Monday, July 15, 2024

The New Steven Bomb Begins with a Bang and a Lot of Whimpering

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Hurray, the Steven Bomb is here! Everything is fair game and we can talk about it! Holding back on the incredible events that transpired during the leak which wasn’t a leak has been really tough. Those of you who watched back when the episodes surprisingly appeared on the Cartoon Network app know our pain, and those who watched tonight got your own tease with the episodes so far.

But finally, the wait is over! Bo and Gretchen have united to become the fusion known as “Betchen” (pronounced ‘bitchin’, because we are), a being capable of remarkable feats of Steven Universe analysis as well as great feels. Steven Universe gave us a lot to talk about in these episodes, and we’re going to spend every day this week unpacking it all to the best of our abilities, starting with the first two episodes of the Bomb.

Warning: Spoilers for episodes 4×11 “Steven’s Dream” and 4×12 “Adventures in Light Distortion”

“Steven’s Dream”

If you thought the tagline “It’s Time for Answers” was just a marketing ploy, well, “Steven’s Dream” wasted no time showing the Crewniverse means business. The episode opens with part of the title dream in question. Steven sees pink flowers swaying in the breeze, and is woken up by Greg to find tears streaming inexplicably down his face. Pink Diamond (Pink) still weighs heavily on Steven’s mind, and he asks his father if Rose ever talked about it. Greg explains that Rose didn’t like to talk about Pink Diamond. He focused instead on loving Rose for the person she became.

It’s a lovely glimpse into Rose’s and Greg’s relationship. It’s easy to see why Rose fell for him and ultimately chose him. Their relationship was more than some fascination with a human and having fun. Greg was a safe place for Rose to be her present self without the need to talk about her post-war trauma and guilt. Their relationship was about the present, not the past. That’s not to dismiss Garnet and Pearl in their role as war buddies who could commiserate with Rose and talk about their experiences. Some things you have to live through together to understand. At the same time, having someone in her life who could see her for who she was then (i.e., when she met Greg) versus who she was in the past must have been so healing and healthy for her. You need both kinds of people in your lives.

It’s also a really beautiful moment showcasing exactly where Steven learned to be the empathetic, forgiving person he is. So many have credited his loving nature to Rose, but this moment, indeed this entire episode, proved Greg is at least as important to that development, and probably more so. Greg raised Steven for most of his life after all. Greg loved and accepted Rose unconditionally. He’s even willing to reach out and empathize with a Diamond over their shared experience of grief and loss. Yeah, this is Steven’s dad all right.

Steven Universe has spent a great deal of time tearing apart the impossible ideal the Crystal Gems hold Rose to. She started a war, bubbled Bismuth and hid the fact from her friends, and shattered Pink Diamond (though we still don’t now what order those events took place in). Several moments this past season has called Rose’s character into question, so it was nice to have someone close to her remind everyone in the audience that whatever Rose did, she tried her best to be a good person. She was capable both of great violence and great love, and that’s a complicated legacy for Steven to inherit. (It’s also great storytelling and we love it.)

So, Steven says goodnight to his dad, he falls back into the same dream, only this time he sees a pink structure he recognizes. Again, he wakes up crying. Connie brings over First Mate Buddy’s journal and they ask the Crystal Gems about the broken down palanquin drawing inside. That’s palan-keen, not palan-quin. Connie and Gretchen insist you say it right.

Hermione would agree with us, too. – Gretchen

Garnet and Pearl do not want to tell Steven about the palanquin, leading to an argument about the secrets the Crystal Gems (Pearl and Garnet in this case) still keep from Steven (and Amethyst). Both sides have good reasons to feel the way they do. Steven is far from the uncertain, timid boy unable to control his powers that we saw when the show began. He’s grown into being a leader and he understandably feels frustrated by the Crystal Gems hiding things from him, especially after they promised to tell the truth.

However, it’s not just about him. The Crystal Gems hide aspects of the rebellion from Steven not only for his benefit, but their own. Whatever happened back then still bothers Pearl and Garnet to the point that they haven’t even shared certain information with Amethyst; they would rather hide from it than bring back all the guilt and pain resulting from the war. And in this case particularly Garnet knows something she is deathly afraid to admit that keeps her from telling Steven where to find the palanquin. It’s the most visibly shaken we’ve seen Garnet since she first found the Cluster mutants (2×08, “Keeping it Together”).

As expected, despite Garnet’s warnings, Steven insists on finding the palanquin. Lucky for him he has an amazingly supportive father who will take him and a pilot uncle to fly them. Is it weird that they fly from the United States to Korea in Andy’s plane? Of course, but it’s a cartoon. Besides it’s awesome to see Andy willing to help family with something so weird. Does Gretchen wish Lapis flew them somehow? Yes, but we’ll move on, we have more important things to talk about, like a Universe family vacation full of fun meta moments such as tours of animation studios drawing Greg and Steven!

At least they’re polite.

Maybe we’re is alone in this, but it felt like Greg trying to distract Steven, or at least give him time to rethink his decision. Throwing a dose of concentrated fun at a kid is usually an effective way to distract them, after all. It doesn’t work and eventually they end up at a fence much like the one the Crystal Gems set up to keep people off the beach leading to the Temple, complete with a “Please” sign. Looks like Steven isn’t the only one the Crystal Gems try to keep away from the palanquin. As Greg and Steven near it, Steven begins to cry again. They find a palanquin, but it’s not pink like in Steven’s dream, it’s blue.

Enter the Steven Bomb’s first big explosion: the appearance of Blue Diamond.

Far from the ruthless person who ordered Ruby shattered (2×22, “The Answer”), we see Blue Diamond (Blue) grieving by Pink Diamond’s palanquin. Her Pearl hears Greg and Steven, and Greg shows himself in order to keep Steven hidden. He reaches out to Blue, again showing the beautiful empathetic abilities he passed onto Steven by relating to her grief through his own over Rose (though he never mentions her by name). We learn that Pink was shattered at the palanquin, and Steven has been crying Blue’s tears (Holy Steven Empathy Powers, Batman!). We also learn that the Diamonds still expect the Cluster to emerge any day now.

The grief Blue feels about Pink’s death was not unexpected, but we doubt many anticipated her to feel it so intensely. It’s easy to think of the Diamonds as a faceless evil because up until now, they have been. Blue quite literally. Nearly everything we’ve seen and heard of them so far has been bad. Much like the ever-developing truth of Pink Diamond, however, here we see they are far more complicated than that. They have their own beliefs, their own relationships, their own sorrows over the course of their lives. The Diamonds are gems just like the Crystal Gems, shaped by their experiences. That’s not to say we’re making excuses for their wrongful actions. Homeworld is still a cruel society responsible for many unforgivable abuses.

What “Steven’s Dream” and Blue Diamond’s conversation with Greg does is show that Homeworld society could potentially change for the better. The Diamonds think of humanity as dumb animals incapable of the same complicated emotions and experiences of gems. Blue seems to think Earth still lived like it did 5,000 years earlier when civilization remained in a primitive stage. Just like Rose, Garnet, Pearl, Peridot, and Lapis, exposure to the truth and beauty of life on Earth could eventually change their minds. Blue hints at the possibility for Homeworld to see the evil in exterminating life outside their own and to value life on Earth as equal to theirs. In other words, Rose’s vision for Homeworld respecting humans could be a possibility. That is, if Blue’s compassion wins out over Yellow’s more ruthless measures.

Deciding she wants to preserve one last piece of Pink Diamond’s memory, Blue kidnaps Greg and brings him aboard her very, very cool arm ship. Steven tries to float there but can’t make it. Garnet is there to catch him as he falls and confesses to seeing Blue Diamond with her future vision. In her vision, Blue would have found Garnet and the rest of the Crystal Gems if they had taken Steven to the palanquin, which is why she refused to go with him or even tell him about it. Now Greg is gone and they need to go to space to get him back.

And with that, the Steven Universe bomb is off and running.

Delightful Little Gems

  • The cow movie Steven and Greg are watching at the beginning has blue aliens stealing cows, which foreshadows Blue (a blue alien) stealing Greg (since gems think of humans as cattle).
  • Ponytail Amethyst!
  • Connie’s book is going to be way overdue at the library. Can you claim “left in Korea” as a legit reason for it to be late?
  • Amethyst and her popcorn needs to be the new meme.

Lingering Questions

  • Why do the Diamond ships look like arms? Or hands (Jasper’s ship)? Is there a Diamond Voltron? Please tell us there’s a Diamond Voltron!

“Adventures in Light Distortion”

Steven and Garnet return to the Temple to tell Pearl and Amethyst about Blue and Greg. They return via the warp pad, which makes us wonder why Steven and Greg didn’t use it to travel to Korea. Steven knows how to operate it. Oh well, minor detail so let’s move on.

Pearl and Amethyst are understandably shocked by the news, though Amethyst seems amused that the Diamonds are popping up so frequently now. Gretchen loves how Pearl asks Amethyst to turn into a chair so she can sit down (she’s normally so disdainful of Amethyst’s shapeshifting!). Bo loves that Pearl still says “Our Greg,” as if Steven has multiple Gregs he calls Dad. Anyway, Pearl and Garnet decide Blue must have taken Greg to Pink Diamond’s human zoo, where she used to bring captured humans before Rose shattered her. Remember the descriptions of the zoo you hear moving forward. We will bring this up later this week.

Also notice the tease about who Pearl used to serve; she never says who, which is precisely why it’s so suggestive. Like, look at this: “When I still served…Homeworld.” ARGH. Everyone’s sure it’s going to be someone important once revealed; she actually saw the zoo firsthand way back, which we can’t imagine applies to a lot of gems. We think she had to be White Diamond’s Pearl at some point, and possibly a gift to Pink Diamond from White later. Whoever it was, Pearl is determined to hide it and hints like this are killing us. You’re too good at this, Crewniverse.

You do you, Bob.

With the help of the Ruby Squad’s Roaming Eye ship (yay obvious foreshadowing!), they blast off to space to find the human zoo and rescue Greg, but not before leaving Peridot, Lapis, and Connie in charge of defending Beach City. Peridot tried to explain some of the finer points of operating the ship before they left, but Steven hardly listened and rushed the Crystal Gems aboard before she could finish. Are we a little disappointed that Lapis and Peridot get left behind? Yeah, but an episode of them defending Beach City will totally be worth it, and it looks like that’s going to be the next episode after the bomb. We’re so ready. Also, we love how Lapis has adopted the thumbs up as her thing.

They’re not in space long before they run into asteroids and the Ruby Squad. It’s kind of mean to leave them behind but Greg’s safety is the more pressing concern, and Steven says they’ll pick the Rubies up after Greg is safe. We hope so, because we love the Rubies. (Ruby Squad for Crystal Gems 2017!) We see some great shots of space, and of course Steven hopes his dad got to see the stars so he could write songs about them. Trust Steven to be thinking of Greg’s music career at a time like this. Since the ship’s current pace forecasts a Greg rescue for his 110th anniversary of being alive, Steven starts fiddling with the controls to find a way to boost the gravity engine. Maybe you should have listened to Peridot, Steven. She tried explaining how it works.

And yes, we noticed the weird animation here. Steven Universe offers its artists a lot of freedom in character models, and sometimes stuff like this happens:

We know Steven; it’s hard to see her looking that way.

It will happen again during this Bomb. At least it’s not 6 episode’s worth of Asami Sato’s face not making any kind of sense, Mako’s incredibly shrinking eyes, and Korra’s magically large left eye. (We’re talking about Legend of Korra book 2 if you didn’t know. It always comes around to LoK doesn’t it?).

Once again Steven’s recklessness shows in his willingness to flatten himself to speed the ship up. Hey, it works! Unfortunately (who are we kidding, fortunately), activating the gravity warp effects the Gems’ bodies by forcing a certain size onto them. This is the funnest part of the episode while also giving us a bit of lore. The ship has numerous settings that manipulate the gems’ body sizes, which we know are projections made of light (that is also solid?). While their actual gems stay the same size, their physical projections change. They start off Ruby-sized since the settings were set for Rubies, but Steven’s fiddling shows sizes for Quartz soldiers, gems the size of the Heaven and Earth Beetles, and even the Diamonds.

This raises the question of why exactly a Diamond would be on a ship this size. Maybe all gem ships come standardized with every option just in case? Also, we can’t be the only ones thinking about how the Ruby Squad probably plays with the settings when they’re alone.

Steven eventually turns the settings off entirely, catapulting the ship forward at faster than light speed, which the Crystal Gems’ light construct bodies cannot keep up with. Unaware that their bodies are merely lagging behind the ship, Steven believes that he’s broken them all and breaks down. At first, he responds with classic mindfulness that would make a CBT/DBT therapist proud. He talking out loud to himself, saying it’s going to be okay, that he made a mistake, but that he can fix it. He’s starting to use the skills Garnet taught him, Connie, and Stevonnie in “Mindful Education” (4×04).

But he’s still learning, and in the midst of his fear and guilt, he shame spirals out of his mindfulness. He’s messed up. It’s all his fault. He just wanted answers, which is what started everything last episode. Now, he just wants his dad back and the Crystal Gems to be okay. It’s heartbreaking watch, but not entirely unexpected. Gretchen speculated as much last summer.

“It would not surprise me if a part of Steven learning how to be a healer/mediator involves him messing up big time.”

This bomb kicked off with Steven’s dream and his inadvertent and inexplicable empathic link with Blue (which, by the way, we’re so curious about. Why? How? What?). Yes, he wants answers. Yes, he wants to know more about Rose and Pink Diamond. And, he wants to understand why the palanquin makes him so sad. Gretchen would argue that learning everything about Rose is a significant part of his healer/mediator arc. How can he fully help others when he doesn’t fully understand half of his self? And how can he fully understand his gem self without understanding Rose and her history? Whether or not Steven actually messed up here is beside the point, he thinks he did. And that could impact his healing/mediation arc moving forward.

Eventually Steven figures manages to bring the ship out of warp speed. The Gems are back, and of course Amethyst liked it. She likes everything weird, especially when it involves changing her body. Besides, who wouldn’t want to phase through a planet if they could? Steven realizes he pushed things too hard and too fast, but Garnet refuses to let him sink into guilt, because Square Mom is best mom. She puts the responsibility for Greg’s kidnapping where it belongs: on Blue. She also reminds Steven that he got them to the zoo, and that’s what matters most.

Delightful Little Gems

  • Amethyst: “Ew, bones are gross.” Garnet: “You have bones in your bedroom.” Amethyst: “That’s different, those are my bones”. We love Amethyst so much.
  • Nerd Pearl explaining the physics of their body changes

Lingering Questions

  • As much as we enjoyed the Incredible Shapeshifting Crystal Gems, why couldn’t they move around the ship to get to the controls themselves and help Steven? Until they went careening into space/trailing behind, the episode didn’t fully establish that they couldn’t move.

Closing Thoughts

Blast off!

Saying Steven Universe rocketed out of the gate is a big understatement. And a really bad pun Bo apologizes for, but come on. It was too easy to make.

There’s so much to like about these first two episodes, a lot of which we covered in our initial reaction post. Blue Diamond became an immediate fan favorite for good reason; she continued Steven Universe‘s trend of delivering complex villains that defy a simplistic notion of Pure Evil. Her conversation with Greg was everything the show stands for. Here were two very different people with very different lives finding common ground with each other. More than anything Steven Universe is about this kind of cooperation and acceptance between people with such vastly divergent backgrounds and perspectives.

The sharp divide surrounding the depiction of the history between the Crystal Gems and Homeworld has seemed impossible to bridge sometimes. But keep moments like this in mind, because we wouldn’t be surprised if a similar convergence between the Crystal Gems and Homeworld (or at least certain portions of Homeworld society) happens in the end. Neither side really understands each other at this point in the story, and peace and cooperation cannot exist without understanding. Greg may just have taken the first step towards peace (three cheers for Ambassador Greg!).

These episodes were also very important for Steven’s development. We can see he’s much stronger emotionally. He’s able to talk about his mother’s problematic choices without being overwhelmed. He’s also confident enough to stand up to the Crystal Gems. The very fact that he’s willing to question their choices on his behalf says much about his maturity level. Yes, he yelled at them, he’s still a young teenager after all. But he also had a point. The Crystal Gems do hide things from him, important things that he deserves (one could even say needs) to know about his mom and the war. And, he was willing to face the potential consequences of his choices should he choose to ignore Garnet. He admits his mistakes instead of glossing over them.

Someone hug him.

As hard as it was to see our puppy dog Steven raw with emotion “Adventures in Light Distortion” was a big step in Steven’s growth. He’s actually facing his emotions instead of stuffing them! And even when he freaked out, his initial reaction was to implement his mindfulness training. Eventually he got too overwhelmed, and that happens sometimes when you’re learning a new skill. Nevertheless, he eventually broke through his self-blame to stop the ship. He then rounded it off with admitting his fears and accepting (misplaced) responsibility that Garnet rightly corrected. Seriously, we’re so proud of him.

That about does it for these two episodes (Gee, do you think we have enough to say?). See you tomorrow for “Gem Heist”!

Betchen out.

Images Courtesy of Cartoon Network

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