Analyzing “The Crystal Empire” (And First Impressions of “Apple Family Reunion”)

First, the analysis of The Crystal Empire:

Also, my first impressions of the new episode, just so MisfortuneDogged can see it:

Text version of The Crystal Empire video:

The Crystal Empire was released with sharp timing in my life. After a month and a half working full time at my first job, i was trying to have my hours reduced, and instead found myself working my busiest weeks yet thanks to the winter holidays. In the middle of an otherwise depressing week, the start of season three was a beacon of light, and getting to write about it was one of the best parts of the month for me. I got back into writing about MLP because of these episodes, and about two weeks later, I started this video series, which has become a small-scale hit and the highlight of my life at the moment.

Needless to say, this pair of episodes is pretty important to me, in the way that My Little Pony as a whole is astronomically important to me. I hope that all of you who watch my videos understand that even on the occassion when I’m criticizing this show, and indeed I’ll do a bit of it in talking about this episode, I’m still an uber-diehard fan. The only reason I can even criticize its poorer moments is because they stand next to so many utterly brilliant moments. There’s a good reason that even though I’ve watched literally thousands of cartoons (mostly from Japan) and consumed unholy amounts of media, there’s only one show that I’ve talked and continue to talk about in this much depth.

So anyway, let’s talk about the Crystal Empire. This two-part episode is interesting because there’s a lot of things it does very well, and other things that are awkward and confusing. The awkward and confusing stuff mostly comes from the plot focus of the episode, which leaves the audience with more questions than answers, and has bothered as many viewers as it has inspired them to theorize about what exactly went down.
Some of the issue here is just clumsy writing. It feels awkward as early as the royal guard saying “IT has returned,” which is a phrase that I hate every time it’s used in fiction.

IT of course refers to the Crystal Empire, which is an enigma to the very end. Apparently, it’s disappeared off the map for one thousand years, and then reappeared in the same state that it had been beforehand. We don’t even know why it’s come back, or what was the real purpose of King Sombra vanishing it to begin with. The whole backstory is confusing, and it only becomes more so at the end of the episode when we find out that Cadence is the Crystal Princess. As an idea, Cadence being princess of the crystal kingdom sounds really great, but in execution, it leaves us wondering why she is the princess, how old she’s supposed to be, has she lived here before, has it really been gone one thousand years, what are we missing here?

And what did Celestia do with Twilight’s books in this shot?

Adding to the feeling of mystery is the presence of Princess Luna throughout this arc. Her purpose in these episodes seems to be foreshadowing, but we don’t know exactly what for. If she was only there for Celestia to bounce dialog off of, I don’t think she’d have such an imposing presence, nor would she show up with the Starswirl book at the very end of the episode. The presence of Luna and this book, along with the return of Cadence and Shining Armor as important characters, were what set me up to be constantly vigil in search of continuity this season, and so far it’s been paying off in a lot of subtle ways. The question of where it ultimately leads, however, remains unanswered.

Perhaps the most infamously enigmatic element of this episode is King Sombra himself, a villain who is more cloud than unicorn, and has maybe three lines of dialog and three minutes of screen time. On first viewing of this episode, I didn’t mind Sombra’s non-presence very much. I viewed him as being a similar villain to Lord Sauron from the Lord of the Rings, who isn’t really present in the story at all except as a thing which drives the heroes to go on their quest.

After I’d written about Sombra in this light, I later found people making the case that Sombra was actually a kid-friendly metaphor for depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a very entertaining way of reading the episode, because it fits well, but it doesn’t have much of an effect on interpreting the main narrative, since the crystal ponies, like Sombra himself, are mostly an auxillary to the narrative of Twilight Sparkle.

Actually, that might be what’s so awkward about this episode. It’s such an elaborate setup with so much mythos behind it that isn’t really explored in-depth, and only serves the purpose of teaching Twilight a lesson. It’s a story setup which would feel at home in a series like Avatar: The Last Airbender which is all about following a grand narrative, and in which the Crystal Empire would’ve had its own arc to really flesh out everything within it. In the context of an episodic series like My Little Pony, it seems weird to cram in so much information when Twilight could’ve learned the same lesson under far simpler circumstances.

In spite of the awkwardness, however, there’s still a lot of stuff that this pair of episodes does well. A lot of it is small and nuanced, which just makes it even sweeter.
The episode highlights for me are the fun little character moments. It’s true that in this episode, the mane six ponies who aren’t named Twilight Sparkle are mostly boiled down to their core traits for dialog, since the episode isn’t focused on them. However, I think those traits have gotten to be pretty well-realized for a lot of the ponies, and it leads to some great moments, particularly in dealing with Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity. Here are a few:
(Rainbow trolling)
(AJ and RD at the statue)
(drinking straw)
(a rarity)

Pinkie Pie isn’t bad in this episode either, though she’s a little obnoxious. I didn’t notice at first that she’s actually yelling “FLUGELHORN” into the the Flugelhorn at this part:

And of course, Twilight gets her small moments in addition to her big ones:
(you do. You really do)

The only character who doesn’t have any standout moments in this episode is Fluttershy, and this is something I’d like to address at length at a later date. Fluttershy is the least realized and most confusing character in this show, and one day I’m gonna get to the bottom of why that is.

Even more so than reminding me why I love the mane six ponies, the best thing this episode did was to sell me on Princess Cadence as a total badass. You may remember from my Sleepless In Ponyville analysis that I’m a big fan of sleep deprivation as a plot device, and I’m an even bigger fan of characters grappling against it while trying to be as strong as possible. Cadence’s incredible tiredness is the real driving force of the episode for me. While the fates of the Crystal ponies ultimately hang in the balance, the immediate threat of Cadence falling to pieces is what had me on edge as a viewer waiting to see this whole thing sorted out. The animators did an incredible job portraying the desperation in Cadence and Shining Armor to resolve this situation as quickly as possible, and it starts to become particularly tense towards the end.

Of course, the crowning moment of awesome comes from Shining Armor launching Cadence like a javelin to catch Spike and the crystal heart. That stained glass window really should have been a picture of this moment, because it’s one of the greatest moments in the history of fiction.

Suddenly I realize that I haven’t actually touched on the core of this episode’s narrative yet, so let’s talk about some moments in Twilight’s test arc, which runs through the second part of the premiere. The most interesting moments are when Twilight uses Sombra’s dark magic, which she learned from watching Celestia use it. When I saw her using it for the first time, I was left really uneasy, like there had to be some kind of consequence to this. My unease paid off a moment later when Twilight was shunned by the princess in a surprisingly unsettling scene. The even bigger payoff of this scene is the next one in which Spike faces his fear, as I’ve come close to crying every time I see it. It’s a scary moment and a very effective one.

The other day I watched the Bronies React to the Season Three premiere video, and just about everyone was wondering about why Twilight didn’t teleport down the stairs at this part. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Twilight can teleport, since she wouldn’t need to take trains and shit if she could. Twilight’s ability is more of a “blink,” which can take her a short distance. People also wondered about why she didn’t levitate herself, and I think the answer is mostly that it’s supposed to be very dark. It doesn’t look dark because the animators want us to see what’s happening, but Twilight tells Spike that it’s incredibly dark. The drop is also extremely long, as evidenced by a mathematical equasion that someone put together based on the time it took for Twilight’s rock to hit the ground.

In terms of Twilight’s overall performance in this episode, and as an interpretation of her character on the whole, I think Twilight’s greatest strength is that of a human-erm, pony resources manager. A tactician, if you will. She knows how to utilize the strengths of the ponies around her to maximize the efficiency of a situation. We already know this from episodes like Winter Wrap Up, and I think the real take-away from this episode is that Twilight should never be concerned about being the hero. She should always be more worried about knowing who to use to get the job done–in this case, Spike. This reading is a little forced, though I don’t think it’s much more forced than the idea that Twilight learned about self-sacrifice from this whole ordeal. After all, if it weren’t for Celestia’s confusing terms with regards to the mission, Twilight would’ve made that sacrifice without having to learn a god damned thing.

Anyways, with that, I’m finally caught up on videos for season three. Next week I might start from the very beginning, or I might take a completely different route. Who knows?! Thanks again to all of my wonderful viewers who have proven over the past six weeks that youtube comments aren’t always the worst thing in the universe. I hope you’ll continue to spam all of your favorite pony websites with my videos until someone takes notice.

7 thoughts on “Analyzing “The Crystal Empire” (And First Impressions of “Apple Family Reunion”)

  1. Sorry your week sucked; by this point it’s kind of a standard for me. I could say “Hope blah-blah-blah…” but if you’re like me, you just go, “Yeah…” and “Less effort I put in explaining, the better.”

    I wouldn’t push you to stress too much about this ep. Pretty much with you on this one. What got me upset was that it felt like a stupid mistake that Applejack wouldn’t really make. Not in Season 3. Ugh. I also feel like the plot really gives birth to the lesson she supposedly “learns.” We’re just fooled into thinking it does because we are so goddamn used to the tropes. The best this ep could have done is reminding her of something she already knows. I mean, Applejack heard her grandmother’s gooey anecdotes. For fuck’s sake, she’s *been* present for the last few of these things (100 moons < 9 years). I felt like I didn’t understand what the actual conflict of the story is. I mean, supposedly there were more people present, and Granny’s older this time. I get that pride’s probably the reason why she doesn’t talk to anyone about her doubts. But the ep suggests that she’s basically in her own head for 80% of the episode; there’s no real negotiation or struggle for anything. She comes up with an idea, and she has bad luck. Then her grandmother’s like, “Well, now that it’s turned to shit, we can say, ‘This fucking sucked.’”

    BTW, this probably confirms that Apple Bloom can’t be any older than 9. Unless Applejack’s 25-ish (which *might* be possible), she’d have to be roughly 18 (assuming the Reunion’s a regular event, time-wise). And why no mention of their parents? I’m getting sidetracked.

    I hate reducing things, because life is more than rules, but here’s something you’re sure to know: without conflict/negotiation (i.e. character toe-to-toe, thought vs. action, surviving a storm, etc.), you can’t believably or honestly realize a character’s mistakes and resolutions to do better. In order to have negotiation, you need to show careful attention to character patterns of thinking and actual imprints of that thinking on the real world—and for it to be legit, you have to be as fair in range as possible, full in range as is necessary. This is what people don’t want to understand about stuff like “Boast Busters,” or “subtle” and “realist” whatevers like Aoi Hana. If in a “legit story” you stop giving a shit about why people act…when you have to read in simplistic, palatable proverbs or sociology lessons instead of grappling with characters…when you no longer know why stuff happens, don’t care what happens, the story’s lost quite a bit of power. It might still be a story, but it’s deflated.

    This ep just felt like a “Too Many Pinkie Pies” repeat, with none of the fun, laughs, or unspoken truth. What I mean is that, like you noted in your analysis for it, faith is hinted to be part of the game. There’s little sense in trying to break that faith down into a science. On the other hand, it’s blatantly obvious that leaving things be (“Fuck it, I’ll make memories either way”) is a worldview that can easily go awry. Without Pinkie’s clumsy, aggressive seeking and desire (even for making dresses, going nuts in the lake while someone else reads, having quiet tea parties with animals), the Report wouldn’t work; that’s what’s awesome about this show at its best—that without saying these disclaimers it clearly nods to them. Which is what a good work should probably do.

    I didn’t see a real reason for Applejack to lose her cool in the way she did. It would be one thing if she tried to do everything herself and ended up collapsing—truer to her character. But that’s a “friendship” lesson, one she already picked up back in “Applebuck Season.” This “forcing people to make memories” shit? The whole conflict sounds stupid to me. Even Pinkie Pie doesn’t go that far, because she will necessarily calculate herself into the equation (a hilariously ironic sort of maturity in this situation). I think the focus needed to be on stress. Which that would make the episode repetitive. Which would probably make it pointless. Which means they probably should have gotten rid of it.

    Here’s what I personally think about Applejack. Life is all about give-and-take. You can’t have it all at once, like some guy talking to Truth in FMA:B. Applejack has lost her parents. She’s responsible, and understands that there’s a time for everything—more so than any of the others. She’s the least-fixated, which is amazing. This is because she’s in a position to show us the part of life that we don’t want to see: wistfulness. Even if she has an epic destiny, she’s the mare who’s going to return to her farm and say, “I’m home.” She’s probably going to marry an average-looking guy and raise an average-looking family. She’s going to be a piece in the massive puzzle that we call the Apple Family. It’s very likely that Applejack’s the person who won’t reach the heights of glory, and there can be a bit of sadness in that, and re-resolution. Finding and holding on to meaning when you’re “normal” can be very interesting.

    For example—Iliad and Odyssey ask two major questions, which both revolve around the same character. In Iliad, the characters might be thought of as having super-assets or whatever, but are weakened by mistakes—wild-card Achilles and pride, buff Ajax and blandness in thinking (he’s really only “strong”), Agamemnon, the inconsistent “king of men.” Odysseus isn’t the cleverest, not quite. He’s essentially Twilight as you discussed in your “Crystal Empire” vid. He immediately gets down to figuring out what needs to be done. Instead of mastering the elements, fate (impossible), or a super-trait, he looks to his own existence, and works to master himself. He gets something good out of that: he’s the one who survives the War. He remembers what prophecies say, and remembers to act accordingly. He handles shit-talkers to keep order maintained. But *Odyssey* asks if survival is all he can pull off. “Well,” the epic suggests, “he can set his house back in order.” But then you ask, what about his methods? In situations where death is sure for his crew, he’s creepily able to pull off not mentioning anything. He’s got inordinate focus.

    Applejack’s not Twilight, but her trajectory’s similar to what I’ve described. Rather than being the ace-in-the-hole, she’s the necessary supporter. As long as writers tap into the necessary implications, the character well should never run dry. We might not be able to talk all that much about the parents, since they’re probably ordinary, and we don’t need details about the deaths in order to understand how she works (and that she very much acts like a person influenced by death). That’s why her previous episodes all made sense, even if most of them contained poor plots. But certain moments could have been better-impacted (RD’s cheating in “Fall Weather Friends,” running from home and thinking about staying away in “Last Roundup”), if they had understood just how much of a weight it can seem to be sane and responsible.

    • Apparently the scene wherein AJ looks up and sees two shooting stars is a reference to AJ’s dead parents, as confirmed by one of the show staff. So there is a reference in there to whatever extent was possible to deal with in the show.

      Anyways, yeah. As usual, I’m with you on your points. I seriously am considering writing my own Applejack episodes, or at least some shameless fanfics about her. Possibly FlutterJack. Then I can realize both characters and hook them up, all at once.

      • Huh. Whoa. Didn’t think they’d get so…spiritual about it, or whatever.

        FlutterJack. Hmm. You think there’s something there? Fics revolving around that could work. I have noticed that Fluttershy’s a little weird with touch. I used to think it was shyness. Heh, heh…maybe she’s *really* lustful.

        • I have this of imagining the projected futures of characters whose narrative will probably never give them one, after they split from their group of friends, and always involving some kind of yuri hijinks. I used to dream up these scenarios for Hidamari Sketch and Lucky Star, and so of course I imagined it for MLP.

          The idea here is that after Rainbow Dash becomes a Wonderbolt, Twilight becomes a sage, and Rarity marries her way into Canterlot, they’ll end up more or less “leaving behing” the other three ponies who already lead the lives that they want in Ponyville.

          Pinkie Pie would continue to party down with everyone in everywhere, but AJ and Flutters would end up spending more casual time together. I think they’d actually develop a pretty great dynamic together, and I dunno… it’s strangely hard to picture either of them with stallions? Of course my yuri goggles are the size of fucking Jupiter, but well, Rarity is obviously straight, RD could go either way easily, and Twilight seems like an eternal virgin. Pinkie is… Pinkie.

          But AJ and Flutters is… well if I’m being honest, boring and utterly practical. In other words, the kind of thing I would come up with.

          • Eh, I see it.

            It might seem a bit *normal* or obvious, maybe, but it trends away from just being a run-of-the-mill fantasy ship; you could really work something sincere out of their personalities. And normal is good, I guess—you don’t really have to imagine how it could come about. Fluttershy’s characterization is vague enough that it could lead to anything, really.

            The only thing to avoid is turning it into straightforward yuri. Because…well, then, it’s just yuri, lol. It’d need some sort of legitimate plot.

            The strongest nuance is the fact that both (and all of the characters) are very clearly feminine. None of this “butch” and “girly-girl” nonsense that people automatically assume to be the way lesbian relationships work. In other words, no shunting in gender roles. Also depends whether Fluttershy’s got buried dreams that she refuses to talk about.

          • Very true. I think I can believably match up any pair of the mane six, though, save for maybe Rarity because she’s so canon straight. Like everyone else in the universe, I like TwiDash, because there’s so many ways to go about it that all work. Now it just sounds like I’m bragging that I’m some kind of great writer though when the only MLP fanfic I tried to write was a measly 2.5k words or so of Pinkie Pie’s Toothache of Destiny.

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