For all the different things that season 5 has been trying to do, there's still been an air of stagnation. This has been starting to fade in more recent episodes, as the show has been awkwardly trying different things, but thus far they haven't quite been willing to really shake up the status quo. "Party Pooped" came close, but it implied more than it followed through with. Thankfully, "Canterlot Boutique" is the first episode in a long time to meaningfully move one of the main characters forward, and, although it's imperfect, it does so with a combination of style and substance that this show has sorely needed.
In this episode, Rarity finds herself closer to her ambitions than ever before. She has saved up to open a boutique in Canterlot, and has hired a manager to help her make it big in the big city. This is some big stuff, as Rarity has been infatuated with Canterlot since the very beginning, and unlike her previous stint with fame in the city, this one is likely to have some permanence. It initially seems like the main conflict might be the manager attempting to exploit Rarity in some way, but it turns out more nuanced and complicated than that. See, the manager pony-named Sassy Saddles-has a certain technique, which involves establishing a "signature dress" and then mass-producing it.
Obviously, there's a few problems with that, with the most notable one for the episode's purposes being that it's hugely draining for Rarity to make the same dress over and over again. It becomes clear that Sassy Saddles genuinely believes in her technique, even though we later learn that she's had to deal with numerous failures in the past. She tries to keep Rarity from showing a modified dress to a customer, which initially seems to set her up as a villain, given that Rarity had just found new inspiration in changing the design. However, it turns out that Sassy is right, as the customer is frustrated that Rarity is trying to give her something other than what she ordered. All the same, the episode never quite supplies the level of nuance that it really could have, and that's a real shame. For the most part, it's black and white: Rarity is in the right, Sassy is in the wrong. Like many episodes this season, a high concept is not given the depth and nuance it deserves. Perhaps the target audience is part of the reason, but more likely it's the 22-minute running time.
In fact, it's quite clear that this episode is heavily compressed. A few minutes after the theme song consist entirely of blunt exposition, and much like the notoriously rushed "Magical Mystery Cure", a sizeable portion of the episode resorts to using songs to communicate the storyline. This has been a repeated problem throughout the season, and although "Canterlot Boutique" packs more of its story in than episodes like "Party Pooped" and "Amending Fences", the tradeoff means a considerable neutering of the episode's themes. So instead of an episode where the business side of art is treated with subtlety and nuance, we get a hero vs. villain story where the hero and villain don't quite fit their roles fully. It seems that there might have been more nuance here at one point, particularly given that Sassy is clearly well-intentioned and merely inept, and that Rarity's complaints aren't 100% valid, but unfortunately the deeper themes are muddled by the over-compression of the story. One line in one of the songs refers to Rarity feeling like a factory, but actually putting the dresses into a factory to meet quotas isn't suggested until the very end, where it's not even taken seriously. That could have potentially been the episode's most interesting angle, but instead it's glossed over. Could Rarity not have seen factory production as an excuse to continue making designs? The conflict is oversimplified.
Thankfully, the songs are still fantastic, being easily the best musical numbers of the season so far. They have a neat mixture of Daniel Ingram's trademark acoustic strings and the orchestral elements that have been growing increasingly prevalent through the show, but never go for the generic, pandering swells that too many of the show's songs have been doing recently. There's a number of parts to the songs as well, switching moods much like season 1's "Art of the Dress". There's some parallels to be had with that episode, particularly in Rarity's creativity being stifled, but aside from some small thematic and aesthetic similarities, the two episodes are actually very different. Rarity's dresses still don't quite approach her designs in that particular episode, but considering that these are intended for consumer wear, that makes sense.
In the first few minutes of the episode, Pinkie Pie plays a prominent role, and unfortunately, this is probably her least entertaining appearance in some time. Pinkie's usual random humour leans too much on the "random" part here, and as such is strange to watch but not particularly funny. Despite this, the episode severely tones down the randomness after Pinkie leaves the stage, though for the most part this also leads to a decline in attempts at comedy. Still, the musical pleasures and interesting story elements of the episode are enough to make up for that, even with the rushed script.
An interesting visual element of the episode is that it showcases more different body types for ponies. Sassy Saddles has a lithe character model that seems like a scaled down version of one of the princesses or the minor character Fleur. Near the end, meanwhile, we see an ostensibly overweight pony walk in and look for a dress. Some have seen this as fat shaming, though the episode makes no big deal of this. Instead, I see it as a neat little inclusion of someone who looks a bit different. It's a shame, however, that some commenters have chosen to fill in for the absent fat shaming.
As with many of season 5's episodes, "Canterlot Boutique" aims admirably high and manages to follow through with its ambitions impressively, even if in a heavily compromised state. It's a shame that so much here is oversimplified or overly compressed, because a more polished, more complete version of this script could have made for easily one of the best episodes of the season. Perhaps this season's biggest problem isn't stagnation or a lack of focus, but a lack of restraint. Even with the faults, though, this episode is remarkable for moving a character forward more than any episode has in a very, very long time, and providing enough entertainment and interesting ideas to make up for its deficiencies. And hey-you've got to admire a show that tries its hardest to push its boundaries.