|Not a level-appropriate encounter… for the dragon.|
It’s November 26, 2010, and the top song on the Billboard charts is Rihanna featuring Drake autotuning her way through “What’s My Name.” The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s less bad than the last two top songs we’ve suffered through. No change at the box office, with Harry Potter still running the show. In non-entertainment news, NATO agrees to start pulling out of Afghanistan, which I’m sure has nothing at all to do with Wikileaks’ revelations last month about the war crimes NATO forces committed there, North and South Korea play at nuclear brinksmanship, and the wedding of Prince William is announced (which will matter for ponies in about one and two-thirds seasons). To prove that not all news is war or trivia, the U.S. also creates a polar bear preserve twice the size of the U.K, which is pretty awesome.
Meanwhile in the world of candy-colored magic equines, we have “Dragonshy,” the first episode by Meghan McCarthy and, as I mentioned last week, the best episode we’ve looked at yet.
The big temptation, of course, is to make this post entirely about Fluttershy. She is best pony, after all, at least if we ignore fanworks and fanon, and it would be easy to fill a couple thousand words just talking about how completely awesome she is in this episode. That, however, would be the job of a fan blog, not an analysis blog. A fan I may be, but a fan blog this is not, and so we shall have to reluctantly force ourselves to consider something other than the awesomeness that is Fluttershy. I’ll try to keep the post to just being mostly about her.
Let us instead discuss, at least to start with, the awesomeness that is Meghan McCarthy. By coincidence, I happen to be writing this article just a few days after the premier of her first season as story editor, and it’s interesting to compare. Two years ago, she was very nearly unknown, having worked on only three shows prior, at least as far as IMDB is aware: Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Class of 3000, and Fish Hooks. Of those, Foster‘s is the only one I’ve seen or even heard of prior to writing this article. Now she’s The Good Pony Writer, responsible for such stellar scripts as “Party of One,” “Lesson Zero,” and “A Canterlot Wedding.”
Had I written this article a week earlier (note: I write the articles anywhere from several days to a week before posting), we could have left it there. Until a week ago, we lived in a universe where “Call of the Cutie” and “Hearts and Hooves Day” were Meghan McCarthy’s weakest episodes, and by my count there were at least ten episodes worse than either. But unfortunately, we no longer live in that universe; we live in a universe where “The Crystal Empire” exists, and (especially mere days after the premiere) there is no way to watch “Dragonshy” untainted by the knowledge of what is to come.
It’s too bad, really. The reason I list top songs and movies and news stories at the beginning of each post is to try to locate these episodes in the time of broadcast, in the hopes of approaching them as the viewers would have at the time. This is really, really hard with a show as recent as this, because the differences between 2010 and 2012 aren’t that great. It gets really hard when we have an excellent episode by an excellent writer to talk about, and yet the episode fresh in my mind is one that has the fandom calling for her head.
This is particularly an issue with “Dragonshy,” because unlike most of McCarthy’s episodes, “Dragonshy” and “The Crystal Empire” follow a standard adventure template: The mane six travel somewhere, encounter a monster, and have to defeat it or drive it off. Further, the dragon is extremely similar to King Sombra: both speak very little, have very little actual screen-time, are associated with clouds of darkness, and have their threat primarily demonstrated by means of Celestia describing it to Twilight.
The big difference, however, is that the dragon is an effective villain. We will most likely talk about how and why Sombra fails to be effective when we get to season 3; for now, let’s talk about what makes the dragon a good villain.
It’s important for an adventure story to have a good villain. A character story doesn’t need one; a character story is about getting into a protagonist, learning who they are as you watch them grow or change. The question a character story most needs to answer is who, as in “Who is this character?” and “Who are they becoming?” An adventure story, on the other hand, is about watching a protagonist overcome an obstacle or weather a threat; it’s not about who but how, as in “How will they get out of this one?” (Not “Will they get out of this one?” That’s a thriller or horror story or maybe a tragedy, not an adventure.)
To answer a question effectively, a work must get its audience to ask the question, so that they care about the answer. If the question is “Who is this character?” then it follows that a character story depends on having an interesting protagonist who provokes the audience to want to know more about them. If the question is “How will they get out of this one?” then it follows that an adventure story must have interesting obstacles that provoke the audience to ask the question; usually, that means an effective villain.
Several elements make the dragon effective. First, we see his threat right from the start, when smoke covers the sky. This immediately has Fluttershy in a panic, and soon after Twilight reads out a letter from Celestia and confirms the threat. It’s important that the episode does both; if only Fluttershy panicked, then (given her usual timidity) we wouldn’t know that the dragon is a serious threat. On the other hand, if we had only the letter from Celestia, who is a remote character both physically and emotionally, we wouldn’t have the immediate connection that a pony we care about is afraid. The two together combine to make the dragon genuinely menacing.
Once the dragon is established to be a real threat, he stays off-screen for most of the episode. This enhances the threat he poses, because the viewer is forced to imagine a being capable of snoring so much smoke it blots out the sky, or roaring so loud it shakes an entire mountain. The danger of this technique, of course, is that he’ll be disappointing once we actually get to see him, but this is easily enough averted by having him face and defeat five of the Mane Six in rapid sequence.
Finally, enraged by Rainbow Dash’s straight-up attack, he emerges from his cave. However, the dragon does not actually attack; he does something far more interesting, and subtle enough that I didn’t catch it until the excellent Samdamandias pointed it out to me on the Lunaverse forum. I’ve embedded a vlog where I lay it out, but basically the next scene is something straight out of a nature film: the dragon engages in a threat display in an attempt to dominate and drive off the ponies, Fluttershy counters with a threat display of her own, and as her threat display is more effective, the dragon is immediately reduced to a submissive posture.
This is an incredibly significant moment. First, it’s the establishing moment for Fluttershy’s character: in the words of the inimitable Douglas Adams, “You would have to push through a lot of soft squidgy bits in order to find a bit that didn’t give when you pushed it. That was the bit that all the soft squidgy bits were there to protect.” Second, it shows us why McCarthy is able to write the dragon (or Crysalis, for that matter) as an effective villain.
Looking at McCarthy’s episodes, it becomes clear that she is more comfortable writing character episodes than adventures. Why, then, would she write an adventure as her first episode for the show?
Let’s go back to the distinction we started with: Character episodes are about characters encountering and overcoming or being overcome by elements of themselves. Adventures are about characters encountering and overcoming external threats.
But what happens when the external threat is an element of the character? This is an approach that’s gained a lot of traction in televised fantasy in recent years, largely because one show took that idea and ran with it all the way to becoming one of the most popular and most influential cult hits of the 1990s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy, classic monsters function simultaneously as villains in their own right and metaphors for typical teen problems; in one of the most obvious examples, the main villain of the second season is a nice-seeming boyfriend who has sex with the female protagonist and turns evil immediately on getting what he wants.
As Twilight points out in “Dragonshy,” it makes no sense for Fluttershy to be afraid of the dragon. Fluttershy has shown no fear for monsters before, having walked up to the manticore quite confidently in “Elements of Harmony,” and she shows no particular fear of monsters after this episode. She claims to be specifically afraid of dragons, but shows no fear of Spike. True, she explains this away by saying that Spike’s a baby dragon and therefore nonthreatening, but it’s still a bit of a stretch, since in general Fluttershy isn’t afraid of physical threats; Fluttershy is afraid of social threats.
Consider what Fluttershy says about herself in this and later episodes, and how she behaves toward others. She is extremely cautious about new people, and instinctively assumes a submissive posture upon encountering them (as in “Mare in the Moon”). She is so afraid of provoking the disapproval or anger of others, and so sensitive to that anger upon encountering it, that it dominates her life entirely; just as Rainbow Dash almost never touches the ground, Fluttershy almost always positions herself below whatever pony she’s talking to. Her experience of others is thus as frightening entities that loom over her and must be conciliated, just as the initial appearance of the dragon is as a vast cloud of smoke, and then later a mountain, both looming presences that hang over the tiny ponies.
The dragon, in other words, is Fluttershy; it is her fear and her imagination of what will happen if she upsets another pony. This is why it is so much fun to watch her finally stand up to it: In an inversion of Applejack’s discovery that her greatest strength is a weakness, Fluttershy discovers strength in her weakness. The same hypersensitivity to the attitudes and stances of others that makes her afraid to provoke anger and judgment (and, incidentally, the same hypersensitivity that makes her good with animals, as again note her encounter with the manticore) enables her to instinctively realize the dragon is posturing, not attacking, and that she can posture back and force him to back down.
Put another way, the entire episode consists of Fluttershy holding Fluttershy back. By defeating the dragon, Fluttershy overcomes those parts of herself that are holding her back; she defeats herself, and by doing so achieves victory.
Unlike “Boast Busters,” which played with the adventure structure but left the content largely intact, “Dragonshy” sticks to a typical adventure structure, the purest since the series premiere. However, it uses that structure to tell what is ultimately a character story, and manages thereby to become unquestionably the best story we’ve looked at yet. McCarthy is up to a delicious start–and from our vantage point, just past watching what is probably her worst episode, it’s worth remembering just how good she was out of the gate.
Next week: A classic odd couple and a heavy storm; it must be time for a slumber party at Twilight’s house!