So here’s something hilarious; I actually thought this was going to be an easy review. “Three episodes of Steven Universe?” I thought “That’s only half an hour’s worth of animation! I can do that in my sleep! I can wrap this review up in one night and take the rest of the week off to maybe work on some other things and actually be a writer for once!”
“Oh Mouse! You are a FOOL!”
Of course not. Because before I can get into reviewing Steven Universe
I actually have to explain what Steven Universe
is and the backstory of the show to people who have never seen it. And with a backstory this epic, I have been forced to employ special tools. Please click this link
(NOTE this link may not work on all devices, I’m working on getting a video to embed in the post but that may take some time. In the meantime, the Mary Sue
gives a good run down of the backstory)
So yeah, that is the incredibly dense and rich mythology that the series has built up over one hundred episodes and is IN ABSOLUTELY NO HURRY TO LET YOU IN ON. Seriously, this show is such a goddamn tease, I’d say it drip feeds its backstory but these aren’t even drips, these are molecules of plot moisture.
Oh goodie. Another episode where Steven eats ice-cream.
I kid, I kid (mostly). One of the show’s charms is actually how it carefully builds up its world and devotes time to the various characters that make up Steven’s social circle, whether it’s the gems, or the various residents of Beach city, or his father Greg. And all these characters are so wonderfully layered and charming that even episodes where nothing substantial happens to move the main plot forward feel worthwhile.
Except Ronaldo because, oh my giddy Aunt, FUCK RONALDO.
So this show first aired in 2013 on Cartoon Network and is the creation of Rebecca Sugar, a former writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time. At the top of this post there’s some concept art from the original pilot which was much more “Adventure Timey” in its animation and style but the actual series looks quite different. The show has a simple but very elegant art style favouring beautiful painted backdrops and clean, uncomplicated character designs. The music is also really inventive with original songs featuring in many episodes (it helps that the main and supporting cast are crammed with professional singers). But all that would just add up to a very good looking and sounding children’s cartoon. To understand what makes Steven Universe so special we have to talk about fusion.
So, when the Crystal Gems are battling a threat that’s too powerful for them to take on alone, they can fuse together to form more powerful gems. Okay, hardly revolutionary. Power Rangers, Digimon and Transformers have all used a version of this trope to one degree or other. But here’s the thing. In Steven Universe fusion is very explicitly a metaphor for, well…
Okay, well maybe that’s a little simplistic. The metaphor is fairly elastic and, depending on the episode, fusion can be a stand in for a romantic relationship, platonic friendship or sometimes just the hard fucking. It’s also really important to remember that within the universe (heh) of the show, it’s none of those things. In the world of Steven Universe, fusion is not sex, or relationships or anything else, it’s fusion. It’s its own thing with its own rules and norms and etiquette. This is important to remember because if you treat the metaphor too literally it can go to some weird places. Like, the episode A Giant Woman where Steven first learns about fusion and sings a song about wanting to see Amethyst and Pearl fuse. If you take it to literally mean sex then it becomes the story of a creepy little boy wanting to watch his two foster mothers fuck.
So. Don’t do that.
So today we are going to be looking at three episodes from Season 2; A Cry For Help, Keystone Motel and Friend Ship. Let’s take a look. (Oh and, needless to say, there will be spoilers both for this episode and the series more generally so be warned.)
A Cry For Help
So at this point in the series our heroes have been trying to catch a Homeworld gem called Peridot (Shelby Rabara) who’s become stranded on Earth after her initial defeat at the hands of the Crystal Gems. As the episode begins, Steven (Zach Callison) and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) are watching Steven’s favourite cartoon; Crying Breakfast Friends which is just talking breakfast foods getting emosh. Suddenly the signal is interrupted and Steven and Amethyst see a message from Peridot to her commander, Yellow Diamond, begging to be extracted from Earth. The gems figure that there’s only one place on Earth where Peridot could be transmitting a signal that powerful and head for an old Gem communications tower that was destroyed in a previous episode. The tower has now been fixed but Peridot’s nowhere to be seen. Steven says they need to destroy the tower again and suggests that Amethyst and Garnet (Estelle) should fuse to form Sugilite and now’s probably a good time to talk about the individual gems.
So first there’s Amethyst. Amethyst is the youngest of the three gems (not counting Steven) and emerged from the Earth long after the war against the Homeworld Gems was already over. She’s a quartz, born to be a solider, but because she spent too long in the ground she’s much smaller than a quartz would normally be. Amethyst is the most human-like of the three gems. She’s lived on Earth her whole live and actually has human friends and interests, unlike Garnet and Pearl who tend to stay more aloof the human race. She’s powerful and naturally skilled but also reckless, undisciplined and has poor impulse control and her bedroom is an actual, literal garbage dump.
Pearl (DeeDee Magno) is Amethyst’s exact opposite. At the start of the series Pearl is very much depicted as the “mom” of the family, fastidious, disciplined, collected, sensible, no-nonsense and always in control. This depiction is an absolute goddamn lie because the reality is that Pearl is an insane crazy person just barely hanging on to her sanity and if the gems were running a contest for which of them has almost gotten Steven killed the most times, Pearl would take it in a walk. Pearl was liberated by Steven’s mother Rose Quartz millenia ago (before which she belonged to Pink Diamond which is totally canon. In my brain.). Pearl was utterly, totally, helplessly in love with Rose and when she died Pearl was messed the hell up. Just how up said messing was shall soon become clear.
And then there’s Garnet who is actually the permanent fusion of two smaller gems called Ruby and Sapphire who fell so deeply in love with each other that they fused together permanently to form Garnet. Garnet, to put it plainly, has her shit together. She’s calm, powerful, unflappable and absolutely badass. She’s essentially the living embodiment of a rock solid relationship based on total love and respect.
Now, each one of these three can merge with another to form a fusion. Pearl and Amethyst, for example, form Opal a massive four armed goddess with a kickass bow. What’s interesting about Opal is that while Amethyst and Pearl have the most antagonistic relationship of any of the gems and find it very difficult to fuse, once they do they cancel out each other’s flaws and emphasise each other’s strengths. Pearl with Amethyst’s spontaneity and self confidence, or Amethyst with Pearl’s discipline and grace, is a very powerful combination. Amethyst and Pearl, essentially, are good for each other.
Not so Sugilite.
Sugilite is the fusion of Garnet and Amethyst and at this point in the series she’d already appeared in one episode. Garnet’s determination and power mixed with Amethyst’s lack of restraint gets you this:
And, because I’ll be murdered in the comments if I don’t mention it, she was indeed voiced by Nicki Minaj.
And last time she showed up she actually went berserk and had to be smacked down by Pearl. As Garnet puts it to Amethyst: “I can be rash, you can be reckless, and we can both get carried away.” and says that for the time being, Sugilite is benched. Garnet turns to Pearl and asks her to fuse with her and Pearl makes this face:
Oh yeah. This will end well.
So the gems usually fuse by dancing together as a way of finding a common rhythm (one of the reasons Pearl and Amethyst find it so hard to fuse is that they have vastly different dancing styles). Pearl and Garnet’s dances tend to be particularly sensual just to drive the metaphor home, hard and fast, into your moist, gaping textual comprehension. Anyway, they fuse and form Sardonyx, a massively powerful giant with an ego to match and a decidedly theatrical flair. What’s clear from watching Sardonyx is that it is fun to be her and after making small talk with Steven she extravagantly and effortlessly destroys the tower. She then vanishes in a puff of light and Pearl and Garnet laugh and embrace each other. Obviously they just had a really good fu…sion. Pearl is giddily happy and even the normally restrained Garnet throws up her arms and whoops “We were AWESOME!”. And Amethyst doesn’t say anything.
Back at the temple (the Gem’s base of operations), Steven and Garnet are watching Crying Breakfast Friends when the TV starts acting up again. They head back to the communications hub and find that the tower has been repaired so Garnet and Pearl have to fuse again and trash it. Amethyst wanders off sadly and sings Tower of Mistakes.
Now…you probably think that this is an Amethyst story. That Amethyst learns to overcome her jealousy and that Garnet reaffirms how much she means to her and they all hug and have cake, the end. Yeah, that’s not where this is going.
Steven realises that Amethyst is feeling left out and decides to stake out the communications hub with her so that they can capture Peridot when she tries to fix the hub again. Amethyst is all up for this, thinking that if she captures Peridot “Garnet will think I’m cool again!”. So they wait. And they wait. And they wait. But Peridot doesn’t show up to fix the tower. Instead, someone else does.
Steven can’t understand why Pearl is fixing the hub, but Amethyst’s face says is all; Shit. This is bad. This is really, really bad.
Back at the temple Steven and Amethyst talk about what Pearl’s doing and Steven muses that Pearl might be trying to get them better TV reception. Amethyst non-commitedly mumbles “No, I don’t think that’s it” and her whole demeanour just screams “Kid, you are far too young for me to explain this to you so please don’t ask.” Pearl arrives just as the TV starts acting up again and her monotone “It’s Peridot. She must have fixed the hub again.” is possibly the creepiest moment in a series that has included this little treasure.
So they go back to the hub, again, and just before Pearl and Garnet can fuse Amethyst yells for them to stop. Amethyst tells Pearl that she can’t do this, and Steven tells Pearl that they know she’s been fixing the hub behind Garnet’s back.
Pearl looks at Garnet and whispers “I’m sorry…it’s just so much fun being Sardonyx with you.”
Throughout the series, Estelle has always played Garnet as unflappably cool. She’s the gem who always holds it together, no matter how bad things get. And there is nothing scarier than when someone like that loses their shit. Garnet is absolutely enraged, advancing on Pearl like she’s going smash her into little pieces and make a tasteful necklace. It’s actually Amethyst who intercedes on Pearl’s behalf, saying that for weaker gems like her and Pearl, fusing with Garnet is their only way to feel stronger. Garnet angrily tells Amethyst not to defend what Pearl did and tells her to fuse with her. Amethyst is reluctant and Garnet hisses “let’s just get this over with.” Who says romance is dead?
Amethyst and Garnet fuse into Sugilite who somehow resists the urge to crush Pearl like a bug and takes out the tower with one punch. She doesn’t say anything however, ‘cos Nicki don’t come cheap.
She charges a tiara for every line of dialogue.
The next day, Steven and Amethyst watch an episode of Crying Breakfast Friends where the character of Pear is forgiven by his friend Spoon. They watch Garnet and Pearl pass each other in the kitchen in stony silence.
“Man.” says Amethyst “It sure would be nice if things worked out the way they do in cartoons.”
“Yeah.” says Steven “It would.”
You know, when I was growing up the most important life lessons cartoons had to impart to me were about making sure the window was open if my dog was left in a car. Now they’re teaching kids about the importance of consent. This is why cartoons are better now.
So the next episode picks up a few days later and Pearl has been searching for Peridot non-stop, hoping that if she can bring her in Garnet will forgive her. Soooo…Pearl’s having a nervous breakdown but how’s Garnet doing? Is she willing to forgive Pearl and move on?
Oh shit. That’s her “engulfed with rage” face.
In this maelstrom of boiling emotional torment comes Greg (Tom Scharpling), Steven’s Dad who is the best human
in the series. Greg has come to take Steven on a roadtrip to Keystone State (the state called Keystone) to buy some cheap carwash brushes from a man he met on the internet and Garnet invites herself along. Steven’s really excited because it’s his first time at a motel but Garnet is unusually quiet, even for her. They arrive at the motel and Greg heads out to meet his contact, saying “If I’m not back in an hour, call the police.” Fat lot of good that’ll do him. The cops in Keystone ain’t exactly the elite of law enforcement.
Their speed based superheroes are second to none, however.
Once Greg leaves, Garnet starts talking to herself like Gramgram used to do and then angrily seperates into two seperate cosmic beings. Like Gramgram used to do. These are Ruby (Charlyne Yi) and Sapphire (Erica Luttrell), the two gems that form Garnet. Ruby refuses to forgive Garnet and Sapphire calmly says that they have to and that there’s no reason to take what Pearl did personally. Ruby explodes, saying “It’s FUSION SAPPHIRE! WHAT’S MORE PERSONAL TO US THAN FUSION!” Ruby can’t understand why Sapphire is so chill about it and Sapphire says that she’s not, saying “Can’t you see that I’m engulfed in rage?”
Story checks out.
Ruby storms out and starts pacing furiously beside the swimming pool, so hot angry that she’s literally burning marks into the concrete, while Saphhire stays in the motel room, freezing it solid. And not to get into personal details, but I have definitely had fights like this and I’m usually the Sapphire.
Greg comes back with some cheap car wash brushes and some some square pizza and Steven is appalled. But Greg tells him “Son, one day you’ll learn to appreciate all pizza.” and seriously you could gather all of Greg’s sayings in a book and you’d have the basis for a really solid world religion, I’m just saying. The next morning the
trio quartet go for breakfast in a diner and Ruby and Sapphire can’t stop arguing until finally Steven says “crew this noise” and storms out. Ruby and Sapphire run after him and for once he’s genuinely pissed (Steven don’t do pissed) saying “Home’s been awful. Here’s been awful. I thought you wanted to have a fun time, but everyone’s been acting awful too! It… it just came with us! I don’t understand! Is it… is it me?”
Because Steven is the only person Ruby and Sapphire love as much as each other this actually gets through to them and they’re really shaken. We finally realise why Sapphire has been acting so aloof. See, she has future vision, meaning she can already see the future where they’ve forgiven Pearl and moved on and everything is all right again. And she has been trying to get Ruby to forgive Pearl because she wants to get that future as soon as she can because the present hurts so badly. She tearfully berates herself for dismissing Ruby’s pain and bursts into tears saying “No wonder you think I don’t care!”. Ruby tells her that it wasn’t her fault, they cry, they laugh, they re-affirm the existence of love in a beautiful universe, Mouse cries like an infant and Ruby and Sapphire have really good make-up fu…usion.
Back at the temple Pearl anxiously waits for them to come home. When Garnet comes through the door Pearl tries to talk to her but Garnet simply rasies her hand and says “Not now”.
Okay. That’s her “I’m still hurting from the way you betrayed me but I’ve achieved some measure of inner peace and maybe, at some point in the future, I will find it within myself to forgive you” face.
So we’re going to skip ahead a few episodes to Friend Ship where this whole mess finally gets resolved. So as the episode starts Peridot is trying to fix a Warp Pad to escape this hostile alien planet and get back home (that monster!) when the Crystal Gems show up to fuse her day up. Things don’t go so well however, because Pearl’s still so guilt ridden and desperate to make amends that she can’t even handle basic battle banter:
Garnet: Peridot! We’re here to—
Pearl: And you’ll never get away with this!
Aaaand it just goes downhill from there. Pearl is just out of synch with the rest of the group, tripping over everyone else to the point where even Steven is like “Jeez, the hell?” Peridot eventually just warps away, more from embarrassment than anything else, and the gems sullenly return home.
Because Peridot wasn’t able to fully repair the warp pad however, they know that she has to still be on Earth. They track her to a crashed gem vessel deep in a rainforest and Pearl is delighted because this means Peridot is getting desperate (and Pearl knows aaaaaaaall about desperate).
They go inside and an old viewscreen lights up with a recording of Peridot telling them that she’s not actually in the ship and she’s just lured them there because, say it with Admiral Ackbar kids…
“It’s a situation engineered by hostile persons to allow them to spring a surprise attack!”
All kinds of booby traps and razor sharp doodads start attacking the gems and Garnet and Pearl get seperated and trapped in one of those rooms where the walls close in and smush you. Smush rooms. You know ’em.
So, finally, trapped in an enclosed space and with mere moments to live, Garnet and Pearl have to have The Conversation. Pearl says that she did what she did because wanted to feel strong, a feeling that she’s lost ever since Rose died. Garnet tells Pearl that she (Garnet) is not as strong as everyone thinks and that she relies on Pearl too.
Garnet: Please understand, Pearl. You have an impact too. There are times when I look up to you for strength. You are your own gem. You control your destiny. Not me, not Rose, not Steven. But you must choose to be strong, so we can move forward. So I can trust you again.
Pearl promises that she will and Garnet says that there’s only one way out.
Pearl: Only if you’re okay with it.
I think that’s the moment when Garnet forgives Pearl, when Pearl shows that she’s willing to die rather than violate Garnet’s trust again.
They fuse and form Sardonyz who busts out like it ain’t no thang. They track down Peridot and while she still escapes, they’re now coordianted enough that they get her robot foot so, y’know, progress.
Some shows (Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall spring to mind) have sunk their fangs into me from the very first scene of the very first episode and refused to let go. Steven Universe was not one of those shows. My advice if you’re thinking of giving it a look is to be patient. This is, as I mentioned in the intro, a slow burner, and it takes a while to realise just what exactly it’s burning (some good shit, man). But stick with it and before your eyes it will morph into one of the most beautiful, thought provoking cartoons currently being aired. It’s something really special, and I whole heartedly recommend it.
A little stiff (TV budget, whaddyagonnado) but balanced with beautiful artwork, wonderfully well thought out character models and a beautiful aesthetic.
Not really the best showcase for Steven who, if I’m honest, is usually one of the less interesting aspects of his own show. That’s just suffering by comparison though, Steven is a rare selfless hero who still manages to be funny and appealing.
Peridot has plenty of funny moments but the character didn’t really come into her own until she joined the crystal gems later in Season 2.
Supporting Characters 19/20
One of the best supporting casts of any cartoon currently on the air. Probably one of the best ever.
The theme tune alone will be stuck in your head for weeks.
FINAL SCORE: 75%
Next update: 20 October 2016
NEXT TIME: It thtill hurth…