MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

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Episode 108: "Brotherhooves Social"

Aired 10/3/2015, written by Dave Polsky (his thirteenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: As Applejack and Apple Bloom prepare for the Sisterhooves Social, Big McIntosh helps Granny Smith hunt for the event's historic first blue ribbon.
  • Act 1: Big Mac is jealous of Applejack's closeness to Apple Bloom but refuses to talk about it. AJ is summoned to Manehattan, leaving AB crushed that her sister will miss the social, so Big Mac dresses as Apple Bloom's cousin Orchard Blossom to enter the contest in AJ's place.
  • Act 2: Big Mac competes with great enthusiasm, but clumsiness of various sorts ruins their performance in each of the events.
  • Act 3: Big Mac and Apple Bloom compete in the big race and ultimately win through brute force. A wardrobe malfunction exposes Big Mac, but nopony was fooled by the disguise to begin with. The two are, however, disqualified for unsportsponylike conduct. At home, Big Mac opens up to Apple Bloom and she assures him she still looks up to him.

Character: This is the fourth episode this season (but only the sixth in the whole series) to give a supporting character more time on screen than any of the mains. Up to this point, we've heard Big McIntosh described as nice, hardworking, and shy, he shares the family's stubborn streak, and he has a philosophical side and can sometimes be playful. His main point of character development here is the reveal that he feels overshadowed by his little sister Applejack. Since she's become a national hero, he's now just a farm pony who (he thinks) has lost the affection of his other sister Apple Bloom. That's an important and interesting step forward for his character. I identify with Big Mac here, both as an oldest child with an overachieving sister, and more generally as a guarded, self-conscious person in public.

But what this episode will be remembered for is the eleven minutes Big Mac spends disguised as Orchard Blossom. There are all sorts of ways to come at this, but my question here is: Is his ruse out of character? As for the wearing of the dress itself, I would argue that the answer is no. Way back in The Ticket Master, we hear Big Mac may lose a bet and have to walk through town in one of Granny Smith's girdles. His love for the Smarty Pants doll carries over two episodes, and who can forget how much he enjoyed being an alicorn princess? However, I take issue with the fact that his shyness and soft-spokenness aren't factored into the story at all. I could buy him overcoming hesitation and getting carried away with his role once he's in it, but it would have been more consistent if we'd had just a few moments of apprehensiveness as he decided it was worth it, or at least had reason to believe it was the only way to enter the social. If nothing else, it would have sold the fact that he's doing something extreme for Apple Bloom's affection, and not doing it for his own enjoyment. If it is for his own enjoyment, that takes away from the lesson.

Apple Bloom's sweet at the beginning and end, and she casts a few polite qualifiers Big Mac's way, but she mostly complains about Big Mac's involvement in the social. I'm fine with that, since it's realistic and consistent for her. But Big Mac's role would also have been stronger if we'd seen more than a hint of how much her resistance hurt him.

We see other characters at their best in this episode: Applejack identifying Big Mac's jealousy and tenderly approaching him about it; Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo perfectly in sync, a hint that they've been spending a lot of time together; and Sweetie Belle's positive attitude in cheering on her friends rather than grousing about Rarity's absence. All our characters are growing up and growing closer together, which is as it should be.


Lesson: Whereas Discord's jealousy was presented as a vice, Big Mac's sense of loss is totally sympathetic. With Mac, there's no sense of possessiveness or entitlement, no anger or resentment toward his sisters. He feels left out because he's being left out, as Apple Bloom ultimately acknowledges. This happens often in families and among friends. In my own life, I relate to my mom and my dad in different ways, but I try to be intentional about giving them equal amounts of attention when I visit, since I know how much they each cherish their time with me. But when neglect is felt, how we respond makes all the difference. Big Mac sets the positive example of loving pursuit, investing in Apple Bloom's dream of "sweet, sweet victory" and enduring potential embarrassment for her sake.

The episode's secondary lesson, on expressing one's feelings, is at least as important. Big Mac may have never doubted Apple Bloom's admiration if she'd shown it now and then; and likewise, just a word of admission to Applejack that he was struggling with being in her shadow would certainly have moved AJ to ensure he was included. Often the quietest among us have the strongest emotions bottled up inside, and family and close friendships are the ideal places to be open and kick self-consciousness to the curb.


Resonance: Taking the obvious first, the cross-dressing as comedy struck viewers alternately as offensive, disturbing, or hilarious. I could easily see someone loving or hating this episode based on that alone. For my own tastes, I saw this gag so many times growing up that it doesn't really have the necessary shock value anymore. Inasmuch as that sort of humor in today's cultural mileu is more a risk than it once was, and a risk that seemed to pay off in terms of laughs, I'm fine with the fact that the writers went there, if only it were better suited to the character and lesson.

But in any case, the show has more than a pantomime dame to offer. Here are the bits of humor I did find effective: Apple Bloom's line, "Your extreme awesomeness is backfiring on me," Big Mac's food face, his prominent Adam's apple (I'm not sure ponies even have those), his nearly spiking Apple Bloom, and the chickens mourning the damage to their coop. I also laughed at Sweetie Belle's face and line delivery as she immediately recognizes Big Mac in a dress, effectively foreshadowing the fact that nopony is fooled. And yes, I think the Osgood Fielding pony knows perfectly well; he just doesn't care.

The portions of the episode set at Sweet Apple Acres give us lots of sweet moments between AJ and AB. The spinning toy memory was great; I love the tenderness in Granny's voice as she recalls it. I find the final scene at the farm to be one of the most visually gorgeous and emotionally moving scenes we've had so far this season. Watching it, I feel burdens being lifted beyond what I can put into words.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: One possible nod to continuity: Berry Punch and Piņa Colada won the last Sisterhooves race we saw, and the tossed hay bale apparently takes them completely out of the race; we don't see them again. I was glad to see pegasus and unicorn couples in the mix, reminding us of the diversity of Ponyville.

All things considered, I think this story needed two things: an accounting for Big Mac's usual shyness to make his transformation more credible, and a serious dramatic undercurrent amid the humor of story's middle portion, the sort of thing Mitch Larson and Cindy Morrow often do very well. What we have is below par for the season but strong enough to hang together as a good episode, and the beautiful and refreshingly long final scene is one of Polsky's greatest and brings the episode up to the top of the Iron tier, about on a par with Trade Ya! and Swarm of the Century.

 

Brotherhooves Social armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 23rd of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 102nd of 147 stories overall

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