The Great Big Steven Universe Recap; Or, The Femme Smooch Heard ‘Round the World
And now, the episodes your dashboard won’t shut up about. Welcome back to the Steven Universe recaps, the not-quite-up-to-date-but-almost edition! Today we’ll be covering the “Steven Bomb,” a five night special event that aired six new episodes of the series (one a day, two on Thursday) and gave us some major plot and character revelations. Once we settle into talking about one episode per post we can dig a little deeper into each episode’s themes, technical aspects, performances, etc. For now…let’s see if I can’t get you back to your days in less than 4000 words.
A quick side note about the Intro post and series chronology: turns out words mean things, and people who write on the internet should know that! As of last Friday the show’s aired 50 episodes, and episode 50 was the premiere of what the crew (and Wikipedia) labels “Season 2” (with Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem being the midseason break). BUT! If you’re looking to buy the series on a streaming site, it’s broken into either Volume 1/Volume 2 (on iTunes), Season 1/Season 2 (on YouTube), or both (if you are Amazon, Switzerland, or the protagonist of a YA novel). Certainly not the most auspicious start I could’ve made, but I do hope you’ll forgive me.
Right, now that that bit of important pedantry is out of the way, onward!
While combing the Gem battlefield from “Serious Steven” for weapons to use against Peridot, Lion uncovers the scabbard to Rose’s sword, sending Pearl into old memories about her time as Rose’s closest confidante and follower. She’s less than thrilled that Steven’s already seen Rose’s secret armory (“Lion 2: The Movie”), and downright crushed at the idea that Lion might be connected to Rose – or rather, that Rose might have had secrets even from Pearl.
I know everyone’s riding on the gorgeous, triumphant note that is “Jailbreak,” but this might be my favorite episode of the whole crop. The last few minutes are gorgeous, gutpunching stuff: I’m particularly fond of the color composition, with those blues and purples at once creating a mournful air, washing out the vividness of the first scene, and making Rose’s scabbard practically pop out of the frame; and likewise the use (and very pointed silence) of the piano, Pearl’s usual soundtrack tell. Deedee Magno Hall hits it out of the park with her voice work too, weaving buried resentment and heavy, heavy mourning into her dialogue with Steven and almost unbearable rawness into the moments of near-reliving her memories with Rose (whoever scripted having Pearl speak both sets of lines while gradually closing into a close shot of Rose as if she were truly there, while simultaneously making sure she’s cast entirely in Pearl’s colors rather than any pinks to hammer home the “illusion” aspect, is an evil genius).
Pearl’s feelings are a lot to unpack, particularly in light of what we’ve seen of her before. This is the Gem who’s talked the most about Gem culture and history, and who almost got herself and Steven killed trying to get back to space, but she agreed to stay on Earth without needing so much as a second thought – all because of her love for Rose. Remember when I mentioned the soul-crushing Sailor Moon handholding homage? The one between a romantic couple affirming their devotion on a battlefield (also in GIF form)? This episode might count for best use of an outside source in deepening the text of a scene (not that it needed much more deepening, between “none of you had what we had” and “my Pearl”).
But I’m not (just) here to gush over the glorious amount of queerness this show got onto cable in one week. Pearl and Rose having a relationship puts a new spin on a lot of things: Pearl’s above-and-beyond dismissive behavior toward Greg (as a parent and help to the Gems); her desire to teach Steven as much about the past as she can (“do you have any of her memories?”); her especially fussy protectiveness over Rose’s possessions and fawning descriptions of her; and most of all, Steven’s failed leap of faith. What a character moment, told almost entirely through visuals: she runs to the edge to see if he’s fallen, looks for a few good hard seconds…and leaves him there; and when Steven climbs up she has a look of perfect horror on her face, different than the mournful expression from the start of the scene. It’s not hard to read in an almost Babadook-like subtext: “if you weren’t here, I’d still have her here with me; if you were gone, would that bring her back?”
It’s a raw, ugly moment that the episode doesn’t solve (there’s no solving grief in five minutes, after all), choosing instead to juxtapose a heartfelt bonding moment between Steven and Pearl with that small, almost haunted look she gives him as they ride back from the battlefield, once more not triumphant but survivors.
The Gems receive a message from space on a “wailing stone” (an ancient Gem means of communication), but only a wordless wave of sound is getting through. Greg’s geeky expertise with sound equipment manages to pull a coherent (video) message from the stone, and the news is grim indeed: Lapis Lazuli, quite unhappy on the vastly different Gem homeworld, warns them that Peridot is on her way to Earth.
The more spotlight he gets, the more I come to think of Greg as a downright miraculous character, constantly walking a tightrope between the potential useless bumbling dad figure and a means of undercutting the Gems as the “real” parent for Steven. Instead, he’s a genuinely good influence on Steven without trying to step on how the Gems handle their part in Steven’s upbringing; who misses his kid (and still carries his own scars) but tries to make the most of his own life and all the time he and Steven have together. I believe this is what they call “well-rounded characterization.” That his hard work on the wailing stone nets a huge result (info about other Gems, about the Homeworld, news on Lapis) through a series of 100% given little actions fits perfectly with his character, and it’s nice to see him get Garnet’s validation (who seems to realize herself how much little victories mean in keeping body and soul together).
SU’s music is often mentioned as one of its highlights (including this episode, and Greg and Steven’s mournful guitar tune), but it’s interesting to note how much the manipulation of music is tied to Gem identity and to emotional bonds. Songs are means of conveying deeply felt emotion between characters who can’t put in to words (often by mediator Steven – “Giant Woman” and “Island Adventure” being two great examples), the more “balanced” fusion Gems are all played by musical artists, Rose fell in love with Greg after seeing his band perform, and now Greg is able to help the Gems in this crucial moment because of his understanding of sound and music (for bonus points, the fact that new Gem tech uses video messages helps to separate them out and make them uncanny in comparison to our Gems – “don’t you know, video killed the audio star?”). Music isn’t just something that the show loves – it’s built right into the DNA of how the characters interact.
And hey, wow, speaking of last episode, let’s just really drive in the knife of how much Pearl subtly wants as little to do with Greg as possible. Ouch.
Pearl’s attempts to create a means of combatting Peridot’s droids results in a town-wide power outage, and Steven joins up with Mayor Dewey to try and keep order in Beach City. For Dewey this means making false promises, which doesn’t go over so well when the power stays down into the night – but at least it lets Steven put together the idea that people sometimes lie to keep their loved ones from getting hurt, resulting in him finally asking that the Gems be honest with him about the approaching threat.
This episode is in something of an odd spot, wanting to function as one of the show’s “Steven and secondary character hang out, the latter is further developed” episodes, but also needing to push forward the state of Steven’s relating to the Gems. And having to do both of those things in one episode inevitably leaves one stronger than the other – in this case, Dewey’s not much more engaging than he was before, despite being voiced by godfather of nerds Joel Hodgson. There’s plenty of potential for the character in future, but for the moment he remains a character who works best in small bursts of give and take (give: his well-meaning town dad vibe as ascribed by Steven and a few really good one liners, take: the slight creep factor of Dewey drooling over Pearl while calling him Steven’s “sister”).
But for all that one’s left thinking of the better Dewey episode that must be coming down the line, none of this makes for a bad episode, or even less than a good one. It’s a real heartwarming moment to see Steven make his speech to the town, the fruition of all those other “Steven hangs out etc” episodes that give us not only a sense of Steven coming into his own as a Gem, but of a real community coming together (rather than a convenient crowd of character designs past).
And the final scene is quiet, uncertain stuff, the triumph of Steven’s character moment almost subsumed by the reality of the situation (a story told wonderfully by the lighting: the sitting room is in a warm bubble of firelight, and Steven’s face is illuminated in every shot while the Gems’ faces are all cast in shadow and doubt). In the show’s earliest going the Official Gem Business would’ve gone to the side in favor of focus on Steven’s accomplishment – but Steven’s becoming a real member of the team, and part of that is the simultaneously empowering and terrifying notion that your older loved ones are just people (so to say) too.
Trying to spare him from the upcoming battle, the Gems send Steven with the evacuating citizens. Greg proves to know a surprising amount about the Gem rebellion, and Steven realizes he has to go back to protect his family – just like Rose did thousands of years ago. Peridot arrives with the ruthless Jasper and a captured Lapis in tow, and Jasper reveals that she fought against Rose in the original rebellion. Realizing Steven possesses Rose’s gem, Jasper captures him to take to the ominous sounding “Yellow Diamond.”
Alright, who else is suspicious of Greg’s story? Not the details themselves, but his frantic clarification that he wasn’t there. I am suspicious of how long Greg’s been around, readers, and since the upcoming “Story for Steven” (originally a season one episode that’s been put off) promised to tell us how Greg and Rose met, I just wanted to bookmark one of what are sure to be many overly scrutinized theories (this is your brain on Alex Hirsch, kids).
Here we have an episode deliberately set up to be an echo of a very early episode (“Laser Light Cannon,” in this case) where the similar scripting gives us a chance to observe how the characters have changed. We start out on the boardwalk, take a ride in Greg’s van, watch a Giant Space Gem come down over the horizon and swallow the sky in a consistent color filter, and Steven shows up to protect the Gems with one of Rose’s weapons. But the boardwalk will soon be in ruins, the van is now a place of horrific history rather than nostalgic memory (and Steven, for his part, is strong enough to bear that history); the invader is far more frightening because of what we do know rather than what we don’t; and Steven is able to own his powers rather than simply acting as the key for Rose’s cannon (the choice of a sickly green over the doomsday red seems a pointed choice too, further emphasizing how removed ‘modern’ Gem society is from what we know). It’s a testament not only to how Steven but the show itself has grown, able to weave multiple layers of character, world history, and episodic content into a mere 11 minutes.
This episode pulls no punches, either, balancing the swelling score beneath Steven’s rush back to the beach with the real brutality of Garnet dissolving in front of our (and Steven’s) eyes, or Steven bouncing out of the van as an exit to an almost unbearably tense conversation over the ‘right’ thing to do versus Greg’s very legitimate desire to not send his son to his potential death. Things feel constantly on the brink of, but not quite succumbing to, hopelessness. That’s the trouble of being the first half of a two parter.
Steven wakes up on board the Gem ship, and finds his half human nature protects him from Gem prisons and weaponry. He goes looking for his family, but finds two Gems he’s never met before – or so he thinks. Yes, I was right, you were right: Garnet is a fusion of two tiny Gems named Ruby and Sapphire, who love each other so much they choose to be fused at all times (not two people, and not one person, but an experience). Steven also runs into a despairing Lapis, convinced there is no way out of their situation but to submit. Reunited, Garnet squares off with Jasper while Steven, Amethyst, and Pearl steer the ship back toward Earth. But Jasper isn’t down, and she convinces Lapis to fuse with her and take revenge on the Gems. But Lapis has had enough of being used, and she uses the only weapon available to her – fused as Malachite, she drags them both to the bottom of the sea.
Turn off your looping playlist of “Stronger Than You” – just for a minute, I swear – because it’s finally time to talk about the episode you probably scrolled down to see first. There is so much going on with this episode and gender and how relationships in this show are presented that it frankly deserves its own essay (and there is one; give it a week or two). But above all, damn does it work well as an emotional climax of this arc. Setting Garnet’s battle with Jasper to music (not just music, but a song of self-affirmation) and framing it as the triumph of partnership, love, and community over power-based hierarchy (something the show’s been shedding all arc long, giving the human characters and Steven and the Gems equally important roles in preparing for this invasion) is the ultimate vindication of Steven Universe’s character-focused storytelling style. We’re not just seeing two meat puppets (or space rocks, as the case may be) duke it out until one falls down, we’re seeing a struggle of ideology. And the fact that Garnet is made up of literal love, the romantic love of two queer individuals.
For the record, Gems are “a race without a gender binary which uses ‘she’ to refer to one another” by the crew’s own word, so both non-binary but meant to be inclusive and relatable to transwomen/cis lesbians/pan/bi – see, this is why I like queer as an umbrella term. Ruby and Sapphire are queer. They love each other. That love gives them not only the physical strength to protect their loved ones but the emotional strength to act as the most emotionally balanced of the group, and the best at intuiting and responding to the pain in others. That’s right, it’s not only the best soulmates metaphor to exist (wherein a new being is created out of the strength of a bond of love) but it’s also the most jaw-droppingly awesome time the power of love has ever saved the day.
I want to give particular praise to Estelle’s voice work, not just in her musical performance but in her conversation with Steven just after refusing: the amount of love, layers, and history she packs into so few words goes right to the heart no matter how many times you watch it, conveying the characters we’ve just been introduced to while still sounding like the Garnet we knew from the beginning.
As for our two new Gems, I look forward to seeing what the script holds for them. Peridot, particularly, seems to have fair to middling odds of getting some kind of redemption arc (at least I hope so – she’s quickly become one of my personal favorites): she seems just as fearful of Jasper as Lapis, and isn’t so much driven to conquer as to do her job; it rings clear that the only reason she brought Jasper at all is because those mean Crystal Gems kept breaking her stuff, and you didn’t think she would tell, but she did. A resolutely neutral character like that could go either direction now that she’s stranded on Earth: profound bitterness or an increased willingness to give up on the Homeworld and its conquest-heavy Empire in the name of more interesting study (mostly I want her and Lapis to form a cranky offshoot of the Gems on an island somewhere, the Trapped Brigade very reluctantly helping the other Gems because that Steven kid’s not so bad, maybe, I guess).
Jasper is a little more uncertain. She’s definitely the most overtly villainous character the show’s laid out, and it seems likely she’ll only get worse once she (almost certainly) escapes from her ocean prison. But I’m not entirely ready to count out some form of development for her, either, mostly on the grounds of the way that last scene with Lapis is done.
Had Jasper been able to force Lapis to fuse, it would be over. There is no bringing a character back from forcing another character into losing their bodily autonomy. The fact that she asks, as much as it fits in with her ruthless battlefield pragmatism and the likely indication that Lapis might be in for a world of hurt if she said no, keeps on sticking with me. That’s not to say Jasper’s anywhere within any league of being a (morally) good character, not at all (I would like to see some more pain doled out on that front, please), but she’s not without the potential for further exploration.
Connie finally gets the message Steven left her on his way to the final battle, the one that said everyone might die and whatnot. Terrified that he might scare her away, Steven does all he can to avoid the call and Connie herself, but finds that the comfort and support of his loved ones is something he can’t live without – and that they wouldn’t much appreciate being shut out of his world anyway.
This is technically the first episode of season 2, but it comes as (and feels like) the much needed emotional denouement to the episodes that preceded it (all the more obvious since it opens from the exact point that “Jailbreak” irised out). It’s a great joy to see the show kick one of the oldest, stupidest parts of the hero story to the curb: the brooding, secret keeping hero who keeps secrets from their loved ones like said loved ones won’t inevitably end up dragged into danger anyway (and my, what a patronizing undertone that storyline usually carries). Ronaldo’s gotten a lot in the way of sympathetic development, but he still works perfectly in the fairly harmless self-aggrandizer special snowflake role, and his focus on the image of what he is rather than how it relates to others (specific others rather than a generic Them) once more positions Steven as the one on the track to maturity.
This is another wonderful episode for Connie as well, with her character going a long way to stop the perils of miscommunication in their tracks. She does what we always want the shut out victim to do in these situations, and it’s emotionally satisfying beyond measure to see her and Steven reconcile. The visual and emotional motif of this episode is “rebuilding from wreckage” (as with many things this season, there’s something both uplifting and melancholy in seeing the citizens of Beach City coming together in the midst of their literally shattered lives), so I imagine we’re in for a season of dealing with those major emotional bombs dropped by our Crystal Gems and Greg, as well as the more unpredictable fallout of the newly earthbound Gems and whatever signal the downed ship might be sending back to the Homeworld (for that matter, I see some exploration of new Gem tech in our future – by which I mean an opportunity to bring back Peridot. Please bring back Peridot, Crewniverse. I miss her tantrums already).
And we’re back! This means that starting Fridays you can start expecting good old, one episode at a time recaps from yours truly as new Steven Universes air, and maybe an essay or two if we’re all fortunate souls. I can’t wait.
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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger, and they’re about ten bucks away from finally appeasing the large, mustachioed spiders in their shower. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories.