Sunday, 1 December 2013

Episode review: "Castle Mane-ia" (S4E03)

Applejack and Rainbow Dash looking scared
"Have you seen Josh Haber's Twitter account?"
After the excitement of last week's Season 4 premiere, this week's episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was unfortunately leaked a few days early. I really hope this doesn't happen again, since I felt that it significantly lessened the excitement of seeing what a brand new writer (Josh Haber) could do with our favourite ponies. I didn't watch the episode until after it had officially aired, but I think I can say that the wait was worth it. Come with me past the break for the usual waffle!

Judging by his Twitter account (which, be warned, isn't always quite as squeaky-clean as the show itself!) Haber seems like an interesting character, and he certainly served up an interesting dish for his MLP debut. After last week's epicness, "Castle Mane-ia" (punny title and all) felt more like a slice-of-life filler episode... but a very good filler episode. There were some nods to continuity, especially in the opening scene, but you didn't really need to know about those to enjoy this.

The episode's plot was not a million miles removed from "Ponies Play Scooby-Doo", what with all the rushing around a spooky old castle and somehow managing to miss each other while also scaring each other. That's not a complaint; it just means that it has to be done well. Which, I'm pleased to say, it was. I appreciated having several interlinked plot strands running at the same time: MLP:FiM's history shows that it doesn't talk down to its young audience, and I'm glad to say that it seems to be continuing that in S4.

Angel, Rarity and Fluttershy
Don't get her angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry
On the strength of this first showing, Haber's forte seems to be characterisation. Rarity was particularly well written, and enjoyed her best episode for some time. I enjoyed having her paired up with Fluttershy, a partnership I've thought for a while could do with a bit more exploring. While Flutters wasn't written quite as well as Rarity, she was still more than the tiresomely two-dimensional scaredy-pony cliché we saw at times in episodes like "Magic Duel". Her irritable glances at Rarity were particularly enjoyable.

And then there's the not-so-strange case of AppleDash. Everyone knows that this is a hugely popular ship (including Meghan McCarthy) and the "you don't need to put your hoof around me" scene was manna from heaven to shippers. While I'm not a shipper, I do think AJ and RD work very well together as a pair who spark off each other with their somewhat abrasive personalities. There were echoes of "Fall Weather Friends", one of my favourite S1 episodes, in here – and in fact, the whole tone of this episode was more like the days of S1/2 than what we saw in S3. I hope this continues, as I thoroughly approve of it.

Twilight's character development was a bit more subtle, but perhaps actually more important in the long term. There now seem to me to be considerable parallels between her and Celestia, especially in the way she rather lorded it over the others during the "Why don't we keep a journal?" scene at the end (which itself was a bit shoe-horned in, I have to say). She's starting to carry herself a bit more like a princess, she seems to have sorted out her flight problems... and she even tells off Spike for being sarcastic. Which is frankly a bit hypocritical of her, but there you go.

Angel is shocked by the appearance of even more carrots
There's still no cherry on top, though...
This was the most significant showing in some time – perhaps ever – by Angel, who continues to divide opinion in the community. I thought he was written very well indeed, with a complexity to his character that many (including many bronies) simply don't pick up on. As was very clear at the end, he genuinely cares for Fluttershy as she cares for him: simply saying, "Angel is a [censored]" is a gross oversimplification. He also provided a (by FiM standards) horrific moment when Fluttershy thought that he'd been crushed beneath a falling pillar.

There were a number of references, both internal and external, this time around. Obviously the Castle of the Two Sisters was a major one, in particular the throne room we saw last time. (Luna loved the trap door slide? Okaaaay.) When Rarity and Fluttershy first approached the bridge (that Rainbow mended in S1E02!) you could see the stairs to the Tree of Harmony to the edge of the shot. I guess they didn't notice those in the S1 premiere because of the fog. And even "Nopony knows"! External references... well, the hall with "disembodied pony legs" was surely a Jean Cocteau reference. Nice.

Again, there were no songs; in S2 we had to wait until E07 for those, so I'm not worried. The background music seemed a little more subdued than last time, but I suppose the shadowy atmosphere made that appropriate. More interesting was the animation: again lighting and (of course) shadows were very well used, but it seems that the team have introduced some stronger facial expressions for things like grins and fearful grimaces. I can't decide whether this Mighty Mouse-style change is amusing or irritating or neither or both; it's certainly noticeable, though.

The Mane Six (and Angel) back together again
Proof positive that Fluttershy and Angel really do have a mutual bond
Things that I didn't like about this ep? There were some, yes. I thought Pinkie was the least well characterised of the Mane Six: please, writers, don't just flanderise her and ignore the other sides to her character. As we saw in the likes of "Baby Cakes", she's not just bonkers pure and simple. Also, what happened to the Star Spiders? They were referenced several times in the first few minutes, and then... nothing. Maybe they'll be back later in S4, but it was still jarring. Finally, the "real" Pony of Shadows at the end. Those eyes looked all too much like Zecora from "Bridle Gossip".

All in all, though, "Castle Mane-ia" was great fun, and it doesn't surprise me one little bit that the first episode Haber watched was apparently "Lesson Zero". Those episodes work brilliantly in small doses, but a whole season of them would be a disaster, so it'll be interesting to see how Haber does if/when he writes for the show again. This is an episode that I can certainly see myself coming back to in the future when I just want a fun, funny slice of Pony without anything too heavy going on. S4 has started off pretty well, if you ask me.

Best quote: Twilight: "No-one likes sarcasm, Spike."

  • Well paced: action-packed without feeling overcrowded
  • Excellent interplay between R & FS and AJ & RD
  • Very atmospheric and suitably shadowy
  • Probably Angel's best episode to date
  • Surprisingly dark in places, especially the pillar scene
  • Pinkie Pie is becoming worryingly flanderised
  • The Star Spiders subplot that went nowhere
  • The journal: just letters to Celestia in a different coat


  1. another great review! (don't know why I waited till now to read it) agreed with it completely

    just in case you missed em, the star spiders are in the library, but you might well know that by now from the ukofe thread

    1. Thank you! Oh, I know the spiders appear again... but the way Fluttershy brought up the topic in the forest, it seemed as though they were going to be important to the plot. Maybe a scene got cut; I don't know.

  2. I'm getting way too far behind with everything. What with getting everything ready for Christmas, and several other things that needed to be done, this is the first chance I've had to actually put any comments here, and I probably ought to mention I've not yet seen episode 4. So anything I do say here that is taken down in evidence will be said without any knowledge of #4. ;)

    Personally I thought it was a good episode and one I enjoyed quite a lot, but somehow it just didn't grab me an outright classic episode. I suppose after the initial 2 episodes that was always likely to happen, but overall it was definitely a strong debut from Mr Haber. I thought (again, personally) there were a few too many "haunted house" cliches, which have all been done before, but at the same time bearing in mind the target audience etc, I can make allowances for that. It didn't really harm the episode though. I just felt maybe it could have been that bit more, so to speak.

    I'd agree that Pinkie hasn't really had too good a showing in S4 so far, so I'm not quite sure what's going on there. Whether things improve with episode 4, I'll find out once I've posted this comment. But it does seem as if the writers have stalled a bit with her character, which is a shame. That aside, it was very good to see the competitive streak again between RD and AJ, and that all worked well. What better a place to challenge each other's bravery than a haunted castle? And Rarity trying to conjure up excuses for nicking the artwork was also handled well. Fluttershy in a haunted castle too - of all the places she could have ended up... And those moments with Angel, as you say, were some really well written ones. It definitely did a lot to strengthen his character, I thought.

    I didn't notice, till I read your review, that Twilight seemed to be that bit more bossy sounding than usual. I don't know whether to think of that as a good thing or not, and I'll be interested to see if that plays any kind of role as the season ticks along, or if it's just how Haber happened to write her character. But considering how much she stressed to her friends that they shouldn't treat her any differently, I do wonder if that'll be something that forms a part of the season as it goes along.

    As for the star spiders, agreed - I thought they were possibly going to be integral to the story, but it seems that was a bit of a red herring. I've not yet figured out who the mysterious eye belonged to which you see peering from the painting, and as for whoever is there at the very end, that was certainly a mystery!

    1. I'm a bit less sure about Twilight's bossiness now, since in E04 Rainbow didn't seem to be at all overawed by her! As to the eye behind the painting,* possibly the best thing to do is to assume that it's all down to Pinkie, somehow. Most things that seem inexplicable turn out to be Pinkie. ;)

      * Which was the same painting Rarity caught her false eyelash on in "MMMystery..."

    2. Having seen #4 now of course, I see what you mean. The bossiness doesn't seem to be there in quite the same way now, so it may have just been how Mr Haber wrote her. I didn't recognise that painting though from M&M Mystery. I wonder if that was just "one of those things" or if it was meant to have some significance.

      I did think at first that the eye behind the painting would have been Rarity, because a little later it showed her looking through the hole in the wall when she and Fluttershy were trapped in the small room. It seems not though - on a second viewing that was then followed by a marshmallow arm reaching out and grabbing! So that was obviously *after* the painting incident. I think I'm more than happy, if that's the right word, to assume it *was* all Pinkie. ;)