Analyzing “Over A Barrel”

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I wanted to talk about Over A Barrel because it’s one of the three episodes written by Dave Polsky, who has also written the new episode which will be coming out this Saturday. I already covered his other two episodes, which I had a lot more to say about, but Over A Barrel is far less complex to examine.

Because this episode has some degree of controversy surrounding it, let me start by stating that this is one of my favorite episodes of season one. In terms of writing, animation, and pacing, it’s one of the best episodes of the show. In terms of characters, it doesn’t do much to expand on the main cast, but it gives them a number of excellent moments and memorable lines.

I want to insert a bunch of footage of my favorite lines, but I’m kinda sick of losing my videos to this content ID bullshit, so Instead, I’m just gonna talk about the stuff I like in this episode.

The treatment of Bloomberg as a character is hilarious to me. Applejack thinks of Bloomberg as family, and Rarity is annoyed by it, but purely for the fact that Bloomberg gets the swankier bed. Pinkie Pie unsurprisingly talks about Bloomberg as a person as well, but the best instance of it is when Spike casually addresses the tree when he comes in to sleep with it.

In my Feeling Pinkie Keen video, I mentioned that Polsky had written two of my favorite dialog exchanges in the show, which I characterized as being stoner-comedy. This episode has the more famous exchange, in which Rainbow Dash sarcastically refers to Fluttershy as a tree. Pinkie Pie takes it too literally, and Twilight comes into the conversation late enough to think that Rainbow Dash might be insane, assisting Pinkie in assuring Dash that Flutters isn’t a tree. Fluttershy then clinches the conversation by announcing that she’d like to be a tree, which finally sets Spike off. Anyone can see why this scene is brilliant, though I’d like to make a nod to the often overlooked climax of this joke, which is Rarity being scary as hell. Classic comedy.

The whole beginning of this episode uses the speed of the moving train to create a feeling of adventure and things happening, which sets up a feeling of quick pacing for the rest of the episode to follow. (I actually ripped off this technique for the sake of exposition in an MLP fanfic I wrote some time ago, and no it’s not worth sharing.)

The scene where the buffalo attack is exciting, particularly the introduction of Little Strongheart. It utilizes the fact that Rainbow Dash is the most badass character in the show, and shows her being impressed with Little Strongheart’s skills, which also makes us impressed with her skills. If there’s one big waste in this episode, it’s that Little Strongheart never gets to do anything relevant throughout the rest of the episode. All of her dialog ends up being exposition, which is a waste of such a good rivalry setup.

Rather than slowing down the episode with exposition upon entering [Appleloosa], the quick pace is kept up by Applejack’s hyperactive cousin Braeburn. Appleloosa ends up being a hilarious town, with its horse-drawn horse-drawn carriages, its salt bars, and its mild-West dances. These jokes and Braeburn’s energy help the viewer to see the town as an exciting place, or at least a place that the residents are really excited about.

Yet another bit that seems to have come right out of a stoner comedy is when Spike introduces Rainbow and Pinkie to the buffalo. This is an understated but important aspect of the episode. We don’t learn much about the buffalo, besides that they have a traditional stomping ground, are based on the motif of Native Americans, and have a leader who’s so intense that he can control the show’s aspect ratio. However, the fact that the buffalo have a huge respect for dragons implies the existence of a deeper buffalo culture.

The episode’s conflict emerges as a multi-tiered struggle between different ideologies. Braeburn and Little Strongheart, the chief spokespersons of their cultures, are open to discussion, but they end up being drowned out by passionate outsiders Rainbow Dash and Applejack. The leaders of each group don’t seem to care to understand one-another, relying on their ambassadors to resolve the conflict and, failing that, are ready to attack.

Pinkie Pie enacts a gambit to make everyone see things her way through a really excellent stage production, which is the most fun part of the episode, and was also interpreted brilliantly in a song by Cats Millionaire. Unfortunately, the clan leaders are so offended by the performance that they decide on a mutual hatred of diplomacy and go to war. We get an imaginative and brilliant scene of the Appleloosans preparing for the attack, while the lower tiers of the conflict try and convince the leaders to hold on and think things through. It’s all to build tension, just like any good action movie, but interspersed with lightheartedness, such as Pinkie accidentally setting off the battle when she can’t take a hint.

The final battle is an awesome action set-piece full of imaginative violence and fun Western influence. It leads up to Chief Thunderhooves’ death scene, which is hilarious, and the resolution of the conflict, which is to clear a path for the buffalo through the orchard and feed them some apple pies to keep them happy.

I’m assuming that some of the controversy surrounding this episode has to do with drawing a parallel between this episode and the real life Western expansion. However, this parallel falls apart because the conflict isn’t the same. The settler ponies didn’t take over the buffalo’s homes, they just built on a place where the buffalo traditionally stampede. We could get into a huge moral debate about the importance of tradition vs. expansion, and all kinds of other stuff, but none of that really matters, because in this case, the conflict was resolved with both parties being satisfied. It’s a done deal, and we don’t need to think about it.

Anyways, with that out of the way, I’m taking requests for episodes to cover next, but ONLY FROM SEASON ONE. Once I’ve gotten through all of the season one episodes that I want to cover, I will then move on to season two and probably cover the whole season from start to finish.

By the way, if you still haven’t checked out my Modal Hsoul Productions site, you should totally do that. It’s full of cool stuff.

3 thoughts on “Analyzing “Over A Barrel”

  1. You’ve nailed it with the criticism, and with so few words.

    I don’t understand the “making light of the issues” argument so many have been making, myself; it’s like criticism-slinging viewers expect the writers to totally make up other cultures out of the blue. I don’t care either way, but such an expectation seems dishonest.

    Europeans and American Indians have had different notions of land (some farmed, some gathered, some migrated). It hardly a jump to imagine, based on the suggestions in the setting, that the bison didn’t need all of the land all of the time. But the region was seasonally important for them. Even the way Western civilization conceives of land has gone through massive, successive changes over the past five centuries. Nor is it homogenous.

    As a guy who studied this stuff in college, I hide a smile when I see people write about “oversimplified this and that.” If living on the land seems more important than running around on it, it’s because we’re culturally biased in the first place. That’s the point. Bias is fine, until it leads to willful ignorance. This ep relates a story of different cultural paradigms that may or may not be “opposing.” Conflict, the narrative suggests, may be unavoidable. Leaders may be rightly committed to their views, diplomats may be ineffectual, cultural unity may be flippant and irreverent (did you notice Pinkie’s emerging from the Birth of Venus clamshell? That’s a huge aesthetic/literary conversation right there). What then?

    Honestly, people jump too easily on the race/culture thing. They did this with Zecora; that wasn’t really about race (though it used cultural implications as part of the character model), but about xenophobia. The Mane Six wasn’t assuming things about zebras or “zebra culture,” but rather extrapolating what a specific person might have been like based on her behaviors. It’s a village witch hunt sort of thing, really. Still very bad, obviously, but from a distinct structure of thinking.

    • Yes! Cultural paradigms, that’s the key phrase I was going for. In the youtube comments on this video, people were surprisingly agreeable about this episode, but I’m still not sure that I got across exactly what I meant to them. (Not sure that’s my fault.)

  2. Pingback: [Pony Ep. Quips] “Over a Barrel,” Analogy, and Irony | Things in the Fridge

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