The episode wastes very little time in promising great things, with the first scene further developing how exactly Twilight's role as a princess works. When the mane six sent on a new adventure, the expectation is something much like "The Crystal Empire", where they need to find some new great villain whom they need to defeat. Instead, once the ponies reach their destination, we're treated to a desaturated colour palette and creepy, unnatural smiles. There isn't an obvious problem, but something is clearly wrong. The ponies have identical hair styles and all bear the same equal sign cutie mark, and all speak in slow, measured tones. Conformity is the law of the land here, beyond the point where it can feasibly have occurred naturally. Moreover, the same equal sign on each of the ponies' flanks adorns all matter of signs and banners throughout the town. This totalitarian imagery combined with the relative modesty of the community's size is highly reminiscent of a cult, which is exactly what this community is.
But the equal sign imagery isn't just plastered around the village and on the ponies' flanks. In the middle of the first part, there's a musical number, and in this sequence the ponies of the town line up to form an equal sign. It's more than likely that this routine is the same one they bring out whenever there's new visitors. Not everypony is completely with the program, and there's a few instances where one pony or another is out of line. Might these ponies have once been visitors? How recently have some of the town's inhabitants joined the community? Whether or not these questions are intended, they're definitely there. The song itself is inspired by World War II propaganda, and features some considerably bleak lyrics, most famously "You can't have a nightmare if you never dream". Combine all that with the ponies' creepy forced smiles and you have one of the most uncomfortable musical numbers in the show.
And it gets worse.
Not immediately, of course. The next sequence lets up the tension for a bit, allowing for some doubt that the ponies have completely drank the kool-aid. Said doubt is soon destroyed as a small handful of townsponies express curiosity about cutie marks, mentioning that theirs have been removed, but being uncomfortable with the idea of simply getting them back. They're spouting ideas that anyone who's seen the show will know are horribly, horribly wrong, and knowing that they once had their own cutie marks only makes it worse. Again, it's hard to tell how long they have been here, but it's been more than long enough that they're completely and utterly in line with the cult's dogma. They could grab their cutie marks at any time, but despite mentioning that they'd like to have them back, they're somehow convinced that they're happier without. One pony describes the "cutie unmarking" as a "beautiful process", which makes the next scene horrifyingly ironic.
The last thing we see in part 1 is the mane six having their cutie marks removed, groaning and clenching in agony. They are having a part of themselves removed, and it's clearly not painless. The episode ends with the main characters, cutie marks replaced by equal signs, looking dejected, colours desaturated just like the rest of the town. It's a chilling note to leave on, but it's not nearly as bleak as what follows.
Part 2 begins with no music. The first audio heard is the voice of Starlight Glimmer, the town's leader, repeating mantras through an intercom. The first thing seen is a pan over the town's main road, empty except for two ponies guarding a building that a thumping noise is coming from. The mane six are trapped in a stone cell, listening to endlessly repeating propaganda over the intercom. only having books filled with the town's icon. Worse still, those equal cutie marks on their flanks are clearly affecting their minds, with their unique characteristics all but faded. For now, their personalities are still intact, as is at least a portion of their resistance, but over the course of a time lapse we see even the latter worn down. It's a distressingly realistic take on actual cult indoctrination tactics, with a magical spin. With that magical prodding, the brainwashing would probably take half the time it does in reality, at most.
From here the episode actually does lighten up somewhat, though that might just be because the bleakest part has passed. Fluttershy is sent out to find a way to get them out, which takes the form of a last-minute request to join the town. Interestingly, Fluttershy covers her mouth right after, as if she didn't mean to blurt that out. Perhaps the brainwashing is already taking effect. However, the reason for Fluttershy being chosen is because she's been strangely fond of the town, something which I don't like any more on second watch. Fluttershy is naive, but she's surely not THAT naive. But then, it takes a while for any of the mane six to be quite as discomforted by the town as they ought to be, given that the aesthetic here was clearly built to fit in the uncanny valley.
Initially, I took it the episode's totalitarian trappings as a Harrison Bergeron-type deal, which I wasn't a huge fan of. However, looking at it through the lens of a cult makes it considerably better, especially if the egalitarian/communist trappings are taken to be perversions. Starlight Glimmer, at the centre, is revealed at the end to still have her cutie mark, and soon after snaps at the town, displaying a certain level of resentment, if not for cutie marks than at least for other ponies in general. Perhaps she made the effort of brainwashing others and removing their talents in order to boost herself above them, a kind of power grab that isn't exactly unprecedented by reality. Unlike other villains, she's not a monster. She's just a powerful unicorn who has done horrible things, and that makes her hit closer to home than the likes of Sombra or Tirek. She's also the first villain since Chrysalis to very nearly defeat the protagonists, something which I had sorely missed in the past couple of seasons.
The climax, wherein the day isn't saved by the mane six but by other ponies whom they had helped, is such a great idea that the lack of it in the rest of the season is especially disappointing. With more opportunities than ever to allow other characters time in the spotlight, it's a shame that the rest of the season usually hesitates to give secondary characters centre stage, independently from one of the mane six, if it even features secondary characters at all. The map itself, as well, has been horribly underutilized in the first half of the season, only being featured in one other episode. A shame, really. At the very least, there's the promise of Starlight Glimmer returning, and it will be interesting to see what she does next.
"The Cutie Map" isn't a perfect episode, but it's one that stands out for the huge risks that it took. This is possibly the darkest the show has ever gotten, and it's somewhat miraculous that the writers made it work at all. Compare a still of this episode to one of almost any other, and even just from the colour palette it's obvious that this episode is much bleaker. It's really remarkable, and it's bursting with fantastic ideas, some of which just beg to be further explored. Sure, I'm not sure that this tone is sustainable for the show, but none of the other episodes in the season have been anything like it, so "The Cutie Map" is able to stand apart and shine. It's the kind of ambition that isn't seen often enough in this show, and, regardless of its faults, its daring more than pays off.