When Applebloom gets caught lying about putting the cider in the wrong crates, her family tells her a story about a time before Applejack came to value honesty, when well-intentioned lies got her into a lot of trouble. In flashback, we see Applejack make a deal with Filthy Rich which she thinks might benefit the farm, but when Granny disapproves, she continues lying in order to avoid getting on Rich's bad side.
While I've often complained about how often season 6 opts for too much simplicity, that's not necessarily a problem here. Although Applejack's lying is primarily in service of a moral, it is at least given a bit of nuance. While one or two of the lies might be derived from her own ego, a lot of them are well-intentioned, as Applejack is legitimately concerned that Filthy Rich will stop doing business with the farm if he learns that she was dishonest with him. Sometimes this show isn't willing to show that bad actions can spring from good intentions, but "Where the Apple Lies" strikes a nice balance between Applejack legitimately being worried about the farm and being, as per usual, unable to change course once she sets her mind to something.
In fact, it's interesting to see how different these younger versions of the Apple children are. Big Mac is more talkative and has a more audacious mane style, while Applejack appears a little less traditionalist than she is in the present. As compelling as this is, however, it's a little disappointing that the episode chooses to draw very immediate continuity between these earlier personalities and their current demeanors, especially with Big Mac, who the episode implies went within a day from never shutting up to communicating very sparsely. The rationale for this - that he should talk less and listen more - is legitimately sweet, but the transition towards Mac's often self-parodic silence sort of seems like moving from one questionable extreme to another.
Moreover, while a more progress-minded Applejack is really interesting to see, the contrast between this and most other Applejack appearances gives off the impression that Applejack became less clever and less open to change over time. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it's a little hard to ignore Applejack often talking about ideas and even willing to stray from tradition when episodes from "The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000" to "The Cart Before the Ponies" depict her as staunchly traditionalist, and I honestly find it a little sad. This doesn't really factor into how much the episode succeeds at its goals, but it does show how depicting the past can have its drawbacks.
However, those drawbacks are nothing compared to the strengths. Alongside the aforementioned character differences, we also get to meet Diamond Tiara's parents before she was born. We already know that Filthy Rich does business with the Apple Family, but we get to know his wife (here his fiancee) a bit better as well. We previously saw this character being nasty to Diamond Tiara in "Crusaders of the Lost Mark," but although this episode gives her the amusingly fitting name Spoiled Milk, it also shows us a lot more of her sweet side while still allowing us glimpses of the dark side we knew previously. Although it's clearly used for mild humour here, this sort of subtle character work is something the show excels at whenever it actually tries.
Unfortunately, the emphasis must be put on "mild," because after everything's established, there really isn't all that much here which is particularly funny. For a while, the interesting elements of this earlier version of Ponyville hold the episode afloat, but when the inevitable scene of protracted cringe comedy comes in, the episode largely falls apart. It's not that what was interesting before has disappeared, but the humour goes from mild to grating very quickly, and it becomes very apparent just how closely this episode is sticking to formula. As with many episodes in this show, "Where the Apple Lies" is structured in three parts: first, a character makes a few mistakes. Then, the character anxiously doubles down on them, and finally they realize what they were doing wrong and apologize.
This is one of the most common strucures in the entire show, and here it comes across as nothing more than tiresome cliches. Applejack telling more lies to support her older lies is about as played out a trope as there gets, and the episode never puts any sort of clever spin on it. Of course the narrative is frentic and convoluted - that's exactly what you expect from this kind of story, and without anything fresh or clever added, it becomes very tedious very fast. This isn't strictly new for writer Dave Rapp, whose three episodes have been united by difficulties with humour. I would like "Newbie Dash" much more without the impressions scene, and while I found "Flutter Brutter" highly amusing, many others don't have the same appreciation for obnoxious jerks that I do, resulting in a relatively divisive episode. If Rapp was paired with a stronger comedic writer, like Nick Confalone, I think he could finally make a truly great episode, as he has a particularly strong understanding of the characters.
Unfortunately, a moral about the perils of lying isn't especially fresh for this show, and as other episodes this season have been saved by their strong messages, that's a real let down. It's not that the lesson is bad by any means, but it feels rote, and while I can't remember another exactly like it off the top of my head, it also feels like an idea the show has already gotten across. As interesting as seeing Applejack's past is, there's just not a whole lot here to convince me that this particular story was at all necessary to learn about, and it's yet another case where an episode starring one of the ostensible main characters of the show is one of the season's least interesting. I suppose I should be glad that these characters are finally being given any sort of nuance six whole seasons in, especially after season 5 seemed content to flatten them out in a lot of places.
Really, it's a shame that "Where the Apple Lies" isn't more fun than it is, because there's some genuinely interesting elements here. Seeing how much these ponies have changed (or not changed!) is fascinating, and there's a lot to enjoy in these different versions of familiar characters. While the episode is ultimately a slog, it does showcase potential for its format, even if it doesn't stray very far from one of the show's most played-out formulas. The episode isn't very good, but at least it's not necessarily shallow like so many other throwaway episodes this season have been, and it does suggest that more episodes should try telling stories about characters' pasts. These main characters still have potential stories to be told about their futures, but there's a lot of stories that can be told in their pasts as well, and I hope the show takes that to heart.