Cookie Fonster Reviews Every MLP Episode Part 22: The Crystal Empire, Part 1 + 2


< Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 >

Season 3, Episodes 1-2

NOTE: I published this post about an hour early so that I could get it out and update the previous MLP post and introduction post before going off to do convention things.

How appropriate for my first MLP post of 2022 to be number 22. Well, I actually wrote this post in 2021, but I held off publishing it until 2022 to give my posting schedule some breathing room. 2022 is a complete open book for me; aside from me attending MAGFest at the start (as of this post’s publication, I’m at the convention right now), only time will tell what experiences I will go through as the year progresses.

Also, here’s how season 3 will be divided up. Season 3 consists of 13 episodes, so each post will take up two episodes, except for Magical Mystery Cure, which will get a post all to itself. Not because I expect my review of that episode to be extremely lengthy, but simply because the season has an odd number of episodes and I had said I wasn’t going to do posts covering three episodes anymore. Because of this, one episode of season 3 has to get a post all to itself, so I went with the obvious choice. On the other hand, when I go through later seasons, there will probably be plenty of times where I decide to give an episode a post to itself solely because I expect its review to be lengthy, like Slice of Life or Amending Fences.

But as much as I adore both of those season 5 episodes, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Instead, it’s time to start season 3!!!

Season 3 Episode 1: The Crystal Empire, Part 1

This review has spoilers for up to the season 4 finale!

In five words: Twilight Sparkle begins unexpected test.

Premise: Celestia puts Twilight Sparkle and her friends to the task of protecting the Crystal Empire, which has returned after a thousand years, from the wrath of King Sombra, who has also returned after a thousand years.

Detailed run-through:

Who is this nerdy-looking unicorn girl and what’s her deal?
(I wouldn’t be surprised if fans have a common consensus on what her deal is.)

Season 3 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic begins with a short scene where a royal guard informs Celestia that “it” has returned. This scene is quite a strange way to begin the third season, but it serves a clear purpose: loosely hinting at a new villain, matching the pattern of every two-part episode so far introducing a new villain. First Nightmare Moon, then Discord, then Queen Chrysalis, and now… it. (I’m talking about King Sombra, of course.)

You can’t see it here, but Applejack is shaking her head.

After the theme song, we get another round of panicky Twilight Sparkle shenanigans, this time because Celestia has assigned her a test. While her reaction to the test is amazingly predictable, the contents of the test are a different story. Her friends have varied and changing facial expressions as she gathers books and flash cards while Spike struggles to keep up, showing that they’re each reacting to Twilight Sparkle’s storm of panic in their own ways.

Celestia and Luna converse about the ominous threat, the former loosely hinting at Twilight Sparkle becoming a princess. Then Twilight comes in prepared for her test, and Celestia says that this isn’t the kind of test she’s thinking of. She exposits about the long-forgotten Crystal Empire and its takeover and curse by King Sombra a thousand years ago, using her alicorn magic as a visual aid.

I like how this scene doesn’t reuse regular old background pony designs, but rather unique crystal pony designs.

This is a cool exposition sequence that provides quite a lot of new Equestrian lore while portraying how terrifying King Sombra is. King Sombra’s fear factor is portrayed in a far more lowkey and subtle way than other villains, which some fans adore but others find dull. I’ll comment more on Sombra’s characterization as this episode progresses, but for now I’ll say the show is at this point still experimenting with the best ways to portray villains, given that its kid-friendly nature provides a lot of limitations. The show gradually gets more comfortable showing nightmarish villain terror. The scene with a bunch of ponies in shackles lasts for a few seconds, which is easily more active terror than in Friendship Is Magic (the two-part episode), but still rather minimal compared to later two-part episodes.

After finishing the exposition, Celestia has the following to say to Twilight Sparkle:

Celestia: In the end, it must be you, and you alone, who ultimately assists Princess Cadance and Shining Armor in doing what needs to be done to protect the empire.
Celestia: Do you understand?
Twilight Sparkle: Mhm!
Celestia: Then go. There is no time to lose.

In retrospect after the season’s finale, the purpose of this test is clear: as preparation for Twilight Sparkle becoming a princess. Unlike in A Canterlot Wedding, Celestia’s reason for not taking down the villain herself is not because she tried and got defeated, but rather to prepare Twilight Sparkle for the challenges she will face as a princess. After all, Celestia and Luna already defeated Sombra last time (which is to say, a thousand years ago). Celestia is confident Twilight Sparkle has what it takes, presumably due to, well… have you seen what she did in all the other two-part episodes?

Twilight Sparkle is so nervous about this test that she sings a whole song about it. The song is about how she’s good at magic and facts and all the stuff she expected this test to be about, but wasn’t prepared for this. Spike echoes her lines through much of the song, but then he blankly asks what “this” is. If you’re wondering what I think of this musical number, I don’t have much to say about it. I guess it hammers in how Twilight Sparkle’s test is not at all what she expected, which itself shows that she still has a ways to go before she’s ready to become a princess.

The rest of the Mane 6 come prepared to congratulate Twilight Sparkle, and Pinkie Pie fires her party cannon… only for it to un-fire when Twilight reveals her test has only begun, stuffing the confetti back where it came. Now, the only logical explanation for this is that Pinkie Pie can bend the fabric of time to her will, and she chooses to only use a tiny fraction of her power, specifically to do silly things like revert her party cannon’s firing in case of a false alarm. Clearly, confetti is an incredibly scarce and prized resource for this pony, so she aims to conserve it as carefully as possible. Or alternately, you could justify this as a bizarre, little-heard phenomenon called “cartoon humor”, but that’s way less fun.

OK, I’ll stop goofing around now. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

The Mane 6 and Spike board a train to an ice-cold place near the Crystal Empire, where they meet Shining Armor. He says he’s been protecting the Crystal Empire from King Sombra, who has been trying to get in. It seems odd that he’s using his force field spell to protect from a threat again when the changelings broke the shield last time, but perhaps he now knows that this is only a temporary measure.

And besides, Shining Armor shortly loses his magic powers in a duel with King Sombra. Just like in A Canterlot Wedding, a character with powerful magic is neutralized to give the Mane 6 an excuse to save the day. Come to think of it, why did Shining Armor take this big risk to fight King Sombra? Perhaps his fighting spirit got the better of him, or maybe he wanted to give his sister and her friends a bit of extra time.

When the Mane 6 arrive at the Crystal Empire, Rarity gushes like crazy about how stunning the place is. She makes the most adorably incoherent noises seeing all the fanciful architecture, and gets comically mad at Applejack and Rainbow Dash when they try to dismiss her excitement. Rarity is surprisingly adorable when she’s excited, and we even get this silly exchange:

Rainbow Dash: I don’t see what the big deal is. Just looks like another old castle to me.
Rarity: (gasps) ANOTHER OLD… Have you lost your mind? Look at the mag—
(Rainbow Dash and Applejack laugh and high-hoof)

Rarity: Very funny.

I love this little scene where Rainbow Dash teases Rarity about her excitement over fancy castles. It doesn’t come off as distasteful or exaggerated to me, just a lighthearted moment of friendship that adds humor to the scene and gives a bit of insight into Rarity’s character. This girl can be surprisingly gullible sometimes.

The Mane 6 meet an exhausted Cadance, who does her cute “sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake” dance with Twilight Sparkle once more. Then she says the following:

Cadance: One of these days, we need to get together when the fate of Equestria isn’t hanging in the balance.

This line reads to me like the show’s writers were genuinely interested in doing more things with Cadance’s character, perhaps now and then featuring her in more casual settings. And her character does indeed get explored further! She has a casual get-together with Twilight Sparkle in the season 4 episode Three’s a Crowd,* or at least it starts this way. But back to where we are now, Cadance has stayed up for days on end protecting the Crystal Empire, and the bags under her eyes show how worn out she is. This clearly indicates that the protection from King Sombra won’t last forever. Now here, it makes sense for her to think her magic love spell will work perfectly—it did defeat Queen Chrysalis and banish the rest of the changelings after all.

* One of the season 4 episodes I’m looking forward to analyzing the most.

Shining Armor mentions that the Mane 6 could try getting information out of the crystal ponies (and that there are crystal ponies), and Twilight Sparkle excitedly concludes that this means part of her test is to do a research paper. I love how even after she learned that her test isn’t what she thought it would be, she still misses the point and thinks she just has to give Celestia a research paper. Shining Armor is quite surprised at his sister’s reaction; perhaps he’s slightly annoyed that she’s still being the same old Twilight Sparkle despite all that she’s learned about friendship.

Twilight Sparkle tries interrogating a crystal pony, but they’re all too gloomy and traumatized to remember anything from before King Sombra took over. This scene proves that gathering information from these ponies isn’t easy, as Shining Armor had so told. Twilight Sparkle wonders if her friends are having better luck, and we see Rainbow Dash taking the aggressive approach and Fluttershy taking the polite approach, both to equally unsuccessful results. Fluttershy almost uses The Stare to get information from two crystal ponies, but it fizzles out at the last second and she goes back to her usual apologetic self.

Posing as a spy, Pinkie Pie gathers that the crystal ponies feel like something is missing, but they can’t quite remember what, before her cover is blown. This shows that it isn’t fully impossible to get information out of these ponies. On the other hand, Rarity gathers no useful information, and instead rambles about how gorgeous she would look as a crystal pony, which is quite hilarious.

This wasn’t Fluttershy. Instead, it’s Flutterspy.

I love this little scene where Fluttershy joins the Mane 6’s meeting, except she’s actually Pinkie Pie in disguise. It’s extremely surprising and humorously shows how dedicated Pinkie Pie is to playing the role of a spy. Her nonchalant expression when taking off the costume makes this scene even funnier, like she doesn’t think it’s a big deal to masquerade as Fluttershy. Perhaps she chose Fluttershy to disguise as because she’s already, well, shy. How could you tell the difference between Fluttershy carefully tiptoeing around and a spy disguised as Fluttershy carefully tiptoeing around?

It seems like Applejack took the level-headed approach to getting information out of the crystal ponies, and it paid off.

Applejack: Sorry, Twilight. These crystal ponies seem to have some kind of collective amnesia or something.
Applejack: Only thing I was able to get out of them was something about a library.
Twilight Sparkle: (gasps) A library? Oh, why didn’t you say so???
Applejack: Uh… thought I just did.

Twilight Sparkle gets insanely excited about going to a library, and she realizes that should have been the first place she looked. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to her that the Crystal Empire would even have a library. I’m guessing that’s what she meant by “why didn’t you say so”: it should have been obvious to her this whole time.

It is extremely predictable how Twilight Sparkle reacts to being inside the Crystal Empire’s library. This predictability is compensated through an unexpected callback: namely, her saying “there are no words”, which is what Rarity said when she stepped into the Crystal Empire for the first time. I love these little moments where a character echoes another character’s earlier lines.

Librarian: Ahem. May I help you?
Twilight Sparkle: Yes! We’re looking for a book.
Librarian: We have plenty of those.
Twilight Sparkle: You do. You really do!
Applejack: We’re looking for a history book. Something that might tell us how the empire might have protected itself from danger back in the day.

When Twilight Sparkle is too caught up in neuroticism or literary excitement to play the role of the most level-headed party member and Spike isn’t serving as her straight man, that’s when Applejack steps in. I feel like Applejack gradually gets more level-headed as the seasons progress, and it’s cool that I’m now at a point where I can think back to season 1 and see some clear character development.

I feel like an extreme disappointment to the MLP fanbase whenever I refer to a pony as something like “doctor” or “librarian” instead of whatever name fans lovingly bestowed upon them.

The librarian suddenly draws a blank when asked about the location of history books, then she begins to doubt that she ever worked at this library. I’m not sure whether I think King Sombra has special powers to disrupt and erase others’ memories, or if the crystal ponies’ memories of his takeover are just that upsetting to them.

The Mane 6 decide to search on their own for history books, and they each take different strategies that fit their character traits. Applejack kicks a ladder with Rainbow Dash on top, allowing her to zoom by and efficiently pick books out of the shelves; this is an admirable demonstration of the two most athletic Mane 6 members working together. Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie picks books from the shelves seemingly at random, and I’m not sure if she has an extremely sharp eye for which books might have the answer, or if she genuinely thinks picking books at random is the ideal strategy. Such head-scratching ambiguities are typical of this omnipotent reality warper who chose to take the moniker “Pinkie Pie”.

Twilight Sparkle probably thinks that a riveting enough book is sure to make Cadance awake and lively again.

Twilight Sparkle searches through the books provided to her until she finds a book about the history of the Crystal Empire, which she reads to Shining Armor and Cadance. She learns about an annual fair that the Crystal Empire used to hold and decides to put together such a fair with her friends. At this point, she’s desperate for answers, and it helps that she still hasn’t fully gotten over her mindset of learning everything from books.

Just to be clear, this shot is from the end of the song.

Next up is another song, this time where the Mane 6 learn about the Crystal Empire’s cultural traditions and set up the fair. Both of the musical numbers in this episode unfortunately aren’t very memorable to me; this one definitely more than the last one, but this is still one of the weaker episodes in terms of musical numbers. It probably doesn’t help that counting only the episodes with songs in them, The Crystal Empire is sandwiched between A Canterlot Wedding, whose musical numbers are very memorable and add a lot of flair to the episode, and One Bad Apple, which has one of the catchiest songs in the entire show. But maybe I’m being a little harsh here; this song is no This Day Aria, but it still is a fun way to convey the Mane 6 learning about the Crystal Empire’s long-forgotten culture.

Twilight Sparkle says that the last page of the book says that the fair needs a crystal heart, so she carved one out of a crystal block using magic. This is an amusingly oblivious action on her part; does she even realize that there is a specific crystal heart that needs to be retrieved somehow in typical MacGuffin fashion? This isn’t meant as a criticism of this episode; I just think it’s funny how Twilight didn’t realize that they can’t just craft a crystal heart and expect this whole ritual to go perfectly.

Things look promising as the crystal ponies physically light up, nicely representing how the Crystal Empire is powered by emotion. But the Mane 6 realize they made a mistake when they learn that they didn’t find the crystal heart… or Crystal Heart, you tell me whether I’m supposed to capitalize it. The librarian says the whole point of the fair is to power the heart and protect the empire, and that King Sombra stole the heart and hid it somewhere never to be found. Although the Mane 6 didn’t find the real crystal heart, their well-intentioned misleading reawoke the crystal ponies’ positive memories, so setting up the fair like this was useful after all.

But the problem of King Sombra remains. Twilight Sparkle learns from Rainbow Dash (who covers the heart with a cloth) that the crystal heart was a fake, and then she realizes that the last page of the history book is missing. Then Cadance passes out, destroying the magic shield and allowing King Sombra to close in. This makes for a perfect cliffhanger to precede a “To be continued…” screen: as usual, part 2 is where the action REALLY kicks in.

The songs are listed out of order, but eh. I’ll let it slide.

Wait, one more thing. This is the first episode where the credits list the names of the songs played, plus the composer and lyrics’ writer. This is a fantastic change that comes in handy for bronies such as myself, making it easy and unambiguous to know what each song in the show from here on out is called. I’d say it makes up for the inexplicable retiring of the cool custom credits font after the first few episodes. The credits in general are a lot more clear and streamlined from this episode onwards, which is very nice.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • During her panic attack preparing for the test, Twilight Sparkle briefly uses a magic spell to lift the Golden Oak Library before it plops back down intact. In retrospect, this scene comes off as a reminder that Twilight Sparkle shouldn’t take this home for granted, because Tirek destroys it in the season 4 finale.
  • I feel like Pinkie Pie disguising herself as Fluttershy might be a nod to how those two have the same voice actress. I’m sure many fans have made this observation, but I’m putting it here anyway in case you haven’t.
    • About the same scene, Fluttershy is lucky she arrived in the scene after Pinkie Pie took off her costume. If the ponies saw what looks to be two of Fluttershy, they’d think one of them is a changeling and freak out.
  • This episode’s credits spell Cadance’s name as “Cadence”, which I guess qualifies as early installment weirdness since all the later episodes with her in the credits call her “Cadance”.

Season 3 Episode 2: The Crystal Empire, Part 2

Unlike part 1, my review of part 2 contains spoilers for up to the season 9 premiere.

In five words: Twilight passes test through sacrifice.

Premise: With Spike by her side, Twilight Sparkle must search for the crystal heart so she can save the Crystal Empire and pass her test.

Detailed run-through:

I still have no intention of skipping the recaps, thank you very much.

As always, this episode starts with a recap of part 1. This time, the recap condenses all we learned in the first half to the most important pieces of exposition: first from Celestia, then from Shining Armor, then from the librarian. It flows quite nicely, and at this point, the show has gotten the hang of making good two-part episode recaps.

Picking up from where we left off, Cadance uses the last of her magic to reinstate the protective shield and cut off part of King Sombra’s horn, buying our heroes a bit of time until his horn regenerates. Then we get this exchange:

Shining Armor: I have to find the crystal heart.
Twilight Sparkle: No. You stay here with Cadance. She needs you, Shining Armor.
Twilight Sparkle: I’ll retrieve the heart.

This is an admirable instance of Twilight Sparkle bravely stepping up to action. She has seen the resilient strength of Shining Armor and Cadance’s love firsthand, and together with her determination to pass Celestia’s test, that makes her easily take initiative and get her friends (and the Crystal Empire) out of this problem.

The element of honesty probably doesn’t feel too good about hiding the truth about the crystal heart.

Twilight Sparkle tells Rainbow Dash that her friends have a new job while she searches for the crystal heart: keeping the crystal ponies distracted so they don’t find out about King Sombra’s approach or the fake crystal heart. Lying for the greater good is a tricky thing for these ponies to do, but they’re in quite a desperate situation here, and this task serves as a good way to intersperse the dramatic tension with humorous hijinks.

Rainbow Dash spreads the word about keeping the crystal ponies occupied to the rest of her friends. While most of them follow along in keeping the fair running, when Rarity whispers about this plan to Spike, he demonstrates how much of a loyal sidekick he is by running off to find Twilight. This is an admirable act of bravery that shows how much he cares about the pony he lives with: he doesn’t want her to go off on her own without him by her side. This also hints that Spike is about to have his biggest moment of heroism thus far.

Twilight Sparkle lets Spike accompany her, so long as he doesn’t lift a claw to help, because Twilight Sparkle takes Celestia’s orders dead seriously. Such a specific promise is just BEGGING to be broken, which further hints at Spike getting his time to shine. The two enter the Crystal Empire’s castle, and Twilight Sparkle speculates that the crystal heart might have been hidden there because it’s a place the crystal ponies are too afraid to go inside.

Inside the castle, Twilight Sparkle demonstrates that she’s a fast learner by replicating the dark magic spell Celestia used in her exposition sequence. She generates a shadow from the crystal pillar, revealing a dark spiral staircase beneath the castle’s floor. She says this was a trick Celestia taught her, indicating how much pride she takes in her magical prowess.

The sequence that follows is pretty awesome. Twilight Sparkle goes down the seemingly endless staircase, and she breaks off a piece of rock and drops it to check how far down it goes (answer: very far). Though Twilight insisted she wouldn’t let Spike help, she does so anyway when she asks Spike what it’s looking like outside (answer: very bad). On a subconscious level, she knows she wouldn’t be where she is now without her little dragon buddy. Just like how the MLP franchise wouldn’t be where it is now without our little dragon buddy.

This is when we get out first dialogue from King Sombra: “Yes. Mmm… crystals.” One of the most common criticisms of The Crystal Empire is that the villain gets very little dialogue, and while some fans’ opinion on King Sombra improved massively before his return in season 9, I have to agree that having him say so little makes him a rather flat villain. His dialogue here is nowhere enough to give him clear motives and a personality.* I’ll revisit the topic of his change in characterization in the overall thoughts section, but for now I’ll say that having plenty of dialogue is essential to making a good MLP villain. Why do you think Discord is such a fan favorite?

* That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if some fans felt that was part of King Sombra’s appeal.

If a character is being impersonated or seen in an imaginary vision, I’ll surround their name with quotation marks when quoting them.

Twilight Sparkle falls down the stairs in haste, and after a bunch of doors mysteriously disappear and elude her, she opens one, seemingly returning where she started. She’s faced eye-to-eye with a cold and disappointed Celestia, who says Twilight failed her test. This turns out to be merely a vision of Twilight’s worst fear, and it says a LOT about her character. While we’ve known since the first episode that she never wants to disappoint Celestia, only now do we see firsthand how much her mind torments her about the possibility of letting down the princess down.

“Celestia”: Not only will you not move on to the next level of your studies, you won’t continue your studies at all.
Twilight Sparkle: But… you didn’t say anything about no longer being your student if I failed!
“Celestia”: Didn’t I?
Twilight Sparkle: But… what do I do now?

King Sombra is taunting Twilight Sparkle through stained glass portraits, much like Discord did.

This envisioned exchange between Twilight Sparkle and Celestia shows another aspect of Twilight’s biggest fear: she’s worried that at one point or another, she’ll make a tiny slip-up or miss part of Celestia’s instructions, and Celestia will permanently disown her. Sometimes in episodes like Lesson Zero, these worries are played for laughs; here, the very same worries are played for drama and horror.

Spike comes down and snaps Twilight out of this nightmare fantasy. It turns out she was staring at a door while consumed by King Sombra’s dark magic, and that this door shows whoever looks into it their worst fear. Spike looks into the door, and his worst fear is no laughing matter: he’s scared of all his friends abandoning him and banishing him from Ponyville, especially Twilight Sparkle. As much as he’s infatuated with Rarity, there’s no pony he looks up to and respects in quite the same way as Twilight Sparkle. Given what happened to him in Secret of My Excess and Dragon Quest, it makes sense that Spike is incredibly scared of ponies leaving him behind, because he’s not at all comfortable being surrounded by other species, especially his fellow dragons. Even though we only see this vision from an outside perspective, there are a lot of implications you can take from this little peek at Spike’s worst fear.

Spike: We were home. You told me you didn’t need me anymore.
Spike: You were sending me away.
Twilight Sparkle: A fear that will never come to pass. I’m never gonna send you away.

This passage makes me think back to Owl’s Well That Ends Well, another episode that ties in with Spike’s worst fear. Remember how comically jealous Spike was of Owlowiscious doing everything better than him? Well, it turns out that jealousy was covering up his immense fear of abandonment. Now I’m curious what other characters would see if they stared into the door. Many of them, especially the Cutie Mark Crusaders, would likely see similar cases of abandonment and disowning by those they care about.

Twilight Sparkle no doubt intensively practiced magic in preparation for this test, and although this isn’t the test she was thinking of, her practice really paid off. She uses magic to successfully open the door and reveal a huge upwards staircase, allowing her to proceed further on this adventure. By this point, she eagerly keeps Spike by her side, perhaps because she now knows that Spike is terrified of being left behind.

The mood oscillates between humor and horror as King Sombra closes further in on the Crystal Empire while Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy host a jousting match to keep the crystal ponies entertained. Now that I think of it, Fluttershy might have been a good choice to keep these ponies entertained, because her subpar jousting skills make for good comedy.

After getting exhausted ascending a staircase that Spike suggests might be infinite, Twilight Sparkle does something awesome. She cleverly uses a reverse gravity spell to turn the grueling stairs into a fun slide, and it’s such a joy to watch. It’s another instance of her putting the magic skills that she surely sharpened in preparation for this test to good use.

I’m going to guess Rainbow Dash left Applejack of all ponies in charge of hiding the truth because she wasn’t thinking too hard.

When the Mane 6 are at their limit with keeping the crystal ponies busy, Pinkie Pie’s clumsy antics uncover the truth about the “crystal heart”.

Male crystal pony: This isn’t the crystal heart.
Rarity: (laughs) Oh, of course it isn’t.
Rarity: The real one is—
Applejack: On its way!
Rarity: I was going to say being polished. To buy us some more time?
Applejack: Oops.

This passage shows that this episode doesn’t forget about Applejack’s element of harmony. She blurts out the truth before Rarity can make up a lie. The crystal ponies probably don’t know or care which one to believe, because they’re in utter panic.

After proudly stating that she studied the reverse gravity spell for the test, Twilight Sparkle makes it to the top of the tower and sees the real crystal heart…

… but King Sombra traps her, and Spike demonstrates the importance of being a good sidekick. When the hero is held captive, the sidekick takes action and gets their time to shine. In the first few seasons, Spike fits the definition of a sidekick to a T. His biggest shining moments are at first when the other heroes are powered down, which is a very common criticism of his role in the story. The problem is that Spike isn’t just Twilight Sparkle’s sidekick: he’s also a member of the main cast, with his own motives and desires and dreams. I view Spike’s character arc as going hand in hand with the show’s staff figuring out the best thing to do with his character: have him be the one with bravery to befriend and make peace with exotic species, which he does in some pivotal episodes of season 6. Season 6 is Spike’s true time to shine, but for now, enjoy him bringing the crystal heart to Cadance after a discussion with the trapped Twilight Sparkle.

In true sidekick fashion, Spike stumbles around King Sombra’s dark crystal structures while carrying the heart. It’s a cool change of pace for Spike to get the climactic moment of heroism instead of Twilight, but still not much of a deviation from the typical two-part episode formula. If you want a real change of pace from how two-part episodes usually go, wait till we get to the season 6 finale. I love that the season 6 finale has characters who aren’t the Mane 6 save the day, but I’m getting way ahead of myself again.

Since Spike is a humble sidekick, he can’t quite save the day all on his own; it simply isn’t possible with his limited powers. Shining Armor launches Cadance, who flies with Spike on her back while carrying the heart. Cadance is also the one to restore the heart to its proper location, powering the love of the Crystal Empire. Spike only got a small part in saving the Crystal Empire from King Sombra; a crucial part, but a small part no less. He unfortunately isn’t powerful enough to play a bigger part.

King sombra does a typical “what, no” when the Crystal Empire is restored to its former glory. The ponies in the scene all flash with crystal effects that may relate to the Crystal Empire’s merchandise (I’ll get to this topic soon!), and King Sombra receives the most graphic defeat of any MLP villain yet. Every villain in MLP so far has been defeated through a rad huge explosion, and I won’t lie, those explosions blow my mind every time.

See? Like that.

This show provides in-universe explanations for phenomena like the sun rising and setting and daily weather, but this scene provides an explanation for a far rarer sky phenomenon: aurora borealis. And it’s not created by leaving a roasted ham in your oven for too long, oh no. Instead, it’s the result of the magical love-fueled power of the crystal heart. Celestia and Luna are experiencing MLP’s equivalent of aurora borealis for the first time in a thousand years, and they’re very proud of it. It serves as confirmation that Twilight Sparkle passed her test.

The Mane 6, Spike, Shining Armor, and Cadance now have crystal pony designs (or in Spike’s case, I guess a crystal dragon design). I’m almost certain those designs were devised for the sake of selling toys, and they had to be worked into the episode somehow. And it works fine, I think. It’s not really intrusive and adds a bit of flair to this episode’s catharsis.

It’s only fitting for Pinkie Pie to bounce in glee right now.

Rarity complains that the crystal pony designs aren’t permanent, leading Applejack to make an admittedly clever pun on Rarity’s name. While most of the ponies (and Spike) are happy they saved the day, Twilight Sparkle is still nervous because she wasn’t technically the one who saved the Crystal Empire. Shining Armor tries to reassure her…

Look, Spike is finally honored in the castle’s stained glass portraits!

… but only when meeting with Celestia does Twilight truly know the full purpose of her test.

Celestia: Twilight, as I understand it, Spike brought Princess Cadance the crystal heart because you weren’t sure how quickly you could find a way to escape the tower.
Celestia: You weren’t willing to risk the future of the citizens of the Crystal Empire in an effort to guarantee your own.
Celestia: Far better that I have a student who understands the meaning of self-sacrifice than one who only looks out for her own best interests.

Here, this two-part episode is providing us a rather heavy moral: the importance of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice can take many more forms than risking your own life; also risking your own interest or personal gain, which is both more kid-friendly and more valuable to learn.

In an interesting twist of fate, Spike is now the one panicking about whether Twilight Sparkle will pass the test. He may serve as the snarky straight man in Twilight Sparkle’s outbursts, but he truly cares for her and respects her worries deep down.

Poor Spike really needs to stop waiting right in front of doors. He always seems to get hit by them.

Twilight Sparkle reveals she passed the test, and her friends all cheer and praise her. This leads to a more positive reprise of the first song from part 1, with slightly different composition befitting this victorious tone, sung by all of the Mane 6.

The ending of the episode is quite amusing. Celestia and Luna watch the Mane 6 and Spike board a train back home. Spike says in a panicked voice that he knew everything would be fine, then falls asleep on top of Twilight. This silly little Spike moment serves to end this two-part episode on a lighthearted note.

Overall thoughts:

Much like A Canterlot Wedding, this two-part episode has a premise designed for the sake of selling toys, and this time a new location had to be worked into the show’s canon: namely, the Crystal Empire. And what can I say about the Crystal Empire (the location)? It adds variety to the settings where episodes take place, for one. We now have two locations where formal events are fit to occur: Canterlot and the Crystal Empire. It also provides a home for Shining Armor and Cadance, for who from here on out remain members of the supporting cast.

About King Sombra… he’s a suitably scary villain, but his portrayal has some glaring flaws. The main flaw (and fundamental cause of the other flaws) is that he has so little dialogue, which doesn’t allow much room for characterization and motives. Season 9’s premiere, The Beginning of the End, brings back King Sombra with much more dialogue, and his new characterization was controversial among fans because it contradicts a lot of his backstory as seen in external media. I think it’s quite cool for the show to take a second shot at characterizing King Sombra, and it’s a shame that some fans didn’t receive it well.

As for the two-part episode as a whole, it’s got flaws here and there, but it fits nicely into Twilight Sparkle’s character arc of gaining more responsibilities and duties, and being prepared for what comes next to her. It also is a significant piece of Spike’s character arc, as I had already discussed. That’s about all I have to say.

Grade: B

Definitely weaker than A Canterlot Wedding, but still a good two-part episode overall. I had a lot of fun writing this review, and I wrote most of it at a pretty brisk pace! I wrote my review for part 2 entirely within one day, somehow.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I won’t lie, I felt a little bad making fun of Fluttershy’s incompetence in jousting, which is weird because she’s just a fictional horse. The show does a great job getting you invested in the characters, OK?
  • Throwing in a Steamed Hams reference is without a doubt my greatest accomplishment in my MLP post series thus far.

After these two dramatic two-part episodes, next in line is one of the silliest episodes of the entire show.

Wow, I really got into the zone when writing this post! You know, when you get extra concentrated on making something and really do not want to be pulled away from it? It’s a nice feeling for sure, but it also left me pretty exhausted.

See you next week for two episodes: an incredibly silly Pinkie Pie episode and a real doozy of a Cutie Mark Crusaders episode.

>> Part 23: Too Many Pinkie Pies + One Bad Apple

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