|Previous: Twilight's Kingdom — Part 1||Twilight's Kingdom—Part 2||Next: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks|
|Aired 5/10/2014, written by Meghan McCarthy (her eighteenth episode)|
|Character: Twilight Sparkle is tenderhearted, often anxious, and humble almost to a fault. But in a crisis, she is bold, resolute, and willing to pull out all the stops to protect those who depend on her. The wrath Twilight unleashes on Tirek is as much a projection of her own determination as it is a release of alicorn magic. Twilight faces three defining decisions in this episode, one in accepting the transfer of magic, the second in saving her friends, and the third in choosing her role as she enters the castle. These may be considered the choices the princesses were referring to in their song last episode. These crucial decisions are made quickly, but an important choice doesn't have to take a lot of time if the right thing to do is obvious.
The Mane Six are out of commission for most of this episode, and their personalities are conveyed mostly through subtle pieces of animation. I like, for instance, how quickly the others run to Twilight after she's drained, with Spike and Applejack getting to her first. That is as it should be. And a moment before, when the Mane Six are released from their bubbles, something interesting happens that I missed the first time around: Fluttershy turns to look where Discord should have landed. Rainbow Dash sees her looking and is the first to direct her eyes upward, and Fluttershy looks up a moment later. Dash may never have considered Discord anything other than an enemy, but since his fate matters to Fluttershy, it matters to her, too.
Discord's ability to detect a magical imbalance was mentioned in Part 1, and it allows him to notice the princess power-down, but he keeps it to himself until he receives the amulet. He hasn't fully thrown in his lot with Tirek until that moment, and his error is to look at his alliance through the lens of friendship. His experience with the Mane Six (observing their friendship with each other as much as his own with Fluttershy) has affected him to the point that he assumes the same sort of devotion exists even among villains. A number of bronies have made the same mistake, seeing friendship as it exists on the show and expecting to see it everywhere in real life. Then they're distraught when they see life fall short of what it should be. Rather, the Mane Six represent an ideal to which we can aspire, but even most of Equestria doesn't understand friendship, much less someone like Tirek, or one's family and co-workers in real life.
This episode raises and answers a fascinating question: Who is Discord without his power? We once saw Q turned merely human on Star Trek, and he softened up a bit while continuing to be insufferable. In Discord's case, he's totally lost. He just curls up in a ball and barely says a word, basically just waiting to die. He's always been able to indulge his desires with his omnipotence, only restraining himself for Fluttershy's sake, but without that, he has to seriously evaluate who he wants to be, probably for the first time. It's by the aforementioned influence of the Mane Six that he chooses friendship. It's a much more believable impetus for genuine reform than what we had in Keep Calm and Flutter On, though it all started there. I'm guessing the writers had this scenario in mind when Keep Calm was in the works, though it's unclear at this point just what sort of friend Discord will be in season five.
We don't see the senior princesses fight. Why not? From a storytelling standpoint, it's because they're not the main characters. They're the Aragorn to Twilight's Frodo, and the best they could do would be a feint at the Black Gate. In-story, they've already said Tirek is too powerful, and in fact even the combined strength of all four alicorns only ends in a standoff, with neither Twilight nor Tirek being hurt at all. A being who can manhandle Discord like a rag doll and suck him dry isn't going to be phased by a horn beam that couldn't even take out Queen Chrysalis. It does appear that King Sombra was initially vanquished by alicorn magic, but in all other cases, a major threat can only be defeated by the Power of Love—whether it's the familial love of two sisters confronting Discord, the sacrificial love of Celestia for her subjects in banishing Nightmare Moon, the friendly love of the Mane Six as they wield the Elements, the romantic love of Cadance and Shining Armor against the changelings, or the communal love of the crystal ponies powering up the Crystal Heart. While it's not stated in-episode, I believe Celestia knows Tirek can only be defeated the same way, and she wants to keep both Twilight and her friends safe until they can unlock that chest and get the friendship-fueled power-up inside. And by the way, I'm glad Twilight simply refers to "the most powerful magic of all" without having to call it out as friendship. That'd be a little too "cute" for the scene, and anyone who's watched the show or even noticed the subtitle should be able to draw the inference.
|Lesson: The priority of friendship is demonstrated and stated outright by Discord, and the choice set before Twilight is a stark one: her friends' lives will cost her all her power and any other hope of victory...the key word being "other," since her friends constitute a hope all its own, as I've just mentioned. Despite Princess Celestia's counsel to keep the secret of the magic transfer from her friends, Twilight discovers that wise risk management often means not going it alone.
I was initially uncertain whether I liked the hostage scenario since it's played stupidly in so much other fiction and especially since Tirek has already proven himself an unfaithful negotiator by his betrayal of Discord. But here Twilight's decision makes a lot of strategic sense. She thinks about it for a few seconds; you can see the wheels turning as her eyes tick back and forth. It's implied that she hears Discord's reasoning and that it triggers her rainbow-effect realization. And in terms of strategy, the idea that she could stop Tirek with alicorn power is questionable at best, but every enemy she's ever conquered has been defeated with her friends' help. She'll definitely need her friends to get inside that chest and make use of whatever's inside. It's also pretty clear that Tirek will kill her friends if she refuses the offer. And so we appreciate the difficulty of her choice and the agonizing pain that follows, but she's being wise even if she doesn't know what will come next.
Betrayal is a major theme in this episode, as the counterpoint to Twilight's faithful devotion. After long ages, Tirek is still hurt by his brother's betrayal, justified though it was. Discord betrays the Mane Six and Spike, Tirek betrays Discord, and Twilight is tempted to give up her friends. By these examples, we're called upon to consider the fact that betrayal isn't so much disloyalty on its own as it is choosing something else over a friendship. Betrayal is in fact the risk inherent in any relationship, since only those whose love you care about can really, really hurt you. That potential to hurt is something we must keep in mind when it comes to questions of loyalty.
On a related note, there's the word "lied" again, when Discord hands over the amulet. As the Puritan writer Thomas Watson wrote, "Falsehood in friendship is a lie. Counterfeiting friendship is worse than counterfeiting money." The challenge of each key involved some sort of lie: Suri and Coco saying Rarity had lost, Spitfire saying Soarin was too hurt to fly (and Rainbow similarly), Cheese Sandwich fibbing about his past, the Breezies pretending to have colds, AJ and Silver Shill endorsing the fake tonic, and now Tirek dissembling about the amulet. Taking it all together, the show sends the message that lies are obstacles to all the virtues that constitute friendship. They discourage generosity, tempt to disloyalty, sadden us, keep us from doing the kind thing, ruin trust, and give false assurances that make us leave our true friends for backstabbers.
Combined with the lessons from Part 1, these morals make this season's finale profound from a teaching standpoint, even aside from all the character, story, and action we're treated to.
|Logic: This isn't a flaw in the episode itself, but I want to point out the illogic of releasing story-pivotal toys months before their appearances on their own show. This bothered me as a child, when new Transformers and the new figures and vehicles for G.I. Joe would hit store shelves between January and March, but wouldn't appear on the TV show until September. Not only was it a long wait, but it also spoiled what would have been surprises, such as the creation of Serpentor. Even the Return of the Jedi figures hit shelves months before the movie was released. In this case, Rainbow Power was being promoted as early as October 2013, a month before the fourth premiere even aired, and so attentive viewers rightly guessed, almost from the moment it sprouted, that Rainbow Power would come out of the keyhole box and save the day in the season finale. There's plenty of lead time both in toy design and show preparation to coordinate these things and do simultaneous reveals; I really have no idea why the toy industry does it this way, or why marketing departments don't seem to understand the concept of surprise. With the access we have to the show's creators and a person or two at Hasbro, I might someday ask them directly, if I can find a diplomatic way to phrase the question.|
|Resonance: Where to start? Overall, I just FELT the whole way through this episode. Just watch it and tell me you're not moved. But I will list some specific moments briefly, in the order they occur: All the emotions conveyed by the faces and a single stream of tears before and after the magic transfer; Twilight's difficulty raising the sun; the camera shaking whenever Tirek walks; Celestia's looks of defiance; Twilight accidentally destroying a door just after Tirek destroyed one on purpose; the sub sandwich; Applejack holding Fluttershy when they're in the cage; Twi saving Owlowiscious; that whole battle; the "I'm sorry"/"I know" exchange that strikes me as a probable Empire Strikes Back reference; Fluttershy looking away in tears as she says it (as though she's not sure she's able to forgive yet); Twilight's cries of agony as she's drained; the actual sincerity in Discord's voice as he hands over the amulet; the awesome Rainbow Power that just keeps doing stuff; Tirek being banished and locked in a cage in the place where he's banished to; the restoration of Derpy; the thrones of the "round stable" and the little throne for Spike; all the cameos during the song; and the sweetness of Rebecca's voice as she sings the last line.
The library deserves special mention. Many viewers were quick to make the connection between the loss of Twilight's books and her statement of their importance in Trade Ya. This isn't like losing your school textbooks; it's more like losing your photo album and all your family keepsakes and hand-me-downs. And there's probably not much salvageable. If you've ever picked through the aftermath of a fire, you know that even what's not burned is ruined. The pages of a book crumble at the slightest touch. Upholstery is literally melted over wooden or steel frames. A plasma screen is now just a puddle of plastic on the floor. A grand piano sounds completely dead when you press one of the keys. But the memories are the real loss. So many things happened in that place, and now there's a pinch of sadness when I go back and watch earlier episodes. I'm not saying it's this generation's version of the death of Optimus Prime, but it's a daring move for the writers to make, and I look forward to seeing how Twilight deals with the transition in her living space in season five.
|Other Impressions and Final Assessment: You want a pony movie with actual ponies? Just put one of these two-parters on the big screen and there you go. Twilight's Kingdom really does have everything we could want to see in a theatrical release, and it's incredible that the cast and crew would put this much quality into a TV show. Any TV show, not just merchandise-based animation for girls. What's more, the story ends with a sequel hook that promises bigger and better things ahead for our characters.
A few minor observations to close out the season: I love the reference to Akira as pebbles float up from the ground during the fight and again during the Rainbow Power sequence. (Actually, I'm hearing more fans connect this reference to Dragonball Z, which takes a lot of its inspiration from Akira and was dubbed into English by The Ocean Group, from which come several major MLP actors. But Akira came first so I'm sticking with that.) The traveling rainbow that passes the key-givers echoes the sonic rainboom that gave the Mane Six their cutie marks. I personally think "A True, True Friend" is more to my tastes stylistically, but "Let the Rainbow Remind You" is also excellent and has wonderful choreography and visuals. I especially dig the song's message of complementarity: Each of us is different in a way that makes us strongest when we work together. And I'm not sure whether this is significant or not, but this episode marks the first time a season has begun or ended anywhere other than Canterlot.
I reserve the highest tier of episodes for the best one or two stories of each season, the ones that go beyond impressing me and actually rise above what I had thought this series was capable of. That definitely happens here. There are a few standalone episodes that are special to me and capture the normal spirit of the show in an extraordinary way, so this doesn't go to the very tip-top of my list, but this story stands head-and-shoulders above everything else and more than earns its Genji Armor.
As we close out the season, I have a theory on Rainbow Power. The Elements depend on the virtues they represent being embodied in their bearers. As soon as they're returned to the tree, their power is locked away, and the keys to retrieving that power are obtained only when each bearer refines her expression of that Element. With the bearers being rededicated to their Elemental virtues, they can now wield a greater form of the sort of magic, this time without the physical Elements. The power more clearly comes from inside them (even in the absence of their normal magic), explaining the change in their appearance. It remains to be seen whether the Mane Six need to be charged up or are able to activate this power at will.
Twilight's Kingdom — Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Genji Armor
Ranked 1st and 2nd of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 13th and 14th of 233 stories overall
|Previous: Twilight's Kingdom — Part 1||Twilight's Kingdom — Part 2||Next: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks|