Steven Universe Recap: “Back to the Barn”

Giant. Robot. Olympics.
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The Recap: The Gems determine that they’ll need to get to the Cluster before it emerges. And to do that, they’ll need a drill. When Pearl and Peridot butt heads over who should be in charge of the building project, Steven suggests the most logical solution—giant robot Olympics.

This episode is technically something of a detour, out and out halting the progression of the main plot thread and explicitly confirming some fan theories that’ve been in place for quite some time now; heck, it even starts by reiterating information that we already heard Peridot tell Steven last week. But as the show sinks its heels further and further into the dirt in its clear willingness to put aside narrative progression in the name of relationship studies, it mostly serves to highlight how well the Crewniverse know their format.

Sure, fans might champ at the bit for more action and information with the giant scary fusion in the Earth’s core or even the giant scary fusion lurking about in the ocean, but it’s the character moments that stick long term. This is the balance of shows where magic and the power of kind feelings are pretty well guaranteed to save the day, and part of the show’s strength is that it is well aware of how to play its tone and upgrade it into bite-sized eleven minute chunks of relationship growth.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that nothing in this episode is especially surprising, but it’s pulled off with such flair that it’s almost impossible to care. The robots allow for some more bombastic visual gags than you would get with just the Gems on their own, and the general atmosphere has the affectionate goofiness that crops up whenever this show decides to start doing genre nods (in fact, this episode feels reference dense in general, up to and including finally letting Peridot just directly quote a Zim line). The minute Steven’s eyes light up at the thought of giant robots, the conflict wraps itself in the equivalent of a fuzzy blanket—both Gems are too fond of Steven to really go for each other’s throats under his watch, and so we get to have a plot that acknowledges the benefits of lighthearted competition without allowing that competition to imply an inherent superiority about either participant (a nice change from the all or nothing approach the subject often gets).

Part of that successful execution can be chalked up to the duo of Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu, who last headed up “Friend Ship.” This duo has quite the hand in Pearl episodes (they also headed “Cry for Help” and “Sworn to the Sword”) so it’s nice to see them stepping in here to see the fruits of her arc during the last Steven Bomb. And it is a Pearl episode, as much as Peridot’s flashy reactions fight to steal the scenes. Peridot’s function in this episode is mostly to highlight how the Crystal Gems have solidified their bonds with one another (accordingly, the popcorn gallery gets some absolutely golden jokes), and to give face to all of the anxieties and feelings of worthlessness that Pearl has been battling in force since Rose’s death. A very punchable face, perhaps the most so since a certain Mass Effect reporter. The fact that the victory comes not from Pearl winning the fight (since she really, really doesn’t) but from the support of her loved ones is both a nice detour from the expected cliché and a way of hammering home how Earth’s Gems are different than Homeworld’s.

That’s not to say this isn’t an important episode for Peridot as well. She’s been sorely in need of a reality check that Steven was too kind to give, and the actual order of events so frontloads Peridot as a mouthpiece for Homeworld mentality (parroting normalized beliefs rather than really thinking about them) that it gives her ample room to separate from them at the end. Peridot’s shown a clear veneration for strength in the same way a cat might warily eye a spray bottle, so being ostracized for seeking it above all else is both a corrective measure and, in some ways, a clear relief. And while she could stand to apologize a bit more, her clearly sincere attempts to correct her behavior, not just to in thanking and protecting Steven but now accepting advice from Pearl, show plenty of hope for her slow integration into the cast proper. When she sings, we’ll know she’s really part of the team. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see if this new grudging respect will morph into the genuine article (or, heavens forfend, real mutual fondness).

As for the Gem society factoids that were confirmed, a quick rundown: the caste system is realer than real and Pearls are indeed a servant class of Gem, though their existence as a status symbol was somewhat unexpected, and immediately brings memories of Persecoms to mind; given how much our Pearl was able to learn, I would likewise wager that their status as “useless” is social programming and not attempted modification on a creation level; Peridots seem to be tolerated for their technical skills but lack wealth or social status, and given previous episodes probably get kicked around a lot; finally, Gems are created primarily to serve functions, which has a very 1984 feel about it and further implies some things about why Garnet chose to fight for Earth. Also, it would seem Homeworld does not have the concept of wheels.

And if all of that isn’t enough for you, the recently published Guide to the Crystal Gems has a lot of interesting tidbits to tide you over. Though you might want to save it, since Matt Burnett confirmed that there’ll be another end-of-year hiatus coming. Last year it was only over December and into early January, but it’s best to be prepared. At least we know next week is securely scheduled, and ominously named “Too Far.” Hope to see you there!

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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they’re preparing to take out significant loans to afford all those sweet, sweet upcoming action figures. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.

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