Saturday, 21 November 2015

Episode review: "The Mane Attraction"

After a weak start, the penultimate episode of My Little Pony season 5 builds up to an incredibly powerful climax. If only anything in it actually mattered.

"The Mane Attraction" is most notable for being long-time writer Amy Keating Rogers' final episode. Generally regarded as one of the show's best, she has undoubtedly supplied some of the show's best episodes. With "The Mane Attraction," she leaves with style, providing an often emotionally resonant episode which is able to transcend its faults and which might have been one of the best episodes in a more focused season. Existing in season 5, however, an episode which does as little to move the show forward as this one can't help but feel like a wasted opportunity in spite of itself.

The mane six are holding a charity concert in Ponyville, and they've managed to rope the biggest pop star in Equestria, who goes by Countess Coloratura, to perform here. As it turns out, Coloratura happens to be the very same pony as Applejack's childhood friend Rara, which Rara remembers as well. However, Rara's manager, a very unpleasant pony by the name of Svengallop, proves very demanding and wishes to keep her away from activities she deems "unworthy" of her. Initially, it seems this conflict is gonna be a painful and cliched one about Applejack being grumpy about Rara's theatrics, but as the plot increasingly focuses on Svengallop's manipulative nature, a more interesting dynamic comes into play. Applejack confronts Rara about Svengallop, and Rara is understandably mortified by these accusations. She doesn't believe Applejack, and thankfully the balance between Applejack respecting Rara's choices and feeling concerned about her old friend is kept very well. As said, this episode could very well have fallen into some tedious cliches, but it overcame the temptation and became something significantly more interesting.

One thing that has really defined Rogers' work on the show in recent seasons is her interest in addressing deeper topics. Following a template which she herself set with "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3," "The Mane Attraction" focuses on ideas of being true to oneself even in the face of fame and success. Much of the effects in Rara's shows are managed by Svengallop, and he's done a lot to make her the #1 pop star in Equestria. When faced with the fact that he doesn't really care for her on a real, personal level, however, she is faced with a difficult choice: Does she accept this in order to maintain her success, or does she fire him for going against her values? For her to take the high road in this situation requires strong conviction, as it's a massive risk: If it doesn't work out, she could not only disappoint her fans, but lose the success she's come to enjoy.

There's a few things to appreciate on a smaller scale, as well. For one, Pinkie's stresses as a result of her running this concert serves to keep her grounded even with her energetic nature intact, and she's clearly straining to meet her responsibilities as the concert organizer. Another nice little touch is that this is one of the few episodes where Rarity and Applejack are truly believable as friends, as this episode boasts absolutely no squabbling between the two. It's incredibly refreshing, and though I still don't understand why these two's dynamic is favoured so much by fans and writers alike, this is a good step towards it not being a cause for dread. There's the occasional pacing issue I could complain about, and it does slightly impact Rara and Applejack's characterization, but unlike some other episodes this season these little issues don't stack up to overwhelm all the good things going on.

In the end, Rara plays the final performance of the concert without Svengallop. Her usual costume has been done away with, and she more resembles the filly in Applejack's flashbacks. She is seated at a grand piano, and is presenting herself free of all the smoke and mirrors for the first time. The ensuing performance is one of the best scenes in the entire season, a sweeping audiovisual feast which not only boasts the best song this season and some incredible emotional highs, but which invokes a certain feeling of finality, with not only Applejack but the Cutie Mark Crusaders being brought on stage, and a tapestry of Luna and Celestia being drawn out behind Rara as she finishes the song. For Rogers, this might have been her way of saying goodbye, and having the CMC - who she herself gave cutie marks - appear onstage lends further credence to that. It's an emotional farewell indeed.

But it also reveals something about the episode. What is here should be one of the best episodes of the season, but in a season as aimless and scattershot as season 5 has been, it becomes hard to ignore that "The Mane Attraction" adds absolutely nothing to the series whatsoever. As a deep slice-of-life episode in between major plot episodes, it might have been a pleasant respite from the main action, and even one of the best episodes of the season. In fact, it probably retains the latter status, but it doesn't stray from the formula which has come to define the season, and not a single recurring character is any different going in than they were coming out. In addition, this is yet another example of an episode focused mainly on a new character being told primarily from the point of view of a character which we are familiar with. Unfortunately, with Applejack not changing at all from this episode, I can't help but feel it would be even better if many of the events were told from Rara's perspective. She is, after all, the one character who actually changes and shows depth in the episode.

Regardless, though, "The Mane Attraction" is a rock-solid, often excellent episode which is likely only going to grow on me over time. It doesn't move beyond executing the show's formulas very, very well, but as it turns out, that just might be enough. What we have here is a comforting and powerful episode which plays it safe while still containing bountiful depth, and it's a shame that it's stuck in a season where it doesn't stand out as much as it might have. But as a closer for a writer who has had a major impact on this show, it's a strong, solid, and emotional note to leave on.

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