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

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Episode 90: "Twilight's Kingdom – Part 1"

Aired 5/10/2014, written by Meghan McCarthy (her seventeenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: In the Crystal Empire, Twilight Sparkle frets that her royal duties amount to nothing more than smiling and waving.
  • Act 1: Twilight complains to the other princesses, and they assure her in song that her time will come. Meanwhile, a robed figure calling himself Tirek appears and saps the magic from a random unicorn. Celestia and Luna are alerted to Tirek's presence by a vision.
  • Act 2: The senior princesses inform Twilight of Tirek's history but select Discord as best suited to stop him. Twilight returns to Ponyville, where Discord delivers their friendship journal bookmarked and hints that it holds the solution to the keyhole box at the Tree of Harmony. While the Mane Six study at the old castle, Discord confronts Tirek, who then asks Discord to join him.
  • Act 3: The Mane Six discover their keys, except that Twilight's remains missing. She is recalled to Canterlot and told that Tirek and Discord have joined forces. Tirek is stealing magic, and the princesses must rid themselves of their magic to keep it from him.

Character: Though she's had plenty of screen time as always, Twilight Sparkle has sort of been in the background this year compared to earlier seasons. This is ironic since she got an upgrade to alicorn princess status in the previous season finale, and viewers long wondered why. It's important to note that the one-year lead time (give or take) on episode production means that this story was conceived before fans knew of Twilight's promotion. We shouldn't interpret this or other scripts to be responses to fan criticism or requests, although our concerns might have been anticipated. It's only now that we're seeing what the writers had in mind with this whole princess thing. And while some fans have complained that Princess Twilight hasn't had much in the way of royal duties this season, we discover here that this period of uncertainty was intentionally drawn out as part of her character development.

As it turns out, Twilight Sparkle has less access to the writers than we do, and even as the previous episode had Spike dealing the same sort of stress and let-down as Twilight did when she tried to hatch his egg, so this week she's struggling with the same dilemma Spike had in Power Ponies. Or to go back even further, she's reliving her first Winter Wrap Up. The Cutie Mark Crusaders deal with this problem as well. We've seen this scenario a few times because of one of the things that makes Friendship Is Magic so special: its attention to those who feel like they're on the outside looking in. That's Twilight here, placed ostensibly above her friends in rank but not given anything tangible to show for it.

The other princesses are her friends, too, and their encouragement is welcome. Yet their song doesn't really offer Twilight an answer. They can't just assign her a role since there's an element of destiny involved in this sort of thing. But they do what they can to comfort her, and sometimes in the midst of life's questions, you just have to know you're loved and believed in until a solution presents itself. For those who would simply say that Twilight's role is to protect the kingdom during a crisis, whereas the other three princesses exercise daily duties associated with maintaining the ordinary harmony of the kingdom, that's true enough, but it predates Twi's royal rank and still doesn't answer how she is different from the rest of the Mane Six, or from Daring Do for that matter. In fact, she's never defeated a major threat on her own, and she's actually called off the present one in favor of Discord. So for now, the purpose of her crown remains a mystery.

The other heroes spend most of their time in this episode comforting Twilight, reacting to Discord, and working on how to unlock the chest. These scenes could have left them ciphers, but our show's creators are better than that, and the writing and animation have all sorts of subtleties, of which I'll give just three examples. The teaser closes with the ponies' varying reactions to Spike's overly forthright comments to Twilight, with a hoof upside the head delivered by the likewise honest Applejack and the severest glare coming from Pinkie Pie. You know you've been insensitive when you're getting grief from these two. At one point, Spike reacts as he should when Rarity casually rests her hoof on his forehead. And Fluttershy continues to chuckle at Discord's little jokes even as the others show their annoyance.

But far and away my loudest cheer goes to the friends when they offer to provide company to Twilight as she heads off to the castle. Yes, the plot needs them there so Twilight can deliver all that exposition, but my response is still, "Finally, they're getting it!" After Spike was left alone to sulk last week, I'm delighted to see that sort of friendly tenacity.

Discord and Fluttershy's off-screen rapport gets a mention as we learn they have regular picnics. This is good (and an important set-up for Part 2), but I wish we'd gotten more of that in the past season. Three's a Crowd was our only other indication that they're doing things together. The reason this is crucial to establish is that the other main characters really don't treat Discord as a friend, and showing that sunnier side of Discord makes his Face-Heel Turn more of a gut-punch, though still unsurprising.

Tirek is magnificent, starting out with the air of an ancient villain who may even be an evil sage, sort of a dark version of Star Swirl the Bearded, but whose enhanced strength rejuvenates him and gives him an incredibly threatening appearance. He basically goes from Darth Sidious to Darth Maul over the course of twenty minutes. And he has an amazing pivotal scene with Discord in which he goes right to the heart of Discord's dilemma, asking the question that's been hanging unanswered since Keep Calm and Flutter On: How long before Discord and everyone else realizes that he's not reformed but merely restrained by the fragility of a single friendship? For what it's worth, Discord's marking of the journal shows that his allegiance really is with the Mane Six until he encounters Tirek.


Lesson: Some of the early two-parters have a general lesson about the value of friendship or else seem to focus so much on the crisis that the lesson is sort of an afterthought. In just about every case, Part 1 is all set-up. This time around, the first half of the story has its own lesson, which is teed up in the teaser and driven into the air by the princesses' song. That lesson is how to travel to a future you can't see, as Twilight puts it. There are times all you can do is wait patiently, and as the song explains, Twilight's destiny will be formed by her choices. I think the idea here is that the unseen future will present her with moments of decision, and the decisions she makes will lead her toward her proper role, sort of like walking down a path at night with only a torch to light up one step at a time. The concept is similar to the old adage that your life isn't so much about what happens to you as how you respond to what happens. Nevertheless, we're all faced with different opportunities.

I could go on about how our lives our guided and how we find our calling, since it's one of my favorite subjects, but I want to keep this review about the show. I believe it's significant that a children's show would raise such a potentially profound question, since the whole role and purpose thing could be covered more simply in a Cutie Mark Crusaders episode. My guess is that the creators have this quest for identity as a major running theme on the show because it's such a source of confusion for children as they come into adolescence and actually have to start making choices that will affect the path of their adult lives. If the show can instill some basic principles early on, they provide a foundation kids can build upon.

There's a second lesson in this episode, present in the castle scene as Twilight studies the journal. All the recap and exposition is necessary for those who haven't seen every episode, but there's more going on than that. Bringing all five key lessons together as Twilight does brings out the common thread, which boils down to this: Live up to who you are, even if it's the hardest thing you've ever done. Twilight's friends have an identity and a role as well, one they know by the Element of Harmony each one represents. Exercising their Elemental virtues is normal and natural to them under most circumstances, but the particular tests that gain them their keys are situations where they nearly failed to be themselves. One more thing I love about MLP is the idea that there is a "best you" that you should strive to be, different from everyone else but not totally up for grabs. Even after you find it, it still takes focus and determination to develop as a person and "be who you are."


Logic: The storybook scene is the first solid indication on the show that Star Swirl the Bearded was contemporaneous with Celestia and Luna. If the story of Hearth's Warming Eve is reliable, that means they were probably around when Equestria was founded, since Clover the Clever calls Star Swirl her mentor. The Tirek/Discord alley scene also puts to rest the fan theory that Discord is actually a corrupted Star Swirl. Connections: Cereberus left his post in the season-two episode It's About Time. Tirek and Scorpan are based on characters from the G1 story Rescue at Midnight Castle, though the details differ somewhat from the backstory of this episode. For those who haven't seen it, it's not that bad, and it has sort of a Last Unicorn vibe to it.

 

Resonance: Spike's getting a little better at realizing when he's said something wrong, but the smack he gets from Applejack is still funny. Discord delivered a lot of laughs as well, particularly with his alicorn and eavesdropping bits. Twilight has some fun facial expressions throughout, and Pinkie gets some funny moments in the castle and at the Tree of Harmony. But this is a mostly serious story, and I love the backstory, the dark tone, and the dignity that give Tirek the feel of an epic villain. The image of Tirek sucking the magic out of our favorite ponies hints at what he might be capable of, and Discord shows himself the equal of Tirek in his early stages. There's also a nice camera shake as Twilight flies past on her way to Canterlot. There are a number of heartwarming moments as well, from the subtle—Rainbow Dash catching Spike when his bubble bursts and gently carrying him to the ground—to the sublime—the princesses' song, which is nothing less than an expression of love for all things beautiful. Nicole's voice propels us to heaven, which is the natural place for Kazumi's pure-perfection singing to happen. Britt gets the best line of the number, just before the chorus, and it's sung with the same richness and heart we heard in This Day Aria.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: This is the most ambitious "Part 1" to date because there's so much to set up. It's the big reveal of the season-long story arc of the keyhole box, and at the same time we're confronting lingering questions about Discord's reform and Twilight's role as a princess, both of which were set up in season three. On top of that, we have a new villain with a history in preclassical Equestria. All that background has to be presented for the benefit of newcomers while still leaving us an exciting episode with a manageable storyline. And why not throw in a song while we're at it? By my assessment, the creators pulled it off, and they did it perfectly. I really don't have any suggestions for improvement here.

In the castle scene, it was a good pacing decision to show only two full flashbacks instead of five. We see the rainbow effect and draw the connection, and we can follow the rest even if we haven't seen all the episodes. The animation has never been better, and intricate care is given to every facial expression. (You can thank Mike Myre and Mike West for the storyboarding, by the way.) And Tirek has one of the best villain voices I've ever heard in animation, in both his early and later forms.

Another good decision is having Tirek approach stallions rather than mares in the dark alley scenes, thus avoiding unfortunate implications that would be darker than the series needs to go.

One bit I especially like at the end is the reminder that all types of ponies have magic. The pegasi use magic to fly and the earth ponies use it to tend the land. But it's latent/passive magic rather than the overt spells used by unicorns and alicorns. This episode also reaffirms the essentially magical nature of cutie marks.

 

Twilight's Kingdom — Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Genji Armor
Ranked 1st and 2nd of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 10th and 11th of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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