Now hold on, everypony. We’ve done our best to improve supply this year. (Apple Family Reunion)

In the ancient legends of the fritter homeworld, they
call her “The Oncoming Storm.”

It’s December 22, 2012. Top of the pop charts is Bruno Mars with “Locked Out of Heaven,” the video for which fakes video tearing and chromatic aberrations to simulate an aging VHS tape, the filmic equivalent of an old photo album. Number one at the box office this weekend is still The Hobbit.

In the news, right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe is elected prime minister of Japan, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar hits 13.0.0.0.0, which the Mayans never believed indicated the end of the world, and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” becomes the first YouTube video to hit a billion views, which very well might. And, of course, the winter solstice was yesterday.

The winter solstice is a strange time. As the shortest day of the year, it is also the point at which the days begin getting longer, and is therefore celebrated as the sun’s birthday (or the Son, if you’re Christian and into puns). Traditionally, it marks the midpoint of winter as well, the day at which the time of cold, snow, and carefully rationed food is half over.

However, at least where I grew up around the middle of the U.S. East Coast, it’s not the middle of winter at all, but very nearly the beginning. It is quite rare to see snow or freezing temperatures before the last third of December, and the peak time for snow is the end of January and beginning of February.

Either way, it is a moment of transition, a signpost that there is cold and darkness ahead, but light and warmth beyond that. “Apple Family Reunion” (written by Cindy Morrow and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus an appropriate episode to show here, because after this come four episodes ranging from problematic to abysmal, and then the catastrophe of the season finale (though whether it was eucatastrophe or dyscatastrophe is a matter of some debate). Although the episode itself is bright and entertaining and has one of the season’s better musical numbers, a pall of death hangs over it. The episode carefully steps around mentioning Applejack’s parents, and in doing so clearly marks the outlines of their absence.

It is perhaps the most skillfully executed part of the episode. To a small child who knows little of loss, the appearance of paired shooting stars twice in the episode mean nothing. To a teen or adult viewer, however, the fact that Applejack’s parents do not appear at the reunion and are carefully not mentioned, as well as the timing of when the stars appear–once when Applejack’s thoughts are on absent family and her personal history, and then again at the end of the episode after the reunion’s successful close–makes those stars a confirmation that her parents are dead.

Fans being fans, a proliferation of memes comparing Applejack to Batman shortly followed.

Which is part of what’s going on here. Among other things, my article on “The Return of Harmony” was a sort of Gnostic parable, with Faust as Sophia, Hasbro as Ialdabaoth, and Discord as Christ. This was largely a joke, but at the same time, well, look at the third season. The second season at least had Faust involved with the scripts, and between that and the growing confidence of the cast and crew it managed to be stronger than the first season. But the third season? “Magic Duel,” “Wonderbolts Academy,” and “Magical Mystery Cure” stand out as being excellent episodes in the third season, but would not have made it even into the top five episodes of the second season.

With Faust’s departure, the soul, the magic, is leaking out of the show–and it’s flowing into the fandom. Barely two weeks after the end of the season, the massive fan project “Double Rainboom” will be released. While not very good itself, the resources created for the project such as Flash puppets, and even more importantly the proof of concept that large fan projects coordinated across massive numbers of volunteers are workable, had an enormous impact on the fandom, spawning numerous other creative endeavors, the output of which far outstrips the norm for such a relatively small fandom.

However, there is a problem here. If the magic leaves the show entirely and its quality plummets, then there is no fandom, and all that creative energy just fades away. The show must recover some of its lost magic, or find a way to generate new magic and explore new directions, if it is to continue.

There are basically two ways to do that: experimentation or a return to original principles. The entirety of the season up to this point has been the former, more or less alternating between trying to force Friendship Is Magic into new territory outside its comfort zone (high-epic fantasy in “The Crystal Empire,” after-school special in “One Bad Apple,” surreal psychological study in “Sleepless in Ponyville”) or pulling the standard-issue stunts of a flailing TV show (“evil” twins in “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” the return of a fan-favorite one-shot character in “Magic Duel,” the “boot camp” episode “Wonderbolts Academy). All of these episodes represent trial-and-error attempts to throw ideas at the viewers and see what sticks.

And then there is this episode. The day after the solstice, the episode after the midpoint of the season, where Applejack keeps trying to force the magic into her reunion instead of just letting it happen. Again and again she throws activities at her family or tries to “improve” the old familiar activities they enjoyed in past reunions, making everything bigger and flashier, and in the process all she does is drive the magic further and further away.

In the end, only catastrophe can save her. The barn comes crashing down, her family comes together, songs are sung and memories are forged, and a barn indistinguishable from the original rises again. After that comes a return to the traditional reunion, the activities that worked before. Quieter and calmer than what Applejack had planned, but with space to fit people into it.

And so we can take away two things from this. First, we once again need a catastrophe, a massive and tumultuous change that can then turn out, from the far side, to be not that big a change after all. Second, Friendship Is Magic needs to calm down, stop panicking about losing its parent, and return to what it does best: selling toys to little girls while being vastly better than anyone ever expected a show designed to sell toys to little girls to be.

Too bad we’ve still got four episodes of standard-issue TV flail-stunts to get through first.

Next week: My two least favorite major characters get an episode together. Whee.

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