My first pithy little reaction to the episode “The Maud Couple” was essentially “Maud is dating Sheldon Cooper now and we got to deal with it”. Feeling the need to elaborate on that more, however, is what has finally motivated to actually write out an episode review, something I haven’t done since the Season 6 Finale “To Where and Back Again.”
Look, PhD programs don’t leave a lot of time to write pony episode reviews. But nothing tends to get my urge to analyze something going as much as a show attempting to make the audience have to like or tolerate a character without actually putting in the work. That is, essentially, the major flaw I have with the episode “The Maud Couple” and is what makes it an ultimately inferior episode to its most easily comparable one, “Maud Pie”.
“Dull Outside, Hidden Gem Inside” Plots
The basic idea of this plot is that we’re presented with a character who is weird, abnormal, or unsettling, both to the characters and in theory the audience. Though initial interactions may be off-putting, by the end of the plot everyone has discovered something about the character that puts them in a new light such that we, the audience, are able to relate to them and appreciate them even if we don’t fully get them.
“Maud Pie”, Maud’s introductory episode, was basically this plot, and “The Maud Couple” is essentially the same thing but with the roles switched up. Maud’s new boyfriend, Mud Briar, is essentially Maud, and Pinkie Pie has taken the role of Twilight’s friends by being utterly befuddled at how Maud could be dating someone so weird and absolutely unsuited for her. Like her friends, however, Pinkie learns to put aside her feelings about Mud Briar and learn to tolerate him after both Starlight and her other sisters Limestone and Marble remind her that even if she can never see past his “dullness”, he makes Maud happy and that ultimately that’s all that matters.
The risk of these type of plots, however, is that we, the audience, must ultimately be able to see the shining gem beneath the dull surface. This means the plot rests on the ability of the writers to present a character that is a little unsettling or odd but that the audience is able to find something that allows us to empathize with and come to an understanding of them.
The success of “The Maud Couple” as an episode, then rises or falls on how well the writers present Mud Briar as someone that we can understand someone finding likeable and appealing to Maud even if we personally do not.
I, personally, do not think the episode did a good job of this.
The Dull Rock
On paper, Mud Briar and Maud are very similar characters. Both have very dull, un-emotive expressions and speaking styles most of the time. Both have intense, hyper fixations on certain topics: Maud and her rocks, Mud Briar and sticks.
In practice, however, the way the two are presented leaves a dramatically different impact in terms of their outer dull rockiness.
When Maud is first introduced after massive amount of hype by Pinkie Pie. After all the exciting things Pinkie said about her, her slow, dull tone of voice and simplistic, dull coloring is a massive contrast that sets up the dry humor that makes up most of the episode. She also sniffs a rock, which helps set up the somewhat unsettling and awkwardness between Maud, the Mane 6, and by extension us throughout the rest of the initial part of the episode. Even when Maud expresses a interest in writing poetry, for example, she relates it back to rocks.
Ultimately, Maud’s “dullness” is presented as her being hyper fixated on a topic most people would find utterly boring, which is then exaggerated by her dull character design and lack of emotiveness.
Mud Briar’s introduction, however, takes a different approach: they have him stand at a counter. Yes, Pinkie was a little rude by going straight to it and ignoring him, but ultimately it is revealed that he had been standing there contemplating whether to say “See you later” or “Goodbye” because they are “technically” different phrases and he has to be precise in his meaning. This simply irritates Pinkie, who argues with him a bit before removing him from the store, and this results in Pinkie losing out on buying her supplies as the store owner has run off to lunch. A minute later he is revealed as Maud’s boyfriend, where he continues to start almost every line with “Technically”, has to have the final word on the “rock show” vs “stick show” argument in order to show his pedantic superiority, and a line that piñata sticks are “stick abuse”.
In short, Maud is introduced in a manner that is both an inversion of the expectations Pinkie Pie set for her in a way that sets up the awkwardness that will make up most of the episode as the Mane 6 don’t really quite know how to relate to her. Mud Briar, however, is initially presented as being irritating and pedantic over ultimately trivial things that prove to be an inconvenience to others. There is the token effort to replicate Maud’s initial appearance by having him interested in sticks and having a pet stick, but ultimately it is being pedantic that is the central part of his personality and grinds Pinkie Pie’s gears.
Now, a character being irritating and pedantic is not inherently bad way to do this. The episode “No Second Prances” is a good comparison in this regard as Trixie is, well, Trixie. It works, however, because Trixie shows legitimate hurt when she thinks she messed up her friendship with Starlight, showing that ultimately there was a hidden gem underneath the ego. Presenting Mud Briar as being irritating, then, simply means it’s an extra layer of challenge to the writers compared to “Maud Pie.” Awkwardness can complicate the natural desire people tend to have to want to get along with others: Maud being weird does not initially push us away from wanting to reach out to her. Irritation, however, encourages us to push someone away, meaning that the writers have to justify why we should care about reaching out to Mud Briar and that whatever good traits he has are worth putting up with him saying “Technically” every other line.
But, well, the episode never really does that
The Hidden Gem
In “Maud Pie”, Maud eventually wins over the rest of the Mane 6 after she saves Pinkie Pie from a rockfall using her superior ability to punch the hell out of some rocks. This is what triggers the idea that ultimately the thing they have in common is that they all love Pinkie Pie. Maud reinforces this by showing that she had been saving all the rock candy that Pinkie Pie and her had been making over the years because even if she didn’t like rock candy she loves Pinkie Pie and enjoys sharing in their ritual of making the candy.
The main reason this works is that hopefully four seasons into the series (Maud Pie being the 18th episode of the 4th season) we the audience also have developed a fondness for Pinkie Pie. Even if you haven’t, however, the audience can still relate to the message Maud is making that is, in a sense, a variation of that episode’s lesson: even if we don’t like the same things as our family members, we can still love and treasure the time we spend with them an are willing to do anything for them. In short, showing off the collection of rock candy is Maud’s showing the “hidden gem” inside her and gives the audience the connection point needed for the plot to work.
That moment basically doesn’t exist in this episode, but let’s look at the moments one would point to in order to argue he has a hidden gem.
First, Starlight Glimmer basically gives Pinkie the advice from “Maud Pie” and encourages her to try and bond with Mud Briar by working with him to plan Maud’s surprise party. He continues to be irritating, however, pointing out her underground shop is not a cave but “technically” a cavern based on info he learned from Maud.
This actually presents the first issue with why Mud Briar doesn’t really show much of a hidden gem, which is that basically outside of the talking about the “petrified wood” talk, he doesn’t actually do all that much with Maud on screen. Even then, that conversation felt more like him trying to win a pedantic argument than actual conversation, but I can chalk that up as just presenting the initial “dullness” and so by itself not that bad. But when his central role is “Maud’s boyfriend”, we the audience need to see interaction with her, not just Maud smiling when he’s around. I mean, that’s an indication he likes him, but not a reason that we should.
Eventually Pinkie’s attempt to work with Mud Briar falls apart when he notes that Maud doesn’t like surprise parties, which she responds to with anger and a statement that as her sister she knows Maud better than he does. When they go before Maud, however, Maud quickly points out she basically just tolerates them because she knows it makes Pinkie happy to plan parties for her.
And…yeah, no, Pinkie isn’t exactly a shining star this episode either. They really like to play up Pinkie being kind of paranoid and overdramatic about anything Maud related, like her trying to force Maud into friendships in “Rock Solid Friendship”. In this episode it isn’t any better, with Pinkie basically accusing Maud of picking her boyfriend over her when Maud – as Maud herself points out – clearly said she wants to hang out with both of them for her birthday. There’s a part of me that almost feels like this was thrown in because by making Mud Briar so irritating Pinkie’s reluctance to like him felt too justified. Making her unreasonably paranoid and jealous must have felt a good way to remind us ‘oh, right, she’s supposed to be learning a lesson here.”
In regards to showing Mud Briar’s “hidden inner gem”, however, this scene still contributes nothing. Mud Briar doesn’t even do anything but talk to Starlight, who bless her heart is trying to much to keep all this together as Pinkie Pie is consumed by her insecurities. He only comes in at the end to say “See you later,” which I guess is the payoff for the argument earlier?
After this, Pinkie goes back to the rock farm and gets scolded by Limestone Pie about the moral, prompting her to try and make peace with Mud Briar. And sure, him making up with Pinkie is a little nice, with his “And I love a good quercus. Friends?” line somewhat subverting his being pedantic, but we still ultimately don’t get a “box of rock candy” moment. I mean for crying out loud, when Pinkie Pie points out it was his idea to have a party but Maud watches from up the hill, his response is “Technically” it wasn’t a surprise because she could see the setup.
I mean, just…why?
“The Maud Couple” is essentially an attempt to tread over the ground of “Maud Pie”, but with Pinkie as her friends and Mud Briar as the new Maud. It ultimately fails, however, because we the audience are never really given anything we can latch onto with him that allows us to see that “hidden gem” underneath his “dull exterior” like we did in “Maud Pie.” Mud Briar just comes off as irritating to such a degree that Pinkie Pie’s dislike almost feels justified, only prompting a “whoa, hold on” when she accuses Maud of favoring him over her.
This means that they basically did the first part of this type of plot well: we, the audience, really do learn to not like him that much and wonder what Maud see’s him in. What is lacking, however, is that “box of rock candy” moment, some that shows that he truly does care about Maud in a way that shows he is ultimately a good person underneath his being a pedantic. You could point to his confrontation with Pinkie about the surprise party thing, but “Mud Briar knows Maud doesn’t like surprise parties” doesn’t have the same emotional impact as Maud’s rescue or finding out she has kept all the rock candy her and her sister have made over the year, and it doesn’t override him being absolutely irritating. We get no real moments of interaction between him and Maud either, which is important for this context because he’s also supposed to be her boyfriend.
This leaves us just like Pinkie Pie at the end of the episode. We truly do not have any reason to see why Maud finds Mud Briar someone worth having in her life while even an attempt to give him credit is met with just a “technically” and more pedantic talk. The lesson we have learned, however, is to just suck it up. Essentially, the lesson of “Maud Pie” is used to sell us on “Maud Pie has a boyfriend now” in a way that is basically a guilt tripped “deal with it or you’re just being judgemental”. But the lesson of “see past the dull rock for the gem inside” only applies if past that dull rock there truly is a gem and not simply more dull rock.