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

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Episode 87: "Trade Ya!"

Aired 4/19/2014, written by Scott Sonneborn (his second episode)
  • Intro: The Mane Six and Spike arrive at the Rainbow Falls Trader's Exchange, where Twilight Sparkle will have the royal duty of arbitrating any disputes. She is surprised by an enthusiastic welcome.
  • Act 1: The friends go their separate ways: Spike to trade mint comics, Applejack and Rarity to pool their items for a better trade, and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy to get a first-edition Daring Do book. Twilight hopes to trade away some old books. The Daring Do vendor will only trade the book for a monstrous orthros, and AJ and Rarity each find an item they like, but either would cost their whole cache.
  • Act 2: Neither AJ nor Rarity is impressed by the other's choice, and they both concede, trying to outdo each other's generosity. Pinkie Pie takes over Twilight's book trade to ensure the books don't go too cheap. Meanwhile, a chain of trades gets Dash her orthros, but the Daring Do vendor is no longer interested.
  • Act 3: The vendor consents to trade with Dash on the condition that Fluttershy come with her to Manehattan to train the orthros. Dash impulsively agrees but regrets it when she realizes the implications. Twilight decides to keep her books, and then oversees Rainbow's dispute with the Daring Do vendor. The trade is canceled. On the return trip, all the friends reflect on their trading experiences.

Character: Let me start by saying I think the characters are paired up here even better than in Castle Mane-ia. It seems the personalities of the Mane Six are carefully tailored so that any given pony could function as a foil for any of the others. But the combinations of Applejack and Rarity, of Fluttershy and Rainbow, and of Pinkie and Twilight are the ones with the most significant relational development in the series, and each couple's interactions here build on the adventures they've had together in previous seasons.

Though this episode is structured as an ensemble story, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy's quest gets far more attention than the other characters' adventures. These two have a long history, from the first season's Dragonshy to their last trip to Rainbow Falls. Ever prone to obsession, Dash is focused on her task and will move heaven and earth to accomplish her goal. Her solutions to the various challenges she faces are creative and pragmatic, and she even manages to be relatively civilized in her interactions with the other traders. Meanwhile, Fluttershy is the model friend, sacrificing her day and her bear call, and even agreeing to an unknown period of time away from Ponyville, all for Rainbow's wish. Granted, she makes it clear each time that she's being inconvenienced, but she'll do anything for the sake of her friends' happiness. Yet she really does seem to give herself to the task during the quest, never griping or regretting her decisions. And she does show some assertiveness, but only in helping Dash. It's worth noting that in the end, Fluttershy is the only pony who ends up with the item she originally set out to get (the bird whistle).

On the trade that marks the climax of the episode: At first glance, it seems our many-hued hero has just sold Fluttershy into slavery. Her insensitivity, the apparent legality of the trade, and Twilight's initial upholding of it in arbitration stunned quite a few first-time viewers. My own take, after some consideration, is that it's the strongest part of the episode and is portrayed realistically from a character standpoint. First of all, volunteering to work for someone under agreed-upon conditions isn't slavery, and frankly, it's Fluttershy mention of the need for training that sets up the vendor's offer. She basically says the vendor can enjoy the orthros IF it gets trained, so the deal becomes, "I'll take it if you'll train it." Meanwhile, it's clear from the animation that Dash isn't listening at all. Transfixed by the book and worn out from an entire day of trying to get that book, all she hears is, "So we got a fair deal?" It doesn't register what she's agreed to until she sees the vendor leaving with both the orthros and Fluttershy in tow. Twi's ruling also makes sense: With Dash's agreement, she's entered into a binding legal contract (sort of like winning an auction on eBay) that can only be canceled by the agreement of both parties. Dash's words were exactly what they needed to be, and re-trading the orthros for Fluttershy's bird whistle is a good first step toward making up for her mistake. Let me also add that Twilight gets an approving nod from me by showing judicial restraint rather than partiality in her ruling. It's a good leadership example, though a brief and subtle one.

Rarity and Applejack spend the episode doing a variation on the old "After you"/"No, after you" bit. It gets old after a while, but the two do have a chemistry together at this point in the series that makes them fun to watch. Making the argument about who's the better friend is a heap better than their first-season town vs. country squabbling. The end of their story is sweet, too, though we get the impression this competition isn't over. Pinkie's antics totally dominate the Twilight storyline, but its unexpected swerve into a decent lesson really appealed to me. Though practically forgotten, Spike is noteworthy here, since he manages to accomplish his intended trade on his own without incident. It seems he takes all day to do so, but on occasion I've spent multiple hours in a comic book store myself, so I'm not all that surprised.

I have to say a word about the guest ponies in this episode. All the vendors have eye-catching designs, likeable and unique voices, and personalities that come through in every line. Even the comic book vendor looks like an interesting character. I love the fact that Stellar Eclipse's wheelchair is just there, rather than requiring explanation or special treatment. I'm not sure if the beast vendor is trying to sound like Abe Simpson, but if so he's doing a good job. The antique chicken dealer steals the show, combining the appearance of Charles Nelson Reilly with the voice of Paul Lynde. And the teddy bear cutie mark on the Daring Do vendor is a nice bit of foreshadowing: it hints that she's an animal lover and probably a bit of a softie, which comes in handy at the end of the episode.

Lesson: The basic lesson is the generic one that friendship is more important than stuff. Generic isn't bad, by the way. But the statements of that lesson, mostly in the final scene but also several times along the way, are a little sappy by this series' standards. I'm not sure whether it's the wording, the vocal delivery, or the repetition. Saying "you" or "her" rather than "my friend(s)" in a couple of those instances might have sounded a little more natural.

My favorite lesson from the episode is the one learned by Twilight, on a connection between the value of people and things. The sentimental value of her books comes from their being reminders of her history with her friends. This speaks to me on a very personal level, because for various reasons I'll not get into here, a significant proportion of the things I own are gifts from family and friends, or else are relics of my childhood. I therefore live surrounded by stuff that evokes memories and feelings. I believe it's made me a more tender-hearted person, perhaps even beyond the influence of this show, and has helped to keep certain people in the forefront of my mind.

The loss of Twilight's library in the season finale adds poignancy to what Twilight says here, since most or all of those books have been destroyed. Stuff is stuff, but the loss of mementos of friends is a grief that I hope is addressed in the show. On the bright side of things, if those books truly helped make Twilight what she is, the fact that Twilight and her memories remain means that their real value is preserved.

Two changes I would make to enhance the lesson aspect of this episode: First, I would have Fluttershy be a bit less vocal with the "but if that's what you really want" thing and just have her be the positive example she is, then have Dash call out her kindness on the train at the end as the example to all the others. Second, I'm concerned that it looks like Twilight would have let Pinkie oversell her books. So I'd have Twilight stop Pinkie early on in her auctioneering (one early "I'm not comfortable with this," then shutting her down when she goes into the double princess bit), and let the lesson flow from some back-and-forth point-making between the two of them. Less funny perhaps, but a shade more lesson-friendly.

Resonance: One subtle heartwarming moment is Fluttershy's evident appreciation of the Discord lamps. No elaboration required there. The story behind Stellar Eclipse is also worth looking into. The chalice/mosaic scene gets my personal award for funniest moment of the week, and in fact I found every new development in the Chain of Deals hilarious. The overall formula may be familiar, but the details in this version of the bit are refreshingly unpredictable. Pinkie threatening a little filly is likewise good for a laugh. Dash has an astounding range of facial expressions in this episode, all of which are entertaining. Even the really sad one is funny in context.

Missed joke opportunity: Imagine if after the big trade was canceled, the vendor said she also would have traded the book for a bear call. I was actually waiting for this, and it never came. The bird whistle was an adequate call back, though.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: At first, I expected this to be Equestria's version of the World's Longest Yard Sale, but it seems more like a prominent local swap meet that attracts tourists from all over. It's a neat idea, and a lot better than if the writer had just decided that Equestria has malls all of a sudden. Say what you will about the barter system, but it's inherently better for storytelling than ordinary shopping. In fact, just seeing what object a character has instantly tells you something about that character.

Twilight's reception as a princess at her arrival is in keeping with what else we've seen this season. She may have a "prophet without honor" thing going on in Ponyville and Manehattan, but here and in Canterlot she's welcomed. But she isn't mobbed all day; things seem to quiet down once everyone gets to shopping. Works for me.

At several points the story feels a little plain, basically anytime we leave the Rainbow Dash/Fluttershy story. Any one of the storylines would have worked for an episode, but I think the whole is weakened by all the cross-cutting between plots. It's an unusual structure for this series, and it hasn't always worked. The simultaneous-stories thing was great in The Best Night Ever, but in Hearth's Warming Eve I felt like none of the pairs got enough attention, and in Castle Mane-ia the storylines seemed overly drawn out...though the fact that Hearth, Castle, and Trade Ya were all the first or second episodes of their respective writers may have something to do with it. Also, Spike really gets the short end of the stick here. I was expecting a sequence of close calls with the condition of his comic, but instead we get...well, nothing, really.

Overall, it's a fun time with the characters, with the real quality of the episode coming from the most prominent of the storylines and some decent lesson material at the end of it all. I'm impressed by the unique Chain of Deals and the sheer volume of background work, with nearly two hundred characters and over forty new ponies, and endless little gags here and there. There's a great example of detail in the transition from the lamps to the chicken booth: Watch the characters' identically timed reactions, followed by the match cut. Steve Sanderson and Nicole Wang did a fanastic job storyboarding this. In the end, Trade Ya! is not quite on par with most of the fourth season's adventures, but it's a satisfying, quiet episode that has the feel of the first or early second season in a number of ways.


Trade Ya! armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 19th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 175th of 233 stories overall

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