Episode [3.11] – “Just for Sidekicks”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Look, you don’t wanna be with me. I’d rather not chase you around all over the place when I could be enjoying some jewel cake. Watch me solve both of our problems.”
Spike and Angel butt against one another to see who can be the buttiest butt.
As Owlowiscious watches on, Spike delights in the making of a delicious jewel cake, only to discover all of his jewels are gone! Entirely because he himself ate them without realizing. As he mourns this tasty loss, an opportunity arrives in the form of Fluttershy. The next day, she and the rest of the Mane Six are headed out to the Crystal Empire to help Princess Cadence set up a ceremony for the Equestria Games, and she needs to know if Spike will watch Angel. Neither dragon nor bunny are pleased at this prospect, but Spike instantly warms over when she promises him a jewel. With one ingredient back in his measuring cup, Spike decides to barter his pet-sitting services to the rest of the Manes in exchange for delectable gems. As deals are struck, his services are pledged to Rainbow Dash’s turtle, Tank; Rarity’s cat, Opal; Pinkie Pie’s alligator, Gummy; Applejack’s dog, Winona; and he even wrangles Twilight into throwing Owlowiscious in the mix.
Spike is all set for some baking time, but as soon as the Mane Six are out the door, the pets go haywire and start trashing the place. Spike knocks them all in line… all except one. Looking around, there’s Angel at the door, waving with malicious glee as he zips away. Spike leashes up the other pets and pursues, only to find him at the headquarters of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. As they d’awww over the cute bunny, Spikes sees an opportunity and offers to let the girls watch the pet. Heck, they can have the whole lot! As he heads out the door, the girls, who aren’t naive, say they need supplies, and Spike begrudgingly hands over a jewel. On his way back home with more baking supplies, he checks in on the CMCs and finds the place a complete disaster, the pets and themselves a mess, as pet-sitting seems to be yet another thing none of them will Cutie Mark in.
Spike again leashes up the pets, heading into town, only for them to drag him into constant chaos. Zecora offers to clear his bad mojo for the price of one jewel, but when he hands it over, she gives it away to charity as a lesson in greed. Spike ties all of the pets into a ball and starts rolling them home, until he passes the accusing glare of Granny Smith. Spike parts with another jewel to buy off her silence, but the pets again escape and Angel mischievously hops aboard a train. The prejudiced conductor won’t allow any animals on board (counting the dragon among them) without a pony escort, so Spike once again recruits the CMCs and pays for all their tickets with yet another jewel. With all aboard, it doesn’t take long for Spike to find Angel… just as the train departs for the Crystal Empire.
The CMCs are jazzed at the possibility of seeing the palace of the Crystal Empire, but Spike wants everyone to stay focused and on the train so they can return home safe and sound… even as he has to spend yet another jewel to clean up after the pets’ mess. At the station, they all duck and hide when they see the Mane Six across the way. Except for Angel, who makes a beeline for Fluttershy so as to expose this whole sham. In a fight or flight choice, Spike parts with his last jewel, hurling it to knock over some luggage and bar Angel’s path. Once again obtaining the rabbit, the group gathers and sullenly heads home. Which is when the Mane Six walk onto the train car for their return trip. Spike, the pets, and the CMCs are all silently hiding under the seats, with Angel once again all set to blow the ruse. But when Spike hears Twilight talk about how proud she is of Spike showing some leadership, he quietly pours out an apology to the pets and says he deserves it if they turn him in. Instead of doing so, Angel produces that final jewel. And when Spike’s gurgling belly threatens to still give them away, a single bite is enough to silence it and make everyone happy.
Stepping off the train at the station, the Mane Six are surprised and delighted to see Spike, the pets, and the CMCs waiting there to welcome them back. After saying goodbye to the pets, with whom he’s now forged a genuine bond, Spike returns home, all set to use the remaining half of the final jewel on some delicious cake… only to inadvertently eat the gem just as he’s getting started.
Not to belabor a point (too much), but can I bring up again how much I really, really didn’t like “Spike At Your Service”? I mean, really didn’t like it. The fact that we have this episode so soon after it just stuns me that they felt the earlier episode even needed to be included, especially in a truncated season where we didn’t really need two separate Spike plots. Was it just the result of the scripts being a bit rushed in general? I know things were enough out of sorts that there’s no less than three numbers for this episode as to where it fits in the season. In a decade or two, I look forward to reading the tell-all book that lets us know what all was really going down with Season 3.
All that aside, this is a magnificent episode. At it’s heart, we finally have a Spike who feels like Spike again as his fumbling comes not so much from being clumsy or over-enthusiastic, as it does him being a bit of a conniver who keeps plotting his way into holes, then digging himself deeper and deeper. Here, instead of a made-up fascination with a “dragon’s code”, he’s almost unwittingly falling victim to dragon greed, to the point where it doesn’t even sink in even after it’s directly pointed out by Zecora. Jewels are just too taste of a treat to resist, so he concocts means through which he can build his own mini horde. Yes, it’s to bake a cake, but look how he subconsciously resists parting with the jewels once he’s gathered more than one. I don’t even think Spike realizes half the time that he spends the entire episode walking around with a full-size measuring bowl. He doesn’t tuck the jewels away somewhere, doesn’t get a purse or anything to put them in, he just keeps clutching that bowl in his tail wherever he goes.
The lesson of this episode is a great one, that he can’t just use people to get the things he wants, and that doing so will just start pulling everyone else down with him. Even though they all enjoy the trip, he’s essentially kidnapped three children and set a horde of animals loose upon the world. I love that the lesson isn’t even that he has to part with his wealth. He starts doing that as a way to make thrust his responsibility on others, then it shifts into him trying to cover his escalatingly convoluted tracks. No, in the end it all comes down to owning up to having done something wrong and being willing to face the consequences. It’s only then that his fate is altered by an Angel and he’s able to enjoy that he now gets to hang out with a batch of amazing pets and three cool kids.
While Spike is definitely the spine which anchors the story, this is a case of Season 3 weaving in multiple layers of stuff going on without it feeling too crowded or disparately under-developed. We get to see the sidekicks/pets again, which is always a treat. Yeah, Angel and Opal are butts (surprised Opal didn’t team up a bit with the bunny), but everyone else is a delight. Winona is a loyal and eager dog, always quick to help in a pinch. Owlowiscious seems content just quietly floating along and seeing how this all plays out for Spike (I love that he still thinks she’s always questioning him). Gummy adorably fails to bite things. My favorite is Tank, cheerily floating along on his beanie propeller. I love a bit where he’s flipped over onto the propeller, and his entire body just starts spinning. There’s no real arcs for any of them aside from Angel finally realizing when it’s time to stop being the devil, but all the shenanigans built around them are a delight.
And then we get the Cutie Mark Crusaders, continuing to fail towards their goals as they don’t succeed in getting their critter-sitting marks, and are thankfully interrupted before they can jump off a bridge for as they go for skydiving brands. I love that they know right up front that Spike is pulling one over on them, but go along with it because A) it’s fun, B) they get an industrial pet hair dryer out of it. I love how they keep playing along as they go off on an adventure, even as they don’t get to see the Crystal Empire palace like they’d hope. Hey look, Crystal Empire cameo! It didn’t take long to get them set up on the transit system.
And speaking of cameos, we get so many here. Zecora has a nice beat where, as mentioned, she calls out Spike’s problem at a time when he’s still unwilling to listen. Granny Smith seems to have a bit of a cunning scoundrel in her as she happily accepts a payoff to turn a blind eye. I’m sure there’s others my co-writers will notice.
What blows me away is that everyone is crammed into this story, and yet they all feel perfectly in character and everyone gets a little zinger or two to be them. On top of everyone mentioned above, all of the Mane Six get their own little bits instead of just one or two having lines while the others stand silently in the background or linger off screen. This is an excellent example of how you can pack an entire ensemble into just 20 minutes, and make all of them fit in the story without making it feel crowded or scattered. This is only Corey Powell’s second episode for the show, and she’s already becoming one of my favorites among the writers.
And even after all of this, I love that Spike, while he’s learned and grown a bit, still doesn’t get fully absolved of consequences as he’s still stuck with that nasty habit of eating all his jewels even before he realizes he’s done so, leaving that cake unbaked and his one prize from the adventure already rolling down his throat.
Sorry to everyone for how long this writeup has taken. My overall free time has been reduced to less than a dozen hours a week, and the Ponies have been one of the casualties. The other big one is World of Warcraft; my poor druid has a full garrison cache and an empty mailbox. I’m starting to see why parents favor casual games.
But we’re here about Spike. And Spike? You have a problem. I’m really proud of him for immediately realizing who was to blame for his missing jewels, but his plan for getting more revolves around manipulating his friends into an arrangement that he has no intention of following through with. Do you want giant stompy dragons, Spike? Because this is how you turn into a giant stompy dragon. I’m pretty sure Zecorah heads that off by reminding Spike about the consequences of his greed and the power of selfless charity, but he’s also super hungry for super expensive gems.
One of my favorite series has a great line, “Doing the right thing starts at the beginning of the day, not after you’ve been caught.” Someday soon, Spike will figure that out. And on that day he will be a truly magnificent little dragon. Between now and then, well, he’ll keep relearning the same lesson.
Winona remains the cutest puppy. Tank is as persistent and stubborn as ever. I love how well Owlicious and Gummy get along. Angel remains a butt. And Opalescence is very consistent in her routine, attitude, response to being touched…
The Cutie Mark Crusaders have clearly earned a Cutie Mark for haggling, getting that giant hair dryer for only a single tiny jewel. I sure wouldn’t go up against them. Especially if they have a goal, but they seem fairly competent even when they’re just goofing around. It’s great how they dive into every task like it’s the only thing in the world.
Where do those gems even come from, anyway? I know that Rarity can find them and pull them out of the ground a wheelbarrowfull at a time, but is that uncommon? Are there Earth Ponies with pickaxe cutie marks digging out caverns full of emeralds? I always love economic worldbuilding. Almost as much as I love character development that persists between episodes.
I got the impression early in the episode that the Mane Six would be in the Crystal Empire for a longer period of time than it takes to turn the train around. I wonder what they were up to there. I ask this unironically, both because I really don’t know and I know that this particular question will be answered fairly soon.
You know what my favorite part of this episode is? It’s the brief shot right at the beginning where, at the end of a great picture montage of Spike raising Peewee (remember that Phoenix he rescued back in Dragon Quest?), we see Spike returning the little guy to his parents. I’m not sure if the decision to write this into the story was predicated on “Yes, Spike saved that poor bird from the dragons, but even still he totally abducted him and that’s not something we ought to encourage in this show” or “Holy horseapples, we completely forgot about that bird from Season 2 so let’s come up with some way to explain him away,” but in any case the execution was brilliant and the end result heartwarming. Love it.
My initial reaction to this episode was to pitch it into the “Spike is a Butt” bin, but Noel’s point that Spike’s actions are likely subconscious and just part of his natural aging process gave me some pause. Yes, his manner of coercing jewels from the Mane Six is a dead ringer of his manner of coercing gifts from others in Secret Of My Excess, but as we learned in that episode, that’s something that all dragons go through as they mature. So while the actions themselves certainly are worthy of the “Butt” label, when taken into context they’re at least understandable. Of course, that the “Terrible Twos” of human development are understandable doesn’t make them any less unbearable, but it seems the residents of Ponyville have come to understand on some level that this is (hopefully!) just a phase and that Spike is actually trying pretty darn hard to resist his genetic predispositions and be more pony-like than dragon-like. Viewed through that lens, his jewel-grobbling antics are actually pretty tolerable.
Speaking of lenses, a quick note on optics: I’ve gotta wonder how many kids (and hopefully not too many adults) who watched this episode immediately went into the kitchen, grabbed a spoon, looked at their reflection from the concave side, and were shocked to see that that, yes, such reflections do indeed come back upside-down. And here we thought the E/I label had been dropped… bah, science always finds a way!
While this is ostensibly a Spike-isode, what I actually enjoyed most was the character development we see in Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, even though they don’t really have much actual bearing on the episode. I’ll start with the latter first because it’s obvious: for the whole tough-gal attitude she tosses around, Rainbow Dash can really be a softie when it comes to certain things. Reading books? Yep. Writing books? Yep. A slow, clumsy, but unbelievably endearing pet? All the yes. The closest we’ve really seen to Dashie showing true affection was with Scoots in Sleepless in Ponyville, but here we see it in spades between her and Tank. Amusing that the one who brings Rainbow Dash out of her shell the most has a shell of his own.
Fluttershy’s development is much more subtle and takes place when she asks Spike to watch Angel for a spell. Her demeanor during the exchange could be easily and understandably misinterpreted as bashfulness and doormat-y, and were this Season 1 then indeed she probably would have turn tail and run the moment Spike said no for the first time. But things have changed for best pony since her humble beginnings, and we are coming right off the heels of Keep Calm and Flutter On, perhaps one of the finest examples of “Fluttershy knowing exactly what she’s doing while looking like she absolutely doesn’t.” Fluttershy had an agenda, knew what she was up against, came prepared, executed her plan perfectly, and trotted off with a full-combo flawless victory. Yes, Rarity may be the resident manipulator extraordinaire that everypony knows, but Fluttershy’s got some freaky knowledge of mind games to go with her freaky knowledge of sewing. Yellow Quiet has come a long way since the series opener, and I absolutely love watching her grow. She makes my heart flutter.
I’ve largely sidestepped talking about the “actual” content of the episode because, frankly, I wasn’t all too excited about it. It was fun to see all the pets together at once and we got a few memorable freezeframes (see: above image), but I dunno, I’m just not all that interested in Spike-isodes. Maybe it’s because whereas each of the Mane Six have grown appreciably over the past three seasons, Spike seems to be pretty much in stasis. As it turns out, that this series contains such dynamic characters who learn and grow over time is one of the major reasons I deeply love this show; Spike not growing alongside his pony family is a real non-starter for me. Normally one associates rapid growth and noticeable change with babies growing into non-baby youngsters, and since Spike is a baby dragon one would assume he, more than anypony else, should be changing. Maybe the non-negligible lifespan difference between dragons and ponies is actually what’s at play here, and the reason we don’t see Spike change is because three episodes’ worth of growing up for a pony is but a mere weekend’s duration in dragon timescales? Who knows.
For this Spike episode, have a classic Spike song: Spike by General Mumble. Definitely an oldie, but definitely a goodie.
What actually makes or breaks a Spike episode? It’s a question that sort of always has floated in the back of my head throughout my experience with the series with the dragon’s episodes typically tending to reside in the lower tier, but as Noel pointed out, with two of them so close together in a relatively short season sort of makes that question stand out all the more for me when we compare the two, with At Your Service kind of being more of a miss than normal and this one kind of avoiding that same fate.
My immediate thought is that it has to do with Spike being the cause of his own problem in this one as opposed to being the problem himself in the last, but then again Secret of My Excess runs with the “Spike IS the problem” idea and manages to succeed fairly well, so it’s not necessarily that. Although, when I really look at the list of Spike-isodes we’ve had up to now, Excess sort of stands out as a weird exception and doesn’t play out like any of the others, so I don’t know how well it works as a comparison.
In any case, I think it is one of the strengths of this episode that the cause, effect, and resolution of the problem are so completely self-contained. Sure, the CMC get roped along into things, but they’re both willing participants and also sort of outside the scope of the problems at the core of the whole thing. Aside from them, the problems in this episode are all Spike’s own fault, the things that go wrong all go wrong in relation to him, and nobody else really gets involved in the resolution of everything. Almost everything remains between him and the pets the second Twilight closes the door and walks into a completely different episode. I think it is in part because of the structure of how this and the next episode are put together, but I really do like how they manage to both isolate the Mane 6 entirely from Spike’s dilemma without actually cutting them out from the episode. They’re there, and we get some great little moments from each of them (Pinkie getting in a one-sided screaming match with her mute alligator over who loves the other more is easily my favorite part of the episode), but they aren’t there to clean up Spike’s mess for him, nor are they present at all to hammer him over the head about the lesson he should be learning throughout the whole thing. They are present towards the end as a means of upping the tension, but ultimately they don’t actually play any part in how things end, and I think that’s part of what makes this one work so well for me.
It’s also kind of fun to get to see all of the pets on screen for so much of this episode, and the contrast of how each one of them can get themselves into trouble. The oblivious and accidental destruction that Gummy and Tank wind up causing is decidedly different from the malicious brattyness of Opal and Angel, with Owlowiscious and Winona more or less behaving themselves but still contributing to the overall handful Spike wound up putting himself in charge of. Angel is unsurprisingly the most willful and expressive of the bunch, but I like that while his chaos is the most intentional of the others, it’s pretty clearly all originating from the point of him missing Fluttershy. He hops the train specifically to get to where she is, and beelines straight for her as soon as she’s within eyeshot. He’s also one out of only two of the pets whose characterization has already been made strong enough for Spike to conceivably be able to bargain with in the end (the other one being Owlowiscious), and the antagonism that has been established in the past between Spike and the bunny makes it that much bigger of a deal that Angel does in fact back down once Spike makes it clear that he completely understands why how he handled things was so wrong.
This is something that’s sort of popped up as a question before now, but this episode has me really wondering just how valuable gems actually are in pony society. I think this may be the first time we’ve really seen them both referred to with any explicit sort of value and used as currency. By appearances, Rarity is being stingy with which of her gems she gives over to Spike (by far the tiniest one of the bunch he gets), yet that dinky little rock apparently was able to fund the CMC enough to acquire an “industrial strength” drier that doesn’t look like the kind of thing they’d be able to acquire cheaply. Does that mean that Rarity wasn’t actually being cheap when she handed that gem off and some property or rareness of it just made it that valuable in comparison to the others, or does that mean that even the smallest gems equate to that much buying power in normal pony life? If it’s the latter, how ridiculously expensive must Rarity’s dresses come out to both for her to manufacture and for others to buy? Yes, I realize I’m using what was very much intended as a quick visual gag to try to extrapolate on this, but it’s still the only real reference point we have for just how valuable the things are.