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

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Episode 114: "The Hooffields and McColts"

Aired 11/14/2015, written by Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco (their third episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Fluttershy's animal book club is interrupted when she is summoned by the Cutie Map.
  • Act 1: Fluttershy learns Twilight has also been summoned and has done lots of reading in preparation for their trip to the Smokey Mountains. They arrive to find two pony families at war, hateful of each other and suspicious of outsiders.
  • Act 2: Twilight gains a hearing with the McColts, but her declaration of a cease-fire is ignored by the Hooffields. Neither side can explain why they are fighting or how the feud started. Twilight manages to convince Ma Hooffield to present the McColts with a giant apology cake, but it is a Trojan horse. The McColts stage a full-scale assault on the Hooffields.
  • Act 3: With her by-the-book methods proven ineffective, Twilight despairs of resolving the dispute, but Fluttershy hears and relates the story of the feud's origins, as told by the local animals: The families' patriarchs had sought and found a beautiful valley, but simple disagreements escalated in a cycle of revenge that ruined the beauty that brought them there in the first place. Ma Hooffield and Big Daddy McColt declare a truce and lead the families in repairing the damage.

Character: By now it makes sense to speak of the Cutie Map as a character. Throughout season five, it's played the same role as Colonel Sharp, Chief Quimby, and Commander Stargazer, assigning the team its missions. The intelligence behind these assignments is as yet unknown, though Twilight offers some speculation in part 1 of the season finale, as I'll explore briefly in my review of that episode. For now, I make three observations about the Map's behavior thus far: (1) The missions have to do not just with individuals but with communities where some level of friendship once existed but has been lost. (2) Each mission re-introduces friendship to that community, presenting it as an option. In each case, a first step is taken, but time will tell whether it sticks. The future of friendship is up to them, as will also be stressed in the finale. (3) These missions fulfill the role Twilight Sparkle chose for herself in last season's finale, to spread friendship across Equestria with the help of her friends: In the season premiere, Twilight provided the pivotal solution, which was carried out by Fluttershy. Pinkie was the problem solver in the Griffonstone episode, and Applejack did most of the heavy lifting in Manehattan.

Now we're back to Fluttershy and Twilight again, and Twily is as excited as the Pointer Sisters to be summoned. Twilight's lecturing and research skills have aided her in the past, so she assumes a by-the-book solution is in the works. She couldn't be more wrong. Last week's episode bothered me in its portrayal of Twilight as arrogant and thinking she was immune to bad attitudes because she was the princess of friendship. This week, she displays overconfidence, but I'm fine with it this time because it's of an entirely different nature. For one thing, she's been poised for a call all season and is determined for her one opportunity to be a success. She's justified in believing her talents and her role as princess will be instrumental in resolving the feud. Also, Twilight is used to dealing with her friends' problems and talking to ponies who are open to her advice. So I think her disposition is realistic throughout the story, and her real role in the solution, her freezing ability, fits her actual cutie mark talent of magic. (It's a nice call-back to Castle Mane-ia as well.)

Fluttershy's interest in a ponified version of Wuthering Heights is as surprising as her familiarity with Neon Genesis Evangelion in Scare Master. It's fun to speculate about her guilty pleasures, but what I love most about this episode is Fluttershy's connection with animals being the path to peace for the Hooffields and McColts. The environmental effects of conflict are visible from the beginning, and her concern for wildlife caught in the crossfire surfaces at several points. But the critters' knowledge of the feud's origins is a brilliantly creative way to have Fluttershy be the pony to make the others see reason. Even before that, Fluttershy provides Twilight with some of the same gentle guidance we usually hear from Spike. From the premiere and Tanks for the Memories to the gala and the dream world, Flutters has just been awesome and on point all season long. I can't wait to see what else is in store for her.

One more note on Twilight and Fluttershy: I'm happy Twilight's giddy anticipation is there to explain her neglect of Fluttershy on the way to the Smokies, and that she apologizes afterwards. It's a heap better than the inexcusable ignoring of Fluttershy we saw in earlier seasons.

The two feuding families are mostly represented in their leaders, who appear smart, capable, funny, and even likeable, but blinded to the pointlessness of their cause. The other family members don't get much dialogue, but they're highly distinctive both visually and in the memorable voices we hear. They're about as well fleshed out as some of the more obscure characters in the G.I. Joe series. Having the McColts ready for the Trojan cake speaks well of them strategically, and I'm glad the creators let them be recognizably Appalachian without portraying them as a bunch of dumb yokels. Another positive move was giving each side a characteristic range of skill (planting vs. building) without making their respective talents themselves the sole basis for the truce. That allows us some foreshadowing as to the feud's origins while keeping the valley and its animals central to the story's resolution.


Lesson: So what's the primary point here? Knowledge of one's history? The impact of war on the environment? Lateral thinking and creative problem solving? Yet another reminder not to underestimate Fluttershy? All that's here, but the central lesson is the pointlessness of revenge. We can stand up for ourselves to keep from incentivizing bullying and to create a deterrent against mistreating others. But it's all too easy to confuse genuine moral honor with the dignity of coming out on top in an argument. There's really no honor in getting even, only in restoring peace. The story teaches this lesson in a positive manner: Even the fighting is creative and funny, and the writers do a job of making the two sides slow to listen without seeming to be actually mean at heart. We don't get a saccharine-sweet, easy solution, but neither is the situation truly hopeless. As in Amending Fences, we have not just a lecture, but a process on display. Often the toughest part of peace negotiations is forcing the two sides to just stop and listen, and that's one more reason I'm happy to see Twilight's freezing ability used here.

For the Hooffields and McColts, their historical friendship is a more valuable thing than "winning" their conflict or proving themselves superior. The only positive outcome is for both families to put their differences aside and admit, as Ma Hooffield does, "I suppose it doesn't matter who's right. We're both wrong," wrong to perpetuate a senseless conflict. There are things worth fighting for: defending lives, ending oppression, and upholding truth and the freedom to speak it, etc. That struggle for true peace, for well-being, justice, and harmony, is in fact a constant struggle that may require the use of force. But proving one's self superior to someone else or getting in the last word is seldom worth as much as the relational loss entailed by the conflict. And as the animals' plight aptly illustrates, conflict often causes collateral damage. And that's true on both a cultural and personal level.


Resonance: Since even the enmity is played mostly for laughs, the whole episode has a light feel with some moments of gentle warmth, a breather episode between Discord's antics and Coloratura's drama. To some viewers, that may cut against the serious nature of the lesson, but the backstory that forms Fluttershy's parable makes the point clearly enough without things getting dark or heavy.

We do get a couple of brief, sad moments as Twilight sulks and Fluttershy learns of the animals' hunger and cold. The opening scene is cute, as is Fluttershy's delivery of the "pumpkining" line, but Twilight manages to take the award for cutest moment with her "skiddly-bopty-boo" line. There are plenty of little background moments, but I get most of my laughs from the dialogue of the feuding families. It's not so much individual lines as the demeanor of the clan leaders: Ma Hooffield's casual acceptance and enjoyment of the fight, and Big Daddy's mid-sentence oscillations between mild exposition and angry outbursts. My favorite funny moment is the strike team popping out of the cake and yelling "For Glory!" but lobbing nothing but pieces of the cake before getting swept up in a net. Glorious indeed.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: This seems like a very short episode. We spend about half the running time getting introduced to the situation and are propelled into the story's major battle before we've really found our footing. Fluttershy talking the two sides down and their truce on the battlefield take up most of the third act, almost up to the final minute of the episode. The simplicity of the plot isn't the bad thing, but something about that pacing left me feeling less than satisfied, like we should have had one more beat to the story or something. Also, the setting felt a bit...cramped. The great majority of the show takes place on the two hilltops and on the battlefield; it would have been nice to have a trot through the surrounding beautiful scenery to contrast with the destroyed valley. Nevertheless, the deft handling of the characters and the winsome presentation of a mature but kid-relevant lesson make this an excellent episode that's great for casual viewing.

 

The Hooffields and McColts armor rating: Gold Armor
Ranked 18th of 26 season-five episodes
Ranked 71st of 147 stories overall

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