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

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Episode 27: "The Return of Harmony Part 1"

Aired 9/17/2011, written by M.A. Larson (his fourth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Cheerilee's class tours Canterlot's sculpture garden, and a statue of former chaotic dictator Discord cracks when the Cutie Mark Crusaders squabble beneath it.
  • Act 1: As Ponyville is assaulted by chocolate rainclouds, popping cobs of corn, and deer-legged bunnies, Princess Celestia summons the Mane Six and explains that Discord, once turned to stone, has escaped. The Elements of Harmony that could defeat him are missing.
  • Act 2: Discord appears and sends the Mane Six into a hedge maze where no one may leave or else he "wins the game." Each is immediately separated from the others, and Applejack is shown a vision of the friends angrily parting ways.
  • Act 3: Applejack is brainwashed into a compulsive liar, and Discord likewise corrupts Pinkie, Rarity, and Fluttershy into behaving contrary to the Elements they represent. He then tricks Rainbow Dash into abandoning the others for Cloudsdale through a false vision. Discord declares victory over the group.

Character: The second season premiere essentially deconstructs the character-building structure of the series premiere as we see each of the Mane Six taken apart and made to act the opposite of her Element. The "togetherness" bit as they prepare to challenge Discord is deliberately a little overwrought and hammy and then immediately subverted as the garden walls go up. The message is that despite the comic chaos of the first act, things are about to get serious.

We could speculate at length about why Discord basically leaves Twilight alone until the second half of Part 2, but we see her dedication to the mission (or to her friends, depending on your interpretation) as she puts up with their abuse. I particularly like the smile she gives as she helps Rarity carry her rock, only for that smile to disappear as Rarity snaps at her. Twilight is resilient, at least to this point.

The corruptions of Pinkie and Rarity seem natural in that Discord is amplifying characteristics we've already seen in previous episodes. The Pinkie scene could have been bumped up with sound bites of the characters being dismissive of her in season 1 ("that's just Pinkie"), but the writers probably didn't want her attitude to appear justified. I would have liked to see Rainbow's dilemma made a bit more explicit when she leaves her friends out of loyalty to her home. Applejack's turning should have required a little more effort, I think. It would be more on the mark if her vision had shown her rejecting the others personally, or something involving her family.

Fluttershy's scene is the highlight of the episode for me, as it shows a strength of character which we haven't seen in focus before but which seems perfectly natural. She IS kindness and she accepts her limitations without pride or jealousy. I'd like to see this side of her developed in other episodes, rather than returning to her shyness again and again. This scene also reveals that Discord has the power to instantly brainwash with a finger but mocks and tempts just for the fun of it.


Character, Continued (because I'm saving my "Lesson" comments for Part 2): This brings us to the other two characters in the episode. Discord is openly based on Q from the Star Trek series of the 1980s and 90s, to the point of being voiced by Q's actor. Discord here is not truly evil evil in the sense of being actively malevolent. Like Nightmare Moon, he simply wants unrestrained power, though not for the admiration of his subjects but for pure entertainment. He lacks any sense of self-restraint or care for others' well-being. His evil is therefore that of being self-absorbed. (For a contrary interpretation, though, listen for the screams in the background when we see the stained-glass image of him holding ponies like puppets over open flames. Did he eventually get that sadistic?) And since he is the embodiment of disharmony whose weakness is the Elements of Harmony wielded by a group of friends, it's appropriate that his main strategy is to break the friends apart. His hiding the elements in Ponyville as we'll see in Part 2 implies that he wants them to be found and used but to no effect, leaving his adversaries hopeless. His triumphant pose seen in statue form implies he underestimated the Elements last time, too.

One of the things that makes a fictional villain fun to watch is when he or she enjoys villainy and absolutely revels in it, and I think this is much of what gives Discord his appeal. The fact that Twilight's initial reaction is one of annoyance rather than sorrow is what really sells it (see Part 2 for more on that).

Outside of a ten-second imagine spot, this is the first time we've seen Celestia be anything other than warm and delightful. We first see her pacing helplessly as she waits for the Mane Six to arrive, and her voice is nervous and cold. She really does not like this guy. Listen to her tone as she describes her and her sister defeating Discord; she practically spits his name. Her obvious hatred of him has inspired countless stories.


Connections: I believe this is the first reference to Celestia even having a sister since the beginning of the first season, and the first reveal that the Elements of Harmony have been kept in Canterlot. (Some early fanfic had assumed the Mane Six kept the Elements in their homes.) Discord comes back in season 3, to much controversy.

 

Resonance: There's a little of everything here. As stated above, Twilight's pep talks about friendship are deliberately hammy to set up the deconstruction, but we have a sincerely touching moment as Rarity offers her umbrella to Twilight a minute after saying she didn't want to get out from under it. Discord is all-around magnificent, as are the disobedient cloud and deer-legged bunnies he creates. I found some of the lines among the Crusaders to be quite funny as well. Celestia's resoluteness against Discord had me joining Rainbow Dash's cheering for her, and Fluttershy is awesome in her scene resisting Discord's corruption. There are also a couple chilling moments in the episode, first as the labyrinth walls come up, and secondly as the laughing balloons mock Pinkie Pie. She looks and sounds genuinely frightened just before she breaks.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: While still far from dark-and-gritty, this story has a more serious tone than the rest of the series up to that point, yet it was written prior to the first airing of the series and therefore long before anyone knew there would be an adult fan base for the show. To take the show this far before it was tested took guts.

The little glimpse of early Equestria we get in the story of Discord is the beginning of season two's "world-building." Opinions on this are mixed. As much as fans love getting questions answered (whether on the show or by Q&A with the writers), part of the appeal of the show is the fact that it leaves so much to the fertile imaginations of the fandom. The tantalizing bit here—a years-long story summed up in a sentence or two—is probably the best balance to strike.

One small beef I have with the animation is a couple points where the characters take human poses and actions instead of equine ones, most obviously Rainbow's boxing stance here, and in part 2, Rarity's karate and Applejack's mimed punches. One thing that was fairly consistent in season one was the insistence that these characters are not bipeds. There are still pony elements such as Rarity's saddle-mounted umbrella, but we start to see humanlike stuff more and more in season two, probably as a result of Lauren's departure from the show, since this was reportedly one of her soapbox issues.

A fantastic character-driven episode introducing an appealing villain and giving sufficient time to all the (pony) characters without feeling rushed. The cliffhanger hits at the right moment, and the stakes are as high as they've been since the previous season's premiere. Overall, I'd say it outranks everything in the first season with the exception of The Cutie Mark Chronicles. Still, there are ways it could have been even better.

 

The Return of Harmony Parts 1-2 armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 6th and 7th of 26 season-two episodes
Ranked 30th and 31st of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

Previous: The Best Night Ever The Return of Harmony Part 1 Next: The Return of Harmony Part 2