Episode [2.03] – “Lesson Zero”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Is that everything on the checklist?”
“Great. Now that we’ve completed the checklist of things we need to create a checklist, we can make my checklist of the things I have to get done by the end of the day. Ready?”
“Item One: Create checklist of the things I have to accomplish by the end of the day.”
In which Twilight Sparkle tries to learn something new about friendship by solving a problem, but there are no problems in Ponyville. So she creates a problem to solve, which predictably produces additional problems.
Oh, this episode. Storytime!
Once upon a time, young Weston was taking a pre-calculus math class. The teacher would demonstrate a couple of wrong ways to do something before showing the right way, he did it to prevent us from falling into common pitfalls. Unfortunately, I got stuck doing it the wrong way. First in, first out, I guess. Also I was incredibly stubborn, but that’s something else.
Point is, doing something wrong before you do it right is an incredibly common trope. It’s so common, I can’t even find a trope for it. Probably just Nice Job Breaking It followed by Must Make Amends, but it’s such a frequent pairing that I feel like it should have a specific name.
Twilight Sparkle has a problem. She needs to learn something about friendship every week so she can report on it to Princess Celestia, and takes that to mean that she has to solve one of her friends’ problems. It’s been a quiet week in Ponyville, and everyone is getting along nicely. Rarity is tailoring, Rainbow Dash is demolishing an old barn at Applejack’s request, and Fluttershy is performing chiropractic work on a bear (kinda envious there).
Rather than report that all is well, she generates a problem to solve. A quick charm on one of her old toys makes everyone who sees it want it. Twilight intended to teach a quick lesson about sharing, but it gets out of hand when her Want-It-Need-It spell enthralls the entire town. She can’t dispel the effects, and the situation is spiraling into chaos when Princess Celestia intervenes. She clears everyone up, takes Twilight home to calm her down, and manages her expectations by setting a new guideline. The only person grading Twilight Sparkle on her punctual weekly reports was Twilight Sparkle, and it was a source of great anxiety. Now, that task is both looser in its deadline and shared among all of the Mane 6.
I love how Spike is willing to go straight to Princess Celestia with his worries about Twilight Sparkle’s mental state. He recognized that she needed help and got it. That’s one of the most important things any friend can do.
Twilight Sparkle is so hyperorganized that she accomplishes an entire day worth of work before noon. And that’s with time spent on organizing. All things considered, that’s pretty impressive.
Any episode with Big Macintosh is great in my book. I kinda love him. And he gets away with poor Smartypants in the end, even after the spell is broken. Big guy’s adorable.
Also, Twilight can teleport? Is that new? It would have been really useful in a certain hedge m- wait, Discord. Nevermind.
Twilight teleporting isn’t new (although she wasn’t always particularly good at it), and I have a feeling it was her moreso than Rarity that Discord was worried about when he made magic against the rules of his game, because, yeah, without that bit of fine print, Twilight could pretty easily have made the hedge maze pretty much a non-issue.
Like Party of One did for Pinkie, this episode gives us a look into a lot of Twilight’s flaws and insecurities. Unlike Party of One, most of them are things we’ve pretty actively seen from Twilight before, so it’s not so much breaking new ground as it is digging deeper into the grooves that have already been set, but it still makes for an interesting (if not terribly surprising) character study.
We’ve seen Twilight over-prepare, seen her obsession with organization, as well as seeing her tendency to panic and vastly overthink things especially when her mentor is involved. However, pretty much every time before this, we’ve seen these things from her either as minor side-notes or contributing factors to the larger problem, or in reaction to it. This is the first time where the problem has actually been those anxieties on Twilight’s part. Right off the bat, before even getting to the point where she realizes she’s missing her deadline, we get evidence that she may have full-blown OCD tendencies (which people had always kind of suspected, but we never had any clear examples of it).
Her reaction to realizing she’s in danger of being tardy is interesting (while of course, being completely ridiculous), in that there seems to be some specific trauma related to Magic Kindergarten for her. It could just be the concept of having to regress that far back, although her fixation seems to be more on the kids in the classroom than anything (once she’s fully underway into her meltdown, it’s the laughter of kids that she fixates on and sends her spiraling further downward). We know that she was socially awkward and wary of interacting with other ponies prior to coming to Ponyville, and she went almost directly into apprenticeship with Celestia, but the implication seems to be that there was some schooling she had previous to that, and she likely didn’t have a particularly good time of it.
Something that hit me on this most recent watch-through of this episode is just how self-aware it is. Pretty much all of Twilight’s attempts to find problems to solve poke fun at each of the characters’ common issues (Rarity having drama over her dress making while shoving as much of the scenery into her maw as possible, Rainbow Dash and Applejack fighting, and Fluttershy having fear issues, the only one missing from the equation is Pinkie who Twilight apparently doesn’t consider checking in on). All of them are really goofy and fun, with each of them supplying the fandom with buckets of meme potential (Rarity’s fainting couch, Twilight’s therapist getup, and Fluttershy BREAKING A BEAR’S NECK giving massage therapy to a bear have all been wildly popular gags).
And then, of course, there’s Twilight’s full on breakdown, with enough Nightmare Faces to give the Witch of Rokkenjima pause. Her total sanity slippage in the library is creepy enough, but her interaction with the CMC is downright terrifying. And to make the easy comparison, Pinkie losing her marbles is unsettling, but not particularly dangerous. Twilight arguably has stronger magic than any other unicorn barring the likes of the god-level beings, and so her losing her marbles comes along with rather more severe consequences. Case in point, half the town being ensnared by an obsessive love spell.
Thankfully, Celestia’s already been informed that she may need to toss another student through a mirror, and arrives on the scene in time to undo Twilight’s spell before things get completely out of hand. It’s debatable what level of punishment Twilight was about to get, but her friends intervene and Celestia goes easy on her in return for changing up the status quo a touch, tasking all of them with sending her reports (but only when they have something to report on). This is a change for the better to the framework of the series, since prior to now the reports have meant that Twilight’s needed to be present in every single episode to report on the lesson, even when she didn’t particularly have much to do with the episode or the lesson itself, leaving some episodes with a feeling that she was being shoehorned into the plot. This change frees up the structure so that the focus can really be on any of the Mane 6 (and sometimes not even them). While this does water down Twilight’s main character position a touch (although for the major overall arc of the series she’s still pretty firmly set up front and center), it makes for a better overall formula for the show in general.
As Tessa already mentioned, the level of meta in this episode is wonderfully off the charts. The episode poking fun at itself? Check. Making a possible (if oblique) nod to bronies? Check. Twilight loving structure and order so much that she structures order that will help with the structuring of order later in the day? Yo dawg. Sure, Pinkie gets meta by breaking the fourth wall. But that’s cheating. Twilight goes meta without having to leave the episode.
Speaking of meta-episode stuff, this episode sports a tweaked opening theme! I remember going “WHA?!” the first time I heard that ever-so-slightly-different opening to the opening jingle (openingception?), and to be honest having gone back to hear the original opening for an entire season made me realize how… er, “empty” that one sounded, at least compared to this. That little extra musical augmentation here and there really did wonders to the theme.
Tessa pretty much hit all the major points of Twilight’s breakdown, so I’d like to take a moment and pivot back to a point Weston made about Spike. Yes, he’s thus far been known for being the butt of jokes, being a but in general, and sometimes being the butt of jokes while he’s being a butt (yo dawg, buttception..?). But (HAH!) in this episode, he’s the straight man to Twilight’s insanity (which, by the way, is a neato song by Foozogz; warning, nightmare fuel color inversions). Each of Twilight’s crazed imaginings of what might happen should she be tardy with her weekly missive manifest themselves as physical constructs that Spike systematically wheels, zips, or pops away dismissively: he’s trying to help convince Twilight that it’s really not such a big deal. Of course, the rest of the Mane Six try to convince Twilight that it’s not really such a big deal as well, but by that time it has become a big deal in that Twilight has reached the point whereby love-cursing the entire town seems entirely justifiable.
Well, okay, I guess she didn’t actually intend for things to get as crazy-go-nuts as they did, but that’s like saying you didn’t intend for all the fireworks to go off when you tossed the whole package into the fireplace.
Anyway, not taking friends’ problems seriously is easy to do, especially in a group when everyone agrees it’s all silly, but that’s precisely when things can really take a turn for the worse. We’ve all probably had times in our lives when our friends didn’t recognize our internal struggles and we reacted poorly, either by lashing out at our friends or bottling everything up inside, both avenues of which result in harm. So while Twilight’s friends were all doing exactly what Spike had been doing previously in the episode (“lol chill out Twi”), Spike recognized the situation for what it had become and went to go get help. That takes guts, especially when the one you’re trying to help is a dear friend but you know the “help” is going to be painful as well.
Or, in this case, a goddess whose wrath the world has not yet known.
Seriously, about the only thing cooler than Princess Celestia’s entrance in this episode was Rainbow Dash. Deal with it.
So yes, Spike won enough points this episode to negate some of his butt-ness from previous episodes. He’s still in the hole (terrible pun intended), but it’s a sign that he’s growing too. Overa
Several years ago I had heard from a few circles that this was the best episode to introduce a newcomer to the show. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with that sentiment back then, and after trying it out on a non-brony who had expressed some interest in watching an episode, I still have to place myself in the “not sure if I agree” camp as said non-brony is to this day still a non-brony (not that we must convert everyone we touch, of course, but… but ponies!). The episode shows Twilight at her worst and everypony else at their, er, not necessarily best or worst, but quite atypical. As far as best introductory episodes go, I still prefer Dragonshy or Sonic Rainboom: each focuses on the flaws of one character (who eventually overcomes at least some of those flaws by the end) while the other characters play supporting roles as their normal selves. Well, except for Rarity in Sonic Rainboom, of course, but that’s Rarity for you. Put another way, this episode is certainly full of shock and awe, but it’s only really shocking if you already know that it’s so unexpected. Otherwise it’s just awe… which can either be the beginning of “awesome” or “awedoneyet”, the latter of which is closer to my own experience. YMMV of course. Overall, I enjoyed this episode for what it was, but my personal placement of this episode is going to be lower than the average brony’s (if online polls are to be believed, anyway).
Oh, and was it just me, or did anypony else totally think of the clock from 24 when the sun was “ticking” across the sky? Seriously, I’m surprised YouTube’s not flooded with a thousand PMVs like that!
Since I already made the obligatory Foozogz music reference earlier (seriously, that guy does great work), I thought I’d leave you with two tracks that differ wildly in style but both hinge on that wonderful quality of brony artists: taking completely innocuous and/or irrelevant bits of the show and expanding them into full songs, pictures, fanfics, or what have you. Remember when Twilight was asking Spike if he had any problems he needed a good friend to help solve? Here’s what happens when you take that dialogue and turn it into a glitchy dance tune: Twilight’s New Stockings by TeiThePony. And when Pinkie Pie brought a picnic basket full of balloons? Balloons In My Basket by FraGmenTd. The latter song is super-duper-highly-recommended: Pinkie’s not my favorite pony by far, but it’s songs like this that remind me that sometimes we all need a little Pinkie in our lives.
‹ Episode [2.02] – “The Return of Harmony, Part 2” Episode [2.04] – “Luna Eclipsed” ›
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I’m a little mixed about this episode.
I mostly do like it. It’s really funny and moves along at a good clip, with so many great gags – fainting couch, neck snap, yep & nope, frosting, ticking clock, etc – and it is really well directed. And as someone who suffers from severe anxiety quite often, which has often led me to essentially create the very problems I’m terrified of, it’s nice to see an exploration of that here, and I do like how things spiral out of control and the conclusion it leads to. I didn’t pick up on much of the metacommentary you all mention, though I did get and like the restructuring of the letter sending so that can step out of prominence. Did also like the tweaked opening.
My problem, though, is that it does feel forced, at least at first, and that they were trying way too hard to replicate “Party of One”. I don’t feel it works nearly as well as that one did. There, it was a revelation, we were seeing something we’d never seen before, we understood what had driven Pinkie to such an emotional state, and had tantalizing teases of her past which gave entirely new layers to her as a character. All of that gave meaning to the extremity of her expression. Here, it’s something we’ve seen Twilight do – if not quite as prolonged – the cause is over something quite mundane and nothing is really being done to further fuel it until the second half, and while they do hint at some past event in kindergarten, they leave it so vague as to feel like nothing more than the basic “kids laughed at me” trope. None of it feels natural to me. It feels both too constructed and underthought. Granted, that is kinda how anxiety works but, I don’t know, seeing her at such an extreme just feels like it needed more to get me there.
I do still enjoy the episode for the most part, though. And great post, everyone. 🙂
Interestingly enough, there was an earlier draft of my post for this one that was significantly more critical of it, but halfway through I felt like I was just saying “I don’t like this Party of One did it better” over and over again and was being too harsh on it, so I scrapped it and tried approaching it more neutrally. Which isn’t to say I didn’t/don’t like the episode (I stand by everything my actual post said for this one), just if we’re going to make the comparison to Party of One (and it’s really hard not to), that episode just blows this one out of the water.
So basically I pretty much agree with you, I guess is what I’m saying.