Saturday, 26 March 2016

Episode review: "The Crystalling"

These past few seasons, I've been very frustrated with My Little Pony. I felt that the show wasn't living up to its potential, and worse, its quality had grown increasingly uneven. Season 5, which ended in November, was a step in the right direction, with a huge spike in ambition that, unfortunately, was accompanied by even more inconsistent quality than before. While season 5 had some of the show's best moments, it also suffered from a variety of issues, which made for a very frustrating season to sit through in spite of its many pleasures. However, one of the better things season 5 did was make significant changes to the status quo, setting up a strong foundation for season 6 to build on. Now that it's here, it's easy to see how the events of season 5 have paid off: "The Crystalling" is the revitalization that the show desperately needed.
Twilight Sparkle has taken Starlight Glimmer in as her pupil, and has even allowed her to stay in the castle. Now the mentor, Twilight has been thinking about situations through which to teach Starlight about friendship, but in her planning she fails to realize that her technique might not be the best method. One particular scenario involves Starlight reuniting with Sunburst, her old friend whose life path led Starlight to resent cutie marks, and this one in particular makes Starlight uncomfortable. She carries guilt about her actions in season 5, and she especially doesn't want to share her misdeeds with Sunburst. 

Unfortunately, Sunburst lives in the Crystal Empire, which is also where Princess Cadance and Shining Armour are holding a traditional Crystal Pony ceremony to commemorate the birth of their child. Twilight Sparkle and her friends are invited, and so she decides that the reunion with Sunburst would be perfect for Starlight's first lesson. When they get there, Spike and Starlight branch off in search of Sunburst while the others go to meet the baby, discovering something very peculiar about this child: She is an alicorn. 

The premiere's twin narratives are reminiscent of the pilot, which also paired two major stories, specifically Nightmare Moon's return and Twilight making friends. However, the two stories in "The Crystalling" don't intertwine until the end, and while the show's previous attempts to juggle multiple plot threads have sometimes felt overstuffed or disjointed, here it flows organically and feels far more tightly controlled. Building off of the events of season 5, both the Starlight story and the baby story feel fresher than this show has in years, in part simply because of the changed status quo but also because this is the first time that the show has truly felt grown up. Among the topics covered are academic failure and the struggles of parenthood, both great examples of themes which, while pertaining to adults, are great to demonstrate to children. Giving realistic expectations of the future is something which far more children's shows ought to do, and it's great to see My Little Pony setting an example again. 

The dynamic between Starlight and Sunburst is especially inspired: two childhood friends, both with their own hidden shames, reunited but unwilling to open up. For Starlight, the problem is her former villainy, but for Sunburst, it's something else. While Starlight envisioned Sunburst as some sort of powerful wizard, it turns out that his time at magic school was less than successful. He could read the books just fine, but he could never do the work. For the target audience, this is a realistic view of post-secondary education, one which could help young viewers build realistic expectations of school and the difficulties that might be involved. However, this character seems more meaningful to current struggling university students, who might identify with Sunburst's struggle. This hidden shame provides a level of depth for the character, and the contrast between his shame and Starlight's own guilt is one of the episode's many strong ideas. 

Meanwhile, with the baby, we soon learn that Cadance and Shining Armour have been struggling with their new responsibilities. When we first see Shining, he's sleep deprived and dishevelled, much as a new father would be. The last time we were introduced to new parents in the show, it was the Cakes, and while they had their own frustrations, "The Crystalling" depicts new parenthood much more realistically. Neither Shining nor Cadance have gotten sleep in days: the baby has kept them up, and given that this baby is an alicorn without much control over her own magical power, their first few days have likely been even more stressful than most. Considering that baby dolls are a hallmark of little girls' toys, it's great to see that demographic given a more realistic view of parenthood. 

Twilight Sparkle and her friends are pushed more to the sidelines, which makes sense, as the story here is definitely more about Starlight, Sunburst, and the baby, who is eventually named Flurry Heart. They're most present in the scenes with Flurry Heart, and in these parts of the episode, most of the attention is placed on world building and the eventual main plotline. Refreshingly for this show, almost the entire first part goes by without a major threat to pony lives, and when it does come, it evolves organically out of the Flurry Heart plotline and mingles fluidly with the Starlight subplot. At the end of the first part, Flurry Heart destroys the Crystal Heart, which is essential not only to the ceremonies of the Crystal Ponies but also to the well-being of the Empire overall. It's revealed that the Heart protected the Empire from the harsh weather conditions of the North, and now that it's destroyed, thick clouds of snow begin to descend on the area. 

While Cadance, Twilight and friends try to repair the Heart, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash need to confront the Crystal Ponies who are gathered in front of the castle awaiting the ceremony. At this point, the weather outside has grown frigid and snowy, and with it fast approaching dangerous levels, and the three need to convince the ponies to return to their homes. The storm carries a genuine feeling of danger, to the point where Shining Armour eventually calls for an evacuation in a first for the series. Even against Tirek, the show has never considered the ponies on the periphery, only using them as demonstrations of the villain's power. Here, though, protecting the citizenry is every bit as important as simply stopping the threat.

I could go on, but the point is this: "The Crystalling" makes the show feel fresh again. With a new status quo and a new focus, this is easily the most confident the show has been in years, and while it may lack for stand-out moments, that's only because the entirety of the episode is so uniformly great. Starlight's introduction as part of the main cast is fantastic, and her subplot provides character development which the show has lacked for far too long. Meanwhile, world building is made to look effortless, putting S5's paltry attempts to shame. The episode's themes are grown up and mature without excluding the target demographic, and the core two-parter narrative is simply the strongest it's been since "A Canterlot Wedding." Most of all, though, "The Crystalling" is more promising for the future of the show than any episode in years. I could not be more excited.

Welcome back, My Little Pony

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