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

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Episode 178: "Non-Compete Clause"

Aired 5/12/2018, written by Kim Beyer-Johnson (her first episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Fluttershy is voted Teacher of the Month yet again, much to Applejack and Rainbow Dash's annoyance. Twilight Sparkle assigns the two to lead a field trip on teamwork, assured that their competitive spirit is in the past.
  • Act 1: Applejack and Rainbow immediately revert to being bitter rivals. Applejack's project of carefully building an apple shed is hampered by Dash's insistence on building a haphazard one faster, and Dash's canoe race is sabotaged by Applejack leading her students to row in the opposite direction. Rainbow's insistence on a faster but more dangerous route leads to an argument that distracts them from a rock the canoe smashes into.
  • Act 2: Twilight happens upon the group as they get to shore. Disappointed, she sends them on a nature walk in which AJ and RD try to outdo each other in passive-aggressive politeness and indecision. The group wanders in circles until they try to build a bridge between cliffs to get back to the school. AJ and RD each build their own rickety bridges, which collapse on each other and leave them dangling over the ravenous fish in the river below.
  • Act 3: The students rescue Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Back at the school, the students assume AJ and RD were trying to teach teamwork by being bad examples, and recommend both of them for Teacher of the Month. Twilight gets the two to admit their rivalry, which only starts another argument as she walks away.

Character: Let's start with a review of how Applejack and Rainbow Dash relate across the history of the series. In the premiere, Applejack is the pony who reins in Rainbow Dash's various impulses. They fight a bit over the Gala tickets in The Ticket Master, though so does everypony else. They're getting on well together by Applebuck Season. With Fall Weather Friends, their friendly competition turns sour when Rainbow Dash briefly cheats, and is thought to be cheating again later, leading to all sorts of shenanigans. But by Sonic Rainboom, Applejack is one of Dash's most supportive friends during the Best Young Flyer Competition. They feud a bit in Over a Barrel and Hearth's Warming Eve, and that's about it for any significant animosity between these two.

More recent seasons of the show portray them as fast friends. Their Most Daring Pony contest in Castle Mane-ia is good-natured and even contains a fair amount of shipping fuel for those who are so inclined. We see AJ comfort Rainbow during her down moments in Daring Don't, Tanks for the Memories, and Newbie Dash, and they behave as best buds in The Saddle Row Review and Buckball Season. They have several warm exchanges in Campfire Tales and get along well enough in The Movie and Grannies Gone Wild.

Long story short, we haven't really seen these two at each other's throats since the earliest years of the show, and any rivalries they've had have generally been friendly and sporting. Yet suddenly in this episode, out of nowhere the two set about acting like bitter enemies. We recently saw Twilight Sparkle regress into anxiety-driven dishonesty, but the motivation for that failure was well established and in-character. I see no such motivation for Applejack and Rainbow Dash, outside of Twilight's observation that they've been "competitive" in the past. And both ponies ought to be experts on teamwork given their occupations. Even if we grant that they have a history of one-upping each other, there should at least be an initial attempt to make this work. But there's no hint of consultation, coordination, or cooperation heading into this field trip. They're getting in each other's way right out of the gate. I'm glad they eventually see the error of their ways, and I want to give this episode the benefit of the doubt since it comes from a first-time MLP writer (though her overall writing credits go back to the 1980s and she's senior vice president of a film studio, so she's not exactly green.) But regardless of the screenplay, I'm afraid this premise was doomed from the start.

Setting those concerns aside, I think Applejack comes off pretty well in the first half of the episode. Her project of building an apple shed is a good example of teamwork, and the care with which she directs the project isn't over the top at all. I never spent much time in the garage, but I was taught the number one rule when building something is, "Don't get in a hurry." For the sake of accuracy and safety, slower is better.

AJ fares less well during the canoeing, but she at least still has the students' safety in mind. Her worst moment, though, is her ridiculous insistence on building a bridge across the ravine, rejecting out of hoof Gallus's suggestion that everyone just fly over, seeing the five flyers could easily carry the other three across.

Rainbow Dash unfortunately doesn't get as gracious treatment here. Her canoing idea makes sense (as long as you have rowers on both sides of the boat, paddling in the same direction). But she's mostly shown misbehaving, dressing down the students, and carelessly putting the students in danger. She had better hope Chancellor Neighsay didn't see this episode.

By contrast, the Student Six really shine, and I'm happy to get to know them better here. The students are the good examples in this story. Ocellus gets a chance or two to save the day with her shapeshifting, and a lot of the teamwork moments revolve around Yona, such as helping her into the canoe while AJ and RD argue. Smolder smartly takes to the air for a bird's eye view when the group is lost. (A dragon taking her cues from Bilbo? Who would have thought?) Ocellus's solution to save the teachers from the bite-acudas is brilliant, though my favorite moment is when she and Silverstream transform into sea ponies to save Yona. On first viewing, I bristled a bit at the idea that the students understand friendship better than our heroes so early on. But by the pictures on the wall, they've been in school for nine months now, so I'm more accepting of their progress. (We were told back in season one that these episodes aren't necessarily in strict chronological order.) One nice touch we see here is the realistic "culture bump" encountered by non-pony students not being familiar with the term "field trip."

I've made my peace with Twilight Sparkle's role in this story as well. I first thought she might be deliberately setting her friends up for failure to teach them a lesson. But a closer look says otherwise. Why does she assign the field trip to these two? Well, they each volunteer, and it's Fluttershy's suggestion that they work together. Twilight acknowledges their past habits but, as she says later, she thought they were past this. And indeed they should be; it's been years since they've fought. By the second act, she's rightly skeptical and isn't fooled by the students' rose-tinted view of the day during the conclusion. She also gets the key line of the episode: "The Teacher of the Month wouldn't care about being the Teacher of the Month." She demonstrates good leadership throughout the episode, and the failure of the teachers is on them, not on her.

That being said, the episode does have enough self-awareness for Pinkie Pie to call out how bad an idea this is. She's the best pony to deliver that skepticism, since she had a ringside seat to their competitiveness early in the series and was on the receiving end of some unsportsmanlike attitudes from them both in Buckball Season.

I'm thrilled to death that Fluttershy has the students' love to the degree that she's so consistently their favorite teacher. I love her little giggle about a minute in. Just one thing missing from her moment in the spotlight is the cheering we would usually hear from Pinkie.


Lesson: The question of competition has been addressed plenty of times before, most extensively in Fall Weather Friends, Rainbow Rocks, and Buckball Season, and to some extent as recently as Surf and/or Turf. It's fine as long as it's friendly and everyone's having fun. But this episode is more specifically about cooperation, which Applejack and Rainbow Dash can't seem to maintain for more than a few seconds. Cooperation is a pretty simple concept: We recognize our need for each other and use our gifts to help each other, compromising our preferences wherever it helps achieve a greater common goal. It's essential to the diverse-harmony approach to friendship that forms the foundation for the Friendship Is Magic series.

A secondary lesson amply demonstrated in the story was also seen in the previous episode, The Parent Map: that we need to be aware of the effect our friendship problems have on others.


Resonance: I'm trying not to be too hard on this episode, because I recognize the subjective nature of the buttons it's pressing. Extended squabbling scenes make me really uncomfortable, and it's also a pet peeve of mine whenever characters try to outhumble each other as the teachers do during the nature walk. (Applejack did this with Rarity too, back in Trade Ya!) But the really frustrating thing for me is the feeling of utter lack of progress throughout the story, as AJ and Rainbow fail to learn any lessons at all. I find the ending especially depressing, as Twilight walks away defeated.

The humor is only mildly funny, but there are a number of cute moments. I like the little scene where Smolder catches Ocellus's oar. Ocellus is adorable when encouraging Yona to whistle. Her bite-acuda form is a perfect example of scary-cute, and she looks amazing as a seapony. So yeah. Ocellus is the best part of this one.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I'm actually grateful for the occasional weak episode, for the sake of my own self-confidence as a reviewer. It reassures me that I'm able to evaluate with a fairly level head and not just gush like I usually do. One way it could have been improved would be a reveal that at Twilight's direction, AJ and Dash actually WERE doing the reverse psychology thing the students give them credit for. That would still be a little ethically problematic, but it might have smoothed over some of the story's weak points and been a more entertaining ending. A better handling of the Teacher of the Month setup would be to feature a lesson that hasn't been covered as many times: Instead of competition, have Applejack and Rainbow Dash both have to deal with being jealous of Fluttershy. She's been the object of jealousy once before, but I'm surprised how rarely the show has addressed that particular friendship obstacle.

Probably the best way to enjoy this episode is to focus on the students and how they try to figure their teachers out and solve the field trip's challenges themselves. And that may have been the writer's intent here. Even so, pacing is an issue as some of the montages go on for way too long.

In conclusion, I think this sort of conflict was handled better in other episodes, such as in Pinkie Apple Pie, where's it's part of a larger story and has a heartwarming resolution. The students' side of the story nearly saves it from the bottom tier, placing it above other squabbly episodes such as The Cart Before the Ponies, Look Before You Sleep, and P.P.O.V., and a near tie with Fall Weather Friends.

 

Non-Compete Clause armor rating: Leather Vest
Ranked 25th of 27 season-eight episodes
Ranked 212th of 233 stories overall

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