Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Equine brilliance - Returning to Bloom and Gloom

With "Bloom and Gloom," season 5 peaked early, and the rest of the season is still scrambling to reach its heights.

"Bloom and Gloom" is a serious contender for the best episode the show has ever had. It's an episode that takes the show's setting, characters, and tones, and pushes them in service of character development and thematic depth. More than just being a solid example of the show at its best, this is an episode that not only suggests but demonstrates what the show could be if it realized its potential. The near-perfection of its various brilliant elements shows the difference between My Little Pony being a good show and it being a great show.

The cold open leads us in with Babs Seed getting her cutie mark, which is important because it gets the CMC thinking about what will happen once they get their cutie marks. As seen in Apple Bloom's nightmares, this makes them very anxious. After the intro, Apple Bloom wakes up from a rough sleep. Only, something is different: She has gotten a cutie mark. Now, based on the rules that the show usually follows regarding cutie marks, there's no reason why she should have gotten it overnight, as she was asleep and thus wouldn't be able to have the sort of epiphany that inspires a cutie mark. This is the first clue to the fact that Apple Bloom is currently in a dream.

Fittingly, the first cutie mark she receives is something she has never shown any interest in: Pest removal. However, while this doesn't resemble anything Apple Bloom has done in the show, it does resemble the parasprite infestation back in season 1. Just like there, we're soon introduced to a dangerous pest which could destroy Ponyville: Twittermites. Immediately being introduced to the most dangerous pests and being expected to just take over is ridiculous, of course, but it fits with the dream logic. Initially, this symbolizes Apple Bloom's childish fear of being stuck with a talent she doesn't like. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon appear to mock the cutie mark, which she agrees with. But, when a mysterious voice gives her the opportunity to give it away, she's suddenly unable to stop the Twittermites when they finally do threaten the town. She can't save her town, and more importantly, she can't save her home, which she sees being destroyed before waking up. Here, we see different fears, and much more significant ones: The fear of failure, and the fear of loss.

Apple Bloom wakes up, only to find herself in the same dream. This time, however, her cutie mark is potion making. It seems all is well: Her lessons with Twilight had paid off, and it was a skill she was actually proud to have, unlike pest control. Here, the problem is what comes after the cutie mark. Can one be a Cutie Mark Crusader if they have a cutie mark? It's a childish concern, but it's the kind of childish concern which hides real fears. Apple Bloom clearly values the club, in part because it's provided her with so many experiences but also because it unites her with her friends. That becomes important, because the more significant fear present in this dream is of losing her friends. Apple Bloom's friends have been a huge part of her life, and she fears that a cutie mark would ruin their friendships. Even when she gets her cutie mark removed to keep that tie between them, it's still undone by Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle getting cutie marks of their own. While this is also a silly fear, it's a realistic one for a child to have, and put more broadly, it's one that's even present in some adults. If what previously held you together fades away, can you still be friends?

Let me step out of analytical mode to make one thing clear: Yes. Of course you can. Friendship is greater than any visible bond.

It's in the third dream that the visual brilliance really starts to dial up. Apple Bloom comes down in a blanket this time around, but when Applejack begins spouting her usual speech about her sister's cutie mark, the blanket suddenly vanishes. From there, the composition of the frame changes as parts of the room shift in and out of view. Granny Smith and Big Macintosh confront Apple Bloom about her cutie mark, which isn't an apple in this dream, and suddenly, she's standing on a table. Then the room is gone, replaced by a black void where Apple Bloom stands on the table, in a stream of light, her family members circling her. Applejack speaks with Big Mac's voice. Big Mac speaks with Applejack's voice. The intensity builds as her family expresses disappointment in her lack of an apple cutie mark. The cutie mark itself is nonsense, and it's not even the first non-apple mark she's had in this episode. What matters is that Apple Bloom is now afraid of disappointing her family with the wrong skill set, fearing that whatever cutie mark she gets won't fit with the family tradition. She fears that this will lead to her being ostracised.

Apple Bloom's family, at least in the waking world, would probably remind her that they'd always support her, but this isn't true of everyone. Some kids might have reason to fear their parents being disappointed in their choices. Perhaps they come from a family with a mathematics background, and they have a love of literature. As an adult, I can't immediately relate to some of the worries that Apple Bloom has, but these aren't at all dissimilar to the concerns of real children.

In the final dream, Apple Bloom doesn't even make it to the stairs. When she leaves her room, she enters the same dark clearing where she had her cutie mark removed previously. There, she confronts the being who removed her cutie mark, wondering why they've tormented her. Only, it's not some evil being who was speaking to Apple Bloom this whole time, but her own shadow. Those voices weren't any dark figure, but the manifestation of Apple Bloom's own insecurities. This is revealed to her by Princess Luna, who concludes her series of episodes where she visits one of the Crusaders' dreams. Luna tells Apple Bloom that her fears are silly, but she does so with sensitivity and understanding. After telling Apple Bloom that a cutie mark comes with discovering oneself, she states the main theme: If you can't except who you are, life can be rough.

I was excited for this back when I first reviewed the episode because, if Apple Bloom and friends learned this, it might allow their character development to lead them to their own cutie marks. Now, I come back to this episode after that prediction has come true, and it's clear that Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo have been able to come to terms with who they are, and figured out how to achieve their dreams without giving up on what had been making them happy beforehand. That is downright inspiring, and I think it sends an excellent message to kids who might be watching.

To me, though, the biggest message of the episode comes at the end. During Luna and Apple Bloom's conversation, Apple Bloom says she thinks her worries are so silly that she must be the only pony in Equestria to have them. Luna responds to that by showing her two other dreams: Those of Apple Bloom's best friends. As it turns out, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle are having the exact same nightmares. The three learn that they have the same fears, and that means they can provide each other with support. It's here that they reinforce how important it is for them to just be themselves. But moreso, they learn that they're not alone, and they endeavour to assure Babs Seed, their newly graduated member, that she isn't alone either. It's a reaffirmation of the importance of friendship, something this show has been about from the very beginning. And, for kids, it says something even more important:

No matter your fears or anxieties, no matter what feelings might be eating you up, no matter how it seems at first, you are not alone.

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