Twilight Sparkle. I mean seriously, I can’t even work with that. (Owl’s Well That Ends Well)

Spike’s true colors revealed!

It’s April 22, 2011. The top song is still “E.T.,” and the top movie is still “Rio.” In real news, there’s not much going on: Government crackdowns on the Arab Spring protests are getting more violent, Anne Robinson leaves The Weakest Link, leading to its cancellation, and Apple and Google are revealed to be keeping a massive database (presumably called Skynet) tracking the movements of smartphone owners.

In ponies, Cindy Morrow gives us a predictably mediocre outing with “Owl’s Well That Ends Well.” The episode has some good laughs, an extremely annoying running gag, and a creepily adorable new pet for Twilight.Unfortunately, it’s also heavily focused on Spike, who is at his absolute jerkiest until second season’s “Secret of My Excess,” and while it does a fairly good job of making his behavior laughable and pathetic, there are a couple of odd missteps.

Spike’s jerkassery in this episode is most definitely a play on the Nice Guy Syndrome he was displaying in “Dog and Pony Show.” As I mentioned in that article, Spike is stuck on a transactional model of relationships: he is “nice” (that is, subservient and self-effacing) to a pony, and expects affection and companionship in return. It’s a simple exchange that has the slight flaws of being incredibly passive, easily prone to turning passive-aggressive, and not remotely resembling how real relationships actually work. The advantage for the “Nice Guy” (who should never be confused for a genuinely nice person, but always is in both his own mind and mass media) is that since he never expresses what he actually wants, he never has to deal with being rejected.

The typical progression of Nice Guy Syndrome is cyclical. Its early stages are that transactional relationship; the self-described “Nice Guy” awkwardly and uncomfortably latches onto a woman, continually offering gifts, services, and emotional support, as opposed to taking an honest approach which might allow her agency and thereby risk rejection.. The woman may be aware of how strange this all is, and respond with statements of gratitude but underlying discomfort, or she may think the “Nice Guy” is being genuinely nice and treat him as a good friend, unaware that he has an underlying ulterior motive. Eventually, the woman starts dating someone. Since the “Nice Guy” cannot handle the notion that women has agency, because that in turn implies the possibility of rejection, he cannot deal with the notion that the woman is capable of making good decisions for herself, and therefore concludes that this new person must be a jerk. Any behavior which is less than entirely passive and submissive is taken as evidence of jerkiness. Eventually, the “Nice Guy”–possibly based on repetitions of this cycle or evidence from talking to “Nice Guy” friends–concludes that “women only date jerks” and becomes increasingly bitter and more vocally misogynistic. At this point, they can either grow up and stop being weaselly little passive-aggressive jerks, or they can start throwing money at “pick-up artist” scams and become even more bitter and misogynistic. Sadly, most choose the latter.

“Owl’s Well That Ends Well” depicts the point in Spike’s cycle where the object of his poorly expressed affections brings a new man into her life, the point where his self-centered and idiotic approach to relationships hits inevitable failure. Twilight becomes close to a new male character, Owlowiscious, and Spike’s fragile Nice Guy ego immediately concludes Owlowiscious is somehow evil. The episode mostly does a good job of showing how the exact same behavior is viewed as harmless or neutral by Twilight Sparkle, but menacing and untrustworthy from Spike’s, and to that end here’s a new My Little Po-Mo vlog showcasing the different points of view.

Unfortunately the scene at the end of the vlog suggests that there is at least some objectivity to Owlowiscious’ menace, a suggestion which has no support in the three seasons of the show so far (indeed, after this episode Owlowiscious’ appearances can be numbered on one hand). That suggestion of objectivity weakens the depiction, but to an extent that’s made up for by Spike cavorting in a mustache, cape, and top hat, making it abundantly clear who the villain of this scenario is. (It’s hard to see what other purpose that costume could serve; his retrieval of it is framed like a joke, but it’s not actually funny, and endures for several shots too long to be just for that attempt at a gag.)

Regardless of that one moment, it’s pretty clear that Owlowiscious is a problem only in Spike’s mind. Spike never considers whether Twilight Sparkle might be capable of making her own informed decisions about who to relate with; he projects his own insecurities regarding his position as her assistant and friend into a scenario of being her protector, much as he fantasized about unnecessarily rescuing Rarity in “Dog and Pony Show.” White Knight-ism and Nice Guy Syndrome are frequently closely intertwined, so it’s no surprise he concocts a way to reframe his possessiveness of Twilight as a need to “prove” to her that she’s making a mistake in regards to Owlowiscious’ character.

At no point does Spike consider talking to Twilight. He could, in theory, just tell her how he sees their relationship. He could tell her about the fears that Owlowiscious provokes, reveal his insecurity, and be reassured and comforted. He will never do this, however. The reason he tells himself is that it’s a “burden” on Twilight, because he likes to envision himself as supporting and protecting her, and sees the support-for-affection and service-for-gratitude relationships as flowing in only one direction. The real reason, however, is simply that he lacks the courage to make himself vulnerable. There is a chance that Twilight might respond in a way that he finds hurtful, or reject him, and he is too fearful of that possibility to risk it.

The result is that he utterly denies that Twilight has any agency in this situation. He does not permit her to make any informed choices about her relationship with Spike, because he doesn’t want her to have the power to hurt him. In so doing he sets himself up to forget that she has her own unique interior life, her own needs and wishes and feelings, and tries to engineer situations that force her feelings about Owlowiscious to match his own. In short, he aggressively denies Lesson Zero, and then acts surprised when, on figuring out that he’s doing this, Twilight responds with anger and confusion.

As she herself says, in this episode Spike isn’t the person Twilight thought she knows and loves. That’s because Spike’s transactional model is (as any transactional model must be) highly conditional. If Twilight doesn’t keep up her end of the bargain she never made and doesn’t know about, then in Spike’s mind the deal is off and Spike’s behavior drastically changes. Unfortunately, while a new unstated bargain forms at the end of the episode, there’s little evidence that Spike has learned the underlying lesson, which is the same lesson the series has been repeating for a few episodes now: Relationships require openness and honesty. Don’t assume you know how others feel, and don’t presume to dictate how they “should” feel.

The series is continuing to build up to something, a realization that is still a few episodes away and in another season, but we can see the shape of it now. There is something underlying all friendships, all healthy relationships with other people. Something without which kindness, generosity, honesty, loyalty, laughter, and friendship become twisted parodies of themselves, and that something has to do with recognizing the interiority of others.

The groundwork is laid for what may be the best and most important episode of the entire series. But to get there will require challenging the structure and premise of the show itself, and in the logic of television, that requires a season break. We must therefore put it aside for a little while, knowing that sooner or later, it must be addressed.

Next week: The ablation of Ms. Pinkamena Diane Pie.

6 thoughts on “Twilight Sparkle. I mean seriously, I can’t even work with that. (Owl’s Well That Ends Well)

  1. This post is kind of old, so I have no idea if you'll see this, but I have to write this. I can see how you'd think what you do, but I think you made a huge mistake with this episode. Namely that Twilight isn't Rarity. If Spike acted this way towards Rarity, I could see him being called a 'Nice-Guy', but Spike's relationship with Twilight is very different, and I can't help but feel you've failed to take this into account. Children believe no matter what they do their family will love them and protect them. Occasionally something happens to a child's family however. If they're lucky they may get adopted into a new family, someone who will take care of this child and love and protect them. Their is no blood between them, but these people will love them regardless. To an adult, this is a very touching sentiment. To a child, however, this is a TERRIFFYING idea. For you see, they believe that this love, care, comfort, and safety is conditional, and if that they screw up bad enough, or if someone better comes along, they may get replaced, because there's no reason for their new family NOT to replace them, they're not really related after all. Spike believes, throughout this episode, that Twilight, who is the person that keeps him safe, fed, and comfortable, is going to replace him with Owlowicious. That if he doesn't stop this he, a child, will be living alone on the streets. He does what he does, not out of self-entitlement, as a 'Nice-Guy' does, but out of the desperation of a child who doesn't want to be alone on the streets. I agree that Spike was in the wrong here, but the difference between 'Nice-guy' and desperate child is very important. I love your posts, but this was bothering me alot.

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  2. No worries; I check for comments on the Blogger dashboard, not the actual site, and it lists them by date of the comment, not article. So I always see the most recent comments, even on very old articles.

    I don't think reading Twilight as Spike's adoptive mother works very well, because she's an appallingly terrible, borderline abusive, definitely neglectful parent: she forces him to labor as her assistant, he frequently takes on the role of being her caretaker when she's having one of her freakouts (a major warning sign that something is deeply wrong in a parent-child relationship, unless the child is an adult), she often runs off for extended adventures with her friends without a thought for him… she treats him like an assistant or a familiar, like someone she cares about but is not responsible for the well-being of. If Spike sees Twilight as his mother, it's pretty clear no one's told her.

    So either way, the relationship between the two of them is pretty effed up. And since we already know, from “Dog and Pony Show,” that Spike has a problem with Nice Guy Syndrome, I choose to apply the same reading here.

    (Also, believe you me, it's quite possible to be raised by one's birth family and still believe their love is conditional. After all, it's true. It's just one of those true things that is deeply unhealthy to learn at too young an age.)

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  3. I'm afraid I've gotta agree with the poster above: I think in this episode (and this episode only, mind you. He is a pretty big jerk most of the time) you're being a little too harsh to Spike.

    As we know from The Crystal Empire, Spike's greatest fear is Twilight rejecting him. If I'm recalling correctly, the only time we ever see him cry is when he's presented with the horrible illusion of Twilight banishing him forever. That there's no element of romance in their friendship (which reminds me more of a brother living with his older sister than a proper mother/child relationship, to be honest) is also important here, because it re-frames the “nice guy” problem a little: Twilight may be a horrible mother-figure, but she's the also one who birthed him from his egg and took care of him for all the years they've been together. He's dependent on her for food, shelter, employment, and friends, occupying that strange space between pony and pet that no other character slots into. Being rejected by a close family member without whom you'd be literally left homeless and starving, either at the mercy of the cruel and terrifying real dragons we meet in Dragon Quest or to the horrible wild animals of the Everfree Forest, is far more emotionally terrifying than being rejected by someone you wanted as a lover. This is a dark reflection of the Pinkie Pie/Rainbow Dash/Gilda dynamic from episodes earlier. Is it any wonder that someone as young, proud, and socially naive as Spike doesn't want to admit it and face rejection?

    The intent, in so far as I'm familiar with the tropes of children's stories, is the usual “My new little brother is evil and my parents are replacing me with him” tale that works its way into all children's media eventually, and for good reason: a new family member is a scary and distressing time for a young child. I can't bring myself to hold any kind of grudge against a child (or baby dragon) for something as fundamental as wanting to stay with their family, as wrong headed as the (thankfully mostly harmless) actions they take may be.

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  4. Maybe I'm just predisposed to being unsympathetic to that attitude, having two younger siblings myself regarding whom I never had any “they're stealing my parents” panic. The issue I see is that Spike *isn't* entitled to have a caretaker. No one is. His passive-aggressive and childish response to Owlowiscious is *understandable* in the terms you lay out, but I don't see it as justified. I don't have an issue with him being frightened per se, but with the way he handles it–and I think the episode is entirely correct in positioning him as the party in the wrong.

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  5. To be fair to Twilight:
    A. The worst Twilight ever pushes Spike is (to my knowledge) Swarm of the Century, where she was pushing pretty much everyone to their limits. Generally the things she asks Spike to do are reasonable.
    B. As seen in a later episode, Spike seems to personally feel that being taken care of means doing favors and services for the other party.
    C. While their is some co-dependency, I personally could see Twilight being able to live a day to day life without Spike (though not as well). Not so much the reverse.
    D. He has proven that he can at least take care of himself when provided food and shelter already. I just can't see him finding those on his own.
    (Also, I see their relationship more brother/sister than son/mother anyway)
    I'm not saying your point of view is invalid, but it struck me as so different from my own I had to at least comment. Feel free to disagree.

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  6. Oh no, I think it's a perfectly legitimate read you're developing, it's just not the reading I prefer, mostly because the reading I posit is consistent with the way Spike behaves in his other major relationships (Rarity and Applejack). I read him as one of those people who can't see past his own notions of How Things Should Be–who's always “helping” other people based on HIS ideas of what they “should” want and need instead of what they actually do.

    It's entirely possible that he's also a scared little boy, but while that explains his behavior to a degree I don't see that it excuses it. The best thing to do with misbehaving children is to identify the cause of their behavior and correct it, not identify the cause of their behavior and then blithely let them go on doing it.

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