“The Mysterious Mare Do Well” is a Season 2 episode over which the fandom is probably still divided. On one hand, you have viewers insisting on the evils of ends-justifies-means “master plans,” and on the other you have viewers insisting that bad behavior can warrant this measure. At least ethically, there’s no sense at all in disputing either side. The premise is pretty straightforward in its ideas: Rainbow Dash gets bigheaded, and sometimes, when all else fails, you pull out the big guns.
While I don’t love this episode for various reasons (a personal distaste toward manipulative “plans,” obnoxious jokes, over-stylization of plot structure), I don’t really hate it, either. It doesn’t drive me bonkers the way “Boast Busters” does. It’s very often that characters are given the short end of the storytelling stick—Gilda, Diamond Tiara, Pinkie—but I just call it out each time I see it, and I don’t really cause a spectacle. In the case of “Mare Do Well,” there’s a comprehensible story arc here to work through in the first place.
What weakens this episode is not the inability to tell a bare-minimum story, but a premise that just doesn’t compel. Consequently, I don’t find it interesting. Neither can I rationalize viewing it as an enjoyable experience; I don’t care for Batman/Darkwing Duck references, and the timing-based jokes were (for me) opaque. The only things I valued with respect to HNNGGG moments were occasional speaking-line excellence (“You’re my hero, Rainbow Dash!”, “There’s something wrong with the baby!”, and Twilight’s being pwned by the reality that autobiographies can, in fact be written by ghostwriters), the sassy facial expressions of the Mane Six at 6:18-6:20, and the bangin’ mom (is Amethyst Star a mom?) struggling with a jar of peanut butter. In the case of that last item on the list, might’ve just been the suggestive sounds and her voice.
Williams’ choice of narrative dream is intended to suggest what we experience as we read from arc to arc in a superhero story. In the simple sense, we aren’t meant to question the constant appearance of random disasters, though once in a while characters call attention to it (metafiction). When you compress so many occurrences, you cause the audience to wonder how much time is passing—and the passage of much time or little substantially changes our understanding of the plot. When you switch back to so-called daily life, for example, you tend to suggest the subtle lie that there are no other such problems in the town; the audience may even wonder about possible events concurrent with such disasters. The result is a sort of tier-level understanding of personal growth. Each event is a contrast, or a moment of confrontation, or some kind of mindfuck that the protagonist, antagonist, or antihero takes with him or her back into “the other world.” Of course, since Ponyville has no “dark underbelly”—all of the problems exist in broad daylight, and not because of crime—the ostensible effect is a relatively uncomplicated blurring of the line between lofty/perhaps-impractical expectations of a hero and the mundane.
Beyond this, the plot’s consideration of implications is superficial, and worth only a tired sigh. Rainbow’s negative attitude seems to be much more dangerous a change if it actually progresses as quickly as it seems to have; the sense that she’s wreaking havoc and trending toward destruction has a distortive, though narrative, basis. But it quickly becomes clear that this tone is merely designed to serve the purpose of manipulating Rainbow’s trajectory, though there’s no reason for the change, contextually-speaking. The disasters allow for the progression of Rainbow’s bad choices and the set-up of Mare Do Well’s exemplified nobility. The absence of them facilitates Rainbow Dash’s emotional crash; upon re-watching, it also (wrongly) hand-waves away the others’ responsibility to have remained vigilant. After all, the less-than-noble (perhaps sinister) truth is that their goal was never to become noble hero simply; it was to serve as a model for Rainbow, and to prove that “a” hero more capable than Rainbow could hypothetically exist.
The matter of narrative tone makes clear the underlying issue of the plot that doesn’t sit right for many: the plot demands a narrative continuity that directly and too obviously contradicts the logical reality. Nobody disputes that Rainbow’s behavior was dangerous, but we sense that we’re expected to treat Rainbow as if she’s a bit of a robot, or a child. It’s easy to notice, really: consider the grating and silly repetition of Rainbow’s catchphrase (Spider-Man’s habit was to utter it after the good deeds were done). Why else, we think to ourselves, would she do this, unless time had passed? Upon giving the matter more honest thought, however, the illusion becomes unbelievable because 1) we end up wondering whether Rainbow was having successes in between the narrative events, which causes us to 2) scowl and wonder whether the writer is withholding information from us/telling us a false story.
I’ll prove it: why does Rainbow feel no twinge at all to change her behavior? How often is she altruistic? Why didn’t the Mane Six at least make the attempt to explain their convictions? Was she beneath that? What’s going on?
As you can see, if you don’t trust the writer when you’re supposed to, the story is fundamentally fucked. We ain’t reading Nabokov here.
This leads to the secondary (and usual) problem: conflated issues. To put it easily: there’s a distinction between one’s failure to recognize his need for others and a complacent conviction that he’s the best. The pop psychologist might have you believe they’re the same; don’t listen. Is Spider-Man prideful or arrogant in his eagerness to unhesitatingly put himself in harm’s way for the protection of others, “take responsibility” without thinking it all the way through? No, we’d say, and he doesn’t have the habit of rejecting help unreasonably (that’s a questionable claim). All the same, he learns over time to depend on others more. He learns that he can’t do it all, that there are bound to be scenarios wherein someone else’s efforts are useful or even vital, that in those situations he should accept help in order to get the job done. His difficulty is really one of ego—not quite arrogance, but holding on to the “selfness” of one’s actions too fiercely.
Various moments throughout the episode stumble over this point: Rainbow attempts to stop a vehicle careening toward the edge of a cliff and can’t pull it off; Mare Do Well jumps in to save the day. We’ve been groomed to think the scene’s critiquing a negligence issue—or one of “the superior hero”—but it isn’t. It’s a matter of chance and ability. We’d feel better if Rainbow Dash hadn’t wasted time, obviously, but we have no satisfying conviction that a few wasted seconds would have made any difference. The instance following this is even more iffy, as it is later revealed that Pinkie Pie was using her Pinkie Sense throughout the ordeal. Aside from our doubts that the construction workers would have believed/followed her (she couldn’t have carried all four of them, and people can get really skeptical or fearful when they’re in danger), the issue is entirely dependent on a freak ability that has never been seen used in such a high-octane situation.
For all of Rainbow’s usual pride, the more destructive—and telling—factor is a deep-rooted need for affirmation gone dangerously awry. What we’re given is a clumsy mash-up of ego questions (“reality is bigger than you are”) and arrogance questions (“others are valuable, too”), fueled by the implicit assumption is that solving one set will deal with the other. A satisfactory treatment of the interaction between both variables would have done the job here. Unfortunately, Rainbow’s complete confusion at the big scheme isn’t encouraging; she needs the not-so-thought-out lesson outright stated to her, from beginning to end.
My final point before concluding is the writer’s lack of engagement with the denizens, who never really raise an eyebrow at Rainbow’s behavior. They even praise her when she asks for more praise. However, they call Mare Do Well’s feats “brave?” They give her a ceremony? What all of this writing implicitly does is roll its eyes and smirk, “Come on, you motherfuckers: you know that Rainbow’s behavior is inferior. You know that the goods will go to Mare Do Well.”The oddness of the Ponyvillians ties into the cryptic behavior of the Mane Six, who act without honestly taking into account the extended consequences. The amount of implied effort they put into the plan (which we extrapolate from how much of it seemed to work out) seems incongruous placed against the little they did throughout the initial stages of “conflict” (there wasn’t one, really, other than annoyance). We’re supposed to hyperfocus on their motivations in some bizarre sense, even though the emphatically responsible thing to do was to weigh actively (at least attempt it, sheesh!) the liking for Mare Do Well against the effects on Rainbow (because, again, the deep-rooted goal is directed toward her). Consider their discussing Mare Do Well in front of Rainbow, noticing her upset, calling her “jealous,” laughing at her, and even shrugging (Rarity) once she rushes off in a huff. That Rainbow took things “too far,” or that her behavior should be passed off as some brief childish tantrum, is so mind-numbing—and counter-intuitive—a rebuttal that I now realize my lack of desire to say much else regarding the matter. Five mares trust in an illusion rather than in themselves, which is not so much terrible as just…lame; nothing is ever done with this element of the plot.
If you’re still looking for one thing to take away from this post, try this comment, of the sort I tend to make about stories to which I’m not attached: the best stories play big games for keeps. This ep stumbles over its tone, messes up the real issues, doesn’t actually care about depicting all sides of the implications, and isn’t even that funny. Don’t hate it, though; less-likable ones yet exist.