Friday, 27 July 2018

My top 26 favourite episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This list has been sitting on my drive, first draft done and awaiting revisions, for well over a year now. Since then, I promised not only to publish the list, but to expand it all the way up to 26 to fill a whole season's worth of episodes, which only led to further delays. Part of the reason was that I hadn't seen several of my favourite episodes in years, and wished to binge the whole show in order to confirm my opinions and see if anything else threatened the top spots. What I want from My Little Pony has changed significantly over time, and I believe my favourite episodes are reflective of that. As such, I believe that assembling this list can help explain why I love the show so much. Now, if the show really does end after season 9, I'll be writing a new list before too long, and maybe it'll be completely different, but nonetheless, here are my top 26 favourite episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, in chronological order.
To start with, here's a few ground rules:

1. I'm limiting the list to the first seven seasons, simply to be fair to episodes I've only given one viewing, as season 8 is currently underway. With that said, if I did include season 8, the delightful "Horse Play" would absolutely be included.

2. To match my "whole season" gimmick, two-parters are being counted as two episodes.

S01E23: The Cutie Mark Chronicles
written by M.A. Larson
In the show's chronology, "The Cutie Mark Chronicles" is the first time we learned about the protagonists' pasts, and we've rarely gained a window into it since. While this episode is little more than a weakly-organized string of vignettes, the individual vignettes are individually delightful, showing us how each of the mane six received their cutie marks in incredibly charming fashion. Each flashback has its own solid emotional underpinning, and moreover, they're able to successfully condense the show's early strengths into brief bursts of charm, with each vignette successfully encompasses what their character stands for. Rainbow's is about the joy of accomplishment, Rarity's is about finding beauty below the surface, Applejack's is about staying true to your roots, etc. Add on a bunch of funny dialogue and you've got a real winner.

S01E25: Party of One
written by Meghan McCarthy

For the most part, "Party of One" is simply a particularly strong example of the show's greatest strengths: it's colourful, upbeat, and joyously silly, and it's all centred around an obvious but solid moral about jumping to conclusions. But although the misunderstandings which form the main plot are ultimately predictable, they're amped up for maximum absurdity here, and even though Pinkie spends much of the episode in varying states of displeasure, she remains entirely silly. This episode is mainly remembered for the surprisingly dark scene of Pinkie having an apparent psychotic break, but that scene is simply one expression of how this episode successfully delves into Pinkie's insecurities and anxieties. Excepting that one scene, it's brilliant in balancing the show's usual silliness with that deeper character exploration. This show is at its best when it centres around that sort of anxiety, and here is one of the first times that it hit just the right formula.

S01E26: The Best Night Ever
written by Amy Keating Rogers

By some margin the best finale of the entire show, "The Best Night Ever" is filled with many of the show's funniest and most memorable scenes to date. Like "The Cutie Mark Chronicles," it's split among six different storylines, this time without much connective tissue until they all intertwine in delightfully chaotic fashion. By touching upon each of the main six's interests and giving each of them solid goals, it serves as the culmination of everything the first season had established. More importantly, the episode is comprised almost entirely of one memorable scene after another, and not only does that make this one of the most entertaining episodes of the entire show, it also allows for retroactive emotional resonance as these characters have grown and come to achieve more of their goals. Meanwhile, the final lesson - that a bad experience can be made better by sharing it with good friends - is lovely, and provides a perfect summary of the whole season. At the start, they were complete strangers, but now they're as thick as thieves.

S02E03: Lesson Zero
written by Meghan McCarthy

"Lesson Zero" is why Twilight is my favourite character. It's not her brightest moment, but just like "Party of One" was for Pinkie, it remains the clearest representation of her own anxieties. Perfectionism defines her just as much as intelligence and nerdiness, and while it's exaggerated here, fear of failure is a universal concern. Twilight's behaviour is genuinely creepy, which remains unusual territory for this show, but it's also really funny, and much more importantly, the show always takes her feelings seriously, no matter how strangely she acts. The lengths Twilight goes to are hard to relate to, but her motivations are always sympathetic, even when they're not enough to justify her actions. This episode is great in part because its central gimmick is so strange and surprising, and in part because it's filled with memorable scenes, but most of all because it balances all the cartoonish nonsense with real emotions. If My Little Pony is an exaggeration of reality, that doesn't make it any less effective of a mirror.

S02E07: May the Best Pet Win!
written by Charlotte Fullerton

Rainbow Dash has never been more charismatic than she is in "May the Best Pet Win!," an absolutely joyous episode with a rapid-fire barrage of great jokes and some of the show's best action scenes. This is an episode where Rainbow makes movie sound effects just for her own amusement, and there's a sincerity to its energy and constant forward momentum which is simply irresistible. Of course Rainbow would set up a pet race to decide which animal she'll adopt. Of course she'll whistle "Flight of the Valkyries." Of course those are things she'd do, and the simple quirks of the various pet competition are immensely charming in and of themselves, but best of all, this episode retains Rainbow's boisterous personality without having it lapse into insensitivity. She comes to recognize the value of persistence, but she doesn't need to make some tremendous mistake to do it, and that context is perfect for such an upbeat episode.

S02E14: The Last Roundup
written by Amy Keating Rogers

Such a strong example of season 2's nuance is "The Last Roundup" that it's easy to overlook just how entertaining it is. It's primary strength is gooey, sincere melodrama, with particularly deep characterization for Applejack, but it's also got a lot of great humour, especially from the always reliable Pinkie Pie. Rainbow Dash demonstrates a fair bit of depth as well, and while other characters don't get as much time to shine, everyone has one or two fun moments, and the myth that Applejack is boring is thoroughly debunked here by her relatively complex motivations in staying away from town. Sure, they're ultimately good intentions, but she's still hurting others in the process. Episodes like this which balance pathos and depth with humour and the show's beloved innocence are exactly why it became so popular in the first place.

S02E18: Read It and Weep
written by Cindy Morrow

From the very start, Rainbow Dash's bravado was tied to her insecurity, but "Read It and Weep" is perhaps the most direct expression of that dichotomy. Her primary lesson here, which is coming to terms with liking something that doesn't fit her image, is something that's particularly relatable for some of the show's male fans, but it's also just a great moral in general, and moreover the various scenes of trying to hide her reading add to her depth as a character. Here, her insistence on "coolness" is matched only by her fear of others seeing the cracks in it. On top of that, this episode features a genuinely exciting adventure story, with a solid riff on Indiana Jones which perfectly fits Rainbow's personality. Sometimes, getting into a new activity just requires finding the right entry point, and if your friends are any good they will never judge you for the things you love.

S02E22: Hurricane Fluttershy
written by Cindy Morrow

Gooey melodrama of the highest caliber, elevated by deep character relationships and a strong, emotional plotline. Every note of "Hurricane Fluttershy" is in the right place, and befitting an episode for the most fragile of the mane six, this is an especially sensitive episode, demonstrating sympathetic anxiety on Fluttershy's part and an impressive level of understanding from Rainbow Dash, all in favour of some of the most satisfying emotional highs in the entire show. Fluttershy's stories often revolve around overcoming some anxiety, but here it's specifically linked to bullying in her past, which in turn makes her journey to overcome it assist the struggling Ponyville weather team all the more delightful. The main conflict here is just impersonal enough to have massive stakes, but the majority of the episode is focused directly on Fluttershy's personal journey, and every second of the episode is working towards a common goal. There's an endearing simplicity to the whole thing, but it's the sincerity of the execution which really sells it.

S03E06: Sleepless in Ponyville
written by Corey Powell

The first of three solo episodes focused on each of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, "Sleepless in Ponyville" succeeds most of all in how it takes Scootaloo's childish concerns seriously. Particularly significant is how this serves to deepen her as a character without leaning too much on her apparent wing disability. Like Rainbow Dash, she puts on a brave face to hide her anxieties, but Rainbow Dash knows that being brave doesn't mean you're not afraid. Hiding your fears to impress others is indeed a highly relatable concept, and as childish as Scootaloo's approach is, watching her learn to accept her fear is deeply charming. That she finally allows herself to show vulnerability to her idol is a genuinely moving character beat, and their relationship is truly adorable. This episode is as charming and funny as the best of the show, but it's that strong emotional core which really sells it.

S03E07: Wonderbolts Academy
written by Merriwether Williams

Rainbow Dash has my favourite character arc in the whole series, and this is her last focus episode to get the balance between sensitivity and attitude correct. As interested as she is in showing off, she's still a sweet pony at heart, and "Wonderbolts Academy" stands out above all else for Rainbow's expressiveness, which enhances her story by wordlessly expressing everything she feels about what's happening around her. However disappointed Dash might be by becoming a wingpony, she still takes the role very seriously, because that's what's expected of her, and she only gives up when her values are directly offended. It's the best showcase for one of the best characters in the show, and it has a great antagonist too. Lightning Dust is as charismatic as Dash herself, and is one of the rare villains to seem genuinely remorseful at the end, providing yet more nuance to an already excellent episode.

S04E08: Rarity Takes Manehattan
written by Dave Polsky

During my first few years with the show, I wouldn't have called Rarity my favourite of the main cast, and that was primarily due to her penchant for seemingly selfish behaviour. "Rarity Takes Manehattan" is the point where this changed, placing her generosity on full display by providing a profound challenge to everything Rarity values. The episode's charms all come down to her positive attitude and abundance of personality, and having that personality spun into something much more altruistic and positive is a refreshing change of pace from her earlier depictions. Providing a foil for Rarity's generosity in the form of a thieving rival allows for a genuinely powerful thematic conflict, where Rarity is forced to evaluate the value of such generosity in a cold world, and while her affirmative answer is inevitable, this episode makes her journey to reclaim those values convincing, and in both that and its plentiful superficial charms, it's absolutely irresistible.

S04E12: Pinkie Pride
written by Amy Keating Rogers

Those essential challenges to characters' core values, as seen in "Rarity Takes Manehattan," were a recurring theme in the show's fourth season, and "Pinkie Pride" is undoubtedly the best take on them, an effervescent, infinitely joyous explosion of energy which just happens to feature deceptive depth. Even without the cameo from the one and only "Weird" Al Yankovic, the heights of absurdity this reaches are so inventive, so energetic, and just so happy that they'd still be utterly delightful, and better yet, they're paired with a meaningful bit of introspection from Pinkie Pie. Here, she lets her pride as the town's "#1 party pony" get away from her, and it's made clear how that pride in her status is intertwined with her need for approval, but also how it comes at the expense of the joy she so often strives to bring to her friends. You can never make someone happy by only thinking of yourself, and what makes this episode great is that it conveys that theme without making Pinkie Pie seem too selfish.

S04E19: For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils
written by Dave Polsky

After "Sleepless in Ponyville," both Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom would receive episodes with similar takes on different themes, and of these, Sweetie Belle's is arguably the most well-rounded, with the best blend of moralizing and humour, and the most significant role for Luna to boot. Because Sweetie Belle is acting out of jealousy, Luna has a stronger connection to her than she had to the other two, and like the earlier episode, this episode boasts some fantastic nightmare imagery, albeit of an entirely different kind. Where Scootaloo was afraid of losing respect because of fear, Sweetie's problem is instead that she can't imagine the world outside of her own perspective. Her view of her sister is skewed by what she has and hasn't seen, and while this is what causes her to retaliate, she's also a sweet kid who never really wanted to hurt anyone, as made clear when she solves her own mistake. The Scootaloo episode established the winning formula of these CMC solo episodes, but "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils" perfected it.

S04E20: Leap of Faith
written by Josh Haber

The near-universal excellence of these "key" episodes from season 4 does a good job of representing what the show did best in this era. If "Pinkie Pride" had the best balance of charm and depth, "Leap of Faith" instead veers further in the direction of nuance, providing arguably the most meaningful challenge of the whole lot. Here, Applejack finds herself lying to make her family happy, despite the fact that she's enabling Flim and Flam to sell literal snake oil. Lying, something that Applejack has always been opposed to, suddenly seems like a necessity, and while she remains doubtful throughout, that genuine uncertainty provides this episode with a degree of thematic power beyond even what the aforementioned "Rarity Takes Manehattan" and "Pinkie Pride" conjure up. If it's not as energetic as those other two episodes, that's not for a lack of charm and humour, which comes in large part from the amusingly smarmy Flim Flam Brothers and the always welcome antics of Applejack's family. Here's one of the few times that the show has managed to balance genuinely mature storytelling with its original charms.

S04E25-26: Twilight's Kingdom, Parts 1 and 2
written by Meghan McCarthy

The show has never seen a change as significant as Twilight Sparkle becoming a princess, and many of her appearances in the show's fourth season struggled to come to terms with it. The finale, "Twilight's Kingdom," is widely remembered for its intensity and immense scale, but as appealing as it is simply as a spectacle, the episode's true strength comes in the smaller stuff. Twilight's coronation was a sudden and confusing event, and here the show acknowledges that, presenting Twilight being just as confused and adrift as you'd expect someone with such a spontaneous life change to be. The threat to all of Equestria isn't nearly as interesting as Twilight's internal struggle to find herself, and Tirek is such a great villain not just because of his menace but also because he's a perfect foil for Twilight's values. Season 4 spent so much time on the reiteration of values these characters already held, but only here is that intertwined with meaningful character development, as Twilight finds the reason for her coronation in the things she was doing all along.

S05E11: Bloom and Gloom
written by Josh Haber

On one hand, "Bloom and Gloom" might be the least subtle of the CMC solo episodes which were such a highlight of the show's middle seasons. All of these episodes are defined by their nightmare imagery, but both "Sleepless in Ponyville" and "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils" save their nightmares for key climactic moments. "Bloom and Gloom," meanwhile, consists entirely of nightmares, surreal images floating in and out of existence but always representing sympathetic anxieties. The flow of events, which is only as choppy as Apple Bloom's emotional state, is exactly what dreams should look like in this show, and while the barrage of visual metaphors is always emotionally powerful, it's also surreal enough and treated with enough levity to be genuinely entertaining. All of these key concepts are tied together in one of the show's most profound morals: you may feel like your anxieties are absurd, but you're not alone. That this episode is so profoundly empathetic as well as clever and humorous marks it in my eyes as still one of the most impressive things in the show's entire middle period.

S05E11: Party Pooped
written by Nick Confalone

In a show which doesn't always portray non-pony cultures in the most sensitive of lights, the cultural relativism at the core of "Party Pooped" is a welcome breath of fresh air. Here is an episode about respecting and accommodating cultural differences, all wrapped up in the form of a silly story about yaks smashing things. That remains unique within the show, and indeed, the specific form of humour utilized here is something not quite like any other episode. The quirky diplomatic focus of the story provides a peculiar undercurrent of anxiety to even the funniest jokes, and there's a unique thrill in seeing these characters freak out over new responsibilities which they're not even remotely qualified for. But that unusual tension only works because of just how clever the jokes actually are here, and the unique blend of quirky visual humour - a train being stopped by handful of grazing sheep, for instance - with the surprisingly high stakes is a joy not quite like anything else in the series.

S05E15: Rarity Investigates!
written by Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco

Currently my favourite comfort food episode, "Rarity Investigates!" is one of the rare My Little Pony episodes where every joke lands, which is in large part due to an inspired combination of characters, gimmick, and premise. Rarity and Rainbow Dash are a particularly underutilized pairing in this show, but here they have as much immediate chemistry as many of their more common counterparts. As if to make up for lost time, their early scenes before the plot kicks in are some of the most charming scenes of friendship from the entire show, and while their dynamic becomes more tense when the conflict is introduced, they're simply two of the show's most charismatic characters. What Rainbow and Rarity have in common is ambition, and that underlines their relationship here without ever being stated aloud. The mystery may be obvious, but it serves the core theme of trusting your friends when they trust you, and the episode is just so jam-packed with funny gags that it's hard to resist.

S06E01-02The Crystalling, Parts 1 and 2
written by Josh Haber

"The Crystalling," which opened the show's sixth season, is in many ways a departure from the show's usual season premiere format. Rather than attempt to somehow provide even darker themes and even more exciting spectacle, it instead shifts its focus smaller, spending its entire first half on low-stakes slice-of-life hijinks. Not only is this a refreshing change of pace for this show, but the emphasis on insecurity, not only from the newly-reformed Starlight but also from her childhood friend Sunburst is as sympathetic and relatable as the show's earlier peaks, and provides a conduit for some of the show's more mature themes. Even when the episode dials up the spectacle in its second half, it's a simple, impersonal backdrop to Starlight's and Sunburst's issues, allowing some of the show's best character work to play out undiluted by the nonsense which plagues too many of the other two-parters. And it also has an infant with alarming, unmanageable superpowers, so that's a plus.

S06E08: A Hearth's Warming Tale
written by Michael Vogel

A Christmas Carol has been done several times before, but never has it been submerged in this particular world, and I'd be surprised if it has been told in this particular way. "A Hearth's Warming Tale" already gets a lot of points for being one of the prettiest episodes of the whole show, and it earns even more for its phenomenal songs, but its most significant achievement is how it bends the source material. Greed never plays a part in the story, and instead, the Scrooge analogue is a metaphor for Starlight: a pony whose values have been twisted by a problematic childhood and who makes the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, but means well enough to change. The sheer universal resonance which is rung out of this variation is enough to make Starlight's own backstory obselete, and in a show which is far too often risk-averse even in its original stories, this distinctive take on a classic tale is a welcome surprise.

S06E09: The Saddle Row Review
written by Nick Confalone

Part of the tragedy of My Little Pony's safe storytelling is that these characters are all strong enough to withstand any sort of structural experimentation. "The Saddle Row Review" proves that with its unique mockumentary gimmick, which not only frames some of the show's best jokes in an unusual context, but which also allows for a refreshing touch of modernity even beyond what's seen elsewhere in the later seasons. Here, the show indulges its most sitcom-esque instincts, and allows for strong examples of character comedy which would so rarely be seen elsewhere in the show, such as Pinkie Pie passing off a large restaurant bill to the anonymous interviewer. It's this willingness to experiment with genre and structure which makes "The Saddle Row Review" so funny, and this show would do well to try this kind of thing more often.

S06E19: The Fault in Our Cutie Marks
written by Ed Valentine

Dramatic irony forms the backbone of "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks," the show's most adorably dramatic episode to date, and the characters know it. From the very start, the premise - a griffon wants to have a cutie mark, but only ponies can get cutie marks - can only end poorly, and the episode's success is playing on that not for comedy but for drama. Levity instead comes from the chipper attitude of Gabby, whose sweetness and enthusiasm contrasts powerfully with the Cutie Mark Crusaders' growing desperation not to let her down. It's a perfect embodiment of the show's optimistic atmosphere, where everyone involved is genuinely sweet and only wants the best for the others, and that makes the looming spectre of disappointment all the more concerning. In the end, when the episode subverts expectations and goes out on a high note, it could not possibly be more satisfying.

S06E24: Top Bolt
written by Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco

A recurring feature of the show's later years is various attempts to position the protagonists into mentorship roles. These stories centre not around the mane six or Cutie Mark Crusaders learning their own lesson, but on them trying to teach a lesson to someone else, and how well it works is dependent on how good those secondary characters are. "Top Bolt" is the absolute best expression of this formula, with profound nuance from its new characters and even a smaller lesson for the old ones. Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle make a funnier pair here than ever, their contrasting personalities never getting in the way of their easy chemistry, and the new characters immediately show themselves to be among the most charming and three-dimensional in the show's entire run. It's fundamentally a story about the lies which keep us going, and how to persevere once they can no longer be maintained, and that strong theme resonates even as the episode sticks to silly banter and sight gags. If the show is gonna keep pushing the main characters into these roles, this is what it should look like.

S07E03: A Flurry of Emotions

written by Sammie Crowley & Whitney Wetta

If there's one thing that was missing in the years since Twilight became an alicorn, it was an idea of what those new responsibilities would do to her already severe perfectionism. In its own way, "A Flurry of Emotions" depicts that perfectionism even better than "Lesson Zero," as it grants her more altruistic motivations and less horrifying behaviour while remaining nearly as funny. Here, she wants to be the best aunt possible and the best princess possible, but never does that intention seem selfish, and it's accompanied by the dorky enthusiastic charm which had been lacking from so many of her recent focus episodes. Meanwhile, baby Flurry Heart is made somehow even more charming, as not only does she retain her infantile silliness, but it's been combined with genuine sweetness, albeit from a very immature point of view. Together, Twilight and Flurry Heart are almost unbearably cute, and that cuteness is delivered in the form of numerous inventive sight gags and the occasional sweet cutaway to Flurry's adorable parents. It's an exceptional delight which proves the show still has some juice left even after all these years.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic isn't what I would consider a show of consistent quality, and some episodes are certainly more entertaining than others. Still, even within a single show's run, I maintain that "good" and "bad" are largely a matter of taste, and the above are simply what I consider to be the most enjoyable episodes of this show. Perhaps you might have different choices, and if so, I'd be delighted to hear your reasoning in the comments below. 

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