The Ultimate Steven Universe Retrospective-Part 3

1.13: So Many Birthdays

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“Gems can’t die from aging. But Steven’s half human!”

After an episode which introduced such a large aspect to the series’ mythos, one would expect the next episode to take a more light approach to it’s subject matter. It does not, as So Many Birthdays is the first episode of the series which truly explores the dark concepts of life and mortality that would go on to define it later on. The first episode to truly explore a dangerous, emotional situation. We did briefly see something like this during Connie’s breakdown in Bubble Buddies, but it really goes in depth here. The episode begins with yet another revelation about the Gem’s physiology, specifically that they don’t age. This means that they are actually extremely old. And what Steven takes from this, being as innocent as he is, is that they’ve never celebrated a birthday.

The first half of the episode thus consists of him trying to throw each of them a birthday party. This sequence is heavily comedy-driven, each Gem allowing their individual personalities to get the better of them in regards to their understanding of this new idea. Amethyst’s lack of coordination causing her to hit a piñata far away, Pearl’s carefulness causing her to spoil a pie-based gag, Garnet’s general lack of fucks. While I would criticise the fact that this segment of the episode feels so disconnected from the second half, I can’t deny that this provides some of the strongest comedy at this point in the series. Of course, the fact that Steven ultimately realises that his efforts to introduce these things to the Gems are futile due to their lack of understanding, soon causes him to question the legitimacy of birthdays. In short, he begins to question them for himself, beginning to feel old.

Taking that to a literal place, Steven ends up rapidly ageing. Somehow he doesn’t seem to notice it happening despite putting on a shirt that would be too big for him  normally, and his changing voice. The sequence displays a direct parallel between his emotional state and the stages of aging. This is all just build to when he reunites with the Gems, when they and the audience realize that this new power of his potentially puts him at risk of dying from old age, that quote at the top coming from Pearl in a cryptic delivery. For the first time in the series, our main character is put in a real sense of danger, not from any monsters attacking, but from his own powers. This episode touches on theme which so few series intended for children would even dare, mortality. We know from this episode that the Gems are practically immortal, while Steven being half-human lacks the ability to age. What could that mean for when he eventually ages to a point where the other Gems will outlive him? Could the scene of them all gathered around him be foreshadowing? Probably not seeing as this is a Cartoon Network series, but the ideas it present are still fascinating in their analysis of this topic nonetheless.

This episode took the series into a dark place very quickly, the scene of Pearl in clown makeup tearing up, in addition to being an extremely well-animated facial piece, feels so raw that it extends past the silliness of the situation in which the Gem’s begrudgingly try to throw a party for Steven but are too distraught by their sadness to fully commit, Garnet even resorting to violence in a bid of desperation. This moment makes one thing inherently clear for the viewers, that this series is not going to go light on the stakes. This Cartoon Network cartoon is unafraid to confront intense drama through fantasy establishment. And if that wasn’t apparent before, it’s definitely apparent now.

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1.14: Lars and the Cool Kids

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Oh goody, an episode focusing on Lars. Is not what I am going to say because honestly this episode is really good just like the last one. It is funny that I’ve previously described Lars as an unlikeable character (at the time of writing this, the most recent episode to feature him didn’t exactly paint him in a good light) but I would never go so far as to say that I hate him, even in his worst moments, because he is ultimately a very human character. He is selfish, egotistical because he is human. And though that impression is certainly still displayed by this episode, the way that the episode uses him as an asset to the narrative is still admirable. We open on the Gems baring witness to a assortment of moss which apparently used to grow so that Rose would take them to the top of a hill, but now that she’s gone, the Gems simply put police tape around it to prevent humans from going near. This couldn’t possibly be build up for later on in the episode could it?

Lars comes into the picture when Steven encounters him in town, hoping to become involved with a group of popular teenagers. One particular strength this episode has it how it subverts the common cartoon trope of the main character trying to be cool. It would probably be out of character for the highly empathetic Steven, so Lars fulfils that role allowing for an outsider perspective of the trope. The second way in which it subverts it is with the eponymous “cool kids”. Often, teenagers in cartoons are portrayed as highly exaggerated caricatures of real teenagers, written by an obviously out-of-touch writer, here though the three cool kids are written rather realistically. Not in the sense that they’re down-played so much to the point of dullness, they are imbued with enough personality to prevent them from feeling boring, while also managing to remain realistic.

While I’m talking about this subject, the individual cool kids themselves are Jenny, daughter of the Pizza family, Buck, the sunglasses wearing son of the mayor, and Sour Cream, who from his pale appearance and food-based name seems to be related to Onion. A later episode fleshes out their personalities more, but in this episode it is admirable how they are written. They never make any obnoxious pop culture references, and their clothing conveys the idea that they are “cool” while not constraining them to any specific time period, giving them something of a timeless quality. Their downplayed nature gives us the Third trope subversion of the episode, the fact that they are nice. Cool kids in cartoons are most often portrayed as being sore, arrogant antagonists for out young and innocent hero to recognise the immorality of. These kids aren’t that, as they never once point and laugh at either Steven or Lars, even when the latter tries so desperately to fit in with them.

This brings us to the final subversion, the episode’s portrayal of Cool. By giving Steven and Lars screen time next to each other, we see the contrast between them in their interactions with the cool kids. Lars tries to fit in with them by copying them, pretending to like the things they like and mimicking their speech, but this only causes them to judge him. Steven meanwhile wins their approval by simply acting like himself, which is what they do all the while, and where they get their coolness from. It’s a great message for young audiences delivered with incredible subtlety through visual language. Hey, wasn’t there a plot in here? Anyway, so long story short they go to pit where that moss was earlier and get trapped in it. In a scene which pushes the already strong episode into being a great one, Lars confronts Steven, laying the blame on him, only for Steven to refute him after he brings up his mother, antagonising him in a way that feels like personal liberation. I don’t normally talk about voice actors, but Zach Callison’s performance here is especially admirable. You will also notice that he seems to take inspiration from Jeremy Shada in Adventure Time, in how his voice seems to be changing, his character being the age for that and all.

The episodes sees a lush conclusion as they move to the top of the hill so that the moss is exposed to the sunlight. After briefly being trapped themselves, the moss blooms into a shower of roses floating in the air. The scene is extremely beautiful, with the picturesque view of Beach City providing the audience a satisfying sense of conclusion to an episode with well-written subversion to cartoon tropes and character development, as well as some additional information on Rose which give the series a sense of pathos.

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1.15: Onion Trade

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Ok, after a string of extremely strong episodes we did have to calm it down a little bit. So this episode focuses on the mysterious young background character Onion. A young child who seemingly never talks and as we learn through this episode, has layers to him just like a real onion. It turns out he’s a thief, as we first see him in the episode escaping from a vending machine. In a later scene, a see him crash a car so that it burns. I know it is intended as a joke, and that no one actually gets hurt in that scene, but one does have to question the logic behind the scene, even by cartoon standards, that a small town wouldn’t notice a young child driving a car. That overdramatic scene is perhaps my biggest gripe about the episode.

On to the actual plot, which is the strongest aspect of the episode, Steven tries to find a missing toy, part of a series called GUYS (Guys Under Your Supervision). The reason he is so adamant about it is because he bought it at a fair with Greg. One of the few times he was able to spend alone with his father, as we’ve established he doesn’t like to get involved in the Gem’s affairs. For Steven, this seems to mean that he cherishes anything which drives a connection between him and his father. The GUYS are symbolic of this in how Ranger GUY, the one Steven is searching for, represents what he wishes his father were like, a bold and inspiring figure. The one he keeps getting from the vending machine is Dave GUY, an ordinary individual who represents what Greg is actually like. Steven’s disconnection has caused him to picture Greg as being more like Ranger GUY. It is a surprisingly deep look into parenthood and the need for role models in a child’s life.

This theme is further exemplified by Onion, who’s father is a fisherman, meaning that he spends a lot of time out at sea, so his son often waits at the dock to see him. Although this aspect is more problematic due to the aforementioned delinquency which seems to stem from Onion’s own attachment. As for the conflict, in which Steven makes the wise decision to give Onion a wand which multiplies objects, and Onion proceeds to wreak havoc on the town with it, yeah the leap in logic Steven seems to go through in this episode is rather troubling. We also learn that Onion stole Steven’s Ranger GUY in order to cope with his isolation. The resolution to the episode does feel terribly rushed, Steven comes to an understanding with Onion and lets him keep Ranger GUY immediately after he just caused mayhem across town by multiplying millions of GUYS.

I wouldn’t call this a bad episode per se, but it is certainly amongst the weakest episodes of the series for me. It does have a strong message about role models and fatherhood figures looked at through the perception of two characters, but the message feels clunked and contrived by Onion’s uncaring behaviour throughout the episode.

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1.16: Steven the Sword Fighter

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Patience is the theme of this episode, the lesson which Steven has to learn. Though how he learns it isn’t quite the way we first expect. At first, given the title we think that this episode would be about Pearl teaching Steven how to sword fight after Pearl criticizes a film he watches with the three of them for being unrealistic. It would seem at first that this episode is going on a very direct path with just that, giving the audience their first real episode focused on Pearl. A character who so far is the most interesting of the Three Gems as she is the one who is most dedicated to their mythology and ways of life. Additionally, she seems to have her own philosophy when it comes to fighting, being an adamant follower of ancient teachings, hence her dismissive attitude towards Steven’s calls to copy the technique from his film. While Garnet is the most significant Gem in the grander narrative of the series, and Amethyst the most human and relatable, Pearl is the most interesting individual character out of the three because of these characteristics.

So once again, we see Pearl teaching Steven how to fight, using a hologram projection of herself, but he keeps badgering her to teach the techniques from his film, much to her dismay. We the audience know that Steven is probably going to learn a lesson about that, but not in the way that happens next. And then, we get the scene that everyone remembers from this episode, where Steven’s argument with her distracts her while she is fighting, resulting in her getting stabbed by Holo-Pearl, with a real sword. This shocking scene is elevated by the animation of Pearl’s figure, with her hair becoming more ruffled than usual, and wrinkles enveloping around her face, giving the pierce a sense of physicality. The character’s reactions also make the scene, with the other Gems being noticeably shocked, and Steven looking especially shocked, potentially to the point of trauma due to the fact that he caused this to happen, and the fact that probably hasn’t seen anyone die before, let alone  one of his mother figures. And then Pearl’s body disappears.

Of course the series doesn’t kill her off like that, and we then get an explanation of Gem biology wherein we discover that their bodies are projections which can be physically damaged, but are allowed to regenerate. Hence, the one part of Pearl left afterwards is the pearl from her forehead. This informs the audience of the limitations of their abilities, giving them a greater sense of mortality, even if their “death” is only temporary. The tension comes more from the fact that it causes them to remain absent, as the regenerative process takes time (in this episode’s case, over two weeks) leaving the others to have to cope without them. After that though, most of the episode focuses instead on Steven trying to fill in the absence of Pearl with Holo-Pearl. The hologram, as a mere machine designed to serve a purpose, lacks the real Pearl’s restraint, causing her to damage Steven’s TV and Pearl’s favourite tree (originally seen in Gem Glow). Truth be told, I do feel the comedic tone of these segments does contradict the intensity of the scene from earlier, and interferes with the narrative of the episode, in addition to the silly sub-plot about Garnet leaving to rescue Amethyst, who has turned into a floating balloon, which is just a way to get them out of the way for when Holo-Pearl begins attacking Steven. Holo-Pearl does become a genuinely threatening presence in the climax of the episode.

As I said  before, the episode focuses on Steven’s need to learn patience. He does so through learning to cope with waiting for a loved one to return. The way that the episode sets itself up to go in one direction only to shatter the viewer’s expectation with an incredible twist barely even half-way through the episode is commendable. Though the episode does seem to struggle after said twist, it does make up for it  with an intense climax. Also, even though Steven defeats Holo-Pearl with a broom stick, I don’t think that qualifies as sword fighting, so the title is kind of inaccurate.

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1.17: Lion 2: The Movie

steven universe su uploads suedit lion 2 the movieLion 2: The Movie is really only a sequel to the first Lion episode in the sense that it expands upon Steven’s huggable pet and it’s supernatural abilities, which I will go into detail on later. The episode in question instead focuses more on the relationship between Steven and Connie. Connie plans to go to the movies, to watch Dogcopter 3, a film about a Dog who is also a helicopter. We see early on though that something which fascinates her even more is Amethyst’s ability to shape-shift, setting up her interpersonal conflict for later on. So Steven suggests that to get there,  they ride on Lion, another element of Steven’s life Connie seems terribly impressed by. Early on in the episode, it is already evident without dialogue to convey it that Connie perceives Steven’s life as something greater than her own. The fact that it was established in her first appearance that holds an incredible degree of self doubt causes her to feel insignificant as a result of this.

Back to Lion, we discover that he isn’t just an ordinary creature that Steven encountered. Lion turns out to have magical abilities, first the ability to run on top of water, something which even Steven hasn’t known until this point. Then it turns out he can create a portal with his roar, which takes them to a secret room filled with weapons. It is worth noting that observant viewers may at this point connect Lion’s pink fur with Steven’s mother Rose. This and these abilities, and the secret room tinted with Rose insignias indicate to us that it has some sort of connection to her. Although while the foreshadowing in this episode is strong in how it also gives the audience subtle hints, it does have a problem many episodes at this point in the series suffer from, wherein the foreshadowing takes up too much of the episode. Although the imagery we are presented with in the weapon’s room is still intriguing, and it presents us with an imminent sense of danger for out two young characters, both of whom have highly limited knowledge of what surrounds them, increasing the tension of the scene when they come under attack.

The physical conflict of this second act I do feel goes on a bit too long, but it is worth it when we finally reach the third act, when they escape to the movie theatre. It is here that we get to the more interesting character conflict of the story, starting with an innocent display of charity when Steven gives Connie a cold can of soda as a means of attending to their bruises. This action sets up the conversation in a way to importantly show that despite getting into an argument, it is not a confrontational one. At no point in the episode are the two of them disagreeing in a way which results in a spar between them. This disagreement comes from their shared distrust in themselves. Steven, who throughout the series has consistently made terrible mistakes which have put others in danger (even if he is slowly getting better) can only see that side of himself even though Connie sees him as a wondrous person who leads an exciting life of unknown mystery and potential. The moment where he admits to these mistakes is part of the wonderful trend in modern cartoons, where writers are embracing the age-old art of character development, something the medium has for too long ignored in favour of maintaining a consistent episodic format in which characters must always remain the same. I approve of this change.

This brings us back to the point I made earlier on how Connie similarly views herself as an uninteresting girl with nothing but Tennis practice in their life, and who uses Dogcopter as a means of escaping from the mundane aspects of life, though she doesn’t understand how Steven, who leads a life of magic and destiny, can take an interest in such a thing. It is at this point in the conversation where the audience comes to a realisation of the significance of Dogcopter. Although Steven’s dialogue regarding the character would appear to convey a similarity to him (“and he’s going to save the world!” reflecting Connie’s previous description of his wonder), it is evident that Dogcopter more resembles Connie in how it appears to be an ordinary dog on the surface, but inside contains something greater. In the dog’s case it is his helicopter, in Connie’s it is her tennis skills which prove instrumental in defeating the machine at the end. Though one could interpret Dogcopter as a symbol of both children in how they both hide something greater beneath them, as Steven still doesn’t know the full extent of his own powers at this point in the series. Lion’s role in the episode is additionally representative of this after he introduces his ability to summon a sword from his forehead, which is the object Connie uses against the machine. The scene in question is an example of the series’ visual similarities with Revolutionary Girl Utena along with the frequent use of Roses. And if this episode is any indication, the influence of that Anime goes beyond just simple visual homages to thematic relevance.

Both of these characters can only see the worst in themselves, as many of us do. But through that light argument between the two of them, they are able to find meaning in their friendship in how they reconcile through uncovering the unknown between themselves, as well as their relation to a work of fiction (a philosophical idea which inspired me to create this blog). This episode establishes so much regarding the friendship between these two characters that I am impressed greatly by the fact that they fitted so much into what appears on the surface to be a mere simple 20-second conversation between two afraid children, but underneath conveys so much more, again like Dogcopter. In addition to this, the episode is also a great world building tool of the series, expanding on all prominent characters in the episode, and taking us to a new location which holds heavy implications for the future of the series. Although I was originally going to take off a star for the over-long period of the second act, while writing this I came to the decision to give the episode a full rating because what it does well, it does almost insanely well.

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1.18: Beach Party

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This may seem like a random place to start, but one of the most frequent clichés of Superhero stories is that the Hero’s efforts to protect people form some great threat can have an adverse effect of causing damage to the community, most frequently in property damage which in real life, would cause the owners of said property to sue them. This is one of the most widely lampooned clichés in superhero fiction, that lampooning of a cliché even becoming something of a cliché in it’s own right, being pointed out by such titles as The Incredibles, Futurama, One Punch Man, and has even been called out in the proper franchises of Marvel and DC themselves. One aspect which I feel goes more unnoticed by viewers however is the Hero’s reaction to the damage they cause, which is typically one of apathy, both in parodies and regular superhero stories.

I bring this up because the premise of this episode is that while fighting but not defeating another monster, the Gems accidentally cause damage to the local pizza shop, which the owner (whose last name is apparently Pizza) is understandably upset. But the Crystal Gems, who one could consider to be superheroes, show no concern for the damage they have done. Where one could perhaps consider this a subversion is the fact that they have a reason to not care about it. They are aliens. Their only real connection to this place that they have is through Steven, who conversely shows genuine worry regarding the damage they have done, in the way that a human superhero perhaps would to contrast with their apathy. And the Gems maintain this attitude while Steven throws a beach party for the Pizzas in an effort to make amends, which they only seem to participate in because of him. Even though they do work with the family in the defeat of the monster, they evidently still haven’t learnt anything in the end, not even remembering what they were meant to apologize for.

I haven’t even really talked about the presence of the Pizzas themselves, who take up a larger part in the episode. Because they are  largely the focus of Steven’s patching efforts, the episode devotes a good portion of it’s runtime to them, meaning they have to make a good impression on the audience to carry the episode. I can say that the family as a collective are amongst the more interesting Beach City residents we have come across so far in the series. We have Kofi, the agitated father of the family who spends most of his screen time enraged at the Gems for their damage, but does show more when he competes in the volleyball tournament. His twin daughters, Jenny who we already know from her appearance in Lars and the Cool Kids, and Kiki. They don’t get as much dialogue as the other two, but from what we can see here, it would seem Kiki is the more responsible of the two, while Jenny is more spunky and adventurous. Finally there is Nanefua, the grandmother who displays a carefree attitude towards all that transpires around her. This attitude makes her the most enjoyable presence of the episode, as her youthful demeanour and consistent optimism regarding all situations serves as a reflection of how audiences may wish to perceive their own relatives. And the fact that she proves instrumental in defeating the creature at the end helps too.

This episode overall is a fun experience. While not quite the deepest or most emotional episode, it is enjoyable nonetheless. The Gem’s apathy combined with the Pizza family’s humanity helps to develop the comedy, as well as keep in tone with the series’ theme of reverse escapism. Garnet, being the most apathetic of the Gems, delivers some of the best laughs of the episode, while Nanefua’s cool Grandma identity serves as a strong balancing point to Kofi’s stress. Most of the episode does stick to a very basic formula though, preventing it from ever becoming anything more than very good. Incidentally, the Gem’s beach clothes look totally fabulous.

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