Episode [1.21] – “Over a Barrel”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“It appears that Sheriff Silverstar and I have come to… an agreement.”
“That was the worst performance we’ve ever seen.”
Given some of my past criticisms of the series and how it’s handled certain topics, it feels like fate that I’m the first one up in the rotation for this episode. Oh joy.
So Equestria is a world in which the American frontier westward expansion and settlement of the 19th century is still taking place. Does this mean the ponies are themselves settlers to their native continent, or just that they’re spreading out from their nook of it? I leave it to my fellow co-writers to say, should that be a thing that’s been explored further. Anyway, as ponies spread, so to do members of the Apple clan, setting up new orchards in birthing towns. We’re brought into this through a cute plot thread of Applejack bringing one of her beloved trees to find a new home in the orchard, to the point where she’s bought it a luxury train car and rests it on a four-poster bed. Which rankles Rarity, in a sour portrayal of her character, as she has to deign to sleep with other ponies on the communal car. Heavens! Forgetting that everyone else there are her best of friends, of course.
That said, we get a lot of fun moments of all the ponies bonding, including a fun, nonsensical exchange over Fluttershy being a tree, ending with her saying she actually wouldn’t mind that. And Spike is a butt. And there’s a candle that they amusingly keep just enough off screen to explain how someone with hooves might be holding it.
Then the real story kicks into gear as a herd of buffaloes, all of whom are wearing Native American feathers and are later revealed living in teepees, launch a traditional western movie raid on the train and make off with the rear car containing Spike and Applejack’s tree. We get some neat stuff here, like the train actually being pulled by three earth ponies (though why they still need the steam locomotive behind them is anyone’s guess), and a cool showdown between Rainbow Dash and Little Strongheart, the sprightly daughter of the chief.
That said, what we’re again running into are the creators of the show applying actual ethnic cultures to different species instead of to ponies from different regions. I’ve said before the problems I have with this, and I still have it here as you’re saying these different people are literally different creatures entirely of merely regional variants of a singular race, which, intentioned or not, is a very uncool way to portray things.
I will give them that I think they handle parts of the problem better here than they did in “Bridle Gossip”. For one, that entire episode was all about fear and prejudice and watching our heroes give in to a mob mentality of cutting out and alienating those against the “norm”, to the point of crashing into Zecora’s house and threatening to bust up the place. No, here there’s no shock or fear when our heroes meet the buffaloes, they get that they’re just the people of these parts, and the focus is entirely on the central conflict I’ll be getting to. Also, they don’t fall into the trap of Zecora of heaping so many concentrated cultural shorthand stereotypes into a single character that we’re left with another misguided and uncomfortable caricature. No, the buffaloes have their culture, but the focus is on them as people and the conflict facing their society. I hear Faust did actually bring in a Native American consultant to help shape the script, and I think they did a good job of doing so.
In character at least. In terms of story, oh boy.
The central conflict comes because the new apple orchard has been built on the grounds the Natives use for their annual stampede, which is a right of passage ritual passed on through generations. The natives feel that land should be recognized as theirs because it’s their land. The settlers feel the orchard should stay because they put so much hard work into it. The heroes just want everyone to get along and find a compromise. Where the episode fumbles is in treating both sides of the argument like they’re equal sides of the same coin. They aren’t. Yes, the settlers did put a lot of hard work in setting up this field, but it’s not their land. The settlers have put months of work into it, the buffaloes have put lifetimes into it for countless generations. It’s their land. This isn’t even about how the land is being used, it’s their land. They don’t even want to make the new town go away, just make them move the orchard, because IT’S THEIR LAND.
Instead, we get a huge western standoff where the horrific history of land feuds between Natives and settlers is reduced to a comical pie fight as the town comes to battle with their apple-packed baked goods. It’s incredibly embarrassing that they thought this was the right way to portray a story that actually happened countless times in history, and turn full on slaughters into pies to the face. Even going so far as to have a dramatic moment where Chief Thunderhooves is hit in the face and goes down, and all his people are staring in shock at his fallen form. Until he actually tastes the pie on his face and yay he’s happy and everyone gets along.
Here’s the thing: this wouldn’t be as bad of an episode had they just not appropriated a real culture for their portrayal of the buffaloes and belittled their conflict by a) portraying both sides as equal, b) reduced centuries of historical struggle to a pie fight, and c) led it all to a big “we’re all equally happy if we work together and use your generational ritual to further the goals of our economically driven harvest that we can profit off of!” Because of course the stampede will now run through the orchard, which drops the apples for the ponies. Sure, the buffaloes get paid in pies, but still, this doesn’t sit well. There’s no reason they couldn’t have done what they did with the Diamond Dogs and just made a new culture to go with their story instead of doing what they did to an existing one. Which isn’t to say don’t have Native American characters, just don’t reduce them and their history like this, and let them be ponies, too!
At least I agree with this episode on one major thing, and that’s Pinkie’s song. Which is awful, a bit uncomfortable, and so awkwardly placed that it actually jarred me out of the story.
Over a Barrel. Whoo boy, here we go. First off, this is the next episode to get slapped with this tag…
This is an episode about compromise, and I really like that they’re hitting on the concept as I think it’s super important to teach it in what seems like an increasingly polarized real world that more and more treats the concept like a dirty word (from the perspective of an American, at least). The situation presented is actually kind of a complicated one, given that it involves two parties both taking the stance that their side is in the right (which thankfully our six don’t unanimously agree on with Rainbow Dash’s anger and Applejack’s stubbornness embodying the two opposing sides and the others falling somewhere in the spectrum between the two), and the question of what to do once you’ve hit that impasse. While I do really like that they hit on a good compromise (enough of the orchard being cleared to not impede the stampede and allowing the use of the land in exchange for goods, which seems like an elegant and logical solution), the way in which we reach that point is kind of overly contrived, and I agree with Noel that this lesson would have been better taught under slightly different circumstances, since as it stands the wild west trappings serve to distract from the moral rather than enhance it.
Despite all of that, though, I actually really like this episode.
I always tend to like the episodes where we venture away from Ponyville and its immediate surroundings and get to see more of the larger world, and I find Equestria’s flavor of old west really enjoyable. Part of that is likely my having at least a slight affinity for that (likely growing up in the southwestern US has a lot to do with that as the area is pretty steeped in wild west mythology), but Appleloosa is a bundle of fun right out the gate, with Braeburn’s brief tour of the place supplying gag after gag.
Speaking of Braeburn, he’s easily one of my favorite things about the episode. Applejack’s cousin makes for one of the most expressive male ponies the show will have for a while. Big Macintosh is fantastic in his brevity, but Braeburn actually feels like a character that could keep up with our cast. His excitement and energy over his town makes me want to spend some more time with him, as he seems like a rather fun character who doesn’t get to do an awful lot here, and it’s kind of a bummer that this is thus far the only episode where he really makes any kind of showing.
I also really like the buffalo, although similarly I wish they got to do more. While I do understand his point, I still don’t quite agree with Noel that cultures being represented as something other than ponies is inherently problematic, although it would be nice if now having introduced bison as a separate species and culture that they were worked into more of the series and had more of a presence. They’ll show up here and there after this, but they don’t get much attention outside of this episode. And that’s a shame, because I think they’re a really cool concept and I’d like to see more of them.
You Got to Share, You Got to Care is one of the few songs in the series not actually written by Daniel Ingram. Dave Polsky (who wrote the episode) wrote the lyrics, and there’s not a proper credit out there for whoever wrote the music. Daniel Ingram is credited for the music, but only as an arrangement of an existing tune.
All in all, this is a mixed bag of an episode. It’s not fumbled nearly as badly as Bridle Gossip, yet still definitely has problematic elements at play. I like the setting, I like the concepts introduced, and I like the moral being pushed, but at the same time I can see the issues that are present within it that drag it down. If I have one overall thought towards the episode as a whole, it’s that I wish the moral had been uncoupled from this one and implemented in a different episode that might not weigh it down with the baggage this one has inherent with its themeing.
Also this scene happens in it and I will cling to it with all of my ship-loving being until it’s pried from my cold, dead hands.
One of the reasons I tend to hold MLP:FiM “adventure” episodes in relatively low regard is because they often involve the entire Mane Six cast trying to interact with each other and their environment all at once. True, the Six together wield the most
fearsome friendly force in all of Equestria, but trying to give each of them equal screentime and plot relevance in a mere 22 minutes tends to put a strain on the overall episode execution. Dragonshy is one of the few adventuresodes I really enjoyed, but it’s no secret that it’s largely thanks to Fluttershy being her wonderful self. She makes my heart flutter.
Over a Barrel, ostensibly one such adventuresode, takes a clever detour by splitting the party, which I think creates a much stronger episode as a result: the bifurcation occurs right when we are introduced to the buffalo, which allows for two separate and wildly different storylines and mindsets to evolve and then slam back into one another in a delightfully polarizing way. It’s a recipe that I enjoy and wish was employed more often, but then I’m also the kind of person who tends to think and converse in a similar manner: multiple parallel trains of thought going at once that all eventually converge to a single focal point. That said, such a style of communication makes me difficult to follow at times (often?), so I understand trying to keep the plot of a kids’ show relatively straightforward and linear would generally be more preferable to one that was much more parallel than this one.
That, and we get Rainbow Dash being totally badflank throughout pretty much the whole episode. I know the above scene wasn’t a Matrix: Reloaded reference, but oh man that would be awesome if it were. If anypony would look great in a traintop battle sequence, it would be Dashie. Or, for that matter, a traintop rescue sequence, like this one right here. Oh Internet, you are truly beautiful sometimes.
This episode also brings up some more world-building tidbits that I find absolutely fascinating. Noel already mentioned the ponies pulling the train (including the locomotive itself; maybe they were just transporting it to another station?); I’m going to expand on this by noting that they kept going full-throttle all day and night. This perhaps serves to demonstrate what makes Earth Ponies “special”: they are absolute hosses. Sure, Pegasus Ponies can fly and manipulate weather and Unicorns can magic their way to fame and fortune, but put an Earth Pony on Equestrian soil and you’ve got yourself an unstoppable force of nature.
We interrupt this world-building litany to bring you more Badflank Dashie.
While Braeburn (HEY THERE) is showing the group around Appleloosa, we also see that salt evidently has an effect similar to alcohol on ponies. We see tons of sugar in the series (thanks in large part to Pinkie Pie), but I can’t quite think of any instances where salt comes up again; either it was just never deemed relevant enough to bring up, or the writers indeed intended it to be “alcoholic” and therefore stayed away from it on purpose so as not to “contaminate” a kids’ show. (Something that may or may not be alcoholic comes up again in a later season; we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I’m sure!)
There are several points during the episode where we hear the ponies speaking and making “horse noises” (neighs/whinnies/grunts) simultaneously. The seemingly impossible biomechanics of this notwithstanding, I find this to be a wonderful juxtaposition of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism: these non-human characters exhibit decidedly human characteristics so much of the time that when they exhibit decidedly non-human characteristics it’s almost startling… until you remember that, “Oh yeah, they are ponies, after all.” I don’t know why exactly I find this so intriguing, but for some reason I enjoy seeing these subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of this fact.
I also enjoy seeing Rainbow Dash looking awesome. Not my favorite pony by far, but she does have her moments.
Finally: applebucking. Toward the end of the episode, we see the Appleloosans harvesting their apples via the traditional applebucking method, and similar to the end of Applebuck Season, we see them really exerting themselves and not always succeeding in clearing entire trees in one kick. This gives further credence to applebucking being really tough work, and to AJ and Big Mac being true masters of the trade. Those two have some serious power in them legs!
Yes, the episode missed the mark when it came to trying to portray and address “real life” cross-cultural concerns and was (rightly, though perhaps too zealously) lampooned by many over the years for this shortcoming. However, I don’t believe this was really supposed to be the core intention of the episode in the first place: the underlying message of sharing and caring (as cheesy as it sounds and as cornily it was depicted in song and dance) is the more important takeaway, and one that shouldn’t be summarily dismissed on account of its awkward portrayal in the episode. Sometimes, two sides reach an impasse regardless of the “how did we get to this point” and “whose fault is this” arguments. Maybe one side is at fault, maybe both are, maybe neither, but none of that is really relevant in the heat of a crisis when the reality is that something must be done lest bloodshed (or, worse, apple pies!), ensue. In these situations, compromise (the less cheesy word for sharing and caring) is more than likely the best course of action, as the pot is prevented from boiling over, both sides can come away feeling good about themselves, and all parties involved win to some extent or another. Does this mean it’s okay to do whatever you want to instigate such crises via coercive brinksmanship to get your way? No, absolutely not at all, but that’s a separate (and very complex) issue and is not the message here. Rather, it’s that when a crisis of opposing viewpoints is occurring, sharing and caring can be a much more desirable avenue than violence. Given time, a climate of compromise and caring can help both sides to trust each other enough to go back a bit and re-evaluate the aforementioned “how did we get to this point” and “whose fault is this” arguments, and, with any luck, perhaps reconciliations can be made, old wounds can be healed, and hatchets can be buried.
Got a few closing songs for you this time. The first is U Got 2 Share by Cat Milly / RainbowCrash88, which is a great fusion of Cat’s wonderfully bizarre lyrics with RC88’s chiptuney goodness that provides a glimpse into what was going through Pinkie’s head as she gave her “You Gotta Share” performance. Cat’s music is tough to swallow at first, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying this song.
The next one is You Gotta Share ~Spaghetti Western Vocal Mix~ by Odyssey Eurobeat / Eurobeat Brony (yep, him again!), but this time it’s me playing a 13-foot ITG2 stepchart of the song from the My Little Pony Season 01 Pack by Schlagwerk. If you’d like to hear the song minus my feet slamming the platform 11 times a second, a link to the song is in the description.
And finally, because bronies make memes out of the strangest things, there’s Fluttershy’s Lament by All Levels at Once (as well as a fantastic version that uses clips from the show). Spoiler alert: they include phrases/clips from episodes that we have not yet deconstructed, and may also make you very confused.