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

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Episode 105: "Canterlot Boutique"

Aired 9/12/2015, by Amy Keating Rogers (her fifteenth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Rarity receives a long-awaited letter that a spot has come available where she can open a boutique in Canterlot.
  • Act 1: Rarity introduces her friends to the boutique and her new princess-inspired clothing line, but store manager Sassy Saddles steps in front of her to announce the boutique's grand opening.
  • Act 2: The new line is a hit, but the showpiece really takes off thanks to Sassy's unauthorized renaming of the gown as the Princess Dress. Everypony wants one, leaving Rarity saddled with making hundreds of identical dresses.
  • Act 3: With no end to the drudgery in sight, Rarity takes control back from Sassy Saddles and retires the Princess Dress, putting the other gowns out for a going-out-of-business sale. Her individual touch now appreciated, Rarity decides to stay in business, and Sassy does her best to make amends.

Character: In the series' first episode, Rarity told Twilight she'd always dreamed of living in Canterlot. Now that she's so close to her friends in Ponyville, Rarity's new goal is expanding her business by opening a second location in the kingdom's capital. It's a goal she achieves after much off-screen diligence and preparation. We're seeing a more mature Rarity here; previously she had a tendency to overuse assistants, and in Manehattan her stress led her to mistreat her friends when they tried to help. Now she's more cautious, which may help explain how quickly she forgets she's supposed to be the one in charge. Sassy Saddles pretty much walks all over her, and Rarity insists on doing the production work without help. This could be an overcorrection, or it could be that she assumes Sassy's vast amount of research means she must be right. After all, Sassy was hired for her knowledge of the business. But for a pony who loves the spotlight as much as Rarity, nothing stings like being shown up, and once her work does receive attention, it's an affront to everything she stands for.

As for Sassy Saddles, her vocal performance is a welcome return for Kelly Sheridan, her dialogue is nicely peppered with eccentric exclamations, and her look and accent appear to be based on the character of Emily Charlton from The Devil Wears Prada, although Sassy is happier and less anxious, at least on the surface. I delight in the Prada reference, because that film conveys a larger cultural shift toward prioritizing the personal over the professional, and of building relationships over building careers. It's that sort of perspective that's made a show like Friendship Is Magic so successful.

Getting back to Sassy, she's a planner and a research-based problem-solver. She has marketing down to a science, and most likely an eye for efficiency as well. Sassy's plans state the obvious, which I take to mean she's confirmed conventional wisdom through actual study rather than made assumptions. There are two advantages to this. First, reality is sometimes counter-intuitive and testing a prevailing model may reveal the need for a paradigm shift. Second, the basic steps to success are often very simple, but articulating them helps keep them in the forefront of your mind and prevent "obvious" errors.

Now there are a couple different things going on with Sassy Saddles: matters of style and character flaws, and I don't want to conflate the two, so I'll address them separately:

Sassy's style is that of a market-driven manufacturer for whom success is measured by volume and consistency. But Rarity is a couturier, one who makes original designer clothes to order for individual clients, so she's used to being free to come up with her own vision suited to each customer. Thus Rarity is a free-spirited artist, while Sassy's priority is the success of the boutique as a business. I don't think Sassy's preference is necessarily better or worse, but her off-the-rack business model is at odds with Rarity's style from the very beginning. What we can say for Sassy is that she's been in the business for a while and knows how it works. Previous boutiques have failed, and she's worked hard to find out the difference between success and failure: At least in Canterlot, the customers do want an exact match of a popular item, and so Sassy follows the customers' lead.

Sassy's overeagerness and slavish devotion to her model keep her and Rarity from ironing out their differences. It's not out of malice that Sassy jumps in at the grand opening; more likely, she's desperate to see things go well and wants to do whatever she can herself to ensure they do. We've seen Rarity herself like this before. From Rarity's reaction shots, it's clear Sassy's levitation tricks aren't what they rehearsed, but they do serve to spice up the presentation, and Sassy doesn't draw attention to herself while doing it. Things take a turn, however, with "The Reign in Stain" and the confrontation afterward. From Sassy's defensive yet insistent response to Rarity, this isn't about personal glory; the pattern is being questioned, the all-important plan that will decide whether the shop is a success. Sassy is unwilling to trust or to learn, and when Rarity can only muster a weak come-back, Sassy takes control in order to ensure everything goes according to plan.

As the story continues, Sassy's behavior is open to interpretation. Just how consciously does Sassy manipulate Rarity to reverse their roles, and how deliberatetly is Sassy taking the time with the customers that Rarity enjoys most? I give her the benefit of the doubt here; I think she still just wants to make sure all goes well. Her quick turnaround at the end suggests to me she wasn't bad to begin with, but she got carried away as Rarity herself has in other episodes. They are alike in many ways.

I'm glad to see Spike here, even though his only lines are buried under the chatter of the Mane Six. This is the type of story where he could easily have been forgotten. Pinkie is prominent here, and she's relatively well-behaved for an Amy Keating Rogers episode. And we get the interesting fact that Twilight Sparkle is the most popular princess as judged by Rarity's potential customers.


Lesson: In the fifth season, with no letters and no journal, we're often left to find the moral of the story ourselves. I believe the intended message is, Don't let someone else define your dream. 'Nuff said. And Rarity's dream is part of the season's identity arc. For her, the uniqueness of the dress symbolizes the uniqueness of the wearer, which is why she finds Sassy's ready-to-wear model so abhorrent. Identical dresses rob a pony of her individuality in much the same way as Starlight Glimmer's staff.

A secondary lesson that's hard to miss is the difference between leadership and management. As the store owner, Rarity is the leader, meaning she's the visionary, the pony who sets the direction and provides and maintains the inspiration, motivation, and morale to get things done. As manager, Sassy Saddles' job is to work within Rarity's vision, coming up with the resources, timetable, and action points to actually do the job, and handling the day-to-day problem solving and course corrections as needed along the way. Sassy is a skilled manager but usurps the leader role by replacing Rarity's vision with her own, and Rarity abdicates the role, leaving her with nothing but the grunt-work.

These are very adult lessons, so what can kids take away from this episode? Simply, don't be like Sassy. Trust and control isssues are learned at an early age, most effectively within relationships where trust can occur. But kids can also pick up on the examples set by role models and fictional characters, and parents can use bad examples like Sassy to drive home how others feel when we keep power to ourselves and don't take their vision into account. And there's your friendship angle.


Resonance: I marvel at the diversity of designs in this episode's dresses. Five years on the air hasn't made this series' set and prop design any less original. There's much humor in the dialogue, particularly since Amy so adores alliteration. I laughed at Pinkie's wild faces and the very idea of strawberry, cinnamon, and cilantro together. (Ugh.) There are a couple of funny moments at the end as well, as Sea Swirl balks at the price of a dress and whistles her way past it, and as Sassy shakes Rarity in her glee. And should I mention the pony at the very end? I guess I just did, but it's the cutie mark of herself that really sells the gag.

The drama of this episode works because we know Rarity so well. We really feel the crushing of her dreams and the breaking of her heart both times the music turns sad, and that makes her moment of inspiration and the reopening of the shop feel like the personal victories they are.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: In terms of pacing, this story moves at a brisk trot, I think because we're constantly being introduced to new idea after new idea, with visuals taking priority over the spoken exposition. We're into the song by the halfway point, and Rarity's back-and-forth with Sassy takes us directly into the final scene, where all the fascinating new ponies hold our attention through to the end. And by the way, the character designs here are as worthy of applause as the ones from Princess Spike (from which we get to see Frazzle Rock again). This episode also features great voice acting, especially in the scene between Rarity and the customer credited as Fashionable Pony. All the mid-line changes of tone and quick recoveries show how much work is done on the recording side of things.

There are a few ways this could have been better. A line from Rarity dismissing the idea of hiring sewing help would clear up that little plot hole. It would also have helped Sassy's character to see her hard at work either procuring supplies, making contacts, or doing research and planning. Lacking that, we're left to wonder just what she's contributing to Rarity's efforts after the store opens. And finally, by the second half of the episode, as the story turns more serious, some of the dialogue may be too clever for its own good, distracting from the substance of what's being said. Amy's signature silly-syllable patter works better in a more comic story such as MMMystery on the Friendship Express. Nevertheless, this is a delightful story that handles Rarity well, advancing her character and addressing her series-wide dream arc, teaches a number of valuable lessons, and raises some social issues that make for good discussion. It's still shiny enough to be firmly in Gold territory, about on a par with A Dog and Pony Show.

 

Canterlot Boutique armor rating: Gold Armor
Ranked 18th of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 73rd of 147 stories overall

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