All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile/From these happy friends of mine (Party of One)

Who knew Jackson Pollock was a brony?

It’s April 29, 2011. The top song is Rihanna and Britney Spears singing “S&M,” which is exactly as repetitive, brainless, and tawdry as you’d expect from the singers and song title. The top movie is Fast Five, so also repetitive, brainless, and tawdry. In real news, WikiLeaks releases files that confirm that everything we thought was happening in Guantanamo Bay is, in fact, happening in Guantanamo Bay, renowned crazy person Ron Paul (not to be confused with his even crazier son, Rand Paul) announces his intent to run in the increasingly wacky Republican Presidential race, and the Playstation Network implodes.

Meanwhile, Megan McCarthy brings us the best episode of Season 1, “Party of One.” There is so much greatness in this episode it’s hard to keep this post from degenerating into incoherent squeeing noises. The jokes are solid, and the visual gags come thick, fast, and funny. The animation is as good as first season gets, the lighting is inspired, the use of backgrounds is incredible–the episode simply hits on all cylinders.

Like “Applebucking Season,” it’s a character collapse. In a character collapse, circumstances force a character (in this case Pinkie Pie) outside of their normal role. That’s just good character writing, however; to be a true character collapse, the character must respond by inverting elements of their own personality and undermining their own goals or well being. In short, a character collapse is a process of transformation by which a character, through their own choices and in-character responses to circumstances, becomes their own foil.

Up to this point, Pinkie Pie has been a cartoon character. Of course, this is a cartoon, so every character is a cartoon character, but Pinkie Pie is by far the cartooniest of the bunch. With her random outbursts, tendency to break the fourth wall, and general happy-go-lucky bouncy attitude, she’d fit right in on Animaniacs or some of the less cynical Looney Tunes shorts. Like Roger Rabbit, she can do basically anything as long as it’s funny. Even when she’s not doing anything in particular, her bright color and characteristic bouncing motion liven up any shot that contains her. While that motion is reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew, her friendly, fun-loving demeanor, innocent-prankster mischievous streak, and above all her ability to pull anything she needs out of nowhere recall the classic, and sadly now nearly forgotten, Felix the Cat.

Pinkie is also a cartoon in the negative sense of the word, or at least she is at the beginning of this episode. True, she is colorful and animated, but she is also flat, two-dimensional, and more caricature than character. All Pinkie wants, it seems, is to receive immediate gratification of her desire for the pleasures of parties, friends, and sugar.

There is a concept in psychology, originating with the work of Daniel Kahneman, that we can construct a person as two selves in the same body, tugging in different directions. The experiencing self lives in the moment and wants to do things that are pleasurable now, while the remembering self lives in the past and wants to do things that will create good memories. Because of its focus on remembering the past, the remembering self is capable of planning for the future; it wants to do now what will bring it pleasure in the future. Often they are at odds: for example, hard work to overcome a challenge isn’t very pleasurable and so the experiencing self dislikes it, but it can create very good memories, so the remembering self loves it.

We have seen no trace of Pinkie Pie’s remembering self. She always lives solely in the moment, and seems to never look back. She indulges her every impulse to pursue pleasure, and seems to have no interest in accomplishing anything, no goals, no memories she wants to create. She is literally lacking a dimension all the other characters possess, which is another way of saying that she’s a flat character.

And then Meghan McCarthy comes along to collapse her. It’s quite a feat, collapsing a character that’s already flat, and this episode is a testament to just how good McCarthy is when she’s at the top of her game. Throughout the first two acts, Pinkie Pie sticks to behaviors we’ve seen her use before, albeit from other characters’ perspectives. As in “Griffon the Brush-Off,” she pursues Rainbow Dash relentlessly, somehow managing to already be wherever Rainbow Dash goes, despite Rainbow Dash being the fastest pony in Equestria. And as in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie lurks inside innocuous objects such as a haystack and a bell.

In those other episodes, Pinkie’s behavior was portrayed from the point of view of Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle, and came across as purely humorous. In this episode, her behavior is portrayed from her own point of view, and while still funny, it has an edge of desperation that casts her past actions in a new light. In “Green Isn’t Your Color,” Pinkie expressed a belief that friendships are fragile and can easily be damaged by a broken promise, and dedicated herself to paranoically pursuing Twilight to ensure that she didn’t do so. Now in “Party of One,” Pinkie’s behavior is again a paranoid pursuit of her friends, and again based on her belief that friendships are fragile. Her behavior in “Griffon the Brush-Off” was comically annoying, but driven by a desire to spend time with her friend; now we see that it is not a desire but a desperate need.

With only her experiential self to draw on, Pinkie has no resources to draw on when alone. Her self-esteem and self-image are based entirely on how much fun she is having at the moment, how much attention her friends are paying to her, and how much she is entertaining others. She has no accomplishments or achievements to think back on proudly, no future goals and therefore no progress to be proud of. She doesn’t have Applejack’s or Rarity’s career successes, Twilight’s ever-growing magic and knowledge, or Rainbow Dash’s competitions. In this respect she is most like Fluttershy; both ponies place their sense of self-worth entirely in their ability to please others, with opposite, but equally shattering, effects: Fluttershy feels inadequate when she is around others because she fears earning their disapproval, and Pinkie Pie feels inadequate when she is alone, because she can no longer earn approval.

For all the silliness of Pinkie Pie’s resulting behavior, her distress speaks to a very real problem with being defined solely by one’s relationships rather than by the totality of one’s person. We live in a society where women in particular are likely to be defined by their relationships alone. President Obama, for example, frequently uses a “wives, daughters, mothers” framing when discussing women’s issues, which has the effect of making it seem like he’s talking to men about women and of making it seem like women are only worth something to society because of their relationships to others, as opposed to having the intrinsic worth that, for instance, wealthy straight white cismen are assumed to possess. When Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan started a petition asking him to stop using that framing, it failed to reach the required number of signatures, and some people, such as National Review’s Patrick Brennan, argued that people should be defined by their relationships.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being partially defined by your relationships. Relationships are like food: there’s no one food you absolutely must eat,, but a wide variety of food is essential to a healthy diet, and if you have no food, you will die. Likewise, there’s no one absolutely essential relationship, but to be a fully realized human being you must have relationships of some sort with others, and a wide variety of different types of relationships is much healthier than just one type of relationship. I don’t think anyone is arguing against that; the problem is with being defined entirely by relationships, which undermines self-worth and leads a person to, like Pinkie Pie, be unable to function without constant support from others.

Pinkie Pie’s breakdown, once she believes her friends have abandoned her, is swift and unsettling. It’s a testament to McCarthy that this episode never stops being funny, even though Pinkie is suffering what amounts to a psychotic break in the third act. Everything her “new friends” say is directly from Pinkie’s own thoughts, and quite telling: she is furiously angry at her friends, which speaks to how badly hurt she feels. Without access to her remembering self, she cannot remind herself of all the signs that her friends love and care about her; all she feels is their current absence, and that feels like a betrayal.

Why doesn’t Pinkie Pie have a remembering self? Or more accurately, since everyone has a remembering self, why is hers so overpowered by her experiential self? We got the answer just two weeks ago, in the “Cutie Mark Chronicles.” Her story in that episode has “unreliable narrator” written all over it, but it seems the core of it is true: Pinkie Pie grew up in a joyless environment of emotional isolation and repression, and had no good memories for her remembering self to take pleasure in. When she discovered her gift for partying, she found something to feed her experiential self, and all of her growth since then has therefore gone to that self; her remembering self is stunted. As far as Pinkie is concerned, there is nothing to be gained from remembering the past, and therefore nothing to be gained by caring about the future, by pursuing goals or trying to accomplish anything. She just wants to throw parties and enjoy herself every waking moment of every day, to be loved by everyone and never have to worry about anything, because working hard reminds her of her unhappy childhood. She has swung from one extreme to the other, and utterly missed health in the middle.

Friendship sustains and nurtures her, but the only cure for her desperate lack of self-worth is meaningful accomplishment, something which Pinkie finds an abhorrent reminder of her miserable upbringing. She’s trapped, and it doesn’t seem likely that anyone except either a very good therapist or Pinkie herself can unravel this snare. Friendship is magic, it seems, but not even magic can do everything.

At the end of the episode, Pinkie Pie is bouncing and happy again, because she’s reassured that her friends love her. But has she actually learned anything? Twilight writes the letter to Princess Celestia, not Pinkie, and it seems that from Pinkie’s perspective, the problem was that her friends appeared not to like her, and the solution was discovering they did like her. She still has no self-worth outside her friends’ approval; in short, there’s nothing to prevent something like this from happening to her again.

Fittingly, as the pony most likely to interact with the medium, Pinkie’s collapse has demonstrated the seams in the show itself. Friendship may be magic, but not even magic, it seems, can fix everything. But if that’s true, then what is this show about? What is it for, if not to evangelize to children about the magic of friendship?

Yet again, as it has been doing all season, the show must reinvent itself, and Pinkie Pie has spoken the name of the force of change it requires. As before, it will take several episodes to fully transform, but the collapse of Pinkie is where it truly begins.

Next week: Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

2 thoughts on “All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile/From these happy friends of mine (Party of One)

  1. I managed to catch this episode last week, and it is by far the one I've found most enjoyable. Second place goes to “The Showstoppers”, which makes me believe that most of the show's appeal to me lies more in visuals/storyboarding than in the plotting–the visual flourishes in this particular episode are a huge part of what makes it shine.

    One of the thing the episode's non-resolution (from a character-building perspective, anyway) does is imply that the other ponies would not reject an invitation to one of Pinkie's parties unless there were something in it for Pinkie, which, as you note, is most likely not the case–particularly given the frequency with which they can occur. Is this actually dealt with in the future, or is it left unexplored?

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  2. I don't recall it being explored directly. There are a few more Pinkie Pie-centric episodes, and her character does progress a *little* by the third season, but she doesn't really progress in this respect. The closest is “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” which is more or less about her learning she's sometimes going to miss out on things she wants to get other things she wants, and she can't always be having fun 24/7.

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