The Ultimate Steven Universe Retrospective-Part 2

1.7: Bubble Buddies

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Bubble Buddies is an episode which I was looking forward to discussing particularly because it introduces my favourite character in the series, Connie. Connie is an ordinary human who serves as an audience surrogate, bringing a more modern everyday element to the series from which we see through the eyes of a half-human, half-gem. The episode starts with Steven watching her from a distance, evidently wishing to communicate with her as she reads a book (Catcher in the Rye, which is weird considering how strict her parents are). The scene would probably lead the audience to speculate at first that he has a simple crush on her, which I would criticize the episode for if it went in that direction, but what we get instead is actually a refreshing twist when we learn that he has apparently seen her before and has kept a glow bracelet she lost at a parade once in the fridge since then (incidentally, this bracelet was actually seen before in Gem Glow, amazing how this series can turn a minor detail into an important plot point). This provides him with a chance to communicate with this mysterious girl on the beach, with whom we learn that he actually wants to become friends with, as although he does seem to know and get on with the other residents of Beach City, his life of being raised by the Gems has likely caused him to live an isolated life with which he wishes to find someone with whom to share that life with. It’s actually a bit depressing when I describe it like that.

Of course in the series tradition of using the fantasy elements as a means to explore character relationships, Steven ends up finally meeting her by accidentally forming a bubble around them leaping to protect her from a falling boulder caused by earthquakes (seriously, do not sit directly next to a cliff face). The bubble ends up trapping them both inside, subconsciously a result of Steven’s desire to try and spend the day with her, thus his powers allow them to be stuck with each other. The fact that he told the Crystal Gems earlier to stay inside is why they are gone for most of the episode, allowing Steven to gain what he wanted simply through luck, as he and Connie try to find help in town, and one the way exchange conversation with each other, slowly learning about each other through casual pieces of information, and develop a bond with one another. Why neither of them think to ask Lars or Sadie to go to Steven’s house to get the Gems to help them is a bit of a plot hole, but we  do get a further exploration of the town and it’s people, including the proper introduction of a child called Onion, whose defining characteristic (at least at this point in the series) is that he is weird, and does weird, potentially dangerous things because he is weird.

The situation goes from bad to worse, to stuck at the sea floor for the two children, and then  we get the climax of the character’s development in this episode. Throughout the episode, Steven, who always has good intentions, tries to maintain an optimistic approach and find a solution to their problem, but Connie meanwhile breaks down, realising the true danger of what surrounds them. This scene effectively establishes Connie’s character with her backstory and anxieties about potentially dying without making friends with anyone confessed before Steven. Naturally, after peace is made between the two characters the Bubble finally disappears and the two quickly swim to the top of the surface. The episode does once again resort to putting a monster of the week in for an action-packed climax, which once again does take away somewhat from the impact of the strong character introduction which made the episode.

The purpose of this episode was to introduce Connie,  a character for whom we would be able to see the series delve into the real world as something that Steven, the Fantasy character would wish to participate in after spending a life of remaining left out of it. This is an aspect of the series which Rebecca Sugar has referred to as “Reverse Escapism”. Connie’s calm intellect serves as a contrast point to Steven’s naïve positive demeanour. A character whom young audiences could relate with more easily due to their experience in the real world with, and in just 11 minutes, the episode succeeds in introducing her in a way that would allow her more development in future episodes.

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1.8: Serious Steven

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So the message at the end of the day was that failure doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Steven can at least. Truth be told, this episode I completely forgot about until I had to rewatch it to make this review, which doesn’t exactly say good things about it probably. In this thematic sequel to Cheeseburger Backpack, Steven finally goes on his first proper mission with the Crystal Gems, which naturally means that he has to try and maintain seriousness in regards to the situation. Bringing his ukulele with him therefore possibly wasn’t the wisest decision for the trip. Inevitably, Steven causes trouble when they enter the pyramid, as he accidentally causes the structure to turn upside down. As a result, the Gems thus have to navigate through a series of platform puzzles to try and escape.

Throughout the episode, Steven flashes back to an incident where he went on a tea cup ride, and caused damage that got him banned, serving as a motivator for the mission at hand. The ultimate resolution to the conflict in which the rooms all keep leading them back into the centre room, causing the situation’s comparison to the tea cup ride to become literal is rather clever I will say. The one aspect of this stands out to most people is the wall mural, which illustrates a not-so-subtle bit of foreshadowing, depicting an apparent war or conflict between beings similar to the gems. This mural has been the subject of much analysis and debate within the fandom, continuing to this day because of the sheer amount of detail put into it, up to it’s design even being based realistically on Ancient wall murals.

There isn’t really that much to say about this episode other than the mural and the highly apparent message of “it’s ok to make mistakes” which while a positive message, does feel somewhat told directly to the audience. There is probably a reason why I forgot this episode, and it seems a lot of people have. It’s not that it is necessarily bad, it’s still actually quite good by the usual standards of Cartoon Network, but it never really does anything to make itself stand out.

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1.9: Tiger Millionaire

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Look on the bright side, there are worse things a disenfranchised teenager can do to replenish their rage.

 

The series, it has been established by now, takes place from the perspective of Steven and thus all the episodes so far have focused exclusively on him, his personal struggles and quests. In Tiger Millionaire for the first time, we see an episode primarily devoted to another character, Amethyst specifically. Having previously been shown to be something of a problem child in the presence of the two older and more serious gems, the episode begins with her in a heated argument with the other gems about her wreckless behaviour. This scene stands out as the first time that we, the audience, have actually seen an infighting between the Gems. We may have seen the occasional disagreement beforehand, but nothing this impassioned before. Through Steven’s eyes we discover that in addition to having arguments like a teenage daughter, she also escapes at night to vent her frustrations in a wrestling watch, under the alter ego “Purple Puma”.

There is a plot about Steven joining her in the wrestling wring under the alter-ego “Tiger Millionaire”, which produces some good laughs throughout the episode, allowing the typically over-nice Steven to play a character who is dominated by their egotism and selfishness. His use of character backstories for their alter-ego’s is also used as a more important plot-point towards the end of the episode as he is able to use it to patch up the conflict between Amethyst and the Gems. The alter-ego isn’t entirely out of character as Steven is clearly aware throughout the episode that he is simply playing a character. The soda stunt scene which is intended to serve as the gone-too-far point of the episode however, does feel like it went too far, not just in the episode but also in terms of audience belief in how Steven uses his character.

The wrestling aspect to the episode provides some excellent social satire, mocking he theatricality of wrestling, but never does so in a way where it comes across as judgemental. Incidentally, Lars who I’ve expressed before I don’t like, is actually a surprisingly entertaining presence in the episode, serving as a satire of enthusiastic fanboys. Standing in contrast to Sadie, who represents fans who simply enjoy wrestling while also remaining level-headed enough to recognise the staged nature of it all. His excitable reactions to Tiger Millionaire’s  antics offer some of the best laughs of the episode. There are often episodes in cartoons where the main character (a young boy) becomes interested in either wrestling or boxing and the audience is taken to a pandering PSA about how fighting and violence is bad. Even though I have never taken an interest in wrestling myself, I always did think these episodes have come across as unnecessarily spiteful, and at first it seemed that this episode was going to go in that direction when the Gems come to the arena. But in the end, it actually relayed a rather positive message in regards to wrestling, that it was ok to enjoy it but simply not to take that love too far by using it as a substitute for one’s own small domestic situation (if only the series fandom could catch onto that message….oh that’s a discussion for another day).

With some further development for one of the major characters, social commentary on domestic situations, and well-written satire, this is a very strong episode. Easily one of the best so far in the series.

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1.10:Steven’s Lion

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The premise of Steven’s Lion is that Steven gets a pet Lion. The Lion is a new character as per the series tradition by this point of introducing new characters, this is early on in the series after all. Truth be told though, there isn’t really that much else to the episode beyond the introduction of the new character. The desert backgrounds on the world we visit at the beginning of the episode look lovely. That is sort of a given with the series however. The Lion itself also looks lovely. It’s vibrant pink fur, shining eyes, and innocently animalistic demeanour. The whole child’s fantasy of getting a pet cuddly lion is explored throughout the episode as Steven takes the creature through the city on a random boy-who-cried-wolf scene when they reach the Pizza Restaurant.

I rate this episode rather low because it doesn’t really have a lot to it. It staggers through an identity crisis wandering about the place not knowing what to do with it’s premise, and then finds a convenient excuse to put an action sequence towards the end after an emotional fallout between Steven and the Lion. I will say that the action sequence is rather well done, and the image of Steven riding the Lion as it leaps across sand platforms is engaging, especially as it gives me flashbacks to Mario Galaxy. We also learn in this episode a small bit of information about the Gems that they apparently don’t need to sleep. Incidentally, the line from Garnet at the end “We kept Amethyst”. Those who know where the story goes might be a little disturbed by that line.

Steven’s Lion is an example of the slow pace of the series at this point, while allowing for the overall progress of the series to build up the world at a steady pace, can hold the adverse effect of causing the individual episodes to lack in substance when they are treated more as simply a small part of the larger narrative.

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1.11:Arcade Mania

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Another average episode follows, starting with a Stealth mission inside a cave. After Steven miraculously survives what looks like a really painful fall, we see an incredibly well animated fight scene between Garnet and the monster. After that bit of excitement, Steven decides to introduce the Gems to Arcade gaming. The shot of them walking across the beach towards the arcade actually looks like a top-view shot from an old Adventure RPG. The Gem’s reactions to the games are as comedy-driven as one would expect, fitting in with the theme of alien life finding a fantastical element in the mundane. Still neither Pearl nor Amethyst actually becomes engaged in the games they play. Garnet on the other hand seemingly becomes addicted to a rhythm based game called “Meat Beat Mania”.

It is impressive that despite spending most of the episode stuck to the screen, not really saying anything, we learn quite a bit about Garnet in this episode. We have known from what we have seen previously that she is the most confident of the Gems, rarely showing emotion and often being driven by her missions, the aforementioned fight scene at the beginning serving to illustrate  this. She is arguably the most alien of the Gems in that regard, and in this episode we see her addiction to the game take control of her and distract her from her duty. She does this most likely because Steven has given her the objective to play the game, and she deterministic nature causes her to do this without question. Although this aspect of the episode is interesting, we don’t really see anything beyond that. At the end, Garnet doesn’t really see the error of what has happened, she simply goes back to work as usual to fight the monsters while Steven has to clean the damage done to the arcade. I’m not saying the spread of the monsters outside is necessarily Garnet’s fault as she clearly had no control over her addiction to the game, but the episode’s hesitance to confront this possibility does cause it to feel rather empty.

Incidentally, we also learn in this episode that Garnet has three eyes, whereas the other two Gems only have two eyes. I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t entirely clear whether or not Steven knew about this, or if his look of surprise was because the third eye was glowing. I think the latter is most likely, and it does raise questions on how Garnet functions exactly. The fact that the episode doesn’t really go into detail on that front does cause it to feel largely inconsequential, and while it’s humour and game references do still make it enjoyable, Arcade Mania isn’t really important in the grand scheme of the series.

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1.12: Giant Woman

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Now finally I get to talk about the episode which introduces perhaps the most interesting fantasy concept that the series presents, fusion. A concept which is just as new to Steven as it is to the audience watching this episode for the first time, hence Pearl explains it to him, and to us, through moving sand with her thoughts. The concept of it is that Gems have the ability to combine with each other to form another gem when they perform a synchronised dance with each other which represents harmony between the combining Gems. This concept takes Science Fiction’s liberal view on narrative limitations to illustrate the “combine two different types of animal” drawings that many of us made as children (no, just me?) and establishes it within a whole mythos surrounding it.

The fusion which is the subject of this episode is Opal, who is made up of Pearl and Amethyst, the characters with the most unstable relationship towards each other in the series. When Steven learns of this ability, his sense of wonderment at the prospect causes him to anticipate seeing it in action. He gets the opportunity to do so by going with the two on a mission to retrieve the heaven beetle from a castle atop a floating mountain. Though the journey to the castle is short, it is wonderful to watch them travel across the diverse jungle environment on floating platforms. This may have been more appropriate to discuss regarding the previous episode, if not for the fact that that episode took place primarily in one location, but the series as a whole does have something of a video game quality to it. The characters often have to reach an objective through traversing across difficult but not impossible platforms, often facing a boss battle at the end, accompanied by an eclectic digital soundtrack which accommodates to the lush environments.

Steven himself is particularly entertaining in this episode, his sense of childlike innocence and excitement at learning of the concept of fusion  on full display. The title song encapsulates this with the use of ukulele in the background due to it’s symbolisation of simplicity and Steven’s childhood innocence in the form of a children’s guitar, the guitar representing his father. The song is built around a simple rhythm structure and holds a steady lyrical flow. This makes the song the best at this point in the series, even if, as many people have pointed out, it sounds incredibly awkward when taken out of context. Also entertaining is Steven’s relationship with a goat whom they encounter, which he refers to as “Steven Jr.”. They don’t take the goat back with them in the end, probably because goats and lions aren’t really known to have a fond relationship.

Going back to fusion, Pearl emphasises throughout the episode that she and Amethyst can only fuse into Opal when they are able to find harmony with each other, which is evidently not now as they do have quite a few disagreements. Additionally, they only really form her in emergency situations. Specifically, after Steven and his goat get swallowed by a giant bird. After Steven shows that he is getting slowly better at the missions by finding the beetle they were searching for, we finally see Opal, voiced by singer Aimee Mann. Her appearance is as described earlier, a combination of Pearl’s and Amethyst’s appearances. Having both their gemstones in their respective places, Pearl’s tall, slender figure and nose, along with Amethyst’s long hair and full lips. By itself the appearance looks almost like a Hindu goddess. Mann’s voice, though getting very few lines, also manages to combine Deedee Magno’s (Pearl) sense of restraint and orderliness with Michaela Dietz’s (Amethyst) raspy vocals into a collected manner.

The episode ends having introduced the audience to this new character and new concept, and thus serving as an important episode in the Steven Universe canon. This stands as one of the early greats in the series with a gorgeous soundtrack, strong moments of humour, gorgeous landscapes, a strong accompanying song, and expansion of the series mythos.

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