Spike-centered stories are usually on the lower tier of MLP episodes. It’s not because they’re all bad of course. (Though a good chunk of them are mediocre.) Very few are listed in anyone’s top ten because he just isn’t written as a great focus. As the main supporting character he’s usually fine, but when he takes center stage we long for scenes with the ponies. (Such as in “Spike at Your Service” and “Princess Spike.”) This season however started off strong with the little dragon. In “The Crystalling,” Spike was written extremely well, almost abnormally good. If the writing there could translate into his own starring adventure we would have a winner. “Gauntlet of Fire” is perhaps his biggest episode yet, and a fantastic culmination of all his prior character development. With this episode the show has succeeded in making Spike just about a great a focus as any of the Mane 6.
Here’s the official episode description from Discovery Family:
Spike is forced to compete in a dangerous Gauntlet for the title of Dragon Lord in order to save his friends.
This episode serves as a sequel to the Season 2 installment, “Dragon Quest.” That story was more on the mediocre side, but it did bring up one interesting plot element in Spike’s character: struggling with his dragon heritage when he was brought up with ponies. It’s definitely a complex aspect that episode does a pretty good job exploring. So in today’s episode we have Spike returning to the land of the dragons. First, the scenery is a nice change of pace. It’s been said that Season 6 is looking to explore areas outside the normal Ponyville and Canterlot. We have a Lord of the Rings-like setting, giving the story a rather dangerous, exciting look.
The Dragon Lord Torch is a great character, so it’s a little disappointing in retrospect that after this episode he probably won’t be doing anything. (With a design like that, he would have made for a great antagonist.) Princess Ember is another new character, being the daughter of Torch. She is a lot of fun to watch, for quite a few reasons. For one thing, she seems to be the only really reasonable and competent dragon. (I hope in the future there’s a better portrayal of the creatures because most of them act pretty much the same.) Her character arc was interesting to get through because an aspect of dragon culture is put at the focus: dragons don’t do friendships. Spike in all his years of living with Twilight and joining with her friends’ adventures has of course a great handle of friendship. So to have him and Ember team up means the latter gets to see what friendship means. Her slowly starting to open up, and then finally realizing what it means was fantastic and easily a highlight of the entire show.
Like in “Dragon Quest,” Twilight and Rarity are in the background carefully following Spike, whether it be in grass or inside a tree. It’s still a funny concept to watch be played out. Most of the writing is great, although Garble is still an annoying character to watch. (But I suppose that’s the point.) I particularly liked Rarity’s snappy dialogue in defense of Spike: “Only saving your ungrateful scales!” when Ember rebukes him for rescuing her. Speaking of the princess, I find it bizarre that no one, not even Garble, makes mention when seeing her in the contest. Torch told her specifically not to enter, yet no dragon seems to be surprised when she’s there. (Unless they didn’t know Torch said that, the episode isn’t clear.) Later in the story we see Garble confronting Twilight and Rarity while smirking. The problem with this scene is that Twilight is backing away in fear. This doesn’t make any sense when she could literally obliterate probably a hundred Garbles at once.
Overall, “Gauntlet of Fire” was an excellent surprise. Spike has another stellar portrayal, so hats off to writers Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco. The story is exciting and always on the move given the “race to the finish” nature. (The background music, which has been absolutely fantastic this season, also adds to the excitement.) Princess Ember is a great character. Her arc with Spike was perhaps the episode’s best part. (Not to mention another part of her arc was showcasing that being small doesn’t equal weakness.) Hopefully the two get to team up again in the future.