In defense of Sombra: sometimes, a flat character is exactly what you need

Among the FiM rogues gallery, Sombra is a sore spot for many fans.  Most of this distaste focuses on his lack of character depth and screen-time, as well as the fact that his dialogue is basically non-existent.  As the popular meme goes, “Gak had more screen-time than Sombra did.”  AnYPony’s review of “The Crystal Empire” articulates the most common complaints:

…[S]adly, King Sombra is nothing but his powers.  He is as one-dimensional a villain as you can be.  He’s evil for the sake of being evil.  We don’t know anything about his personality, his backstory, or his motivation.  Except maybe that he’s power-hungry.  Very original.  No tragic fall to darkness triggered by envy and the wish to be loved.  No sneaky master-plan to infiltrate the kingdom in order to take care of his own subjects.  No challenging personality that manages to turn your friends’ characters’ upside-down.  Just brute evil force.

To be fair, he had kind of a tough act to follow.

To be fair, he had kind of a tough act to follow.

Sombra’s detractors have a few things right — he is flat, and is lacking in screen-time.  But that doesn’t make him a bad character, or mean he’s poorly-written.  While his flatness and lack of screen-time make him uninteresting as a character, they actually improve The Crystal Empire.

I know that sounds contradictory, but stay with me while I explain what I mean.

I frequently see people assume that a flat character is necessarily a bad character, and that simply isn’t true.  A flat character is only bad if they’re in a role that needs a developed character.

Let’s use an example from way back during the pilot: Steven Magnet.

StevenMagnetThere’s really not much to be said about Steven: he’s a flamboyant sea-serpent who’s distressed that he’s lost half his mustache.  He’s thoroughly one-dimensional — he doesn’t even have a canon name.  But he’s not a bad character — he’s a minor character.  He’s amusing, he does what the narrative needs him to do, and the story moves on.  There are any any number of characters like this; Pony Joe, Diamond Tiara, Big McIntosh, Thunderlane, Iron Will — I could go on, but I think you get the point.  These characters don’t need depth or screen-time to fill their roles — in fact, adding more screen-time would frequently be bad, because it would detract from the main storyline.

But of course, those are all minor characters — Sombra’s a primary villain.  Surely he should have had the screen-time and presence of (for example) Chrysalis.  Right?

To answer that question, let’s look at some of the problems with “A Canterlot Wedding”.  I generally enjoy the episode, and it has some really good moments, but there are times it makes me roll my eyes in ways that FiM rarely does.

Let’s start with the opening and the exposition — right away, the episode falls into a trap that FiM usually avoids — it becomes saccharine.  Consider this excerpt from “Big Brother Best Friend Forever”:

But there was one colt that I cared for
I knew he would be there for me

My big brother, best friend forever!
Like two peas in a pod, we did everything together

He taught me how to fly a kite (Best friend forever!)
We never had a single fight (We did everything together!)
We shared our hopes, we shared our dreams
I miss him more than I realized
It seems…

Now as a side-note, I have a younger sister.  I love her dearly, but anyone who tells you that they’ve never fought with their siblings is a filthy liar.

It gets even worse when Cadance is introduced.

Twilight Sparkle: Cadance? As in the Cadance? As in the greatest foalsitter in all the history of foalsitters?!
Shining Armor: [chuckles] You tell me. She was your foalsitter.
Twilight Sparkle: Ohmygoshohmygosh! Cadance is only the most amazing pony ever! She’s beautiful, she’s caring, she’s kind…

Young Twilight Sparkle: I am so lucky to have you as my foalsitter!
Young Cadance: I’m the one who’s lucky, Twilight.
Young Twilight Sparkle: [scoffs] You’re a princess. I’m just a regular old unicorn.
Young Cadance: You are anything but a regular old unicorn.
Young Twilight and Young Cadance: Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake! Clap your hooves and do a little shake! [laughing]

Twilight Sparkle: How many unicorns can just spread love wherever they go? I only know of one! And you’re marrying her! [sing-song voice] You’re marrying Cadance! You’re marrying Cadance!

I'm Scootaloo in this image, in case that wasn't immediately obvious.

I’m Scootaloo in this image, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious.

Okay, FiM is cute.  We all know that, and this is one of its strengths.  But this isn’t cute.  This is cutesy.  This is approaching the “puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness” that Faust rightly criticized, and that FiM has generally avoided.

And the reason for that, despite what you might think, isn’t because it’s just providing the usual FiM cuteness, but more so.  It’s not that filly Twi is cuter than usual, or that the characters are getting along better than they usually do, or that the world is brighter than the norm for FiM.  The show is doing something fundamentally different than what it usually does with these scenes; it’s telling the audience how great and cute the characters are.

The cuteness here is annoying rather than endearing because it breaks the old storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell”.  Usually FiM just shows us something touching or heartwarming and lets us go “d’aaaaawwwwww”.  Here, it’s instead repeatedly and explicitly telling us how great Shining and Cadance are (through Twilight) — which induces a reaction of “seriously?”.

The flashback is an admirable effort at showing, rather than telling, but it introduces its own issues — we basically end up with two characters gushing to each other about how great they are, while the character gushes in a flashback about how great they are, while it tries to show us on-screen in the most explicit manner possible how great they are.  This isn’t something we generally see in FiM.  The characters will compliment each other and draw attention to their strengths, certainly, but they tend to keep it short and sweet, which just works better at almost every level.

As an interesting side-note, Shining’s exposition seems to work better than Cadance’s.  And the reason for this, I suspect, is that it’s in the form of a song.  Songs seem to be a good way to just dump a ton of info on the audience and still have it work.  In fact, a corollary to “show, don’t tell” might be “but you can sing.”

We also see “show, don’t tell” violated after Chrysalis’s reveal — she does a ton of explaining things to the audience, rather than letting the narrative show us what’s happening.

Queen Chrysalis: [laughing] Right you are, Princess. And as queen of the changelings, it is up to me to find food for my subjects. Equestria has more love than any place I’ve ever encountered. My fellow changelings will be able to devour so much of it that we will gain more power than we have ever dreamed of…Ever since I took your place, I’ve been feeding off Shining Armor’s love for you. Every moment he grows weaker, and so does his spell. Even now, my minions are chipping away at it. He may not be my husband, but he is under my total control now.   And I’m sorry to say, unable to perform his duties as captain of the Royal Guard.
Princess Cadance: Not my Shining Armor!
Queen Chrysalis: Soon, my changeling army will break through. First, we take Canterlot. And then, all of Equestria!

Apart from being clumsy exposition, revealing her entire plan also makes very little sense in-universe, as pointed out by Celestia:

Princess Celestia: You may have made it impossible for Shining Armor to perform his spell, but now that you have so foolishly revealed your true self, I can protect my subjects from you!

Granted; it’s villainous gloating, it’s a pretty common trope, and it is kind of fun in its own way.  But it’s still clumsy exposition.

And then there’s the climax.  “A Canterlot Wedding” has possibly the worst-written climax of any episode of FiM:

Shining Armor: No! My power is useless now. I don’t have the strength to repel them.
Princess Cadance: My love will give you strength.
Queen Chrysalis: [chuckling] What a lovely but absolutely ridiculous sentiment.
[magic twinkling and surging]
Queen Chrysalis: Noooooo!
Queen Chrysalis and Changelings: [screaming]

God damn it, you were doing so well.

God damn it, you were doing so well.

Okay, the fact that Chryssi lampshades the scene kind of helps, but it’s still pretty bad.  It comes out of nowhere, it just makes the conflict go away with no real explanation, it has some thoroughly cringe-inducing dialogue, and (worst of all) there’s almost no dramatic build-up.

Most of these scenes are executed fairly well, and that helps a lot.  And it’s why, despite these problems, the episode is still good. The animation, music, voice-acting, villainous gloating, etc. manage to rescue the episode from the narrative structure.  But the episode needs to be rescued, which is a sign that something has gone very wrong.

So why did this happen?  I mean, Meghan McCarthy is a much better writer than I am (to severely understate her talent).  Presumably she knew that this was sub-ideal storytelling.  And the fact that Chrysalis and Celestia pretty blatantly comment on it suggests that she was aware of all this.  So why would she do this?  Why tell, rather than show?  Why pile on the saccharine when Cadance and Shining are introduced, rather than show their bond with Twilight more organically?  Why have the villain start reading paragraphs of text to the audience, rather than hint at the changeling invasion beforehand and let it add to the dramatic build-up?

Because there isn’t enough time.  There isn’t enough time (for example) to organically establish Shining and Cadance’s characters, because we need to establish them before the story can even get moving, and the story is pressed for time as it is.  So there’s no other option but to hit the audience over the head with it.  And this, I think, is the key flaw in “A Canterlot Wedding” — it’s doing a lot of good stuff, but it’s trying to do all that stuff in way, way less time than it needs.

That certainly isn’t a new problem for FiM.  “The pacing felt off/it felt rushed” is probably the most common criticism of FiM‘s two-parters.  But in ACW it’s particularly bad.  In 44 minutes, the episode is trying to do all of the following:

  • Establish a new villain and give her plenty of screen-time to do her thing, including a full-on villain song
  • Establish an entire new race of beings with powers the audience hasn’t seen
  • Introduce two new important secondary characters who haven’t even been mentioned previously, who have close relationships with the protagonist, and whose characters and bond need to be established for the central conflict to even make sense.
  • Execute the “Twilight is suspicious” section of the story, and give the audience enough time to get invested in it
  • Depict Twilight and Cadance’s escape from the caves, during which they have to struggle (otherwise it’s both a lousy prison and a boring plot element)
  • Have the final confrontation/brawl with the changelings, again giving it enough time to be effective
  • Introduce a twist — the elements can’t be reached
  • Somehow resolve the conflict
  • Have the climax and wrap-up

That is a ton to do in 44 minutes, and the episode suffers for it.

To avoid that same trap in “The Crystal Empire”, something had to go.  And that “something” was Sombra’s screen-time.  Instead of being the focus of a large part of the episode, he serves as merely a source of conflict so the storyline can continue.  If Sombra had the screen-time of Discord or Chrysalis and his entire characterization still consisted of laughing and hissing about crystals, then that would be bad writing.  But that isn’t the case.

Instead, the screen-time he would have had is devoted to the rest of the cast.  And let’s look at what we get from that screen-time:

First of all, we get some great character interaction, both for the sake of comedy and drama.

Let’s just look at this scene, from when the Mane Cast first arrive at the Crystal Empire:

That moment beautifully illustrates the bond between these 3 characters, it’s really entertaining, and it’s kind of touching, too.  It’s also pretty clever — I didn’t realize that Dash was just messing with Rarity until Rarity did.

And this keeps up throughout the episode.  Just watch the opening of the second half:

After watching that, is there any doubt in your mind that Cadance is a moral paragon, that she and Shining Armor are thoroughly in love, and that Twilight would do anything for either of them?  I completely believe everything that “A Canterlot Wedding” wanted me to believe about these characters — and unlike there, the episode doesn’t have to tell me to do it.  It just shows me what’s going on and lets the emotional investment happen.  In many ways, TCE manages to accomplish in 1 minute what ACW struggled to accomplish in 44.

Then there’s this exchange between Applejack and Rainbow Dash:

It’s pretty typical Rainbow Dash — she’s an asshole (and an entertaining one), but she still manages to be sympathetic, because she’s not doing it out of malice — she just doesn’t get it.  But the really nice touch in this scene is AJ’s role — she clearly knows how Dash’s mind works, and she knows that she isn’t going to be diplomatic, no matter how much AJ tries.  So the best thing to do is just direct Dash’s bravado to somewhere it can be useful.  This is a charming interaction (as charming as Dash can be, anyway), and it shows that these two characters are really close friends.  It also showcases some of their more compelling character traits — Dash’s zeal to do good is evident, but it’s hijacked by her intense bravado, narcissism, and social awkwardness.  AJ, level-headed and pragmatic, responds (as usual) by being the grown-up in the situation.

Note that I said "as usual", not "as always".

Note that I said “as usual”, not “as always”.

These aren’t just stand-outs — TCE is full of scenes like these;  Pinkie’s flugelhorn antics; Fluttershy’s stage fright (and Dash’s resulting frustration); Applejack assuming the role of de facto leader in Twilight’s absence; Rarity and AJ’s nervous banter; Spike’s eagerness to help Twilight; Twilight bending Celestia’s rules to let Spike come along — all of these are great character moments.

Of course, entertaining character interaction has always been one of FiM‘s strengths.  But — and this is a big “but” — it hasn’t generally been a strength of FiM‘s two-parters.  With the exception of a few notable scenes, the premieres and finales tend to neglect the character interaction in favor of the adventure storylines.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — we get a lot of great moments during the other 85% of episodes, so it’s fine to put those aside when the occasional quest shows up.

But with “The Crystal Empire”, we don’t have to put those moments aside.  We get funny and touching character interaction and we get a well-told quest to save the empire.  And most importantly, these two sub-plots enhance each other, rather than each detracting from the other.  Twilight’s quest for the Crystal Heart provides the basis for a ton of great material between her, Spike, Cadance, and Shining, while the ReMane 5 get some thoroughly entertaining time among themselves while trying to stall the crystal ponies.

BronyCurious in particular has voiced concerns that if the show moves further into adventure-arc territory, it might lose the quality of its character-based writing:

I think one of Friendship is Magic‘s greatest strengths was the conviction it was able to deliver with these slice-of-life stories.

Character studies are the show’s bread-and-butter, and DHX can write amazing character interactions.  Conversely, something like “Power Ponies” or the Nightmare Moon arc can only be taken so far.  MLP isn’t an action show, so they can’t explore these concepts as dynamically as they really deserve.  They need to subtly attempt to skirt the line just enough to keep Standards and Practices off their backs.  So we only get a base impression of these kinds of conflicts in My Little Pony, and as a result the narrative in these episodes suffers from feeling rather hollow and trope-y, falling back on pop culture references and spectacle to keep the viewer invested.

“The Crystal Empire” illustrates — for the first time — that no, this show can pull off more intricate and developed plots while still maintaining the character interaction.  It’s moved into a high-stakes adventure storyline while still retaining the great character-based writing.  It feels like the first time FiM has really managed to marry the slice-of-life episodes and the adventure arcs, and has done so in a way that makes each one more effective.

As a result of all this — the character interaction among the ReMane 5, the transitions between the Crystal Fair and Twilight’s quest for the Heart, Twilight’s struggle through the trials of Sombra’s palace, all of it — “The Crystal Empire” also avoids the problem that afflicts every previous FiM two-parter — it doesn’t feel rushed.

To me, all this suggests that McCarthy knew about the problems in “A Canterlot Wedding” and changed her approach to adapt — though I obviously can’t know that for sure.  But one thing is undeniable; she couldn’t have pulled this off if she’d given Sombra the screen-time of Chrysalis or Discord — there just wouldn’t be time.

So yes, Gak did have more screen-time than Sombra.  And as a result, his episode is fantastic.

I can certainly understand why people were disappointed with Sombra — Between Discord, Chrysalis, and (to a lesser extent) Nightmare Moon, FiM‘s premieres/finales had some seriously entertaining villains.  “The Crystal Empire” didn’t.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad writing, it means that they went for something different this time.  The villain didn’t have much screen-time.  Instead, that time was given to the protagonists — and they made damn good use of it.

“Flat character” does not mean the same thing as “bad character”.  Sometimes you just need a character to do their thing, fill the role the story needs them to fill, and then get the hell out of the way.  That’s what McCarthy did with Sombra — and it worked.

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4 Responses to In defense of Sombra: sometimes, a flat character is exactly what you need

  1. Prince Aligorna says:

    This is interesting, and I agree that a flat character doesn’t have to be a bad character.

    The villains in early Gothic tales were flat characters. And yet, that was the biggest genre in literature until about 1820.

    And then you have characters like Sauron or Slenderman, who are less characters and more looking presences that dominate stories without really being much involved in them.

    But the thing about those types of villains though is that they have PRESENCE. And the stories they’re in have ATMOSPHERE. And it’s this combination that creates tension, anxiety, and fear. Sombra had none of that, so he sucked as any kind of background menace. He wasn’t SCARY! And that’s the point of that type of character. They’re supposed to seem omnipresent, inescapable, existing in all places at all times. No matter what you do, you’ll never get away. It’s just a matter of when they’ll catch up to you. Sombra was never able to instill that sense of overwhelming dread and psychological panic.

    • Redtutel says:

      I’d have to disagree. Sombra DOES have a good sence of presence. His first scene has him build up with a gohstly moan, and appear as a black cloud with lime green eyes. The characters barely escape, and when Shining Armor attacks, he is lft without magic. Sombra is established as threat. Throughout the second half, his magic turns the beautiful empire dark and sharp, establishing a ticking clock. Once he gets past the shield, all he’ll breaks lose. I’d say he has a good, scary presence.

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