Cookie Fonster Reviews Every MLP Episode Part 62: Gauntlet of Fire

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Season 6, Episode 5

Fun fact: this will be the last MLP post I write before moving out of my parents’ house. I get the keys today, and I’ll spend the weekend moving all my stuff. Exciting, right?

Season 6 Episode 5: Gauntlet of Fire

In five words: Spike’s second chance befriending dragons.

Premise: Spike goes to the dragon kingdom for the second time in his life, this time by force. He’s sent to participate in a competition to inherit the throne from Dragon Lord Torch. He’s reluctant at first, but eventually he gains a supportive ally.

Detailed run-through:

Knowing this episode’s premise, it’s interesting and fitting that it starts with Spike in his comfort zone: exploring a cave with a girl he likes to help her find gems.

Rarity: The last time I was here, I woke them and ended up with a mane full of bats. (sigh) Thanks for being my basket holder, Spike.
Spike: Basket holder? I thought I was your bodyguard.
Rarity: What? Oh, haha. Yes, yes, that of course, too.

I should say right off the bat that I see nothing creepy about Spike’s crush on Rarity. It’s a totally believable thing for a pre-teenage boy to do, and passages like this show that while Rarity has some special affection for Spike, she clearly views him as a kid. There are some episodes where one of them goes far enough to raise an eyebrow, but this isn’t one of them, and the crush in itself isn’t weird to me.

This episode has one of the shortest cold openings of the show, only 42 seconds long. Rarity notices a mysterious glow that is waking up the bats and realizes it’s coming from Spike, giving him his own counterpart to flashing cutie marks (though in a season 7 episode, he gets a closer counterpart when his scales flash in alternation like tacky Christmas lights). Her shocked reaction shows that she isn’t used to seeing her little Spikey-Wikey grow up, which she has difficulty with a few other times in the show. Again, it’s perfectly natural to struggle to see that someone younger than you is becoming more independent, and Rarity faces such situations both with Spike and Sweetie Belle.

Celestia and Luna JUST got done being happy they got to relax without some imminent crisis.

It’s lowkey sweet that Rarity got herself covered in mud to save Spike. She dropped everything she was doing to bring her dragon buddy to safety, regardless of how filthy she’d get, and this protective attitude is exactly the right way to portray Rarity’s side of her dynamic with Spike. Compared to Twilight, she’s slower to accept when Spike is growing up, which makes total sense—it’s harder to process that your friend’s younger sibling is getting older than when your own younger sibling is.

Celestia and Luna say that while they don’t know much about dragon culture, they know that Spike’s glow is the call of the dragon lord, meaning that he’s needed at the dragon kingdom immediately. I already discussed how pony and dragon society start the show on unfriendly terms when I reviewed Dragon Quest, so in this review, I’ll instead discuss things I hadn’t brought up then.

Rarity: B-b-but the… the dragon lands are full of… dragons! And they’re ghastly creatures.
Rarity: Oh, oh, not you, of course, Spikey-Wikey. But remember that rotten Garble?
Spike: (gulp) How would I forget? He would have burnt us to a crisp if you weren’t there.
Spike: If I had to go to the dragon lands, would you two come with me?

The contrast against Dragon Quest is pretty interesting. In that episode, Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash followed Spike to the dragon kingdom in a goofy costume, and their attitude towards him was painfully patronizing. This time, it’s more of genuine protection, and there’s no need to add Rainbow Dash to the group because Twilight has wings now. The omission of Rainbow Dash also means Spike is only with the two Mane 6 members he’s closest to; the ones who see him the most for who he is. It also fits with the spirit of season 6, because most of its episodes focus on two or three of the main cast instead of the whole gang. Naturally enough, Twilight is so excited to research dragon culture that she forgets she’s supposed to look after Spike, and the other two have to keep her in check.

This time, the journey to the dragon kingdom was skipped over.

Rarity gets ready to bring back the dragon costume from last time, but unlike Dragon Quest, this episode opts for a more believable disguise. This is a common pattern as the show’s seasons progress: the cartoon humor is toned down and the characters’ actions become more realistic (relatively speaking). I think that’s typical of any animated show that follows a continuity.

Despite being huge and hating ponies, Garble is still a My Little Pony character. Isn’t that weird?

Oh hey, it’s Garble again. This episode gives him the turn to be comic relief, which is refreshing given how much he brutalized Spike last time.

And then we meet the current ruler of the dragons, Dragon Lord Torch—and next to him, his much smaller daughter, Princess Ember. His design is unique among the dragons, and he almost looks like a Disney movie villain, or like a character from the show’s movie. Since he only appears in this episode and is drawn so differently from all the other dragons, when I see him, my brain goes “oh hey, that must be a character from the movie”.

As crude and reckless as dragons are stereotyped to be, Torch has the dignity to follow dragon law and give up the throne since he’s ruled so long. The dragons are consistently loyal to their ruler, which helps portray them less crudely than in Dragon Quest. Torch then announces a race to determine who will rule the dragons: whoever gets through the Gauntlet of Fire and retrieves his scepter from a flaming volcano gets to inherit his throne.

I’m willing to bet Twilight Sparkle prepared magic spells to protect her notebook from lava.

As Twilight Sparkle writes notes about dragons with a quill, Rarity lets out a girly sneeze inside the rock disguise, and Spike covers for her:

Spike: Uh… excuse me.
Garble: Eugh. You even sneeze like a pony.

I find it endearing that Spike is willing to embarrass himself for the sake of protecting Rarity, just like Rarity got herself dirty to protect Spike. The last thing he wants is for the dragons to mock his two best friends again, and while his feelings for Rarity are one-sided, their protective instincts go both ways.

When Torch gets mad at Spike for trying to leave, Ember steps to his defense and provides the first positive interaction Spike has ever had with a dragon. Ember is the first female dragon to have any voiced lines, and let’s be real here, it took long enough. One of the big problems with Dragon Quest is that it used dragons and ponies as a stand-in for the childish rivalry between boys and girls, and it barely featured any female dragons at all, which goes against this show’s theme of subverting gender stereotypes. Ember brings a lot of new stuff to the table—the first female dragon, the first dragon to befriend Spike, and the first ruler of a non-pony species who isn’t villainous—so it’s no surprise that she quickly became a fan favorite.

This image shows that dragons come in EXTREMELY varying sizes, which is especially true if you assume Ember is full-grown.

Torch: Where do you think you’re going?
Ember: To prepare for the gauntlet.
Torch: No, you’re not. You’re not much bigger than that runt I just set home.
Ember: But I’m smarter than most of those boulderheads and you know it.
Torch: Being smart won’t help you win this gauntlet. It was designed for a big, strong dragon to win, because it takes a big, strong dragon to lead! Besides, I SAID NO!

Dragon Lord Torch has a point here. If he thought his daughter was fit to rule over dragons, he’d pass the throne to her instead of setting up this competition. In response, Ember expresses some very teenager-like frustration with her dad. This is a clear case of a parent refusing to see that their child is growing up, though that’s not the main focus of the episode: Spike’s character arc is.

A few dragons share ideas for what they’d do if they won the throne. The purple female dragon suggests making burps an official dragon greeting, which is the sort of crude humor ordinarily associated with male characters, making for a genuine if incredibly silly subversion of gender roles. The brown one on the left has an interesting idea: looting all the pillows from Equestria so that dragons don’t have to sleep on rocks. This shows that many dragons don’t mind soft things deep down, but also demonstrates how shortsighted they are about the ways of ponies because as far as I know, pillows in this show aren’t fireproof. Garble’s idea is to loot what he wants from Equestria and burn down the rest of it, showing that his portrayal hasn’t changed from Dragon Quest; he’s just no longer the primary representative of all dragons.

Rarity and Twilight remark how disastrous it would be if any of these three dragons won, and Spike responds with an act of bravery. He decides he must compete in the Gauntlet of Fire.

Rarity: What do you mean, you have to win the gauntlet?
Spike: It’s the only way to protect Equestria from the dragons. You heard them. They have horrible plans for ponies if they win! So somehow, I have to do it.
Twilight Sparkle: There has to be another way. It’s too dangerous. Besides, if you win, you have to stay here!
Spike: I know. But there’s no other way to keep my friends safe.
Twilight Sparkle: Well, if you’re staying to compete, then we’re staying to cheer you on.

This matches with one of the things Dragon Quest did well. Just like last time, Twilight Sparkle trusts Spike to make his own decisions and doesn’t talk him out of doing something risky. She has always viewed Spike as an equal and has no trouble processing that he’s growing older.

It’s easy to miss, but when Garble insults Spike by saying he can’t even fly, Ember is the only dragon in the crowd who doesn’t laugh. She expresses her unamusement, which is totally a real word no matter what spell check might tell you, in a sassy dragon way while covered in armor and body paint. As with the rock costume, this is a much more subdued disguise than the wacky stuff we would’ve gotten in the early seasons.

Despite growing up around mares, Spike isn’t above assuming by default others are male, as he does with this dragon.

Note the trail of green paint behind Ember.

Spike starts by swimming to Flamecano Island while the other dragons fly, which seems easy until some huge sea monsters appear scored to dramatic music. Ember is almost killed until Spike leaps in and rescues her from drowning, which is improbable given the weight of her armor. This shows that despite the decrease in absurd cartoony humor, the show still requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief.

Rarity’s mane has somehow remained intact amidst all these disguises.

Ember is surprised in a sassy way that Spike rescued her, and the ponies blow their cover when Rarity snarks about Ember’s ungratefulness.

Ember: Ponies?! What are they doing here?
Spike: They’re my friends.
Ember: Friends? Dragons don’t do friends.
Spike: Well, this dragon does.
Ember: I don’t care, as long as none of you get in my way. I have a gauntlet to win.

I sense a lot of parallels between the show’s portrayal of dragons and griffons. Both species are brash towards the concept of friendship and have a bad rap among ponies, and it takes many seasons to make amends with them. And both have one major exception to their species’ typical portrayal: we’ve known Spike since season 1, and we’ll meet a hyperactive pony fangirl named Gabby later this season. Aside from comparisons, Ember already has a lot of depth as a character. She takes the typical “teenage girl who wants her dad to respect her” archetype mixed up with some dragon sass to leave a strong first impression to viewers. I certainly got a strong first impression from her when I first watched this episode.

Spike: But I thought your dad said—
Ember: I don’t care what my dad said! I’ll show him, and every dragon who thinks I’m just some little princess, there are better things than being big and strong.

Remember when Garble dismissed Princess Celestia as a “namby-pamby pony princess”, as if she wasn’t the ruler of all of Equestria? That scene and Ember’s remark both tell us that the word “princess” has a much weaker connotation in dragon culture than in pony society. I find this to be a believable cultural difference, showing that the same word can mean different things to different cultures.

Garble is squished under a giant rock and asks Spike to save him, then makes fun of Spike when he actually does it. This proves that there is no such thing as the Dragon Code, and Spike at Your Service was just a fever dream. I guess you could maybe argue that the Dragon Code was abolished between Spike at Your Service and this episode? It doesn’t change that the Dragon Code makes absolutely no sense.

When told that she smells like a pony, Ember claims that she robbed some ponies on the way to the dragon kingdom, leading to a compliment from Garble. While it’s unclear whether Garble can tell this is a girl, the inclusion of a female dragon is important because it makes Garble’s racism against ponies seem less like a stand-in for sexism and more like actual racism. Spike makes up a fake name for Ember, “Sandy Rock Beach”, and for some reason I only remember the second time in season 6 Spike makes a fake name for his new friend based on his surroundings—maybe because the fake name there is used longer?

Spike and Ember are surprised that they covered for each other; both ignored an easy opportunity to eliminate the other from the competition. I think Ember subconsciously knows the value of teamwork; since she’s far from the physically toughest dragon, her hopes for becoming the dragon lord can only be achieved by cooperating.

Rarity: Are you sure it’s a good idea to team up with Ember? You don’t know her too well.
Spike: I do know she could’ve told Garble about you, but she didn’t. I think we can trust her.
Twilight Sparkle: Her behavior does seem contradictory to everything I’ve noted about dragons so far.

OK, but is her behavior anywhere near as contradictory to dragon stereotypes as Spike’s is? Twilight Sparkle thinks of everything in methodical terms, so it makes sense she’d forget to account for Spike when documenting the ways of dragons. Either that, or she didn’t feel a need to account for Spike because of the nature vs. nurture argument.

I love the little detail that when Spike offers a handshake, Ember is only comfortable pinching one of his fingers with a strained expression. She’s hilariously grossed out by sappy friendship, like Spike occasionally was in the early seasons.

Ember: Just so you know, this doesn’t mean we’re gonna pick flowers or exchange necklaces or whatever pony friends do.

As Ember says this tsundere line, Spike has the most delighted smile on his face. He always wanted to be friends with another dragon, and it took long enough to finally get his wish. Twilight Sparkle has taken a break from her notes to express pride in Spike for making a new friend.

Spike cleverly lays on Ember’s back as she flies through the storm of rocks, serving as a second set of eyes. This episode is all about showing the value of teamwork through cool adventure scenes, and I enjoy that a lot.

Even as he’s injured multiple times through the hall of spikes, Garble keeps on following his rivals in perseverance. As much of a jerk as he is in this episode, you can’t deny that his determination to win the race is admirable.

Spike and Rarity undeniably have a special friendship, but it’s so dumb when people call moments where one rescues the other’s life “shippy”.
The whole POINT is that the idea of them in a relationship could never work out.

This scene is one of few times Rarity genuinely is a damsel in distress who Spike has to save. She wobbles in her latest rock costume until she almost falls into a column of lava, and Spike has to get her out. I’ve always liked that Spike’s relationship with Rarity consistently subverts the damsel in distress trope, and while it’s played more straight here, the point of this scene is to show Ember that friends look out for each other, which she reacts to with discomfort.

Rarity: Oh, thanks, Spike!
Spike: (sigh) It was nothing.
Ember: Nothing? You just risked everything to save her. And they’re putting themselves in danger just to support you.
Spike: Well, that’s just what friends do. Don’t you have anyone who looks out for you?
Ember: Not really… unless I count you. Which I don’t, because we were only helping each other get through the tunnel, and now we’re through the tunnel. So that’s it.

Ember briefly looks gloomy when she says “not really”, until she reverts to being stuck-up about not doing friendship. I think part of her reason for wanting to do the rest of the race on her own is so that her complicated feelings about friendship don’t distract her from reaching the end. She isn’t ready to face her feelings on having friends, and it conveniently creates dramatic tension.

Fortunately for Spike, the next part of the race is the only one where flying doesn’t provide a huge advantage. It’s a cyclical hall of crevices where the only way out is by noticing the one hole that looks different—perhaps a puzzle created by some mysterious dragon magic? Spike tells his pony friends that despite being ditched, he still considers Ember a friend, which says a lot about his longing to know his own species. Although it went disastrously the first time, his desire for dragon friends persisted—he just thought it was impossible until now.

And so, Spike is the only dragon to make it into the final room…

… or so he thinks. It turns out no obstacle, not even one that requires logical deduction to exit an infinite loop, was too great for Garble to overcome. As I said before, his persistence getting through the race is on some level admirable, in a similar vein to Caliborn.* Both are extremely crass and sexist villains whose determination to get past any obstacles makes you almost want to root for them.

* I’m going to assume you know what work of media he’s from. I’ve mentioned him in two prior episodes already.

Ember swoops in to the rescue. She kicks Garble off the bridge and rescues a falling Spike, revealing that after giving it some thought, she decided friendship is worth it after all. Then she expresses contempt for talking about her feelings, which I’m tempted to say is more because she’s a teenage girl than because she’s a dragon.

Garble probably thinks Rainbow Dash was too much of a wuss to come this time.

For Garble, this episode is a second chance too—a chance to get revenge on ponies. Ember takes action and holds the guy off, giving him some long-awaited comeuppance while Spike runs for the scepter. Garble didn’t really get this in his debut episode—the ponies just sort of teleported away with Spike.

Garble insists that dragons don’t do friendship, but he appears to be good friends with his fellow teenage boy dragons.
He would viciously insist that doesn’t count as friendship, just like Ember did before owning up to it.

This time, Spike tries to join the duel but lands on the edge of a cliff. Ember defeats Garble and throws him off the cliff, then rescues Spike while all the remaining dragons arrive to the scene.

And so, Spike obtains the dragon scepter and briefly becomes the dragon lord, much to Garble’s confusion.

Garble: What? You? You have the scepter? But… that means that you’re…
Ember: The Dragon Lord. Dragon Lord Spike.
(dragons bow)
Garble: (grumbles) Dragon Lord Spike.

Now that I think of it, there’s one element to the Dragon Code—and I say this completely aware of how silly it is to be hung up on the Dragon Code—that does influence the lore of dragons. The Dragon Code set in stone that as mischievous and competitive as dragons are known to be, they loyally follow their cultural rules no matter how embarrassing. Garble doesn’t like it, but he has the decency to accept that rules are rules.

Spike: That’s right. Uh… now go start your long journey home. And give every dragon you see on the way a hug. Don’t tell them why.
Garble: Aw! But that’ll be super embarrassing.
Spike: I command you to do it.
Garble: (mutters in frustration)

With this hilariously embarrassing punishment, Spike has both given Garble a taste of his own medicine and picked up on the rule-following aspect of dragon culture. After all the times Spike embarrassed himself last time he saw Garble, this is very well-deserved.

Spike then passes the torch, by which I mean the dragon scepter inherited from a dragon named Torch, to Ember, who is the daughter and unintended metaphorical torch and actual scepter heir of a dragon named Torch. It’s a wise choice given Ember’s experiences with friendship, and because Spike considers Ponyville his home.

Note the blush on Ember’s cheeks. She’s trying to suppress a smile.

Ember: You sure about this?
Spike: Absolutely. My home is in Equestria with my friends.
Ember: Well, you’ll have at least one friend here too.
Ember: What are you doing?
Spike: It’s called a hug.
Ember: I don’t know if I like it. But, OK.

Can you blame Spike for being so excited and cuddly here? Last time he met fellow dragons, all he did was make a fool of himself. But now, he can proudly say he’s friends with the ruler of all dragons, just as Twilight is friends with the ruler of all ponies. I would say this is everything he ever dreamed of, but that would be a huge understatement.

The final scene with the dragons confirms that the ways of dragons aren’t so nasty after all. Though upset at first that his daughter took part in the race, he accepts her as the rightful winner and admits that she may not be big, but she is strong and brave. He sternly but proudly presents Ember as the new dragon lord, who shouts at everyone to agree with him then laughs and says that won’t be her style. How’s that for an awesome conclusion to Spike’s second time meeting fellow dragons?

Twilight Sparkle, Spike, and Rarity end the episode with a well-earned victory walk, where they proudly reflect on how they gained a new ally and friend. Both ponies got a lot out of this dragon encounter: Twilight now has access to a whole world of information on dragon culture, and Rarity has reconsidered her prejudice against dragons and got inspiration for a fashion line. The credits are scored with some of the dramatic music that played during the race.

Overall thoughts:

This episode does a great job following up from Dragon Quest and redeems just about all of the episode’s many issues, ranging from the Mane 6’s mean-spirited treatment of Spike to the embarrassing mishaps Spike suffered to the unsympathetic portrayal of other dragons. This episode handles the differences between ponies and dragons so much more respectfully, it’s almost laughable to compare it with its predecessor. Mix that with some cool action scenes, dragon worldbuilding, comeuppance to Garble, and a new character who plays off Spike well, and you get an incredibly satisfying resolution not just to the ending of Dragon Quest, but to the ending of Spike’s Search three decades prior. After all those controversial Spike episodes, it’s so unbelievably refreshing to see a Spike episode that treats him with complete respect.

Grade: A

A well-deserved grade for a massively improved sequel. I could have been a LOT harder on Dragon Quest, really. I think the main reason I wasn’t was because I could easily tie it in with Spike’s arc in later seasons, particularly with this striking episode, but I still could have justifiably given it a D.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Rarity knows Garble’s name near the start of the episode, which is weird because his name wasn’t mentioned at any point in Dragon Quest. I had a really good joke in mind about Rarity having fourth wall awareness, but it turns out the credits didn’t even include Garble. Back in seasons 1-2, the credits mentioned the same voice cast each time except the occasional guest stars. This means that I can’t come up with a funny theory for how Rarity knew Garble’s name other than the boring “she learned it offscreen”.
  • I find it a little mystifying that Garble seems to know what a hug is, but Ember doesn’t. My guess is that this is a hint at Garble’s deeply buried sensitive side, which we won’t get to see a trace of until season 9.

The next episode features not a setting we hadn’t seen in four seasons, but a character we haven’t seen in almost as long: the longtime fan favorite, Trixie.

See you next week for a bunch of walls of text about an episode I’ve been waiting to analyze for a LONG time.

>> Part 63: No Second Prances

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