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Synopsis:

Following the defeat of Tirek and the appearance of the Castle of Friendship, Princess Twilight Sparkle and the girls are wondering if the castle has a greater purpose for them. They soon find out when all of them are seated on their thrones their Cutie Marks unite to unearth a map of all of Equestria, with emblems of their marks hovering over one remote corner. Deciding that it wants them to go there, Twilight leads the girls out and finds a remote commune where everypony has the exact same black equal sign Cutie Mark. The community is headed by a unicorn named Starlight Glimmer who preaches a dogmatic philosophy that special talents only lead to differences that eventually ruin friendships, and that the only way to have true friendship is through perfect equality and sameness. Hence, every pony in town is exactly the same in every regard so that no one has any special talents at all. The girls soon realize something is wrong; as no special talents means everypony has the same poor standard of living, yet they’re constantly smiling and acting happy. Not only that, but one stallion named Double Diamond appears to be spying on them. Eventually, three community members, Sugar Belle, Night Glider, and Party Favor, lead them aside and confess their Cutie Marks were removed by a staff in Starlight Glimmer’s possession and are stored in a vault; but while they claim they’re happier as they are now, they express longing to have their own talents back and show fear at the prospect of Starlight Glimmer knowing they told the girls about this. Nevertheless, the girls ask Starlight to show them the vault, but on seeing it she accuses the girls of inspiring too much “free-thinking” and she and the other residents ambush them; allowing her to “unmark” them as well.

The girls are next subjected to sleep deprivation and brainwashing in an attempt to get them to convert to the commune and agree to live there. With no way to escape, they talk Fluttershy into pretending to convert so she can get their Cutie Marks freed. But after she supposedly joins the commune, Starlight demands she tell her which member of the community told her about the vault. Luckily, Party Favor sacrifices himself for Sugar Belle and Night Glider, confessing and getting thrown in with the girls. That night, Fluttershy tries to get the Cutie Marks only to find Starlight had them relocated to her house. More importantly, she spies Starlight accidentally spilling water on herself, revealing she still has her own Cutie Mark and is concealing it behind makeup. The next day, Fluttershy gets a chance to talk with the others and, after doing so, Twilight announces she wants to join the community, but asks if it would be possible for her to have her Cutie Mark back and just move in to the community. When Starlight says it would be totally unacceptable for somepony to retain their Cutie Mark and live there, Fluttershy (with some help from Party Favor) exposes her own mark. On seeing that everypony in town was “equal” except for her, the community turns on Starlight; causing her to reveal her true domineering and hate-filled nature. She tries to escape; taking the Cutie Marks of the Mane Six with her as revenge. The community reclaims their own Cutie Marks, however, and Sugar Belle, Night Glider, Party Favor, and even Double Diamond team up to stop her before she can get away and shatter the jars containing the Cutie Marks; giving them back to the girls. When an enraged Starlight tries to blast the four in revenge, Twilight intervenes and stops the spell just in time. She tries to appeal to Starlight to learn that friendship with others who are different brings out the best that you can be, but she refuses to listen and teleports away. The rest of the community ends up making genuine friendships with each other and staying in town, now changing it into a real village, and the girls realize this is what the map called them there for (to bring real friendship to the community) and join in the block party.

Review:

Well, I was planning on waiting until the DVD release…but Season Six debuts in less than three weeks, so…streaming it online (overpriced I might add; they split it into two volumes) is what I’m stuck with.

Now let’s see…this episode. Well, for starters, on the initial viewing I was a bit underwhelmed at first. By this point, I was expecting something that was more fantasy epic as previous two-parters had been. Something with Nightmare Moon or Discord or the like. Instead, we have something that’s rather low key. Ponyville and, for that matter, most of Equestria doesn’t feature in the bulk of this episode. It’s almost entirely set in a small community that could have easily been in any standard episode, and while there are some new characters they appear to have been only one-shots for the most part. Even with all six girls here, very little happens. And that’s actually rather stunning when you think about it, because this is a two-parter episode that has only one song in it. The rest of it is filled with genuine plot and dialogue. There’s very little magic. There’s no villains plotting to take over Equestria. So, what does that mean? Is this episode “poor” for a season opener?

In my opinion, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I’m not sure if the general, or intended, audience shared my view.

As I mentioned in my overview, the one big change to Season Five that became obvious right off the bat is that the show was starting to “mature”. The thing about big villains like Chrysalis, King Sombra, or Tirek is that, ultimately, they’re rather juvenile. Even if they’re well designed or have charisma, they’re just generic evil. They’re out there to be bad because they’re bad and love power. They want world domination and inflicting pain and stomping on puppies etc., etc. Because those plots were so basic, they often had to be fleshed out with songs just for the sake of having music. Just so there would be something to that episode.

This one, on the other hand, is lower-key, but it’s no less serious. This episode highlights a whole new type of threat. One that’s more intellectual and conceptual rather than a big magic villain. Something that requires more plot and has more of a psychological build to it. And it’s done very well for a kid’s show.

The moment the girls arrive in town, you know something is wrong. Not just from the equal signs but from the “Stepford Smiles”. It would be one thing for a lesser show to rub it in the audience’s face, having the community members constantly sweating or some sort of Gestapo looking over their shoulders continuously. But no, most of them maintain their fake-happy facade for the bulk of the episode, and it’s only through more subtle hints that we find out what’s wrong exactly.

Until now the threats have usually been monsters, chaos, pain, or something very physical and overt. Here, the “victims” aren’t in much danger physically. The pain and injury being inflicted here is all mental. All psychological and emotional. Highlighting that, rather than some giant parasite or demon, the real threat to the well-being of the characters is something that seems innocent and harmless on the outside but is manipulative, cruel, sadistic, controlling, domineering, and, most importantly, masquerading as an agent of good. And that’s how most real-world threats work. Kids don’t have to worry about being assaulted by monsters and dark alicorns. They have to worry about people who worm their way into their hearts, playing off of their weaknesses, taking advantage of their fears and shortcomings, and using them to further their own ends.

As to the actual threat of this episode, well…I’m conservative and I have even more conservative relatives. It goes without saying once I told one about this episode, he declared this was now his favorite children’s show. While some people may argue that this episode was more anti-cult, and there’s definitely that vibe here, it was more anti-socialism. Look no further than some of the lyrics to “In Our Town”. “We dare not compete, winning only breeds the worst ego-filled conceit” “Now everypony wins!” “You can’t have a nightmare if you never dream” “When you think your talent’s special you don’t see eye-to-eye” “There’s just too many differences that lead to disarray”. The whole message of the community was that everything would be broken up if anyone was allowed to excel in any way above anyone else. It wasn’t just a philosophy that everyone should be the same; it was a requirement and even a necessity. As a result, everyone had the same poor housing, the same ugly clothing, the same dull manestyles, and ate the same bad food. This channels what Winston Churchill said was the greatest disadvantage of socialism: “Equal sharing of misery”. And, as a result, the community eventually degenerated into an Orwellian nightmare. Everyone was essentially brainwashed into supporting an ideology that made them prisoners and slaves to the community by being confused into thinking any other lifestyle would be worse. And just like in Animal Farm, the community ended up being a situation where: “All ponies are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Namely, everypony had to be equal except the pony in charge.

And speaking of which, now for the pony-of-the-hour: Starlight Glimmer. I’m going to try my best to confine my review of her to this episode without talking about the season finale, for reasons that will become clear once I hit “The Cutie Re-Mark”.

Starlight Glimmer, to me, is the best villain the show has ever come up with. Even the most charismatic villains until now had some sort of excuse. Maybe they were changelings. Maybe they were spirits of disharmony. Something that made them “a monster”. Starlight doesn’t have any of that. She’s a regular unicorn, seeming completely innocent and normal like everypony else. While it would be revealed in the season finale she’s actually highly advanced and adept at magic, it didn’t come through here. She didn’t seem to stand out any more than the standard unicorn in most respects. No…her power comes from her wordplay, her persuasiveness, her cunning, her ability to dominate others, and her skill at poisoning, twisting, and using other ponies.

Whereas before all other villains were monsters in one way or another, Starlight Glimmer was the first “real monster” the show had. A deranged, cunning sociopath. An individual rather like Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or Dolores Umbridge from “Harry Potter”; a person who seems like an angel of mercy externally but secretly relishes in controlling and dominating others in a sickeningly-saccharine voice. Truly demented and truly sadistic; gleefully torturing the Mane Six while deluding a whole community into thinking she’s doing them a great service. Brainwashing the multitudes into thinking she’s bringing them together when she’s conditioning them to service her.

Starlight Glimmer is sickeningly evil, and that’s what ironically makes her the best villain on the show so far. Someone so dastardly and cruel who hits so close to home, and yet who is so skilled at being dastardly.

The finale would…change more than a little of that, but we will save that for another review.

The transition to a mature plot wasn’t entirely good, however. As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, all episodes are better on the second review. But this episode suffers from a lot of problems of Megan McCarthy episodes. The Mane Six are there…and most of them are irrelevant. It’s even worse in this one because Twilight herself is almost sloughed off to the side when the four side characters take center stage. While they have a couple of more-than-decent moments in this episode, none of them really hit out of the park. Pinkie is probably the best, but that only figures. It’s Pinkie. Even when she’s supposedly humorless she still manages to be funny. 😛 Maybe it’s the setting or the dark realism of the plot, but something about this episode seems more lackluster than normal.

I should probably touch on the Cutie Map too. I thought it was a tad forced myself, but I could see its utility. With a plot device that could now send the girls all over Equestria, I had high hopes for future episodes showing all kinds of crazy things and places. I figured the possibilities were endless. I ended up being disappointed for the most part…but that would come later.

Still, as a first foray into what is probably the first real “mature” plot of the entire series, it did well. And as Starlight Glimmer managed to escape at the end, I and others were already assuming we’d see her again for the finale, and we were all eager to see what would come up next. Compared to the Season Four premiere, this was an odd note to start on, but it was also a good one.

Fun Facts:

This episode was originally called “Cutie Markless”, and was advertised as such literally until the morning it premiered.

The opening changed slightly for Season Five. Obviously, the Golden Oak Library is gone and replaced with the Castle of Friendship.

When Spike stomps on the image of the Pie’s rock farm, it’s a nod to Godzilla.

Dragons apparently have foam fingers of their own. 😛 Also, Spike can drink gems. O_o

There are hidden “equal signs” throughout both episodes. One of the more subtle ones is that all houses have a pair of thin vertical windows in front. Probably the cleverest one is that the clock in the “house of pain” is broken and stuck at 11. 😀

“Something is rotten in…whatever the name is of this village we’re in right now!” Although it figures majorly in this episode, and is revisited briefly in the season finale, the name of Starlight Glimmer’s community is never presented.

Starlight Glimmer is voiced by Kelly Sheridan, a veteran voice actor. Her most famous roles include Sango from “Inuyasha” and the voice of Barbie in all of the various straight-to-DVD Barbie movies. The funny part about that is that Barbie is put out by Mattel, a competitor to Hasbro.

The scene where Twilight and Starlight meet is one of the few shots that ever makes it clear Twilight is taller.

“No pony left behind!” is likely a joke in itself; both Starlight Glimmer calling the community to mount up as well as a knockoff of “No Child Left Behind”, an act of US Congress designed to make sure every child was performing at the same level.

Kind of interesting that Rarity addresses Pinkie as “Ms. Pie” at one point. I don’t think she’s ever done that before…

Sugar Belle and Night Glider are voiced, amazingly enough, by Rebecca Shoichet, the same individual who does the voice of Sunset Shimmer and Twilight Sparkle’s singing voice.

When the girls are going down the stairs in the bakery, there’s a picture of an arch from Stonehenge on the wall…because sideways it looks like an equal sign. 😛

This episode expanded the history of Equestria a bit by introducing the “Great Mage Meadowbrooke”. Although she isn’t mentioned again this season, I thought it was a nice touch rather than using Starswirl the Bearded yet again. She’s referred to as an “Eastern Unicorn”, which implies a Chinese kirin. It’d be interesting to see that in Season Six…

Does Applejack get her ability to talk country from her Cutie Mark? O_o

Although way back in “The Return of Harmony” Discord gagged at Twilight Sparkle’s “lesson of friendship”, Starlight Glimmer is the first character to cut her off and tell her to shut up. 🙂

Party Favor shares something of the same power as Pinkie Pie, as he pulls more balloons out of nowhere “off screen”.

During the chase with Starlight, Rainbow and Twilight end up sharing a dialogue which almost seems there just to point out that the Mane Six are still the “real” heroes.

During the block party in the commune, if you listen close, you can hear a Wilhelm Scream in the background.

Another ending where the theme song doesn’t play during it.

Rating:

4 Stars out of 5

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