Saturday, 29 April 2017

Episode review: "Rock Solid Friendship"

Since her introduction in season 4, Maud Pie has made at least one appearance in every season, and every single one of those appearances is stronger than the last. By season 6's "The Gift of the Maud Pie," the writers had grown comfortable with subtly suggesting her emotions, and here, they've gone a step further and fleshed out her flaws and anxieties. She is rapidly becoming one of the absolute best characters in the entire show because of this, which makes it all the more disappointing that she shares "Rock Solid Friendship" with Pinkie Pie at her most obnoxious and Starlight Glimmer at her most bland. This is an episode with a great deal to admire, but it's really only got one joke, and all the nuance in the world only means so much when the episode gets in its own way so often.
Having finally graduated from school and earned her "rocktorate" (no, seriously, that's what they call it), Maud Pie is considering moving to either Ponyville or the Ghastly Gorge to continue her studies. The Gorge has the better rocks, but Maud confides to her sister that she'd also like to make some friends, which gives Ponyville a particular appeal. Pinkie wants to convince Maud to pick Ponyville, so when Maud finds some common ground with Starlight Glimmer, Pinkie does everything in her power to make that friendship work out. 

What's especially frustrating about Pinkie's characterization in this episode is that it has some qualities to be admired. Pinkie's driven by affection for her sister and a desire to find Maud a friend, and many of Pinkie's more interesting episodes link her hyperactivity to some sort of grounded emotion. In some ways, this is actually a relatively nuanced depiction of her, and that makes it a lot easier to forgive that she's even more tactless than usual, but every time she appears still halts the episode's pacing, and she really only has one joke to offer. Pinkie pushing too hard for Maud to stay in Ponyville is somewhat amusing the first time, but when it's been repeated over and over again throughout the episodes, it becomes genuinely obnoxious, even with how easy it is to empathize with Pinkie's motives. There is the rare other joke which is genuinely amusing, but a lot of the episode's attempts at humour come from Pinkie's interventions, and they grow extremely tiresome. 

Starlight is a more straightforwardly frustrating case. With the thornier parts of the character arc largely sorted out, she's left feeling awfully bland, and like in "All Bottled Up," she's simply becoming less interesting as she becomes more confident. If nothing else, she's given the peculiar quirk of being a kite enthusiast, which is as close to a particular quirk as she's been given so far, but she pays very little lip service to any anxieties and the show not only repeats the same idea about her being a misfit yet again but also sees fit to bring up her past again (although it's relatively funny this time). Starlight's characterization here is built on a series of redundancies, and while there's something charming about her and Maud bonding over a shared feeling of being misunderstood, it also makes me wish we could see the mane six coming to understand either of them more rather than having their relationships remain static. Still, I like that she enjoys that Maud is "weird," as it's the only other bit of flavour Starlight gets in this episode.

Thankfully, Maud does a lot to carry the episode's weight. Her expressed loneliness, her frustration at being misunderstood, and her longing for a friend outside of rocks and her sister all contribute to giving her a surprising amount of depth for a character who began as a one-note gag, and her verbal clues to how she's feeling are clearer than ever. Sometimes, it's simply how her lines are phrased, and other times, the context of the scene gives it away, and both cases feel entirely organic and inconspicuous. Despite my misgivings about Starlight in this episode, Maud's friendship with her truly is endearing, and Maud's frustration over others not understanding her rings a lot truer than Starlight's. She alone elevates this episode a lot, and since her character arc is a huge part of the story, it does a lot to counteract Pinkie's obnoxiousness. 

Just like "A Flurry of Emotions," "Rock Solid Friendship" has an endearingly casual tone. Starlight bumps into Maud while going shopping, and the Pies bump into Rarity while the latter is searching for gemstones for her dress. However, even the interaction with Rarity has caveats. At one point, Maud notes that a gem Rarity was struggling to find was actually very common, causing Rarity to begin tearing up. This is the last we see of her, and not only does nobody try to comfort Rarity, we also never get a feeling for why Rarity is reacting this way. What is her story? What did she do with the discovery that these "rare" gems can be so easily found? This is a minor scene that I'm probably thinking too hard about, but again, I wish we got to see more of Maud interacting and bonding with the mane six rather than falling into Starlight's circle of misfits. Must the two friend groups be so separate? With Starlight, it's interesting, but with Maud it just makes me feel like the mane six are too closed-minded and aren't growing. 

And then there's the climax, where the show bafflingly decides that this low-key slice-of-life needs to end with a moment of extreme peril. Pinkie's behaviour pushes Maud to think she'd be better in the Ghastly Gorge, and not only is the show's depiction of the Gorge's loneliness a touch overblown, but she also has a confrontation with a monster which Pinkie needs to save her from. Adding that level of danger really cheapens Maud's choice, and not only is it one of the show's more stale tropes, it's also completely out of place here. Such a consideration of danger had very little to do with the story before this climax, and now it's inserted for no good reason, and it just feels like the show relying on old tricks to add a little excitement when it should have put more effort into making Pinkie funny. Thankfully, the moral about Pinkie learning to give Maud some space, while obvious from the second scene, is solid enough. 

Again, there's things to admire about "Rock Solid Friendship," but Pinkie's antics simply drag the episode down and make it something of a chore to watch. There are some fun jokes, including some clever uses of Maud's pet rock Boulder, and Maud more delightful than ever, but this show should prioritize its humour first, and despite all of the interesting ideas contained in this episode, those moments of irritation kill the momentum, and all of my other misgivings would have felt a lot more insignificant if the episode were simply more fun to watch. I'm digging the current casual direction of the show, but so far season 7 has been rather inconsistent in terms of its surface pleasures, and after the consistently entertaining start of season 6, that's rather disappointing. 

Entertainment: 4/10
Characters: 7/10
Themes: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Overall: 60/100

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