Season 5 episode 23
It's not perfect, but for a map episode to be genuinely entertaining is a minor miracle.
At their core, these map episodes are all deeply pretentious. They present a grand scale for a relatively small message, when less grandiose episodes do things which are far more impressive. Like the other two, "The Hooffields and McColts" boasts little character development and probably isn't saying as much as it thinks it is, but it makes up for that with brilliant comedic timing and easily the best characterization of both Twilight and Fluttershy in ages. Can't say I was expecting that!
This time, the friendship problem is a feud between two families, the Hooffields and the McColts. They don't remember why they're fighting, but they're fighting anyways, because reasons. Ancient feuds are an old trope, but this episode has a more comedic spin on the whole idea. In fact, it plays more like a lampoon of the trope, and though it's not an especially fresh take, it's still clever and funny, largely due to fun characters and great comedic timing. One particularly great moment is when Twilight attempts to solve a conflict by rationally stating the facts, just for her statement to be ignored entirely because she was flying out of earshot, which she is made aware of by a tomato to the flank. Like their friends in the other map episodes, Twilight and Fluttershy present themselves as saviours of a sort to the Hooffields and McColts, but unlike "Griffonstone," their attempts to solve the conflict frequently meet failure, and unlike "Manehattan," those failures are actually halfway enjoyable to watch. By far, this is the most purely enjoyable episode since "Rarity Investigates."
Over the course of the season, Twilight Sparkle has developed a bit of an ego. Being the Princess of Friendship has clearly gone to her head, and her enthusiasm about solving problems carries a slight tone of smugness. From the way that she introduces herself as being here to solve the two families' problems to the matter-of-fact ways in which she proposes solutions, it's clear that she thinks very highly of her role in this conflict, and thinks that she'll just walk in, solve the problem, and walk out. It's hilarious, really, as it blends wonderfully with Twilight's rational approaches to problems - and how they continually fail throughout the episode. However, it also strikes a nice contrast with her returning perfectionism. This perfectionism was one of the things that made her relateable to me in the first place, and to see it come back after a partial disappearance from the show is a wonderful revival of Twilight as a genuinely interesting character. It's the classic dichotomy of ego vs. insecurity, and it's just as excellent here as it is elsewhere.
Fluttershy, meanwhile, isn't quite at her most complex (she's the B character here, much like Pinkie Pie in "Griffonstone" and Applejack in "Manehattan") but she's still written far more solidly than she has in quite some time. As a foil to Twilight's nervous over-excitement, she merely follows up whatever Twilight is saying. Her relative informality makes her look much more modest than Twilight, but she's just as funny, particularly when she's trying to keep up with the princess. Her role in this episode is ultimately just as important as Twilight's, but it only comes into play near the end. Until then, she generally just follows whatever Twilight's doing, but it's clear she will be important from the various critters who can be seen suffering as a result of the two clans' feud. Ultimately, it's she who is able to stop the conflict with the help of these animals, who only she can understand.
The Smoky Mountains, where the episode takes place, is a far more interesting and well-realized setting than either Griffonstone or Manehattan were. In the feud between the Hooffields and the McColts, they use whatever they have around as ammunition in lieu of actual ammo. This generally takes the form of local crops, which has the unintended affect of starving the local fauna, which, as it turns out, was something which the Hooffields and McColts originally came together to solve. Although the idea of an ancient, pointless feud causing ecological damage is interesting, I can't help but feel that it's dumbed down for the target audience. There's a little too much showing instead of telling, and the scenes with the starving animals come across as manipulative. In addition, the backstory of the two clans' ancestors being brought together by their desire to help the animals is rather saccharine.
Still, this is one of the season's stronger episodes, and it's downright excellent aside from the climax. There's still a little awkwardness in the characterization, but in general it's probably some of the best this season, particularly for these two frequently mishandled characters. The map may be a terrible plot device, but "The Hooffields and McColts" is far from a terrible episode. Aside from injecting some much-needed character depth back into Twilight, it boasts some of the season's best humour. After a turgid run of middling episodes, that proves to be a much-needed breath of fresh air, and I am endlessly thankful for it.