Saturday, 24 September 2016

Episode review: "Every Little Thing She Does"

Earlier this season, "Newbie Dash" caused a lot of controversy for a number of reasons. I myself was disappointed by it, and yet, I have been completely unable to stop thinking about it since. I predict the same will be true of "Every Little Thing She Does," an interesting episode with a lot going on beneath the surface. It confirms Starlight Glimmer as an interesting character - but, unfortunately, it struggles with making her likeable, and despite a satisfying ending, has pacing issues that prevent the episode from being nearly as enjoyable to watch as it is to think about. But then, I'm still processing it even as I write, so perhaps a week from now it will have gone up in my opinion, much like the aforementioned "Newbie Dash."

Starlight Glimmer is shirking on her friendship lessons. As much progress as she's made with magic, the whole friendship thing still needs to elude her, even with the help of Twilight's postcards. With Twilight away to give a lecture in Canterlot, Starlight attempts to engage in activities of friendship with her mentor's friends, and her stress eventually leads her to take up drastic - and wildly inappropriate - measures. Specifically, she uses a mind control spell in order to fulfill all of the friendship tasks Twilight has given her without any of the difficulties she perceives in them. This goes horribly wrong, as the five struggle to exercise autonomy and cause a mess as a result, and when Twilight gets back, she doesn't view Starlight's actions charitably.

Although Starlight Glimmer is supposedly "reformed" this season, she's made numerous mistakes reminiscent of her previous actions. In "No Second Prances," her attempts at friendship often betrayed a character who rarely thinks about the consequences of her actions, and "Every Little Thing She Does" takes that subtext and makes it text. Here, Starlight Glimmer is practically an antagonist - while we would like to see her learn about friendship, her approach to it is clearly beyond the pale. Later in the episode, when she's confronted about this, she reveals her thought process: she had approached friendship problems as another task for her to complete, and so she was terrified of failing at them. Wrongheaded as this is, it grants further nuance to Starlight as a character, and even makes her a little sympathetic.

It's even easier to sympathise with her when she realises her mistake and goes to apologize to Twilight's friends, who are amusingly nursing magical hangovers. Her apology sounds genuine and betrays real character growth, and seeing her later succeed at those same friendship lessons - entirely inadvertently at that, finally coming to understand what the lessons are supposed to mean - is deeply satisfying. Her reformation proposed that she could still learn to be better, and here, we finally get to see the initial seeds of that. She's becoming better.

I have misgivings about this ending - specifically, I'm starting to lose patience with the show's refusal to give her any significant consequences. She has to clean up her own mess, but that's starting to feel like a slap on the wrist, and there's only so long that I can forgive it in exchange for character development and thematic poignancy. However, the level of character development on display here, as well as the satisfaction of Starlight making progress, is enough to negate that, even if it could have been stronger.

I also kinda wish the episode more directly confronted Starlight's character faults, but perhaps this more subtle approach - having her grow out of them from slowly coming to truly understand friendship - will grow on me with time. It's certainly an interesting and emotionally evocative approach to the same issues, moving her forward as a character in a genuinely satisfying way.

However, I can't help but feel that her apology would feel much more pronounced if her actions led to more severe consequences for her, as that might give her apology more emotional weight. Twilight rightly chews her out for her actions, but Starlight has to face little more than that except her own guilt, which we've been given ample reason to believe isn't productive for her. Surprisingly for this show, this feels like part of an incomplete story arc, and it might be much more satisfying if she actually appears to be growing and learning from her mistakes in subsequent appearances. Time will, of course, tell, but at least now I have a little more confidence in that happening.

A bit more frustrating here is that the overall plot of this episode shares some uncanny similarities to "Lesson Zero." Starlight takes friendship lessons too seriously, gets stressed out, and uses mind control magic to solve those problems, just as Twilight did in that episode, and just like Twilight in that episode, her actions betray a significant level of character depth. I relate to Starlight's own issues a lot less than Twilight's, most likely because Starlight is simply a less likeable character than Twilight was in the first two seasons, but perhaps also because the antisocial behaviour is much more of a trend for her than it was with Twilight. The episode is clearly trying to compare Starlight to how Twilight used to be, even having her dismiss friendship in favour of magical studies, but even though her actions were similarly unacceptable, Twilight in "Lesson Zero" was still more sympathetic than Starlight is in a lot of "Every Little Thing She Does."

Indeed, the real issue with Starlight here is that the episode provides very little reason to be invested in her. So far, this season is succeeding in making her sympathetic, but only in increasingly small doses, and more and more it's failing at making her likeable, especially since it's giving her few, if any, redeeming qualities. She's only really sympathetic once Twilight finally arrives to confront her about her mistakes, and even then only because she's apologetic and most likely learning from her mistakes.

Part of the problem is that the character faults which led her to make her mistakes in this episode don't seem all that different from the faults which caused her actions in the season 5 premiere, where she was an outright villain. Understanding those character issues make her decisions more complex and interesting, but they do very little to endear her to me. She's one of the show's most complex characters, but it's hard to appreciate that when the show's giving us so few reasons to like her beyond her consistent character development. When her only flavour is antisocial behaviour, that can only get her so far, especially as she bizarrely becomes less and less likeable. Here, she barely even has the guilt which defined her earlier this season.

All of that, however, isn't the main issue with the episode. Despite my complaints, I find the episode's take on Starlight Glimmer to be fascinating and risky, and I can appreciate a flawed experiment if it's ultimately successful and satisfying, which overall I think "Every Little Thing She Does" is. The problem is that it's not terribly entertaining, and this is especially frustrating because this show seems unable to resist the impulse to resort to shenanigans.

For the bulk of the episode, all we see is the mane six robotically obeying Starlight's commands with mere slivers of their previous personalities. Applejack and especially Pinkie have a couple amusing gags, but when these fun personalities are muted and the focus character is so unlikeable, the gags have to be on point, and unfortunately, they're often simply lazy and predictable. Worse still, the trance-induced versions of the mane six are frequently more creepy than amusing, which only adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere already brought about by Starlight's manipulative actions. We have nobody to root for, and the context of the events happening onscreen is more than a little disturbing, which ends up leading to tonal dissonance. When this goes on for as long as it does, it eventually goes from unnerving to tedious, and the overall weakness of the humour doesn't help matters.

That's not enough to make me dislike this episode, but while this is one of the most fascinating episodes of the season, it's yet another example that a satisfying ending and intriguing characterization only goes so far when an episode simply isn't consistently entertaining. Like many episodes of its ilk, the episode isn't a complete slog to get through, and certainly has its moments - especially closer to the end - but it drags in places, and there's a lot about Starlight as a character and how the episode handles her that I have mixed feelings about. Not a misfire, and very admirable for its ambition, but definitely flawed.

Entertainment: 6/10
Character: 7/10
Theme: 7/10
Story: 7/10
Overall: 68/100

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