Saturday, 28 November 2015

Episode review: "The Cutie Re-Mark"

Season 5 episodes 25 and 26
A very ambitious finale that isn't quite as gripping as previous ones, but is very entertaining and still reaches an emotional climax.

Of the various two-parters this show has had, "The Cutie Remark" is perhaps the least impressive. The intense plotting and sprawling ambition that used to make these episodes so special has become more commonplace than previously, and as a result, the season 5 finale suffers from diminishing returns. Its time travel narrative is ambitious but thematically well-worn, but it also allows for some fun, creative sequences as we see potential bad futures without the mane six being who they are. It's still entertaining to see what the writers will do when let loose entirely, but especially after the season premiere, it's a little bit of a shame that something more fresh and unique couldn't be done with this finale.

Framing the episode is Starlight Glimmer, who goes back in time to prevent Twilight and her friends from gaining their cutie marks. Although Twilight follows, she repeatedly finds herself at Starlight's mercy, being thrown into bad future after bad future before she can stop her adversary. Aside from moments of plot progression, most of the scenes in the past consist largely of slapstick. Starlight nonchalantly screws around with Twilight, and each return to the past is funnier than the previous. There's other bits of comedic relief scattered throughout, but for the most part this is another serious episode in a relatively serious season. When "A Canterlot Wedding" aired in 2012, its intensity was a revelation. At this point, however, it's not particularly impressive, in part due to the fact that every other episode this season has a similar tone and level of ambition. When every episode is like that, what makes any one of them special? What sets "The Cutie Re-Mark" apart from, say, "The Lost Treasure of Griffonstone?"

Of course, the answer to that question is that "The Cutie Re-Mark" is largely entertaining. It takes far too long to get going, and makes that even more agonizing by drawing out its dramatic irony for several minutes, but when it gets going, it becomes a sort of anthology of doomsday scenarios, where various villains faced by Twilight and her friends can be seen victorious and having conquered Equestria. These parts are all very creative and well-made, including some of the show's darkest moments in the Sombra sequence and the sheer bleakness of the final future we're shown. The stakes are higher than they've ever been, to the point where I legitimately thought some characters were going to die. Of course, this is still a show which hesitates to say "kill," but it doesn't shy away from talking about war. If anything in this episode is impressive, its the way that it pushes the show into ever-darker territory.

And yet, these future scenes are all narrowly focused on Twilight and where she is at the time, only giving the vaguest impression of what is going on in these futures to establish a sense of place. In "The Crystal Empire," this indicated a dark past which gave the setting just that much more personality, but at this point, it just leaves the feeling that the settings are full of wasted potential. Still, the episode does make it easy to guess the gist of what happened, but these are really interesting settings which, ultimately, only exist for the slightest glimpse of what could have been. Just as one future gets really exciting, we're back in the past, ready for the next one. It's not a big problem, but the episode feels more generic for it.

While "The Cutie Map" made it slightly ambiguous about whether or not Starlight was sincere about her hatred of cutie marks, "The Cutie Re-Mark" confirms that she is, and it makes an effort to dive deeper into her backstory. If anything, season 5 has been intensely focused on finding the good in everyone, and this is no exception. At the end of the episode, a strong emotional event in her past is revealed, and it's apparent that this is the cause for her hatred of cutie marks. It's sort of standard, but it is emotionally resonant, and it communicates the theme that "Amending Fences" stumbled with: Sometimes, circumstances drive friends apart, and that's okay. You can make new friends. If nothing else, the show knows how to dress up a scene for maximum emotional effect, and "The Cutie Re-Mark" certainly does that in its climax. In the end, Twilight tells Starlight that she can make new friends, and even offers to be Starlight's friend. With how this episode concludes, it actually appears likely that Starlight will join the main cast in the next season.

In terms of its ideas about time travel, however, "The Cutie Re-Mark" treads well-worn territory. Twilight and her friends are essential to the fate of Equestria, but that should be obvious, and the take on the butterfly effect is well-stated but unoriginal. This really is sci-fi 101 stuff here, only with sufficiently analysed magic instead of science. There's nothing to see here that can't be seen better elsewhere, but it is at least well-presented like always.

Capping off an ambitious but unfocused and deeply uneven season, "The Cutie Re-Mark" proves to be an enjoyable but unimpressive finale. It's plenty of fun, but aside from a powerful ending, there's very little new here, and none of the main or secondary cast receives any development. Starlight has a lot of promise to be a great character, even if she's following the exact same path as Sunset Shimmer, but adding another main character when the show frequently misuses the ones it already has seems awfully misguided. If nothing else, it's unlikely that Starlight, if she indeed joins the main cast, will be wasted in the same way as the ideas that either of the previous seasons left us with were. If nothing else, this is a solid episode, and though it doesn't elevate the season like some other finales do, it's not a terrible note to end on, and provides a sufficiently climactic feel in its ending for concluding the season. It's fine.

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