Saturday, 25 April 2015

Episode review: Tanks for the Memories

S5 continues to show a lot more purpose and effort than S4 had at this point with a flawed but solid episode. (Spoilers follow)
Off the heels of the incredible "Bloom and Gloom", we get an episode which isn't quite as good, but would still rank as one of the best episodes of S4. Honestly, "Tanks for the Memories" would probably be a lot more impressive if it were after a different episode, but it's fairly solid nonetheless, continuing S5's trend of potent themes and inventive script ideas, even if it does struggle from issues in characterization and presentation. 

As the first Rainbow Dash episode of the season, I was fairly interested to see what direction they were going with her. In this episode, she faces one of the most internally-based conflicts that the show's demonstrated in a while. In S2, Rainbow gained a companion in the form of Tank, a pet tortoise. She's clearly grown really fond of that tortoise, which can be seen in throwaway scenes in later episodes and especially in this episode, where she struggles to deal with Tank's impending hibernation. From this episode, it can be extrapolated that Rainbow hasn't really dealt with loss before, as can be seen in her struggle to accept the fact that Tank won't be able to accompany her throughout the winter. This conflict of accepting loss is some of the most fascinating territory that MLP has covered so far, and goes together with the mature themes that the rest of S5 has explored quite nicely.

Problems arise, however, when Rainbow starts to lash out at her friends because of this. This is somewhat interesting too, but it also causes Dash to border on unsympathetic at times. Dash has always had a slightly harsh edge to her, but it's never been this bad, primarily because this is probably the first time that it was written to be hurtful. At the same time, this does mark the second episode of the show where the protagonist is basically the villain, with the first being the incredible "Lesson Zero". "Tanks for the Memories" has some similarities to "Lesson Zero", particularly in how the main character crosses the line due to panicking over something out of their control. While "Tanks for the Memories" doesn't have the unsettling atmosphere of "Lesson Zero", it does have the emotional maturity and depth. 

The current trend with Rainbow Dash seems to be emphasizing her vulnerability, and though that worked way back in "Read It or Weep", it's starting to have diminishing returns, especially as Rainbow has begun to pick up a sort of 'innocence' that doesn't suit her character very well, especially after four seasons of continuous maturation. Her hard exterior isn't nearly as core to her character as it once was, which makes her vulnerability considerably less interesting. This reaches its worst point in the penultimate scene, where she bawls like a small child and her friends talk about her like one. That scene is consistent with the thematic depth of the episode, and admittedly does have some sentimentality to it, so it's not like it's a terrible scene or anything, but I feel that it's not the right direction for this character. 

From a story perspective, the episode is rather light in tone for its subject matter, and it's filled with hijinks and silliness. For all its thematic maturity, "Tanks for the Memories" is tonally one of the least mature episodes in some time. It doesn't waste its themes like "Castle Sweet Castle" does, there's a weird disconnect between Rainbow's internal conflict and the rest of the script. That's not to say the script isn't mostly amusing, though. There are a lot of scenes in the episode that are energetic and fun, and a lot of the humour is amusing. However, for all the good jokes, there's also the reappearance of pop culture references. Really obvious ones, too: At one point, Rainbow Dash declares she's going to stop winter, and then makes a face which is clearly an homage to the 1966 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Even worse is Twilight saying "Winter is coming," a blatant reference to George R.R. Martin's fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. Who in the My Little Pony target audience watches Game of Thrones? I've heard about previous seasons having too many shoutouts to the periphery demographic, but it's never been this bizarrely obvious. 

One thing that's often been noted on social media is how the season has had a lot of weird facial expressions. One thing I liked about some previous seasons was the oddly subdued nature of the art style. After a somewhat rocky start in S1, there was a long period where ponies didn't make weird faces just for the sake of weird faces, and where the animated medium wasn't used as an excuse to just look weird. One of the core ideas of My Little Pony's art style is to look "cute". The franchise did arise in an era of traditional gendered marketing, after all. I think that these weird facial expressions lean a bit too far on the "ugly" side of things, which is confounded by the fact that I just don't find them all that funny. I know a lot of people like them, but I'd actually prefer the animators to tone it down. 

Finally, Rainbow Dash fans have finally gotten what they've been waiting for: A solo song from their favourite pony. Lyrically, it shows some of the episode's best writing, which is impressive considering Daniel Ingram's frequent lapses into poor lyricism over the past couple of years. The song really reinforces the episode's themes, and comes the closest to reconciling the maturity of its ideas with the silliness of its tone. At the same time, it's just not catchy. At all. Even my least favourite songs the show has done, like "Hearts as Strong as Horses" and some of the blander tracks from the Equestria Girls movies, have been at least catchy, but this episode's song is gonna go in one ear and out the other. It's not necessarily a badly composed song, but the instrumental and the melody of the verses isn't strong enough to make up for the lack of a proper hook, not to mention just how safe it sounds. Somehow, the best song of the season is the disturbing tune from the premiere, because at least it's musically interesting.

Look, this is a good episode. In fact, I started my review about to write it up as a great episode, but after thinking about it, the episode started to fall apart. That said, I admire the writers for their mature themes, and this episode really does have a solid plot behind it, and I prefer this interesting-but-flawed sort of episode over the complete nothing that we so often got in season 4. "Tanks for the Memories" is a thematically deep, fascinating episode that stops just short of absolute greatness.

But hey, those good points are more than enough to keep the season's momentum going, and that in itself is enough reason to give this episode two thumbs up. 

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