Analyzing “Wonderbolt Academy”

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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.

6 thoughts on “Analyzing “Wonderbolt Academy”

  1. Did you catch that, at the cloud-bouncing scene, RD wasn’t in uniform?

    I too consider MMDW a “worse” RD ep, though the position is a little more slippery: I think it’s just boring entertainment. It didn’t quite seem to get at RD’s character from the “right” angle. It exonerates the strategy of the Mane Six from the same responsibilities and logical pitfalls with which it attacks RD. It focuses too much on (boring) 90’s superhero cliché callback without picking the tropes apart or showing the gaps within them. And shit’s happening all the time; what the fuck happens in other eps when nobody *is* rushing off to save people in the nick of time? Clearly a careful contrivance in order to make a point—the “Hey, let’s all watch a superhero cartoon for 20 minutes” sort of deal—but the typical superhero setting/pressures happens not to mesh all that well with those of Ponyville (from what we’ve seen), so it’s a little jarring. Lastly, I love Pinkie, but five straight seconds of slobbering is a real eye-roller.

    Speaking of “Hurricane Fluttershy,” I think this recent episode may more closely tied to that more recent episode than it is to MMDW. We’ll remember that, in it, the Wonderbolt captain was fond of RD’s leadership; what impresses, and has continued to impress her is RD’s (arguably reckless) *guts*. It would help explain why RD thinks she’s capable of catching her eye. It would add another nuance to her disappointment. It’s like she’s subtly trapped within the familiar “Don’t you remember me? I’m awesome!” gag. Assuming there’s no continuity hole, Spitfire probably does, but doesn’t show it.

    I’ve already mentioned RD’s main trait: rushing to what she perceives to be the matter at hand. In HF, she swats away Twilight’s hand even when she pleads that the ponies shouldn’t continue in their mission to draw up the water: “If I’m going down, I’m going down flying!” She wants the inner certainty of knowing she’s taken things to the max. When she isn’t directed by others, her approaches can be wild and self-centered—discarding the “less-important” thing. It’s hard to tell whether or not her associates risk being turned into chess pieces to reach a goal; as an actual friend, Fluttershy may be less of a liability. So I agree the text does really suggest and elaborate on something of a plot thread here; Spitfire notes that RD doesn’t seem to push herself as hard (we as viewers know it’s more complicated than that). She’s the person who accepts the declared goal. Give her something crazy, and she’ll do it; she won’t rewrite the terms herself, from scratch or on the fly. She really is lazy, it wouldn’t really be right to forget that.

    When the matter arises of switching goals, however, she seems to hesitate. In those moments of receptiveness, she might also listen to rationalization, to which she usually agrees. That’s the significance of her looking to Spitfire’s crew flying away. RD senses an offness to what’s going on, but is at work figuring out the falsehoods and truths of the arguments presented to her.

    Consider the Academy itself; everyone there seems to think it’s what builds people to become the flying elite. You’ll remember that LD’s snide remark led to everyone’s doing laps. LD leaves it to the institution to handle this; she is preoccupied with getting the most she can out of the experience. The flight duo keeps looking for more ways to surpass itself, and considers worsening the position of others in order to do so. LD even leaves behind RD in her search for flags (not obviously), sort of a “the best way to become the best is by pushing yourself” sort of thing. RD tries to guide within her capacity, thinks she’s failing, but doesn’t consider leading herself.

    The idea of the “character flaw” can be a very distorted way of understanding fiction. LD, like you’ve said, isn’t meant to be demonized or anything. She considers them a friendly rival. It’s revealed that LD’s real difference from RD, her real *mistake*, is that she refuses to hesitate—which, to RD, is both rectification and horror at once. Getting LD to give in once in a while wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have cut it. LD picks her goals and sticks to it; the various paths are all the same to her. This is the deeper idea, I believe, of LD’s demotion/expulsion; we don’t want to think it, but it’s clear that LD is the one who’s really disqualified herself, in that shuddery sense. Like RD, she settles into the role given her—looking to others to vindicate her choices—but RD’s the one who eventually steps out alone, questions, decides a goal, and takes responsibility for her actions. We can safely assume that RD would never have hesitated to save her friends; that’s less inner nobility (“Loyalty”), I think, and more her tendency to scream “Augh-what-have-I-done?” and rush ahead. But she agrees to LD’s other strategies. She doesn’t stick to her guns when Spitfire tries to explain things, or obsess over LD’s sorry situation. That reminds us that RD’s still remained very much herself.

    Of course, the fact that RD could suggest an alternative to LD that she could accept—even for a few seconds—is something to be hopeful about. There’s something in her that can make better choices. That’s something decent to be left with.

    All of this is why I’m not convinced that Spitfire is ever lax or misguided. I don’t think Spitfire is talking out of her ass when she berates RD for storming off, because she does storm off know that Spitfire doesn’t reward recklessness, but acknowledges success. She notices when RD injures her wing. She was distracted from or ignorant of all the shit that was going on—which, in my book, makes RD’s personal successes more satisfying. The real issue is that she doesn’t question, which is understandable because she actually specifies the important standards. At first I thought that she should’ve given LD so much more shit for being so snarky, but then I understood that she was at the head of the pack. There would be no point to having her shoot for the starts indefinitely. The only real test left for her was actual leadership. And that really is a sink-or-swim thing. If RD were a saint, she might have “saved” her comrade. She isn’t, which makes for more believable story.

    In other words, well, I think the ep may emphasize the inverse (not the opposite) of what you said/wrote. Hesitation, or stagnation, is what strikes me here. RD’s stumbling from goal to goal may be erratic, but in certain situations it may be something of a useful counterpart to obsession and self-centered picking of the goals. RD can crash into objective after objective, hesitating, looking around, and considering alternative options. Her choice in this case is clumsy, since she doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but maybe it’s the process that counts. In other words, there may be something actually legitimate to the notion of doing the best you can according to the constraints you’ve given.

    Riskiness is strange, because risk always has a probability (low or high) of causing harm to others. I wouldn’t vouch for LD at all, but her choice of the twister wasn’t wrong in itself; Spitfire’s word is “excessive.” In reality, it merely led to a freak accident—one that nudged RD into making a tough decision. And instead of hesitating, which is all that RD might have needed from her comrade, LD remains adamant about the fact that their pushing forward had led to success.

    And, of course, that’s the point of Pinkie Pie’s obsession. It’s the whole conversation about hesitation writ large. If you latch onto a single goal, it can unravel/destroy you. It can also distort your understanding of the “what might”’s and the “what will”’s, etc. Pinkie Pie, however, is ultimately willing to bring herself to RD, as bizarre as her reasoning is. This is the small positive trajectory to LD’s tragic crash. RD’s not a Pinkie Pie, so the story couldn’t have gone any other way.

    • *considers them a friendly rival

      considers RD a friendly rival

      *storm off know that Spitfire

      storm off. We know that Spitfire

      *according to the constraints you’ve given

      according to the constraints you’ve been given

    • There’s a lot to take in and think about here. You’ve gone and watched hurricane Fluttershy and stuff and I haven’t… I need to watch all of RD’s episodes before I start to decide what I make of your points and my own. Both Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are characters I so haven’t made up my mind about and I feel like I’m jumping all over the place in talking about them.

      • I hear you; even having re-watched, I’m still unsure. To be honest, I’m kind of confused by the stuff I wrote, too. Okay. I think I’m saying is that RD’s not bad at leadership in HF; she’s pretty encouraging. But her trait there, and here, is her hesitation—as it tends to be. In HF, she goes for the record, is told that won’t work because too many ponies are sick, hesitates, then *decides* that the more important thing is to bring water up to Cloudsdale. This is significant because the she might have said a “Do the impossible” sort of thing. She decides that she wants to reach a more practical goal; her concern for her teammates may be narrow, small, or nonexistent. But there’s something there.

        Lastly, Spitfire isn’t all-seeing; she doesn’t catch Fluttershy’s actions. That’s not so much of an personal error as it is a hint calling us to a redirection of attention.

        In this ep, LD *is* RD, practically, because even she does have concern for her friend; she considers, and then says something along the lines of, “So?” She continuously redirects herself, refusing to hesitate. She minimizes or rationalizes pain, rather than blowing it aside entirely. RD tries to be a good wingpony; this is “impossible” because of LD’s error: refusing to hesitate, for good or ill. Someone who doesn’t honestly assess risk (whether well or poorly, beginning with hesitation), the story suggests, not an ideal leader. I sense that the key here is not necessarily “how dangerous their tactics are”—that would just be reading our views into the text. Even RD gets carried away with thinking that in the end. It’s that LD doesn’t hesitate beforehand; out of this comes her statement that Spitfire made her the leader. She thinks too glibly about these matters. And the same stick-to-it-iveness that almost killed her friends at least inspires RD enough to burn a bridge. That’s something cool. Also cool is the fact that RD wasn’t useless as LD’s wingpony.

        Yeah, I also think those two are really hard to pin down. I think it’s because they’re so solitary. We don’t know anything about their families, either. For RD, we end up seeing what she “wants” us to see. Fluttershy’s too cryptic; she gets upset, but she’s also very…well, she can very conveniently prevent getting things done. She can vanish, answer three different ways to a single question. Sort of…passive-aggressive (I really want to stop using that in describing her, but I still can’t find an alternative). I think she’s got a legitimate personality, though.

        • In other words, LD may seem like a self-confident badass, but she’s also sort of lazily irresponsible, without a questioning “oomph” within her, to nudge her into rethinking things. I think that’s brilliant, because talking about recklessness would distract us from the deeper fact that we live in a world where that’s hard to quantify. It’s a little defeatist to reduce everything in these sorts of shows to deontological, if-your-motives-are-“bad” rules.

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