Cookie Fonster Reviews Every MLP Episode Part 61: On Your Marks

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Season 6, Episode 4

Exactly two weeks from today, I will move out of my dad’s house and into my own place for the first time. I’ve spent much of this month preparing to move out (though I prefer to think of it as moving in, so it feels more like a beginning than an ending), and now that the date is closer, things are ramping up. Because I’m getting ready to move and preparing for MAGFest 2023 (January 5-8), this might be my last MLP post for the next several weeks. It’s likely my next episode review won’t be until January 20.

Moving into a new house is incredibly bittersweet for me. It’s an exciting and long overdue big step, but at the same time, I’ve lived in the same house since November 2012, and in the same neighborhood since March 2004—almost the entirety of the portion of my life I can remember. The neighborhood I’m moving into is only two miles away, but this will still take a ton of adjustment. And what do you know: this episode is also about adjusting to a new phase in life! Convenient timing, I must say.

Also, sorry this post was again about an hour late. I finished writing it last night, and I spent this morning copying the contents over to WordPress. Since the start of season 5, I’ve switched from writing the posts directly in WordPress to writing a Word document and then pasting the contents into here, and I always need to upload the images manually.

Season 6 Episode 4: On Your Marks

In five words: Crusaders experience post-victory rut.

Premise: Now that they’ve earned their cutie marks, what are the Cutie Mark Crusaders going to do each day? Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle have some good ideas, but Apple Bloom feels a void she hasn’t experienced since founding the group.

Detailed run-through:

The intro of this episode reminds us that even after earning their marks, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are still a bunch of goofy kids. Apple Bloom starts a club meeting, but Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are distracted admiring their cutie marks, much like a kid who won a chess tournament staring at their trophy, or someone watching in glee as their newly popular video’s views surpass a million.

Apple Bloom: Look, I know our cutie marks are amazing. But is that all we’re gonna do now? Just spend our day staring down at our own flanks?
Sweetie Belle: (sigh) I guess not.
Scootaloo: (staring at her mark) Yeah. I suppose that could get real boring.
Apple Bloom: Yeah…
Apple Bloom: (rattles her head)* This is ridiculous. We need to go out and do something.

As the firebrand spirit who got the Cutie Mark Crusaders together, Apple Bloom is reacting to victory differently from the other two. Unlike her friends, she isn’t one for stopping to appreciate her victory…

* I totally could have used the phrase “rattles her head” to transcribe Derpy Hooves snapping out of her spacey attitude in Slice of Life, rather than the clumsy phrasing I had used.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders seem to have pulled these outfits from thin air.

… because when she and her friends agree to try new things together, she forgets they already have their marks. But there’s another reason Apple Bloom isn’t processing victory the same as the others. She’s never been content with taking a pause or waiting for good things to happen. She’s always on the move and ready to try the next thing, and this episode is going to deconstruct her personality by forcing her to confront the most difficult question she’s ever been asked: “now what?”

Many of the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ episodes have offhand hints, typically shown in crossed-out drawings, about what activities they tried to earn their marks in. But the board here consists mostly, if not entirely, of things they did onscreen like bowling, snorkeling, writing news, climbing mountains… the list goes on.  They realize that pretty much everything they’ve done together was for the sake of earning their marks.

The kids quickly realize that their new purpose is to help other ponies earn or understand their cutie marks, which is self-referential: their shared special talent means that they have no trouble understanding what their own special talent is. I enjoy the Crusaders’ role in the second half of the show. It makes them more interesting as characters, and it’s a great way to introduce us to new characters or expand on existing ones.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders work at their best when they stumble into a situation organically, but they still don’t know this. That’s a recurring theme in their episodes: if they successfully solve a problem, it’s never what they originally intended to solve. When searching for ponies to help understand their cutie marks, their first idea is Big Macintosh—a favorite target of theirs due to familiarity, much like in Hearts and Hooves Day. All they accomplish when trying to pester Big Mac is get him buried in a pile of apples, so they have to try something else.

The problem with baby characters is that after they’re born, they never look older for some reason.

Next up, the Crusaders give a speech about the uncertainties of life and cutie marks to the only blank flanks that immediately come to mind: the Cake twins. That’s the downside of being among the last ponies in their class to earn their cutie marks: everyone else they know already has theirs.

We then get a montage where the Crusaders encounter a bunch of adult ponies—some familiar, some new—who turn out to perfectly understand their cutie marks. If it wasn’t obvious to them that they can’t force themselves into accomplishing something cool, this scene should make it clear.

Cutie mark problems are to the Cutie Mark Crusaders as friendship problems are to the Mane 6.

The Crusaders’ first cutie mark problem is incredibly silly: Bulk Biceps has lifted every dumbbell in Ponyville and doesn’t know what to do, so the Crusaders tell him to try lifting other things, then to teach others how to lift if he runs out of things to lift. Pretty straightforward, right? Apple Bloom thinks this was too easy.

Apple Bloom: Well, it’s looking like cutie mark problems are few and far between.
Sweetie Belle: Aaaand?
Apple Bloom: And what if we never find another one?
Scootaloo: Well…
Apple Bloom: And even if we do, we could solve it so quick it’ll be like it never happened in the first place.
Sweetie Belle: So?
Apple Bloom: So… then the Cutie Mark Crusaders don’t have any reason to exist!

I am noticing some parallels between Apple Bloom and Twilight Sparkle, the leaders of their respective friend groups. Apple Bloom is going into a Twilight-esque slippery slope while barely letting her friends talk, concluding in something as extreme as her friend group no longer existing. While Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were already friends for a long time, Apple Bloom is the newest addition to the friend group, just like Twilight is. These similarities are a natural result of their leadership roles, but there’s also a little bit of Twilight in Sweetie Belle.

An example is how Sweetie Belle and Twilight Sparkle both don’t know how Venn diagrams work, OK I SWEAR I HAD NO IDEA THIS TRANSITION WAS GOING TO BE SO ELEGANT, I DID NOT PLAN THIS AT ALL BUT THIS IS REALLY NEAT. This Venn diagram makes as little sense as the one Twilight Sparkle presented at the start of The Cutie Re-Mark, which happens to feature the marks of the three ponies this episode centers on.

Apple Bloom: Even when we find problems, we’re so good at solving them that most of the time, there’s nothing for the Cutie Mark Crusaders to do. So…
Apple Bloom: I thought we should start figuring out ways to search all of Equestria for cutie mark problems.
Scootaloo: That kinda seems like a lot.
Sweetie Belle: I don’t think Rarity would let me travel to the far reaches of Equestria looking for cutie mark problems.
Scootaloo: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll come across them in Ponyville, and when we do, we’ll totally solve them because we’re so awesome at it!

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo have matured a lot since they debuted in season 1. Now, they remind Apple Bloom what is and isn’t realistic in their adventures, and it’s starting to make her feel like the oddball of the group—the third wheel to a longtime pair of friends.

This hoof bump is making me think about Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo’s friendship. We don’t know how long they had been friends before meeting Apple Bloom, but I like to think they were inseparable ever since they met. They’re a typical “girly and boyish” duo like Rarity and Applejack, and when they were in school, they had a lot of things to bond over. A pegasus who couldn’t fly and a unicorn who couldn’t do magic, one good at singing and one with, um, enthusiasm about singing, and most of all: they both didn’t have their cutie marks. Though they eagerly welcomed Apple Bloom to their friend group, she worries that her friends could ditch her and revert to a duo, and she even had nightmares about it last season.

I love these disconcerted expressions.

Important rule of TV shows: whenever a character asks another “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”, it will turn out they’re thinking of different things. The Crusaders realize they can now do things for fun without worrying about when they’ll get their marks, but they each had a different activity in mind.

In case you thought the initial indications (calling them “hints” is a stretch) of the Crusaders’ individual special talents from season 1 were forgotten about, Scootaloo proves otherwise by perfectly demonstrating one of her scooting techniques and getting annoyed when her two friends aren’t nearly as competent.

Given that Sweetie Belle had to play a note on a harmonica before singing it, it appears that she doesn’t have perfect pitch.

Fluttershy, on the other hand, I can easily imagine having perfect pitch.

Sweetie Belle gets a similar scene with musical skills where I find her hilariously easy to relate to. She sings three notes playing a major chord and then presents some purportedly simple sheet music to Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. While the complexity of this music score is played for laughs, I can confirm from experience that even the simplest sheet music looks this intimidating to people who don’t know how to read it. Many people who can’t read sheet music are childishly resistant to learning it, and while lots of people are somehow able to compose music without knowing this valuable skill, they have every reason to get funny looks when they proudly claim their newest piece of music is in “A♯ major”.

While Apple Bloom understands the concept of harmony well enough, Scootaloo sings her note painfully off key. Sweetie Belle gets so frustrated that she breaks her conducting stick in half. I can’t blame her for doing so, because this is exactly how I feel whenever anyone sings anything off key.

I think potion making suits Apple Bloom well. She’s a creative type who’s eager to try new things.

As shown when Apple Bloom shows her friends how to grow an apple from a potion and they completely mess it up, there’s a clear message from all three scenes: something that seems simple to you won’t always be easy for your friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained a totally simple musical concept to people who just won’t get it, or something involving math or software or languages… the list goes on.

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle suggest something that sounds ludicrous to Apple Bloom: not doing everything together. Scootaloo is excited to try bungee jumping on her own, while Sweetie Belle is looking forward to learning crocheting. But Apple Bloom doesn’t have anything she ever wanted to do on her own, and this leaves her in distress.

So much distress, in fact, that she sings about it. Season 6 is full of episodes that I always forget have musical numbers, and I forgot what the song was even called until I looked at the credits—it’s Out On My Own. When going through this musical number, I expected to pause it every few seconds to find something to comment on, but instead I watched the whole thing uninterrupted, forgetting I was supposed to be writing in-depth analysis. That is a very good sign: it shows that this song keeps the viewer engaged and perfectly captures the uncertainty Apple Bloom is feeling about where to go next in life. Surprisingly, they made a child character experience a situation that adult viewers can easily sympathize with: the troubles of being out on her own.

I then rewatched the song to analyze it in depth like I was supposed to, so here goes.

The composition alone makes this one of the most emotional songs the show has yet to offer.

You don’t get songs that tug the heartstrings this hard in the early seasons, that’s for sure.

As a master of soothing relaxation, it’s no wonder Tree Hugger is good as a model for artist ponies.

While it’s a little odd that Apple Bloom is surrounded by adult ponies in most of her activities, I think there’s a clear metaphor for adult viewers. When you’re out on your own at a turning point in your life, regardless of how old you are, you can feel like everyone except you is a stable adult who has their whole life figured out.

This musical number strongly suggests that Apple Bloom’s only close friends are the other two Crusaders, especially in this scene. When she’s practicing baking pies, she does it on her own, not teaming up with Twist on the left, or Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon on the right. I am choosing to interpret this as follows: though Apple Bloom made up with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon last season, she still has some residual nervousness being around them. As the season progresses, it’s likely that Diamond Tiara finds it intimidating that the kids she used to pick on became big names in Ponyville, and now she’s the one who feels lowly compared to them. It’s also possible that this inferiority has made her friendship with Silver Spoon stronger.

Making genuine theories based on the little bits we know is so much more fun than complaining about their shafting every time Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon appear from season 6 onwards. I could have simply said “wah, wah, these two characters shouldn’t have been shafted”, but then I wouldn’t have said anything new. It’s so much nicer to not complain at every given opportunity.

The song ends with a gorgeous shot of Apple Bloom sitting alone on a bridge, making it one of the saddest songs the show has yet seen. Maybe that’s why I keep forgetting this episode has a musical number—the song flows so smoothly in the episode that I simply see it as part of the episode’s natural progression, rather than a diversion that feels like “hey, let’s drop what we’re doing and sing!”

The later we get into the show, the more common it is for new characters to have foreign accents or nonstandard designs.

And now comes the part where Apple Bloom organically encounters a cutie mark problem. Desperate for things to do, she hears a dancing teacher with a Russian accent, complete with omission of words like “a” and “the” plus some stereotypical Russian seriousness, and she eagerly joins in.

There, she encounters a colt named Tender Taps who is too shy to perform and is left without a dance partner. It’s clear that despite his nervousness, he was naturally drawn to this dance club, which is a clear part of how cutie marks work. Likewise, I think Apple Bloom was naturally drawn to a place with a cutie mark problem. Her first attempt at practicing with partners doesn’t go well, and she gets bummed out.

The dance teacher suggests that Apple Bloom dance on her own, but she doesn’t like that idea and would much rather do it with a friend. This leads Tender Taps to come out of his shell and show off some dance moves, much to Apple Bloom’s surprise.

Tender Taps: Sorry it didn’t work out.
Apple Bloom: Trying different things with my friends was always fun. Even when we were terrible. Now it’s just terrible.
Tender Taps: You weren’t that bad. You just need to learn a few things on your own.
Tender Taps: Being a soloist can be fun!
(shows off dance moves)
Tender Taps: You just have to do it with feeling.
(a few more dance moves)
Apple Bloom: (sigh) Thanks, but… without my friends, I don’t think I’ll ever feel again.
Apple Bloom: Good luck at the recital.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders behave like one person when they’re together, meaning that cutie mark problems are much harder for just one of them to solve. Apple Bloom walks off without hearing Tender Taps talk about how he wishes he could get a cutie mark in dancing, because she’s too absorbed in her own sorrows. If there were two more Cutie Mark Crusaders in the scene, they’d quickly notice he’s a blank flank and solve the problem easily, so this episode is testing Apple Bloom’s will by making her handle this on her own.

Scootaloo says that she had a blast learning to bungee jump, and Sweetie Belle is so excited to show her first attempt at crocheting that her voice creaks. Can you blame either of them for being so joyed? Scootaloo got out of her comfort zone and found a new athletic activity, and Sweetie Belle got to spend time with Rarity, who taught her how to crochet despite dismissing it as “knitting’s poorer cousin”. While some people are so embarrassed by their early creative projects that they erase them at all costs and squirm even when thinking about them, Sweetie Belle owns up to how terrible her scarf turned out because it was so much fun to make. While I can’t pretend I’m totally comfortable owning up to my works from years ago, sometimes when I revisit them, I can at least tell that I had a lot of fun making them.

Back at the clubhouse, we see Apple Bloom of all characters having a creepy mental breakdown… well, in her case, it’s more of a mental shutdown. As is common with mental breakdowns in this show, it all stemmed from a simple misunderstanding.

Scootaloo: You tried every one of these?
Apple Bloom: (nods) And each one just made me feel more alone than the next. I don’t see how I’m supposed to be happy that we’re not hanging out anymore.
Scootaloo: Wait… I never said that. I just said we don’t have to do everything together.
Sweetie Belle: Like when there’s something one of us wants to do that the others don’t.

It’s valuable for viewers to know that when you’re friends with someone, there will always be some interests that you don’t share, and it’s mature of Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle to realize this. I really like that we’re now at a point where one member of the Cutie Mark Crusaders can learn a friendship lesson from the others, rather than always learning lessons from adults. It shows how much they’ve matured as characters and grown their own traits and interests, making them less of a single entity and a little more like the Mane 6.

Apple Bloom: I met the best dancer in the world, but… he was so shy, he couldn’t bring himself to perform. Even though he really, really wanted to.
Sweetie Belle: I don’t suppose this dancing pony had a cutie mark, did he?
(Apple Bloom’s jaw drops)

I think this remark is perfectly in-character for Sweetie Belle, the most observant of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the fastest to pick up on details. She’s even noticed story patterns a few times, like her memorable remark about friendship problems in Slice of Life. She knows that ponies are drawn to places relevant to their special talents, and when hearing Apple Bloom’s story, she’s reminded of the various other stories she’s heard or directly witnessed about how ponies got their cutie marks. As such, it’s no surprise that Sweetie Belle puts the pieces together quickly.

And so, the Cutie Mark Crusaders work together to solve a cutie mark problem once more, with Apple Bloom leading the charge. They help Tender Taps in his stage performance, and Apple Bloom promises that his dancing will look amazing next to hers. The Crusaders can sense a cutie mark revelation moment waiting to happen, so they’re helping speed up the process.

Sweetie Belle is always eager to showcase her work, no matter how bad it is.

The jazzy music from this scene is used in the credits.

One cool detail in this episode is that Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo’s new interests—crocheting and bungee jumping—are both used in this dance performance. Apple Bloom’s new interest in dancing is the most pivotal of all. To give Tender Taps a boost of encouragement, Apple Bloom clumsily dances and then falls off the stage. She’s willing to mildly embarrass herself so that someone else can shine, which is very sweet of her.

And now it’s Tender Taps’ turn to dance. Though nervous at first, he overcomes his stage fright as he gets in the zone and shows off his skills. This is a new level of accomplishment for the Cutie Mark Crusaders: while they’ve helped several ponies understand their cutie marks, now for the first time, they helped a pony earn his cutie mark. I admire that the show figured out a new role for the Crusaders to play together after earning their marks, rather than withholding their marks throughout the show’s course, which is what I worried would happen back in season 4.

The resolution of this episode has multiple takeaways, both for Tender Taps and Apple Bloom. Tender Taps learned that with a little encouragement, he can overcome stage fright and show an audience what he loves to do. Apple Bloom gained a new interest and a new friend who encourages her to keep practicing it, and she learned that she doesn’t have to do everything solely with her two best friends.

Apple Bloom: I’m sorry I was so silly about us all doing our own things. If we hadn’t, I might have never even tried dancing.
Tender Taps: Or find out I needed help.
Sweetie Belle: With each of us going out and trying things on our own, we’ll be three times as likely to find ponies to help!
Scootaloo: And trying new stuff might even make us better at helping them, like how I used my bungee jumping to change the sets.
Sweetie Belle: Or my crochet to make the costumes!

Apple Bloom learns that it’s not just OK to try new interests without your usual friends, but that it’s valuable to do so. We saw the payoff firsthand, and it is indeed a great way to branch out of your comfort zone and make even more friends.

Apple Bloom: Well, one thing is for certain: the Cutie Mark Crusaders will never be the same.
Apple Bloom: We’ll be better!

I greatly agree with Apple Bloom here. Earning their cutie marks has made the Cutie Mark Crusaders more interesting as characters, and they’re going to have some truly wonderful development from this season onwards. The Crusaders do a group high hoof, ending this episode on a happy note.

Overall thoughts:

If you’re tired of me being so sugary and positive in my MLP episode reviews, I’m afraid I have more positivity and sugariness coming right up. This episode handles a transition in the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ lives with a lot of respect and maturity. It takes these kids out of their comfort zones and forces Apple Bloom to confront the difficulties of growing up, putting her through realistic and believable fears that are expressed in a lovely musical number. Eventually, Apple Bloom falls headfirst into a cutie mark problem, and the Crusaders combine their new interests to, for the first time, help a pony earn his cutie mark. I greatly respect this episode’s messages about growing up, and I think they’re applicable for viewers of all ages.

Grade: A

It’s no coincidence that A grades have been so common in seasons 5 and 6. The show’s quality has improved greatly from its early seasons, and barring some of the more tedious episodes in season 8, it steadily improves throughout its course.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • In the scene shown above, I am imagining Lyra Heartstrings excitedly saying hi to Minuette, only for the blue unicorn to ask “uh… who’s Minuette, and who are you?” I think that would make a hilariously awkward encounter that lampshades the quirks of background pony designs.
  • Shortly after that scene, the Crusaders encounter a pony with a gumball machine cutie mark that I can practically imagine screaming “clean up this mess right now OR YOU’RE FIRED!” I mean I can imagine the cutie mark screaming that phrase, not the pony herself.
  • When Apple Bloom said that each activity she tried made her feel more alone than the next, technically this means that each activity made her feel less alone than the last one. So by interpreting this line literally, Apple Bloom could have solved her problem by trying more activities until her loneliness reached zero.

The next episode is the turning point for another child character’s arc—none other than our good friend Spike.

See you in a few weeks for a sequel to the polarizing Dragon Quest that treats Spike with much more respect.

>> Part 62: Gauntlet of Fire

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