Episode [3.12] – “Games Ponies Play”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Cadance said the Games Inspector really puts folks through the wringer on her visits. There’s no margin for error here. And this time we need to practice the steps.”
“On a train car?”
“You heard the pony! On your hooves!”
A case of mistaken identity leads to Twilight and her friends pampering the wrong pony in preparation for the Equestria Games. Will this mixup ruin the Crystal Empire’s shot at hosting the Games?
True story: the first time I watched this episode back on its original air date over three years ago (wow, has it been that long already?), I thought there was some sort of error: hadn’t we already seen this opening scene? And wasn’t there other stuff that happened before this part we already saw last week? Obviously the Hub techs at the episode-airing helm have flubbed the controls, because this is… wait, that wasn’t in the last episode, or that. Oh, it’s not a mistake after all! In retrospect, the overlapping scene at the beginning lasted only 30 seconds or so, but that first time around it felt like it went on for so much longer than that. In a tangential kind of way it reminds me of the strange phenomenon by which you seem to perceive the duration of certain events as being much longer than they actually were, though this tends to happen in especially traumatic or memorable situations, say a car crash or a wedding (huh, what a strange pairing of events to use as an example), and this episode didn’t register as being particularly traumatic or memorable on my time-dilation-o-meter.
Oh, and speaking of traumatic situations, we got one this episode…
… that was apparently so traumatic that it knocked poor Fluttershy’s cutie mark straight off her flanks and replaced it with Twilight’s instead. Yes, there have been some pretty amusing animation errors over the years, but this one is made more amusing than it otherwise has any right to be given what happens in a particular upcoming episode. But I digress, as usual. 😛
Cadance’s “Princess Sigh” (for lack of a better term, though I’m sure there is one) is an excellent bit of character building. And what a useful thing to teach the ever-neurotic Twilight to boot! Instead of freaking out, just chill out. Such words are never actually spoken about this tactic, but the message is quite unambiguously clear and is something the adult audience can probably very quickly relate to in their own increasingly-hectic lives. Twilight falls back on it several times to great effect after it’s introduced early on in the episode, but by the end she’s frantically trying to “get it to work.” I can’t help but draw a parallel here with caffeine: when used as an occasional focus-booster it’s a great tool, but use it constantly and it effectively becomes required to get anything else done, thereby all but negating its usefulness as the aforementioned focus-booster. True enough, by the end of the episode when it’s apparent she was welcoming the wrong pony to the Crystal Empire, she’s doing the Princess Sigh equivalent of chugging an entire pot of coffee because the usual cup o’ Joe isn’t doing the job anymore. Of course dependence usually takes longer than a day to take hold, but the idea is the same: it’s a tool than can help you, but rely on it too much and you’re just going to wind up with a headache.
Today’s parallels between the Princess Sigh and caffeine are brought to you by my own recent experience of not drinking any coffee during an out-of-town trip for a 2-day 10k/5k/half-marathon race series and waking up with a splitting caffeine-withdrawal headache. Running 13 miles when your brain feels like it’s a marble clanking around in a mason jar sucks.
Keeping Rarity separated from the rest of the Mane Six this episode was a great move: not only does it relieve some of the awkwardness/clunkiness that always tends to occur when trying to write scenes involving everypony, but it makes perfect thematic sense. It also makes her lines of desperation in her few on-screen appearances absolutely top-notch; Tabitha St. Germain never ceases to amaze.
Anyway, it is nice that Rainbow’s wish to win the nomination for the Equestria Games wound up coming full-circle in the end, if in a slightly different way than she may have imagined all those years ago in Cloudsdale. It’s also nice that she kept to her character in delivering the episode’s moral by adding “…almost” to her statement; would have been rather un-Rainbow otherwise!
Unable to find any notable fan-made content about this particular episode, I’ll instead leave you with something else the fans are good at: filling YouTube with memorable snippets of pretty much every MLP:FiM episode. And this time, it’s Pinkie being Pinkie.
This episode (specifically in relation to the previous one) is the reason we decided to go with the original aired order for the episodes as opposed to the production order. I’m totally in love with the concept of the two taking place simultaneously from different perspectives. While it’s not utilized for the episode in its entirety (the scenes at the beginning and end are the only two that are shared with the other one), it’s still a neat idea and I’m really fond of it.
I’m also, overall, pretty fond of this episode. It’s fun getting to revisit the Crystal Empire again, and while the comedy of errors type plot has been accused of being a bit cliche, I think it’s done fairly well here and a lot of the humorous bits hit for me. Yes, it does require the mane 6 to repeatedly fail their insight checks, but to be fair it is largely Rainbow Dash at the steering wheel for the most part here. Her eagerness to see the Crystal Empire get the nomination for the Equestria Games causes her to massively overcompensate, which in turn convinces her to shrug off any oddness of not!Harshwinny’s actions as her trying to trick them into revealing that they’re unprepared and therefore lose their shot to be the host. Adding to that the fact that Rarity and Twilight (the one being the most socially aware and the other being the most methodical in preparation) are almost entirely removed from the equation, and the whole thing isn’t all that hard to swallow. Any disbelief I still have can be suspended to just enjoy the zaniness the premise brings along.
Speaking of Rainbow Dash, this episode also finally gives us our first glimpse of other members of her family, with her perched adorably on top of her father’s head during the flashback sequence, which at this point leaves Fluttershy as the only member of the main cast whose family members we haven’t seen yet.
Unfortunately, where the episode does kind of stumble is in its resolution, which… kind of doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The real Harshwhinny complains that she doesn’t ever get to see a genuine side to the places she visits, and coupled with the fact that her actual experience in the Crystal Empire (at least leading up to her visit to the spa) isn’t particularly great would seem to really stack the deck against the team… and yet she’s won over by the accolades of the tourist who accidentally got the treatment meant for her, deciding that it makes it the first genuine case for a host city that she’s ever received. The problem is she comes to this conclusion after it’s made clear right in front of her that Peachbottom’s experience was the kind of rehearsed and manufactured one that she typically would have gotten, which makes the entire thing a bit confusing. Either Harshwhinny changed her standards on a whim for no discernible reason or the whole thing comes off as her being tricked into giving them the games (which if it’s the latter, it doesn’t make her look particularly bright), neither of which really feel like a satisfying end to the episode at all.
According to the staff after the fact, this was something they wound up missing in the writing phase due to the schedule being a bit too tight, although I’m not exactly sure with the structure of the episode exactly how they would have written around it properly had they caught it. Maybe Harshwhinny could have run into some ordinary citizens of the Empire who notice her struggling and through their help she gets a genuine look at the place that impresses her, which might have also made for a clearer moral (which is also more than a bit jumbled in this episode, not that every episode needs a clear lesson but as it stands this episode doesn’t particularly have anything that can really be pinned down), as all of the Mane 6’s worrying and micro-managed presentation would have ultimately been unnecessary with the location and hospitality of a place that literally radiates love and harmony being able to speak for itself?
Nonsensical ending aside, however, I do still find this episode fun, and it gives us both a neat tie-in to the previous episode as well as sewing the seeds for events to come.
I really don’t get those who criticize this episode for being cliched. Not only are cliches allowed (genuine criticism should be about how they’re used, not their mere presence), but this is entertainment primarily aimed at a young audience. Sorry, Bronies, it is. Kids cartoons have an even greater freedom to play on set story molds because the kids watching have likely not seen those earlier works. Yes, this is largely lifted from a Fawlty Towers episode. Find me an 8-year-old who’s watched Fawlty Towers. It works here because this could easily be a child’s introduction to this formula of storytelling, and as a parent pipes in, “Oh, hey, that reminds me of this other thing I watched,” it can lead to them introducing it to the kid (or setting it aside for the appropriate age), thus leading to a parent/child bonding experience. So yay cliches!
I really dig this episode. There isn’t much depth to it, nor does it have much to say in terms of a broader ethics lesson, but it’s just a really fun comedy that lets us revisit a cool setting from the season premiere while having fun with our cast. The closest to an actual arc we get is Rainbow Dash, as, while still overly eager at times, she’s gotten so far out of the butt she was earlier stuck in that she’s actually become noble in her dedication to getting the Equestrian Games hosted in the Crystal Empire (which still isn’t an actual empire by the way). The Rainbow Butt of previous episodes, she’d probably be playing counter to the group because she’d still want the glory of the games to go to Cloudsdale as that would truly vindicate her sense of loss from back in the day. No, she’s grown to the point where she realizes Crystalpire needs it more. This kingdom is still recovering from a very traumatic experience which kept it walled off from the neighboring world for a long stretch of time. Imagine how important these games would be to them, to spreading word about who they are and how well they’re doing after what they’ve been through, how it’ll boost their tourism and trade. Ponyville doesn’t need the games. Cloudsdale doesn’t need the games. Crystalpire does. That Dashie can redirect her energies so significantly to something she isn’t personally attached to says a lot about how far she’s come.
And I like that instead of having either her or Twilight be the main driving force, the two are almost running the show together. While Dashie is pure gusto, Twilight’s trying her darndest to maintain order and calm, and I love the breathing technique the others have mentioned above. Instead of the two being at odds, I like how they kind of revolve around each other like twin suns, nudging the other when needed, but also letting the strengths of the other shine. And when that breathing technique goes wrong, it’s never over a conflict between them, but over the situation itself falling apart. We’ve discussed in the past the pros and cons of the Mane Six being written as at odds with one another, and I like that while there are some arguments and exasperation, none of it has the feel of nasty sniping, but rather exudes from the frustration of the situation, and they still work through it together. I had some issues with his earlier episodes, but Dave Polsky is a genuine talent, and I do look forward to what’s still coming from him.
While Rarity also gets her gloriously melodramatic thread as she struggles to make a headdress, then remake it after she does it wrong, then dear lord why is everything going the way it is just let the madness end… I do feel like the other half of the Mane Six fall into the background a bit this episode. Not Pinkie, who steals the spotlight with her dramatic declarations and lolling “I don’t know what else to do” faces, but she doesn’t actually contribute much of anything to the plot. Applejack gets some good lines, but similarly doesn’t steer us anywhere. And Fluttershy is just kinda there. It’s not bad, and time was limited, but it is a case where, in using all of the Mane Six, they kinda forget to use all of the Mane Six.
I agree with Tessa that the resolution of the plot comes out of nowhere and doesn’t make a lick of sense. While I love the Jame Bond-named Ms. Peachbottom for being a bit more richly developed as a character than she needed to be for her role, mostly in the form of the vertigo and claustrophobia she experiences while touring the castle and her desperation to escape it while still putting on a happy face for everyone’s benefit, I wish time had been more evenly divided between her and Ms. Harshwinny. All that Harshwinny sees of the town are the streets she drags her luggage across, and the glitter of the puddles that are splashed in her face. There needed to be something, some glimpse she gets of the people, the town, that catches her eye and steals her heart to truly make her believe she’s found the right place for the games. Honestly, you could have broken Fluttershy and Applejack from the main plot and had them bump into her, and just bonding over something, they show her some sights, take her to lunch, just chum up with a new friend they don’t realize is the very person Rainbow Dash and Twilight desperately think they’re trying to impress. Or something like that to try to kill those two dangling threads with one stone.
Either way, it’s still a great episode. I like that we get to spend some more time with Cadance and Shining Armor, as this episode actually does more to attach me to them as characters than their big two-parter did; Cadance as she maintains her demeanor even through everything done to her mane, Armor keeping his cool as Peachbottom destroys the training track he’s coaching at. I like the background build of the Equestria Games and wonder how they’ll compare to the big reveal of the Grand Galloping Gala. And while I’m usually one to stick with watching shows in production order, I’m very glad the others insisted we cover this episode in the present position. The opening and closing ties were so slight that they could be excised to make these two entirely standalone episodes, but their presence is still enough that the extra layer is fun and charming, and I don’t know how well that would have worked had there been a few episodes in between. Actually, I’d almost rather swap this and “Just for Sidekicks”, as I think the pan down to the pets hiding beneath the seats on the train would work even better as a tease for the reveal of their story than it does as a callback to it. Alas, it is what it is. Either way, I’m still having a blast.