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In my experience, opinion can be an incredibly fickle thing, dependent primarily on personal decision-making more than any kind of natural law. There’s an extent to which we naturally gravitate towards liking or disliking things based on who we are as people, but there’s also a more close-up level on which we conciously decide which things we’re going to like or dislike, whether we frame it that way or not.
Many people devise a set of rules, strict or vague, to structure their feelings cleanly. Some have opinions of, “quality,” seperate from their own likes and dislikes, as implicitly understood via greater cultural context. Some people can easily discern their opinions of the quality or likability of a work, while for many it can become an incredibly complex decision the moment they have to take a step back and look at it.
And this is why we have phrases like, “first impressions are everything.” Because often, our gut reactions are a key mechanism in helping us to pick a direction for our opinions. For instance, I’m sure that if I sat down and tried enough, I could find a lot to like about any of those 400 anime I dropped, but my gut reactions to them were so negative that I could easily dismiss them out of hand and move on to things that I more obviously liked.
It’s when you’re forced to slow down and really grind your mind against a piece of media that things start to get a lot more complicated. Such as, when there’s a new episode of your favorite show that you feel you’re supposed to like, in spite of a negative gut reaction. There’s suddenly a complex web of decisions to make, and while it’s easy to be glib and make snap decisions, the proximity of the work to your life might make you sit back and try to hash things out more clearly.
I didn’t like Castle Mane-ia the first time I watched it, and I could’ve left it at that alone. But I’m interested both in the fact that so many people really love this episode, and in that disliking an episode of My Little Pony has a little bit of weight for me. I know that can be hard to relate to for some people, but believe me when I say that the moment your passion, livelihood, and the majority of your friendships are formed around a cartoon show, you start to put a little more thought into the nuance of your feelings towards it than you might otherwise.
In my analysis videos, the question at the forefront of my mind is typically, “why do I feel the way that I do?,” and I typically seek simply to answer this. My initial reaction to Castle Mane-ia was one of lukewarm indifference, so I sought to explain and reflect my feelings. However, upon noticing that so many people loved this episode, I got interested in looking at it as though my initial reaction had never occurred.
In the interest of keeping this post organized, I’m going to break it into two numbered lists. First, Things I Can Like About This Episode, and second, Things I Can Hate About This Episode. Starting with the former:
1. It is an episode of My Little Pony, meaning that it is visually appealing, full of characters that I love, and made by a team of spectacular folks whom I admire. I’m grouping all of these aspects together because they are things I can like about any episode of MLP, so they aren’t that helpful when it comes to comparing episodes against one-another.
2. It is the debut of a new writer, who leaves a distinct mark on the series with their unique sense of pacing.
3. It continues the storyline of season 4, which I am invested in.
4. It is set in a highly interesting location that I’ve hoped to see explored for quite some time. I am a big fan of architecture, especially when it’s in ruins, so there were moments that visually interested me.
5. Applejack and Rainbow Dash are shown to hang out, just as I thought they should. And don’t forget Pinkie was hanging with them too, which feels appropriate. This is what these three do when they’re bored as fuck.
6. Rarity and Fluttershy are shown to hang out, which we’ve known that they do regularly, but haven’t seen them do enough. Rarity continues her penchant for hyperbole, which I enjoy in some kind of weird meta fashion. Also Fluttershy makes a face.
7. The awesome setup of this scene that Tommy Oliver totally broke down awesomely in his video on the episode.
8. Angel bunny is adorable and hilarious throughout the episode.
9. Learning about the history of the castle as a giant playplace for a young Princess Luna.
10. Old pony armor is pretty cool looking!
11. That moment when Rarity screams because the tapestry got torn, rather than out of fear.
12. Andrea Libman’s Fluttershy performance really shines in this episode.
13. Twilight’s almost godlike control over the feelings and actions of her friends in this episode strengthens her correlation with Jeff Winger from Community. The scene wherein she walks with all of them stuck to her feels right out of that show.
14. Pinkie Pie is adorable and hilarious in the organ scene, and we get more of the show’s legendary group reaction shot moments.
15. The tradition of the third episode in a full season introducing a new system for delivering lessons continues.
and, 16. Possible hints of a full-season villain.
Now, let’s list the things I can hate about this episode.
1. Why the fuck is the Everfree Forest suddenly a peaceful place that ponies can just walk through in small groups? Even without evil vines growing everywhere, the forest is home to Cragadiles, Manticores, and Cockatrices. Yes, the inconsistency of this forest’s danger has been a series-long issue, but considering that the previous episode not only featured the forest being incredibly dangerous, but had a lesson basically about not splitting up, it seems daft that all of these ponies would wander into the forest in small groups without at least asking the others if they’d like to come along. I get RD and AJ going, but seeing Rarishy and Twispike go in alone bothers the hell out of me.
2. The bees look terrible.
3. Rarity’s reason for dragging Fluttershy out to the castle is contrived as fuck. Where did she hear these rumors about ancient tapestries? The last group to have ventured to this castle had Rarity fucking IN it! Did she not notice the tapestries before, and if she did, why is she just now coming back? Would she really do this with a team of just Fluttershy? There’s a level of acceptable contrivance in a show like this for getting all the characters in one place, but this just seems like such a stupid and hackneyed reason for them to happen to be at the castle on the same day as everyone else.
4. Spike spends the entire episode scared out of his mind, and Twilight never notices or acknoledges it, and seems to just brush it aside as inconsequential. Isn’t she completely missing the lesson of her own previous episode, Lesson Zero, which was all about not dismissing the worries of your friends just because those worries seem silly to you?
5. The dialog is cyclical and repetitive as fuck. Every time Rarity said, “ungrateful,” or, “restoration,” or AJ and RD said, “daring,” or, “scared,” I found myself wishing it was over with.
6. What was the point of Fluttershy hurting her wing? It feels like the animators didn’t catch that the point was for Fluttershy to not be able to fly out of the hole, and ended up putting a lid on it. This is really a nitpick though.
7. How in the name of fuck is the journal of the two sisters going to help you find the answer to the chest puzzle? Celestia already told you that she didn’t know jack shit about the chest, so her journal is completely useless. Not to mention, Twilight shows a complete lack of concern for the privacy of the still-living royal sisters, which seems a little odd coming from someone who holds them in such high regard.
8. Literally the instant I saw the pony at the organ, I knew it was going to be Pinkie. I actually expected to find out that the organ somehow WAS the school bell, but it turned out the school bell thing was just a really blatant misdirect. It’s kind of hard not to assume that the one main character who isn’t already in the castle, yet is in the episode, isn’t the one playing the organ.
9. This lesson about letting your imagination get the best of you doesn’t resonate at all. Twilight self-congradutorily tells everyone how glad she is to have helped them get over their fears, when all she really did was be inconsiderate of Spike’s feelings, and happen to be right about the pony of shadows. Yes, it can be nice to have a level-headed person around, but it’s not cool of her to essentially belittle her friends for being scared.
10. The other lesson about how learning about the past helped Twilight deal with problems in the present is excellent, but it feels totally shoehorned into this episode. Twilight was reading that book for no good reason to begin with, other than it was a convenient way to make her feel comfortable confronting the pony of shadows. This lesson could’ve been fleshed out over an entire episode and probably been much more interesting.
My purpose in concocting these two lists is not in the name of comparing them. It doesn’t really matter that there are more items in the first list, nor that my reasons in the second list are a lot deeper than the ones in the first. In truth, I could put together lists of this nature for any episode of the show, but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the issue: do I like the episode or not?
It all comes down to examining the evidence and making decisions. I’ve loved episodes with totally contrived plots, like Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000, or with questionable moral presentation, like Too Many Pinkie Pies, or even with inconsistent characterization, like MMMYstery on the Friendship Express. In each of those episodes, the problems didn’t bother me, because I had decided I liked them for other reasons.
What stuck out to me more than anything when I watched Castle Mane-ia was the repetitive and boring dialog. I don’t know why, but repetitive dialog has always driven me insane in any show. The minute I start thinking, “okay, I get it,” is the minute I start losing interest, and this episode was full of that. As a result, this became the center of my focus. When I watched Tom’s review of the episode, I completely understood why he enjoyed the things he did about it, even though I hadn’t given a second thought to many of those scenes on my own viewing because I was too distracted by my annoyance at Rarity saying the word “ungrateful” again and again.
In the end, though, I’ve got to trust my gut. If I’d enjoyed the episode a little more, the list of things I can like might’ve been what my review looked like. And if I’d hated it a little more, it could’ve been the other list. Like I said before, I could pull a list like that over any episode of the show, but it takes something that really bothers me like Boast Busters or Games Ponies Play to actually pull me into that kind of hateful mode. Breaking down every single fault in Castle Mane-ia would’ve been just as inauthentic to my actual reaction to the episode as focusing on the positives would have been.
But maybe this is where the line between a review and an analysis, or even a thorough analysis, really lies. I didn’t call my video a review because I felt I was doing more than just judging the quality of the episode, but at the same time, I didn’t seek to accomplish much outside of identifying the source of my gut feelings. I left out the word “thorough” because I felt like I was missing something, what with so much praise flying around, yet it was only when Cookie and I discussed our mutual dislike of the episode that I found myself breaking down the negatives to the extreme. If she’d written my video, it would’ve looked a lot like list two, whereas Tom’s looks a lot like list one. And I don’t think for a second that he’d disagree with either of my lists on a conceptual level.
What I want you to take away from this long and convoluted post is that opinions and impressions are not clear-cut and simple things. They have a life and can evolve and expand, and having an opinion means making a choice just as much as it means having a reaction. In my journey to perfect the idea of “thoroughly analyzing,” I think it’s important that I identify the difference between thinking everything that I can about an episode, and thinking along the line that my gut leads me along, so that I can find the greatest variety of resonant answers in and outside of my basic feelings. And if that all makes sense to you, I hope you’ll make similar considerations as you formulate opinions in the future.