I'm probably too critical of this show's adherence to formula. Unique plotting isn't the reason why My Little Pony won me over, and as standard as some recent episode plots have been, it's always been the characters that make this show great, and great characters in a fun scenario are easily enough to make up for a generic plot. The point is, "To Where and Back Again" doesn't have a particularly revelatory plot, and it's arguably slightly on the shallow side, but by putting delightful characters in a fun scenario, it manages to be a total blast, and through its exclusive use of new characters, it also manages to feel more fresh than the similarly entertaining season 5 finale was. It's not the show's tightest narrative, and it's still a bit on the silly side, but for the first time in a while, a two-parter isn't really caught up in its own self-importance - and as it turns out, that makes all the difference.
When Starlight Glimmer is invited by the ponies of her old village to participate in their Sunset Celebration, she is terrified of being rejected. She does decide to go, bringing Trixie along for support, but runs away quickly when they want to include her in setting up the festivities. However, when she gets back, she finds Twilight and friends acting... strange. Soon, she discovers that they, as well as the other princess and Shining Armour, have been replaced by changelings. Starlight and Trixie are soon joined by Discord and Thorax, and together they need to defeat Chrysalis in order to save their friends.
Despite recent finales clinging to formula, they all try to find some way to stand apart from each other. Season 5's used a shallow time travel gimmick and a poignant but tacked-on reformation, but "To Where and Back Again" has a much more basic, much more simple idea: swap out the characters. Having secondary characters need to rescue the main cast is hardly a new idea, but it is one which has stuck around for a reason. It gives an opportunity to further flesh out and focus on characters who usually wouldn't get much time in the spotlight, and it gives the writers a break from trying to find new ideas for characters who've had years of stories told about them at this point. The only question is about whether the new characters are good.
And they are. These new characters are the sole distinguishing quality of "To Where and Back Again," but they also take up almost all of the focus. While previous finales have grown more and more serious and narrative-driven, "To Where and Back Again" is refreshing most of all because it plays out similarly to any standard single-episode adventure tale, only with slightly higher stakes. Those stakes help keep this thing from feeling wholly weightless like the S5 finale, but they also never take the central focus away from the characters, as the plot here is pretty clearly little more than an excuse for someone other than the mane six to take center stage. Consequentially, there's a couple nagging questions - for instance, it seems odd that Chrysalis wouldn't consider Starlight, magically powerful student of Twilight, to be a threat - but their impact on the episode is negligible due to its focus on characters and how they react to the situation.
Starlight takes the lead, and this is the most endearing she's been since the premiere. Wisely, the episode provides several reasons for her to be afraid of the village ponies, the most signifiant being that she fears rejection and that she doesn't trust herself in a leadership role. The latter point is a significant aspect of her character arc in the episode, and after the events of "Every Little Thing She Does," it's particularly understandable. And yet, she's clearly grown closer to Twilight and friends since then, and as much as I wish we could have seen that, it is something which the aforementioned "Every Little Thing She Does" set up at the end. Starlight's approach to guilt this season has mostly manifested as self-loathing, and watching her slowly get over that and finally grow from who she was in the past is genuinely satisfying.
To an extent, she's still not all that different from Twilight, given her primary interest in the broad spectrum in magic and her particular skill in leadership. While "To Where and Back Again" doesn't really have the time to give her any unique interests which might have her fully break out of Twilight's shadow, its focus on her insecurity does help separate her from her mentor. Specifically, while Twilight is often proactive in searching for solutions to problems, Starlight here actively avoids trying to solve them. It'll be interesting to see what this has turned into in season 7, but in the meantime, it fills the leads here with uncertainty and confusion, which is a really refreshing change after adventure-type episodes have taken more and more focus off of main characters' own faults. I believe that this show is at its best when it focuses on a character's insecurities, and Starlight's are among the most satisfying to explore we've seen in a while.
Meanwhile, I think I might finally understand why people like Trixie so much, as this is the first time I've really enjoyed her beyond mere comic relief. I still struggle to understand exactly why she picks on Twilight so much, but while this initially makes her look like kind of a jerk, she's a very entertaining jerk, and this is about as close as Twilight has come to being defeated in any way this season. Trixie retains the snarkiness which has made her so funny in the past, and here her friendship with Starlight is a lot more entertaining than it was in "No Second Prances." She's also easily the least prepared for all of this changelings, and her constant anxiety proves just as entertaining, and complements her snarkiness surprisingly well. But the best part of her role here is that friendship with Starlight. It's apparent just how well the two get along, even as Trixie clashes with the other two, and when she sacrifices herself so Starlight and Thorax can progress, it has an emotional impact.
Speaking of which, some of the progress Discord made earlier this season has depleted a little bit. Unlike Starlight, he doesn't appear to have bonded all that closely with most of the mane six, only really getting interested at the prospect that Fluttershy has been captured. Still, his complete apathy about everything else and general disrespectfulness is every bit as entertaining as it always was, even if the episode disappointingly chooses to take his magical power away. I just feel like nothing should be able to stop the so-called Spirit of Chaos, y'know? At the same time, this leads to him spending most of the trip complaining, which sounds insufferable on paper, but given Discord's refusal to care about almost anything and the sharp dialogue, is consistently hilarious.
Thorax, finally, sometimes struggles to get his voice in, much like early-season Fluttershy, although when the group finally arrives at the changeling hive, he leads most of the way. He's not as funny as Trixie or Discord, but he's every bit as adorable as he was in "The Times They Are a Changeling," and he contributes the most to the episode's worldbuilding. His wings have changed colour, and he's been able to sustain himself very well from "sharing" love with his friends in the Crystal Empire. What this appears to mean is that changelings can sustain themselves off of friendship, and as it turns out, it's actually more nourishing than simply stealing love from others. Emotions are a powerful force in this show, and sharing love is ultimately what allows Thorax to defeat Chrysalis and save his friends.
Chrysalis doesn't appear until the very end, but she's just as deliciously hateful as she always was. Her potentially sympathetic motivations are clouded by her stubborn, arrogant personality, and even when Thorax tries to befriend her at the end, she rejects it and vows revenge. By all appearances, her own desire for power has clouded perspective, and this serves as a solid counterpoint for Starlight, who here is finally able to show she's moved on from that same desire. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the implication that Chrysalis will come back for revenge, but her own entertainingly despicable personality makes her the perfect villain for this show, and at least one of my fears - that this could lead to a greater action focus - is mitigated by the fact that "To Where and Back Again" barely contains any action scenes.
As with "The Crystalling," this episode uses its extra time to build slowly up to the main conflict. The first eight or so minutes make no mention of changelings whatsoever, instead focusing on Starlight's own insecurities, and when Starlight finally does return to find her friends acting weird, it's played more for comedy than for tension. The changelings' stilted dialogue is amusing, but the episode does take a little too long to actually get to the point, even if the changelings' strange dialogue is essential to both provoking Starlight's anxieties and to moving the plot forward. Even when the group reaches the hive, the only proper action sequence is at the very end, and even that is built heavily around dialogue. I hope that future two-parters shift even further away from action and intense plotlines, as this really does feel fresh after so many previous premieres and finales were so dramatic and actiony.
In the end, Thorax is able to convince the changelings to share love, freeing them from Chrysalis' rule. While I complained about Thorax adopting pony values previously, the Changeling-specific idea of "love sharing" does a lot to mitigate that idea. As much as I enjoy the confirmation that Chrysalis is a tyrannical hothead, I'm less of a fan of the Changelings' new design. The bright colours are a little off-putting at first, and Thorax's weird head things look like elk horns or something. However, the way it makes changelings look a bit more like ponies is kinda cute, and I imagine that the design will be tightened up at least a little next season. Besides, if being mildly unimpressed with a visual design which only appears for a few minutes at the end is my biggest problem with the episode, that says good things.
"To Where and Back Again" is a reminder that it's not great plotlines or intense battles which make this show great but fun, likeable characters. Discord and Thorax had an advantage going in, but I was predisposed against Starlight and Trixie at this point, and this finale did a lot to redeem them for me. Add that solid characterization to a bunch of well-written dialogue, and you have a really enjoyable episode which doesn't quite stand up to the likes of "Twilight's Kingdom" but does just about everything I want a two-parter to do at this point in the show's run. As with all the best adventure episodes, it comes at a time when a character needs to prove herself, and I can't think of a better way to close the door on Starlight's initial character arc.
I can't wait to see what this show has in store for the next season.