Episode writer: M.A. Larson
So... a fan favourite, eh? We haven't seen one of those for a while.
In this season, there's been relatively few episodes that everyone comes together and enjoys. The last one of these that I've seen was "The Lost Treasure of Griffonstone", and you all know how I feel about that. "Amending Fences" seems to have gotten a unanimously positive reception from the fanbase, and while I don't absolutely adore it as much as many other people seem to, it's filled with strong, surprisingly mature and emotionally complex ideas and a fair bit of good humour.
From a glance, the premise seems a bit like a retcon, but painstaking work has been put in to make Twilight's past friendships consistent with earlier statements about her characterization. Twilight's friends appear more like ponies she happened to be in the vicinity of, who perhaps considered her a friend more than she considered them... well, at all, really. At the same time, this brings up the question of why these ponies considered Twilight their friend at all. While that's technically tangential to the story, it might have strengthened the main themes to be explored in more detail, and allowed for more heartwarming scenes. Perhaps it was just cut for time.
A bigger deal with Twilight's old friends though is that they're... kinda weird. They have a certain overzealousness to their interactions with Twilight that makes them seem insincere. I'm not sure if it's even written that way in the script, but between the hyperactive animation and the relentless mugging of the voice actresses, there's an unintended fakeness to most of these characters that, thankfully, dies down by the second half of the episode. Largely due to the fact that they came across weirdly to me, I found them kinda hard to really like as much as most of the other side characters this season. Looking past that, though, these three ponies are largely indistinguishable, defined primarily by their friendship with Twilight, and thus aren't especially memorable - though I'm sure that the fan base will do neat things with them.
Thematically, this episode is split into two parts, both defined by their relation to Twilight's recent panic. In this case, Twilight is stressed out that she left her friends behind in Canterlot, which leads to two reactions depending on the incident. In the first part, with the majority of Twilight's friends as described in the previous paragraph, it turns out that it wasn't anything sudden and unexpected, and that Twilight's old friends had assumed she moved on and just sorta went on without her. The second part involves a fourth new character, Moondancer. It turns out that she was a relative social shut-in, much like Twilight used to be, but unlike Twilight, she attempted to break free from her social shell by hosting a party, which Twilight didn't go to, claiming to be busy studying. Unlike with the other three, Twilight's neglect and disappearance actually did hurt her. In other words, the first half says that friends moving on is natural, while the second half says that ignoring friends hurts them. This results in easily one of the show's deepest and most nuanced themes to date, with complexity that is perhaps unprecedented in the show beforehand.
The thing is, the plot tying it together is much weaker. Twilight winds up panicking throughout most of the episode in regards to her history as a bad friend, and while this does fit her character, it also feels awkward. This is largely due to the pacing, especially in the first portion, where the episode isn't given quite enough space to breathe. I feel like a lot of early scenes should perhaps have gone on a lot longer, as Twilight shuffles through emotions at breakneck speed, not leaving quite enough room for her emotions to come a bit more organically. In general, a number of scenes go by just a tiny bit too quickly to leave the right impact, at least for me. A more concrete problem is Twilight's approach, which borders on stalking. This might be less weird if it was addressed that this is basically stalking, but the episode never expresses much self-awareness about this, especially since Moondancer reacts to Twilight & co. with more annoyance than anything. It also feels like Twilight's trying a little too aggressively to shove friendship down Moondancer's throat, though this might also come from there not being enough time in the episode to make Twilight's actions make just a little more sense.
Speaking of which, although Moondancer's emotional complexity is effective, it might be more effective if the importance she placed on Twilight was actually explained. Considering that Twilight had demonstrated herself to be antisocial, and that all her other friends showed up to the party, why was Moondancer so bothered by Twilight's absence? Perhaps their initial shared disinterest in other ponies warped Moondancer's view of their friendship. In any case, maybe other people can relate to that a lot more than I can, in which case it actually does make perfect sense. Moondancer is the fourth foil for Twilight we've seen, and she's easily the most blatant of them, having had a direct connection to Twilight Sparkle before her first major appearance, and actually just being a recolour of Twilight. I suspect that latter fact was an active choice, but it seems a bit on-the-nose. After Starlight Glimmer, she's also the second foil for Twilight that we've seen in this half of the season, and while it's fine so far, I really hope this plot device doesn't get overused.
One thing that really sets "Amending Fences" apart is the callbacks to the first episode. There's a lot of them here, and the attention to continuity is spot-on. Twilight's time in Canterlot starts with the discovery that her old place has been collecting dust over the past four and a half seasons, and from there the episode is almost constantly drawing lines back to the brief moment in the pilot, back in season one, where Twilight was in Canterlot. For fans of continuity, this is a veritable feast, and provides closure for something that I don't think many people even knew was still open. It's also not something that has been tried in the show before, resulting in perhaps one of the fresher episodes of the season.
I feel like there's a few missed opportunities to dig even deeper here, and combined with Twilight's stalking, this is an episode which, while containing several great ideas, struggles a little in being a cohesive whole. The episode's good parts far outshine the bad parts, but I can't help but get the feeling that M.A. Larson is a bit constrained by the format. I think he needs longer than 25 minutes to express his ideas. What we're left with is a very solid episode that I can't say I adore as much as everyone else due to some issues with the connective tissue. If it flowed maybe a little bit better-perhaps was a bit longer-I think this episode would be easily one of the show's best. For now, it's still good.