Sure I could tell you I learned something about how my friends are always there to help me… (The Last Roundup)

“And remember,” said Fluttershy softly, “if you ever
try to leave again, we’ll break your legs.”

It’s January 21st, 2012. The top song is once again Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris with “We Found Love,” and the top movie is Underworld Awakening, another installment in the vampires-vs.-werewolves action series. For the record, we won’t be getting an episode that coincides with a No. 1 movie I’ve actually seen until “Hurricane Fluttershy” two months hence.

In the news, the Syrian government is killing its own people, provoking international outcry. (Yes, I’m still talking about January 2012.) Protests against draconian anti-piracy legislation being considered by the U.S. Congress include a day-long shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia and successful efforts by the hacker group Anonymous to shut down the U.S. Department of Justice website; by the end of the week, the legislation has been postponed indefinitely. And News International, the British branch of the same Murdoch empire as Fox News, pays out settlements to 37 people whose phones it illegally hacked.

With ponies, we have Amy Keating Rogers writing and Jayson Thiessen directing “The Last Roundup,” our four hundred billionth Applejack-centric episode in a row, or at least that’s how it feels. Oddly, though, it’s actually the first Applejack-centric episode all season, and arguably (depending on whether one considers “Over a Barrel” to be an Applejack episode) the first since “Fall Weather Friends” 27 episodes ago.

So why was my immediate reaction to this episode–both when I watched it on its initial airing, and on realizing it was next in line for this project–to groan in dismay at “yet another Applejack episode?” It’s not just my natural apathy (not antipathy–I find her boring, not objectionable) toward Applejack. Although she has not been in the central position of an episode for quite some time, she has been prominent in rather more than her share of episodes: she is of course a significant presence in the ensemble episodes “The Return of Harmony” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” has large roles in both “Sisterhooves Social” and “The Cutie Pox,” and while she is not on-screen for much of “Family Appreciation Day,” given that it gives the history of her family it is difficult not to feel her presence looming just off-screen.

And while a very good episode might be able to overcome that overload and do something interesting with Applejack and the Apple family, this is not that episode. (Next episode, on the other hand…) Which isn’t to say it’s a bad episode by any means; simply not particularly interesting or engaging. There is a reason that a single scene that has next to nothing to do with the story (but does feature a fan-favorite character with some controversial voicing) is pretty much all the fanbase talked about in this episode’s aftermath–there is honestly very little else worth talking about here. Nonetheless, because the only options are to spend an entire article talking about the controversy that scene engendered or to spend an article talking about the actual episode, I am going to have to attempt the latter.

The episode is, to be honest, quite appropriate to Applejack, which is to say that it appears to have its heart in the right place but provides zero character development, and thus is rather boring. Even the lesson Applejack learns at the end, to trust her friends and not try to take everything on by herself, is a repeat of development she ostensibly had way back in episode 4, “Applebuck Season.”

The problem with a boring episode is that, unengaged, the mind seeks ways to make things more interesting. One tries to look at the episode in other lights, and what one finds, quite often, is unintended and unfortunate implications. This episode is no different.

Consider the perspective of the other members of the Mane Six. They know Applejack has not returned, and provided very little explanation as to why. Now naturally, it is reasonable for them to worry that she’s in some kind of trouble and come looking for her–they have all been in more than their share of trouble since meeting, after all! However, once she makes clear to them that she is not in trouble and is staying in Dodge Junction of her own free choice, their attitude takes a curious and unsettling turn.

The response of the other Mane Six basically amounts to a claim of ownership over Applejack. They make quite clear: she is not allowed to start a new life elsewhere. It doesn’t matter that she actually is making bad choices for fairly silly reasons, because until the end of the episode the other ponies don’t know that; all they know is that their friend is choosing to move away and break off ties with them, which she has every right in the world to do. But their response shows that they believe otherwise; they believe that because they like Applejack and consider her their friend, she must continue to live in their town, associate with them, and share her thoughts and feelings with them.

They are way, way past any recognizable concept of friendship. If someone is actively running away from you when you try to talk to them, you are no longer their friend, you are a stalker. In her excellent book Odd Girl Out (which also provides some disturbing insight into darker readings of “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” but should probably have some trigger warnings for victims of bullying and especially passive-aggressive bullying), Rachel Simmons investigates the culture of adolescent girls (most middle-class white adolescent girls) and finds that a prevailing attitude that one must always be (or appear to be) selfless and “nice” creates a host of what she terms “alternative aggressions” in the form of vicious-yet-subtle bullying through social manipulation.

What the other five ponies do to Applejack in this episode is not quite the same as in Simmons’ book, but it is still most definitely a form of aggression. Despite appearing like an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship–despite most likely being, in the minds of both the ponies involved and the writer, intended as an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship–it is an attempt to control another, to prevent them from being able to make their own decisions and pursue their own path in life.

Young girls, Simmons argues, get told in many ways and in many places that nothing is more important than friendship and niceness. Like Applejack, they are told that they cannot leave their friends behind to pursue other opportunities. Applejack’s reasons for doing so in this episode are, admittedly, frivolous and rooted in misunderstanding and misplaced pride, but they are still her reasons. What if Rainbow Dash gets a chance to become a Wonderbolt, but has to leave for extended training? What if Twilight’s continuing education requires her to return to Canterlot to take up new duties? What if Rarity is invited to spend a year designing a clothing line for important clients in Manehatten? Will they be allowed to go?  Or will their friends pursue them, stalk them, pull them back?

Girls already get told enough that they have to put friendship above all else–that friendship is so fragile that it cannot survive the existence of other priorities or the pursuit of any kind of self-interest. Where is the lesson for the other ponies that they have to let go?

Next Week: Yes. That’s right. Another one.

17 thoughts on “Sure I could tell you I learned something about how my friends are always there to help me… (The Last Roundup)

  1. Something that's bothered me about the series from the beginning is that what you here identify (in my oppinion correctly) as an unintentional unfortunate implication of this episode, that personal goals, regardless of how imporant they are to one, ought to be sacrificed for friendship, seemed to me to be the more-or-less explicit message of the initial two-parter. Indeed, Twilight's continuing education requiring her return to Caterlot was exactly how The Elements of Harmony ended, and her decision to stay in Ponyville, while unlike Applejack's entirely her own choice, is presented as showing that she has learnt the lesson of the episode, implying that any other decision would be a mistake.

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  2. “If someone is actively running away from you when you try to talk to them, you are no longer their friend, you are a stalker.”

    Unless the runner is caught in an abusive relationship.

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  3. After posting this, I read the end of the transcript of The Elements of Harmony on the MLP wiki, and realised that I misremembered it – Twilight doesn't choose to abandon her studies so she can stay in Ponyville with her friends, she implies that she will return to Canterlot but expresses sadness that she needs to, then Celestia orders her to stay in Ponyville. On the one hand this means that the episode isn't implying that being someone's friend means being willing to abandon one's life to be with them, which is good, but on the other hand it means Twilight doesn't have any control over her life at all.

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  4. “Doesn't have any control over her life” is relative. Remember she is only still in Ponyville because she expressed to Celestia, an authority figure, that she wishes she could remain there (even if she didn't expect to be able to act on it). It's not like Celestia unilaterally decided the elements need to be kept together forever. If my boss notices I'm dissatisfied with my job and asks if I'd maybe like having my duties shifted and if so what I think I'd be more interested in, that does not imply that I have “no control” over my career, even if I'm at his mercy and he could have chosen not to give me that option (in which case you would be able to say say I have no control).

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  5. It could be read as, “They know Applejack well enough to be able to tell when something is wrong, and the fact that she is acting so completely out of character is what convinces them that intervention is required.

    It could have been handled better, though.

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  6. Interesting analysis…

    First off, while I understand your aversion to talking about Derpygate, I figure this is the best opportunity to throw in my two cents about the whole issue. A lot of people have been arguing for or against the change; one side says that it's censorship while the other says that the original scene was ableist. I can see both sides of the issue, but my personal opinion is that the scene simply never should have happened in the first place; this is a show about six mares, a dragon, and an ever-changing number of princesses, and while Derpy is a good background shout-out, she should have stayed in the background instead of distracting from the actual characters.
    Go ahead and hate me for saying that, but I hope you at least have a good argument for why I'm full of crap.

    On to the actual episode. I can certainly see what you mean about the others trying to remove AJ's agency, but on the other hand, I also have to agree with Sylocat. It's been a while since I've seen the episode, but if I remember correctly, the others simply wanted AJ to explain why she was doing this at the breakfast the next morning. The impression I got was that if her reasons were actually good, they would have been disappointed, but would have reluctantly let her go.
    Of course, AJ's reasons were actually pretty ridiculous, and a part of her knew it, too. Yet her stubborn streak meant she'd rather persist with this, so she tried to run off once more before her friends got the opportunity to make her face up to that. In that light, the episode becomes a rather interesting case of AJ coming into conflict with her element, as she's denying a truth that she already knows for the sake of her personal pride. The reason it feels like such a boring episode is not a problem with the plot itself, but rather the presentation. If more focus had been on AJ's internal conflict rather than the conflict between her and her friends (and if a certain scene hadn't taken time away from developing this story) then it would have been far greater.

    I'm probably wrong, though.

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  7. I personally like the idea that the world is more than the Mane 6. Episodes with Zecora, the Apple Family, the crusaders et.all make the world feel lived in. It also serves a good purpose: it reminds viewers that it's not all about one group of friends.

    I agree 100% on the episode content. It should have focused more on AJ's internal struggle. I wish I had more to say than a functional +1.

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  8. They have the right to ask her what she's doing, and even to hang around and hope she changes her mind. But when they try to force her to talk to them (Chimicherry cherrychonga) they're crossing a line.

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  9. I love that an episode about Applejack dealing with being overshadowed has its own main plot overshadowed by controversy over Derpy's cameo. I guess we know who took first place, don't we?

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  10. If you think your friend is ruining their life then by some standards you have a responsibility to try and convince them otherwise. From most viewpoints, abandoning your responsibilities, fiends and family, then travelling to a remote location and then refusing to disclose your reasoning is crazy. There is a redemptive reading of this where the other 5 are very rightly concerned about AJ.

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