This is a great episode for character development. Though the story revolves around Laura and Nellie, we see a great deal of both sets of parents and learn a lot about how these families work.
Mrs. Oleson clearly rules the roost over there at the Mercantile, but Nels does have his own opinions about things that aren't always in line with Harriet's. Unfortunatly, he has no power over her and she does as she pleases. Nels clearly stated that Nellie did not deserve another horse, but when Harriet couldn't come up with any other way of calming Nellie down, she promised one. And then went out and bought it without telling Nels. Very unusual behaviour for a woman in the 1870s, but then, Harriet is quite unusual.
Nels may not carry the day at his home, but he does get his moments. They usually come when he's fed up and had enough, but in this episode it comes because Harriet is stunned beyond words that Laura has returned the silver bowl. While she is quietly contemplating (perhaps) that her child would never have done this, Nels is able to command her into the store room to get shoes for the Ingalls girls.
Nellie is manipulative and mean. If we didn't know that already from the previous episode, then we certainly see it now. Notice how quickly her hysterical tears are replaced by that sinister grin as soon as she has gotten her mother to promise to get her a new horse. Nellie gets what she wants and all's right with the world. We see this grin again later when she tells Laura about her new horse and also when she tells Laura and Mary that Willie will be riding Sparks. She's a mean one for sure!
Willie's mean too, but he's not as driven as his sister. He would be just as happy eating pie as he is teasing Laura. His fondness for candy apples provides plot device as well as a little comedy here.
The Inagalls family are as close and strong and faithful as ever. Charles is frustrated by his financial situation, but is still able to joke with the girls about their big feet (Mary's shoes looked huge!). I am sure that he doesn't want to make them feel bad about something that's beyond their control. He is always there for his girls. When Laura is stewing in the barn about Nellie's new horse, Charles is able to remind her that God has given her gifts that Nellie doesn't have and that those gifts will be more useful to her in winning the race than some dumb old horse. Charles is supportive of Laura's efforts throughout and one knows that she draws a great deal of strength from that.
Caroline is pretty fiesty when Mrs. Oleson gets her going! Practical Caroline knows her girls need shoes, but she will not take a hand out from "that woman". I love when Caroline shows this side of herself. She has pride and sometimes it gets the best of her. Sometimes, she's able to use it quite well-remember the eggs in "Country Girls"? Classic.
Laura is a perfect blend of Father and Mother. She is faithful and hardworking, and she is fiesty and proud. It's a winning combination, quite literally in this case.
The story is good and there are some very funny moments, but the root of this episode for me is the character study of the two families and how different they are. It sets the tone for many episodes to come.
An interesting note: Laura risks the health of her horse in order to get Doc Baker for a sick Willie. Many years later, Willie will risk his health in order to get Doc Baker for a sick Laura.