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

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Episode 78: "Simple Ways"

Aired 2/8/2014, written by Josh Haber (his second episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Rarity is selected as the pony of ceremonies for the annual Ponyville Days festival.
  • Act 1: Rarity plans the festival with a "small town chic" emphasis, hoping to impress visiting travel writer Trenderhoof. Her designs on him are crushed when he finds himself infatuated with Applejack.
  • Act 2: Confessing her dilemma to Spike, Rarity pretends interest in farming to divert Trenderhoof's attention from AJ, who finds the stallion annoying. Disbelieving AJ's protestations of innocence, Rarity insists she can be more "country" than the Apples.
  • Act 3: The Mane Six are dubious of Rarity's new hick-ish festival theme, and AJ crashes her preparations as "Apple Jewel," mimicing Rarity's fashionista ways to drive home the absurdity of Rarity's antics. Trenderhoof stumbles into their conversation, which exposes his own pretentiousness. The festival takes place with Rarity's unmistakeable style.

Character: I approached this episode with some trepdiation, because MLP:FiM hadn't really done a love triangle story before. It's a common enough plot; specifically MLP is using variant 5. For many series this is a stumbling block because the usual paint-by-the-numbers formulas tend to eclipse or overwrite the characters involved: Witness the Deep Space Nine episode "Fascination" as a memorably horrid example. Josh Haber made this work for MLP by having all the initiatives and responses flow naturally from the characters.

Rarity's a known romantic: As early as The Ticket Master she was enamored with Prince Blueblood, only to have her perceptions dashed in The Best Night Ever. And while she's excited in her first encounters with celebrities such as Hoity Toity, Photo Finish, Sapphire Shores, and Fancy Pants, she's starstruck rather than lovestruck in each of those cases. Trenderhoof is more pop culture than high culture, and this combined with Rarity's business success may make him seem more accessible to her, further fueling her obsession. When her crush loses all interest in favor of Applejack, Rarity's disappointment is tinged with irritation arising from the long-standing values gap between the two mares that was hastily patched over way back in Look Before You Sleep. We know Rarity to be melodramatic, determined to get what she wants, short-tempered, quick to fight fire with fire, and image-conscious but prone to forget herself in desperate situations. All that comes together to make Rarity's radical transformation into an offensive hick stereotype a very in-character and almost inevitable move for her.

Noble Applejack is in truth mode throughout. Snide comments aside, she's just barely polite to Trend while at the same time giving him no legitimate reason to think she's at all interested in him. She makes no effort to hide her amusement at Rarity's increasingly ridiculous affectations. Most impressively, at the beginning of act three she calls Rarity out right away, spelling out just what Rarity is doing and announcing her own intentions to turn the tables. AJ pulls off the Southern Belle look rather convincingly, drawing on the grace and poise she undoubtedly got from the Oranges. But it's enough to make the point. AJ's calm, smiling demeanor throughout the climactic scene proves the goodness of her intentions: She's not squabbling, competing, showing her up, or even mocking in the conventional sense. She's acting as a mirror, "demonstrating aburdity by being absurd." She knows it's the only way to get Rarity to grasp the futility of what she's doing.

Kudos to the creators for featuring a hipster guest star in an episode about authenticity, and for not making Rarity's crush object either dreamy or awful. Though a deliberately hollow character, Trenderhoof really does seem to be good-natured rather than smug. He does describe himself as "the most interesting pony in Equestria," but his frequently insulting comments are made obliviously, sort of like Dr. Bashir from DS9's first season. Trend's career as a writer and trendsetter is successful precisely because he's such a social chameleon, but he doesn't take the time to truly understand the culture he's adopting. The dialogue he's given to demonstrate this is laugh-out-loud funny, as are AJ's reactions.

The creators haven't forgotten Spike's crush on Rarity. Though its only clear evidence in this episode is a single aside glance, that look speaks volumes in light of the show's history. His feelings are also implicit in his angry reaction to someone not noticing Rarity's charms. But rather than adding a fourth side to the triangle, Spike is simply there for Rarity in the midst of all this. He seems to sincerely want what's best for her and assists her as he does Twilight, reminding her of her priorities (i.e., festival preparations) and gently prodding her with questions when her actions are at their most questionable.

Lastly, there's a nice little bit of continuity/character progression with Fluttershy happily consenting to help Rarity with the fashion show, presumably as a model, though possibly as a dress designer, for which see the first-season episodes Green Isn't Your Color and Suited for Success.


Lesson: This week's lesson is doubled as both Rarity and Trenderhoof put on facades to impress somepony else. I appreciate Rarity's wording of the moral: "Real friends will like you for who you are." It is important to put your best hoof forward, but remember that it is your hoof. As noted above, Spike demonstrates this positively in his own quiet way, since he learned that lesson all the way back in Boast Busters. I like the way situations and lessons from the first season are being brought back and given a new fourth-season twist that keeps them from feeling like recycled material. And the theme of authenticity has popped up so often in the past year that I believe the writers view this as one of the most important challenges in young viewers' socialization.

There is one complication that may make this a difficult lesson to learn: how to be "who you are" if you yourself are not sure who you really are. Rarity knows herself well, talking herself through her problems and being highly attuned to her own feelings in multiple episodes. Likewise, Applejack worked through her identity crisis as a filly when she returned to Sweet Apple Acres after her stay in Manehattan. But some viewers may find themselves more in Trenderhoof's situation, having followed others for so long he may not have any idea what the real self is like underneath. This may be the best function of the Cutie Mark Crusaders episodes: to address the need for growing youth to explore and decide who and what they should be. The adult-cast episodes pick things up from there, showing how to be yourself in a way that's considerate of others.


Connections: Granny Smith's role in the founding of Ponyville is described via flashback in Family Appreciation Day.

 

Resonance: “I once had an apple so rare, they thought it was extinct. I ate four of them.” That's just hilariously awful. Rarity's fangirl jitters at the train station are funny in a more adorable way, and Tabitha's voice work during the third act had me guffawing in a most undignified fashion. Rarity's scenery-chewing sobfests are much more easily played for laughs than Fluttershy's weeping, making this episode's crying scene much more effective comedically than the one in Castle Mane-ia, Haber's previous episode. Applejack's slow-motion sequences and her moment on the catwalk are simultaneously funny and remarkable in ways I'd rather not talk about. Only two things didn't work for me: the poem and proposal fake-outs, both of which drew out too obvious a punch line, and neither of which quite jibed with the innocence of Trend's other comments. Their wording only makes sense if he's intentionally needling her, which isn't otherwise apparent. With my humor appreciator nonetheless satisfied, my serious side was primarily occupied with appreciating the delivery of the lesson and the skill with which the story was told.

The overarching mood of this episode is Fremdscham, a German term for a feeling of embarrassment on behalf of someone who should be embarrassed for him- or herself but isn't. It applies about equally to Trenderhoof and Rarity in this episode and makes the whole thing a delight to watch.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: Ponyville sure does have a lot of social events, and maybe that accounts for much of its friendly atmosphere. No doubt Pinkie has a lot to do with this, which may be why she expected to be chosen to head up this one. Having the selected resident plan the event in her own unique style is a testament to Ponyville's diversity, reminding us that Ponyville is not just about small-town earth ponies, contra Trenderhoof's assumptions. The storyboarding work, including background cameos and gags, is stellar in this episode, although I personally would have had Granny Smith dressed up in formal wear for the gala at the end.

Some of the other pure-fun episodes we've had this season—Castle Mane-ia, Three's a Crowd, and Pinkie Pride—have been high-energy and full of wackiness. It's refreshing to have one we can settle down with, whose ridiculousness we can follow at leisure. Another fine Rarity episode. Not quite on the level of Sweet and Elite, which had higher stakes and a couple relatively serious moments, it ranks comfortable within the Gold tier of episodes.

 

Simple Ways armor rating: Golden Vest
Ranked 17th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 86th of 147 episodes overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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