Analyzing “Spike At Your Service”

Text version of this video:

Spike the Dragon is an excellent support character. He’s the one boy offsetting a primarily female cast, and a younger character whom the others can explain things to for the sake of the audience. He’s got enough personality to elevate him above a plot device, and has his own dreams and aspirations to round him out as a character. He plays a lot of roles, from Twilight’s straight man to Rarity’s fanboy, and is great for situations wherein the mane six are occupied, like when he played the narrator in the Hearth’s Warming Eve pageant.

Having said that, I’ve never liked Spike episodes, for the obvious reason that the mane six ponies are far more interesting. Spike’s conflicts largely arise from his youth and inexperience, and his goals are more far-off dreams, whereas the mane six are all on the cusp of realizing their aspirations, or otherwise are living well-rounded lives.

Spike At Your Service is a great episode because at heart, it really ISN’T a Spike episode. Spike is the one who drives the action and gets the most screentime, but the conflict doesn’t so much revolve around him as it does around Applejack. In many ways, this is a better Applejack episode than Apple Family Reunion was, and it certainly is a better episode in general.

In the discussion of my Apple Family Reunion video, a lot of people theorized about why it is that Applejack episodes are in such short supply and have such a tendency to minimize her role. Some argued that Applejack is mostly an excellent support character, and I agree. In this episode, both she AND Spike play support to one-another, and in this case Applejack shines in that role. I happen to think that Applejack is ALSO a great lead character, though. Applejack’s just great altogether. (Applejack is best pony.)

Applejack doesn’t hog the spotlight all to herself in this episode, though. Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, and oh my gosh, even Fluttershy make for a great supporting cast in this episode! But instead of rambling on about this, I should probably explain why I feel this way.

My favorite kind of My Little Pony dialog is when the characters engage in conversation that feels natural. A lot of things go into this. Each pony has to be realized enough that the writer and the viewer have a good sense of what they would say in a given conversation. My Little Pony has a degree of difficulty in maintaining consistently realized characters, because of the show’s multiple writers and disjointed continuity. That’s why it’s so hard to say with concrete sureness that a character has changed over the course of the show. The characters are changing almost episode to episode in small ways at the whims of the writers, so contradictory information is a constant.

This leads to interpreting the characters with a very loose definition. It’s impossible to definitively determine how Fluttershy would react to a given situation in confidence, because she’d probably react differently depending on who’s writing her that week. And this isn’t entirely a bad thing. I think it has a lot to do with why the series has so much fan work made for it—each fan has their own realization of the characters. My version of Fluttershy, for instance, would probably be a lot like the one in this episode, even though I don’t think that the Fluttershy who existed in Magic Duel is an invalid character either.

I’ve found that over the course of this show, the episodes which I enjoy the most are the ones that play the characters closer to how I would write them myself. I like it when the ponies feel like real people, and when their dialog sounds like something one of my friends would say, through the filter of the ponies’ personalities as I like to interpret them. This episode manages to sound so true to life because the topic of the ponies’ conversation is the number one topic of all conversation in any group of friends: shit-talking.

(“and you tasted that pie”)

It’s actually shit-talking of a more motherly sort than of a friend circle sort. It’s like when a mom has a problem with her kid, and she’s trying to get help from her close friends. All of them know that he’s a good kid, so none of them wants to hurt his feelings, but they’re all totally aware that this is a real problem which needs to go away. And they handle it with exactly the level of kids’ gloves that this kind of situation would have in real life. It’s taken less seriously, and more as a pain in the ass, as each of them hopes to just brush the conflict under the rug, but Spike, being the child he is, takes the whole thing too seriously.

It’s so small-scale that it feels all the more true to life. Despite the actually deadly focal points of the episode, the conflict between spike and AJ in itself is decidedly minor, with consequences leaning of the side of annoying rather than dangerous. That’s why the mane six end up concocting such a stupid and lazy plan to get Spike to stop what he’s doing, rather than seriously telling him to knock it the fuck off.

My favorite part is how none of them even takes it seriously. In spite of Rarity’s grandstanding, she and Pinkie Pie are just smiling the whole time. Rainbow Dash brings a seriously awesome roar to the table, but she bursts out laughing because the fake timberwolf is so damn stupid-looking. Applejack doesn’t even try to make her part convincing or sensible.

I thought about putting all of the episode’s great conversations into this video, but that would be a bit excessive, and anyways, you’ve seen the episode yourself. AJ’s initial conversation with Rarity, Rainbow Dash’s joining in, AJ talking to Twilight (also known as My Dad) later in the ep, Rarity’s explanation of acting, and the entire fake Timberwolf scene are all brilliant. I noticed that this episode was written by Merriwether Williams and conceptualized by Dave Polsky, and I can’t help but wonder if Polsky was a little more involved than the credits imply, since the entire Timberwolf scene totally seems like his style of character interaction.

Anyways, with all the broad concept discussion out of the way, let’s go back through the episode and pick up on some things we may have missed.

Twilight’s assignment to read twelve books continues on the season-long trend of Twilight training in the background of episodes. At this point, I have no doubt that this was meant to purposefully create a sense of continuity across the season.

This episode features the first instance, as far as I remember, of 3D-rendered animation in this show in the form of the timberwolves. I assume that this was done because the high detail of these monsters was too difficult to handle in Flash, either in that it was hard to animate, or in that Flash crumbled under the pressure as it’s known to do. In any event, I think it worked quite well.

I like the way Applejack’s lack of want for Spike’s help is both because she’s opposed to having Spike feel the need to repay her on an ethical level, and also just outright doesn’t need his help to begin with. It covers a lot of ground, whatever that means.

On that note, I also like that Spike’s dragon code is kind of serious business, and the order in which that seriousness is presented to us. Right from the beginning, Applejack respects the fact that Spike wants to be an honorable dragon, which is why she doesn’t completely refuse his help. We later learn from Twilight, in a non-specific way, that a Dragon Code is a really big deal for dragons. Had Applejack been told this from the beginning, it would’ve been the primary reason that she let Spike help her, rather than just out of general respect, and it would’ve weakened the episode as a whole.

One thing that really bothered me about this episode is that it doesn’t make sense for Spike to suck so much at doing chores. The stuff he does for Twilight Sparkle is mostly the same stuff that he does for Applejack, so it stands to reason that he shouldn’t be a complete fuck-up at it. It would’ve been better if Spike only failed at farm-related tasks, like he does with the apple gathering and the pie baking.

I know I’ve gone over the character interactions at length in this video already, but lets revisit Fluttershy for a moment. Fluttershy interestingly takes the most direct approach in dealing with Spike, even in so few lines of dialog. She confronts Spike directly and in a somewhat disapproving and motherly fashion, bringing to the table her skills as a caretaker and babysitter. It’s very brief and subtle, but it’s some of Fluttershy’s best dialog this season.

Here’s a couple of small AJ moments. One is her looking like she really regrets having to put this plan into action. The other is her telling Spike to go on without her, very quickly acknowledging the deadliness of the situation and heroically telling Spike to escape with his life. These have been small AJ moments.

The death of the giant Timberwolf is really strikingly gruesome. Choking to death is brutal, and while the wolf’s facial expressions are somewhat comical, they are also desperate, and his failing to breathe is really apparent. Choking creeps me out, dude.

Anyways, that about wraps up this week’s episode. I’m glad that so many of you watched and responded to last week’s video even though it was so depressing and I didn’t even post it on reddit, and I’m also glad that so many of you enjoyed my Hearth’s Warming Eve documentary. My family thanks you for all the kind comments. You guys are awesome viewers, and I’m sure that together, someday, we’ll get these videos onto Equestria Daily or something.

3 thoughts on “Analyzing “Spike At Your Service”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that this ep really was better than the last one: a big help is the fact that the tropes I recognize from other cartoons are actually funny. Suspending disbelief and saying, “Let’s just lower the standards to the obvious,” I had a decent time with it—whereas the “Apple Family Reunion” experience was unbearable. There was stuff to enjoy this time, actually enjoy.

    I’m torn when it comes to assessing this ep. Part of this conflict arises out of the fact that I’m far from convinced that the text indicates that Spike *should*straightforwardly be considered a “child,” or a “friend”—at least in the traditional sense of those words. Here’s a ten-dollar buzzword you’re sure to remember from our FLCL days: liminality. He’s called a “baby” dragon—and age-wise, he very well might be, based on his and Twilight’s backstory (he’s probably a physical adolescent by this point)—but his coming-of-age ritual was interrupted. And on the other side of the discussion, he isn’t an adult. This reality, coupled with the fact that the Mane Six doesn’t know how to treat dragons (why Twilight never consults Celestia about it on-screen eludes me; maybe the Princess is just being cryptic as usual), makes it so that he always has his balls handed to him. Very much of this can be considered fair, but not by landslide consensus. In “Read It and Weep,” for example, RD and Twilight give him a funny look as he kisses his biceps. Is that a jibe at masculinity, or at his personal “childishness?” I don’t know, and much as I like RD and that episode, that moment never struck me as quite right. I wouldn’t have minded it, if the characters were actually prone to reacting that way, but it was too external, almost a “girls are level-headed, boys are dimwits” moment.

    There was once a commercial for Clorox or something wherein a father is literally dipping his son’s socked feet into white paint. The mother literally groans and facepalms. I was literally blinking the first time I saw it: “What…the…hell…?”

    Spike may be a “friend,” and he may be intelligent, but these never really seem to equate. And why should they, realistically speaking? He’s earnest and naïve. So the truth is that he ends up kind of being a friend in that condescending sense. In that sort of situation where a six-year-old wants to become “friends” with you. Like a precocious adolescent second cousin or something, who’s living with your friend. It’s weird. There’s affection, sure, but not quite deep friendship and equality; that’s where the fun of assessing actions done by and to him comes from.

    This is precisely why small bits of certain fan videos really, *really* work for me—like the .MOV series and “Friendship is Witchcraft.” They point out, deconstruct and reconstruct the implications of these “tiny” gaps. Despite the endless shit Spike gets (being called “lame” to your face, and babied by the chick you like can be miserable), he isn’t blown away by it; he isn’t all that much more over-the-top than the others are (he’s probably less so), which makes him fun to watch. And his “stereotypical male” way of thinking can at times be SO—FUCKING—REFRESHING. Rather than even bothering to engage or enable Twilight’s agonizing in “Ticket Master” (even RD would bother to), he facepalms and cries, “I don’t even want to go to this shit! Fuck! Just figure it out on your own!” A viewer can’t ever really say there are “true” moments of sexism in the narrative, just occasionally-annoying ways of thinking. But the mares get away with it, because there are so few dragons, and they’re all written to be dumb brutes, or assholes. How the hell are they supposed to keep an open mind in a situation like that? So we let it go.

    I actually theorize that Spike is magically-enhanced, but he’s going to have to learn how to keep the enhancement at bay, or abandon it if he so decides.

    As an instance exploring all I’ve said so far: in “Dragon Quest,” his desire to “find himself” is largely a joke. It turns out to be really fortunate that the ponies were with him, but only because they didn’t trust him (and truth be told, he was young…or maybe small?). That he can be so self-reflective about it (more so, arguably, than the mares are) shows that he’s not quite a child. More importantly, for us viewers to shunt the discussion into a “so-what-if he’s-clever-he’s-still-a-child” dichotomy falls apart when we consider how useful, even necessary, he actually is. He’s not independent, but he’s intelligent, and he can be a big damn hero once in a while.

    That’s what gets me here, the more I think about it. I feel that the liminality—by which I mean the haziness—to his character has been choked. His desire to be “noble” or whatever was totally fair, understandable. It’s meant something dear to him ever since “Dog and Pony Show” way back in the first season. Possibly earlier.

    The whole approach here just felt really half-assed, and I guess I was supposed to find that entertaining or real. The conflict, at least for me, is that it’s fairly obvious that Spike isn’t analogous to an ordinary kid who messes things up. Everything relies on this assumption; and if it isn’t tenuous (which I think it to be), it’s at least too contestable to leave entirely open. I was required to assume something I thought to be a stretch, and to read in situations with which I personally have never really dealt (and was forced to “believe” as a child by watching cartoons and films).

    I don’t glorify (I’m not talking about “right” or “wrong” or whatever but about “high” achievement of reflecting reality) the actions of the Mane Six, EXCEPT Fluttershy’s—and you totally nailed her actions, I think. The thing is, they were all just being themselves, not decidedly better people. Rarity’s actions might be seen as slightly “better,” but only because she was apparently hiding her dislike of Spike’s baking from both AJ and Spike (not just Spike; that would have been really mean). I’m not convinced that RD *wouldn’t* have just set things straight. Hell, she did it when telling Pinkie Pie that she was being an obvious nuisance to Cranky Doodle. Holy fuck, even Pinkie Pie was in on this scheme—what the hell was going on? Did these writers just decide to lift an entire “common” situation from “real life” and ignore the nuances? I exaggerate here, of course.

    This indistinct assumption is why even Fluttershy’s approach sits funny. See, it’s right and believable that someone like her *would* react the way she did; I love that. But something like that is supposed to be questioned, not taken at face value. When it comes down to it, we are right to treat children like children, but when a situation is ballooning into something inconvenient or destructive, the adult is supposed to be responsible. There’s a risk to being straightforward, and potential negative consequences, but the risk, in most situations, is probably worth taking. Fluttershy’s viewpoint isn’t wrong, but unsuitable: Spike’s issue is in the valuation of his and other lives, and his commitment to noble aspirations. He wants to prove himself to others, not so much to himself. That’s an essential part of his conclusion in “Dragon Quest” (wonder how Peewee’s doing?). Ultimately, I feel weird in saying that Spike desire to be a bit of a noble knight is silly or illegitimate, when the mares have the right to shunt him into “childhood” whenever they like.

    AJ finally promises not to see him as less noble (even takes off her hat), but…I dunno, that still sounds patronizing (lol, matronizing?). Nobility ISN’T that negotiable, which is how you get tragic romance and hero stories; in the end, you understand why they do what they do. I’m not sure if the narrative gives this reality fair consideration. It feels like they were trying too hard to mess with “chivalry and save-the-princess” masculinity—too sociopolitical for me (I’m B.S.-ing here).

    Also—why the FUCK did the Mane Six run from the wolves?

    I think the pie thing was bullshit, too. The only real mistake he should have made was dropping the eggs. That’s it. Overused, but it’s a common mistake: you can break eggs out of clumsiness or not quite being delicate enough in the handling. The responsibility associated with fucking up with eggs is gray area. With respect to everything else, though, everyone has something he or she’s competent at in farm work; everybody who visits a farm in a group of elementary school students fucking learns this—that’s fucking half the point of going (I say this as a guy who hated these field trips). So being too small to carry bushels of apples? Fine. His tail’s knocking over a bucket of soapy water? Mild clumsiness, which Apple Bloom didn’t seem to mind. Accidentally throwing mops around? Yeah, I could see that. But he can fucking bake cupcakes (unless Twilight used magic to help him), so he can damn well bake a pie, shitty as it might look. The point should have been that he *may or may not have been* more of a burden than he realized, not that he was actually an unbearably huge fucking burden. Too unsympathetic, too obvious.

    • You’ve made me realize to some extent why I find this episode so relatable. I have two younger brothers: Victor, who’s a year and a half younger than me, and Shade, who’s six years younger than me. Victor and I have been inseparable for our entire lives, meaning that we largely shared all of our friends. There was always a sense of “Victor’s friends” and “Conrad’s friends” based on who met them and how old they were, but that became more and more hazy as the years went on, to the point that now we just have a group of friends that isn’t specific to either of us at all.

      These days, Shade has his own group of close friends completely separate from us, meaning that he’s also less involved in mine and Victor’s group of friends compared to how he used to be. Growing up, Shade usually only had one friend at any given time (we moved every year or so, meaning we consistently were changing friends), and being as he was just a little kid, he mostly wanted to be doing what his big brothers were doing, especially because we were always doing it together.

      So as a result, we’ve almost always had Shade around. Victor hated it growing up, but my parents always made sure we didn’t kick him out of the group, and I was always looking out for him, so Shade was persistently there—a little kid in a group of much bigger kids.

      Because I was always a bit smarter than other kids, Victor was of course a bit smarter than other kids, and Shade eventually came up a hell of a lot smarter than other kids, having spent all of his time around people who were advanced for their age, six years older than he was.

      That’s why Spike is intelligent. I definitely think he’s still meant to be a small child, because not that much time has passed since the show started, and Spike has been called a “baby” dragon on a fairly regular basis. His mistake in going to the coming of age ceremony was really that he’s too disconnected from dragon culture to have known that he wasn’t old enough yet. But the reason he’s intelligent is because his sister-like figure is much older (and smarter than the other ponies), and all of her friends are much older, and he hangs out with them.

      Growing up, Shade always played video games with the rest of us, and I remember how we would complain a lot because he sucked at games, being younger. So Shade quickly had to get a lot better at games to make us willing to play with him all the time. He had to keep up, and by the time he was ten or so, it wasn’t even a matter of him being a younger kid, he was just one of the guys in a way that was really natural to us. By the time Victor was in high school, he’d learned to respect and nurture Shade like I did, and since then we’ve had many times where we stop and go, “oh right, I forgot Shade’s a lot younger than us.”

      But there were also times when we have to deal with his temper, or his ideas about what he was doing, and while Vic and I were a bit too young to handle it with as much kid gloves as the ponies handle Spike, we still had the watchful eyes of our parents, who have always been the type to tell us we can do whatever we want, making sure that we would let Shade do whatever pleased him, and we would have to guide his efforts more than prevent them.

  2. Ohhh…okay. Your anecdote helps tremendously. See, I’m an only child, was “smarter” for my age in school like you, and expected that I would be seen as the adult I felt myself to be. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was. I spent so much time in my own head and relatively unattached from people that I lost touch a bit. I got the patronizing “he’s so smart” when I would babble about some obsessive or nerdy nonsense.

    Thanks for your explanation of Spike’s intelligence. I didn’t see that point very clearly until you laid it out. When I think about it, I’ve never really had friends in my younger years (i.e. people your age that you advise and are unhesitatingly make yourself vulnerable to) my age. I became a real best friend at 18 (I had to ask him; it was creepily reminiscent of an awkward romance: “Like…what is this between us?” Really weird.). I had a Big Brother a few decades older, and now I have two other friends who are much the same way. Talking about teen life always seemed like a waste; unfortunately, by the time I had my own teen drama issues, I was 22. Other than that, there are two college roommates, one of them on the West Coast.

    Having thought about this more, it seems that there were also some plot holes I missed, like Spike’s not breathing fire onto the timberwolves (fuck it, maybe some technicalities).

    And if RD could smash into a tower of rocks, she could smash through timberwolves when they weren’t looking. Just sayin’.

    And what happened to Spike’s greatest fear from “Crystal Empire?”

    Splitting hairs? Maybe. Unfortunately, we’re supposed to lower our standards to the point that contrivances are acceptable; few people seem to think about the fact that there’s a serious risk that they might not be all that funny to the viewers who remember the shows from which they derive.

    Kind of a significant reason (one of many) why I don’t engage the forums. “You’re overthinking it,” has to be one of the most boring (and silly) viewpoints I’ve encountered in fandom. The show attempts to show us ranges in emotion and action, so that we can learn stuff. It claims to (and clearly does, on its better attempts) do this. So why allow shortcuts? How are we supposed to work with anything satisfying or legitimate, if we can just be “ironic,” sarcastic, and jokey about its fooling around? Good entertainment should at least be novel. Kids deserve new humor if it can, through hard thinking and hard work, be achieved.

    I did laugh though at Pinkie Pie’s fixation with the mustache, though. That was legit.

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