Cookie Fonster Reviews Every MLP Episode Part 38: For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils + Leap of Faith


< Part 37 | Part 38 | Part 39 >

Season 4, Episodes 19-20

If you know how much I like Sweetie Belle, you won’t be surprised to know my review of For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils is going to be a long one. Not a record breaker, but it’s up there.

Also, greetings from Spain! As of this post’s publication, I am in there right now, though I had written it a few weeks prior. This is unrelated to MLP, but I have taken it upon myself to learn Spanish since a month before the trip, and I’m having a lot more fun learning it than I would have thought. I may publish a blog post about learning the language in the future.

Season 4 Episode 19: For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils

In five words: Sweetie Belle nearly ruins Rarity.

Premise: Jealous of all the attention her sister Rarity is getting over her, Sweetie Belle destroys the crucial stitch in her sister’s dress for Sapphire Shores, but then she has a dream where Princess Luna shows her what would happen if she doesn’t turn back.

Detailed run-through:

Before I begin, I need to make something loud and clear: This episode is not called “For Whom the Sweetie Bell Toils”. You have no idea how much it drives me crazy when people get the name of this episode wrong. I swear there are some people who know how to spell Sweetie Belle’s name correctly but not the name of this episode, and it annoys me so much.

I love Sweetie Belle so much. She’s just such an appealing character.

Anyway, now that I’m done complaining about something extremely minor that no one cares about, it’s time for me to dive into this episode and pick apart an extremely minor detail that no one cares about!

This episode starts with Glasses Rarity (remember, she’s Rarity but wearing glasses) preparing dresses for Sapphire Shores’ concert, while Sweetie Belle is extremely excited to help out and immediately brings out any materials that Rarity so much as considers using. The second material Rarity mentions is sequins, and Sweetie Belle grabs a bowl of them only to clumsily slip, and some of the sequins land on her tongue. Rarity then uses magic to lift them off, apparently not at all worried that some of them may have Sweetie Belle’s germs due to landing on her tongue. Does she trust that Sweetie Belle keeps proper hygiene? Does she know magic spells that can instantly cleanse any object of others’ germs? There’s lots of possibilities, but it would probably be more relevant to talk about how eager Sweetie Belle is to help with making dresses. She’s so determined to make Rarity proud and be even a fraction as good at making dresses as she is, and her desperation to be in the spotlight reaches a breaking point early into this episode.

Yep, we have three episodes focused on relationships between siblings in a row.

Well, she tried.

Sweetie Belle then asks Rarity if she can spare a moment to help with the dresses for herself and the other two Cutie Mark Crusaders for a play they’re hosting tomorrow. Rarity says she’s extremely busy, but when she gives a hesitant “maybe” answer, Sweetie Belle jumps up and hugs her. Rarity’s eye twitches when she sees the dresses in their current state, but soon enough she will agree to touch them up.

See? I told you this episode wasn’t called For Whom the Sweetie Bell Toils.
Now please stop misspelling its name.

Scootaloo: I can’t believe Rarity still isn’t here with the costumes.
Sweetie Belle: She’s been very busy lately.
Apple Bloom: But how can she still not be here? She’s known about this for weeks!
Sweetie Belle:
Apple Bloom: Uh, she has known about this for weeks, right?
Sweetie Belle: I kept meaning to ask her, I really did, but… I worked so hard on this play. I wrote it especially for the three of us. I directed it, I’m in it, I made the costumes… It’s just that this is really my time to shine doing something completely myself, and I really wanted to keep it that way!
Apple Bloom: But we wanted everything to be perfect. All our friends came out to see it tonight.

Man, I feel bad for Sweetie Belle here. She shares Rarity’s love of being in the spotlight, but given how much she’s felt overshadowed by her big sister, it isn’t easy for her to achieve those dreams. While she put a ton of time and energy into her play, the one thing she procrastinated on was asking Rarity for help. She really wants to step out of her sister’s shadow, and it’s not easy for her.

Rarity comes in at the last minute with her new and improved dresses, and Sweetie Belle looks a little annoyed that they were completely redone, but she doesn’t have much time to express it since Cheerilee keeps reminding them to take their places. We get to hear a small snippet of the play’s dialogue, which is written with a hilariously clumsy and stilted imitation of Shakespearean language, and Sweetie Belle ends the play feeling proud and happy.

After the play, Sweetie Belle excitedly asks those who attended what they liked the most, but they can’t remember anything about the play except the dresses, which frustrates her. This scene firmly establishes this episode as a tale of sibling frustration, which is a common theme in any episode focused on Rarity and Sweetie Belle’s relationship.

None of the Mane 6 were around to watch the play because Rarity was in a time crunch getting them to help prepare Sapphire Shores’ dresses. Rarity reveals that the headdress in the outfit hinges entirely upon one crucial hidden stitch, one without which the entire headdress would collapse. I wonder why Rarity chose to design the headdress that way. Was it the only way she was able to get the headdress to look the way it did? On a narrative level, though, I’m inclined to believe there’s some symbolism in the headdress’s fragility. The ease of destroying the headdress matches with how tenuous Rarity and Sweetie Belle’s trust in each other can be, and how easy it is to break it completely.

This is another episode I’m having just as much fun analyzing as I imagined.

The Mane 6 finally think they can have some time to relax, but then Sweetie Belle comes in frustrated at her sister. This soon leads the rest of the Mane 6 to exit the room with queasy expressions, since they all don’t feel great about intruding on an argument between sisters.

Rarity: Whatever’s the matter, Sweetie Belle? Didn’t the play go alright?
Sweetie Belle: Not even close.
Rarity: Oh, dear. Was something amiss with the dresses I made you?
Sweetie Belle: No, they were perfect. And that was the whole problem!

Apple Bloom had said earlier that she thought the Crusaders all wanted the play to be perfect, but Sweetie Belle proves she doesn’t feel that way with this line, which confuses everyone else in the room. I think I know what Sweetie Belle is getting at here: unlike so many other characters in the show, she’s most certainly not a perfectionist, and instead she’s content with gradually learning and improving her skills, which is something to admire. While she did expect others to praise the play greatly, she’s still put off by Rarity’s dresses being so much more perfect than everything else.

Sweetie Belle: There! I knew it! You did this on purpose! Stealing the spotlight like you always do. It’s my fifth birthday party all over again!
Rarity: The… the what, now?
Sweetie Belle: Don’t act like you don’t remember. Or are you trying to prove you’re a better actress than me too?
Rarity: Sweetie Belle, if I did anything to upset you, then—
Sweetie Belle: Admit you made those dresses too good on purpose!
Rarity: I thought they were supposed to be good.
Sweetie Belle: Yes, good, not jaw-dropping amazing!
Rarity: I only tried to do what I thought you wanted.
Sweetie Belle: Hah! (slams door)

Sweetie Belle’s frustration with Rarity has grown to a point where she starts accusing her of crazy things. She’s a child, and thus it’s perfectly believable for her to have such crazy misconceptions all because she feels inferior to her sister. The truth is, when you’re good at something, it isn’t really possible to deliberately tone down your skills in it. Either you can make something good, or something that’s purposely bad in a really exaggerated way that comes off as spiteful.* “Too good on purpose” isn’t even a concept that makes logical sense; even less sense than justifying bad art as “bad on purpose”. Like I’ve said elsewhere on this site, if you have to clarify that something is bad on purpose, you failed at making it bad on purpose.

* I say this glaring sharply at Andrew Hussie. Especially that godforsaken “worldbuilding” page during the trickster arc.

It always cracks me up when Sweetie Belle imitates Rarity.
Or really, when any character imitates another.

Sweetie Belle lets out her frustration with Rarity by monologuing to herself in her bedroom, imitating her sister’s voice in the process. Rarity eavesdrops from outside the room, monologuing at Opalescence about whether she should come in and talk. The sisters don’t realize that monologues are a trait they have in common, which is subtly endearing.

Sweetie Belle can’t even sleep because she’s so frustrated, which is a little weirder to me than her monologues. Personally, if I end a day on a sour note, I tend to easily welcome the sweet embrace of sleep so that I can forget about the real world and instead let my brain shuffle up a bunch of memories that make no sense after waking up and call them “dreams”. But here, Sweetie Belle’s brain is nagging at her to exert some revenge on Rarity for being so frustratingly picky and good at everything, and only after she performs an act of revenge will she be able to get closure for the night.

Not shown: Sweetie Belle opening and closing the box using unicorn magic, with a smug expression.

While Rarity is asleep, Sweetie Belle does her act of revenge by taking out the stitch holding Sapphire Shores’ dress together. All this is a result of both her sibling frustration and her inability to sleep, and she goes to bed satisfied and ready to get a good night’s rest.

Sweetie Belle also shares Rarity’s love of dressing fancy.

And this is where the dream sequences begin. To start off, Sweetie Belle is in an awards show, pitted against three adult ponies waiting to see who gets the trophy for writing, acting in, and directing a play. This dream shows that Sweetie Belle and Rarity aren’t as different as they may think: both of them love being in the spotlight and getting awards for their creative endeavors. Sweetie Belle in particular envisions herself as a child prodigy, considering that the other ponies she’s competing against are all adults. In her dream, Sweetie Belle wins the award, but her joy doesn’t last long.

Sweetie Belle’s big moment of triumph is cut short when Rarity appears in the form of thunderous clouds and ruins everything. It starts raining, the entire audience leaves, the trophy melts, and Rarity even attacks her with a lightning bolt that she shields herself from. This right here is how Sweetie Belle perceives Rarity’s actions over the past week: not performing acts of generosity to help her sister shine, but selfishly stealing the spotlight all for herself and stampeding all over her sister’s good times for no reason. When you’re this frustrated with someone, it’s common to start thinking ridiculous things about them.

Transitioning from Rarity to Luna works nicely here, same voice actress and all.

Sweetie Belle: Princess Luna! It’s really you! Or am I dreaming?
Luna: What do you think?
Sweetie Belle: Let me see. You just rescued me from a maniacal laughing Rarity cloud… Yeah, probably dreaming.
Luna: I understand what you’re going through, Sweetie Belle. I too have a sister who often shines more brightly than me, and with this, I have struggled.

Luna’s brief visit in the scene shows a very interesting commonality she has with the Cutie Mark Crusaders: struggling with inferiority to her big sister. With this similarity in mind, it makes a lot of sense that each of the Crusaders has an episode where they meet Luna in their dreams after going into a conflict with their big sister. Scootaloo’s was last season, and Apple Bloom’s is in the next season. I find it really cool that Luna is able to bond with the Crusaders and provide them advice; it seems like these fillies have all formed a friendship with this princess, whereas the Mane 6 generally seem more acquainted with Celestia.

Speaking of Celestia, she’s barely appeared at all this season aside from the premiere, and she hasn’t been mentioned much either. She is mentioned in the scene I’m on right now, but not by name. I feel like the show is deliberately taking a break from making her prominent as the Mane 6 start to do things on their own, and from seasons 7 through 9 we finally get to see her character fleshed out more, which is very satisfying. I think it’s thematically fitting that Celestia’s character takes so long to be explored in more depth, since for the longest time she was portrayed as this all-knowing authority figure. But once we get to season 7, we get multiple very well-liked episodes focused on Celestia’s relationship with Luna. Between Dark and Dawn in particular is one of the most popular episodes of season 9, making both the royal sisters feel closer to home as the show nears its end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I wonder if anyone had warned Sweetie Belle about stairs? If so, she clearly didn’t listen to them.

It keeps happening!

I love, love, love the usage of a common slapstick trope, specifically falling down a long flight of stairs, as a transition device to the next portion of Sweetie Belle’s dream. It’s so clever and fun, giving an interlude of humor before we’re met with another gut punch.

One thing that fans of any work of media always get up in their arms about is the ages of fictional characters. Up until this point, MLP strayed from ever explicitly saying the age of any character at any point in time, but here we have something significant to those invested in this topic: this memory is outright stated to be Sweetie Belle’s fifth birthday party. This alone strongly suggests that ponies in MLP age and grow at about the same rates that humans do, and to be honest, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. It’s perfectly understandable for a non-human species in any work of media to have very similar mechanics to humans, since it makes those characters easier to relate to and get invested in.

Come to think of it, I don’t think it would be easy to avoid outright saying that this was Sweetie Belle’s fifth birthday. “My birthday party last year” clearly wouldn’t be true, and “my birthday party [some number] years ago” would itself imply something about Sweetie Belle’s age. Maybe her birthday party some number of moons ago? That probably wouldn’t be easy for humans to relate to, and a big part of the success of this show is how easy the characters are to relate to. I don’t know where I’m going with this tangent, I just find it fun to speculate.

Back to this episode’s plot, Sweetie Belle recounts herself on her birthday spending a lot of time in her bedroom making herself look as fancy and presentable as she can. She was rather clumsy in doing so and especially smeared way too much lipstick on, which makes total sense given she was five years old. It shows how much she has in common with Rarity that she was already interested in fashion from such a young age.

I’ve decided to italicize words spoken by characters in the flashbacks, for clarity’s sake.

And then comes the super upsetting part. Sweetie Belle stood on top of the stairs, hoping the kids at her party would be wowed by her ensemble, but none of them noticed her; instead, all they seemed to care about was Rarity. It’s worth noting that none of the kids at the party are current friends of Sweetie Belle, at least none that we know of. She didn’t meet Apple Bloom until Call of the Cutie, and it appears that she hadn’t met Scootaloo in this scene either. Scootaloo wasn’t at the party, and neither were any minor characters who the Crusaders are acquainted with like Twist or Snips and Snails. Could it be that Sweetie Belle felt so hurt that none of the kids at the party noticed her that she transferred to a different school, and that’s how she met Scootaloo?

Sweetie Belle: And I kept posing at the top of the stairs, waiting to be noticed, but all I heard was…
Filly 1: These party favors are the coolest! (blows kazoo)
Filly 2: Awesome! We should get these.
Rarity: Made them myself. And of course you’ll all want cake, won’t you?
(kids cheer)
Filly 2: You’re the greatest, Rarity!
Filly 3: Who needs a birthday girl when you’ve got the birthday girl’s amazing big sister?

This scene is such a gut punch for little Sweetie Belle. She saw a few moments of the other kids excited to see Rarity, and she jumped to the conclusion that Rarity is a massive spotlight thief who purposely overshadows her, which drove her to tears. Sweetie Belle watching the flashback glumly remarks that this is when she learned to never try to shine in front of her big sister, and it’s quite somber to see that Sweetie Belle’s feelings of inferiority go this far back.

I’m not transcribing dialogue from this scene. Pretty annoying to do when none of the party’s guests have names.

Luna rewinds the flashback to provide more context, which leads to the big shocker. It turns out that while Sweetie Belle was working hard on making an impressive entrance, the other kids at her party got bored waiting for her and were about to leave until Rarity stopped them and provided some entertainment to save the party. After Sweetie Belle ran away in tears, Rarity said that the party favors were Sweetie Belle’s idea and wanted to save them for the end. This whole flashback says a lot about Rarity and Sweetie Belle. I think these two’s brains are wired in much the same way; both love fashion and dressing fancy and showing themselves off, but since one is the older sister and the other is the younger sister, their personalities diverged quite a bit. All around, this is a heavy scene that shows Sweetie Belle how deeply Rarity cares about her, correcting a misconception that had stayed in her head for years.

The pacing of this dream sequence is incredibly well-done and really makes me feel immersed. Sweetie Belle enters a mysterious starry world, then dives into dream water that leads her to the next flashback. This is a transition done through bizarre dream scenery, and I’m a big sucker for eccentric, drawn-out scene transitions.

The next flashback shows Rarity last night, panicking over how to perfect Sapphire Shores’ dresses.

Rarity: (sigh) Should I hem the cloaks now or wait until I’m there? I could hem them now, but… I might have to redo them.
Sweetie Belle: When was this?
Rarity: But if I wait until I’m in Canterlot to hem them, Sapphire Shores might not get the first impression.
Sweetie Belle: Wait… this must have happened earlier tonight!
Rarity: (noise I’m not sure how to transcribe) Sapphire Shores is such a big star and such a stickler for details. What if everything’s not perfect enough?
Sweetie Belle: Funny. I thought I was the only one who got worried about stuff like that.

It’s all too common for people to think they’re the only one in the world who ever gets as insecure or worried as they do, especially when comparing themselves to family members or other authority figures. Apple Bloom expresses very similar sentiments in Bloom & Gloom but about the other two Crusaders, and in both cases, Luna is the one who shows them that others easily get worried and panicked much like they do. This is an incredibly eye-opening moment for Sweetie Belle, one that further confirms that she and Rarity aren’t so different.

Luna shows Sweetie Belle what will happen if Sweetie Belle fails to curb her worst instincts, just like Luna once did. It’s clear that Luna still feels immensely insecure about her past and terrified of what a monster she can become, so she’s sternly telling others not to let themselves succumb to the same fate. This alternate future starts with Rarity making a fool of herself when her headdress for Sapphire Shores collapses…

Dolphins are a strong motif in this episode. We saw one earlier in the water dream transition.

… and then it goes into freaky nightmare mode. In this alternate future, Rarity has become a laughing stock, and she’s secluded herself in her house while driving herself crazy constantly checking if her dresses are perfect. This sort of thing has happened before: remember how hard it was to pry Rarity out of her blubbering seclusion in Suited for Success? This time, she has it even worse because she made a dress for a much more renowned client.

This absolute horror of a scene caps off Sweetie Belle’s nightmare about what will happen if she doesn’t revert her acts of revenge. This scene goes to show an important lesson Luna is teaching Sweetie Belle: exerting your frustration on someone through a petty act of revenge won’t do anyone good. Luna’s vengeful transformation into Nightmare Moon left Celestia with no choice but to banish her for a thousand years. Rarity, on the other hand, would have no way of knowing that Sweetie Belle was behind the destruction of Sapphire Shoes’ headdress, but if she knew, Sweetie Belle would certainly receive a harsh punishment. In this future, Rarity thinks she didn’t check closely enough if she got the dress right, which led to her descent into insanity.

Man, look how full of concern Sweetie Belle is. She’s desperate to repay all the good Rarity did for her.

Sweetie Belle wakes up from her nightmare only to find Rarity has already left for Canterlot, so she and the other two Crusaders get on a train to follow her. However, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are more excited to meet Sapphire Shores than they are to save Rarity, and they start reciting names of Sapphire Shores’ songs. I have to wonder if there are any fans who have taken those song names and made them into real songs? Maybe the writer of this episode purposely put in those song names so that fans would make their own interpretations of them.

Sweetie Belle: This isn’t a trip to see Sapphire Shores. It’s a trip to save my sister from a horrible future!
Scootaloo: Serves her right!
Sweetie Belle: (gasps) How can you say that?! Rarity doesn’t deserve that at all!
Scootaloo: No, “Serves Her Right” is another one of Sapphire Shores’ songs.
Apple Bloom: You seriously didn’t know that? Don’t you listen to her music?
Sweetie Belle: I prefer showtunes.
Apple Bloom: Ugh.

I find it incredibly endearing how Sweetie Belle seems far less tuned into mainstream pop culture than the other two Crusaders. Her big sister even knows Sapphire Shores personally, and yet Sweetie Belle doesn’t seem to care for her music. I can easily relate to her in this scene and heavily feel her frustration, since I was never one to tune into mainstream media much, instead finding far weirder things to obsess with. Why do you think I’m so obsessed with this show instead of writing blog posts reviewing, I don’t know, football games or Marvel superhero movies?

Can you imagine an alternate timeline where this guy mistakenly thought his cutie mark meant he was supposed to be a locksmith, not a security guard?
Or maybe he was supposed to be a locksmith this whole time and misinterpreted his cutie mark.

Sweetie Belle tries to get into the place where Sapphire Shores is rehearsing for her concert, but the security guard won’t let her in, thinking the Crusaders are just fans of Sapphire Shores (he’s two-thirds right). Sweetie Belle tells him she’s the designer’s sister, but that unfortunately makes it a very reasonable assumption that she’s a fan of Sapphire Shores who thinks she should be allowed in due to family connections. This girl doesn’t care about mainstream popular music, but she does care about her sister, and I find that incredibly adorable.

Poor Scootaloo, so full of hope that she could someday learn to fly.

Since these girls are not Pinkie Pie, they scream for their lives as they go down this banner.

Poor Apple Bloom and Scootaloo don’t get to see Sapphire Shores.

The Crusaders try getting in the building by giving Scootaloo a boost, but she can’t fly long enough to get in. The tension builds as Rarity is about to present Sapphire Shores her headdress, having saved the best for last, and the Crusaders try a different method to get in that just barely works. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo crash into the window first, then Sweetie Belle’s entrance causes the window to spin around and let her inside. Here’s what Sweetie Belle says as she snatches the box:

Sweetie Belle: You got to see this with the cinnamon ribbon. You’ll love it!
Rarity: Sweetie Belle?!
Sapphire Shores: You know her?
Rarity: Uh… haha… mm. Just a moment.

This scene shows another thing Sweetie Belle has in common with Rarity: they throw together clumsy lies to get through an awkward situation instead of admitting it. These two really are like-minded deep down, and Rarity is getting a small taste of mistakenly thinking her sister is out to steal the spotlight.

It’s quite rare to see Luna in the waking world for once.

The Crusaders pass the box between each other as Rarity chases them, then Sweetie Belle enters a room away from the others and has a surprise encounter with Luna. At first she assumes she’s dreaming, but she’s in fact awake, and Luna came with a sewing thread to repair and even improve the headdress. No one else in the episode knows of Luna’s secret involvement in saving Rarity’s future; only Sweetie Belle is privy to this encounter, which nicely matches with Luna’s tendency to be unseen.

After repairing the headdress, Sweetie Belle comes over and explains herself to Rarity. While Rarity is still mad at her little sister, Sweetie Belle promises that there’s a special surprise in the dress.

The surprise is that the headdress now has a dolphin stitched into it, which is Sapphire Shores’ lucky animal. Sweetie Belle says the idea came to her in a dream as she glances at Luna, who’s silently watching the scene. Luna is no doubt proud of Sweetie Belle for learning this lesson and not replicating Luna’s past mistakes.

What a nice hug.

And then this episode ends by bringing it back to where it started: Sweetie Belle’s play which jumpstarted this whole mess.

Rarity: Oh, Sweetie, I forgive you. But I never did get to see your play. Any chance I can catch an encore performance?
Sweetie Belle: (chuckles) I don’t think the play was all that good. To be honest, the costumes were the best part.
Rarity: Awwww!

I bet that after the play happened and everyone fixated only on the dresses, Sweetie Belle wasn’t just filled with frustration towards Rarity, but also contemplating whether her play was really that great and what she could have done better. It’s perfectly common to get carried away with pride in your creative work and realize after releasing it that it’s not as good as you thought it was, and the best thing to do from there is to move on and make something new with the skills you’ve since learned. I like how in the end, Sweetie Belle is grateful that her sister gave at the play at least one saving grace. She didn’t need to do that, but she did anyway, and that’s what leads to their reconciliation.

Overall thoughts:

You know when a show has an episode that most people never seem to talk about or give much thought positive or negative, but that you think is incredibly awesome and have rewatched many times? That’s how I feel about this episode. It’s hard for me to put into words what I like about it so much, aside from the obvious fact that I am a big fan of Sweetie Belle. I think it’s an incredibly well-paced wild ride from start to finish that balances humor, horror, and heartfelt moments incredibly well, but the one scene I like most in this episode is probably an extremely bizarre choice. It’s the scene where Apple Bloom and Scootaloo excitedly list songs of Sapphire Shores’ while Sweetie Belle is oblivious and misunderstands them. That scene alone adds a great layer of depth to Sweetie Belle, showing her as one who’s much less tuned into regular popular media than one may reasonably think, and made me an even bigger fan of her character than I already was.

Grade: A

This grade reeks of Sweetie Belle bias, I know it does. But this episode really is one of season 4’s biggest highlights to me.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I find it strange in retrospect that Lemon Hearts speaks multiple lines in this episode with a country accent, since only one season from now in Amending Fences she graduates from nameless background pony to proper character, where she most certainly doesn’t have a country accent. In this sense, Derpy Hooves was definitely the first background pony to graduate, specifically way back in Feeling Pinkie Keen.
  • If you don’t know who this “Andrew Hussie” person I mentioned is, he’s just some random insane person. That’s all you need to know.
  • If you do know who this “Andrew Hussie” person is, I have something important to tell you: it’s “I warned you about stairs”, NOT “I warned you about the stairs”. There is no “the” in that quote, and it annoys me when people think there is. I’ve ended this review as it started: complaining about tiny errors that drive me up the wall. Clever bookends, don’t you think? (Yeah, probably not that clever.)
  • It’s a little weird that we don’t get to hear a full song from Sapphire Shores in this episode, only a small snippet from her rehearsal. But given how good this episode is, I’ll happily let it slide.

I would say the next episode breaks the streak of focusing on relationships between siblings, but the Flim Flam brothers are siblings so I’m not so sure.

Season 4 Episode 20: Leap of Faith

In five words: Applejack faces difficult honesty trial.

Premise: The Flim Flam brothers present to Ponyville a tonic that can supposedly heal any disease. When Applejack’s suspicions that the tonic is bogus are confirmed, she faces a difficult decision regarding honesty.

Detailed run-through:

This episode starts on quite a mundane note: the Apple siblings swimming in a lake that Granny Smith refuses to get inside. Granny Smith tells a story about how she was once a diver in her youth, but an injury from attempting to break Equestria’s high diving record made her refuse to swim ever again. This scene sets up the premise of this episode, taking advantage of the fact that a pony affiliated with honesty lives with an old lady who can easily be talked into things.

The background ponies with unusual designs have various injuries, while the mainstay ones don’t.

Granny Smith warns Apple Bloom not to go down the same path she did and become a diver, but just then, a crowd of injured ponies and miscellany walk by, all headed towards the same place while some old-timey circus music plays. Apple Bloom and Granny Smith follow the crowd, while Applejack and Big Macintosh don’t. I think this symbolizes that when people get old enough, they start regaining childlike traits like being full of wonder and easily misled. Apple Bloom is always moving to the next thing to get excited about, and Granny Smith is old enough that she often doesn’t think before acting. Eventually, the older Apple siblings follow them regardless, making sure they stay out of trouble.

The song is called “The Flim Flam Miracle Curative Tonic”; also the name of the product they advertise.

And there we have it: the return of the Flim Flam brothers. Applejack and Big Macintosh are angered to see them again, but no one else in the scene minds much; certainly not the other two Apple family members, who must have forgotten who these guys are due to being young and old respectively. Just like last time, the Flim Flam brothers introduce themselves with a musical number, this time one that advertises a tonic that they claim can heal any disease. A fun thing that this song does is include tons of rhyming even when the Flim Flam brothers aren’t singing, in a way that comes off as parodying showy advertisements that may not be accurate—funny for a show that has itself been subjected to such advertisements.

During the musical number, the Flim Flam brothers call a pony in stilts up to the stage. He drinks the tonic and ends up magically healed, no longer needing his stilts. We later find out that this guy was only pretending to be injured for the sake of this demonstration, which matches with how advertisements in real life also tend to be staged or exaggerated. I’ll say more about this guy (his name is Silver Shill) later in this episode, where I’ll compare him against a few other characters.

This musical number ends with one last rhyme: the Flim Flam brothers claim their tonic can make anyone young or old, and Granny Smith says “sold!” Skeptical of the brothers’ latest invention, Applejack and Big Mac fear the worst.

Not shown: Big Mac using an apple as fishing bait.
(Imagine how messed-up this sentence would be if “apple” were capitalized.)

Apple Bloom: Boy… I just can’t believe all the things that Flim Flam tonic can do!
Applejack: When somepony says something’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Apple Bloom is using the phrase “can’t believe” as a figure of speech, but Applejack genuinely refuses to believe that the tonic works. In fact, “can’t believe” is such a strong figure of speech that saying “Applejack can’t believe the tonic works” implies that she does believe the tonic works, just that she was very surprised it did. Applejack’s trademark honesty means that she has a hard time believing in the power of deceiving others…

… which is why when she sees Granny Smith merrily swimming, she does some hyper-protective things to try to stop her, not unlike what she did with Apple Bloom a few episodes ago (though here, her siblings are helping some too). Granny Smith exits the river feeling completely fine, no longer afraid of swimming. She explains that once she took a sip of the tonic, she stopped feeling afraid of the water, and while Apple Bloom believes it’s real, Applejack still has her doubts.

With Apple Bloom by her side, Applejack walks over to the Flim Flam brothers, planning to ask them what’s in their tonic. Perhaps she thinks that since the brothers already know who she is, they won’t hesitate to admit to her that their tonic is fake? She’s right about that, but her suspicion is confirmed far sooner when Silver Shill walks out of the theater, seemingly having been healed all over again. Apple Bloom recognizes him, and she and Applejack chase him into a corner.

Applejack: Now hold it right there, Mister, uh…
Silver Shill: (shaking) Shill. Silver Shill. Oh… what do you two want?
Applejack: Our granny took some tonic, and we want to know how it works.
Apple Bloom: Granny couldn’t swim before, and now she can. Just like you couldn’t walk, and now you can. But… what are you doing back here?
Apple Bloom: I mean, if the tonic cured you and all…
Silver Shill: (gulp)

While Silver Shill is pressed, Applejack looks around and sees a bunch of fake props, then realizes that Silver Shill is part of the act. Here’s where I’m going to compare him to other characters as promised earlier.

In many ways, Silver Shill is like a male version of Coco Pommel, his fellow key-giving character. Both of them are meek and shy, and both are forced to do all the hard work for a villainous character and don’t feel very good about it until a Mane 6 member frees them from their prior job through demonstrating their element of harmony. Most of season 4’s key-giving characters, with the odd exception of Spitfire, are new additions to the show’s cast who take a friendship lesson away thanks to the Mane 6 helping them out, and who were probably intended to be one-off characters. However, Coco Pommel became popular enough among fans (presumably because she’s so adorable*) that she got a few more appearances in later seasons, but Silver Shill remained a one-time character. I suppose this goes to show that not every character in this show ends up being a huge fan favorite. Still, it’s fun to notice parallels between minor characters. If Coco Pommel and Silver Shill were to meet, they would certainly have a lot to bond over.

Anyway, when Applejack presses him long enough, all Silver Shill can do is run away in fear, using smoke effects from a train prop to disguise his path. The Flim Flam brothers must have taught this guy a great deal about the art of deception, and he’s not ready to confront the truth. Not any specific truth, just the general notion of telling the truth.

* I’ve realized that part of why Coco Pommel is so cute is the shape of her eyes, which is the same as Fluttershy’s. Eye shape is a surprisingly important part of designing characters, especially if they have huge eyes like anime characters tend to.

Applejack confronts the Flim Flam brothers about their tonic, and they provide a compelling counterargument. While they don’t outright confirm that their tonic is bogus, they state that if even if it was, the illusion of drinking a sham tonic is enough to increase Granny Smith’s happiness, and Applejack wouldn’t want to take that away from her. In other words, the brothers are describing the placebo effect, which is a real phenomenon that demonstrates the power of believing something is true. This is the sort of villain the Flim Flam brothers are: they’re upfront about their actions, but they argue that they aren’t doing anything wrong, making our heroes hesitant to reveal to the world that they’re full of nonsense. Gears start spinning in Applejack’s mind, and she does indeed become hesitant to reveal the truth.

The Flim Flam brothers want us to forget that their end goal is to bathe in riches, exploiting the most impressionable ponies in the process.

When they walk out, Apple Bloom is sold once more on the power of the tonic, but Applejack has a big moral dilemma brewing inside her, as you can tell from their expressions. The Flim Flam brothers put up their friendly image once more, and Silver Shill looks relieved.

When all that is done, Applejack, the normally honest pony, has been swayed in favor of the effects of the tonic, just as the Flim Flam brothers intended. Apple Bloom wants to join a diving competition teamed up with Granny Smith, and while Granny Smith has her doubts at first, Applejack convinces her to take a sip of the tonic. The Flim Flam brothers know well that Applejack values her grandmother’s happiness, which allows them to make more money. I imagine they probably don’t even want to do anything with their money; they just want to be rich for the sake of being rich.

In case you forgot, Flim is the one without the mustache.

Granny Smith behaves exactly like a real-life old lady who falls for scams when she forks over a bag of money to the Flim Flam brothers.

Background mare: Are you saying this stuff actually works?
Applejack: It… seems to work for Granny.
Flim: You heard it here first, folks! Flim Flam Miracle Curative Tonic is Granny Smith-tested and Applejack-approved!
Another background mare: If Applejack says it works, that’s good enough for me.

We’re now at a point where all the Mane 6 are celebrated names across at least Ponyville, and they’ll only become bigger names as the show progresses. Remember how guilty the Cutie Mark Crusaders felt about exploiting Twilight Sparkle’s big name? Flim and Flam are doing the same with Applejack’s name, and they have no remorse. Remember, their ultimate motive is monetary gain, and they’ll use whatever morally bankrupt means are necessary to achieve that goal. Applejack makes an “oh no” expression in response to this, as shown above.

Lyra is quite a contrarian, isn’t she?

Want to know how you can tell Lyra Heartstrings has graduated to being a proper character? She’s using unicorn magic in the picture above, grading someone’s swimming performance much more harshly than the other two judges, with a noticeably unimpressed expression. I wasn’t sure if her unicorn magic color is consistent from here on out, so I pulled up Slice of Life and skipped around to random scenes until I saw confirmation that it’s consistent.

While Apple Bloom and Granny Smith, fully believing in the power of the tonic, are preparing for a swimming contest, we get some hilarious satire of commercials from the Flim Flam brothers. This scene is parodying how many ads proudly claim that their products are endorsed by a celebrity. The Flim Flam brothers know that this is a great way to generate more publicity and revenue; if this was a TV Tropes page, I’d be sure to link to “Truth in Television”.

All this talk about Lyra was originally going to go in this episode’s miscellaneous notes.

I love this little moment of clumsiness on Lyra’s part, after Apple Bloom and Granny Smith present a successful swimming routine. It adds quite a bit of character to this beloved background pony who was originally best known for sitting like a human. Other background ponies are following Derpy’s hoofsteps on their march towards becoming full-fledged characters, but this time without any unfortunate controversy.

For the probably miniscule portion of fans who watched this episode on regular broadcast TV, where it would play seven minutes at a time interspersed by commercials, I can only imagine how weird it is to hear Flam say “buy it now while supplies last”, a phrase you hear all the time in commercials. Perhaps this episode taught the show’s young viewers to not trust ads, which is ironic because the show is surrounded by ads.

Yep, this guy truly is a male Coco Pommel.

Applejack: What are you doing here?
Silver Shill: Well, things are going so well, Flim and Flam gave me a promotion! Just made my first bid as a salespony.
Silver Shill: No more costumes for this pony. … This is more of a uniform.
Applejack: If you say so.
Silver Shill: I used to wonder if I was doing the right thing, you know, pretending to be cured, basically lying to folks about this tonic, but thanks to you, I realized that sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy!
Applejack: Thanks to… me?

Since this episode is the last of season 4’s key episodes (minus the finale), it makes sense that this one throws a wrench in the pattern by having Silver Shill at first learn the wrong lesson from Applejack. This is disconcerting for a pony who holds honesty in such high regard, and it makes sense because Applejack’s track record with honesty hasn’t been perfect. But it’s getting better! Perhaps this subversion was done because at this point, fans probably could easily guess that Silver Shill will end up giving Applejack a glowy rainbow object, so the pattern is getting twisted around here.

Silver Shill’s unexpected words lead Applejack to step up and reveal the truth, but her callout speech is interrupted when Silver Shill notices Granny Smith about to repeat history. Applejack shows that she’s fiercely protective of her family with how quickly she drops what she’s doing and stops her grandma from learning the hard way that the tonic is bogus.

She was that close.

It looks a little odd seeing white as a stand-in for green.

Applejack stops Granny Smith with her lasso in the nick of time, but Granny Smith thinks that was unnecessary. As she chugs yet another bottle of the tonic much to the Flim Flam brothers’ approval, the bottle flashes with the colors of the Mane 6, inciting Applejack to reveal the truth once and for all.

Applejack admits to the crowd that she lied about the tonic, and that she isn’t proud of it. When asked about how Granny Smith was able to swim again and perform acrobatic stunts, she says that Granny Smith always had those abilities inside her and just needed a boost of confidence. The Flim Flam brothers desperately try to save face in response to this, but then Silver Shill finally stands up to them.

Flim: But you just said it boosts confidence.
Flam: And that’s not all it does, folks!
Silver Shill: Yes, it is!
Silver Shill: In fact, it’s not a tonic at all. I know ’cause I helped make it!
(Flim and Flam look at each other)
Silver Shill: Watching Applejack save Granny and then admit to lying, well… that made me realize I was making ponies believe in a thing that just wasn’t so.
Applejack: Believing in something can help you do amazing things. But if that belief is based on a lie… eventually it’s gonna lead to real trouble.

While Coco Pommel quit her job offscreen so that she could catch the Mane 6 (and the viewer) by surprise in a heartwarming moment, Silver Shill resigns working for the Flim Flam brothers onscreen in a satisfying scene where these bozos utterly humiliate themselves. Both are very effective resignations that show how inspiring the Mane 6 are to others, just that one is onscreen and the other not.

Silver Shill is his own guy, really. Maybe I shouldn’t compare him with Coco Pommel THAT much.
Actually, I can’t help it. The two have so many interesting parallels!

Silver Shill then demonstrates the extreme measures he will take for the sake of honesty where he gives Applejack the one coin he earned from selling a tonic, then promises to track down whoever he sold the tonic to and give them their money back. To even be able to do that, this guy has to have kept an extensive log of all his sales, which suggests another parallel with Coco Pommel: both are highly skilled at what they do, whether it be sewing or selling, but their old bosses always resorted to sleazy manipulation instead of hard, steady work.

To end this episode, Applejack writes a friendship journal entry about how the difficulty of telling the truth doesn’t compare to how much it hurts to believe a lie; a moral that feels like what her episodes could have been like this whole time. The Flim Flam brothers run off in panic, and to bring this episode where it started, Granny Smith dives from a safe height into a shallow pool and splashes around with Apple Bloom. And of course, the coin she got from Silver Shill flashes with a rainbow.

Overall thoughts:

It’s a lot of fun whenever an episode introducing a villain gets a sequel that outdoes the original, like this one right here. The Flim Flam brothers are a lot more actively deceptive and manipulative than they were when they devised the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000, and through the course of the show, they get a subtle character arc where they get increasingly desperate to make money and eventually things don’t look too great for them. In addition, this is the first Applejack episode which truly feels focused on honesty—it took long enough, didn’t it? Over the course of its seasons, the show greatly improves in handling Applejack’s character and makes her much more likable than she was in the early seasons, and I really appreciate that.

Grade: B

Yet another episode that I never fully appreciated until analyzing in depth.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • For some reason, I distinctly remember the first time I watched this episode, which was a YouTube upload that was up for just a fleeting moment, like with most season 4 episodes. The episode was in low quality and took up only the center of the screen, surrounded by white space that I think had some textual chat? I remember struggling to find any upload of the episode, and it’s not like 14-year-old me knew a better solution. Maybe it’s because of that bizarre experience that I remember myself first watching this episode more vividly than perhaps any other season 4 episode.
    • On this topic, a week prior to that, I remember enjoying For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils enough that I watched the episode again a few days later. My stance on that episode is exactly the same as it was when I first watched it eight years ago: it’s awesome.
  • In Somepony to Watch Over Me, we saw that Applejack has lots of backup hats and Apple Bloom similarly has plenty of backup bows. Given that Big Macintosh threw his collar into the river to try to save Granny Smith and is later seen wearing a collar once more, it would make sense to assume he has no shortage of backup collars. Either that, or he fished his old wet collar out. As I said in an earlier episode review, I like to imagine the Apple siblings’ habit of keeping tons of identical-looking backup clothes is one that their father passed onto them.

With this episode done, next up are a few lower-stakes episodes as we march towards the end of season 4.

See you next week as Rainbow Dash faces the toughest challenge in the history of Equestria: studying for a test.

>> Part 39: Testing, Testing 1, 2, 3 + Trade Ya!

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