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

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Episode 28: "The Return of Harmony Part 2"

Aired 9/24/2011, written by M.A. Larson (his fifth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Recap of Part 1.
  • Act 1: As Discord gloats, he guides Twilight Sparkle to realize that the Elements of Harmony are in Ponyville. She and the discorded friends return home, and Twilight eventually finds the Elements in the library.
  • Act 2: With Spike standing in for an absent Rainbow Dash, the Elements fail and the friends part ways. Twilight is broken, but Princess Celestia sends back all the friendship letters written over the past year, and they give Twilight a resolve to restore her friends.
  • Act 3: Twilight's magic returns Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie to normal, then give chase to Rainbow Dash. Once recovered, the Mane Six turn Discord back to stone using the Elements and are honored in an award ceremony.

Character: The brainwashings established in part 1 are played entirely for laughs here, which is a risk on the writers' part considering the level of threat and what the loss of friendship would mean. But the gags are funny enough that it works, thanks mainly to Twilight's snarky reactions. Once Twilight goes grey, the loss of her friends is instantly heartbreaking and it's hard (for me, at least) to get any laughs from Discord's direct manipulation of ponies from that point forward.

Corrupted Fluttershy is a particular delight here, though it's more unsettling when you consider her behavior in Putting Your Hoof Down and her breakdown at the end of the previous season's finale. We could justifiably wonder whether, as with Pinkie and Rarity, Discord is bringing out something that's inside Fluttershy all the time but mostly hidden.

Applejack is the most missed since she's so often the Team Mom. When all she can do is make obviously dishonest comments, there's no one else to hold the group together. It makes sense that Discord corrupted her first, and that she was the first pony Twilight rescued.

Though absent until the last scene, Princess Celestia provides the solution just as she did in the premiere. It's a nice callback if it was intended to be. Spike's ability to correspond instantly with the Princess is sometimes forgotten, though we'll see it again next episode.

Another thought on Discord: He understands the Elements to be a potential threat but that they won't work the first time around. (It's not clear whether they failed because of the disharmony, because Rainbow Dash was absent, or simply because Spike isn't a pony.) But he does mock the "magic of friendship" that eventually defeats him. His next appearance makes it clear that he doesn't understand friendship, having never experienced it himself, and therefore probably genuinely has no idea why Twilight is so distraught when her friends leave. There's a moment along these lines I find fascinating, presuming I'm not reading too much into it, when Discord stops laughing and looks at grey Twilight with puzzlement, confused by her sadness. When his attempt to cheer her up fails, he pauses a second and decides to simply celebrate her ruin as his victory. It's as though he's on the verge of discovering ponies' need for friendship and his own desire for a companion, but can't quite put two and two together yet. In other words, the seeds of Discord's reform are planted right here.


Lesson: In Part 1 we saw Twilight demonstrate persistence and dedication in the midst of trial, and the team's "united-we-stand" attitude just before entering the maze was front-and-center for the few seconds it lasted. In Part 2 the point is the importance and power of friendship, justifying Twilight's overwrought declarations made throughout the story. The last half of this episode seems to demonstrate the lengths one should go to repair or recover a broken friendship. A more literary take on this could see Discord as representing the abstract concept of disharmony as the greatest threat to any culture or web of relationships, with each of the brainwashed ponies illustrating one facet of its corrupting influence. But I usually don't go that deep.

Connections: Discord returns in the late third season's Keep Calm and Flutter On. Twilight's letter scene and Applejack's recovery include clips from Green Isn't Your Color; A Dog and Pony Show; The Cutie Mark Chronicles; Friendship Is Magic, part 2; Winter Wrap Up; and Fall Weather Friends. Both Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna as her pre-NMM self can be seen in the stained glass of Canterlot Tower. Body Count: Spike says of AJ, Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Rarity, "Why does everybody look so grey?"

 

Resonance: Larson knows how to write moving comedy. Even in its most serious moments, whether sad or triumphant, the show just won't stop giving us something to laugh at. Appreciating all the cleverness sometimes requires ignoring the sad or creepy context in which it occurs. As stated above, Twilight's hilarious annoyed expressions and snarky comments prevent the library sequence from becoming unpleasant, and Pinkie's signature hilarity is contained even in her most angry lines. Naming the rock "Tom" was ingenious. This episode also contains the wackiest depiction of a glass of chocolate milk in all fiction.

On the moving side of things, we shed tears along with Twilight at the moment of her corruption, as the breaking of the friendship swerves into serious territory. In that scene I feel the same anger toward Discord I feel toward Gilda when she chases away Fluttershy. Back in the library, Celestia's method of giving Twilight the keys to victory stirs up the viewer's warm feelings about the entire series. The action of the third act is exciting, though the Dash chase is more thrilling than Discord's actual defeat. The latter, though, has amazing visuals and adds enough to the use of the Elements that it doesn't seem like a rehash of NMM's defeat a season ago.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Leave it to MLP to make what amounts to a parody of the previous season's two-parter and turn it into a reinforcement of the original's story's message. This series' weird ability to subvert sweetness and then play it straight just minutes or even seconds later, and do both effectively, is one of the things that sets this series apart from most cartoons, which can usually only do one or the other.

One nice touch I haven't seen others point out is the placement of the commercial breaks. Rather than being cliffhangers, they both hit just as things are looking up. This may help alleviate the considerable tension for younger viewers, since this is quite intense compared to most of season one's adventures.

We're told that the final scene honoring the Mane Six was originally designed to be a shot-for-shot homage to the throne room scene from Star Wars. Cut for time, it still gives that impression, especially with Applejack's attempt to smirk like Han Solo and the chords just before the iris to credits. (If only they'd used blue lettering for the credits!) My only complaint is that we should have seen Luna there, but I'm guessing she was busy operating the camera. The writer may not have known that Luna Eclipsed would be just a couple episodes away, though on the other hand it is the same writer.

Excellent and delicate handling of the mood of the viewer, and an ingenious resolution in having Celestia use Spike to communicate with Twilight and do so in a subtle way. Just as good as Part 1, maybe a hair better due to the humor and emotional resonance.

 

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

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