For the “Element of Harmony” backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the second such essay.
As I discussed in the article on Rarity, the question of “best pony” requires a definition of “best.” That the concept of “best” is not set in stone should be obvious, unless you wish to contend that what makes he best cupcake also makes the best pony. “Best” thus necessarily must always be understood to mean “best for a particular purpose,” not in any absolute sense.
Thus, just as with Rarity, if we can find the purposes to which Applejack is best suited, we will understand why she is best pony. Now, I’ve made no secret of my apathy toward Applejack; I find her a boring character, the least entertaining of the Mane Six, and indeed less entertaining than any of the princesses or the Cutie Mark Crusaders as well. Pretty much the only character likely to serve as an episode focus I am less enthused by than Applejack is Spike.
So, clearly, the purposes for which Applejack is best pony are not my purposes as a viewer or a commentator. But by examining the character and her strengths, can we construct such a purpose? Because of course she has quite a few strengths; as I have said before, I feel apathy, not antipathy, toward her. I don’t dislike her or think her unworthy, I just don’t personally find her entertaining, precisely because of her strengths.
Applejack’s greatest strength and weakness, fairly consistently across episodes featuring her, is her determination. Since, as a general rule, if a pony is the focus of an episode they must have a problem to overcome, frequently Applejack’s determination is depicted as stubbornness. Applejack creates her own problems by excessive stubbornness, whether that’s refusing to accept help from her friends in Season One’s “Applebuck Season,” refusing to compromise or bend her sense of propriety and fair play for others in “Look Before You Sleep” and “Fall Weather Friends” (both also Season One) or holding herself to unachievably high standards in Season Two’s “The Last Roundup” and Season Three’s “Apple Family Reunion.” But at other times her determination is a strength, as when she refuses to give up and recruits her friends and family to help against the Flim-Flam Brothers in “The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.”
Applejack does not quit, and she hates to lose, regarding even second place as a failure (as witness her behavior in “Fall Weather Friends” and “The Last Roundup”). But she is not a total perfectionist: “Fall Weather Friends” opens with her playing horseshoes, visually referencing the saying that “Close only matters in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Although one of the most rigid of the Mane Six (Twilight has a tendency to become even more rigid when pushed outside her comfort zone), Applejack is capable of bending when necessary, as in “Sisterhooves Social.” In order to help her sister’s friend (who is also her friend’s sister) Sweetie Belle, she cheats at the obstacle course by secretly substituting a fresh pony for herself mid-race, and simultaneously throws the contest by having that pony be the significantly less athletic Rarity. Rainbow Dash, the most competitive of the Mane Six, would never do such a thing, but Applejack is willing to do so because in addition to her stubbornness, she has a strong sense of compassion.
Applejack’s compassionate, nurturing side comes out most in her interactions with her little sister, Apple Bloom. Given their lack of parents, Applejack serves as a surrogate mother to the significantly younger Apple, most notably in “Call of the Cutie” and “The Cutie Pox”–indeed, between her brother’s taciturn and self-effacing nature and her grandmother’s age and disability, Applejack is effectively head of the family and manager of the farm; though she regularly defers to her grandmother’s experience and advice, it is usually Applejack who represents Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple family in interactions with others.
Indeed, as the series has gone one Applejack’s “stubbornness” has increasingly been portrayed as a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes pathologically so. There are hints of this as early as “Applebuck Season,” but it is most clear in “The Last Roundup,” where Applejack refuses to return home or even explain to her friends what’s going on until she’s earned the money she promised the town, and “Apple Family Reunion,” where she works herself to the bone not out of a stubborn determination to prove Big Macintosh and Twilight Sparkle wrong, but out of a sense of obligation to provide her family with a “perfect” reunion.
That episode gives us a clue to a possible reason for why Applejack acts the way she does, in that it comes as close as the show likely ever will to outright saying that her parents are dead. The implication is very strong, and therein lies a key to Applejack’s personality and the first time her character becomes remotely interesting to me all series. Consider who was left on the farm after Applejack’s parents died: Her grandmother, elderly and disabled, full of knowledge but unable to handle the exhausting physical and emotional labor of maintaining the farm and holding the family together. Her brother, physically capable but too quiet and self-effacing to lead the family. Her sister, too young for any real responsibility. Applejack would have seen herself as having no choice; she had to take on the responsibilities of running the farm and leading the family, because no one else was available to do it. She herself was likely still quite young: given that the Mane Six have been friends for at least a couple of years by the time of Equestria Girls, which depicts them as high school students, and Applejack is already depicted as running the farm in the third episode of the series, she cannot have been more than the equivalent of a 15-year-old, and could have been as young as the age difference between the sisters, perhaps as little as five or six years. Nonetheless, she shouldered the burden because no one else was around to do it, and perhaps also to distract herself from grief.
There is further evidence that her shouldering of responsibilities could serve as a distraction and escape from grief, namely that she near-compulsively takes on new responsibilities. In both “The Last Roundup” and “Apple Family Reunion,” Applejack jumps at the chance to take on new responsibilities, even though the ones she already has are quite impressive for a pony so young. Something drives Applejack to take on ever more responsibility, and we’ve seen no signs that she has any particular future goal she strives toward; it thus seems likely that her drive is away from, not towards. She is still trying to race ahead of that loss, still distracting herself from fully experiencing it and beginning the healing process.
She is, in other words, the inverse of Pinkie Pie. Both are trying to escape past trauma, but doing so in opposite ways. Pinkie Pie buries herself in fun, playing her life away in a rejection of all responsibility, while Applejack devotes herself to work, becoming the kind of pony whose idea of a party is a chance to sell her apple treats.
But this dedication, coupled with her nurturing compassion and genuine desire to help others, points to the way in which Applejack is best pony: She is, of all the ponies in the show, the one who would make the best friend or family member. She is reliable, hardworking, stable, at least relative to the rest of Ponyville, caring, nurturing, compassionate, and honest. None of these traits open up a lot of avenues for character development, humor, or entertaining drama, but they are great traits to have in a companion, whether setting out an adventure or just trying to live life.
Like her determination at the diegetic level, Applejack’s greatest strength at the extradiegetic level is also her greatest weakness. That which makes her best pony also makes her boring: she is the best pony to have as a friend, so on a show where most episodes are about learning to become a better friend, Applejack has the least to learn. Within the terms by which the show defines growth, Applejack is already fully grown.
But once again, what makes for an interesting character to watch is not the same as what makes for a good friend. Applejack has the quality of the latter in spades. In this sense, she is unquestionably best pony.