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

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Episode 177: "The Parent Map"

Aired 5/5/2018, written by Dave Rapp (his fourth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Sunburst receives a letter from Sire's Hollow and immediately tosses it unread onto a pile of identical letters. He is immediately summoned by the Friendship Map.
  • Act 1: Sunburst arrives at Twilight's castle to find that Starlight Glimmer has also been summoned, and their mission is their hometown of Sire's Hollow. They find half the town has been questionably modernized by Sunburst's mother Stellar Flare, while Starlight's father Firelight is preserving the other half as a mostly closed-off historic site.
  • Act 2: Touring the town, Sunburst and Starlight open their parents' eyes to the town's problems and convince them to reach the appearance of a compromise. But their mission is not completed, so they search for other problems. Meanwhile, their parents treat them both like children, much to their annoyance.
  • Act 3: One shouting match later, Sunburst and Starlight realize the friendship problem is their strained relationships with their respective parents. They make amends and set boundaries, and are given the all clear to go home.

Character: I consider this a well-written episode in that all the issues arise naturally from the personalities of the characters. The only "forcing" done in this episode is by the Map, which itself is practically a character in the way it behaves.

Sunburst takes center stage here, and if anyone was wondering why he was so bothered by Starlight's reverse aging spell, we get a good reason here. He's moved on, having very deliberately put a stressful childhood behind him. Starlight may have supposed Sunburst had an ideal path with his magical knowledge and early cutie mark. But besides the low-power issues we already knew about, we find that he's been pushed all his life. It's easy to see now why his parents carried him off to Celestia's school without a moment's consideration, getting him in way over his head, and why after flunking out, he ventured farther from home, ultimately settling in the Crystal Empire.

We've been reminded of Starlight Glimmer's villainous past so many times by now; thankfully it's barely mentioned here. What's new to us is how smothered she was (and is) by her father. She rebelled, as we can surmise from her room, before setting out on her own. But she also may share with Twilight Sparkle the experience of receiving so much attention from her family that she didn't feel pressed to seek out friends. Or possibly, he knew she was missing out on friendship, may have supposed her peers had rejected her, and was trying to compensate to ensure that she felt loved and special. And perhaps being treated as so special by her father drove her even further toward her philosophy that specialness is something to reject. So in Sunburst and Starlight, we have two ponies who not only have had to get over past failures, but who have been avoiding childhood resentments that continue to pursue them in the form of loving but overbearing parents.

So, parents: Trendsetter Stellar Flare is ambitious and history buff Firelight is sentimental. No surprises there. But it seems when their foals went astray, the parents doubled down on the personality quirks that pushed them away in the first place, creating problems not just within their families but eventually for the whole town. This whole scenario fits together so well, I'm sure a lot of thought went into setting up this story.

Not everything is spelled out, but it seems Stellar Flare's greatest desire is that her son be successful. She's been pushing him ever since he got his cutie mark. And after his flunking out of magic school, she can't bear to see him fail again. She wants him to have a clearly mapped-out plan for his life, and she's willing to do whatever it takes to help him move up in the world. Yet the Sunburst we've come to know seems happy to go where life takes him and smell the roses on the way, perhaps best demonstrated in Uncommon Bond. He's a jellyfish to be carried by the current, and the constant upstream life of a salmon just won't work for him.

Firelight is overbearing in a totally different sense, wanting to relive his past home life with his daughter. It may be that her time of bitterness cut short the happy years they should have spent together, and he wishes to make up for lost time. But Starlight is very much an adult; her issues are grown-up issues. She's run a town, charged into combat, and counseled royalty. But I think he has influenced her in positive ways. No doubt he's responsible for her knowledge of Old Ponish, and his eagerness to give advice and lectures has probably encouraged her own guidance abilities. Less positively, his personality could tie in to Starlight's initial intense hostility toward Twilightóbut perhaps also why she takes so fondly to Maud, who's the very opposite of gushy.

Of the various townsponies we meet, my favorite is Ever Essence. She has a really cute voice, and we get to see her chasing ponies around with her scents.


Lesson: The family issues here immediately put one in mind of Parental Glideance, but it's not a retread so much as a follow-up. This episode addresses the parents' need to accept their children as well as the children's need to work things out with their parents, and it shows how the flaws in play here can spill out to affect others outside the relationship, in this case the population of Sire's Hollow.

On the family side of things, Firelight makes the helpful observation that family relationships are, or should be, friendships. He and Stellar Flare love their children and are trying to be supportive and helpful. But their way of going about it is insensitive and ill-suited to their respective children's personalities. Avoidance is obviously the wrong solution. When present, Starlight and Sunburst push back and complain plenty, but if that hasn't worked before, it never will. What's needed is the beautiful resolution we see: Starlight's talk with her dad in particular is very grown up, starting with the plain statement that this is our problem and we're going to fix it, confessing her fault in the matter, and setting a boundary while focusing on the value of their relationship and what can be done to make it work. The message gets through that the relationship itself is more important than the disagreement, but that certain things need to happen for the relationship to function in a healthy way.

The battle over the direction of the town is very secondary to all this, but the half-hearted compromise at the end of Act 1 foreshadows that priority. Sometimes to resolve an impasse you have to just suck it up, apologize, and let bygones be bygones, even if you believe you're not in the wrong. Whether Sire's Hollow returns to its roots, pursues progress, or finds a third future is less important than that they do it together.


Resonance: This episode resonates just fine; it really is a sweet episode when you come to the end of it. But along the way it reminds us that, if you have a child, one day they'll break your heart, whether by the choices they make or by what life throws at them. Firelight and Stellar Flare have already faced that once: with Starlight's dark past and Sunburst's failure in school. They face it again here with their children's cutting words. Maybe it's my age, but I really feel for the parents here, more so than with Rainbow Dash's mom and dad.

But that's only in the last act of the story, and the rifts are healed very quickly; for most of the episode, the parents are dismissive of their children's objections if they notice them at all, and it's all played for laughs. That bothers me a bit, actually. The story might have been more effective with some indication that the parents were hurting and trying to make things up to their kids with even more care and attention, maybe even sacrifically, until Starlight and Sunburst see past their irritation to their parents' good intentions. Going heavy on comedy in the first half and focusing so much on the logistics of problem detection and mission solving make the story fall just a little flat to me.

That's not to say the comedy doesn't deliver on the laughs. Most effective in that department are Firelight's pet names for Starlight and the way all of Stellar Flare's lines are phrased and delivered. Sunburst has his moments, checking a non-existent wristwatch, trying to sneak out of town... The "Welcome to Sire's Hollow" gag is executed well, with more ponies at the gate each time we cut to it. The funniest scene has Stellar Flare staging a friendship problem with ponies who *really* do not like each other. And there's a nice horsy moment at the beginning as the mail pony gets a tip in the form of a carrot.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Similar to The Perfect Pear, each side only has one parent featured, leaving us to wonder whatever happened to Sunburst's father, and whether Starlight ever had a mother.

Sunburst's summoning actually isn't as surprising as that of the Cutie Mark Crusaders a couple episodes ago, since he at least spent a good deal of time in the vicinity of the Map back in Shadow Play. The CMC's only connection with the Map was via their relationships with the Mane Six. But it could just be that the Map can summon literally anyone it chooses. But it's worth noting that once again there are community-wide implications for this mission, even if the main thrust of it was two family relationships.

I mentioned Parental Glideance, which is one of my top twenty episodes. I think it's superior in a number of ways: more strongly dramatic, answering questions we've had since season one, what it does with the Rainbow Dash/Scootaloo dynamic. But The Parent Map is a little more two-sided and mature in its resolution, as both our main characters and their parents make course corrections in their relationship.

On its own terms, The Parent Map is a great episode, comparable to Sweet and Elite, Fluttershy Leans In, and Made in Manehattan, all entries I'm generally very happy with, only with a couple minor criticisms.

 

The Parent Map armor rating: Golden Vest
Ranked 17th of 27 season-eight episodes
Ranked 144th of 233 stories overall

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