Saturday, 10 September 2016

Episode review: "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks"

One of the most promising changes made in season 5 was the Cutie Mark Crusaders finally acquiring their cutie marks. Although the trio had already been shifting towards more varied episodes after two seasons of grating repetition, gaining these cutie marks not only put an end to their most significant character arcs, the exact nature of these marks also paved the way for new stories, as the trio consecutively gained cutie marks which showcased how they applied their passion for cutie marks into helping others find and understand theirs. This season hasn't dwelled too much on this, however, and this is for the best, because it could easily have been overly focused on new characters like season 5 was. Instead, "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks" is only the second Crusaders club episode this season, and not only does it find a unique and novel approach to cutie marks, it's also a poignant, charming, adorable and uplifting episode which is up there with the best the show has to offer.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders have been busy. They've gained a reputation for being experts on cutie marks, having made many ponies happy by helping them understand or acquire their cutie marks. However, nothing could prepare them for what they would face next: A griffon named Gabby who, admiring pony society, wants to get a cutie mark of her very own. Unfortunately for her, there's nothing that the CMC can do about it. It's impossible. 

As this episode prominently features a new character, it had the important task of making her likeable, and thankfully, Gabby is possibly the most endearing new character this season, even with the tight competition for that title. She's chipper and adorable from the start, good-natured and good-hearted, wanting nothing more than her own cutie mark but never becoming bitter or ill-tempered when it becomes clear she won't get it. She paints a cutie mark on herself, seeming to be unwilling to accept the truth, but even then she doesn't lash out. 

In many ways, Gabby is actually similar to Thorax from "The Times They Are A Changeling," in that she's a friendlier member of a generally hostile species who was inspired by an act of friendship from the mane six. In this case, that act was the events of "The Lost Treasure of Griffonstone," and Gabby's mere existence as a griffon interested in friendship helps mitigate my biggest issue with that episode. Griffon society might have collapsed under its own greed and selfishness, but that doesn't mean there weren't griffons interested in friendship. It doesn't excuse that episode's implication that griffons need to accept pony values, but it does suggest that those values aren't exclusive to ponies, and that subtext is largely absent from this episode. 

What made the abundance of new characters in season 5 so frustrating is that they frequently took the spotlight from the main characters. Thankfully, like many other season 6 episodes, the returning characters are just as important as the new characters, and unlike "Gauntlet of Fire" or "Spice Up Your Life," the CMC are just as interesting as the new character. They have to deal with the hard conversation of telling Gabby she can't get a cutie mark, which they are obviously anxious about. They spend a decent chunk of the episode trying to figure out how to break the news to her, and even after they do, they need to confront the fact that they couldn't help her. Scootaloo, in particular, links Gabby's dream of getting a cutie mark to her own dream of flying, adding a subtle layer of character depth. This is how the show should be deepening its characters at this point. 

In its final quarter of running time, "The Fault in Our Cutie Mark" derives emotional power from anticipation and dramatic irony. We know that Gabby can't get a cutie mark, and we simply wait until the CMC have to break her heart. Then, we know that Gabby's cutie mark is fake, and we wait for the CMC to realize that and need to confront her. However, instead of going for the crushing emotional blow, the episode pushes all the cute buttons, subverting the expectations it built up. 

As it turns out, Gabby painted a cutie mark on herself not to avoid the truth, but to make the CMC feel better about their failure. Instead of ending on emotional devastation, it ends with adorable uplift. In the end, the CMC fashion Gabby a pair of shield symbols of her own, makeshift cutie marks with which they induct her into the crusaders. They teach her that she doesn't need to have a cutie mark to find her purpose - which is possibly the most important cutie mark-related lesson the show could have offered. We don't need some symbol of merit to pursue our passions, or even to follow our dreams. 

Much less important but worth noting is that this is the second episode this season which has prominently featured Twilight's dorky side, something I had long thought to be missing in action. It appears that taking Twilight out of the spotlight for a while is exactly what it took for her to regain some of her sorely missed personality. This is just one of many small touches which make the episode especially fun. Another one is the excellent cold open, featuring two parents concerned about their daughter's cutie mark, which is a skull and two bones. It turns out to be an archaeology cutie mark, and the parents apparently thought she'd be a pirate, but this is still a brilliant bit of subtle dark humour which demonstrates the show's strong ability to balance adult-oriented jokes with humour that appeals to its target audience.

Unfortunately, the episode also boasts a song, and it just might be one of the show's weakest compositions to date. It's not a bad song, necessarily, and the lyrics contain many of the episode's strengths, but the instrumentation and melody are about as familiar as the musical numbers in this show gets. The string-heavy arrangement sounds almost exactly the same as countless other songs from the show, and while the melody thankfully goes for fun energy over the cloying emotion which infested season 5, it still sounds like the songwriters are starting to run out of ideas. I can still go back to many of the songs from earlier seasons, so the continued decline of this aspect of the show is heartbreaking. 

But that doesn't change how excellent everything surrounding the song is. I want to hug this episode. "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks" is possibly the most charming episode of the show since season 4, with a cute new character, a heartwarming final scene, and a fantastic message. It boasts great humour but also smart storytelling, subverting its own expectations while still deriving emotional power from them. Aside from the weak song, there's little to complain about here. If "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks" isn't a perfect episode, then it's still as close to the ideal My Little Pony episode as anything's come this season, managing to be cute, funny, and poignant in equal measure. It just might be this season's best. 

Entertainment: 9/10
Characters: 10/10
Theme: 10/10
Story: 10/10
Overall: 98/100

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