Episode [2.01] – “The Return of Harmony, Part 1”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Stop stalling, Discord! What have you done with the Elements of Harmony?”
“Oh, so boring, Celestia. Really? Fine, I’ll tell you, but I’ll only tell you my way. To retrieve your missing Elements, just make sense of this change of events. Twists and turns are my master plan. Then find the Elements back where you began.“
John De Lancie, fillies and gentlecolts.
Season Two is largely considered by many to be a high point of the series, and this opener is absolutely part of the reason why. It’s a fantastic kick-start back into the series after the hiatus following the initial season.
Of course, it’s impossible to not immediately talk about Discord. The story goes that the Lauren Faust and the writing team wanted to have a Q-like character in the series, and initially mused on the idea of having a sound-alike voice actor play the role to further the effect, and at some point realized that they could actually get John De Lancie himself to play the role outright. What followed was the creation of arguably one of if not the best villain the series has seen to date (up until last year I would have said there was no contest on the matter, but since then a few other contenders have shown up, but really, what’s so wrong with a little competition?).
It’s hard to not draw comparisons to Nightmare Moon, who made for a great villain in concept but faltered slightly in execution, and Discord pulls ahead on just about every front. Where Nightmare Moon was lacking somewhat in personality beyond “generic villain”, Discord’s got personality and charisma in spades. He also pulls off masterfully what Nightmare Moon sort of was trying for and missing, namely being able to indirectly thwart the ponies’ progress while still very much having a presence. With the exception of Fluttershy (and sort of Rainbow Dash but not in the same capacity), Discord doesn’t come at any of the Mane Six directly even after separating them. He’s got a clear plan in place and is very good at executing it. And, fortunately, he’s got something of the opposite of the problem that Nightmare Moon has (will have?) in that as we’ll learn more about him down the road, he’ll get more interesting as opposed to less. Overall, Discord is a big part of why this season opener works so well (and arguably is the best one the series has gotten as of S4).
The episode opens with the Crusaders being unusually antagonistic to each other on a school field trip, which is a little odd, as we never really see them bully each other like that pretty much anywhere else in the series. It’s something of a chicken and egg scene, as the implication almost seems to be that their arguing is part of what helps Discord escape, and yet it easily could be the other way around, that Discord gaining in strength and beginning to make his escape causes what otherwise might just been a minor schism between friends to magnify into an all-out conflict between the three. Or maybe they’re just trying to get cutie marks in arguing again.
Cut to Ponyville, presumably after Discord’s already escaped, where reality’s sort of taking a break now that he’s around. I really like that the symptoms of Discord’s presence become their own mini-problem that the group manages to solve in a super-condensed episode of sorts. It’s a quick reintroduction to the group and their dynamic. On the same token, we can spend such a short amount of time reintroducing them because we’ve had a full season already to get to know them all, and can just hit the ground running with the story.
The group gets called to Canterlot by Celestia, who gives them the rundown of who Discord is and why he’s back. It’s a nice touch that the reason he’s escaped is the fact that Celestia and Luna aren’t connected to the Elements of Harmony anymore, and so the things they accomplished with them are starting to come undone. It puts a bit of actual tangible consequence within the series to Luna’s fall and the Mane Six having taken on the Elements, and this isn’t the last time this concept is going to come up. And of course, Discord is smart enough to make taking away the superweapon that can stop him his top priority, and when Celestia goes to retrieve them for the Six to make use of, they’re already gone, hidden away somewhere by Discord. I really like the initial confrontation between Discord and the others in the castle, where he doesn’t immediately show himself but rather animates his image within the stained glass. It also gives us some banter between him and Celestia, the latter of which is fiercely serious about stopping the trickster, which he mostly laughs off, but also involves one of the most bitter-sounding lines the character will ever spout.
Discord’s somewhat cryptic taunts leads Twilight and the others to determine that he must have hidden the Elements within the castle labyrinth, and they set out to retrieve them. As they’re about to enter, Discord finally shows himself directly, and promptly steals their wings and horns and… pretty much leaves Pinkie and Applejack alone, because I guess it sucks to be an earth pony already. He also lays down rules for their conflict. If they can find the Elements without the advantage of flight and magic, then they win and he’ll concede defeat. If, on the other hand, any one of them gives up and leaves the game, then he wins, and Equestria is his to rule again. Even without magic or wings, the group is determined to take all the things they’ve learned together and put them to use in order to triumph, and set foot into the maze… only for Discord to immediately separate them all from each other.
From there, things quickly begin to fall apart, as Discord singles out each one in turn, tricking most of them into doubting the strength of their friendship, and with the help of a bit of magic, basically inverting most of their personalities. That said, while this is vaguely within the realm of headcanon, in my opinion he’s not outright turning them into something they aren’t so much as he’s pulling forward things that were already there within them, but that either weren’t dominant traits or that they made efforts to keep in check before. Applejack, for example, is a terrible liar, and Discord doesn’t change that. She’s still awful at lying, but now she’s a compulsive liar in the fear of what she thinks the truth is coming to pass and hurting her friends (Applejack prior to now has also not been entirely opposed to lying to her friends when she feels she needs too, she’s just really bad at doing it). Pinkie’s altered version and her doubts about whether her friends like and accept her and aren’t actually just laughing at her looks awfully familiar. Fluttershy, for all of her timidness and tendency towards kindness, has let a bit of frustrated sarcasm come forward in the past and definitely has some anger management issues that tend to be bottled up. Rarity has shown in the past and will continue to show in the future that material desires and a generous nature are not mutually exclusive traits. And the split in loyalty between where Rainbow Dash came from (and what she wants to become) and where she is now with her friends is something that she’s struggled with before and continues to struggle with. Discord isn’t turning the Six into things that they aren’t at their core, he’s simply turning them into versions of themselves where those weaknesses are their dominant traits.
And of course, by the time Twilight’s managed to catch up with all of them, it’s too late. Discord’s gotten to all of them, and the determination to prevail as a group has fizzled out pretty much entirely as the altered versions of her friends start to bicker pretty much immediately. Even worse, Discord tricks Rainbow Dash into breaking the rules of the game, taking her wings back and leaving the labyrinth as she chooses her hometown over her friends. The game’s over. Discord wins.
One final piece of headcanon from me… the scene in the pond that Discord shows Applejack was tweaked, but not outright manufactured. That was a real scene from the future that will come to pass, dressed up to look like it was happening within the labyrinth. He just pulled it from the future of a different world.
When I began watching Season 2, I was still going full steam on my episode binges through Season 1 and up to the point in Season 2 where I had first climbed aboard the pony train (episode 7, still a long ways off). So to me, the hiatus between the end of Season 1 and this episode was really no different than the end of any other episode and the beginning of the next. For those who had started back in Season 1, however, the story was much different: nopony really knew whether this crazy fandom that had sprung up around the show would survive the pony-less summer (or, at least, that’s what I hear anyway), and the months of no new pony was nail-bitingly long. As we know now, of course, the fandom did survive, and for those who weathered the storm, Season 2 was a much-welcome breath of fresh pony-scented air.
For me, though, the fact that I didn’t experience this drought followed by the huge shock of “HOLY CRAP IT’S Q” kind of skewed my impression of the episode toward the “Eh, another ho-hum grand adventure story” realm. That, and given my general ambivalence and occasional mild distaste of MLP:FiM‘s execution of adventure episodes that I’ve described in deconstructions past, it should come as little surprise that I’m, er, generally ambivalent about the episode. Too much going on at too quick a pace, no time to really take a breath and take in the surroundings, just too much chaos in general.
Exactly how Discord likes it, no? 😛
All that said, I do like the introduction of new Equestrian lore with Cheerilee’s description of Discord in the Canterlot gardens and Celestia’s further elucidation later on. That said, one thing I found a little puzzling is that somepony as well-read and knowledgeable as Twilight would be hearing about such a terrifying historical figure as Discord for the first time in this episode (especially since last season she had been so keen on reading up on another certain terrifying historical figure). Everypony else I can understand: if your profession doesn’t involve digging through old books, conducting research all day and night, and being Princess Celestia’s protégé, then not being aware of some major historical events is at least forgivable. I fully admit to not knowing very much about history; it’s not really my thing, and besides, that’s why we have folks like Twilight for which it is their thing. Which is precisely why it’s puzzling that she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what is going on. I think Twilight’s character could have been enhanced a bit by her seeing these signs and recalling something about Discord or at least that they might portend the return of some ancient beast of chaos, rather than having to be summoned to Canterlot to be told more or less what she probably should have already known.
But enough about Discord’s introduction. Let’s talk chaos. This guy’s a racket. While I’ve never been too warm to trickster-type villains, over time Discord has grown on me quite a bit. I know by this point all we know of him is that he’s a crazy madman bent on plunging Equestria into eternal chaos, and were things to stay that way then he could certainly be seen as shallow as some other villains we’ve seen (and one in particular we’ve yet to see). But Discord has some complex stuff going on with him, as well as enough power to straight-up bypass some of Princess Celestia’s most powerful magic (I could totally see him conjure up this alternate scene of Celestia opening her vault just to mess with her).
One thing I thought was smart (if perhaps slightly inelegant) was the dusting of reminders of who the Mane Six were throughout the episode: their actions during the initial chaos storm, Discord’s recital of their elements while taunting them from the windows, the association of the garden maze trials with their Cutie Marks. For those who had followed the series intently from the beginning, such reminders probably seemed unnecessary and forced; however, for those who were just getting introduced to the show (undoubtedly a larger number than for Season 1, what with what I’m sure were countless refrains of “Dude, come watch the season opener of this great show with me, you’re going to be all WTF at first but trust me you’re going to like it!”) they helped to emphasize the relevance of their characters and that they all had very distinct personalities, lifestyles, and values. Trying to once again force six separate character mini-stories in a scant 22-minutes and still have room for some kind of exposition does result in a cramped episode, but as someone who enjoys these characters so much I’m glad the writers took a moment to introduce them a bit to the newcomers and re-introduce them to those who braved the ponyless summer between Season 1 and Season 2.
And, of course, remind us all who is best pony. :3
So yes, lot of mixed feelings about this episode. It plays very much like Season 1 opener but with some slightly different storytelling: a brief history lesson followed by a world-shaking quest that involves each of the Mane Six having to represent her inner element. The twist here is that each ultimately succumbs to her element’s antithesis (or, as per Tessa’s intriguing suggestion, has her inner negative attributes brought to the forefront), which would make for a really gripping tale were it not told so darn quickly. That said, it does help set a rather difficult-looking stage for the second episode: the Elements are missing, the heroes are all turning on each other (or lying horribly about it), and the forecast is calling for
chocolate rain a big ol’ storm of CHAOS!
Rather than take the obvious pick for this episode’s parting song, I’m going to recommend something a little different: Set in Stone by BlackGryph0n & Baasik. Rather than focusing on his chaotic reign, this song instead peers inward at Discord while he is in his stony prison. Kinda makes you feel sorry for the guy in a way.
Apologies if this winds up brief, my toddler switched from a crib to a bed this week, and he is exercising his newfound freedom by not going to bed on time and getting up in the middle of the night. Waking up to the sound of a child falling off the couch is not something I recommend for anyone.
Hello, all! I’m Weston, taking over for Noel as the new person to the series. Tessa got me into this all the way back in Season 1, and I regret not keeping up with it. Now that four seasons are on Netflix and I have a toddler in need of constant amusement, I have no excuse. He’s actually a big part of the reason I’m doing this. I want very, very much for him to grow up with a positive image of women represented in media, and My Little Pony is about as good as it gets.
I completely appreciate how the episode reintroduces all of the characters. It’s very rapid between reactions to the initial weirdness, the Elements of Harmony and their avatars, and the pony’s individual corruption in the hedge maze. It’s densely packed, and the conversation between Celestia and Discord does an effective job as exposition fairy.
Discord is totally Q. No two ways around that. Zipping around in flashes of light, behaving as a trickster god, setting up a game with arbitrary rules that he can’t lose. And, when Fluttershy beats his illusion, he just cheats. I wonder if he’ll actually acknowledge a loss, if and when the ponies beat him.
Tessa nails the depowering thing as they enter the maze. Poor earth ponies have nothing to lose.
I wonder how many of the other statues in that garden are Princess Celestia’s ancient enemies? And I want to know if there was a connection between the Crusaders’ fighting and Discord’s escape.