This season won’t stop rollin’ with the hits! Wonderbolt Academy is both my new favorite Rainbow Dash episode, and possibly the most impressively animated episode of the series to date. I wish I had the chops to get into why the animation is so good—hopefully you can tell just by looking. That’s why I do this series in video form, after all.
Here’s a question to start the episode: where in Equestria is Rainbow Dash’s house? It appears to be in between a few mountains somewhere vaguely outside of Ponyville. The idea that Rainbow’s cloud home is in a valley has a dash of genius to it, since this presumably could help to keep her home from being blown away. The house must be stationary, after all, since it has a mailbox at ground level.
Interestingly enough, this episode was written by Merriwether Williams, who wrote worst Rainbow Dash episode and probably least popular episode of the entire show, The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well. It’s possible that this episode is meant to be a direct follow-up to that one though, and may have genuinely justified that episode’s lesson.
In fact, it’s arguable that Rainbow Dash has done the most growth over the course of this series out of all of the mane six, due to the many subtle consistencies that have become apparent over the last two seasons, which this episode cashes in on in a big way.
In Rainbow’s first big episode, Sonic Rainboom, she dealt with overcoming stage-fright, and gaining the self-confidence to match her self-esteem. She hasn’t shown any self-confidence issues since then, and if anything her overconfidence causes her problems in The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well. The lesson in that episode was to not be a cocky asshole, and it’s a lesson that Rainbow has learned so well, she actually passes it down in Wonderbolt Academy.
Rainbow’s other big episodes also have had lasting effects on her character. In May the Best Pet Win, she learned about how an unassuming tortoise could be a badass and gained some level of empathy. Could this be the same empathy which later drives her to take Scootaloo under her wing? In Read It And Weep, she learns a lesson about being authentic, and is later seen reading Daring Do books out and about on a consistent basis. Is this authenticity what gives her the self-assuredness to confront Spittfire in Wonderbolt Academy? Whether or not this much thought was given to the writing process of this episode, there’s more than enough grounds to read Rainbow Dash as a character who has grown up in very big ways over the course of this series, and it only lends more gravity to how excellent she is in this episode.
The Boot Camp motif was an interesting route for the Wonderbolt Academy. It gets to make excellent use of a number of familiar pegasi who were around for Hurricane Fluttershy. The weirdest thing about this setup is what it did to Spittfire, whom I remember as a cool and collected pony and is now acting the total hard-ass. I think that the intent is for Spittfire to be putting on a character for this episode, but if that’s the case then she’s a god damned method actress, never once breaking character.
The side story about Pinkie Pie waiting for Dash’s letter is the weaker part of the episode, but that’s not to say I didn’t like it, and I understand that this comic relief was necessary in what was otherwise a thematically mature episode.
The brilliance of this episode is Lightning Dust, not for who she is as a character, but for what she brings about in Rainbow Dash. In a way, she harkens back to Gilda, but is much closer to Rainbow Dash in terms of personality than Gilda was.
Lightning Dust is the only pony with a bigger ego than Rainbow Dash and through her, we recognize the one thing which separates Rainbow from utter recklessness: her loyalty. For once, her element of harmony really seems to belong to her in this episode.
Still, it’s important to note that Rainbow wasn’t always one to look out for others. That was the plot of Mysterious Mare-Do-Well. It’s a combination of that past experience, and having to witness just how reckless Lightning Dust is, that Rainbow comes to her big moment in this episode.
Like with Gilda, Rainbow has a lot of respect for Lightning, and clearly intends to be her friend. Even though Rainbow wants to be a lead pony so badly, even she recognizes that she and Lightning would make an unstoppable team and has to accept that Lightning is the more headstrong of the two of them.
The conflict isn’t over Rainbow Dash realizing that what Lightning is doing is a bad idea—it’s about confronting this bad idea at the risk of being the weaker pony. It’s not an internal conflict. Rainbow already has the confidence that she deserves to be a lead pony, but it’s Spittfire who thinks that Lightning’s risk-taking makes her the better flyer. The central conflict is never really between Rainbow and her confidence, it’s between Rainbow and Spittfire’s approval. Rainbow always knew that Lightning was being risky, but she also wants to be a Wonderbolt.
Rainbow Dash tells off Lightning because she knows what Lighting is doing is wrong, and Lightning redirects the conflict to its true source, which is Spittfire’s idea. Thus, Rainbow directly confronts Spittfire, and has the sheer balls to teach HER a lesson. That’s right—this episode isn’t about Rainbow Dash learning a lesson, but TEACHING ONE.
This is a pretty huge deal. She’s finally graduated into a person so well-rounded that she can stand her ground and recognize when others are the ones at fault. It’s not just that her opponents are wrong, but that she PROVES them wrong, and Spittfire is the one who writes a letter to RAINBOW DASH about the lesson she and Lightning have to take away.
It all culminates into a wholly satisfying conclusion in which Rainbow Dash is promoted to a leader and has a huge prospect of graduating to become a Wonderbolt. If Twilight’s season three training wasn’t previously evidence enough that My Little Pony is following the direction Lauren Faust intended, with each of the ponies working towards the realization of an epic destiny, then this episode is proof. MLP is forming an honest-to-god arc, and I couldn’t be more excited to follow it.