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Synopsis:

Twilight Sparkle is holding a test on how the Tree of Harmony has impacted the history of Equestria, much to the chagrin of the Student Six. They end up retiring to the library for a study session but, while doing so, Cozy Glow stops by and overtly points out how surprising it is that six different creatures, five of which she says don’t have friendship in their nature, were able to become friends. This ends up upsetting the group as all begin to wonder if they really can be friends. While thinking this over, one of the vents in the library is moved aside by a crystalline root. The six follow it to discover a cavern interlaced with the same roots below the school and meet what looks like Twilight only sparkling and ethereal. On hearing that they doubt their ability to make friends, she immediately announces she will subject them to a test that they must pass by morning or remain trapped beneath the school before teleporting them away from each other. Gallus finds himself stuck in an enclosed, collapsing cavern. Yona finds herself surrounded by spiders. Smolder is stuck in a looping cave that keeps leading to a cute tea party. Silverstream goes back to a cavern in front of Mount Eris but faced with the Storm King and his yeti goons. Ocellus finds herself in a changeling hive turned into Queen Chrysalis and unable to change back. Finally, Sandbar is faced by Rainbow Dash and Rarity who tell him to leave his friends behind and help them on a real adventure. Gallus manages to figure out a puzzle to free himself while Smolder ends up agreeing to have a tea party to escape her own cave. The two find the exit and note that, rather than escape as any griffon or dragon would, both decide to stay behind to find the others. Gallus finds Silverstream and admits his own claustrophobia to get her to face her own fear of being conquered and losing her freedom. Smolder finds Ocellus and reluctantly admits she likes doing cute and “silly” things, which in turn convinces Ocellus changelings aren’t innately “bad” and gets her to revert. Yona, meanwhile, faces her own fear of spiders and realizes they’re harmless, and on befriending them they lead her first to her friends and then back to Sandbar. As for Sandbar, on realizing Rainbow Dash and Rarity are telling him to abandon his friends for his own success, he refuses to follow them and says they aren’t worth looking up to–which causes both to vanish just as the rest of the Student Six arrive. On returning to the exit, the phantom Twilight appears again, revealing itself to actually be the Tree of Harmony manifesting in a pony form. It points out how the experience of that night has proven that friendship is in their nature, and it lets them leave. On emerging into the library, the group meets with Cozy Glow again and is ready to report that the roots of the tree have grown below the school, at which point Cozy begs them not too–admitting she said what she did earlier because she felt jealous of the six of them and trying to avoid getting into trouble. As the six are exhausted from that night and Cozy’s sobs tire them out further, they agree. Cozy offers to give Twilight an alternative explanation to get the six an extension on the test, and as the six lie down for a nap she looks over the grating leading to the underground cavern…

Review:

Lots packed into this episode, so let’s get started.

First, as I said earlier, at this point we already knew Cozy Glow was going to end up being a villain, so I have no idea how she would have fooled us. Until this part of the series, she seemed very innocent to me. She even made numerous background appearances in which the most “menacing” thing she had done had been to constantly take notes on a notepad of everything she learned about friendship. She even frequently ended up as disappointed or misfortune-plagued as the other background characters, right down to being forced to wait “hoof-and-hoof” on Cranky Doodle Donkey in “A Matter of Principals”.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure this would have been the first episode where I would have noticed: “Something is off about Cozy…”. Unlike her appearance with the CMCs where she seemed a little off but, in the end, penitent and genuinely sorry, there’s an air of maliciousness about her in this one. Although she does apologize at the end, in this viewing I noted some of the Student Six crooking their eyebrows at her, as if wondering why she’s making such a big deal about the cavern. And although she never flashes a malevolent smile at the end, something definitely seems wrong with how she’s staring at the grating and talking to the others.

Ok, Cozy aside…this is one of the better-written episodes of Season Eight and even the series as a whole to me.

First of all, it had been a while since the writers had tried to juggle six characters at once. Usually when it happens with the Mane Six, one or two end up being the focus while the others are “along for the ride”. Actually giving effective time to all six is a challenge, and this one did it very well.

The basic idea of all six of them facing their worst fears isn’t new to animation, but the show pleasantly surprises by taking an expectation and putting an unexpected spin on it. While both Ocellus and Silverstream have deeper, psychologically-scarring, and “real” fears, Yona and Gallus both have phobias while Sandbar and Smolder both have fears tied to social health–how they’re viewed by others. And I like that because it’s realistic. In anime, for example, everyone would have these big, soul-crushing, existential fears that would threaten to destroy them…but that’s not how the world works. Some people do have huge fears to work through, but for others their worst fear would simply be public speaking or heights. Everyone’s different but, as the show points out, everyone can be different and yet still come together.

Out of the six…Sandbar ended up being the most disappointing to me. His greatest fear was real enough–letting people he looked up to down. But most of the episode he seems to be chasing Rainbow Dash and Rarity down an endless cave, and it takes him the longest to finally put his proverbial (and literal) hoof down. Furthermore, his fear was the only “muddled” one, as it wasn’t clear if Sandbar was actually facing a fear of letting his idols down or if he was choosing his own success over that of his friends, which would have been more of a loyalty lesson.

Yona was next up. Unlike the others, she didn’t seem to learn a “greater lesson” about her connection to the others. She simply conquered her fear of spiders, which we didn’t know about until this episode to begin with. Nevertheless, I like it simply because it shows there didn’t have to be something great and monumental with everyone’s fear.

Gallus had already gotten an episode more-or-less devoted to him in “The Hearth’s Warming Club”, or at least his inner character. Again, like with Yona, a lot of his story was him facing his own fears by himself. Nevertheless, unlike that episode, it shows that Gallus, for all his grouchiness, doesn’t view his friendship with the rest of the Student Six as only self-serving but also is devoted to them as well.

Things start getting more interesting with Silverstream. Her biggest fear isn’t the Storm King so much as, to quote Churchill, fear itself. This season really rammed home the idea that what Silverstream loves and gets the most excited about is simply being on land; having the freedom to do simple things taken for granted like go up stairs and experience plumbing. What the Storm King represented to her is loss of freedom…being forced to live the rest of her life away from all those things because she’s scared of being captured or enslaved. Her proclamation isn’t so much to stand up to the Storm King and his army, because they’ll always be new threats and conquerors that could endanger her and Mount Eris, so much as saying she’ll never let fear keep her from living again.

Ocellus has to deal with the most existential fear of all; the fear not of becoming Chrysalis but rather the fear that, deep down inside, she is a person like Chrysalis. And it’s a fairly good one. The changelings were, after all, generic monsters for most of the series until their abrupt change. Even if they’re embracing a new life and their very nature has adjusted to possibly render them mentally incapable of being as vicious as they used to be, that’s still there. While this is the least-relatable of the fears for the viewing audience, this is the most mature-orientated fear of all: Ocellus knows she was likely bred and hatched for the sole purpose of being a conquering minion of Chrysalis. That’s her reason for existence…her “purpose”. That’s something she likely has to come to terms with all the time as she, like all other changelings, continues to try and find their new identity.

Although her fear wasn’t as big as the others, I liked Smolder most of all, as this episode is where I felt her character really began to grow. Until this point, there were numerous times in the series where she still seemed to be, deep down inside, a brute and a bully. This episode, however, shows the real reason why Smolder out of all the dragons decided to go to the School of Friendship as well…deep down inside, she likes the idea of being cute and fancy and frilly but she’s embarrassed to ruin her image of a tough dragon by showing it off. And I honestly really like that. The trend nowadays is to show that for a woman to be strong and independent she must show she can, basically, “kick butt” all by herself. That she can shed the guise of being fragile and delicate and can administer a beating. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s more rare to see a character like, for example, Ashi on “Samurai Jack”, who can be brutal, ruthless, and a total badass and yet still have a gentle, delicate, innocent, and even cute side. However…what it seems people always seem to ignore is that if a person should be respected for being true to themselves and being who they want to be, then a female character who decides that who they really are and want to be is someone delicate, proper, and “cute” is just as valid as a female who decides to be tough, strong, and butt-kicking. That so long as it’s a representation of who they are and want to be, there’s nothing “wrong” with a person wanting to put on fancy dresses and go to little tea parties. It doesn’t make them or their choices any less valid than the warrior, and it doesn’t ruin a chance for them to still show off a good, strong character.

Finally, this episode established, as hinted at a bit in “The Mean 6”, that the Tree of Harmony is indeed sentient and actually adds an element of spirituality and even religion to the series…the idea of a higher power directing the actions of Equestria. I would have preferred if it had an alternate form rather than just taking that of Twilight Sparkle (I’ve seen some fanart before of what the Tree of Harmony in pony form would look like that was attractive), but it still adds a new layer to the universe.

All in all, a great episode. More of the Student Six showing off a lot of their relationships with one another, a well-written and executed plot, and with lots of nods toward the end of the season. Another great job.

Fun Facts:

The first episode I noticed that, when Yona grins, she has an anime-esque toothy smile.

Note how Ocellus mimics Applejack’s country accent as well when she turns into her.

Another appearance of the Storm King. On the second viewing, I noticed Silverstream instinctively turned into a seapony to hide.

Hearing the “cute Changeling” voice from an “evil” Changeling is a bit of a jolt. 😛

Can yaks…talk to animals (like Fluttershy)?

I really can’t tell if Spindle was real or not…

Rating:

4 Stars out of 5