I’m not talking about my performance, I’m talking about yours! That feeble cheering… (The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well)

Wait, is she holding that baby by the…
Ewwwwwwwwww…

It’s November 26, 2011. The top song is and top movie continue to be Rihanna and Breaking Dawn. In the news, the Egyptian revolution continues, with violence mounting in Cairo, where dozens have been killed and thousands injured. Six people, three of them children, die in a plane crash in the Superstition Mountains. And a “supercommittee” within the U.S. Congress fails to agree on budget cuts, making the sequester–massive across-the-board budget cuts that will do extensive long-term economic damage–inevitable.

We need a hero. Fortunately writer Merriwether Williams and director Jayson Thiessen are here to give us one with “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” which blends a Rainbow Dash character episode with the introduction of Ponyville’s first masked hero as a foil for her. The episode functions in part as a way to try to move Rainbow Dash’s character forward. Thus far, while she’s certainly loyal to her friends, she’s also lazy, not mindful of others’ feelings (as demonstrated by her impatience in “Dragonshy” and pranking in “Griffon the Brush-Off” and “Luna Eclipsed”), and more flash than substance. At the same time, the episode is a chance to celebrate some classic superhero-cartoon moments, with Rainbow Dash flying in the iconic Fleischer Superman pose and using a variant of Spider-Man’s catchphrase, Mare-Do-Well posters reminiscent of Batman the Animated Series, and Mary-Do-Well’s costume strongly resembling both the Shadow and Disney’s Batman parody Darkwing Duck.

But for some reason, this episode is extremely unpopular, often coming last in episode-ranking polls (although now “Magical Mystery Cure” gives it a run for its money in the unfairly-disliked-episodes sweepstakes). Williams is overall something of a punching bag among bronies–her episodes tend to have a lot of dread built up before them–but the criticisms of both her in general, and this episode in particular, are unfounded. As this is the most widely disparaged of her episodes, it’s here that I’ll make my stand against the haters.

Like the last widely disparaged episode I defended, “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” one of the most common complaints about this episode is its friendship lesson, which can be summed up as “don’t brag.” For some reason, a lot of fans take this as an extreme position of “don’t show any pride or do anything that makes you stand out, or your friends will smack you down.” That’s ridiculous; it is neither explicitly stated in anywhere near such extreme terms nor implied by the events of the episode.

Rainbow Dash is obnoxiously full of herself right from the cold open–the dividing line, I’d say, is somewhere between accepting people’s accolades and suggesting ways for them to praise you. When she saves the foal stuck in the well, on the other hand, her behavior is fine–she is appreciative of the praise, nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t milk it. After she saves the baby, though, she’s awful. She implies that a baby was hurt–scaring the town and no doubt panicking that baby’s poor mother–just so she can make a joke and garner more cheers. Think about it from that mother’s point of view: Seconds ago she was no doubt terrified that her baby was going to die. She gets a few seconds of relief, only for Rainbow Dash to tell her something is wrong with the baby–it’s a surprise she didn’t either faint or try to murder Rainbow Dash! Twilight Sparkle says she can think of a few new words to describe Rainbow Dash, and Applejack says modesty isn’t one of them. I can provide a new word to describe her behavior here, too: complete and total dickweasel.

By the time Mare-Do-Well appears, it is blatantly obvious that Dash is more interested in her newfound celebrity status than actually helping anyone. She is, after all, willing to spend time signing autographs rather than saving the pony in the crashing balloon. Note that she was wrong about how much time she had–she missed the balloon, so if Mare-Do-Well hadn’t already saved that pony, they would have died due to Rainbow Dash’s negligence and fame obsession.

Her friends are not overreacting in the slightest. They do not even show up until Rainbow Dash pulls her assholery with the baby, and don’t enact the Mare-Do-Well plan until it’s very obvious that Rainbow Dash needs to be brought down a peg before she gets someone seriously hurt. Their plan is an excellent way of doing so because it involves doing nothing but good. Mare-Do-Well doesn’t taunt or lecture Rainbow Dash, doesn’t set out to humiliate her; Mare-Do-Well just saves people and leaves. It’s Rainbow Dash that ruins Rainbow Dash’s reputation, not Mare-Do-Well, because she is simply unable to handle not being the center of attention, and her attention-seeking aggravates everyone around her.

The second major complaint I see about this episode is that the characters are behaving out of character. Again, I don’t see it. Rainbow Dash’s personality is being dominated by the negative aspects, true, but not in a way that contradicts the behavior we’ve seen from her before. This isn’t like “A Dog and Pony Show,” where someone previously willing to enter the Everfree Forest and kick a manticore is suddenly dirt-phobic; this is a pony who has consistently been depicted as a show-off and somewhat prone to callousness in regards to others’ feelings. If anything, the episode it most resembles is “Lesson Zero,” where Twilight’s long-standing worry-prone, neurotic nature comes back to bite her. In the same way, this episode is Rainbow Dash’s long-standing self-centered, prankster nature coming back to bite her.

The rest of the Mane Six are not out of character either. Applejack in particular has been shown to have little patience for Rainbow Dash showing off, and none of the others seem likely to object to a plan that consists of them doing nothing worse than serving as a better example. They’re not being overly harsh or judgmental; Rainbow Dash is presenting herself as a hero, but really she’s just seeking attention. That’s dangerous, and she needs to be taught a lesson. Now admittedly, it may seem a little odd that they don’t just talk to her. On the other hand, there’s that scene in Sugar Cube Corners where she offers them a chance to be in her ghostwritten autobiography. That could easily be read as them trying to talk to Rainbow Dash, but giving up when they see how far into her celebrity persona she’s gotten.

I understand why this episode had a backlash. This episode does not portray Rainbow Dash in the best light, but that’s necessarily going to happen from time to time now that the show is willing to depict characters other than Twilight Sparkle developing. There is no way to depict a character as growing without first depicting them as needing to grow. That’s all that’s happening here.

And Rarity makes Darkwing Duck costumes for everypony! How can anyone not love this episode?

18 thoughts on “I’m not talking about my performance, I’m talking about yours! That feeble cheering… (The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well)

  1. Apologies for this going up late, by the way. It was all set up and schedule for 12:00 AM, which is why that's what the timestamp says, but I never actually hit the Publish button, so it stayed in my drafts. Then I didn't get home until 3 AM…

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  2. Interesting that you use the phrase “teach a lesson.” On the surface, it means “to provide with knowledge,” but in fact it's a euphemism meaning “to retaliate.” And this is actually the key question about the episode: are Rainbow's friends simply trying to educate her, or is this a cover for a desire to punish her?

    The problem with reading it solely as an attempt to educate her is that it's absurdly convoluted and also it doesn't work. Rainbow gets worse and worse as her competitive streak kicks in, and also becomes increasingly miserable about being unable to “win” against Mare-do-well, but the others don't alter their approach at all, but instead opt for that scene in Sugarcube Corner where they appear to be taunting her. Rainbow doesn't “get” that there's even something she should be learning until they explain at the end.

    If, on the other hand, you read it as an attempt at retaliation, the entire thing becomes much easier to understand. Rainbow's friends don't talk to her because they want to punish her first, and only explain things once they've decided she's suffered enough. The scene at Sugarcube Corner comes off as taunting because that's what it is. And the exceedingly complex plot becomes dictated by two considerations: first, that there be a certain amount of plausible deniability — they don't want to get into an open fight with Rainbow, and second, that Rainbow be specifically made to feel inferior, because it is her constant claims of superiority that have offended her friends. And no, they don't seem to care about reckless behavior, or at least they don't mention it when Rainbow finally chases them down and demands an explanation. Instead, they say a hero doesn't brag, and one should not rub non-chocolate-cake things in other ponies' faces.

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  3. For me the problem is, this is just retreading a character arc that should already have been moved past after “Fall Weather Friends” and “Sonic Rainboom,” and even “Friendship is Magic, Part 2: The Elements of Harmony.” We've already seen Rainbow Dash put a desire to help others far, far ahead of her own desire for celebrity, even when she had much more riding on her public perception than mere fandom.

    Secondly, this adds nothing, AFAICS, to the lesson presented in “Boast Busters,” only in this one, even if it wasn't intended as an chime-in of the “women shouldn't be proud of their achievements or competitive in any way” trend that “Boast Busters” was specifically designed to break, it could much more easily be taken as an endorsement of it.

    Thirdly, as Wonkadoo says above, it's just plain badly structured, and that scene in Sugarcube Corner doesn't make sense in this reading of it. Mare-do-Well might not have set out to humiliate or taunt Rainbow Dash, but her friends certainly don't mind doing it.

    Of course, then Merriwether Williams went on from writing the worst Rainbow Dash episode to writing the best one (Wonderbolt Academy), so what do I know?

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  4. First off, punishment and education are not mutually exclusive; it's a key part of social conditioning.

    That said, the Mane Six aren't, in my opinion, trying to punish Rainbow Dash. They're trying to create an example of the right way to do things. The second scene in SCC (which I assume is the one you're talking about; the article was talking about the first) can be read as them trying to emphasize what it is MDW is doing right and RD is doing wrong.

    And yes, they are bothered by her bragging, because her bragging and attention-seeking is what she's doing wrong. Her recklessness is a product of it–she's endangering people because showing off is more important to her than the people she's supposedly helping.

    And again, I think it's important that the Mane Six do nothing to denigrate Rainbow. All they ever do is save people or talk about what MDW does right–they never say anything negative about RD to her or to third parties. It's simply false that they humiliate her or make her feel inferior; she does that entirely to herself.

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  5. First, it's not entirely true about Elements of Harmony; what we saw RD do there is value loyalty to her comrades over celebrity. That's not the same thing as helping strangers/random townsfolk. It's also not retreading the character arc because the episodes you mentioned functioned primarily as learning experiences for Twilight, not RD, hence the need to revisit it as an opportunity for RD to grow.(“The Last Roundup” attempts something similar for Applejack re: “Applebucking Season,” but isn't very successful.)

    I would say this adds something absolutely necessary to “Boast Busters.” The lesson in “Boast Busters” was, as you say, “be proud of what you can do, don't hold back out of fear of standing out.” The lesson here is “don't brag.” The combination is, therefore, “be proud of what you can do, but don't be a dick about it.” I think that's important, and I don't see it as being at all “don't proud of your achievements or competitive in any way.” The fact is, RD *isn't* proud of her achievements, and that's part of her problem. The instant people stop constantly praising her for everything she does, she forgets about the good she's done and starts freaking out, trying to get more praise.

    Third, the episode itself is not badly structured, and I don't see where Wonkadoo asserts that. I've already explained in my response to them why I think the SCC scene fits and why they aren't taunting or humiliating RD, but yes, I'll freely admit their scheme is convoluted and kind of silly. I'd say it's approximately as convoluted and silly as a rich orphan, rather than donating to police support funds or getting into politics or helping with the rampant poverty and misery in his city, instead dressing up as a bat and punching a bunch of people. It's part of the parody/homage, in other words.

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  6. I'm gonna make a meta-argument here, because I really hope to find the answer. If many fans who watch an episode get a bad impression, is that their fault for being blind to the episode's positive traits or is is because there might be flaws that make one 'reading' much more heavily implied to in most viewers?

    While I'm at it, what flaws do you see in the episode and/or what would you change to make the episode more effective?

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  7. I'm gonna make a meta-argument here, because I really hope to find the answer. If many fans who watch an episode get a bad impression, is that their fault for being blind to the episode's positive traits or is is because there might be flaws that make one 'reading' much more heavily implied to in most viewers?

    Could be either, honestly. Like anything else to do with taste, it's not purely a matter of individual response; there are taste-makers to consider, the opposing pulls of peer pressure and the iconoclastic impulse, the difficulty in distinguishing between something lots of people dislike a little and something a few people dislike a lot… which sounds like I'm questioning whether people who dislike the episode “really” dislike it or dislike it because it's cool to dislike it, so let me just say I'm not–the same forces are at work on me and everyone who likes the episode as are working on people who disliked it. I'm just saying it's more complex than “People like it, it must be good” or “People like it, it must be bad.”

    And it all gets even more complicated when dealing with a periphery demographic… I think it would be relevant to this question to ask how small children interpret this episode.

    I would also argue (and I believe I did, in the article on “Feeling Pinkie Keen” where I actually did have to actively go looking for a way to get past the “obvious” interpretation) that it's better to have good art than bad art, and if you can turn bad art into good art by changing how you look at it, you might as well do so. Of course I recognize that it's not always possible, and which art it's possible for varies from person to person. For example, I've heard an interpretation of “One Bad Apple” that could conceivably make it a good episode, but I cannot bring myself to view it that way.

    Seeing as I like the episode, I'm the wrong person to ask for ways to improve it. I guess it'd be nice if it were a little clearer what the rest of the Mane Six are thinking, since that seems to be the main point of contention. Maybe trim a little bit here and there to make room for a short flashback at the end of the episode, so we can see how and why they decided on the MDW scheme.

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  8. I unambigiously love this episode. Rainbow is an arrogant ass that gets shown a better way. Yes their plan is really insane…but realistically there is no way Rainbow would have listened to her friends there. Also who can argue with references to classic super her cartoons? Not I.

    I love this episode. Of all of the “Solo” Dash episodes, this is my favourite.

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  9. Thought experiment: replace Rainbow Dash in this episode with Trixi. Does the message of “Don't be a dick, remember why they love you and actually do the things that make yourself worthy of it” still hold? I suspect a great deal of the animosity towards this episodes consists of not enjoying seeing a favorite character portrayed in a very negative light.

    As mentioned in another comment, this whole episode is basically an inversion of Boast Busters, with an insider growing too haughty and needing a realignment of her priorities (do the right thing, regardless of what people say about you, because the actions are more important than the praise), rather than an insider realizing that it's not at all hubristic to perform your talents well and needing to realign her priorities (do the right thing, regardless of what people might say about you, because the actions are more important than criticism). It's rare to see a lesson revisited from the other direction, and I think they did a pretty good job portraying how easy it is to get caught up with the wrong parts of why people like you. The emphasis on not winning accolades for their own sake is an important one. To use an example, the online advice guru Tim Ferris won a kickboxing championship in China a few years ago. He didn't win by being a better kickboxer, he won by having himself medically dehydrated before the weigh-in to get himself into a weight class far lower than he should be competing in, and exploiting a rule that scores you points if your opponent is knocked out of the circle. After weigh in, he was rehydrated by those same doctors, and thus weighed approximately 100 lbs. more than his opponents. Rather than fighting, he would simply charge at his opponent and shove them out of the ring. So while he possesses the title, it's essentially meaningless; he isn't one of the best kickboxers, and anyone who knows the story behind it would quickly realize that he's simply good at exploiting rules loopholes. Whether this raises or lowers his prestige in your eyes depends on your perspective of such things, but were someone's life dependent on his possessing superior kickboxing skills, the inadequacy would be obvious. Similarly, Rainbow Dash needs to actually do the things that make people praise her as a hero. She can't simply rest on her laurels and expect the same praise. She needs to continue to make herself worthy of the title.

    Simply because RD has already learned this lesson about egoism before doesn't mean she can't learn it again, because of the nature of children's serial entertainment. Character development can only occur gradually, if at all, and in really easy to identify ways. You can't really change the set of adjectives you use to quickly describe the character. It's easier for Twilight to acquire wings or Rainbow Dash to pick up a book than it is for Applejack to get over her stubborn pride, because it's one of her core characteristics (along with being hardworking, dependable, honest, and business-minded). One could just as easily say that her actions in The Last Roundup shouldn't have occurred because of her development in Applebuck Season. And honestly, can we all say we've never seen either ourselves or someone we know slip back into an old pattern of behavior when we really ought to know better because of what happened the last time?

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  10. Okay, I've just rewatched the scene in question. It's much worse than I remember. They are unambiguously taunting her and they are enjoying it. Fluttershy in particular has the smuggest, most arrogant smile imaginable just before she says her line. take a look.

    http://imgur.com/2NNtpKL

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  11. Rewatch “Dragonshy.” Note the things Rainbow Dash says throughout that episode. I think that, while it's obviously not very nice of Fluttershy to be taking pleasure in RD's distress, it's very understandable that she does.

    And yes, the Mane Six are enjoying patting themselves on the back, but at the same time, I still don't see this as taunting. The point isn't to make RD hurt, the point is to make RD see how obnoxious she's been all episode.

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  12. I reiterate: I rewatched the scene. It is unambiguous. I could go over all the other details of the scene that have led me to this conclusion, but I think you will dismiss each in turn with a similar excuse, because you have reached that point where you are doing the intellectual equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and going LA LA LA LA.

    But I do want to say a few things about what I see from my perspective, and I think you might find them useful even though you're not going to agree. On one of your earlier posts I left a comment referring to cynical detachment as something the show tried out and abandoned. I was referring to this episode. And if you look at if from that perspective — as a show about some jerkass who does a jerkass thing and her friends get together and counter-jerkass her and no one in the audience is supposed to empathize with anyone — it really works. It's funny, it's well paced, and it's actually quite shrewd about the negative side of human behavior. It beats the hell out of an episode of Family Guy.

    But it violates one of the key principles of the show, which is that the ponies are real, true friends who strongly care about one another. And since we do empathize with the ponies, rather strongly, we get upset when it's missing. (Or we convince ourselves that it's not missing, and go LA LA LA LA when someone says otherwise.) It really, really bothered me when I found that screenshot of Fluttershy's mean little smirk. Even though I was expecting to find something of the sort, it still hurt; not because I like Rainbow Dash, but because I like Fluttershy. I can't step back and go “Ha ha funny cartoon” even though I know it's what the episode expects. I mean, Rainbow even winked at me at the end. What else could that mean?

    Now, a lot of people are blaming Merriweather Williams for this episode's lack of pony spirit, but somebody drew that smirk on Fluttershy's face, and somebody else approved it, and neither of those people was Merriweather Williams. This was a team effort, and everyone was on the same page. It just happened to be a page out of the wrong book.

    Speaking of books, I am going to recommend one. It's called ODD GIRL OUT: THE SECRET CULTURE OF AGGRESSION IN GIRLS by Rachel Simmons, and it's available on Kindle from Amazon. It's a really good book, and reading it is why I think MMDW's take on friendship is shrewd, albeit cynical, negative, and (ultimately) unhelpful.

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  13. First off, I'm not putting my hands over my ears. I acknowledge that what you see is a legitimate interpretation of the scene, I just disagree that it's the only reasonable interpretation or necessarily the best interpretation. So I really don't appreciate the way you're describing my response, as “LALALA I can't hear you” is an extremely childish way to act.

    I don't find the scene unambiguous at all, and I've rewatched it three times since I started writing this article, one of them immediately before I wrote my response to your comment about it. To me, yes, it can be read as the Mane Six taunting Rainbow Dash because they think aggravating her is funny, but I think the more likely read, consistent with their characters, is that they're demonstrating to her what it's like to keep having pointed out to you how great someone else is over and over again. Are they enjoying it? Yep. Is there possibly an element of schadenfreude in their enjoyment? Oh heck yeah. Does that make this scene a terrible crime, a failure of characterization, or a bad example for the kiddies? Not really, in my opinion.

    As for the book, sounds interesting, and I have a B&N gift card. I'll give it a buy and read it after I finishing prepping my book for the copy editor (maybe a week and change?). If I find it changes my perspective on this ep, I'll make a Pony Thought of the Day about it.

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  14. I hate character limits. I'm not going to break this up so you get the short uncited unconvincing version.

    they're demonstrating to her what it's like to keep having pointed out to you how great someone else is over and over again.

    Once upon a time I was going to become a teacher. I took classes, looked at studies on what worked and what didn't, learned all kinds of corrective strategies, the works.

    What you're describing is what is commonly referred to as, “Giving her a taste of her own medicine,” and most textbooks would class it as a punishment but let's not quibble over that. You say it's not a punishment, fine. We'll go with that.

    What it is is negative reinforcement, and a particular kind at that. (I.e. this isn't, “No, sorry. You're wrong. The correct answer is 32. Thus you failed this problem.”)

    It's negative because what it's like to keep having pointed out to you how great someone else is over and over again is not fun. It's sort of the anti-fun. They're not trying to encourage her to do something, they're trying to discourage her from doing something.

    This kind of negative reinforcement can work but, studies and anectdotal experience both agree, it requires three things. It must be:
    1 Swift. If there's a gap between her doing the thing they don't want her to do and the negative reinforcement it will fail.
    2 Unexpected. If she saw this coming then it's already an expected part of the course of events and so is wholly unremarkable and unlikely to change anything.
    3 Harsh. Harsh to the point of being completely disproportionate. (Which is by definition unfair.) It needs to be so bad that when the negative is tallied against the positive the gulf is so great as to be unbridgeable.

    Swift is hard. Unexpected is difficult to maintain when you try to have a fixed set of rules. But number three is the real problem.

    Even if you intellectually know that you've got to be harsh to such a degree as to seem completely unreasonable you, not being a sadist, probably won't be. Which means it won't work.

    There's a reason people are trying to move away from doing this kind of thing. Either it causes pain and doesn't work, or it works but at the cost of causing a lot of pain. (In general; nothing is 100 percent.)

    What all of this means is that from viewer's perspective, especially a child's who is likely quite familiar on recent terms with the “taste of their own medicine” response, this strategy is something known to almost never work but almost always cause some kind of emotional pain to the person it is used on.

    That's very Doyalist. From a Watsonian perspective the teacher isn't exactly a main character and the main characters probably never got an explanation that this kind of negative reinforcement needs to be swift unexpected and harsh to have any chance of working and further likely don't know that since they're not going for harsh the only reasonable outcome is for them to cause pain without purpose.

    If they knew and they still tried, “demonstrating to her what it's like to keep having pointed out to you how great someone else is over and over again,” they'd be sadists because they'd know that while they might be able to cause pain success was not an option. Since they don't know they're just people operating on bad assumptions that happen to be mean (but might work anyway because magic. Which friendship is.)

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  15. Quick note:

    Pretty much everyone has the experience of, at least seeing, getting a taste of one's own medicine utterly failing to do anything good while still managing to hurt the target.

    Where training to be a teacher comes in is that you learn why it almost always fails.

    The “hurts but produces no lasting change” part is something you learn via observation. The, “If you make sure to do these three things it likely will produce lasting change,” part is what you learn when training to be a teacher. (Along with, “This is a nasty thing to do, try other strategies.”)

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  16. Thanks, chris, for injecting some facts. These are interesting points and I will definitely consider them, along with reading Odd Girl Out. I am probably going to have to revisit this post. I am unlikely to start hating this episode simply because, if I have access to a reading that leads me to like the episode, why would I give it up? Still, it's always worthwhile to get a better understanding of how supporters of alternate readings construct those readings.

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  17. I remember not enjoying this episode too much when I watched it and I'm not sure why. Maybe it just felt like it could have been an episode from another more generic cartoon. The sudden construction site with multiple storey building, the hydroelectric dam and twisting back alleys out of nowhere also made the tone of ponyville feel “off” in a way that was obvious more in hindsight. It seems to me Merriwether doesn't mind twisting established stuff too much in order to tell her story, and maybe the backlash is from people picking up on that?

    In any case her eps are improving and Wonderbolts Academy was fairly decent so I think everything is going to be fine.

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  18. I have never been able to understand the hostility this episode generates. I saw it exactly the same way as you described it. Dash was acting unbelievably dickish and performing her rescues almost solely for self-aggrandizing reasons and to get praise from other ponies. The saves became secondary because she was not acting out of admirable motivations.

    The other Mane Five simply beat her at her own game for the purpose of taking her down a much needed peg or two while taking no credit for themselves. It was an object lesson and a good one.

    As you note, the messages of Boast Busters and MMDW, taken together, make a very good basis for taking pride in one's genuine accomplishments while remembering that the world does not revolve around any one person or pony.

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