Steven Universe Recap: “Onion Gang”

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The Recap: Onion invites Steven to hang out with his friends, a group of other silent children who all gather in the woods.

It’s a bit strange to see a newer, softer Onion, but it’s also a good move on the writers’ part. Putting aside one-off jokes like Onion’s crime crusade against Mr. Smiley’s arcade, there’s really only so far you can escalate his uncanny evilness, particularly within the overall tone of the show–either you go on and make him some kind of eldritch creature or villain, or you admit the gag’s had its time and start coming down the hill. And the show’s smart enough to do the latter, following up on “Onion Friend” with a slightly uneven but genuine friendship between Steven and Onion.

The woods is an entirely new location for the show (maybe we saw it in the distance during “Lars and the Cool Kids?”), which plays on the uncanniness surrounding Onion’s character; but it’s also a pretty safe place, given warm lighting and a sort of grove-retreat kind of feeling. Steven, who’s never really had the experience of school life, gets a crash course in what the last days of summer feel like, and the almost pocket hideaway design of the hangout contributes well to that feel.

That the show swerves during the midway point into something of a Little Rascals/Apple Dumpling Gang/etc. riff is, I confess, not something I saw coming. But the archaic nature of the reference really works in establishing the ever so slightly “off” feeling of Onion’s gang–who are all given a great sense of personality even with no dialogue (I’m especially fond of the Frisk-Greg combo, Soup)–by giving them a set of activities that aren’t harmful and really aren’t even that unusual. They just follow a different set of rules, and within those rules they make sense.

Of course, the episode’s larger purpose is returning to the well of “Steven feeling alienated from humans.”  This is at least the third time the show’s brought this up (see also “Nightmare Hospital” and “We Need to Talk“), so it’s a bit frustrating to see that it’s still not particularly keen on actually moving Steven into action on the subject. SU has always had a slow, deliberate pace, but usually you can count on something developing when they actually do get around to picking it up again.

Here, it’s the same thing we’ve already known, albeit from a slightly different angle. Yes, it’s interesting to use Onion the social outsider as a watermark to show that Steven is still the alien. Perhaps the episode’s best moment is the fake accident, which for Onion and co. is a bit of fun far removed from reality and for Steven is a reminder of real and recent trauma. And it draws a most peculiar distinction–Steven has a lot of people who love him, but he has an increasingly small number of people he can just kind of hang out with…actually, that’s a bit of a strange distinction too, since Steven clearly hangs out with Peridot and Amethyst as friends. But the intent is clear enough–even if you’re not truly alone, there will still be times when you feel lonely, like your loved ones are moving on without you.

After so many episodes of Onion’s silence and relative willingness to shrug off Steven’s objections, the final bonding moment sells what the episode was trying to be deep down: a story about outcasts holding each other up. Onion’s unchanging expression has been used to comic effect, and you only get to use the shock of turning that stoicism into expressiveness once. Abrams and Mitroff are an excellent choice for cashing that chip, and Onion’s tears (no, stop it, this moment is too sincere for that bad a joke) are pronounced without feeling melodramatic. While the episode might not have moved Steven’s arc forward, the contrast and that thematic buildup of loneliness exclusion through Steven’s eyes helps sell Onion’s feelings in those final seconds. And that’s no small feat with only the boards and Callison’s reactions (who does an absolutely heroic job as basically a one-man show this episode) to make the moment work.

As for what’s coming next, I couldn’t tell you. This is the last episode we have word about for September, though that might change in the coming days. There’s also another list of shorts that have apparently been created but not released, which might be a sign that we’re in for another stretch of time between episodes. Hopefully any hiatus won’t last all the way up to the new year, but I think we all know how these things go by now. On the bright side, those of you who were following my Gravity Falls rewatch may be pleased to know that should be popping up again real soon. Something to tide you over. Take care of yourselves out there.

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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; part of them could possibly use a break from coming up with things to say about this show. 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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