Don’t worry, old Fluttershy’s back for good. (Hurricane Fluttershy)

SNOWFLAME FEELS NO PAIN!

It’s March 24, 2012. The top song is still fun. and Janelle Monae with “We Are Young,” and the top movie is The Hunger Games. I think that’s the first time the top movie and song have both been good since I started this project.

In less good news, fighting continues to escalate in the Syrian civil war, and Rick Santorum wins the Republican primary in Louisiana. On the other hand, unemployment hits a four-year low in the U.S.

“Hurricane Fluttershy,” directed by Jayson Thiessen, is one of writer Cindy Morrow’s weaker episodes in Season Two, which says quite a bit for how much she’s improved since Season One. In that season, she was reliably mediocre, but her baseline in Season Two is a solid notch above that, with her best work of the season, “Read It and Weep,” one of the show’s true gems.

It is another character study of Fluttershy, and returns to the pattern of Fluttershy’s first focus episode, “Dragonshy,” by having her encounter a situation that involves one of her many fears, slowly learn to overcome that fear, and then save the day. However, in this case the enemy Fluttershy must overcome is not an externalization of her anxieties in the form of a monster, but rather completely internalized anxieties in the form of crippling flashbacks.

It’s thus important that Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle be the other two main characters featured in this episode. Twilight Sparkle needs to be here, albeit primarily as an observer, because this is a companion piece to “It’s About Time.” In my article on that episode I wrote that the season’s study of time is largely over, but that’s not actually true. That episode completes the season’s study of time as a phenomenon, which means here, as well as in one other episode remaining this season, it can examine what happens when time is removed as a factor, when the past leaks into the present or the present rewrites the past.

In the case of this episode, it’s the former, which is why Rainbow Dash needs to be present. Fluttershy is held captive by her past, and specifically by an experience we have already seen she shared with Rainbow Dash, attending, and being teased, at Flight Camp when they were young. Notably, we’ve seen little sign that Rainbow Dash even remembers the teasing–her namecalling by the jock/bully ponies occurs only in Fluttershy’s flashback in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles,” while Rainbow Dash’s begins after the teasing has already occurred. It appears not to have been a significant for her.

For Fluttershy, on the other hand, the teasing that occurred at Flight Camp was psychologically shattering, to the point that engaging in any kind of competitive flying–even one where all the competitors are trying to beat their own best wing power ratings, not competing against one another–functions as a flashback trigger for her, causing her to relive the pain she felt as if the event is still occurring, and this trigger is compounded if she is laughed at or criticized during the event. Indeed, both her flashback (in the literary sense) to the event and her flashbacks (in the post-traumatic stress sense) depict the ponies laughing at her as genericized masks. The teasing has ceased to be a specific event in her mind, if it ever was an isolated event; there is every reason to believe it occurred repeatedly, since once children find that a peer is easily cowed by mass teasing, that peer tends to become a favored target.

The masks show that the teasing is no longer a particular memory of an event perpetrated by specific ponies, but an icon, a defining moment. Fluttershy has internalized the way she felt in that moment, made it a part of who she is, and so her fear that it will return becomes self-fulfilling. Overwhelmed by her terror of being laughed at, she locks up and is unable to fly well, even though we have at least once seen her outrace Rainbow Dash, in “The Return of Harmony.” As a result, she performs poorly and is laughed at, confirming her fears, triggering a flashback, and making it still harder for her to handle competitive flying.

For Rainbow Dash, this is incomprehensible. She has been shown confronting her fears before, most recently in “Read It and Weep,” and her approach has always been, well, confrontational. She deals with fear by meeting it head-on and getting to the other side, because Rainbow Dash’s self-image is that she is brave. When she is afraid, she instinctively responds (as most people do) in a way consistent with her self-image, and thus when she makes it through the scary experience this confirms to her that she is brave, making her even more confident the next time she encounters something that frightens her.

Rainbow Dash thus naturally assumes that the thing to do is to build Fluttershy’s confidence by forcing her through the frightening experience. Unfortunately, post-traumatic stress doesn’t work that way. It is a psychic allergy, in which a normally harmless stimulus becomes associated with trauma and therefore triggers an overreactive psychological defense that does more harm than good. Forcing Fluttershy to participate in the pegasi’s drills and eventual water funneling is not helpful for her any more than forcing someone with a peanut allergy to eat a Snickers bar would be. Rainbow Dash may mean well, but her behavior toward Fluttershy in this episode is quite aggressive and borders on the abusive.

What Fluttershy really needs, if she is to heal, is a safe and supportive environment in which to explore her fear in her own terms, allowing her to take back the control she lost to her childhood bullies. And of all people, it is Angel, leading a contingent of Fluttershy’s animal friends, who provides this for her. They comfort Fluttershy when she flees the training ground, hug her, groom her, and allow her a space to rest and recover, before they begin working with her in a way designed to specifically simulate not the triggers for her flashbacks, but the results–not the sound of laughter or the feeling of being mocked, but the laughing masks themselves. This is clearly uncomfortable for Fluttershy, given her expression during the training montage that ensues, but it is not itself a trigger–she does not (as she did at the training or when originally teased) see the faces multiply, look down on her, or laugh. The icon itself has no power; without the triggers and associated feelings they provoke, it is simply an image.

Fluttershy is thus able to put a crack in her negative self-image, and open the possibility of success. Unfortunately, her self-image is still that of a poor flyer. She soon learns that, despite massive improvement, she still has the lowest wingpower of the adult pegasi by a significant margin. She registers this as failure, where someone with an attitude like Rainbow Dash’s might see it as success. As I said, self-image tends to be self-fulfilling; evidence that confirms what we already believe tends to be more persuasive than evidence that contradicts it.

Only an overwhelming success that garners unanimous approval is enough to overcome Fluttershy’s belief in her poor self-image, and so it is only once she provides the critical final few points of wingpower needed to complete the water transfer to Cloudsdale that Fluttershy’s self-image shows signs of changing. Even then, it will need a lot of work to truly improve in the long term.

Fluttershy’s past invades her present, rendering her unable to clearly separate the now from the then; she was the filly who flew poorly and was picked on, and this leaks into and overwrites her present as the filly whose flying ability saved the day. Self-esteem cannot be built on anything other than genuine, meaningful accomplishment, but Fluttershy’s past reality overrides her present, erasing her accomplishments almost as soon as they happen. This is as much a time-loop episode as “It’s About Time,” and the only thing which can break Fluttershy out of the loop is love, support, and constant reminders that she does have accomplishments, until perhaps she can begin to accept and internalize them.

The episode, in other words, functions as a bridge between the two dominant themes of the season, a way in which love can triumph over time. The transcendence of love is not in the nonsensical, cliche sense of lasting forever–no feeling can exist without a mind to feel it, and as such love cannot outlive the lover. Rather, it is that Fluttershy is empowered by the love and support of others to recognize that she is not who she was, that her present can redefine her past rather than her past always defining her present. In that sense, we are (fittingly for one of the last few episodes of the season) returning to the season opener “The Return of Harmony,” when the love and shared experiences of the ponies defeated a returning ancient evil.

In the end, the episode is hopeful but inconclusive; Fluttershy seems happy, but we know as savvy viewers that future episodes will return to her timidity and low self-image. Like most of us, she needs to learn her lessons many times, in different ways, to have any hope of real change.

Next week: We haven’t had a CMC episode in a while. Satirizing the news media hasn’t been this adorable since Network. (Note: Network is not actually adorable. It’s cynical and depressing and vicious and very, very good.)

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