» TRS Round Table 011: Just for Sidekicks

Welcome back to another rousing edition of TRS Round Table! This edition examines “Just for Sidekicks,” the episode of Friendship is Magic that first aired on January 26, 2013. TRS Round Table is our group analysis and chat about the episode, and maybe you’ll learn something new or look at it in a different light. Joining the Round Table today are PictishBeast, Headless Horse, Wayoshi, ComradeCosmobot, drunkill, Redeye, and KefkaFloyd. Find out our thoughts beyond the cut.

KefkaFloyd: Just for Sidekicks was written by series newcomer Corey Powell, and unfortunately it looks like it’s her last for season three!

Headless Horse: I’ve heard some people have left the fandom in a huff after seeing the direction the past few episodes have taken, I guess implying that they think the show has lost its heart or sense of humor or something. I hope someone’s told them how silly they should feel now.

Wayoshi: Corey Powell has come into the pony fold late here and has arguably had the most accurate, and maybe strongest characterized episodes of Season 3 so far – that includes all the Mane 6, Spike, CMC and pets as of this episode – and also has provided plenty of laughs while having clearly demonstrated morals and with none of the pacing issues that have plagued most S3 episodes. I am very impressed.

drunkill: She has really stepped into this new job at full speed, it seems she knows how to write for the CMC and the mane 6 very well based on her two episodes. The pacing of the episode felt fantastic, they spent quite a bit of time setting up the premise of the episode without feeling like they were running out of time at the end. She’s got a good comedic sense too.

PictishBeast: Can’t say enough good things about Powell’s use of characterization in this episode, so let me just spotlight two standouts. The first is between Spike and Pinkie Pie where Spike is trying to steamroll her into surrendering her pet by stating that Gummy “needs a little Spike time.” Pinkie’s response isn’t one of suspicion, or haggling over the price, but rather a super enthusiastic “Who WOULDN’T? Spike time is the BEST!” That’s so Pinkie.

Headless Horse: So is her popping out from under the cushion of a chair, like that’s just where she was chilling. What a great Pinkie moment.

Pinkie Pie, are you pondering what I'm pondering? Pinkie Pie, are you pondering what I’m pondering?

PictishBeast: Another bit is when Spike runs into Rainbow Dash and Rarity hanging around the town well. Did Rarity lose something down there? We don’t know and Powell never tells us, but the important thing is it feels like we’re joining a side story already in progress. It just feels natural. Contrast this with Pinkie and Rarity’s scenes in “Putting Your Hoof Down,” where it felt like the two of them were only hanging out together because the story said so. (“Here’s your script, Pinkie. Here’s your script, Rarity. You’ll both be at Sugarcube Corner today. Places, everybody!”)

Wayoshi: Speaking of “Putting Your Hoof Down”, I think this episode also solidifies that being a new writer jumping into FiM isn’t an explanation for flaws in the writing. Williams simply wasn’t, and still isn’t, at Powell’s level. Spike At Your Service has many good moments, but that standard plot was completely played straight, while this one involved anything but traditional petsitting and was aggressive including as many characters as possible, even cleaning up the long clamored for Peewee issue. Williams is slowly climbing the mountain, but Powell is already at the peak.

Redeye: I’d still argue that people are overexaggerating how “bad” Williams is. I still haven’t seen an episode I actively disliked.

KefkaFloyd: You know, this episode could be taken as a sibling to the “don’t bite off more than you can chew” moral that “Stare Master” had, yet the real lesson to be learned here seems to be more about not taking advantage of others or seeking profit without understanding true responsibility.

PictishBeast: Ever since the show jettisoned the Letters to Celestia, I’ve been wondering if there’s still a need to focus on morals at all. One thing I really liked was the fact that both Spike (the protagonist) and Angel (the antagonist) have mixed motivations and neither is clearly in the right. Spike is trying to fix things, but only because he spent most of the episode slacking off and is now trying to salvage his reputation. Angel is being a jerk, but only because he wants to see Fluttershy and doesn’t mind if Spike gets taken down a peg in the process. To be honest that was the best “Spike vs. Angel” episode I’ve seen since Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The 80s were awesome.

Spike and Angel He’s so cute you could snuggle him, except when he’s trying to get you killed.

ComradeCosmobot: It’s pretty obvious that this episode demonstrates that you don’t have to have one of the Mane Six writing a letter at the end (or even sound like it) to convey a decent moral.  Spike does learn his lesson, and the episode does a pretty good job of really conveying his insensitivity and ignorance of what he’s getting into.

Headless Horse: Spike isn’t really the protagonist in the classical sense in this episode, is he? He’s kind of an antihero; we don’t want him to fail, per se, but we’re definitely watching him bumble along with our arms folded in the hopes that he’ll learn a lesson from this debacle.

ComradeCosmobot: Absolutely.  But I think that’s part of what makes the episode so charming; we don’t always need a protagonist who does something stupid, learns from her (or his) mistakes, and writes a letter to Celestia to prove it.

KefkaFloyd: I thought adding in the CMC was a smart idea to grow the episode. They’re sidekicks too, even though they’ve had focus episodes, and getting the kids involved in shenanigans is a big way of escalating the stakes.

Headless Horse: One of many little self-contained sub-stories that were grafted in very neatly to various scenes was how Spike tried to pawn off the pets on the CMCs using some old shopworn cartoon sleight-of-hand—you know, the old “Gee Huck Finn, whitewashing this fence sure is fun” routine. But he didn’t count on Apple Bloom being a shrewder business mind than he was. Not only was she immediately able to see through Spike’s scheme, she was looking out for the CMCs’ own opportunity to profit from the situation. More than that, she was apparently carefully keeping tabs on Applejack’s expenditures and plans and knew exactly what the whole backstory was with the gem she paid him for watching Winona. Spike was playing checkers against a chessmaster there.

ComradeCosmobot: And in the process, it really helps to grow the episode and rub the lesson into Spike a little more deeply.  In some respects, the CMC’s scheming selfishness in the episode really helps to put them in as a sort of counterbalance/foil to Spike’s naïve selfishness during Act One.  No, they aren’t perfect, nor are they there to play the role of the “ideal” actor.  But what they do is really help to demonstrate the difference between Spike’s willful negligence with youthful innocence.  Spike should have known what he was getting into.  The CMC didn’t need to.

They're CMC, They're Dy-no-mite! You can’t pull one over on these three.

drunkill: Last week Angel had a bit of payback from Discord for acting like a jerk throughout the show, this week he was back to his usual self; making life difficult for others. I’m glad he turned out to be alright in the end, he contributed to the moral of the episode in that he didn’t kick Spike when he was down.

Headless Horse: I was impressed by the variety of narrative tools they used to characterize all the different pets. Each one has a different form of “speech” and a different way the other characters understand what—if anything—they’re saying. Owlowiscious and Angel are more or less anthropomorphic, able to convey fully formed thoughts through the use of tools or (in Angel’s case) charades. Tank and Opalescence live in their own little worlds, Tank with his few simple needs and wants evident just by looking at him, and Opal being an inscrutable evil force of cat whose opinion you don’t even want to know. Gummy has Pinkie to “hear” his silent thoughts and interpret them, like Lassie’s barking conveying messages like “Timmy’s fallen down the well!” …And Winona is just a dog; she doesn’t do or “say” anything a dog wouldn’t. That’s an impressive set of disparate acting techniques for a remarkable array of non-verbal characters.

PictishBeast: All the pets have unique personalities, just like their owners. Tank is a well-meaning menace now that he’s airborne. Owlowiscious acts as Spike’s assistant and conscience. Angel is sneakily manipulative and looks adorable while he’s doing it. Opal is psychotic just like every cat ever. Gummy is some sort of Zen master (or maybe he’s just clueless, who can say?) And Winona is a good dog. Yes she is. Yes she is!

KefkaFloyd: There were a lot of bonuses for people with sharp eyeballs. The world of Ponyville had some room to breathe here, and we had some nice moments with Zecora and Granny Smith—not to mention all the background extras like Screw Loose, and was that Big Mac and Cheerilee I saw there in the background?

PictishBeast: This is the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” episode of pony that I’ve been wanting to see since Season 1. Ponyville is a rich environment where it feels like something interesting is always happening just out of frame. So if the bit players in Hamlet can lead their own lives when they’re not sharing a scene with the Prince of Denmark, why can’t the incidental ponies of Ponyville? They can, apparently. The main characters were offstage for most this episode but life kept on humming in Ponyville. Zecora doesn’t need Twilight Sparkle around to give her something to do — even when the “cameras” have switched off she’s perfectly happy negotiating for magic elixirs from Nerd Pony. The brief bit with the nurse and Screwloose hints at a wacky side story that fans might be seeing in some alternate-dimension version of the show.

Look! A butterfly. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.

Wayoshi: I was incredibly amazed with the Screwloose shot. That level of background detail has been missing this season, and it’s hard to realize such until you actually see it. Watching live I caught Big Mac & Cheerilee walking, while a couple others in our IRC reaction chatroom caught Screwloose. So you already have to go rewatch to catch both of these, which are on-screen for all of two seconds – then on a closer look, you realize Screwloose is implied to be rehabilitating away from the hospital, but then she barks again – except it’s actually Winona dragging Spike et al on screen, and thus the main story continues. It’s 2-3 steps beyond the “background details for 2 filler seconds” storyboarding that I would ever expect, even out of this show!

drunkill: As the episode progressed I was amazed how many secondary and background characters were included by the end. Some fan favourites returning such as Pony Joe and Zecora, who Powell was able to write Zecora in a natural way.

ComradeCosmobot: I think it really is a testament to Powell’s writing that these cameos really didn’t feel forced, but actually seemed to be placed naturally in the episode, much as the Mane Six seemed to gather organically to help with Applejack’s Spike problem in “Spike At Your Service.”  It really makes the cameos seem less like deliberate fan-pandering (c.f. some of the criticism pointed at “Magic Duel”) and more like a genuine effort to make Ponyville like a home away from home.

KefkaFloyd: Something else that I thought was noticeable was a lot of character moments brought to life through the show animation. We’ve been so busy lately talking about plots and characters that sometimes we forget there’s moving pictures.

D'aww. :3 No words are needed and you already know how they feel about one another.

PictishBeast: The animation takes a big step up in this episode, following “Keep Calm and Flutter On” which I found to be a bit stiff. Spike is wonderfully expressive here which really helps sell his confident showmanship; take a look at his little gestural flourishes as he delivers lines like, “Alas, it doesn’t come cheap.”

Headless Horse: The Fluttershy/Spike scene near the beginning blew me away. Fluttershy’s hair draping over Spike’s measuring-cup hat, her little frustrated hoof-tap gesture against the ground, the deliberate way she took the jewel out of her bag and put it back in… it was just a joy to look at, the way I remember Season 1 feeling when I saw it for the first time. It’s some of that old time religion.

Wayoshi: A couple of Spike’s grins were downright extreme: the gem-laced one at the beginning was amusingly so, but that split-second one when Rarity starts dictating Opal’s needs reflected Spike’s subsidiary and infatuated sentiments.

Headless Horse: I appreciated what seems to be an effort to bolster the “horsiness” in certain scenes. Did you notice that the train seats are couches? Passengers get to recline on them, rather than sitting like humans. It looks both cute and comfortable.

ComradeCosmobot: It’s worth remembering that this is the last episode storyboarded by veteran storyboarder Raven Molisee, who has previously worked on the storyboards for “Lesson Zero”, “Secret of My Excess”, and “Hurricane Fluttershy”, among others.  Raven recently announced that she has since left DHX to do some work for Cartoon Network.  With all her great work on the show in the past, it’s a bit of a shame that we won’t be seeing more of it.  I would, however, like to wish her the best of luck at her new job!

KefkaFloyd: And that’s it for this edition of the TRS Round Table! Stop by next time for more analysis and discussion about your favorite miniature colored equines! 

Share your thoughts

  1. I have to say that I appreciate this episode more after reading this. I didn’t catch a lot of the little background things, and I really respect Corey Powell for writing them in, or the animators, whichever is responsible.

    I will have to say that I think this one is a adequate, middle-of-the-road episode. I was entertained throughout, but not so much so that I wanted to immediately rewatch it like I did with some of the earlier ones this season.

    I think part of it is that we aren’t learning about character any more. Spike was greedy here and is forced to confront his greed and carelessness. However, we have already been through that in The Secret of My Excess. It reminds me of Putting Your Hoof Down. Did we really need a 3rd (possibly 4th) episode where Fluttershy confronts her doormattishness? Not that it wasn’t a fine episode, but it feels like a retread.

    And for all the assertions about Opal’s evil nature, she’s pretty good in this episode, all things considered. I figured Angel and Opal were going to jack up Spike pretty good, but she was just sort of there.

    So, yeah. Much better episode than the last three, but a little bland, in my opinion.

  2. I’d like to add that Cathy Weseluck did an amazing job of carrying this episode. While the script provided her with some grade A material, it also called for her to act in a self-centered way, but with enough charm to avoid alienating the audience. If we don’t want Spike to succeed at least a little bit, the climax of the episode loses a lot of its tension. On top of that, add the difficulty of voicing an ambiguously aged character who is required to play younger than the mane 6, yet somewhat older than the CMC (for the duration of this episode at least), and it adds up to a thoroughly impressive performance.

    More nitpickingly, Spike continues to demonstrate his affinity for the culinary arts in this episode (gem-eating issues notwithstanding), which only serves to make the events of Spike at Your Service look even weirder in hindsight. Maybe Sweetie Belle gave him the recipe for that pie?

    PictishBeast, your comparison to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was dead on. That was a big part of why I enjoyed this episode so much, but I didn’t realize exactly why until I saw you spell it out. Spike being forced to stay behind by some contrivance while the plot is happening elsewhere has practically become a running gag at this point, so he was especially ripe for this sort of treatment, and I hope we see more background elements of the show similarly fleshed out in the future. Actually, let’s start a letter campaign now to get Tom Stoppard on the crew in time for S5. (Lyra and Bon Bon are dead?

    …WAIT NO)