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

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Episode 59: "Wonderbolts Academy"

Aired 12/15/2012, written by Merriwether Williams (her fifth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Rainbow and her friends wait for the letter that reveals whether she will be admitted to the Wonderbolts' training academy.
  • Act 1: Rainbow arrives at the academy and stands for inspection next to another hotshot flier, Lightning Dust. As Pinkie immediately begins checking her mailbox for Dash to write home, Rainbow and Lightning Dust set records on the tests and are paired together, with Lightning as lead pony and Rainbow as wing pony.
  • Act 2: Rainbow protests her assignment and is told Lightning is more willing to push herself. This is demonstrated during that day's capture-the-flag exercise and later on the obstacle course, in which the pair blows past the other cadets. Meanwhile, Rainbow's friends decide to visit with a care package.
  • Act 3: Lightning Dust pushes Rainbow into creating a tornado for a cloud-clearing exercise, just as the friends arrive in their balloon. The tornado destroys the balloon, and Rainbow Dash only barely rescues her friends. Lightning is unfazed and points out that she's the favored one. Rainbow quits the Wonderbolts in anger, but Spitfire chases her down to explain that Lightning's recklessness is unacceptable. Lightning is led away for discipline, while Rainbow Dash is made new lead pony.

Character: Well, it's about time. Rainbow Dash has been aspiring to the Wonderbolts since her very first scene, and her dream is finally coming true. But since she's developed a much stronger moral center, she almost gives it up once she's disillusioned. Flash back to The Cutie Mark Chronicles, where Rainbow buzzes by Fluttershy during the race and doesn't even notice she's falling to her (near) death. She's quick to save Rarity in Sonic Rainboom but is more focused on her rainboom afterwards. In season one she's sometimes unsettlingly casual about the prospect of her friends being in danger. Season two sees The Mysterious Mare Do Well (by the same writer as this episode), where Rainbow's heroics are for her own aggrandizement. But over time we see, largely through her relationship with Fluttershy, a softening that ultimately gives us Hurricane Fluttershy and Sleepless in Ponyville. Here she confronts essentially a copy of her immature self, which highlights her growth. In a way it's similar to Pinkie's experience with her clones a few episodes ago.

Spitfire was already the most heavily featured of the Wonderbolts (usually alongside Soarin), and she's met Rainbow Dash at least three times by now. She hints during the first lineup that she remembers Rainbow, though she has to keep up her instructor persona. Everything she does in this episode improves her already-solid position as a fan favorite.

There's a lot we don't know about the Wonderbolts. They seem to be a ponified version of the Blue Angels, militaristic but mainly seen performing for crowds or making PR appearances. (Meghan McCarthy has revealed that season 4 will answer this question.) Once Lightning Dust gets out of hand, we the viewers are in the same position as Rainbow Dash: Our opinion of the Wonderbolts stands or falls with what they think of Lightning's stunts. At the point Rainbow quits, she's not just sad because she's lost a dream, but because her heroes seem to be siding with a pony who is unfazed at nearly killing Dash's five best friends. The following scene opens with Dash appropriately angry at the whole situation.

The friends' support of Rainbow goes without saying, but Pinkie's enthusiasm is particularly heartwarming since they've been a pair all the way through the series. Recall that in Friendship Is Magic part 2's rock slide, Applejack saves Twilight, Rainbow saves Pinkie, and Fluttershy saves Rarity. These pairings are used several times in the first season, but they don't get much attention after that. I'm glad to see this pair brought back. Of course, we've also seen how far Pinkie will go for Applejack (The Last Roundup), Fluttershy (Putting Your Hoof Down), and Twilight (It's About Time). I can't think of a strong Pinkie/Rarity episode, but Pinkie's loyalty to her friends is at least on a par with Rainbow's.

What do we make of Lightning Dust? Again, she's largely what Rainbow Dash used to be and is therefore redeemable, although her blatant disinterest in the ponies' danger borders on psychopathy. More charitably, we could guess she's just trying to keep cool out of pride and to bring down the tension, but then again we don't see her doing anything to help rescue the falling ponies when the rest of the candidates spring into action. It's possible she could learn her lesson here, but it's also possible she'll follow in Trixie's path and nurse a grudge against Rainbow Dash from now on.


Lesson: Spitfire delivers the moral about not trying to be the best "at the expense of our fellow ponies," and Rainbow's questioning of Lightning Dust's methods throughout should prompt us to be on the lookout for habits in others that may become dangerous over time. The writers may have abandoned the idea of letters to the Princess, but they're getting better all the time at delivering relational lessons relevant to childhood friendships through plots and settings other than just friends failing to get along and making up later.

Resonance: As we've come to expect for Rainbow Dash episodes, this story is full of awesomeness and fun. Just about all of the flying qualifies, but the salute Rainbow receives from the other fliers at the end really does it for me. There's plenty of comic relief from Pinkie, especially her bear hug and her leg getting momentarily caught in the mailbox, and also from Bulk Biceps. Pinkie's three days of worry are really sad if you look at it from her perspective, ridiculous as it is. The balloon incident contains one truly scary moment as the five ponies spill out of the basket high in the air. I joined Rainbow Dash in her Big No, since the situation really did look beyond recovery. (Yeah, I know they wouldn't kill off the main cast, but sometimes you've got to let the story draw you in.) The other stand-out moment for me emotionally is Rainbow sagging after she leaves Spitfire's office. She knows she's walking out on her dream.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I'm told this episode is an homage to the film Top Gun, which I haven't seen. (Not a Cruise fan.) Also, the pink pegasus among the candidates is a recolor of Wild Fire, the ponysona of the storyboard artist known as Sibsy. Wild Fire was seen in A Canterlot Wedding Part 1 during the foalsitter flashback and she was originally intended for use here. (She actually has her Wild Fire colors in two shots.) I guess you can just never have too many pink ponies.

Delaying Spitfire's response until after Rainbow leaves the office and commiserates with her friends gives us a couple dramatic moments and allows us to infer that enough time has passed for Spitfire to investigate the balloon incident and confirm Rainbow's claims. The writer seems to go out of her way to avoid direct references to death in the later scenes (smashed to pieces, demolished, took out). It's an approach I've been familiar with ever since Megatron taught me the word "oblivion." But in this case it made the dialogue seem unnatural somehow.

I'd call this episode excellent, the tenth such episode in a row, in fact. It has a better flow and fewer minor complaints than Magic Duel, but not quite as impressive as One Bad Apple in the emotional resonance department.

 

Wonderbolts Academy armor rating: Golden Vest
Ranked 6th of 13 season-three episodes
Ranked 87th of 147 stories overall

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