What am I gonna do? I’ll never win the competition now! (Rainbow Falls)

Sorry this is so late, everyone. Last I remember I was sitting at my computer working on this at about 9:30 PM last night, then suddenly I’m in bed and it’s late morning. It is entirely possible I have been overworking and undersleeping this week.

I have no idea who you’re talking about.

It’s January 18, 2014. The top song is “Timber” by Pitbull featuring Ke$ha, a heavily produced and highly repetitive song about sex and parties so generic it approaches being the Platonic ideal of mass-produced songs.designed to be played very loudly in crowded rooms where no one’s listening, and the top movie is Ride Along. In the news, Egyptians vote on a new constitution; the execution of Denis McGuire takes 25 minutes, prompting renewed debate about the death penalty in the U.S.; the Golden Globes are awarded and Oscar nominees announced.

In ponies, Corey Powell pens “Rainbow Falls,” which has the interesting distinction of being, to date, the only episode to be in two separate arcs, involving as it does both the Equestria Games and the quest for the keys. These are two very different kinds of arcs. The Equestria Games arc strongly resembles the first season’s “accidental” Grand Galloping Gala arc, where a single episode about preparing for the event spawned further references and eventually the event itself. Similarly, there was no reason to believe Season Three’s “Games Ponies Play” was part of an arc or that the Equestria Games would be mentioned again until Season Four’s “Flight to the Finish,” and there is no particular defined structure to the arc, other than the presumption that, like the Gala, the last episode of the arc will be the Games themselves. There is no way to tell, however, whether any given episode that mentions the Games is the second-to-last or twelfth-to-last in the arc.

By contrast, the quest for the keys has a clear structure. We knew from the season premiere that this would be an arc, since it ends with a focus on the question of what might be in the crystal and how it might be opened. There are six keys for the crystal container, six Elements of Harmony, and the Mane Six; Rarity has already received a souvenir for teaching another pony the essence of Generosity, which souvenir received end-of-episode focus and mysterious music as it shimmered with rainbow light; rainbows have been strongly affiliated with the Elements of Harmony. Already after “Rarity Takes Manehattan” fans were speculating that each of the Mane Six would have a focus episode in which they faced a crisis of their Element and earned some sort of souvenir, thus making the needed keys.

The challenge for the writers, then, is how to follow such a clear structure without falling into the formulaic, and here in the second “key” episode Powell succeeds admirably. The approach of merging the two storylines for one episode is, no pun intended, the key to this success. In “Rarity Takes Manehattan” the test of generosity was the episode’s only plot, and therefore its resolution the end of the episode. Here in “Rainbow Falls” we have two plots, the A plot in which Rainbow Dash struggles between her loyalty to the Ponyville team and her desire to be on the likely winning team from Cloudsdale, and the B plot in which the Ponyville team competes for a chance to be in the Equestria Games. Thus, even though the A plot follows the same structure as “Rarity Takes Manehatten” of “pony tempted away from their element, realizes this is wrong, reaffirms loyalty to their element and in the process teaches someone else its value,” the episode as a whole is able to add on an extended denoument in which the Ponyville team, including Rainbow Dash, competes to qualify for the Games and barely squeaks in. It’s a small thing, but enough to help prevent this from feeling like “Rarity Takes Manehattan 2: Rainbow’s Revenge.”

Oddly, this is also one of the few episodes so far this season not to feature some sort of external intrusion into Equestria or the show. Instead we have something of the opposite, a “greatest hits” tour of Rainbow Dash’s past focus adventures, including the temptation to abandon her friends to join an elite team (“Friendship Is Magic, Part 2”), a lack of confidence in advance of a big competition (“Sonic Rainboom”), pushing someone to praise her after she rescued them (“The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well”), faking an injury (“Read It and Weep”), and a shot where Rainbow Dash announces she’s made a choice, cut to someone assuming they’ve been chosen, then Rainbow announces she went with someone else (“May the Best Pet Win”). And Spitfire directly references being impressed by Rainbow’s performance at the Academy (“Wonderbolts Academy”).

However, this inward turn makes a degree of sense. The symbols on the Tree of Harmony in “Princess Twilight Sparkle” associated the Element of Loyalty and Rainbow Dash with the sephirah of keter, the Crown, the highest on the tree. Keter is the highest level of spiritual attainment, perhaps fitting for the high-flying Rainbow Dash, and the spark of inspiration from which all the other sephiroth descend. Rainbow Dash fits well in that position, both diegetically, as she created the sonic rainboom that gave all of the Mane Six their cutie marks, and extradiegetically, as what appears to be a possible early precursor to Rainbow Dash appears in Lauren Faust’s juvenilia. In turn, as the highest of the sephiroth kether is the farthest from malkhut, the Kingdom, which is where the incursion began in “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” Rainbow Dash, after all, almost never touches the ground.

The lack of outside incursion, however, does not mean we are therefore safe from the qlippoth. They are, instead, here before us. The qlippah associated with kether in the Hermetic tradition is Tauriel, the clash of opposing forces. All things are one in kether; just because it is the farthest from malkhut does not mean it and malkhut are opposed; failure to recognize this unity and balance leads to taking sides, eschewing completeness out of a desire for victory.

Rainbow Dash is, as befits the Element of Loyalty, somewhat prone to taking sides. So committed is she to all things “air,” for example, that she almost never touches the ground. Likewise, Rainbow Dash fixates on the competition instead of the contest, on winning rather than working together with her friends, and as such looses sight of her Element. She insists on seeing the qualifying trials as a competition for a limited resource, qualifying slots in the Equestria Games, and misses the larger view, in which it is a part of an event meant to entertain and showcase athleticism, in which the competitors are not enemies but rather allies encouraging one another to attain new heights. Once she remembers that it’s not about beating other competitors, but being with her team and helping them be as good as they can be, she also realizes where she belongs. She walks to the playing field to announce her decision–walks, not flies, because know she understands that even the ground is not her enemy.

Another lesson both learned and taught. Another key gained. Already we begin to gain an image of what might be in that box, based on what is needed to open it: something that teaches, something that unifies. We’re a third of the way there.

Next week: But first, shenanigans.

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