Monday, December 3, 2012

Episode Talk: S3E5, Magic Duel

Saturday's episode was perhaps the most anticipated of the season, assuming that we grant that "anticipated" covers both "eagerly awaited" and "morosely dreaded."  Did it live up (or down) to expectations?  My thoughts, after the break.

-I'll admit that I had a bad attitude about this one going in.  Let's face facts, the decision to bring back Trixie was obviously a response to her popularity within the adult male/EqD portion of the fandom.  Which isn't an awful thing in itself--playing Where's Waldo with Derpy is something I enjoy, and that's nothing but fanservice--but considering how little of the fanon surrounding Trixie appeals to me, that influence understandably worried me.  Besides, having established in her previous episode that Trixie is both a) irredeemably arrogant, and b) not really all that powerful, magic-wise (something too many fanfic writers seem to forget--one of the many reasons much of her fanon annoys me), I was braced for a truly awful episode from the moment I read the TVGuide summary.

Thankfully, I actually liked Magic Duel.  It's not going to make my "favorite episodes" list, but it was mostly funny, dodged all my biggest peeves, and was all-around pretty solid IMO.

-That said, let's start with what I didn't like: medium-breaking humor.  While I had no problem with Trixie magicking Pinkie's mouth off, the cursor/trash can joke killed it for me.  I know that they have electricity and even computers in Equestria whenever it's convenient for a joke, but putting such an obviously modern intrusion into a show which generally eschews such annoys me.

-The super-artifact being randomly available in some out-of-the-way store probably wouldn't have bothered me too much by itself, but every episode this season except the CMC one has started with some major, ill-explained introduction into canon (the Crystal Kingdom, the duplication pool, and now the alicorn amulet).  Is this just something that I'm going to have to get used to from now on?  I hope that "previously unmentioned super-magic thingamabob of the week" doesn't become a recurring theme.

-One more really big one: Trixie and Twilight speaking unironically about how high their levels are.  I hate, hate, hate it when a work of fiction starts treating itself like a game.  I shudder every time I read a story in which wizards learn how to cast magic missile (or use vancian magic generally, Jack Vance excluded of course), and hearing lines about how so-and-so is the highest-level unicorn in Ponyville had me cradling my head in my hands.

-Lots of little things which I liked in this episode.  For starters, beavers!  I love beavers!  Also on the list: uniquely designed ponies/horses from distant lands.  Very neat appearance.

-Something I was very grateful for is that the fan shout-outs and continuity nods were mostly unobtrusive.  Lyra (sipping a shake, no less) and Bon-Bon hanging out together in the background is a polite nod which doesn't detract from the show, in that anyone who doesn't know about the fandom won't be left shaking their heads and wondering "what was that all about?" for example.  And the call-back to Pinkie's parents was a nice touch because it made sense in context--thank goodness for references that are both logically appropriate and not jarringly distracting.

-Lots of good humor in this episode, from Trixie's wheel-less (and ever-growing) carriage to Fluttershy's entire first segment.  Perhaps the bit that made me laugh the most, though, was the realization that gender-swapped AJ was actually Big Mac (thank goodness for that, by the way--I don't think I particularly want gender-bending spells made canon).  I can just picture the scene as he and the other painted ponies huddled behind the statue, awaiting their turn:
     Okay Mac, you can do this.  It's just a couple of seconds, but you've got to be so convincing that Trixie will never guess you're not AJ.  What would AJ say?  Come on Mac, you've got to get into her mind!  Oh, looks like it's my turn--here goes nothing...
     ...Nailed it.
-I have mixed feelings about the ending.  While I'm glad the writers left open the interpretation that Trixie was just playing nice so that she wouldn't be lynched (her grandiosity isn't tossed out the window, huzzah), I wish we wouldn't have had the whole asking forgiveness scene at all.  Let her run off again!  There's plenty of lessons to be learned by Twilight and co.--no need to foist one on a character previously defined by her self-centeredness.

Tripping as she ran off was a nice touch, though.  Like I said, a lot of little bits of comedy that worked for me, and that left me pleasantly surprised with the episode as a whole.


  1. I've already written my thoughts on blog (it's at the bottom).

    And once again, I'm convinced I'm watching a different show from (almost) everyone else, because there is so much I disagree with here by a large margin.

    1. "Why wouldn’t anyone think about contacting Celestia when the option presented itself?"

      I have a gripe with this. This kind of question seems to be a common thread in many reviews, where not contacting Celestia is treated as a Plot Hole. However, wouldn't asking for help be OOC for Twilight? She never ever asked for Celestia's help during the show with anything - Not even during Discord's attack.

      Twilight is very reticent to ask for help from anyone at all. The times she uses her friends help is more as a leader, or maybe getting more resources to complete the task by herself(like learning from Zecora), not because she needs them to do that for her (which makes she asking for Spike's help in the Season Opener more important). I see it as coming from her insecurities, and not from pride like Applejack.

      Anyway, I understand your gripes, but I don't think they affected me the same way. Specially with the ending, since she isn't shown as redeemed, just not shunned. She apologizes as a way to regain a moral high ground, and Twilight accepts because she believes Trixie might be redeemed - Magic of Friendship and what not. Sure, in the Real World she would be imprisoned, but so would Spike in the greed episode, and Fluttershy in Putting Your Hoof Down.

    2. The only other time on this blog I remember every criticizing the cast (not just Twilight) for not contacting Celestia was for "It's a Dangerous Business", and the fact that they didn't was a phenomenally stupid thing to due to the fact that Twilight's life was at stake (as I told Chris, if you were Celestia or Twilight's parents and you just found out Twilight had died from a fatal disease she contracted two weeks ago and you unaware of all this until now, what would you think of her friends).

      The same factor applies to this one, the crisis at hand is too high to not contact her given that Ponyville has been separated from the rest of the world (heck, Twilight even mentioned because she didn't have Spike with her, she couldn't contact Celestia, indicating she wanted to, which again begs the question why she wouldn't go to Luna and even get the elements of plot device). The writers could have quickly shown a scene or even mention that the goldfish bowl prevented Spike from reaching Celestia (if he's willing to do that when Twilight snaps in Lesson Zero, it would be in-character for him to do so here). All other cases of where they should have gotten help from her are when the problems put way too many in jeopardy have also bothered me (Ursa destroying town, the ol' Jabberwock turning Equestria into Wonderland, etc.). I don't see the point in defending sloppy writing with sloppy writing.

      As for the ending, I'll be brief, I take forgiveness very seriously and maintain it's something one works for (it's about action, not words) because of events in my life. To see presented as it was without any build-up, hints before her defeat, given to someone who let her desire for revenge overcome her common sense (no matter how in-character it might be, such an argument doesn't fly in a court of law) and basically turned Ponyville into North Korea (minus the killings), quite frankly, irritates me to no end. If it ended with her being forced to do some community service, I still wouldn't have liked the episode, I would probably still think it was a bad episode, but I wouldn't be angry.

    3. You do have a point about the forgiveness thing. But then again, this is a kids' show, and I think they want to promote children to forgive easily, which I guess is better than being stone-hearted and not forgiving at all.

  2. Well, after you're done reading Bugs' total demolishing of the episode, there's my shameless plug here. But if you don't want to read through all that...

    Overall, I liked the episode a lot more than I thought I would. This felt like it would be Season 3's "Luna Eclipsed," reintroducing a fan-loved character with added characterization that would render thousands of fanfics extinct within seconds. It didn't help that Trixie's fanbase is a lot more venomous and menacing than Luna's was. And it really didn't help that I was spending a lot of time with the Lunaverse group on Fimfiction during the buildup, and was terrified of how they'd react if the episode screwed up Trixie something fierce.

    Still, I really enjoyed it for the most part. It's not one of my absolute favorites (so far the only episode to earn that title is "Too Many Pinkie Pies"), but it does a really good job with what it has to do. It's also a surprisingly dark episode of the show, with an opening that looks ripped from a Treehouse of Horror episode (I was waiting for Trixie to ask for her free Frogurt), Trixie's G-rated Caligula-style antics, and just a lot of really good atmosphere and tension. I also loved the symbolism in how Trixie is defeated; she's ultimately beaten with what amounts to [i]stage magic,[/i] the very thing she's talented in. It also helps keep Twilight from becoming even more overly-powered than she already was, especially back in the Crystal Empire episodes.

    That being said, there were a few points that bugged me. Fluttershy was very flanderized, and I was groaning when the birds had to drag her off to save the day. Once again, the show's greatest enemy, the half-hour time slot, forces it to rush through things that could have amounted to their own episodes. The Saddle Arabians are interesting, but are ultimately tacked on at the end. And speaking of tacked on, the reconciliation was a nice touch, but needed better setup to really work. Still, Trixie is at least kept in character when she stops being evil, which is more than you can say for just about every redemption fic out there.

    Overall, this was a pretty good episode, and my second favorite of the season so far. I actually wouldn't mind seeing Trixie again, although I'd never want her to be elevated beyond a secondary character.

  3. The thing that struck me for this episode was that it seems that suddenly the restriction on referencing previous episodes is gone. During the second scene Spike mentions events in "Winter Wrap Up" and later allusions to "Swarm of the Century" during the magic duels. On the other hand I felt that the Saddle Arabia plot point was misspent and added nothing while simultaneously making it so it couldn't be used later to greater (read: any) effect.

  4. I'm with you on most points. Myself, I was terrified that this would be the episode that MLPFiM jumped the shark. Trixie's an unappealing, powerless idiot, and the brony fandom's insistence on pretending the exact opposite has grated on my nerves from the moment she was introduced. But the episode handled it just the way it should have, to me, with the focus being on Twilight Sparkle and her friends (Fluttershy in particular, which helps, and heaven knows it's too uncommon a treat to see Zecora included in an episode), with the entirety of Trixie's competence coming from her cheating, and with her exit, though questionable as to just how repentant she actually is, at least less annoyingly arrogant than the last time. I also enjoyed the irony that Twilight's victory was a case of her masterfully using Trixie's own solitary skill (misdirection in place of actual abilities) against her. As with Boast Busters, Trixie's an obnoxious ass, but the episode itself is still enjoyable.

    Now if only the fandom's interest in her, which was happily starting to wane recently, wouldn't surge back stronger than before after this episode. Alas, I fear we're in for a months-long deluge of inept miscalculations of her character and illusions of the scope of her abilities in our art, comics, stories, songs, and everything else. Again.

    1. Hello, random comment! Your name seems familiar. You don't know a guy who goes by "Black cat Max" now, would you?

    2. I do indeed. Or I did a little while back, at any rate, but I haven't talked to him for a stretch.

    3. Well, you know/knew me, then! I also go by Take Walker, and I was doin' that podcasty thing with him for a while. :D How you are?

    4. Well howdy Take, small world. Always amusing to see who will pop up in this fandom. I'm alright, still ornery and demanding. How're you?

    5. Filled with wonder at meeting up with old acquaintances on blogs dedicated to serious discussion of cartoon horse fanfiction.

  5. I dunno. This is absolutely my favorite episode of all three seasons now. Every moment was a joy to behold. The only negative thing I could possibly agree on was the mouse-pointer gag, and yet that wasn't so intrusive as to ruin... well, anything, really. (Okay, well, and Zecora's rhyme scheme changed again, but I've more or less gotten used to that happening.)

    If this episode was meant to pander to fans, then I have been pandered to, and I am not ashamed for it. I got not only a second look at Trixie, but an amazing Fluttershy episode to boot. I can't praise it enough for being solid, tight, and introducing so many new things that both add to the world and fit into it.

    As for the apology scene, here's my take on it. She's apologizing not for the thing she did, but for being weak enough to succumb to the amulet's corrupting influence. If you know anything about Trixie, an analysis of her as someone who dislikes the idea of anyone or anything controlling her makes sense. If she's taking the blame for anything, it's putting the amulet on in the first place; the amulet itself is to blame, in her mind, for what she did while wearing it. That she apologized at all shows she has a good side, unlike the Trixie we saw for most of the episode, and you can't blame Twilight for accepting the tiniest bit of contrition from someone like her.

    And it works because her approach overall is essentially, "Hey, sorry for treating you so bad, but I'm still better than you." It's her "Dear Princess Celestia: Ah didn't learn nothin'!"

  6. I was pleasantly surprised by this episode. I wasn't so sure in the lead-up to it, because I was just never all that fond of Trixie in the first place and I feared that this episode simply wouldn't be able to live up to all the hype. I'm glad to say I don't think that was the case.

    What made me laugh about the super powerful amulet was that the shopkeeper doesn't intend to give it to anyone, so he keeps it on a shelf in full sight of the counter where anyone can see it.

    This was definitely a fan-service episode all the way, complete with some clever references to earlier episodes (e.g., parasprites and the rock farm) and I think that showed in the fact that they took Trixie into full-on villain mode, which I admit I thought was pretty epic.

    We simply do not get to see enough Zecora. Her appearance in this episode was most welcome.

    My jaw literally dropped when I saw stallion Applejack. At the line "I even know a spell to turn a mare into a stallion!" what was going through my mind was: "...Nah! They would never actual-HOLY MOTHER OF GOD THEY DID!!!" And then it turned out they didn't, which I'm rather grateful for because I don't know if I can handle even more Rule 63 images and stories.

    On the matter of Twilight forgiving Trixie...I grant, I cringed a little at that, but then again this is My Little Pony we're talking about here. Gotta have our sappy moral at the end for the little kids. At least the writers softened the blow by making Twilight have to actually think it over for a few seconds before saying yes and making Trixie still somewhat arrogant (her line reminded me of this really silly friend I once had who at any opportunity would shout "I'M THE MOST HUMBLE PERSON IN THE FREAKING WORLD! NO ONE'S MORE HUMBLE THAN ME!!!").

    Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, far more than I had been expecting to. My opinion of Trixie definitely improved, but I think I've had my fill at this point. I really don't think we need to see her again after this one.

  7. I rather liked the episode. I did cringe at the Applejack-to-stallion spell, and nobody here should feel safe from the R63 implications. The fact that canon even mimicked it and the fact that Trixie was immediately convinced that it was a real spell (suggesting it might actually be one, albeit beyond either Trixie's or Twilight's abilities) will provide much ammo for some groan-inducing stories.

    The Pinkie's mouth thing was too much. Agreed on that front.

    I liked the way they ended it. Neither party completely ceded the right, which is pretty appropriate. What did trouble me is that Trixie should have been apologizing to Celestia as well. "Sorry I tried to annex part of your realm, Princess." I'm also curious as to whether Trixie had intended revenge all along, or if she only sought power, and the amulet corrupted her into wanting revenge. Could make a difference as to what exactly she was apologizing for.

    Glad to see Zecora as the Yoda figure.

    The "Trixie doesn't trust wheels" line was brilliant. I don't know why. If that's a reference to something, it's lost on me, but it was absurdly hilarious, and this is one of the few times I find myself looking forward to what the fandom makes of something.

    Good that Twilight is acknowledging there are spells well beyond her skills, and they didn't just find a way to power her up to face Trixie.

    The horses were... kinda neat, actually. And where was Luna, dammit?

    Those beavers looked angry. Daggett, Norbert, and Tree Flower, anyone?

    1. Accidentally read that as "groin-inducing." Maybe not the best choice of words

  8. I hope that "previously unmentioned super-magic thingamabob of the week" doesn't become a recurring theme.

    I don't get this attitude. Of course they're previously unmentioned. That's what a "new problem" is. Something new.
    It's not like Celestia's handing out shit that could have been useful before.

    1. That could be pretty funny.

      "Revitalize this magic amulet for me, Twilight!"

      Next season: revitalized magic amulet falls into Trixie II's hooves, and Twilight Junior must stop it. Repeat throughout the generations, while Celestia sips tea and is generally amused.

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  10. So apparently this was originally going to be a season 2 episode.