Saturday, 17 September 2016

Episode review: "Viva Las Pegasus"

Despite appearances, season 6 has radically changed the way that these cutie map episodes play out. For one, season 6 has introduced the unprecedented notion that these episodes could be fun, and even - gasp! - light-hearted and energetic. It's a positive development, but not one without negative side effects. As these adventure-driven episodes become more and more entertaining, they become less and less adventurous, to the extent that this latest entry, "Viva Las Pegasus," comes packed with almost no surprises whatsoever. That's not to say that the episode has nothing interesting going on - its villain (because of course there's a villain) isn't quite like anything we've seen in the show before, and this is likely the most outright polished episode the season has had - but it's hard to be impressed when the show is working so comfortably within its own boundaries, and when there's little here unexpected or even all that important. Still, polish and humour go a long way!
When they're summoned to the party city of Las Pegasus, Applejack and Fluttershy meet a businessman named Gladmane, who runs a resort hotel and makes a big show about how he treats everyone in his employ as a friend. Not seeing a major friendship problem, they return to the lobby, where they encounter Flim and Flam, who are selling tickets when they break into an argument. Fluttershy presumes that this is the friendship problem they were sent to solve, but Applejack, resentful of the brothers after her experiences with them, refuses to help, searching for other problems - which she finds, twice over, in the form of Gladmane's other employees having arguments of their own. 

When they reconvene, Applejack and Fluttershy take note of how all three problems seem to benefit Gladmane, and they immediately become suspicious of him. A hint from one acrobat's pet mouse tips them off that Gladmane is feeding them lies to divide them, but it's likely that just about any viewer would have figured this out already. We know there's a friendship problem here, so when the first thing we see is six minutes of Gladmane talking about how he and his employees are friends, it's suspicious. The episode briefly distracts from that with Flim and Flam's argument, but when the real problem comes to light, it's no surprise. Thankfully, the episode isn't building up any sort of mystery, and it provides some modestly interesting ideas in the process of getting to the point.

One of these things is Applejack's complete refusal to help the Flim Flam Brothers. Many people claim that Applejack doesn't have any interesting flaws, but this is the third episode this season in which she's shown to have difficulty in changing course when she's set on something. As nice as that is, though, it's frustrating that, unlike prior (and admittedly less enjoyable) episodes to spotlight this, the episode severely weakens this flaw by making it important to uncovering Gladmane's shady behaviour. Her stubbornness leads her to uncover the performers having similar issues to Flim and Flam, but this isn't nearly as interesting as tackling the negative effects of that character trait in a genuinely entertaining episode might have been. 

What works a little better is Gladmane himself, who keeps his employees in line with divide-and-conquer tactics. This isn't exactly new for this show - it's the same thing employed by Discord in "The Return of Harmony" - but whereas Discord turned the mane six against each other largely just for fun, Gladmane sees his employees as a threat. Repeatedly mentioned through the episode is how the various performance groups might have been able to move on from the resort, and Flim and Flam are stated - and later shown - to be capable of taking over the resort. On a subtle level, this speaks to the power of cooperation, and serves as the closest thing to a proper moral that the episode has to offer. 

It's just that main characters working together to outsmart some jerk isn't exactly new territory for this series. As a matter of fact, there are significant structural similarities between "Viva Las Pegasus" and the previous map episode, "Spice Up Your Life," and the new characters on offer here aren't as interesting as in the earlier episode. Gladmane initially has the potential to be a fun-to-hate villain, but he doesn't have nearly enough screentime for that, and as a result he's largely forgettable. I enjoy the modern, Vegas-inspired location, but at no point to Applejack or Fluttershy ever interact with it, rendering it as little other than somewhat unusual set dressing.

Most criminal of all, however, is the simple fact that, by placing Applejack and Fluttershy in a location which interests neither and giving them an impersonal goal, all of the potential fun of their dynamic is removed. "Rarity Investigates!" is another episode with a predictable main plot and a specific goal, but it has actual stakes for Rainbow Dash, and it begins with multiple scenes just showcasing Rarity and Dash's friendship. Because Applejack and Fluttershy are summoned by the map, there's no time to see their dynamic in a casual setting. Worse still, there's no real stakes, as even when the team's initial plan is thwarted, that turns out to have been part of their plan all along. Thankfully, this is the map episode which does the most to balance its lead characters, as both Fluttershy's charitable goodwill and Applejack's stubbornness contributed to stopping Gladmane. They're equally important, and unlike "Spice Up Your Life," this isn't a case where one is doing a worse job than the other. In at least that sense, this is the most polished version of the formula yet. 

With that said, it is nice to see Applejack open her mind a little and finally help out Flim and Flam, even if it's only to help the other employees, and the plan which Flim and Flam come up with to thwart Gladmane is legitimately delightful. Fluttershy wearing a disguise and whispering everything she wants to say to Flam is a lot of fun, but the fake name "Impossibly Rich" is even better, subtly poking fun at pony naming conventions while being played completely straight. Additionally, the boisterous sales pitches of the Flim Flam Brothers are always entertaining, and there's plenty of other small touches which, alongside the fast pace of the episode, keep things bouncy and entertaining. 

"Viva Las Pegasus" is clearly not an episode which benefits from much analysis, but it's not exactly new for a My Little Pony season to be filled with episodes which don't exactly move the show forward. There's not a lot here to excite or surprise, but it's also rarely boring, chewing quickly through its plot and throwing in plenty of fun, if not terribly memorable, little moments along the way. I wish episodes like this were a lot less frequent, but if that were the case, I might not like what replaces them. I spent a lot of time complaining about all the ways in which the episode plays it safe, but in truth, this is yet another really enjoyable episode in what's shaping up to be possibly the most consistently entertaining season in a while. If the show playing it safe half the time is what that costs, then I'll take it. 

Entertainment: 7/10
Characters: 7/10
Theme: 6/10
Story: 6/10
Overall: 65/100

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