Saturday, 28 May 2016

Episode review: "Applejack's 'Day' Off"

I don't like the Applejack/Rarity dynamic. When these characters are put together, too often their personalities clash in ways that simply aren't enjoyable to watch, and the main conflict between the two has gotten incredibly rote. Thankfully, "Applejack's 'Day' Off" completely eschews the traditional form of this dynamic for something that feels far more friendly, but unfortunately trades any real distinguishing qualities with it, leaving a glacially paced episode without a whole lot entertaining going on. It's probably the season's weakest episode.
The main story here is the simplest of the season so far. Rarity wants to go to the spa with Applejack, but Applejack is too busy to join her. When Applejack does get some free time, the spa is suffering from technical issues, which Applejack spends her entire spa time fixing. This conflict serves as little more than a buildup to the moral, despite taking up the vast majority of the episode, and as a result, the episode is sluggishly paced, filling in time with exposition. This allows the episode to fill in a lot of detail, but not much of this detail is particularly interesting. The stakes are minuscule, which is fine, but there's not a whole lot of entertaining character interaction to be found either, and as a result, the episode is tedious to watch. 

It's not entirely without jokes. One recurring one is a gratingly rote gag about Rainbow Dash secretly liking girly things, which plays on a very shallow reading of her character. Once again, Rainbow lacks the self-awareness which she had built up over the first four seasons, and as such the joke of her trying to hide her more "uncool" hobbies comes across as a little regressive in terms of her characterization on top of being incredibly tired. However, although this "tomboy does girly thing" joke is obvious and cliche, it's one of the very few times that the episode picks up. There's very few real jokes in otherwise, and most of the dialogue is robotic exposition. Rarity and Applejack mocking Dash is irritating, but it at least flows more naturally than most of the episode. 

Twilight Sparkle isn't as prevalent, but she's not well written here either. She's made to feed the pigs while Applejack is at the spa, and for some reason she decides to take Applejack's instructions as literally as possible. As it turns out, she was right in supposing that Applejack had a reason for those instructions, but it still feels like a shallow interpretation of her character quirks, and more importantly, it's not particularly funny. Thankfully, it's thematically relevant, as Applejack has outdated reasons for her routine. The ultimate message that the episode sluggishly builds to is that sometimes workers can do a lot of pointless, unnecessary steps to achieve their goals, and this is a reasonably interesting lesson. Having Applejack's own routine reinforce this, however, comes across as unnecessary, even if the reinforcement does clarify the lesson. The bigger problem, however, is that a lot of the theme is communicated directly in exposition, and when it is shown through the plot, it's only in the most clunky and obvious of ways. There's very little subtlety to be found here, and that's a large part of why the episode falls flat. 

Alternatively, though, putting more emphasis on Applejack's own habits might have put more meat on the bones of this very simple narrative. The episode's strongest element is Applejack's characterization, which has some neat aspects even if they're ultimately irrelevant. Most significantly, Applejack's flaws are organically emphasized even in spite of the mechanical dialogue. She's stubbornly single-minded and often gets tuck in tradition. Once her mind is set on something, it's hard to make her stop, and when she establishes a habit, she sticks with it even past the point where it makes sense. Of these two traits, the former is far more interesting, but it mostly remains a quirk, while the latter contributes to the episode's main theme. This tendency to get stuck in a rut isn't exclusive to Applejack, but beyond the main message the episode is trying to convey, it doesn't dig much further into it, which is a shame. 

Visually, this episode has a lot of background motion, but very little of it is actually interesting. A few scenes feature ponies getting massages, and one very nice shot features Twilight and the pig pen in the background while Rarity and Applejack leave the farm, but there's not a lot of dynamic action going on at any point in the episode, excepting the climax where Applejack demonstrates her technique to feed the pigs. While that's a much more lively sequence than the vast majority of the episode, there still isn't a whole lot interesting going on, as this final sequence is primarily based on a joke that just isn't all that exciting.

"Applejack's 'Day' Off" features some interesting character quirks for Applejack, and succeeds in making the Applejack/Rarity dynamic tolerable and understandable as a friendship, but it's too slow-paced and simple to be particularly exciting. Add to that a relative shortage of jokes, as well as the fact that the few jokes present fall flat, and the result is an underwhelming, dull episode. I guess others might get more out of the character quirks and dynamics here than I do, but for me at least, this episode was sorely lacking in entertainment value and didn't do enough to make up for that with interesting characters or themes. More than anything, the episode feels like it's playing it safe, something which this season has admirably shied away from for the most part. Oh well. 

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