary widely. I estimate the Mane Six to be 9 to 11 years old in the flashbacks and between 17 and 20 in the first season (though all within a year of each other), with the Crusaders being 10 here and 11 in the second and third seasons. If the flashbacks are intended to be more recent and if ponies age as gradually as humans, then we should be seeing the CMC visibly age into adolescents by the fourth or fifth season. Connections: A foundational episode for understanding any of the Mane Six. It also depicts the event referred to in the episode titled Sonic Rainboom (also by Larson), turning Fluttershy's standing up for Rainbow Dash in that episode a reciprocation of Dash's actions in this one. Rarity's rock reaction is also funny in hindsight after her manipulation in The Return of Harmony.

 

Resonance: Let's start with the awesome: the first sonic rainboom and berserker-mode Twilight. The latter is also a scary moment since Twilight really does look like she's in agony when Celestia arrives and she does inadvertently turn her parents into inanimate objects. We have a lot of laughs, too. Within the stories, Rarity being dragged by her horn is probably the funniest gag, and in the framing story, we have Twilight's "yes" moment and Scootaloo's resistance to sappiness despite being a magnet for it (as well as literal sap). Of course, the whole structure is hilarious, as the Crusaders keep trying to get Rainbow's story by have everypony else's thrust on them. I also have to point out the really nice Bambi-on-ice shout-out that takes place early in the Fluttershy sequence.

On the more serious side, Applejack's missing home is a rare sad scene for her, and some fanfics have suggested that Pinkie's first party was not as well received as her story indicates, and that she was embellishing it for the fillies' sake. Rainbow Dash standing up for Fluttershy is full of heartwarming, as is Scootaloo's eagerness for Rainbow's story. Dash's flattered reaction as she plops down to hear the story is the first real "moment" between these two characters and a good foreshadowing of the third season's Sleepless in Ponyville.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Wow. As a flashback episode this story is atypical in its structure, but it is just as important as the premiere in establishing the world of the show. A ton of things happen here as the 22-minute show tells six stories along with a pleasant framing device without resorting to montages. Nothing about it feels rushed; there was enough time to actually "feel" in every story. It was nice seeing the rainboom's effects from different distances and angles. We also get a look at a new location (Manehattan) and a return to Canterlot and Cloudsdale. We even get a song, a solo from Fluttershy of all things, which goes from sappy to touching when we realize she's discovering her place in life for the first time.

The depth in this episode is amazing. Each story has tons of implications for the feelings and experiences of the characters and how the world of Equestria "works." It really deserves a shot-by-shot commentary rather than a mere review. As impressed as I was by the premiere and the consistent quality of episodes throughout the season, this was the first episode that really blew me away. Top of the list with no hesitation.

 

The Cutie Mark Chronicles armor rating: Genji Armor
Ranked 1st of 26 season-one episodes
Ranked 6th of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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