Saturday, 27 August 2016

Episode review: "Dungeons & Discords"

Season 6 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has often been criticized for an abundance of slice-of-life episodes, but the simple fact of the matter is that slice-of-life is the format which best complements this show's brand of humour and storytelling. "Dungeons & Discords," an episode which is somehow even better than last week's, is very close to the ideal FiM episode, using a relatively simple story to deliver not only some of the show's funniest scenes yet, but also to deliver organic and significant character development, and it does all of that while stretching modestly out of its own comfort zone. Why is this season so unpopular again?
When Fluttershy and friends leave town to tour Yakyakistan on Celestia's insistence, she suggests that Discord join Spike and Big Mac for their "secret meeting" which they hold whenever the mane six are out. Initially, Discord resists, but the promise of a "guys' night" gives him certain expectations which make him more excited about the prospect. Unfortunately, these hopes are dashed when he discovers that Spike and Big Mac's idea of a guys' night is hanging out in the castle and playing the Equestrian equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons, which the show calls Oubliettes & Ogres in an endearing nod to the comics. 

Excepting last season's "What About Discord?," episodes starring the often-titular draconequus tend to be among the funniest of the series, as Discord brings with him an irreverent disregard for others and a habit of ignoring the laws of reality. "Dungeons & Discords" might just be the funniest Discord episode yet, pitting an irritable chaos spirit against a pair of unabashed nerds for some absolutely delightful banter. In addition, Discord is as creative as ever, twisting earlier excuses into sight gags and creating whole new worlds driven entirely by his whims. 

What's even more excellent than Discord at his best, however, is how he's not given a full-time straight man. Spike and Big Mac take a longer time than usual to grow weary of his antics, while he's given the task of reacting to their unabashed dorkiness and unceasing insistence on playing the game. Spike is written at his goofiest here, continuing this season's favourable characterization while also showcasing the geeky edge which had previously been shown through his love of comic books. Big Mac, on the other hand, is unfortunately reduced to single-word statements, and the episode visibly strains to make his dialogue organic. It ultimately succeeds, primarily by having him communicate through tone and body language, but although he's also given a layer of endearing dorkiness, I can't help but wish the show would allow him to go beyond that recurring gag. 

The episode's impressive joke-per-minute quota is established as early as the cold open, wherein Fluttershy notes that she'd just been informed about the trip to Yakyakistan (poor thing) and shouts at Discord when he creates an "opposite world" for a brief moment. The gags never let up for the entire episode, and whether it's Discord's distress at Spike and Big Mac playing along with him or the latter two fleeing from cardboard cut-outs of their campaign villain in a RPG world which Discord created, the episode only gets funnier and funnier. 

That would be enough to make the episode great on its own, and it certainly worked for lighter episodes like "The Saddle Row Review." However, Discord's jerkish personality and increased tormenting of Spike and Big Mac transition smoothly to character development as he's told that Spike and Big Mac invited him because they took pity on him, and is therefore forced to consider how unreasonable his actions were. This deepends him as a character by implying he's never had anyone take pity on him before, while also giving him a fairly natural reason to grow, learn more about friendship, and - for the first time - apologize. The reminder that others are thinking about his feeling inspires him to think about theirs, and that's something he could very well carry with him in the future. Perhaps more than any character in any episode since season 3, Discord truly feels like he's moving forward. 

Implied in this is a moral about considering others' feelings, as well as a lesson that if others ask you to join them, perhaps they simply want to include you. It's far less overt than many morals in the show's past, but demonstrating by example is an admirable move towards subtlety in this show which I think complements the target audience. Discord's actions could be related to the actions of more entitled children, and his character development provides fertile ground for parents to talk to children about those themes. It's just the right balance where the themes come through without abandoning subtlety. 

On a lesser note, this is also the first episode of the entire season to largely exclude the mane six, and the second episode in a row where the focus character isn't either them or the Cutie Mark Crusaders. This might have been more impressive if Spike weren't still in the picture, but his prominence this season is somewhat unusual in its own right. It's not quite as fresh as last season's "Brotherhooves Social" or even the first half of the season, but it does continue season 6's trend of taking place in a living universe, where time actually feels like it's moving forward. The aforementioned trip to Yakyakistan is something I wish we might have seen, especially since it's far less likely to stretch the show's limitations than the Griffonstone summit mentioned in "Stranger Than Fan Fiction," but its very mention at least belies a subtle feeling of continuity which has been this season's greatest strength. 

Season 6 has been a huge improvement with regards to more modest episodes, generally returning to the quality of season 4 after season 5 poured all of its energy into overstuffed event episodes. "Dungeons & Discords" is perhaps the surest sign of that, not only taking the crown of the best slice-of-life episode this season but also serving as a reminder of what this show can do with a basic plot and a handful of good characters. This, not event episodes like "The Times They Are a Changeling," is the kind of episode which made the show great: a funny slice-of-life with strong character development and a solid, if implied, moral. This is easily one of the season's best episodes, and yet the best part about it is that it doesn't feel like an anomaly. I've said it plenty of times, but only because it's true: My Little Pony is back.


Entertainment: 10/10
Character: 9/10
Theme: 9/10
Story: 9/10
Overall: 93/100

P.S. I actually like this episode more than last week's, but this is the exact kind of episode which shows how my rating system can't quite account for delightful and creative episodes which lack an overt moral or a fresh plot. Goes to show that the score isn't everything. 

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