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

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Episode 179: "The Break Up Break Down"

Aired 5/19/2018, written by Nick Confalone (his eighth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: On Hearts & Hooves Day, with the help of Spike and Discord, Big McIntosh bakes a pie with a message inside inviting Sugar Belle to a special date at Sweet Apple Acres.
  • Act 1: The pie's mailing label is smudged in transit and returned to Sweet Apple Acres at the barn, which the CMC are decorating for Big Mac's date. They misinterpret the pie as being for Sweetie Belle and conclude she has a secret admirer. Meanwhle, Big Mac and crew overhear Sugar Belle talking about surprise news that suggests she may be breaking up with him.
  • Act 2: Spike and Discord each try their own methods of consoling Big Mac as the CMC try to discover Sweetie Belle's admirer. Big Mac ultimately decides to break up with Sugar Belle first and then leaves her without further explanation.
  • Act 3: Big Mac and the CMC discuss their respective disappointments, prompting Big Mac to talk things over with Sugar Belle, whose wagon is stalled on the road with a broken wheel. She explains her news, though convoluted and poorly stated, was that she was moving to Ponyville. They reconcile, and Discord reveals to Spike that he delayed Sugar Belle's departure so Big Mac could catch up.

Character: Nick Confalone's previous episodes include Dungeons & Discords and The Maud Couple, so he's definitely in his element here, and The Break Up Break Down is a great example of what makes his episodes so good: The plot is driven by the characters and not happenstance; the motivations are simple, realistic, and relatable; and the characters are not being artificially dumb, mean, or prone to schemes just for the sake of the story.

Two things that make Big McIntosh and Sugar Belle such a blessing to watch are how sweet and understanding they are to each other, and the fact that they were both pretty well fleshed out as individuals before being paired together. Obviously Big Mac's been a supporting character from the beginning, but Sugar Belle gains particular respect for having been part of the resistance under Starlight Glimmer's tyranny and showed quite a bit of courage chasing her down. But she also has a soft heart, and like Double Diamond, she was more sad than angry at Starlight's deception. In Hard to Say Anything, she stood up for herself to both Big Mac and Feather Bangs when their schemes turned into a fight over her.

I really enjoy Sugar Belle's friendship with Mrs. Cake. Not only do they have similar talents and dispositions, but Mrs. Cake was a dear friend of Big Mac's mother and a witness at his parents' wedding.

Big Mac has many admirable qualities, but he's not a good communicator, and his idea of the ways of romance has its origins in the schemes of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. He is a romantic at heart, but his pie invitation, complete with a rebus as a mailing label, is unnecessarily roundabout. Scavenger hunts and the like aren't a bad thing; we see one pulled off well in The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows. But there aren't any guardrails to keep things on track given multiple points of possible failure.

Still, that's a quirk or oversight, not really a character flaw. The real cause of Big Mac's sorrow and frustration here (I think) is insecurity, as is evident at several points in the story, as well as back in Hard to Say Anything. He doesn't see himself worthy of the adoration of such a wonderful mare. Now to some degree, it's healthy to be in awe of your very special somepony. But in excess, as we see here, it can set up misunderstandings and make you afraid to just open up and talk things out.

I really enjoy seeing Spike bond with other characters besides Twilight and Rarity, and particularly hanging out with "the guys." Big Mac's a good role model for him, and he provides assistance and perspective for him just as he does for Twilight. He's a natural both as an optimist and as a romantic, both of which qualities make him a good foil for Discord. One of the moments that stands out most for me in this story is when Spike himself starts to doubt the reality of love. This in fact is what pushes Discord to help fix the situation by delaying Sugar Belle long enough for Big Mac to reach her. Bonus points to Spike for guessing almost verbatim the real news Sugar Belle has for Big Mac.

As for Discord, this is one of the best uses of him as a mostly-reformed character: as an outside observer of the characters' habits and customs, and of storytelling conventions. For what it's worth, each of the old main Star Trek series had one or two characters occupy this role, and Q was such a character during most of his guest appearances. In that role, Discord questions not just the way romantic comedies play out ("Love is about spying in the bushes"), but the idea of romance itself. I'm happy that his friendship with Fluttershy is called out here to counter his cynicism, because any world with Fluttershy in it must be pretty great. I also enjoy the return of Ogres & Oubliettes, complete with Discord's O&O outfit, braided hair, and weird turnipy claw.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders' mixup is thoroughly entertaining as a B plot. As a main plot it would get old, but we get just enough of it here. I really appreciate its resolution, that the love of friends is just as worth celebrating as a special somepony. High praise goes to Sweetie Belle though, as coming off of such disappointment and being on the receiving end of Big Mac's ranting, she's able to give him precisely the encouragement he needs to be open with Sugar Belle about his feelings about the situation. It really is her shining moment, and possibly even a landmark episode for her as we approach the end of the series. I'd like to see her as the heart of the CMC going forward.


Lesson: Everything Big Mac and Sugar Belle say or do arises from how much they care about each other, but the relationship drama comes from poor communication. Big Mac is shy and rarely one to talk about his feelings. And Sugar Belle has issues with communication as well, in that all her suggested intro lines for her news to Big Mac sound ominous without the proper context; Mrs. Cake actually has to caution her about this. The miscommunication that leads to the CMC's antics is sillier but also related to Big Mac's penchant for being indirect about things.

Calmly talking things out is something we see pretty often in the resolution scenes of My Little Pony, but this episode reminds us that it's a learned ability. It's neither natural nor easy to open up like that and risk rejection or a fight. I am highly amused by Spike's twisted lesson: that when he has a problem too big to solve he hides from it. Spike's just so sincere and well-meaning there. But that's what we're prone to do. Just avoid the problem and, per Discord's equally poor advice, pretend not to care. The likely outcome of that is assuming the worst of what the other person must think of us, and eating ourselves alive over it because we really do care. And besides the practical reasons for communicating, it's really a matter of respect for one another.

Sugar Belle spells out the right lesson well: talking instead of assuming. And also "Eavesdropping is wrong," for reasons that are obvious here.


Resonance: We have here a really sweet story, a bit more heartfelt than Hard to Say Anything, which was hampered by Big Mac's manipulative (though well-intentioned) efforts to win Sugar Belle's heart. Here his focus is her happiness, as proven by his mature and considerate words when he finally accepts what he thinks is her decision to break up. Spike's supportive nature and idealism add to the warm atmosphere of the story. But what I find most encouraging is how Discord has softened a bit: While still retaining a sardonic edge, he doesn't insult Big Mac's baking and is as shocked as anyone when Big Mac blows up at Sweetie Belle. And while I'm not keen on Spike's bet of servitude with him, I think it's neat that Discord loses that bet on purpose to uphold the concept of love he had found so dubious.

Along the way we get some sad moments: Big Mac's heart breaking, Sugar Belle leaving the joyously decorated Ponyville, and anytime she or Sweetie Belle is in tears.

But overall, this is a romantic comedy, and this episode meets MLP's standard for effective humor. My first laugh comes from Discord's response to being summoned for such a mundane use of his powers. (By the way, I'm still wondering whether we'll ever find out what need Celestia had for Discord's magic way back when she had the Mane Six free him.) A few other select moments: The return of Big Mac's bouncing at the post office; Discord's suggestion of leaning against things as a coping mechanism, and Sugar Belle questioning Big Mac's use of it later; the implied reference to the Button Mash fan animations; Sweetie Belle's bit with Snips and Snails; and Boulder and Twiggy's Hearts and Hooves date.

Special honor belongs to the axe-wielding Skellinore, who has to endure Big Mac's awkwardness, including his hilarious but sorrowful delivery of the line "in that hole where your nose used to be," and who exudes so much emotion in her two-dimensional form. We get yet another good show-ending punchline as Spike sets his mind on her, and I'm totally ok with a Spike/Skellinore scenario here, though who knows what Shmarity would think?


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: "Plenty of ponies in the pasture" is a decent equine expression that harks back to the early seasons. I'm glad to see us following up on the "guys' night" trio in a way that moves all their characters forward and contains such sound examples of love and friendship.

I confess I don't actually care for the old formula of Out-of-Context Eavesdropping leading to a same-day break up/make up. It just doesn't strike me as believable that half of a couple so in love would be so ready to interpret things that direction. It kind of works if we assume Big Mac is insecure and afraid of confrontation, and the story is certainly one of the best executions of the premise that I've seen. But still it's not my cup of tea.

Yet while it doesn't quite compete with the series' powerhouse comedies, landmark reveals, or most moving dramas, it's still a fun character piece that carries forward two supporting story arcs (the guys and the couple) in a way that has me eager to see more. As an Apple episode, I rank it somewhere between Somepony to Watch Over Me and Pinkie Apple Pie.

 

The Break Up Break Down armor rating: Golden Vest
Ranked 14th of 27 season-eight episodes
Ranked 134th of 233 stories overall

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