Through some strange alchemy of personal discovery and forced plot contrivance, Fluttershy ultimately figures out how to stand up for herself without being a jerk. She uses this
** SPOILERS **
OK, try this one on for size: Iron Will returns to Ponyville and asks Fluttershy to help him with his family troubles. Specifically, Will needs to find "his inner pony" in order to reconnect with his "Mizzuz" and stop being so aggressive around the labyrinth. My jaw literally dropped at this notion. All Will knew about Fluttershy when he left Ponyville was that she had been timid and had applied his "assertiveness training" in a somewhat different manner than he had become accustomed to. Where in Equestria did he get the idea that 'Shy (1) was some sort of personal counselor and (2) would even be willing to take on his case after the events of "Hoof Down," which culminated with Fluttershy basically blowing him off? Say it with me, kids: "I'm going to have this thing happen, because I WANT this thing to happen!" The fact that Fluttershy is good-hearted enough to ignore her friends' warnings and accept the challenge doesn't make up for the essential falseness at the heart of the plot.
We subsequently see 'Shy escorting Will all around Ponyville, encouraging him to perform various tasks that are apparently meant to get him to connect with his "softer side." These include caring for animals, selling treats at Sugar Cube Corner, bucking apples, and going to the spa. Somehow, I fail to see the point of this. Fluttershy should be teaching Will to control and channel his assertiveness, not to polish up his domestic skills. Oh, right, that "teaching moment" does actually take place... once the domestic misadventures have provided eight pages of what is, for all intents and purposes, filler. We then get four more pages of comparative dross as Will demonstrates his newfound sense of calmness and respect to the entire "Mane 6" -- his cooking skills, as well, but that field test doesn't go nearly so well -- and 'Shy's friends marvel over her ability to win over "crackpots" with nothing more than kindness and patience. Which wasn't doing Fluttershy much good at the beginning of "Hoof Down," of course, but that was an entirely different plot contrivance.
I think that what we see here is the danger of using the FRIENDS FOREVER title to amplify relationships that have already been established by the TV series. Unlike, say, relationships between members of the "Mane 6" themselves, which have much more flexibility built in, Fluttershy and Iron Will originally interacted in a very specific, and atypical, manner. The very fact that the premise was so lame indicates that the whole idea of reuniting them was probably misguided from the off. Only a completely different scenario, one that had as little to do with "Hoof Down" as possible, might possibly have justified the return engagement.
Having Will tangle with one of the other members of the "Mane 6" would probably have produced better results. Since half of Fluttershy's friends didn't even appear in "Hoof Down" -- and, given that the ep implied that a repentant Fluttershy spent a good, long time in some sort of isolated self-exile, that should be filed in the "Huh?" folder as well -- and all that they actually know about him came from hearsay, it doesn't quite make sense that they all have the same, exact negative reaction to him when he reappears on the scene here. The excitable Rainbow Dash, for example, might have physically attacked Will for giving Dash's old flight-school pal Fluttershy such a "hard time." That disagreement would have taken some time to settle, for sure. By contrast, Twilight Sparkle, thinking of her responsibilities as a Princess of Friendship, might have taken after Will for disturbing the peace of Equestria by implicitly encouraging newly "assertive" ponies to bully one another. Whichever possible direction strikes your fancy, you've got to admit that any of them would probably have had more satisfying results than 'Shy's turning of Iron Will into some sort of Equestrian "Mr. Mom."
While Rice's plot annoyed me, Agnes Garbowska's artwork made me cringe. Not because it was particularly poor -- it was pretty much the same slightly clunky, head-shot-heavy, picture-booky art that she's employed from the beginning of her work on the MLP line -- but because she copied panels. Several times, in fact. Oh, she slightly changed one or two characters' facial expressions from panel to panel to mask the fact, or she used a different character in the foreground, but, good gravy, does the copying seem blatant. Perhaps she'd fallen behind with other jobs, or some other emergency came up, and she had to resort to desperate measures to get the work in on time. But the cheese-paring looks particularly bad when compared with the artwork we've been getting from other sources in these books. I will say that the opening panel, in which she depicts the Friendship Castle that debuted in "Twilight's Kingdom", looks quite nice. Since the place is designed as if it belongs in a picture book, it's no surprise that Garbowska was able to render it well.