Sunday, 30 April 2017

Episode review: "Fluttershy Leans In"

And season 7 has officially lost me. "Fluttershy Leans In" provides a continuation of season 6's impressive treatment of Fluttershy, concluding her character arc by presenting her with a massive ambition which she finally has the confidence to see through. As nice as that might sound, though, this is an "Amending Fences"-type episode which gives absolutely zero personal growth to anyone involved and simply seeks to demonstrate Fluttershy's newfound strength without any sort of internal conflict. Worse still, "Fluttershy Leans In" lacks even a compelling secondary character, instead letting Fluttershy react to moronic antagonists without even a hint of decent intentions, and then has the gall to take itself mostly seriously on top of that. The result is an episode with little to redeem it except already established characterization and the specific phrasing of its moral. How did this even happen?

When the Ponyville vet is overburdened with animals to take care of due to a recommendation from Fluttershy, the latter agrees to take the animals off of her hands once she has fulfilled her (never before mentioned) dream of building an animal sanctuary. Her friends recommend some ponies who could help her build it: a construction worker named Hard Hat, a farm pony named Wrangler, and a fashion designer named Dandy Grandeur. However, once they arrive, they soon decide that they know better than their client and start building something which is exactly the opposite of what Fluttershy wants.

That's it. No internal conflict, no life lessons to be learned, just a few ponies acting poorly as examples of how not to behave. This was my least favourite type of episode in season 6, and combining that with the show's tendency to have the conflict driven entirely by outside forces makes what was already tedious even worse. It's hard to tell how the ponies helping Fluttershy even kept their jobs if they're willing to disregard the client's wishes, and while the episode makes it clear that all three are out of their element with this project, their decisions don't suggest confusion as much as arrogance. Sassy Saddles in "Canterlot Boutique" was just as shallow, but at least her approach was explicitly stated to have failed repeatedly. Worse, once the three build a skeletal hospital which Fluttershy never asked for, they expect Fluttershy to find it much better than her actual vision, suggesting they're not only arrogant but stupid as well.

The shallowness of this conflict is made all the worse by the episode's lack of humour. There are very few jokes here, and those which exist are very light, seemingly so they don't detract from the episode's credibility as an important character showcase. The conflict doesn't even kick in until more than halfway through the episode, with most of the runtime being dedicated to exposition. The novelty of seeing Fluttershy express grand ambitions initially carries the earlier sections, but even there the dialogue is frequently stilted, and the lack of any conflict until the new characters arrive leaves the episode feeling threadbare. Even after the conflict kicks up, the lack of any real character development makes the episode feel hollow, and this makes it hard to forgive the relative seriousness of the tone.

At least Fluttershy's still good. The blend of sensitivity and assertiveness which defined Fluttershy in season 6 is still intact, and even if the serious tone doesn't let her be as funny as she was in "Viva Las Pegasus," it's still nice to see Fluttershy actually moving forward in her life instead of repeatedly learning not to be afraid of things. Even she has a moment of stupidity, though, as the cold open reveals that the reason why the veterinarian was overwhelmed with animals was because Fluttershy exaggerated her skills. Admittedly, more of the problem is that the animals just decided to stay, and that's a reasonable inciting incident for a Fluttershy episode, but unfortunately, the episode isn't about that. More disappointing is that, while this is the first time Fluttershy has had a life goal to work towards, it's also the last, because not only has this sanctuary idea been introduced for the first time, it's also concluded over the span of a single episode. Admittedly, I don't know how many stories could have been derived from this idea, but concluding the sanctuary plotline so quickly leaves us with the same problem of Fluttershy having nothing to work towards.

As it's stated, the episode has a moral that people with expertise in one area might not understand other areas as well, and while I think this is a genuinely strong message to send, the actual story is an awfully contrived way to express it. Again, how have Hard Hat and Dandy Grandeur in particular remained successful if they're not willing to follow their client's instructions? Fluttershy's friends express that they didn't expect that to happen, but right afterward they start giving Fluttershy suggestions which indicate that they don't really understand her plans either. That might convey a secondary moral of not taking over a friend's project, but we already had that in "The Cart Before the Ponies," and I would expect the mane six to already know to give Fluttershy some space and not butt in on her vision. Still, even this conflict between Fluttershy and her friends would work better than what we got, because at least someone would actually need to learn something.

We're now five episodes into this season, and of those five only a single one has been especially enjoyable. After a frequently excellent and at worst average season 6, the flaws of season 7 are especially frustrating, especially when most of the broader trends are so promising. An even greater focus on slice-of-life stories? Exactly what I had hoped for! Development of Fluttershy's dreams and ambitions? Great idea! There's even hints of a unified theme in the form of failures in communication, which here takes the form of people failing to listen to others. But more often than not, this season has been unable to provide consistent entertainment, and "Fluttershy Leans In" is the worst example yet, an episode which at least isn't overtly irritating, but which also does nothing impressive and showcases some appalling laziness in the writing department. It's a meaningless conflict without either humour or character development, and it's just boring. Perhaps this is just to be expected from Gillian M. Berrow, the writer of season 5's awful "The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows," but thus far season 7 has been way more misses than hits, and that's massively disappointing.

Seriously, is it the movie? Is all the effort being put into the feature film? At least that would promise better stories for season 8.

Entertainment: 3/10
Characters: 4/10
Themes: 5/10

Story: 2/10
Overall: 35/100

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