Discord, wielder of chaos and wanton destruction, is the new villain in town in Episode 1 and 2 of the second season of "Friendship is Magic", and, after being unsealed from the statue that has kept him at bay for hundreds of years, it is once again up to Twilight Sparkle and her many friends to deal with the incoming threat. Of course, after amassing such an enormous fan-base of unprecedented fans of all ages, there was a lot of concern amongst fans about what Season 2 might be like, given the high quality of the first season. With expectations to live up to, the show would have to pull something excellent out of the bag for these first two episodes, as they herald the future of a show that has become a beloved aspect of people's daily lives.
The various Livestreams were at the ready, and an enormous amount of people tuned in across the globe to see the ponies the moment that they aired. In the history of animation, I can think of no other example where individuals have proudly woken up early, interrupted their work shifts and cancelled other plans just to see the show air live. There is a great sense of pride as we wait in the internet ether, chuckling at unfortunate adverts for other shows aired on The Hub: nothing that we remotely care about, but necessary boundaries between us and the episode that we have been waiting months to see. And when that episode finally airs, there is a hushed sense of wonder amongst those watching, as all hang on bated breath in expectation for what is about to come. It should come as no surprise that Episode 1 and 2 of Season 2 of "Friendship is Magic" sets the bar very high for the upcoming episodes. If they are as expertly crafted as this two-part creation, then we have a lot of exciting episodes to look forward to that could easily top the first season in quality.
Let me get one thing out of the way: I do not personally view the two-part episodes as being especially canonical. The Pilot, and, indeed, the existence of the Elements of Harmony in general, are so detached from the core episodes of the show that they seem to be more akin to a straight-to-DVD movie rather than episodes within the lore of the world. It is easy to accept this, seeing as some of the standards set in the original Pilot "Mare of the Moon" episodes are somewhat challenged during the actual episodes. It comes across that the Elements of Harmony are plot devices made for the Pilot when the future of the show was uncertain: to have each character represent a specific element is potentially lazy story-telling. If Applejack's Element is Honesty, that implies that no other pony within the mane six is honest, despite the fact that none of them are liars. The same can be applied to the other ponies; it just comes across that the Elements of Harmony are a reductionist plot-device that over-simplifies the characters. Their existence makes sense, as Lauren Faust wrote the Pilot episodes under different circumstances to the rest of the season, and thus certain aspects of it could be forgotten should the show prove popular. This is precisely what happened: the absence of the Elements of Harmony throughout the rest of Season 1 was testament to the fact that these were only semi-canon narrative devices.
When it was revealed that the Elements of Harmony would be returning during the premiere of Season 2, I was a little sceptical. Season 1 did such a good job of fleshing out these characters particularly episodes such as "Sonic Rainboom" and "Party of One", both of which scooped up these established characters and then emotionally tore them apart before our very eyes that it left a period of doubt in my mind that the Elements might weaken the characters after such development. Season 1 didn't entirely eliminate the need for the Elements of Harmony, but if they had never returned again it would not have been a weakness to the show. Having them return confirmed their position within the canon a little more, but it is still quite possible to take "The Return of Harmony" as being, like the Pilot, its own creation rather than a part of a greater season plan: I make the prediction now that neither the Elements of Harmony nor Discord will even be mentioned during the rest of the season; if I am wrong, you have permission to hunt me down and hang me from the nearest tree.
All of this said and done, getting over the fact that the Elements of Harmony have once again been used as a springboard for storyline ideas, it is surprising that the first lines of dialogue in Part 1 come from Cheerilee, a relatively minor pony in this particular Generation. It is interesting that the writers chose to allow Cheerilee to explain to her class who Discord is and what he has done in the past in order to be sealed in a statue. I found it humbling that the way the class are having the story explained to them puts the audience in the position of one of Cheerilee's students, as we are as uninformed as the little ponies on the field trip. Unfortunately, the presence of the Cutie Mark Crusaders during this introduction seemed a little off: whilst Cheerilee's story was a great idea, the Cutie Mark Crusaders seemed unnecessarily aggressive to one another and somewhat out of character. Perhaps being in Discord's presence caused this, but as none of the other ponies got involved in the fighting it seems unlikely. Instead, it just seems odd that the Cutie Mark Crusaders were on the playful offensive to one another. At first it seemed to hint that the Cutie Mark Crusaders were responsible for releasing Discord, and although this isn't likely true it is later revealed that the fact that the Elements are now in the possession of new ponies is the cause for Discord's return it still puts the Cutie Mark Crusaders into an awkward position. That they are not seen again across both episodes makes their inclusion somewhat more unusual.
That said, the mane six are summoned by Princess Celestia in the wake of Discord's escape after Ponyville is thrust into chaos, and they soon find that the Elements of Harmony are missing. The episodes incorporate some particularly interesting new graphical ideas to the show, one of which sees Discord appearing on the stained-glass windows in Celestia's throne room, which is a great way of introducing his character as an enigmatic and shadowy figure. The ponies deduce that Discord has hidden the Elements in the palace maze and they decide to go and hunt them down, after being knighted by Celestia's mighty horn. Discord shows himself to the group and then splits them all up, making it his task to slowly make the ponies turn on one another. A lot of fans have fallen in love with Discord as a villain, mainly because the voice actor, John de Lancie, played Q in Star Trek, who had a similar personality to that of Discord, making him the perfect man for the job. Sadly for fans of Star Trek, I'm not going to make any great comparisons between the two, as I cannot elevate Discord to a God-like position simply because of the fanfare surrounding his voice actor. As a villain Discord is amusing: a jester-like figure who thrives on manipulation and dark humour, as opposed to Nightmare Moon's more conventionally evil behaviour.
In Episode 1, Discord did not impress me any more than I would expect an animated villain to do. Of course, his script was sharper than most, but this is to be expected of "Friendship is Magic". What I found interesting about this episode is the rift that it created in my mind: whilst recalling "Alice in Wonderland" with its Queen-of-Hearts hedge-maze, I felt divided in how this episode portrayed the characters. I was particularly displeased with how Applejack was handled, and I did not appreciate how quickly she was made to lie: I saw little correlation between the image that she was shown within the pool and the need to lie. Similarly, after episodes such as "Party of One", which tackled some of Pinkie Pie's more insecure emotional bugbears, it seemed odd to me how quickly she was affected by others laughing at her. Nevertheless, the episode handled Rarity very well; her desire for the diamond did not seem out of character at all, and, as usual, the little moments of harshness in her voice when a particularly strong desire comes her way are very much appreciated and increase my adoration for her character every time. The star of the episode, however, was Fluttershy: from screaming when she's divided from the other ponies, to hiding in a hedge when the butterflies touch her, to being almost entirely immune to Discord's belittlement, she stole the show and proved to be hilarious. In contrast, Rainbow Dash, unfortunately, was somewhat under-represented in both episodes, although granted her nonchalance whilst relaxing on a cloud in Part 2 raised a smile.
At the end of Episode 1 we are left on the cliff-hanger that chaos is to reign supreme after Rainbow Dash flees the maze. I was curious how the writers would handle the second episode in light of this. I speculated for the entire week over what satisfying conclusion could come from Episode 2. And, having now watched the episode, I can say that it is two things: both superior to Episode 1 and an absolute grower. What I mean by this is that watching it live showed the episode to be good, but watching it three more times just made the episode shine in so many more ways. Whilst I was glad when it finished that it had wrapped up the Discord story-arc, I was also incredibly excited for the upcoming episodes, because this one set the standard so high. Let's start with the humour: this episode is really big on the laughs. To list off just a few, we see Fluttershy slam a bucket on Twilight's head with a, "Your face!" comment, Twilight freaking out and becoming ultra-possessive of her Elements of Harmony book, Spike being made to impersonate Rainbow Dash, Rarity nicknaming her boulder 'Tom', Twilight kicking said boulder out of her home with the lament, "Here comes Tom!" before it crashes through her wall, Pinkie Pie gulping down chocolate milk whilst she's supposed to be fighting Discord and an army of buffalo prancing around in synchronised dancing. There are many more moments that raised a smile, and I can honestly say that this episode probably contained the most genuine laughs from the entire show thus far.
On top of this, there were some great moments for the characters, and, as the characters are the primary drive behind the show, this is always a good thing. At first their deliberately out-of-character-due-to-Discord behaviour is amusing, such as when Fluttershy says, ''Mama's so proud of you," when Angel runs Twilight down in a moment of pure callousness and Rarity's hoarding of all things shiny with a passionate "MINE!", but it is the in-character moments that truly shine. Particularly the parts where Twilight Sparkle realises the importance of friendship, which creates some truly emotional moments. When she pounces Applejack and we see scenes from her past, proving that she's a good friend, it creates a sentimental resonance of more potency than one would expect. When Applejack realises what she's done and hides behind her hat whilst asking for Twilight's forgiveness it is, quite frankly, adorable, and confirms why I love her character so much. But it is Twilight who really excels in this episode: in particular when she lovingly abuses Spike by throwing him around the room, only to grasp him in a caring embrace moments later. Poor Spike gets a lot of abuse in this episode, but the interaction between him and Twilight Sparkle is thankfully incredibly well done and supports episodes such as "Owl's Well That Ends Well" that the two will always be best friends. On top of this, the balloon-chasing scene where the ponies unite in catching Rainbow Dash sets a new standard for getting the heart pumping in "Friendship is Magic"; in particular Fluttershy's innocent, "Um, I'm just wondering if I can hold you down against your will for a little bit?" paving the way for her begging-for-a-Sparta-remix, "That. Big. Dumb. MEANIE!". This entire scene is brilliantly done and shows the ponies working in harmony, climaxing in a big group-hug that cannot help but raise a smile.
The focus on high-emotions doesn't end with the script, either. It is the way in which the script is delivered that truly blew me away. This episode had the voice actresses demonstrate much broader parts of their vocal ranges than I have seen before: in particular characters such as Fluttershy and Twilight raise their voices to new and exciting highs during the more heated moments of the episode. There is a lot of shouting and conflict, and it's interesting to see these characters brought to life through voice acting that has, in my mind due to the subject matter of the episode, improved in every way over the previous season. In addition, the music has also taken a step-up. I'm not talking about songs here: the absence of any singing is a necessary sacrifice in getting these episodes into a 40-minute-or-so period. Instead, the background music, something that is often unfairly overlooked, is excellent in this entire episode. Three moments stood out to me as being of particular note: go back and listen to the melancholic music that plays when Twilight is 'discorded' after the ponies fail to seal Discord away the first time. Then, listen to the nostalgic and eerie chords playing when Twilight pins Applejack down and delves deep into her memory. Finally, the ending in the palace, with its great, bombastic celebration sounds fully orchestrated and wonderful. Oh, and speaking of that final scene...
Yes, yes; there is a Star Wars reference there, especially with the circular fade-out at the very end zooming into the camera. It is a stroke of absolute directorial genius, and the individual responsible for such a decision should be rewarded. I half expected Pinkie Pie to turn towards the camera and make a Chewbacca growl. It's just so well done, blending together the contemporary with the nostalgic; younger fans would not recognise this reference at all, but it gives the older fans something to latch onto and hold close to their hearts. The way that these references are so subtle and smoothly executed is fantastic: Pinkie's 'chocolate rain' comment in Episode 1, if not a direct allusion to the popular meme, has certainly boosted its popularity and thrown it back into the public consciousness once again, such is the power of this wondrous show.
Honestly, Episode 1 was good, but Episode 2 has thrown the show into a different league altogether. Yes, there are the usual complaints that there was no Princess Luna, but this is an argument that I am beginning to grow more and more tired of: Luna will be coming, this has been confirmed, so people need to stop trying to force something in there. Luna wasn't integral to the episode and wouldn't have added anything, other than giving the adoring fans something to scream about. The decision of the directors and writers to not include her is something that I can support. The greater grievance people seem to have is that the second episode felt rushed, and although I can appreciate that this is, to an extent, true, I did not feel sad that it had to end. I think the story was rounded up well, even if Discord did meet a rather untimely demise; although some people have expressed a wish that Discord should have been a villain throughout the entire season, this would have become stale, and, quite frankly, it is possible in this case to have too much of a good thing.
Discord served his purpose well as the manipulative Machiavellian villain who thrives on making others suffer, and he will always be remembered for the legendary voice actor who portrayed him. But similarly, just because he won't return, it doesn't mean that other antagonistic forces won't also make their appearance in the season and steal an audience's heart. Just look at Trixie or Gilda in Season 1: Season 2 will have its fair share of loveable bastards, just wait and see. In the mean-time, we can be content that, when taken together, "The Return of Harmony" story-arc is an incredibly well-done feat of topsy-turvy chaos, confirming the position of "Friendship is Magic" as being something truly without comparison. Every reference was apparent, every joke hit the spot, every decision just...worked.
A job well done.