“Somepony to Watch Over Me”, “Party of One”, characterization, and the active Fourth Wall

Once again, an episode has drawn criticism for someone being out-of-character. This time, it’s AJ in “Somepony to Watch Over Me”.   AceAnalyst voices a few common complaints:

As for Applejack, she seemed to be hit with the stupid stick this episode…

Regardless of any past scenario you can think of, here her fear for Apple Bloom is so artificial and completely out-of-nowhere, it feels like a Merriwether Williams episode in how out-of-character AJ is and at no point does she ever justify this radical shift in her demeanor.  Applejack has demonstrated numerous times throughout this series that she is typically the stable and firm pony, who can usually encounter any situation and provide good advice, or take it in stride.

It’s easy to see inconsistency in many components of worldbuilding, but characterization is more difficult. People (and therefore ponies) are, to some degree, inherently inconsistent — or at least so complicated that they’re effectively inconsistent. How one person will react to essentially identical situations can vary wildly, depending upon such things as mood, sleep, etc.

So then, where is the line between normal personality variation and inconsistent characterization? And how is that line altered by the fact that this is a cartoon, where extreme behavior is a feature of the medium?

Gibbon asks the question very concisely:

What does it mean to be out-of-character?

Gibbon eventually seems to suggest that someone being out-of-character isn’t even a valid criticism — or at least that it very rarely is. He points to Pinkie Pie in “Party of One”:

Reviews are subjective, and characterization is the most subjective thing of all. It’s just an opinion on what a character should act like, isnt’ it? She isn’t real, though. She can be anything we want. How are we supposed to know that this Applejack isn’t the true Applejack, and all the other Applejack’s in all the other episodes aren’t just, well, wrong? How do we know? We don’t. It’s all down to the individual’s interpretation. Of a horse.

You know, maybe it isn’t that bad. Remember when Pinkie Pie snapped in “Party of One”? For all we knew at the time, that was really out of character for her. But now that we know that she does that, it’s become a part of her character. Our interpretation of her character.

The same could be applied here. At the realization that Apple Bloom is completely alone at the farm, Applejack has a mini-breakdown and reverts back to a mother character she used to have when Applebloom was still a baby.

I think Gibbon’s mistaken here. A character’s actions need to be comprehensible to the audience, or the character just isn’t interesting. If AJ (for example) might do anything in any given situation, the audience can’t understand her or relate to her, so she becomes a bad character. Indeed, some of the best moments of FiM have only worked because the characterization is so consistent.

Twenty-five episodes to set up one joke -- that, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

Twenty-five episodes to set up one joke — that, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

More importantly, while I don’t necessarily think that AJ’s characterization was flawed in “Somepony to Watch Over Me”, I also don’t believe it’s quite the same situation as “Party of One”. And the difference between these two scenes can show us something really interesting.

Remember my post on inconsistency vs. development? Well, if you don’t, here’s the TL;DR:

If you want to know whether a change constitutes inconsistency or development, ask yourself this:

Do the characters and world react to this change in a way that we could reasonably expect?

If the answer is “yes”, then it’s development.  If “no”, then it’s inconsistency.

Here’s what Gibbon helped me realize: “Party of One” actually fails my test. The other characters don’t react to Pinkie’s change in appearance or demeanor. No one takes much note of the fact that Pinkie is clearly not acting like herself.

And yet, somehow, it works. Rather than irritating the audience or disconnecting them from the story, it’s one of the most beloved (in a weird way) scenes from the show.

Shit just got real!  Er, actually, shit just got hallucinatory.  So, I guess that's actually the opposite of real.  Look, work with me, okay?

Shit just got real! Er, actually, shit just got hallucinatory. So, I guess that’s kind of  the opposite of real. Look, work with me, okay?

So, why does it work, then? Why is it that such a weird and drastic shift, with no notice from the rest of the fictional world, doesn’t pull the audience out of the story?

Here, I think, is the key; although nothing in-universe treats Pinkie’s behavior as all that noticeable, the episode itself absolutely does. Just look at that shot — look at how much space Pinkie takes up. She’s the sole focus of this scene, and this scene takes awhile. A full 90 seconds of the 22-minute episode are devoted exclusively to showcasing Pinkie’s psychological breakdown. Her behavioral change isn’t a weird thing about the narrative, it is the narrative. The storytellers (be they writers, animators, or whatever) are basically saying, “yeah people, we know, this is fucking weird — you should watch it.” It basically tells us that we and the storytellers are on the same page.

We sort of see this in “Somepony to Watch Over Me”, but not nearly to the same degree. We can clearly see that AJ is nervous, but the episode only devotes a short time to establishing this. Perhaps if we saw more thoroughly her psychological struggle, her behavior wouldn’t raise so many eyebrows. Maybe we could see her inner thoughts, in which she imagines all the horrible things that could happen to Applebloom — all of which, of course, would be thoroughly ridiculous and overexaggerated. I think most of us can remember at least one or two times in which we thoroughly worried about a possibility that, in retrospect, seems absurd.

Or, to put it another way; if AJ actually is having a breakdown in the way that Gibbon describes, then it’s important enough that the audience should know about it.

But more importantly, the difference between the two episodes demonstrates something kind of weird and cool about film in general — we tend to think of the Fourth Wall as something passive (if we think of it at all), but it’s inherently active in some ways. If nothing else, the people making the story have to decide what the audience should see. And where they focus our attention can seriously alter the effectiveness of the story.

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