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It’s October 15, 2011, and when’s the last time I got to start an article like that, huh? Adele still wants to stalk “Someone Like You,” and the top movie is Real Steel, about which all I know is that when we first saw the trailer, before they said the title my then-fiancee thought it was a live-action Medabots movie and I thought it was going to be Rock’em Sock’em Robots: The Motion Picture.
In real news since the last episode, Google, unable to decide whether they are Skynet or SEELE, make a deal with Israeli antiquities authorities to publish some of the Dead Sea Scrolls online. China launches their first space station module. The war in Afghanistan turns 10. And, continuing the odd synchronicity between Friendship Is Magic and Occupy, the day this story airs is the day Occupy goes worldwide, with coordinated protests in Sydney, Rome, Bucharest, Taipei, Tokyo, Toronto, Berlin, and Madrid.
And with ponies, well, I may as well just say it: This is my absolute favorite episode of the entire series, and a major reason why I still consider Meghan McCarthy my favorite writer on the show. Not that I make any pretense to objectivity in my other articles, but it’s completely out the window on this one. So with that warning aside, let’s just dive right into “Lesson Zero,” shall we?
First off, the animation in this episode is just astounding. Twilight’s facial expressions get progressively more hilarious as the episode goes on, and the big chase sequence is far more varied and frenetic than the equivalent back in “The Ticket Master,” with a lot more variety in how the ponies in the crowd move. Tara Strong nails it, too, working her way up steadily from “Twilight is worried” to complete freakout, so that by the time she is merrily chewing the scenery in the third act it manages to feel natural despite being made of pure, industrial-grade ham. Then, the instant Celestia shows up, she dials it straight back down to sad, contrite Twilight. Tabitha St. Germaine is also deliciously hammy, with her successively more over the top declarations of events as “the worst possible thing.”
As far as the story is concerned, it is a natural follow-up to the previous episodes. “The Return of Harmony” was a narrative collapse, as I said in the article on it, but perhaps it would be best to examine what that means in this less gonzo essay. The term “narrative collapse” originates with professional overreactor Douglas Rushkoff, who uses it to describe what he sees as the modern state of living so much in the present that we can no longer handle linear stories and need constant interruptions and cutaways, as in Family Guy or reality shows. Because apparently we’re all just imagining the explosion of dramas with season-long linear arcs in the last few years?
Anyway, Philip Sandifer of TARDIS Eruditorum has rather cheekily repurposed the phrase into something actually useful, a new kind of conflict in a serial work that relies on the audience’s awareness both of the premise of the work and its artificiality. Generally speaking, conflict occurs in fiction when something threatens the well-being of the characters or interferes with their ability to accomplish their goals. Note that this conflict occurs entirely on the level of the story itself–it is a threat that originates within the world of the story, and all of its impacts are within the world of the story.
Given an ongoing story in a serial format, such as a TV series, however, there is an option to do another kind of collapse once you’ve fully established the premise of the series and the kinds of stories it can tell: introduce a conflict that threatens not only the characters, but the show itself–a conflict that, if not resolved favorably, destroys the ability of the show to tell stories in the same way that, according to Rushkoff, the supposed overemphasis on the present destroys our ability as a culture to tell stories. For example, from the perspective of the characters, Discord is threatening because he can hurt them and prevent them from achieving their goals. However, from the perspective of the viewer, there is an additional and greater threat, that he will end the characters’ friendship and obviate the premise of the show.
Of course by the end all is better and the characters’ friendship is restored, but on the other hand there’s a sense in which Discord does successfully destroy the show. That’s the thing about narrative collapse: it always carries a heavy price. A restoration can never be quite the same as the original.So “Lesson Zero” starts with Twilight Sparkle discovering that cost, that difference between the restored and original shows: There is no friendship lesson for her to learn.
Diegetically this isn’t that big a deal, and Twilight’s overreaction is thus played for comedy. But non-diegetically it’s a serious problem. Part of the show’s remit is to help fulfill the Hub’s legal obligation to provide educational programming for children, and tacking friendship lessons onto the ends of stories is how it accomplishes that. Finding a friendship lesson really is as important as Twilight makes it out to be.
Twilight’s real error is the assumption that she has to be the one to learn it. Of course, it’s a reasonable assumption for her to make, as throughout the first season she was, but remember what triggered this latest (and more or less final, at least so far) attempt to reboot the show, namely an episode that ought to have been a lesson for Pinkie Pie and had to be shoehorned into one for Twilight. It thus makes total sense that there’s no friendship lesson for Twilight this week, because that lesson is going to someone else.
This is where the title comes in: “Lesson Zero.” There are several meanings here, of course: Most obviously it refers to the absence of a lesson, which is the crux of the plot. But it can also be read as referring to the lesson learned, which is much more interesting. If it were “Lesson One,” that would imply that this week’s friendship lesson is for some reason necessarily the first, but “Lesson Zero” goes further, implying that this lesson is before the first friendship lesson. In other words, what we have this week isn’t itself a friendship lesson, but something that must come before all other friendship lessons, thus enabling the rest of the Mane Six to start documenting their own.
But does this week’s lesson support that interpretation? On the face of it, “If your friend is panicking about something, take it seriously even if you don’t agree they should be panicking,” isn’t any more fundamental than most of the lessons in the first season. But what it’s really saying is vitally important, and something all too often forgotten, which is recognizing the subjectivity of others. It’s wrong of them to assume that, because they would not be hugely upset in Twilight’s shoes, Twilight will not be; Twilight is a different person from them, and therefore what matters to her is different from what matters to them.
In other words, it’s about not making assumptions regarding what other people need and want, about recognizing that other people are both other and people. That is to say, it’s the underlying lesson that Fluttershy and Rarity needed in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” that Pinkie Pie needed in “Party of One,” and that Spike needed in “Owl’s Well That Ends Well.” And it absolutely is fundamental enough to make a case that it must precede starting to learn about friendship at all: You cannot truly be a friend to someone unless you recognize and respect their subjectivity, open yourself to the fact that they are different from you, and actually communicate instead of making assumptions about what they want and how they feel.
And now the field is wide open for the characters. It doesn’t just have to be about Twilight’s growth and Twilight’s concerns anymore; the show is fully free to use any of the characters to explore any aspect of the magic of friendship. It is finally done becoming, at least as far as anything can ever finish becoming, which is not all that far at all. It already transformed itself into a philosopher’s stone, but one curiously limited on what it could transform. Now, however, it can transmute any of the characters–but remember, the characters were created to represent the “ways of being a girl.” And since there’s nothing true of all women that isn’t true of all people (other than the trivial “they’re women,” obviously), it follows that they represent ways of being a person.
This is what we have been building up to for a season and change, the true alchemy of Friendship Is Magic. It’s time to start changing the world, one brony at a time.
Next week: An outsider is uncomfortable and unable to fit in at a party. Clearly this will have no relevance to teen and adult geeks in the slightest.