Analyzing “Magic Duel”

Due to the success of my Too Many Pinkie Pies video, I’m skipping straight to video with further analysis for the time being. This episode was too much fun!

If you really want a written version though, here’s my script:

Magic Duel is the most meta-tacular episode of My Little Pony, and was mind-blowing for me, after all the analysis of the series I’ve been doing. Sadly I haven’t had a chance to make a video for Boast Busters yet, but I wrote an analysis of it a week ago which you can find linked in the description. My reaction to that episode has a lot to do with why I appreciated Magic Duel, and I’ll be exploring this connection in a bit.

Magic Duel was written by M. A. Larson, who is arguably one of the biggest driving forces towards a unified narrative in the show. He previously wrote Sonic Rainboom and the Cutie Mark Chronicles, which were one of the big continuity threads in the first season. He also wrote Luna Eclipsed, which was a huge piece of continuity in that it finally reintroduced Luna to the series as a mainstay character. Larson seems to enjoy taking minor characters and expanding on them, which he did for Diamond Tiara in Ponyville Confidential, and does again here with The Great and Powerful Trixie (who had also been name-dropped in Ponyville Confidential).

My theory as to why this episode exists is that Larson wanted to make up for Boast Busters, which is one of the worst episodes of the entire show. The only good things that came out of Boast Busters were some light exploration of how Twilight’s magic works, and the introduction of the most lovably obnoxious side character, Trixie. Besides those things, Boast Busters portrays the characters horribly, is paced like a hard shit, and has one of the most lazy and poorly handled lessons in the show. It’s bad, which is something that can’t be said about many MLP episodes. Magic Duel takes all that failure and uplifts it.

Larson’s love of continuity is a constant presence throughout the episode. For starters, it deals with Twilight’s progress in magic, which is the general theme of this whole season. When Twilight was practicing magic at the start of Too Many Pinkie Pies, I wasn’t sure if it was directly connected to the fact that she’s supposed to be training post-Crystal Empire, but now that there’s another episode of her training, and this time throughout the whole episode, it really feels like a major point of the season. There was no better time for Trixie to make a return, since her presence has always been for Twilight to learn more about her magic. In this case, she actually learns when to not use it.

So. Why am I so sure that M. A. Larson was trying to fix Boast Busters? After all, Trixie hasn’t changed much since her last appearance. Larson certainly hasn’t transformed her and given her new life the way he did with Luna in Luna Eclipsed. He does, however, throw in some key phrases that help to define what kind of character she always was.

The important lines are: “she’s less high-and-mighty, and more mean and nasty!”

and: “I liked it better when she was just a fraud”

One of the reasons I hated Boast Busters is that the ponies had been so quick to vilify Trixie, who was just trying to put on a show. They drove her out of town because they found her obnoxious, which isn’t in character for them, and certainly isn’t in character for Twilight, who just sort of lets everything happen and doesn’t chastise her friends for the way they acted.

In the new episode, Trixie is a bully; however, this isn’t a natural part of her character, and Twilight recognizes this. She’s surprised to see Trixie acting this way, because she remembers Trixie as a pain in the ass, but not a villain. Anyone who remembers Boast Busters well would know this, and Larson shows that he cares about her character and who she really was by representing her evil nature as the influence of the Alicorn pendant. It would’ve been too easy to show Trixie as a vengeful bitch and ignore that she was never really threatening in the first place.

The big moment is at the end, when Trixie finally gets the chance to apologize with Twilight and help her to put on a show for the delegates from Saddle Arabia. She finally reconciles with Twilight, and shows that even though she’s still obnoxiously narcissistic, she was never a bad pony. She just made a bad decision.

Okay, let’s talk about cool stuff now.

The opening scene sets the mood beautifully, showing a dark town that we’ve never seen before.

CALLBACK NUMBER ONE: Spike mentions how Twilight once rolled him and Applejack up in a giant snowball, which happened in Winter Wrap Up.

Fluttershy chews off a bunch of her marshmallow hooves. I don’t even–

CALLBACK NUMBER TWO: Trixie mentions working on a rock farm, which is clearly run by Pinkie Pie’s dad. This is corroborated by Pinkie being the one to comment about it. Remember that Larson was the one who wrote Pinkie’s backstory, and this is the first time we’ve been given evidence that Pinkie wasn’t lying about it before. Trixie responds by taking apart Pinkie’s Flash symbol—a fitting piece of fourth-wall-breaking magic for the pony who defies physics.

CALLBACK NUMBER THREE: Twilight summons a parasprite to eat Trixie’s pies, and it even spawns a copy before Twilight gets rid of them.

CALLBACK NUMBER FOUR: Twilight gives Trixie a mustache, which is the spell that Twilight had just learned in Boast Busters. Notice that Trixie snips it off with scissors, and these seem to remind her of Snips and Snails, whom she then calls over.

All sorts of minor characters make appearances. Zecora gets to play a big role again, which has been a good while, and the baby Cakes are there, too. And Lyra drinks the fuck out of some soda.

Twilight with wet hair is ultra adorable.

I love the way this episode made consistent use of Fluttershy, whose powers aren’t often helpful in big action situations like this one. And it does this without making her super badass like often happens, but lets her be her usual scaredy self and still have a good presence, which I appreciate a lot.

I noticed that Twilight’s voice was a little funny (and adorable) at the part where she challenges and battles Trixie for the second time. Then I realized it was because Twilight was trying to brag and lie, and I wondered if she was supposed to be imitating the way Trixie sounds. Tara Strong, y u so brilliant??

Twilight’s gambit makes great use of the supporting cast, and I think that’s a good time to mention just how much this episode relies on the viewer to have seen a lot of it to understand what’s going on. There’s no way you could watch this as your first episode of MLP and know what’s happening.

CALLBACK NUMBER FIVE: Pinkie Pie plays ten instruments like in Swarm of the Century, which is actually being utilized in Twilight’s gambit. M. A. Larson also wrote that episode, by the way.

Finally, at the very end, not only does Pinkie use her famous fourth wall-breaking powers, but Twilight joins her for the last scene. I love that Twilight actually opens a door into the fourth wall zone to meet Pinkie there.

That’s all I’ve got to say about this one. I’ll be putting out a video for One Bad Apple next—I was working on it already, but when I saw Magic Duel, I just couldn’t resist talking about it. Many thanks to everyone who watched, liked, and commented on my Too Many Pinkie Pies video, and to all of my new subscribers. I’ve been overwhelmed by how much attention the video got in so little time, since none of my videos on my other channel have ever been so successful. I hope you’ll continue to support my channel and tell all your friends about it! Next week we finally get a Scootaloo episode! I’m excited!


5 thoughts on “Analyzing “Magic Duel”

  1. Long response! Basically, the episode was insane—at least, as I saw it. It was the scariest and most dangerous sort of story, that is, the “true and fucked-up story.” It’s true to life, but in the very kind of way that we don’t like, the kind of way most of us would cringe from if we could.

    A lot of Trixie-related stuff has been brewing in my head since your Boast Busters post, in anticipation for this ep; it didn’t come together until your post, particularly when you mentioned Larson’s liking for continuity, and presented solid evidence for why “Magic Duel” works. Here’s my response, synthesizing all of your arguments.

    I’m fairly convinced, now, that Larson was tapping into the fairly common trope in all sorts of fiction: that of the “girl or boy who slipped away.” Partially due to tragedy, partially due to personal bad decisions, partially due to the bad decisions of other people, a character slips between the cracks and becomes some kind of dangerous “villain.” In Arthurian legend, an example might be Mordred.

    I believe that Trixie is, at least somewhat, meant to be something of an “Achilles’ heel” character or small-time foil for Twilight, and you of all people are in the best position to understand what I mean. Do you remember the offhand point in my post (“speculation/psychology, blah, blah, blah”) about Celestia’s possible understanding of the fact that Twilight might very well “keep friends better than she makes them?” At least initially, Twilight has no underlying reason to become friends with a random outsider, and more importantly, shouldn’t really be counted on to have the inclination. Twilight is kind, good with management, willing to lend a hand or ear, willing to help someone (like Luna) with his or her problems. But she doesn’t really ever *fight to make friends*. Mind you, there’s no inherent “wrong” to this; it’s merely a recognizable human pattern, with risks and occasional upsides.

    That’s why I should push back a little on your “not really a threat point,” while still wholly agreeing with it…if that makes sense. I only mean that I want to qualify it. I 100% agree with your astute point that the denizens have no real reason to get upset (unless they’ve never seen a magic show before, which seems like bullshit to me). But in Boast Busters, Trixie most definitely *becomes* some sort of threat—another thing you point out, actually. *That’s* my major problem with the characterization; the Mane Six had no terribly arguable reason to be upset until she started hurting and shaming people—by which I mean…well, them! To me, that’s what seemed chaotic and plain wrong in that story; they start out irrationally upset, and Spike seems to be the only one who seems to openly express a desire for justice or vengeance (wrong as it still may be). Even a bullied kid knows that there are consequences when one explodes with hotheaded, accusatory words and rash actions; he or she may later even come to think of such reactions as immature.

    Meanwhile, Twilight doesn’t act, or more precisely, acts inappropriately. We don’t necessarily know how she *should* have acted, but we sense that it’s inappropriate.

    My feelings toward the episode, like yours, are very fond. I agree with you: ultimately the episode’s goal is to redeem a lame predecessor. The problem is that I’m not really sure I can elevate it to some status above its attempt. All the same, I think it’s very sharply-written…for the most part. The climax or realization point isn’t about friendship per se, but instead understanding—understanding in the face of disagreement, great distaste, and negligence/not really caring. The turning point of the episode is the final scene. Zecora’s words got stupid toward the end (“use the Six”), but the most important ones convey the idea that, actually, it’s bullshit to hide behind the notion that Trixie has changed (“Thinking needs a readjust.”) What Twilight needs to do is to learn to at least empathize with and mess with the person, rather than the haze of reputations floating around her. The degree to which she is actually able to pull this off is debatable, which is a good thing. Twilight “lowers” herself to Trixie’s patterns of thinking and system of values (even fakely), not actually accepting them (as we obviously know), yet trying to work with them.

    The final scene, more precisely the concept of it, was utter gold. I don’t like the actual manner of the characters; I’m not yet convinced that Trixie would apologize in the way she did, aside from the fireworks thing (though you totally called the “working together” element of magic in your “Boast Busters” comment). She would more likely be too embarrassed to ask for forgiveness. Here I have to accept the plot element, like it or hate it: if she’s really been warped as a person beyond her intentions by the amulet, “would she really *ask*?” “How ashamed would she be?”

    Of course, we might ask, “when did the reversion happen, anyway?” “Was it gradual?” “Was it sudden?” “Was it a farce?” Who the fuck cares? THAT’S THE POINT.

    And having written that, sort of tongue-in-cheekly, I wonder whether that was the point of their final exchange: it was over-done and kind of disingenuous on both sides. Clearly, Trixie’s being obnoxious, yet brave. Twilight’s dishing out forgiveness without really thinking about it. And Trixie rushes away, stumbles, keeps running into a chaotic, tragic darkness, still with a terrible, terrible reputation. But Twilight, for a moment, sees. She, for a moment, is caught unprepared. For all of one fleeting moment, Twilight understood, in the face of all of the misery, misalignment, and wrongdoing. Nobody else knows about Trixie’s one moment of kindness, or sees it. Trixie knows that her kind act couldn’t possibly counterweight all the shit she put everyone through. Trixie knows that she had significant responsibility for the shit she did. And even if Twilight were to relate said kind gesture to the others, they might not believe her; they might be critical, skeptical, or disgusted.

    “Trixie made one good choice,” I said, in wonderment, as the credits rolled. If I was feeling depressed or something, I might have burst into tears. Who can know?

    I still am not convinced that the “cursed amulet” path was the way to go about it, because we needed to be more concretely able to *doubt* that it really did fuck with your mind, tendencies, and aims. To *doubt* that the claim to the amulet’s fucking with you is insufficient, fails to be a comprehensive vindication or excuse. The whole element might have been more sharply done. Finally, we needed a real moment of realization for Trixie, rather than just cringing shame a second time. Well, at least the two mares discussed how Trixie was one-upped. There’s some characterization in that.

    Y’know what this is like? Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a tricky short story, so I never recommend it as a first read of that author; to easy to miss its point. It’s a story about a guy on a train with another guy. The story within the story (90% of it) is about a kinda neurotic guy, who started out an average womanizer and kind of go-getter. He gets married, they have fights and mess with each other, she cheats on him (he actually doesn’t cheat on her), he gets jealous, he kills her and her lover escapes. She curses him on her deathbed, and it’s then that he realizes the suffering he caused her (whatever the amount of suffering she caused him).” The narrator of the story can only clasp his hand for a moment as he gets off the train in the bustle. “Goodbye,” he says. “Yes, yes, forgive me…” says the murderer, distant and not really paying attention from his despair (the two phrases sound very similar in Russian).

    Again, ridiculously long; my bad.

    • Wow, that’s a hell of a reply. You’ve nailed everything about this episode. Honestly, I want to make another video out of your reply and post that up in response to my own, just so others can see this, because I think you got into the side of the episode that I didn’t. I feel all the same things that you said, but I always seem to talk about the positives, I guess. Seriously, with your permission, I’d love to do a video of your comment. I’ll probably leave out the Tolstoy bit though since I haven’t read him or it.

      EDIT: Actually I’ll hold off on that until I’ve done my video for Boast Busters as well.

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