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Mike Cartoon Pony


Nintendo gamer and animation lover. Also likes pastel cartoon ponies. They do that to people. And ghosts.

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Jan
29th
2020

Mini Re-Reviews: "The Return of Harmony - Part 1/2" - Season 2 Episodes 1 & 2 · 9:46pm January 29th


DISCORD: "Finally! Oh, you silly little ponies have no idea how infuriating it's been to sit on the sidelines while you all deliver uninspired opening zingers! Well, except for Pinkie, that meta one back for 'Feeling Pinkie Keen' and Twilight's response was gold. Now, I can show you all how it's really done - "
FLUTTERSHY: "Um, Discord, we're out of time."
DISCORD: "A time limit? Seriously? Oh well, I suppose Pinkie's skits would never end otherwise. Don't mind me, I'll just be sitting over here concocting my bit for Part 2..."

We'll have to see whether the long-standing reputation of Season 2 being the series' high point fully holds up (though my belief is that it will), but certainly one of the biggest reasons why that might prove true is "The Return of Harmony". If you're looking for an alternate take to this being one of the best two-parters the show has ever produced, you're going to be disappointed. Having now rewatched it after having only seen it twice in full before, I remain convinced that it may very well be the series' best two-parter. Uncontroversial opinion, I know.

But how can any discussion of this episode begin without the man (draconequus) of the hour himself, Discord? Watching the series from the start, it's interesting how his role and usage in the episode compares quite similarly to Nightmare Moon in "Friendship Is Magic", except all the flaws in the pilot there are learned and fixed here. They both have a thing going on where they're indirectly thwarting the main characters' progress while still having a presence, but Discord not only succeeds where she failed (something I read as him looking back at those events of their forest trek to the castle, seeing why NM failed, and modifying his game to be that but with the cards stacked against the Mane 6), but also manages to have a credible presence even when not onscreen. Never mind that when he is onscreen he steals the show; he's the rare example of putting a character in a show that's tonally discordant to that show, but done in such a way that he enhances it rather then breaking it. So much personality and charisma results from this genie-like spirit of chaos, and John De Lancie's guest performance emulating his own Q remains iconic even all these years later (to say he's the best guest character's voice performance in the show's entire run is obvious; I daresay he may well rank with the regular actors that get far more screentime to flesh out their characters and show off their chops, at least when Discord is written correctly). This Discord was startling to watch, as by this point I am so, so used to the reformed version, but it was a welcome change of pace, even if it only served to make me separate this Discord and the Discord of later episodes even more firmly in my head.

Oh, but the episode isn't only about Discord, now is it? After a curious opening scene serving to exposit some vague info about our villain but also to foreshadow later events, we see Ponyville is in total chaos between bubblegum clouds raining chocolate milk, fields of popcorn and small animals sporting long legs. In a scene I'd totally forgotten about, we get a super-condensed episode of the Mane 6 solving these through coordinated teamwork. It's a quick fun burst that serves to show how close-knit the group is before things go to heck later in the episode, and between that and some more exposition later, it also quickly reintroduces the characters (coming, remember, after a 4.5 month hiatus, so such things matter for both the adults and children in the audience, and especially for those coming to this episode as their debut - to judge from the fandom evidence, more then a few people roped in others to watch the new season premiere with them, so good thing this is here).

Following a quick summons, the Mane 6 end up in Canterlot's throne room for the first time. The expansion of lore here is really great, paying off the MacGuffins used in the series opener and giving consequences to their usage (this concept of tangible consequences to Luna falling and the Mane 6 taking the elements is present in future episodes, though rarely as directly as it was here). Following a discovery that a genre-savvy Discord whisked away the Elements, we get out onscreen introduction to the draconequus himself. The decision to keep him within the stained glass window was a brilliant masterstroke, serving both to continue to build up to his in-the-flesh appearance and also to define his trickster, meddling personality so well. And even here, there's some depth to him; it's hard to miss the bitterness in Discord's voice when he remarks that he doesn't turn ponies to stone (let's... just pretend "The Ending of the End" doesn't exist for this moment).

Of course, the meat of Part 1, and the part that everyone remembers most vividly, is the game in the labyrinth that takes up the second half, where upon the six showing up to reclaim the elements, Discord strips them of their wings and horn and separates them within the maze. Even without the context of the bulk of what happens in the next episode, it's frankly a dispiriting experience for the audience, watching Discord plant seeds that cause the characters, one by one, to doubt themselves or their friends and invert on their dominant personality traits. On its own, this is already a bold thing to do, but it's given so much weight by coming when it does in the series. Reportedly this episode was always intended as the Season 2 Premiere, not the Season 1 Finale, it was just written and produced right after Season 1 to keep the crew busy and fresh (and as such, being written right before the series premiered, fans had no effect on the direction taken here, despite speculation to the contrary), but even so, it's a effective capstone to both the characters growing friendship throughout Season 1 and especially the pilot. Comparing the maze scene to the forest trek in the series' Premiere proves very enlightening, not just from the perspective of how Discord learns from Nightmare Moon's mistakes but from how each successful trial there maps onto a failed one here.

The last thing that gives this all huge weight is how it's not strictly Discord brainwashing them, as much as he's bringing out dark sides of the characters they try to keep suppressed that we've seen glimpses of before. Applejack was always a terrible lair, now she's just a compulsive one; Pinkie's doubts about others laughing at her tie in super-well to the events of "Party of One"; Rarity has shown before that a generous nature is not mutually exclusive from material desires; Rainbow Dash has shown before being torn in her loyalty to her present friends and her past home (to which her future dreams are linked to); and Fluttershy, for all her timidness and kindness, has had a few moments of frustrated sarcasm here and there and, if "Best Night Ever" is any indication, has her own anger management issues that tend to be bottled up. In a sense, all Discord has done is flip them so that their weaknesses are their dominant traits. This gives the events within the maze so much more weight and impact compared to standard "brainwashing" that another cartoon might employ. That's Friendship Is Magic in its prime for you, always layering the goings-on to the characters at some level.

This first part ends on a distressing note, as the uncorrupted Twilight and the four others witness Rainbow Dash bailing on the maze, and Discord declares the game null and void, laughing that it's all over even as he returns the missing body parts. How anxious an experience this must have been back in September 2011, waiting a whole week to see how the characters were going to get out of this mess! Thankfully, I didn't have to when I started with the show, I didn't have to when rewatching it for this review, and you don't have to wait to read my take on Part 2 - it's right below. The rating of Part 1 will be at the end so as not to spoil the likely score of Part 2, though I'm sure you can make a good guess as to what it might be.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
- One interesting, curious point is whether the CMC were responsible for Discord's escape due to their bickering, as it's left partly ambiguous. Given the nature of Celestia's explanation for his escape, that the transference of the Bearers of the Elements weakened the spell on him, I'm inclined to believe their bickering is instead caused by proximity to his about-to-break-free form; it's an early example of him exerting influence prior to his proper escape. In fact, it's only just dawned on me that this makes the opening something of a foreshadowing scene for where the Mane 6 end up by the episode's end. Clever; it otherwise feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the episode, both in characters features and some minor contrivances (a field trip going all the way to Canterlot? I don't know about that...).
- Much like "Dragonshy" this episode also evokes feeling of Tolkein, though this time without ever directly quoting anything from the work, though the tone here is more akin to Lord of the Rings. Old comparison, I'm sure, but the sense of mythology, lore, and danger here really does evoke the same kind of emotions of the viewer that LOTR often does. This Tolkein-like feel in the series doesn't last much longer before it's gone altogether due to both too concrete lore and a changing series tone (for my money, "The Crystal Empire" is the last time it's present even mildly, though we'll have to wait and see).
- The other thing to compare between Nightmare Moon and Discord is that we learn more about both in future episodes down the line. But while Nightmare Moon gets less interesting (note I'm talking specifically about her, not Luna) the more that is revealed, Discord gets, if anything, even more interesting. At least in Season 4 anyway, which is what I'm thinking of here.
- The link's a dead link, but M.A. Larson supposedly has a line where Applejack remarked, "Hope everything's ok back in Ponyville. I don't know if Big McIntosh and Granny Smith have enough butter for all that popcorn." that was cut from the episode. Nothing to really add, just thought it was a funny and hilarious callback.


DISCORD: "Oh, what a delight this was! You know, just between you and me, sometimes I reenact this scene and the following ones in Fluttershy's back yard when she's somewhere else, with her animals as semi-willing stand-ins for Twilight and the others. Angel plays Twilight, and he captures her grumpiness so well! Though it's a good thing the scene requires him to be resistive, I'd never get worthwhile results otherwise."
PINKIE PIE: "Discord! I can't believe you would reenact this..."
DISCORD: "Pinkie Pie! Oh, um, please don't tell Fluttershy. Angel and I were just playing, weren't we?"
ANGEL: "..."
PINKIE PIE: "Without me! Ooh, ooh, can I play myself? No, that's not very chaotic. Can I play Fluttershy? No, no, Spike! He was so funny being forced to be Rainbow Dash."
DISCORD: "Ooh, playing someone forced to be someone else, Pinkie, I like it! Say, perhaps you could put in a good word for me? I'd rather not wait 34 episodes to reappear in these image captions."
PINKIE PIE: "Sure, no problem! I've appeared in lots that I wasn't present for! Besides, we'd have to be crazy to not use the Spirit of Chaos himself for these random openings!"

As Part 2 opens, with Discord gloating it up about his victory and pointing out that he never actually stated the Elements were even in the Labyrinth, Twilight just over-dissected his riddle, we bear witness to further changes in the inverted attitudes of all four greyed-out ponies that gradually come to the forefront as the episode passes and they get even greyer. Applejack stops feeling visually guilty about lying, Fluttershy uses teasing and bullying aimed at her in the past at others, and Rarity branches out from hoarding Best Boulder to coveting anything that garners attention from anyone else. Interestingly, Pinkie shows signs of still finding aspects of the situation fun like her normal self, though she denies it, which creates a really bizarre dissonance between her actions and attitude that oddly fits with the rest. But watching the escalating negativity of the others gradually wear down Twilight's shield down to the episode's halfway point makes for a sobering, dispiriting experience for those of us who've grown to care for and adore these six (seven) characters the past 27 episodes.

Much more so then the last episode, which was split half-and-half between setting up Discord and then draconequus himself dominating his screentime, and the personality inverting of our main characters, this one truly focuses on the Mane 6. It's surprising how Discord is present a lot less in this instalment (briefly at the start, briefly again as they enter Ponyville, and then during their failed attempt, gloating to Twilight thereafter and his final defeat at the end). This is an unusual subversion - the great majority of stories in general with a villain have them more present in the second half, not the first, which makes narrative sense - but not a totally new one, just a rare one. When you have a story that is supposed to show how the main characters react to and crack under extreme pressure, but then build themselves back up again - in other words, a story that is still about the main characters, whatever the delights of the villain - this can be an effective storytelling trick to use. An example most of you are no doubt familiar with is The Lion King: Scar's around a lot for the first 40 mins, but for the remaining 42, other then a brief cut back to the Pride Lands, he's not seen until the last 11 mins of the film. Though both there and here this technique is born of the need to focus on the main characters and the story's requirements, and is not intentional, it is no doubt fascinating.

And effective. There's plenty of dark humour from both the chaos around the place and the actions of the greyed-out ponies, although for me the biggest laughs came from Twilight very nearly approaching Lesson Zero insanity-levels as she quests for the book and away from her once-friends. A lot of this is sobering rather then funny, and could be depressing under the wrong circumstances. But somehow, M.A. Larson, Lauren Faust, Rob Renzetti and everyone at DHX all make it gel together and flow right, so it is never a joyless slog to sit through. We come out of it all the more grateful that the main characters have made up.

Much like last time, the echoes to both the pilot and the cumulative experience of the ponies experience thus far give a very nice, elegant shape to the arcs of managing to defeat Discord. It's a bit obvious at first, but Twilight regaining hope from the reminder of all her previous friendship lessons (poor, poor Spike!) is a touch that works really well. The sequence of her bringing everyone back is interesting, because it would have been nice to see proper wrangling of everyone, but time pressures will happen (as evidenced by a fast-paced 45-second recap at the episode's start). But it ends up working just as well as that, both between starting and ending with Applejack and Rainbow Dash just like last episode, but through the airborne chase of Fastest Pony showing the characters in their element as as their full personalities again (a very effective and plot-useful way to have their loving personalities shower us, given the rest of the episode doesn't give much opportunities for that). This isn't trivial either, as it's as probing as all the dispiriting material earlier but in the opposite direction this time. The restraint is that this is all under the surface, proving once again how layered this show can be at its prime.

On a final note, this is the first time, and one of the few times, that the Instant Friendship Nuking of the villain at the end feels properly earned and not slightly contrived or something similar. It's a bit sudden, true, but the episode's been building up to it and made the characters go through hay for it. The episode wraps up with an odd tribute to the end of Star Wars: A New Hope (truth be told, it's a bit fumbled, and the echoes of the various winks and nods the characters do there stumble a bit here), and all is well.

After all that, does it need repeating that this episode works as fantastically as it does because of the way it uses the characters growth of the series to this point as an emotional anchor, and because it bases it's events in the main point of the series? Let's be honest, most future two-parters, whatever their strengths and uniqueness, suffer from not only crapping a lot in and much of the ensemble being sidelined from meaningful roles, but from not really being about the central friendship points and characters of the series. But "The Return of Harmony" is about all that, and though it does things no episode before, and few since, have done, it feels a part of the more calm episodes around it. Oh, and it boasts the series' best villain (looking only at villain pre-reformation, of course) by almost any metric. Small wonder staff and viewers wanted Discord back, eh? "The Return of Harmony" isn't the first two-parter I'd reach for - though it balances itself tonally as indicated above, it can still be dispiriting due to the events within - but it may well be the best. Certainly, the future contenders have a lot of work cut out for them.

Score-wise, it was tricky to decide which part here was better. Though I'd be more likely to rewatch Part 1, due to the dark nature of the character-focused events of the latter, honesty compels me to admit it is, probably, the "better" half. Part 1 will have to settle for a still hugely-impressive 9.5/10, but Part 2 joins the top tier. If Season 2 goes as I suspect, it should see several more invitees to that coveted club.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
- I'd planned to post a Season 1 retrospective before this, but that's proving difficult to concoct. Bear with me, I'll try and get it out before I'm too far into Season 2.
- Unless I've forgotten regarding the first two episodes of the series, I believe this is the first episode not to use the show's title song during the credits, instead continuing the Star Wars Throne Room spoof.
- If one breaks it down, it's clear that Discord, being chaos, can't or doesn't want to create a can't lose situation for himself, as that's no fun and not chaotic, so it excuses him not hiding the Elements elsewhere. As for not reacting to the friendship beam until its too late, well, it's clear he's so convinced by Twilight losing face that he doesn't think it will work there either. Were it not for Spike's comment on them being grey, one could assume that's just for the viewer's benefit, and the characters don't actually look any different, explaining why Discord isn't alerted by their full-colour bodies. All a long-winded way of saying the plot's reasonably airtight, by FiM standards, of why the villain loses a situation despite being on top and having already won.
- There's still a refreshing simplicity to the lack of outside events intruding on the plot or otherwise forcing themselves in. As the series goes on, more characters and lore kind of strips that away, but this episode absolutely benefits from it, becoming the most satisfying two-parter as a character piece.
- Two great "these are ponies" moments are Rainbow Dash being all feral right before Twilight memory-blasts her, and Pinkie's animal-like growl returning to the rest after lapping up the last of the chocolate milk rain.

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Comments ( 1 )

Was just checking out this review I previously skimmed over, when I saw that you wrote Discord was the series' best villain by almost any metric. Oh boy. I have a bit to say about that. Like, he might be the best villain in the main series, or even the whole series, but absolutely not by almost any metric. Sure, he's definitely the funniest and therefore probably the most fun villain, and he ranks high in manipulation, charisma, intelligence, and intimidation. But there are several villains who are better in some or all of these departments. Chrysalis is more intimidating, Sombra is probably smarter and more intimidating, Tirek pretty much has him beat in all these ways, Adagio is the same, Starlight may be better in manipulation and charisma, the PoS is perhaps more intimidating, and Cozy's more manipulative and charismatic and maybe intelligent. I'm not saying these villains are all better, in fact most of them are definitely worse as Discord manages to strike up an amazing balance between all of his characteristics, but some like Sombra and Tirek, and especially Adagio are close. Adagio is just so perfect in every aspect of a great "obstacle" villain and is so much more threatening than Discord even though he already is threatening.

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