At least the other ponies tried to be subtle about the ticket (Twilight Time)

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Twilight demonstrates the correct reaction to Diamond Tiara.

Any formula can become tiresome after a while.

Even in a relatively varied show, if it runs long enough, patterns develop. If a Friendship Is Magic episode focuses on Spike, we can expect a fairly high probability that he will spend most of it being a jerk, then learn at the end not to be a jerk. There are exceptions, of course–“Dragon Quest” and “Power Ponies” come immediately to mind–but nonetheless a significant number of his episodes follow that pattern, with the result that episodes which don’t are something of a relief.

Increasingly, the same is true of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Quite a few of their episodes involve them innocently pursuing their goals of the week until unintended consequences snowball into a disaster and they get into trouble. Examples include “Stare Master,” “The Cutie Pox,” “Hearts and Hooves Day,” “Ponyville Confidential,” and “One Bad Apple,” though their innocence in that last is debatable. Regardless, the pattern is well-established, and so when “Twilight Time” (penned by Dave Polsky) opens with the Crusaders trying to parlay their friendship with Twilight into increased social status, we can guess where this is going.

Interestingly, however, so can the Crusaders. Multiple times throughout the episode, as Twilight encounters her mob of young fans, the Crusaders brace themselves for her to be angry. This is not, after all, the first time something like this has happened in Ponyville: a small group of Twilight’s friends trying to use her for their own purposes, resulting in a mob pursuit through the streets of Ponyville, goes right back to the show’s beginnings and “Ticket Master,” while Twilight herself is the queen (or perhaps princess) of getting carried away and unintentionally creating chaos, as witness episodes like “Lesson Zero” and “It’s About Time.”

But Twilight does not become angry the first few times, demonstrating how different she is from Celestia. Twilight is not a distant figure sending messages, descending only in the splendor of an official visit or wrathful judgment; she is fully present, as much or more interested in her relationships with other ponies–including what she gets out of those relationships–as she is in guiding them.

After several times repeating this inversion of the usual Crusader plot, the episode finally has Twilight understand that she’s being used, and she rebukes the Crusaders. However, by this point the episode has already differed enough from the norm to accomplish the real function of a deviation from formula: it’s shown something new the characters can do. Specifically, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are outsiders, close enough to the Mane Six to interact with them frequently, yet distant enough to cut off from their inner lives. In other words, they are ideal characters through which we can see our usual main characters as others see them, a very different perspective from the norm.

Usually, in an episode this much about Twilight we would be focused on her concerns. We would see her conversing with Spike or one of the others of the Mane Six, discussing her motivations and anxieties. Instead, we see Twilight as the world sees her, and in so doing get a new perspective on fears she expressed back in the season premiere. There, Twilight was concerned with not trying to appear as if she considered herself “better” than the other ponies, asserting that being a princess did not make her superior. Here, we see part of why she might feel that way, with a demonstration of why real friendship cannot function across a hierarchical divide.

The foals treat Twilight as a celebrity, which is to say as a superior and therefore distant figure, someone who lives on a higher plane than them. They are so overjoyed by simply seeing and interacting with her that they fail to engage with her as a person, and the more the Crusaders buy in to this view of Twilight, the more they start using her, too. To be on a pedestal is to be an object, not a real person who exists here among we real people. Regardless of whether it is the quietly and distantly respectful sort of worship that ponies exhibit toward Celestia, kneeling before her and deferring to her in all things, or the exuberant and eager worship of the autograph-seeking children, worship is inherently objectifying. It dehumanizes the worshiper by entailing putting aside one’s own judgment in favor of others, as when the children regard the burger joint as somehow being better because Twilight has eaten there, but equally it dehumanizes the object of worship by valuing them as signifiers rather than as people, as Twilight suggests the Crusaders are doing when she accuses them of studying with her so they can become popular instead of in order to learn. In other words, Twilight’s concern is that they are using her and not really her friends, which of course is the case in most fan-celebrity “relationships,” given that most times the celebrity is unaware the particular fan exists.

But, paradoxically, it is only by positioning the episode well outside of Twilight that we can truly understand this. Told from Twilight’s point of view, this would be no different than the sequence in the premiere in which Twilight’s friends tell her she’s non-expendable and they must face danger without her, which is to say it would be about Twilight feeling lonely at the top and having to assure others she is still the same Twilight. By showing the story from the point of view of the Crusaders, however, the episode makes it clear that it is their decision to treat Twilight as a superior being, which is to say not a person, which is to say an object, is the problem. That, in other words, the issue is not that it is lonely at the top, but rather that there is a top at all.

At the same time, that position outside of Twilight is why this subverts yet another formula: Twilight teaches someone else a lesson about her Element of Harmony (in both senses: she teaches Sweetie Belle about magic and about friendship), and receives a gift from them in the end, but this is nonetheless not her “key” episode. The reason is simple: this isn’t a Twilight episode. It is about her being objectified, and thus the episode itself objectifies her, denying us the monologues or conversations with Spike that usually give us access to her inner life, so that we can learn along with the Crusaders.

This is not the last time the Crusaders will serve as a way to look at how one of the Mane Six might appear from the outside–“Somepony to Watch Over Me” and its unique take on Applejack is only a couple of episodes away, and arguably this approach was in play, if not dominant, in past episodes such as “Sleepless in Ponyville.” It’s a handy way of getting around the core issue of the characters, that they take the spotlight away from the Mane Six, and allows for episodes that simultaneously take the perspective of peers of the target audience, while also maintaining a focus on the show’s actual main characters.

But for now, the top song and movie are the same as last week, Jimmy Fallon takes over Jay Leno’s former role as opening monologue-provider and celebrity-interviewer on The Tonight Show, Venezuelan beauty queen Genesis Carmona is killed while participating in a student protest, and on the day this episode airs, months of protest and social upheaval culminate in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in either a coup or a revolution, depending on who you ask. It’s February 22, 2014, and we’re trying something that isn’t quite different enough from the normal formula to qualify as experimental, but still noticeably a change.

Next week: Cute, fragile creatures that can be blown away by the slightest breeze. But enough about Fluttershy…

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