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Let’s move along then, eh? Ever have those moments where an episode just makes you want the next one more than the one you’ve got?
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Castle Mane-ia is typical MLP fluff, with a slight edge thanks to the season long story arc. On the surface, it’s an episode where nothing really happens in terms of character or plot progression, and I can’t say there’s any dialog or animation beats worth writing home about. This is the writing debut of Josh Haber, and while he seems to have a basic grasp of the characters, he hasn’t really done anything with them. I do like the choice to center on pairings of Rainbow Dash and Applejack and Fluttershy and Rarity, since I’ve always had the sense that these pairs would hang out regularly, but it doesn’t amount to much.
To explain why this dialog falls flat, I’m gonna pull on something way out of any show’s league and mention one of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert on the subject of Pulp Fiction. Namely, that the film’s dialog is great because it’s “about something.” What Ebert meant by this is that, not all of the dialog was only in service of explaining the plot. Pony is usually pretty good about having its characters casually converse and mention things that aren’t immediately relevent to the plot at hand, but in this episode it feels like every line of dialog is aimed at the viewer, explaining to us what is going on, rather than aimed at one-another.
How many times does Rarity remind us that she’s here to restore tapestries, or Fluttershy remind us of what terrible fate could befall Angel bunny, yet neither of them ever seems to actually be paying attention to what the other is saying? About ten minutes into the episode, I got my mom to sit down and watch it with me, and I started trying to deduce if I needed to explain what had happened so far. Then Rarity mentioned her restoration project, Fluttershy stressed the importance of finding Angel, Applejack and Rainbow Dash agreed that whoever stayed in the castle longer was most daring pony, and Twilight mused about how she still hadn’t found the book she was looking for. I coulda jumped into the episode here and implicity understood what had happened before with no problem.
Tonally, the episode goes for a Scooby Doo vibe, which is a thing that I’ve never understood. We know the characters aren’t in danger, so the horror beats are pointless, and I don’t think there’s much funny about characters predictably getting scared of things. Plus we’ve already had much better episodes about ponies being paranoid over their surroundings. I feel like Scooby Doo type episodes of cartoons are more a play on nostalgia these days than any guided attempt at effecting a legitimate tone, but that’s neither here nor there.
The aspects of this episode which actually feel noteworthy relate more to the overarching plotline than to any of the individual stories of the ponies wandering into the castle. No one cares about Rarity’s restoration project or who most daring pony is, but the question about what’s in the box still looms overhead, and this episode gives us some pretty big hints about the season’s possible continuity.
Yesterday, Cookie Cutter shared a prediction with me that kind of blew my mind since I hadn’t seen it mentioned in any of the analysis videos I watched of the premiere. Her prediction was that we will soon be introduced to a season-long villain for the mane six to fight. Initially, this was based on the perplexing lack of a new villain in the season premeire, and the fact that Discord’s seeds had just now decided to sprout after all these years right after Twilight’s ascension. It seems unlikely that this was mere coincidence, especially with Discord’s unreliable nature. Episode 2’s credits tease at a shadowy cloaked figure, who returns once more at the end of the third episode, suggesting a continued ominous presence.
If the season-long villain really is the Pony of Shadows as clued at in episode three, then it justifies both the use of the Nightmare Moon flashback in the premiere, as well as the use of the Two Sisters’ Castle as a location in this episode. Our new villain is likely a remnant of Nightmare Moon, who was formerly fought exclusively through use of the Elements of Harmony, which have now been locked inside the Tree of Harmony. We’ve seen fragments of Nightmare Moon as a villain in the MLP comics already, so there’s even precedent to the idea.
It would be interesting and more than a little refreshing to see a full villain arc, as opposed to a villain who only shows up in the final episodes. Maybe this villain will be more fleshed out and better integrated into the overall storyline. It would also put a lot more pressure on the mane six to locate all the keys and open the mystery box before the villain can enact whatever evil plan they may have in store.
But, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; for the time being, this is all speculation. One more thing Castle Mane-ia sets up, following in the tradition of the third episodes of the first and second seasons, is this season’s vehicle for delivering moral messages. Now that the mane six no longer have the princess to answer to, they’ve decided to start answering to one-another, by keeping a shared diary. It’s an interesting setup, and surprisingly smooth transition from the previous system, so I like it–though it’s gonna leave a lot of nostalgia for the phrase “dear Princess Celestia.”
I can’t say I particularly liked or disliked Castle Mane-ia overall. I honestly got more excited over the Castlevania reference in the title than I did over watching the episode itself. Next week we’ll have a new Dave Polsky episode, so I expect the pot to be stirred at least, for better or for worse. Let’s see what’cha got, season four!