Episode [1.09] – “Bridle Gossip”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Well, I heard that Zecora eats hay.”
“Pinkie, I eat hay. You eat hay!”
“Yeah, but I heard it’s the evil way she eats hay.”
This is an episode about prejudice. That’s not bad. That’s a theme that should be explored and that children should be educated about at an early age, making it a necessary topic of a kids series. It’s good to show children they should be welcoming of other cultures, that they shouldn’t instantly brush off something different from their social norm as weird and scary, and in doing so shun or attack others just for living their social norm. That is a great lesson.
This is not how you teach that lesson.
Remember how I was complaining about past episodes where, in order to learn a lesson, a key pony had certain traits cranked up to such an exaggerated degree that it felt like an artifice there just to tell a false, forced story? Here, we don’t get that from one pony, we get it from FIVE PONIES, as they’re all character assassinated into cowering xenophobes huddling in the shadows as they look out at a foreigner, a Zebra (gasp!), and pick apart every single aspect of her persona as something to sneer and shudder at: her look, her clothes, the decor of her house, her actions, the way she talks, her utter outsiderness. There’s such a cloud of undeserved fear of something just for being different that you’d think this was written by H.P. Lovecraft.
Twilight does initially stand up to it. She’s not a townie, she’s from the city and has interacted with other cultures and races. And yet, instead of remaining the voice of reason, she’s torn down alongside the others as paranoid nightmares inflict her mind, and then when the “curses” start happening, her defenses die into increasingly faded whimpers until she ultimately joins in the mob mentality, spying through the window of this Zebra’s home, then crashing through the front door and trashing the house alongside the others.
And Zecora, the Zebra of the tale… okay, so instead of building an original culture around Zebras in this fantasy setting, you’re just going to entirely appropriate black African culture, from the stacked ring jewelry to the tribal masks to stripes designed to mimic ritualistic facepaint and scarring? And on a broader note, the rhyming verse she speaks in. Look, including these elements in other ways – that’s great. This needs to be a richer, more varied world, with ponies of different backgrounds, practices, races, beliefs. But you’re taking a full culture that actually exists in this world and piling the entirety of it on this one individual who’s treated as this other “thing” that’s separate, that’s divided from the norm, that’s so rare in this section of Equestria that it’ll never be considered a part of the day-to-day experience, locking the viewers who identify with this culture on this lone ostracized character instead of someone openly welcome who “belongs”. And then you spend nearly the entirety of your 20 minute running time treating that cultural representation as a terrifying specter that everyone should run and be afraid of, to the point where our one lead character who should know better is entirely won over by that mindset of ignorance and idiocy. And even in the end, when they learn just how big of fools they’ve been, we get a line about how “it doesn’t matter how scary something is on the outside, it’s what’s inside that matters.” No! That’s not the point! The point is that you need to accept that what you’re seeing isn’t scary! It! Is! Not! Scary! You’re just being fearful because of your own inner irrationality and untamed anxiety! Yes, get to know a person, use understanding to get yourself around initial false impressions, but don’t continue to label it as scary.
All of this pretty much killed my attempts to get into the rest of the episode. The curses were amusingly ridiculous – Rainbow has to fly upside-down, Applejack is shrunken, Pinkie has a swollen tongue and can’t talk, and Rarity’s entire coat of hair is turned into seaweed-like strips (really hoping those aren’t meant to be dreads given everything else) – but even that is undercut by Fluttershy being dubbed “Flutter-Guy” due to her deepened voice (which is itself executed in fine deadpan fashion, but still), and Twilight spending half the episode with her horn having been turned into… well, there’s no way to dance around this, so avert your childrens’ eyes: it looks like she has a flaccid penis on her head, just flopping around with gentle slap sounds accompanying every movement. It’s… how did that get past the network. Wow.
There’s other issues, like any magic that isn’t “natural born” being deemed evil or fake, or never exploring the implications of Rainbow having a bridle forcefully jammed over her head by Applejack who then steers her against her will, or Spike making more of a butt of himself than usual. It’s just a very tactless, misguided attempt at bringing up a sensitive issue, and on top of “Applebuck Season”‘s horrific gags built around the genuine side-effects caused by head trauma, has me incredibly wary of any future episodes bearing “written by Amy Keating Rogers” in the credits.
I realize that I see a lot of this series through the lens of my fangirlness as well as (at this point) nostalgia, especially this first season, and as such I have a tendency to be a “glass half full” kind of person when it comes to criticizing the episodes, and generally come down fairly positive even with the more mediocre ones. You might, therefore, be expecting me to rally a gallant defense of this episode and argue that Noel’s coming down too hard on it.
I’m not going to. This is easily one of the biggest bombings of a moral lesson the show has ever done (certainly in this season, and arguably the entire series), and it’s with one of the worst possible lessons that you could ever choose to fail at delivering. What makes it especially disappointing is that the show absolutely can deal with sensitive and mature lessons and handle them well, so the fact that this one fumbles so hard is just embarrassing. If it wasn’t for this episode being the one in which Zecora is introduced and established as a character, I would actually try to make a case for skipping over it on a watchthrough.
With all of that said, there are still some worthwhile things to take from this episode, but I’m going to save them for last for once, because the episode’s bad points unfortunately outweigh them. As for the bad…
- The Plot: Uncomfortable and problematic as the subject matter could be, if the story was well enough written it might have been able to salvage something. Unfortunately it’s pretty weak and paper-thin, and isn’t subtle about ANYTHING it’s telling. I hate saying it, because I tend to love Amy Keating Rogers episodes (my absolute favorite episode of the series is written by her, and quite a few of her episodes are way high on my list), but she can do so much better than this (and will, two out of her three upcoming episodes this season are ones I think are genuinely some of the best of the series).
- Poison Joke: As a concept it’s fine (although a bit of a wildcard), and the idea of turning the Mane 6’s strongest traits against them is a really great idea. It’s just a really great idea that will be done much, MUCH better multiple times down the road. My biggest issue with it is one of continuity – the implication appears to be that with her horn affected, Twilight’s unable to utilize her magic (she doesn’t use any after the reveal, and the series will show other unicorns similarly unable to use magic when their horns are impaired in other ways). The problem? SHE USES MAGIC TO BRUSH HER HAIR ASIDE SO THE REVEAL CAN HAPPEN. It’s possible the point was never that she was locked out of her magic in the first place, since that’s never stated outright, but the episode fairly conspicuously doesn’t have her use any for most of the episode.
- The Mane 6: There’s a common element among a lot of my least favorite episodes – they’re the ones in which some or all of the main cast are set up as the antagonists. This episode falls into that category (mostly due to the weak plot, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re the ones in the wrong), and we’re seeing at least 5 of them at their absolute worst, almost to the point of being out of character. Rarity is judgemental and shallow and is exactly the kind of stereotype people were worried her character would be when introduced. Applejack is a cowardly ignorant hick rather than the strong, capable, levelheaded country girl she’s clearly capable of being. Pinkie is annoying (you have no idea how painful it is for me to type that) and all too eager to jump on the bandwagon of shunning Zecora. Fluttershy is downplayed to the point of being almost nonexistent in the script and the few things she does have to say aren’t particularly kind. Rainbow Dash is the level of unlikable hotheaded act-without-thinking jerk that she is when not written well. Twilight very nearly escapes this same problem but loses all credibility the second the later half of the episode starts when she out of hand rejects the book Spike offers her without so much as looking at the title long enough to see what it actually is. Spike gets honorable mention just for being a butt in the episode and literally having the book on the page with the answer and not bothering to look at it or draw any attention to it, instead just feeding into the “curse” nonsense and laughing at everyone’s maladies.This is made even more egregious by the fact that we’ve had several episodes prior to this one in which the characters specifically DON’T act like this. What happened to Pinkie’s eagerness to make friends even when they’re something she’s never seen before? Where did the lesson Applejack and Rarity just learned about learning to get along with people who aren’t like you go? The only way I can justify it is to chalk it up to the shuffled nature of the first season and just decide that this takes place before any of those lessons were learned, but I doubt that was the intention and I shouldn’t have to do those kinds of logical backflips to justify how far out of character they’re being.
- Zecora: Right up front – I’m a white girl, and as such not well equipped to talk about race, and therefore not going to dwell on this much, but I can’t do without at least a nod towards the fact that Zecora’s introduction is one that is potentially problematic. Zecora’s culture, attire, and decor are very evocative in where the team pulled from for it, and that’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself (although again, I’m not the right person to actually make that judgement), but the fact that the writing is leaning so hard on “witch doctor” tropes both in her character and in the writing is… well, maybe a better choice could have been used (trivia bits: her name was initially planned to be “Shaman” before Hasbro nixed it and the language she’s speaking when the others spy on her through the window is gibberish intended to sound like Swahili since they didn’t have a proper translator on hand, both of which feel like slightly misguided choices). And, like Noel said, the episode bombs on the moral a second time in Twilight’s letter when she still characterizes Zecora and her culture as “scary”.
- The Moral: I won’t hammer this in too much harder (since it’s been talked about ad naseum already), save to say that fortunately the subject of prejudice and rushing to conclusions about others is one that will be revisited in another season and handled far better (and, interestingly enough, is also written by AKR).
With those out of the way, let’s move on to the things in the episode that are actually really good. They don’t save the episode overall, but they’re still worth going over.
- Applebloom: This is the first episode in which Applebloom gets more than a single line of dialog, and she’s actually written really well in this. With Twilight getting caught holding the idiot ball in the second half of the episode she remains the sole voice of reason in the episode, and acts pretty much like you’d think someone her age would, getting frustrated when the others aren’t listening to her or taking her seriously because she’s a little kid, and doing super reckless things like going into the Everfree Forest alone just to prove that she can because her older sister told her not to. She’s also the only one to actually talk to Zecora before coming to any kinds of conclusions about the situation (spurred on by something Twilight said, admittedly, but that’s also still the point of the episode where Twilight is actually talking sense). It’s also something of a rare episode in which Applebloom is featured prominently where Cutie Marks aren’t even so much as mentioned.
- Zecora: Despite her introductory episode being a bust and her conception being a bit iffy, this is still the episode that gives us Zecora. Fortunately, she’s very much not a one-shot-and-we’re-done kind of character (this episode would be SO much more egregious if this was all she ever featured in), and now that she’s established we’ll be seeing her around here and there, and while she’s not used as often as I wish she would be, with the exception of one or two times she appears she’s important to the plot of the episode, and is pretty well established as a permanent (as of S4) minor character for the rest of the series. She’s voiced by Brenda Crichlow, who does a fantastic job of delivering Zecora’s rhyming dialogue (which had to have been tricky to pull off), and is a generally awesome person (got to meet her at Bronycon 2013 and she was a ton of fun).
- Twilight (kind of): Twilight actually starts out the episode characterized fairly well, but that’s not so much what I’m talking about. We get a little bit of character building with Twi that sticks here, namely the fact that she’s something of a skeptic. On top of that is her tendency to blow off, belittle, and mistrust anything she doesn’t consider to be “real” magic. We’re seeing a little bit of “old” Twilight here, the know-it-all bookworm who trusts her own research and little else, and it’s something that may or may not come up again down the road.
- “Flutterguy”: I’m convinced that this is the main reason why this episode is looked back on fondly. While the other “joked” characters are varying levels of amusing (minus of course the awkwardness of Twilight’s horn), Fluttershy’s was the one people went completely nuts over, and to be completely honest… I can’t say I altogether understand why. Is it just the juxtaposition of demure, quiet Fluttershy having her vocal depth flung to the complete opposite end? It’s not my favorite of the joke effects (that trophy goes to “Apple Teeny”, which always makes me giggle), but it’s definitely the one that resonated the most with the fandom.
- Evil Enchantress: Okay, so this one’s kind of a YMMV thing, but while the song itself isn’t really anything notable (save for how bad it is), what I actually kind of love is the idea that Pinkie has a development process for her ditties, and we’re hearing one that we can probably assume is not anywhere near completion (that she likely pulled the plug on immediately following this episode). This is also the second Pinkie “song” that Andrea Libman voices for.But of course, that’s not the version everyone remembers. Fluttershy’s reprise of it at Pinkie’s begging is just amazing, with Blu Mankuma (who voices Fluttershy while she’s affected by the plant) doing a fantastic beatnik jazzy re-take on Pinkie’s tune.As an interesting extra tidbit, this is to date the only song Pinkie has ever “sung” in a minor key.
- The Everfree Forest: There’s a really interesting bit of world building snuck into this episode that is actually very easy to miss, as we hear from the ponies exactly why it is that the Everfree Forest is so frightening to them : they don’t control it. The things they specifically don’t consider natural include the weather changing on its own, plants growing without ponies to nurture them, and animals existing without being cared for. Which of course, leads to a very interesting question, namely whether or not those things are genuinely odd in this world, or perhaps if ponykind just happens to think that it’s much more important towards making the world work than it actually is, and the idea that it might not need them being what’s so terrifying to them. Of course, nothing in particular has been done with this angle (at least, not yet), and of course my musings kind of do ignore the fact that the other reason the Everfree Forest is something to be wary of is the fact that things like Manticores and Ursa Majors live there, but it’s a neat bit of fanfic bait, if nothing else.
As someone who never really read/watched any episode analysis writeups/videos, my exposure to differing opinions on episodes has been largely limited to the Episode Followups at Equestria Daily, the Bronyville Podcast, and casual conversations at brony meetups. Writing for Deconstruction is Magic has thus provided me with some interesting differences in opinion on particular episodes. Cases in point: last episode, which I panned for being bland and uneventful but Noel and Tessa enjoyed, and this episode, which Noel and Tessa panned for doing a lousy job at fielding a touchy topic but I largely enjoyed. I agree that the pivotal concepts of this episode were fumbled a bit, but I still greatly enjoyed watching everything else that was going on. So since what I disliked about this episode has already been largely hammered home, I’ll instead focus on what made me smile.
Like right off the bat, where Spike says “Rainbow Dash must have gotten up early for once and cleared all the clouds away.” We don’t often see Rainbow Dash doing her duty as weather wrangler of Ponyville… and apparently neither do Spike or Twilight, for that matter! I find the whole profession system of Equestria fascinating (we haven’t gotten to episodes that really go into this yet, but they’re coming), and I keep wanting to poke Rainbow to say, “Come on, lazybutt, you’ve got a job to do just like everypony else!”
I’ve mentioned it once or twice before, but I love the attention to detail that the animation team puts into this show. When the flashlight goes on, first the “camera” is momentarily blinded, then Spike’s and Twilight’s pupils shrink autonomously, then they consciously react to the light. It all happens so fast and is easy to overlook, but that these events happen in the correct order shows the animators (and storyboarders, for that matter) care about making a quality show. A similar “delayed reaction” occurs in Dragonshy when Angel unceremoniously chucks a carrot at poor Fluttershy’s head: she doesn’t flinch instantaneously, but rather there’s a frame or two of non-realization as the “wait, that was a carrot that just hit me” signals zip through her nervous system. Very brief, to be sure, but very much appreciated.
The way the ponies react to Zecora’s does strike me as overblown, but Ponyville isn’t really known for consistently rational reactions to outside visitors (Nightmare Moon, stampeding rabbits, boastful showponies, etc.). As I surmised in Griffon the Brush Off, there’s a non-zero probability that residents may never have seen other sentient species before; that Twilight is the only one of the Mane Six who has ever seen a zebra, it’s not too much of a stretch to presume that much of Ponyville has also never seen a zebra and is therefore wary of such an unfamiliar newcomer (and by “wary” I mean overtly xenophobic, in the strange way that Ponyville residents take expected reactions and warp them into strange shapes). My reading of this reaction is similar to that of Old Man Marley from Home Alone: lack of knowledge gave rise to rumors, and those rumors got warped into horrific tales. To Twilight, the level-headed outsider, these tales sound ludicrous. However, to someone who has been living in that village all her life, such as Applejack (arguably the most level-headed of the bunch outside of Twilight), those rumors and tales are likely all she knows, and when the rest of the town believes the same thing, it’s tough to think otherwise. And perhaps this is one reason why Applebloom is largely unfazed by all this hoohah: she probably hasn’t been around long enough to become “indoctrinated” to the crazy, and fortunately she’s also brave enough to try to get to the bottom of things herself. (Well, unless she was told from day one that outsiders are evil… but judging from her reaction to all this, that doesn’t seem to be the case.)
I was originally planning to type up something about the expanded lore of Everfree Forest that we get in this episode, but Tessa already did a fantastic job at nailing the points I wanted to bring up. My inkling is that since the sun and the moon require powerful alicorn magic to rise and set, then that does lean heavily toward ponies having to take care of things themselves and Everfree really being an aberration. Nevertheless, that ponies may have an inflated sense of self-importance as arbiters of the natural world is a tantalizing bit of storyline fruit just waiting to be picked and bitten into.
If you’re a brony, you know the above face. If you’re not a brony, don’t worry, you will.
And speaking of faces, there are just so many great faces in this episode. Great faces, great one-liners (“Maybe she’s going to them, lurk-free, to do some shopping?”), and great reactions to suddenly being tiny or unable to fly or looking like a wet Fluffle Puff.
The confrontation between the Mane Six and Zecora in the latter’s hut is actually pretty intense, particularly with the above grim warning that Zecora delivers in her (justifiable) rage at a bunch of strangers breaking in and trashing her joint. Obviously things simmer down very quickly after that, but part of me wonders what would happen if said anger were to ever actually boil over and explode. Her wise mentor-like demeanor (which is displayed more prominently in future episodes) places her in the same realm as Rafiki or Master Yoda in my mind, and as such when push comes to a shove I imagine her dishing out the pain in as equally an epic way as those two (a la the linked videos). Not that I think MLP:FiM needs its characters to come to blows more often, but… well, you know, sometimes the magic of friendship involves some tough love!
One of the things I like about MLP:FiM so much is that while the morals are certainly not new for the older viewers like us, and they may sometimes come across as blatantly obvious, silly, or (in the case of this episode) mishandled, they do provide us with an opportunity to reassess whether or not we have been living these morals in our adult lives (or at least as adult as we want to be, anyway). When was the last time you opted not to interact with someone because he or she was different from you in some way? Or when did you pass judgment based on someone’s actions without ever really talking to the person? “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is repeated so many times that we think we don’t do it, but I’d bet dollars to cupcakes that each and every person reading this deconstruction has done it, willfully or not, at least once in the past year, if not the past month. We say we get the moral, but we don’t live it out in our daily lives, at least not as much as we wish we would. And I think that’s okay, so long as we can check ourselves (or have some pastel horses check you) from time to time.
As a curious aside, Equestria Daily recently ran a poll about favorite episodes from the first half of Season 1, and Look Before You Sleep and Bridle Gossip both tied for third place (okay, they were one lousy vote apart). The only two episodes ahead of those were Dragonshy (yay!) and a yet-to-be-deconstructed episode that I won’t spoil for Noel. I find it quite interesting that while the three of us here stand on very different ends of the spectrum on these two episodes, the fandom at large (at least, those who frequent EqD… which is actually probably a pretty sizable portion) ranks them both in equally high regard. Granted, EqD polls aren’t particularly scientific (mention “Luna” and you’re guaranteed a win), but it’s still a neat bit of trivia.
For a parting song, check out Evil Enchantress by Eurobeat Brony. This was one of the first songs to come out of the then-embryonic brony music community, and look at where it is now. It’s classics like this to which my ears owe endless gratitude!