Sunday, 23 April 2017

Episode review: "A Flurry of Emotions"

While I wasn't very fond of the first two episodes of season 7, they represented a further shift in the right direction for this show. Both were very low-key slice-of-life affairs which took advantage of changes to the status quo, and "Celestial Advice" in particular finally showed an interest in the supporting cast which the show already has instead of tossing yet more new ponies onto the pile. Both of those traits are present in the adorable "A Flurry of Emotions," which, even more than "Dungeons & Discords" last season, is the exact kind of silly, endearing romp which caused me to fall in love with this show in the first place, and it also sees the show at its most controlled and polished. More of this, please. Way more of this.

One day, Twilight is preparing to meet some sick children at a local hospital when Princess Cadance and Shining Armour come by and ask her to take care of Flurry Heart for a moment so they can take a break to see a friend's art gallery. Despite already having a long checklist to complete, she agrees, just for the chance to spend some time with her niece. But this is Flurry Heart we're talking about, and balancing babysitting with her preexisting checklist soon becomes more trouble than Twilight anticipated.

Twilight's enthusiasm about spending time with her niece might be the single most endearing she's done in years. In fact, this might be the best-written she's been since season 2, if only because the episode never forces her into the role of a teacher or a princess. Being an aunt is still a position of relative authority, but for once, we're allowed to see that authority chafing against Twilight's own personality quirks. Taking on the dual responsibility of babysitting Flurry and meeting those sick kids is directly linked to her high expectations of herself, which is made most notable by her own insistence on being the "best aunt ever" as well as her refusal to cancel her visit with the hospital. For whatever reason, being a princess has never really inspired this in her before. Despite this, Twilight is constantly expressing anxiety when Spike tells her she's late, which is another trait we haven't seen from her in ages. In a way, this is Twilight's "Flutter Brutter," and it has the same level of fresh yet subtly familiar characterization.

Another thing challenging Twilight's usual infallibility is Flurry Heart herself, who Twilight struggles to take care of while also assembling supplies for the hospital visit. Flurry is even more charming here than she was in "The Crystalling," and small visual gags like her struggling to return Twilight's wink are downright irresistible. Flurry's antics are played for maximum goofiness, starting with throwing food and ending with frantically levitating everything around her in search of a toy, and there's a gormless innocence to all of it which makes her hard to hate even with all the trouble she causes. And yet, we also see her trying to be thoughtful. When she sees the Cake twins fighting over a toy, she tries to break the toy so they can both have one, and the good intentions behind that make her all the more endearing. At times, she expresses a degree of cognitive awareness which is lightly implausible, but it's never distracting enough from the sheer charm and creativity of those scenes.

And yet, much like "The Crystalling," the show never loses sight of how troublesome raising a magical baby can be. When Shining and Cadance appear, they're dishevelled and exhausted. Cadance has way too many boxes of diapers, and Shining appears to forget what he said mere second later. Flurry Heart might be innocent and sweet, but she's still a baby with intense magical abilities, and since Twilight is both overburdened and inexperienced with child care, she makes mistakes. In the climactic moment, she yells at Flurry Heart to get her to stop levitating things, and while this has the intended effect, it also causes Flurry to cower in fear. Flurry is a baby, so yelling at her is not necessarily the right solution, and Twilight learns that the hard way. Seeing Twilight struggle with something so mundane is a huge breath of fresh air, and the implicit moral about how to take care of a baby is only one of several strong messages in the episode.

Particularly exciting to me is how the show appears to be working to give its target audience realistic expectations of parenthood. Raising Flurry Heart is an exhausting process for both her parents and her aunt, and when parenthood is so often glorified and glamorized in fiction, I'm eternally appreciative for a kids' show which emphasizes just how much hard work goes into it. To an extent this is simply confirming my biases against having children, but crucially, "A Flurry of Emotions" counterbalances all the chaos with genuine affection from Twilight, Cadance, and Shining. Not only does Twilight frequently dote over Flurry, but over the course of the episode, Cadance and Shining soon find themselves missing their child even in spite of the trouble she causes them. It's genuinely sweet, and while it's not entirely rational as a counterpoint to all the exasperation of raising a child, it's also genuine and believable enough to be effective. The actual moral of the episode simply boils down to not taking on more responsibilities than you can handle, but the episode is packed with subtle, implicit messages which add on to that lesson and prevent it from feeling too rote.

While I love seeing Cadance and Shining again, I can't help but feel disappointed with the relatively light development they receive. At this point, it's likely that Flurry Heart's existence will restrict them to the roles of parents for the rest of the show's run, and for two characters who are both so charming and so woefully underdeveloped, that's a massive shame. While at the art show, they at first make weak jabs at modern art and later start projecting their memories of Flurry Heart onto it, and while this is genuinely endearing, I'm worried that this is the best we'll get from them in a slice-of-life context. I still enjoyed seeing them again here, at least, as I wasn't expecting them to have a prominent role at all, and their scenes both enhance the story and are entertaining on their own, but I can't help but feel sad that we might never get more than this. I like these characters a lot, and I want them to live up to their potential.

A lot more wonderful, though, is the prominent appearance of Cheerilee, who has largely been confined to Cutie Mark Crusaders-centric episodes and even then has had a decreasing relevance. Seeing her trying to lend Twilight a book is an ideal scenario, and while there's not a whole lot to her appearance, it's just nice to see her again, and it's neat to see her speaking to an adult rather than to a child for once. Nurse Redheart also gets a very minor speaking role, and for what seems like the first time in ages, Pinkie Pie appears exclusively within the context of her job, having about the same amount of screen time as Cheerilee. It's no surprise that Pinkie only made her scene funnier, but what's especially fun is the callback to her secret party cave from "Party Pooped," as well as her surprising degree of organizational skills.

It's hard to imagine a surprise more pleasant than "A Flurry of Emotions." For the My Little Pony debut of these writers, something with this combination of polish, charm, and good morals is deeply impressive, and the simple fact that it actually makes Twilight interesting again merits celebration on its own. But it's Flurry Heart who steals the show, successfully treading the line between adorable and exasperating for maximum effect, and while the episode moves by quickly, it's never rushed. The show's movement towards a renewed slice-of-life focus continues to be wonderful, and with "A Flurry of Emotions" being as excellent as it is, it ought to be the template for such episodes going forward. Just wonderful.

Entertainment: 10/10
Characters: 9/10
Themes: 9/10
Story: 9/10
Overall: 93/100

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