Episode [3.02] – “The Crystal Empire – Part 2”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Twilight, as I understand it, Spike brought Princess Cadance the Crystal Heart because you weren’t sure how quickly you could find a way to escape the tower. You weren’t willing to risk the future of the citizens of the Crystal Empire in an effort to guarantee your own. Far better that I have a student who understands the meaning of self-sacrifice than one who only looks out for her own best interests.”
Cadance’s magic is fading fast and Sombra is forcing his way into the Crystal Empire. Twilight desperately looks for the Crystal Heart while the others try to keep the Crystal Ponies distracted. Can Twilight find the Crystal Heart in time?
Most of what I have to say about this two-parter as a whole will be a repeat of things I said last episode. Where it’s strong is in its individual character moments and its world building. The Mane 5 being tasked with making sure the fair doesn’t go awry results in some really fun moments between them. Some of them are individual bits (Rarity making crafts in a panic is amusing), but the best stuff here is the interactions between pairs of them, brief as a lot of it is. Really the entire fair itself is the group of them interacting together, but it’s mostly portioned out into mini-scenes between pairings that we’ve seen work well in the past – Rarity and AJ, Dashie and AJ, Dashie and Pinkie, Dashie and Fluttershy… (Rainbow Dash actually hogs an awful lot of screentime in this episode, come to think of it)
All of these reactions are pretty brief, since most of the episode is devoted to Twilight’s search, but they’re all pretty fun and give you a bite-sized peek at the dynamics between the characters. Pinkie’s antics can still irritate Rainbow Dash, AJ’s practicality can butt heads with Dashie’s boisterousness but she’s also good at redirecting that energy, and Fluttershy ends up the butt of Rainbow Dash’s ego as despite everything, paintbrush-head is still kind of a butt.
Where this two-parter really flops though, is Sombra, mostly through having a really weak showing overall in both episodes, but it’s most apparent in this one. The guy just really doesn’t… do anything. Yeah, I know, he’s sort of a semi-corporeal blob and I guess the point is that the concept of him is supposed to be what’s intimidating, but he’s just really boring. He has zero personality, and oddly enough despite kind of being omni-present according to the plot he’s kind of more or less absent from these episodes in any real meaningful way. He does next to nothing in the entire opener, and once he finally does break in during the climax, he makes some crystals, scares a handful of ponies, and regains corporeal form just long enough to get blasted back apart again. This is the typical MLP villain complaint, of course, the insta-win removal of the threat, but Sombra might be the only villain to not even really get to do anything worthwhile before said blasting (even the spoilery newcomer I linked to last week at the very least gets enough time to actually do some villainy stuff before getting Friendshipped™).
Where this gets particularly frustrating, however, is the fact that Sombra as a potential character is actually really interesting. Simply from a conceptual standpoint, he’s somepony I already wanted to know more about, and the background info we get on him is fascinating. His former subjects/slaves are traumatized as all holy butts at even the mention of him, but where things really get interesting in inside of his castle. He hid the Crystal Heart super well, as even finding the starting point requires someone being able to use dark magic, and getting the nightmare door unlocked requires the exact opposite. Someone had to be able to use both and then even think to do that, which probably wouldn’t be anyone’s first guess, they’d likely do exactly what Twilight did – assume it took more dark magic to open. And of course, once they did that, their attempt to get into the door was probably over, as that activates the trap and they’re stuck in nightmare land.
Can we talk for a second about how horrifying this thing is? Try to break into where Sombra has the Heart hidden, and you’re stuck in an illusionary world where the worst thing you could possibly imagine plays out in front of you. And you’re trapped there, probably until Sombra or whatever he had for guards come to collect you, or maybe they don’t even bother. Without someone there to break you out of the nightmare, would it ever actually end, or would you be stuck forever in a nightmare state, crushed under the weight of your greatest fears until you waste away?
I want to know about the creature who not only had the capability to do this, but would have thought it up to do in the first place. The fact that this door exists, that it does what it does, and that it’s turned on the way it is (not to mention the final failsafe at the top if on the off chance someone did make it past) means that Sombra had to be incredibly smart, and frighteningly creative in his cruelty. The fact that we don’t get to see that character in action (we barely even get to hear him talk) is the real let down of this opener. Sombra being so lackluster in this opener doesn’t bother me just because he’s boring, it bothers me because there’s clearly so much more to him than what we ever get to see. Effectively three seasons (well, two and a half-ish at this point) have gone by following this episode, and there’s no sign that we’ll ever get any kind of follow up to him or that he’s potentially still around (yeah, there’s that tip of his horn that isn’t completely obliterated, and he potentially could come back, but likely if he does I’d imagine it would be in the comics if at all, which unfortunately are in a weird psudeo-canon space). I feel like he’s a total waste of what could have been an incredibly interesting character.
Aside from that, however, I mostly like this two-parter. On the side of our heroes it wraps up fairly nicely. I really like how Twilight’s test plays out in the end. Yes, Celestia’s insistence that she complete the task alone seemed odd at first, but it was sort of supposed to. The real test was seeing whether she would allow herself to intentionally fail the given test for the sake of ensuring that someone can still save the day, even if that someone isn’t her. She wasn’t willing to allow a disaster to occur in order to attempt to ensure her own success and self-promotion. That’s not particularly surprising, given what we’ve seen from her up to now, but without saying too much about future revelations, it makes sense that Celestia might want to put that to the test given past experiences.
I love that this episode cements Cadance’s place within the series, also. She’s not just an outside ruler who was sent in to lend a hoof, she’s within the lineage of the rightful ruler of the Empire. Her cutie mark being the Crystal Heart and her abilities being directly tied to love and light are intentional. The implication seems to be that she came in part to reclaim the throne with the Empire’s reappearance, and following this episode, this is where she and Shining Armor will be residing. It’s a little odd that she doesn’t share some of the physical characteristics with the Crystal Ponies (her crystal form is as temporary for her as it is for the Mane 6), but that arguably has to do with the fact that she’s probably not a direct descendant of the Crystal Queen (who’s name was Amore, incidentally, although she’s never name dropped in the show itself) and whichever relatives she is descended from would have been living outside of the Empire for quite a few generations, so she’s likely only related to the Crystal Ponies directly by a small amount.
The Success Song is a nice little bookend to its counterpart last episode, even if there’s not much to it. The only really notable part to it is that it’s the first example in the series of Andrea Libman singing for both Pinkie and Fluttershy in the same song (their lines are back to back, even!). While they do still sound similar, by this point she’s gotten quite a bit better at keeping the two distinct in song, as it definitely doesn’t sound like the same character singing both lines.
Finally, this was the single best moment in this (and maybe any) episode :
There isn’t much to King Sombra as a big bad, but I do still like how he’s presented visually, leering like a villainous smoke snake from the crystals he’s almost parasitically latched to, then in his shining armor (not to be confused with Shining Armor) during the big final fight. I wish we’d gotten to know him more, with some form of interaction to get a little deeper into what he’s about, what he’s like, stuff like that. While I do love the bonding moment between Twilight and Spike we get from the Door to Your Worst Nightmare at the bottom of The Pit, that really doesn’t add much to the overall story and is just a pretty blatant plot obstacle. I’d much rather this time had been spent exploring Sombra more, especially since Twilight trusting Spike has a much bigger payoff in his climactic triumph. What I do really like is how Sombra finds whatever ins he can past the force field, using his severed horn to slowly seed and corrupt the city with the cancer of his dark crystals, the way they fester the emotions of the populous, the way our Mane Gang scramble as best they can to lighten the emotions. For a tense ticking clock, it’s a darn good one, and visually impressive to boot.
Visually, the entire episode is gorgeous, and I keep forgetting I’m watching Flash Animation half the time, both due to the ways in which that technology has evolved and the growth of technique from the animators. There’s so many stunning visual moments, like Sombra and his crystals, Twilight unleashing dark magic, the gravity flip spell, the anti-teleport spell, the recharging of the Crystal Heart, pretty much everything involving Cadance, Spike’s fop sweat. This continues the opening and closings of each season rising up to a cinematic level of quality, and I’ll be curious to see if this continues throughout the season or is saved for choice episodes.
I have two problems with this episode. The first is Twilight. Most of us pointed out last week the odd, tonally off angle of her being desperate to pass a test and how that felt a bit unnecessarily grafted onto the first half. Here, it’s not as much of a problem, mostly because Twilight is in the middle of the action and doesn’t have time to linger on things. It’s really only in the last few minutes that this angle resurfaces and deflates things a bit, with Twilight again somber as she has to face Celestia and find out if she’s passed, and everyone else breaking into another song that doesn’t really have anything to do with what the episode’s been about. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why would Celestia choose this event, this big of a thing, to hook on her student as a test? Why is it a “pass/fail” thing when the lives of an entire populace are hanging in the balance? That feels very petty and misguided for a mentor of this type to do. And yes, of course the lesson of “you need to do everything alone” would be “trust in your friends and don’t feel like you need to do everything alone”, but there’s a time and a place, and when a giant, laughing smoke snake is spreading like cancer through an entire city, that might not be the best time and place. It would have made much more sense had Twilight been overly head-strong and confidence, still buzzed from the confrontation with Cheese Legs, to go off to face this threat against orders from Celestia, friends in tow, and learning lessons along the way which Celestia is then supportive of in the end even as she makes another lesson out of it. Why they went with the angle they did honestly just confuses me more than anything.
The other problem is the same old cheek spreader of Rainbow Dash being a massive butt. I was fine with her being overly fierce in her defense of the Crystal Heart because that was in character, that she took a task she was wrong for and executed it in the wrong way, and because Applejack steps in and redirects her. Her setting up a jousting match is a great visual, but why drag Fluttershy into it in the way she did, especially when them both having wings never comes into play? Not only does it prevent Fluttershy from continuing to contribute to the fair plot in her own fashion, but the way Rainbow is beating her around against her will, and backhandedly apologizing with a non-apology by threatening to keep doing the same, it comes off as bullying and inconsiderate to someone who’s supposed to be her friend, and is really kinda humiliating on Fluttershy’s part.
Otherwise, I still really enjoy the episode. The Crystal Ponies flipping their appearance on and off based on what catches their eye. Rarity’s weaving fashion skills and absolute glee at becoming crystalline. Pinkie Pie’s jester getup. Applejack struggling to keep everyone distracted from looking at the fake Heart. The ridiculous dual staircases. The way Twilight brushes off knowing dark magic as something Celestia showed her (if this doesn’t come up again later, that’s one heck of a missed opportunity). Spike’s triumph. Most of all, I really enjoy Shining Armor and Cadance, and this is a good followup to the previous season ender in terms of cementing them as characters. Yeah, we could still use some more Armor/Twilight time to explore that bond of siblings, but he’s every bit as stalwart and dashing as his name suggests, and I love how supportive he is of his wife in a dangerous situation, instead of just trying to shield her from everything. Heck, they’re such a great team that he straight up Fastball Specials her at the end. That’s amazing!
As a two-part opener, this definitely isn’t the best we’ve gotten to this point, but nor is it the worst (season 1, ultimately). It’s not even a bad two-parter, not at all. Yeah, it has the major issue of coming at Twilight from the wrong angle, and but that’s more awkward than ruinous. When it’s squarely focused on the plot of Sombra and the Crystal Empire Fair, it’s great stuff, entertaining, exciting, beautiful to look at, and peppered with all the great character moments we’ve come to expect from this show. It’s a good enough footing for me to start the season on, and I’m excited to see what we’re in store for next week.
Ihave to talk about the last thing first. How wicked is Shining Armor / Princess Cadance’s Fastball Special? It is straight up, hands down, one of the most surprising things I have seen in the show to date.
King Sombra is one of the more disappointing villains I’ve seen. He’s a giant scary amorphous shadow representing fear and anger that can suppress a Unicorn’s magic and throw around some pretty snazzy purple and green effects, but what he does is significantly less interesting than what he did. Everything we learn about him comes from the ponies that he hurt a thousand years ago, and he has three lines: evil laughter, and evil taunt, and lots of yelling when Crystal Princess Cadance and the Crystal Ponies supercharge the Crystal Heart and repel him from the Crystal Empire.
Two big foci this episode: Twilight Sparkle and the Ponies’ Fair. Twilight Sparkle delving deep into the Crystal Palace to uncover the Shadow King’s secrets is really cool. She’s become quite clever in her puzzle-solving, and she’s definitely mega manning. Figuring out how to produce wicked magic from a single demonstration is a superpower. Possessing a spell that can briefly reverse gravity is pretty amazing, too. I don’t think it’s too surprising, given that her cutie mark is literally magic, but she’s demonstrating a level of mastery that may put her on track to equal or surpass Star Swirl the Bearded. Legendary.
The Crystal Fair. Poor Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash remains a butt. Rarity is amazing. Pinkie Pie solves marginally more problems than she causes, as usual. The Crystal Ponies flipping rapidly from bright to dim to bright again as King Sombra and the Ponyville Ponies fight over their hearts is interesting. Crystal Ponies have some neat inherent abilities that I really hope gets some exposition. Including:
Rarity is so pleased.
I‘m sure this isn’t the first time this has happened in the show, and yes it’s completely irrelevant to everything, but I just have to say it: either ponies don’t need to breathe while they are heavily exerting themselves or they have some legendary stamina, because Twilight and Rainbow carry on some rather lengthy discussions at the beginning of this episode while running/flying at full tilt yet their voices remain completely level, even quiet. I know these little equines can pull trains across vast distances without taking a breather, but speaking so calmly under both physical and mental pressure? Whew. I know this is just an artifact of the voice acting, but try as I often do to work such quirkiness into the show I’m just not sure I can do it this time.
I mean… even when this is happening? How could you be so calm when somepony is casting Ultima on your empire?
That she is so adamant in her charge that she alone must save the Crystal Empire is exactly the kind of neuroticism I would expect from Twilight. Princess Celestia established some strict (if seemingly arbitrary) parameters for the “test,” and such boundaries are exactly what nerds live for… they’re the rules! This is the Twilight I know and love: willing to let practicality take second fiddle to fervent adherence. In other words, this is the Twilight I wish we saw more of rather than the emotional flip-flopper that we got last time.
You know what else I like? That Twilight just pulls out dark magic like it’s nothing to blast her way through the throneroom floor. And by “like” I actually mean “find ever so slightly disturbing.” Not only is it, er, creepy, but she saw Princess Celestia do it just once (and for the purposes of a demonstration, no less) and now she’s able to do it herself… and even brush it off as “a little trick.” Maybe she’s the Equestrian version of Peter Petrelli?
In any case, that “little trick” brings Twilight to the real villain of this episode: that door. Like Tessa, I’m struck by how absolutely and horribly sinister this thing is, and how wickedly twisted its creator (ostensibly Sombra) would have to have been.
You know that feeling you get sometimes when you’re dreaming and things start turning south but you can’t seem to convince yourself that you’re actually asleep so you have no choice but to accept the nightmare as real? It can be quite disconcerting and leave you a bit shaken when you do finally wake up. Had there been more time to work with in this episode, I could see a much longer sequence dedicated to expanding on the horror that is “that door” in which not only Twilight but indeed the entire viewing audience is led on for quite some time believing that what they were seeing was in fact reality. The actual execution of the scene makes it pretty obvious to the viewer that this is just some grand hallucination, but with a little more time to change the pacing a bit I’d bet that disconcerting feeling could arise even in the viewers. Yeah, maybe a little inappropriate for the intended demographic, but a guy can dream, right?
I did like that Spike came to help Twilight to break free from “that door’s” grip, all without lifting a claw. If anything, it let us put that horror behind us and get to… an ITG2 reference..? To any readers out there also happen to play In the Groove 2: did anyone else totally think of the song “High” when Twilight looked up at that neverending staircase? Or am I the only one? Anyone? Bueller?
The final showdown at the end of the episode was actually pretty awesome, but the execution left a bit to be desired. I know the focus is supposed to be on the friendship, but amping up the suspense and music and drama during those scenes could have made the climax that much more satisfying. And Sombra… poor Sombra. Like Tessa said last time, what a waste of villain potential. The silver lining here is that he got a pretty wicked-awesome revisit in the “Fiendship is Magic” branch of the official MLP comics (his was the best of the bunch, I say).
Okay, I’m not going to lie: Cadance has never been my favorite Princess, but seeing her like this does kick up her “awesome” factor in my books a notch or two. Whereas Celestia looks good when she’s being majestic and Luna looks good when she’s being mysterious, Cadance looks good when she’s being feisty. We don’t see a whole lot of feisty Cadance, but when we do, look out.
As is to be more or less expected anymore the finale felt a bit rushed toward the end, but I did like the slight turn of events and how Celestia commended Twilight for understanding the importance of self-sacrifice. That’s some next-level friendship training, wouldn’t you say? The reprise to the Failure Song (now the Success Song!) was a nice bookend to the episode as well, though I still maintain the song as a whole was entirely out of place and, like King
Sombrero Sombra, some seriously wasted potential. But hey, everything’s going to be fine!
Oh, and did you notice Berry Punch’s inexplicable appearance? Keep an eye out for her in future episodes as well. 😉
For this episode’s song, I’d like to recommend Cadence [sic] Prime by TIFWhitney from the Academy Of Power album. Listening to this song, I imagine a much more intense and action-packed climax to this episode whereby Cadance fuses with the Crystal Heart, absorbs the power of the Crystal Ponies, and uses all that energy to transform into a titanic fighting machine capable of taking on a full-power King Sombra in an epic showdown of epic proportions. Epic!