The Recap: Amethyst trains with Steven and gets frustrated when she can’t keep up. The two argue, both feeling like they’re not living up to expectations, and decide to have a fight to prove which one of them is the worst.
It’s always a treat to see this show threaten an overused trope only to tweak it just enough to make it feel enjoyable rather than frustrating. In this case, that trope is the “can’t catch up resentment” thing aka the motivator for about 85% of rival characters in classic shonen anime.
The first half of the episode seems to move that way, letting Amethyst’s anger and frustration build while Pearl (in full Mom Mode with unusually untidy and expressive hair) runs away with every scene she appears in. Florido and Zuke have always done great things with the “Gems being oblivious to something” school of comedy (shining particularly brightly as Peridot adjusted to Earth), and those goofs are put to great effect in creating a breather between the trauma of Jasper’s last appearance and the upcoming fight.
On a character level, it also shows us that Pearl still isn’t especially great at reading Amethyst, assuming Amethyst is “letting Steven win” because…well, Amethyst said she was fine, and Pearl let it lie. It’s nowhere near as damaging as the decades and possibly centuries Amethyst spent thinking that Pearl thought of her as part and parcel of the monstrous mistake that was the Kindergarten, but it’s less than great. Pearl deals with stress by pretending that everything is fine and becoming a tightly wound bundle of nerves, and Amethyst shoves things down and sulks until she explodes. Not great communication styles to have side by side. Luckily, for now we have Steven.
The first half of the episode spends so long playing on our expectation that this resentment will lead to something bad, some damaging blow-up with long term effects, that when Steven and Amethyst start arguing it actually feels like catharsis. These types of stories so often rely on miscommunication and secrets, and instead both characters are being honest and open about their frustrations and concerns. The Amethyst who would hide her own insecurities and cut down someone else is long gone, and it’s all the more heartbreaking that she’s able to admit what’s bothering her but can’t see a way through to fixing it.
So we have our ridiculous fight as only these two could do it, each claiming that they’re the worst and pulling out all the stops to prove it–all the while shouting taunts meant to “win” by building the other fighter’s self-confidence. It’s maybe the most Steven Universe approach to combat I’ve ever seen and I love it. The simple change from fighting to be The Best to trying to prove they’re more justified in feeling like The Worst (shifting the tone from triumphing over the other person to grappling with their own demons) is the crucial step to making the proceedings fun.
For that matter, it’s nice to see Steven getting a healthy outlet for the anger and uncertainty he’s been feeling lately, but seems to have trouble articulating. He’s a kind, thoughtful boy, but he’s “not Rose Quartz.” At any rate, he’s not the deified version of her that everyone seems to have in their memories. It seems almost as if he’s been trying to make things alright by just pretending his more negative emotions didn’t exist, and now they’re seeping out.
It’s a different approach than Amethyst’s sullenness, but in the end they’re trying to do the same thing – pretend that their weaknesses aren’t there in the hopes of living up to what they think they should be. Amethyst has always been the closest to Steven in terms of status: the other “kid” in the family, the other one who wasn’t there for the Gem War. And while neither of them got to decide who won the title of worst, it might be better for their relationship in the long haul to move away from Amethyst as the Big Sister Mentor and into a position of equal teammate–if for no other reason than because she deserves to feel less alone.
One more thing about this episode: there’s an unusual amount of attention paid to the sequential passing of time. We get a nighttime establishing shot as Pearl and Garnet arrive home, a bright sunlit day during the training segment, and a rosy sunset for Steven and Amethyst’s fight. This whole thing takes place over one day. In other words, the problem isn’t solved. There’s a lot to be said for acknowledging your own shortcomings and accepting that they won’t be fixed right away, but this is still a raw issue, and Amethyst has only shared it with Steven. As long as there’s some belief that she can somehow get stronger and “better,” or can pin this frustration on external source (beating Jasper), it’s going to be lurking there in the background. Deep-seated insecurities are not solved in a day.
Tomorrow is the introduction of Bismuth, AKA the bubbled Gem in Lion’s mane that’s been the source of a great many conspiracy theories. It’s the big half hour special (which might mean no Friday episode? I’m getting conflicting reports), so I’d say we can look forward to some angsty backstory delivered by the marvelous Uzo Aduba. See you there!
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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they demand more anime solve their rival conflicts like this. 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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