• Pony for Your Thoughts: Does a Villain Really Need to be a Threat?



    Greetings, Equestria Daily!  This is The Skullivan, one of the new editorial writers that Sethisto locked in his basement.  You may or may not know me as the admin of one the two major Bronies pages on Facebook, and if you follow my weekly episode wrap-ups there you'll know that I'm big into narrative analysis.  I love to dig into a story and see how it was put together, to look at how it works (or doesn't work).  On that note, I want to take a look at the latest Big Bad, the Pony of Shadows.

    Let's embrace the darkness after the break!



    DARKNESS!  IMPRISONING ME!  ALL THAT I SEE, ABSOLUTE HORROR!

    One of the most prevalent comments I've seen about the season 7 finale was that the Pony of Shadows didn't get enough time to be all menacing on-screen.  People wanted to see him do something more overtly evil and dangerous, like a proper villain.  The general consensus seemed to be that the Pony of Shadows needed to feel like more of a threat.  And that got me thinking:  Did he really need to be?  Sure, it would have been cool to see more of him, but would it have really served the story that was being told?

    It might seem counterintuitive, but depending on the story an antagonist doesn't necessarily have to pose an active threat to be effective.  Look at King Sombra, for example.  They made such a big hullabaloo about how bad it would be if he came back, only to have him show up for 30 seconds and have his head asplode.

    And thus were a jillion memes about crystals and stairs born.

    But that was the whole point:  Sombra wasn't an invading villain that needed to be stopped, he was a disaster that needed to be avoided.  His return was presented as the consequence for Twilight's failure, and that provided the tension that carried the story.  Without even being there or doing anything, Sombra became the perfect villain for that story.

    So now let's turn that on the Pony of Shadows.  What was his purpose in the story?  To get that answer, we need to start at the end.  What was the ultimate lesson of the episode?  Twilight needed to be reminded to have faith in herself and to stand up for herself, even if it meant standing up to somepony she greatly admired.  To get there one other thing also needed to be true:  Star Swirl the Bearded had to be wrong.  And hoo-boy was he wrong.  About pretty much everything, actually.  Let's count all the things Star Swirl was wrong about!


    "These 6 ponies couldn't possibly have ever saved the world."


    "There's no way this purple upstart could write a spell as good as mine."


    "Stygian has clearly betrayed us, time to banish him forever."


    "Once a villain, always a villain.  Redemption has never happened."


    "Let's just throw the Elements of Harmony at it, that will solve the problem."

    Why is this guy famous again?

    Before we reach the finale, we're bombarded with the notion that Star Swirl the Mistaken is constantly getting every important detail completely, almost comically wrong.  So the next question becomes "What else might he be wrong about?"  Those "wellsprings of power" he mentioned all proved to be dried out, and eventually we see that even the notably weak Sunburst is able to hold the villain back with little effort.  Maybe the Pony of Shadows, or rather Stygian, isn't really as dangerous as Star Swirl keeps insisting.

    I'm sure that's just... friendship... ooze...

    So now, the goalposts have been shifted.  Now, the victory conditions have changed from "Defeat the Pony of Shadows" to "Rescue Stygian before Star Swirl does something that can't be taken back."  Twilight needs to trust herself and not just defer to Star Swirl just because she respected him.  And the only way to do that is by proving that the big scary villain is not actually a threat.

    Oh.  Wow.  Imagine that.

    And so, we can see how a villain can fill a strong role in a story without even needing to do anything all that antagonistic.  Sure, it would have been awesome to see the Pony of Shadows put up a big flashy fight, and it's always fun to see a bad guy with a big, bombastic personality like Discord or Chrysalis.  But in this case, downplaying the danger posed by the villain and showing him to be not nearly as threatening as he's assumed to be helped to strengthen the overall story of the episode way better than any big magic fight could have.

    Behold, the Group Hug of Plot Resolution!

    At least, that's my take on it.  Your mileage may vary.  I'm not trying to change any minds here;  Just to maybe provide a new perspective.  It can be interesting look at these episodes in a new light, and discover something you never noticed before.

    I hope you've enjoyed this rambling of mine, and if I've given anyone a chance to pause for thought, I think I've done my job.  Have any ideas for anything else you'd like to see over-analyzed into a fine, unrecognizable powder?  Leave it in the comments!  Until next time, thanks for reading!

    ~ The Skullivan

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