Saturday, 24 October 2015

Episode review: "Hearthbreakers"

Season 5 episode 20
Well, that's different.

In a season that contained "Slice of Life" and "Party Pooped," it means something when I say that this is the most confusing episode of the season. "Hearthbreakers" is a tough episode to form an opinion on. It has a lot of ideas, but they don't really coalesce into anything particularly coherent. The feel of the episode is more unlike anything previously seen in the show since at least "Slice of Life," if not as far back as "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3." The plot that ultimately ties the various ideas together is unfocused and underwritten, so it's good that the scene ideas themselves are at least solid.

This episode sees the Apple family meeting their alleged relatives, the Pies, and while the whole idea that the families are related remains unconfirmed and is still a little awkward, our first introduction to the Pie family is enjoyable. The two sisters we haven't been properly introduced yet, Marble and Limestone Pie, are both given entertaining personalities, with Marble being very shy and Limestone being aggressive and grumpy. Limestone in particular is stated to be one who really manages the farm, which makes some sense given her personality. She has a fairly enjoyable screen presence, as does Marble, who doesn't do a whole lot of talking throughout the episode. Marble's silence makes her a natural counterpart to Big Mac, which I'll get to later. Pinkie's parents, Igneous Rock and Cloudy Quartz, are effectively Amish stereotypes of a sort, and speak in slightly annoying archaic English. They're not particularly interesting on their own, but their interactions with Granny Smith are entertaining. Maud also reappears here, in what is probably my favourite appearance of her so far. I'm glad that I've been able to enjoy this character so much after not liking her debut so much, and that comes down largely to how she's been made a lot friendlier. Here, she has the second highest amount of experience with the Apples behind Pinkie, and even through her monotone speech it's clear that she's keeping in good spirits.

Pinkie, meanwhile, has some interesting characterization here. Her excitement is considerably more grounded than usual, with very few moments of utter randomness. This is perhaps the most down-to-earth characterization she's ever gotten. The defiance of logic is almost completely gone, and what's more, her rambling doesn't even take the crazy turns that it usually does. She's really just excited about her family and Applejack's family spending time with each other, and that's an intriguingly unique take on the character. However, her dynamic with Applejack is... odd. There's multiple instances where they say the same thing at the same time, which I never found all that amusing. I'm not entirely sure what the point of that was. Is it to emphasize the bond between the two? Well, alright, I guess, but there's no reason to see that bond as any different from how it would be if the two families weren't related, so I don't quite get the relevance.

Characterization on the Apple side is generally fine, especially with Granny, who is really entertaining here. Big Mac and Apple Bloom, despite not doing much, are perfectly fine, and get along with their Pie counterparts in a way that is pretty enjoyable. Big Mac and Marble Pie, in particular, seem to be being set up as a couple, which makes it good that they're supposedly such distant cousins. In some of its best moments, "Hearthbreakers" has a nice, warm air of bonding and understanding between the two families, but this isn't tapped into nearly as often as it should have been. It's clear that Granny, Big Mac, and Applebloom have come to understand the Pies at least a little, but Applejack hasn't, in part due to being paired up with Pinkie Pie. That's interesting, to be sure, but not much is made of it. Applejack then tries to make an Apple-style Hearth's Warming for the Pies, and awkwardness ensues.

It's a shame, really. The whole execution is shaky, descending into awkward cliches, with Applejack placing a flagpole for the flag raising that is part, in some way, of both families' tradition, but accidentally placing it on a fault line, resulting in things going terribly wrong. It's a disappointingly obvious climax, but when the Apples inevitably leave the farm, the scene goes on for long enough that I actually thought the episode was gonna have a sad ending. That would have made the episode even less satisfying, perhaps, but at the same time it'd be weirder and more interesting that this show, which revels in its happy endings, decided to forgo one for once. The actual ending has Granny explain some of the Pie family traditions to Applejack, and she comes to admire the reasoning behind the Pies' traditions, going back to help clean up after Applejack's mistake. I do wish this scene had happened before said mistake and spared us some awkwardness, but I found the conflict feel a little forced in general, largely because of the ending.

The ultimate lesson is kind of awkward as well. Yes, Applejack learns that it's important to respect and understand others' traditions, but I can't help but feel that having her briefly put a wedge between the Apples and the Pies might not have been the best way to do it. I guess this comes back to the generally haphazard plot, which just doesn't quite work despite all of its solid ideas. The focus just isn't there, and the ultimate lesson, being relatively complex for this show, really would have benefited from a tighter sense of direction. As is, there's numerous points where I couldn't tell where this episode was going, and even points where it didn't seem to have much direction at all. Again, that's seriously a shame, because a lot of the ideas here don't go anywhere as a result.

So "Hearthbreakers" is something of a mixed bag. It's not uniformly enjoyable, but most of what it does is at least either fun or intriguing, though a few of its more compelling ideas aren't really used as well as they could have been. It's unfortunate that the episode is so lacking in direction, because with a tighter script it could have been a genuinely great episode instead of merely a decent one with interesting ideas. And yet, for all I've said here, I think that on some level I just don't get it. There's something that isn't clicking, and perhaps it will become clearer on second watch. So, I dunno. I like it well enough, but after the relative focus of the first five episodes after the hiatus, it's still disappointing to have something like this. Still, not bad.

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