Wednesday, May 29, 2024

There’s a Lot to Say about Steven Universe’s Latest Incredible Episodes

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Two characters have come to dominate the narrative of Steven Universe: Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond. Even more than Steven himself, these two lay at the heart of just about everything that has happened and currently happens on Earth. Business on Homeworld comes to a halt to hold trials over one’s suspected crimes against the other. Earth mourns Rose, while Homeworld mourns Pink. The question of whether Rose actually shattered Pink Diamond has driven Steven Universe’s narrative for at least two seasons now, and always been a controlling background subplot at the least.

So here we are, with the answers we’ve all craved. You might want to find a comfortable spot, because we’re going to be here a while.

Oh, and obviously HUGE SPOILERS BELOW. Serious Defcon 1 stuff, you’ve been warned.

Can’t Go Back

Oh, and Lapis got a song! You know, it figures that when she finally opens up, it’s followed by an episode making no one care. Bad Luck Lapis strikes again.

This episode was a rough one for our precious waterbender. Finding out that she ended up on the moon, spending her days watching Peridot and Earth using the Moon Orb, is heartbreaking. She tried to run. She tried to fall back on old habits. Lapis’s time on Earth changed her. Connections have formed that she cannot simply abandon.

The entire episode was heartbreaking. Lapis tries so hard. She always catches flak from Steven Universe fans for being selfish and not caring. She also gets far, far too much blame for her struggles with her fears and anxieties. People keep expecting some big moment where it all vanishes and she rooms in the temple with the other gems. For a second, even I thought we were going to get an ending scene of Lapis flying the barn back to Earth and reuniting awkwardly with Peridot.

Life isn’t as easy as all that, though, and Lapis’s struggles with her mental health especially so. This wasn’t just her dealing with the humiliation of an embarrassing moment. Poor Lapis thought Steven and Peridot hated her. She projected all the shame and hate of her own actions onto those she cared about, because of course they hate her. How could they not? She abandoned them. She gave in to her fears and left them to face what she believed to be certain death. The guilt overwhelmed her and has left her in this awkward place between her desire to return and her inability to face everyone again.

Lapis’s song is one of the show’s best ever, and an absolutely fantastic way of communicating her mental illness. Using color to symbolize her worldview is something anyone can understand. Putting her life in the form of colors makes it easy to understand how she struggles with the darkness her fears and traumas impose on her experiences.

You can easily picture Lapis as dealing with a constant shadow robbing the world of its color. Her PTSD from the war and her time in Malachite linger over her entire life. It lingers over everything as traumas do. When she’s having fun with Steven and Peridot, that shadow lifts briefly and her colors brighten again. Unfortunately, the effect does not last. The moment passes and the shadow returns. Right now the shadow is her default way of life.

Thinking back on Lapis episodes shows just how well Steven Universe has always used this theme of color in Lapis-centric episodes. Her initial appearance in “Mirror Gem,” when she spends the day in the mirror having fun with Steven, is a bright episode. Its follow-up, “Ocean Gem” is a much more muted episode dealing with Lapis’s freedom and escape from Earth. “Alone at Sea” is bright and sunny and Lapis glows a dazzling blue as she has fun on Greg’s boat. Just before Jasper shows up, clouds move in and drain the color from the world.

Her use of the Moon Orb plays perfectly into this idea of color. She uses the orb to see Earth as she wants. She gets to sit on the beach watching her friends. Or she can stare at the bright blue sky or the wonders of a sunset. All the vivid beauty of life is at her fingertips and it’s suggested she spends a good deal of time absorbed in this beauty. However, it’s all a temporary simulation of this beauty rather than the real thing. The second she walks away, the room turns cold and dark and lonely again. It’s all a fake, a simulation, Lapis trying her best to embrace color while knowing it’s not permanent.

Like it or not, Lapis’s healing process is very much an ongoing process. It’s one she should be allowed, no matter how much I want her to immediately find happiness with Peridot, Steven, and the other Crystal Gems. Lapis has come a long way from the person who fought the Crystal Gems after escaping the mirror. She fully acknowledges her connection to Earth and her friends, and wants to be there for them. Can you imagine Lapis having such a connection, let alone admitting it, even a season ago?

She will need to overcome her fears and her guilt over leaving before she can be there for anyone. And she will absolutely get there. Steven Universe has told a long, difficult, realistic character arc with her that remains on a trajectory towards healing. Her conversation with Steven will give Lapis something to think about and nudge her closer to happiness.

Until that happens, though, I’ll have to deal with hard episodes like this. Considering how skillfully the Crewniverse executes them, though, it’s a journey I’m glad to struggle through alongside our precious blue gem.

steven universe pink and pearl

A Single Pale Rose

Okay, fine I’ll stop talking about Lapis. I could go on forever, but no one started reading this because of her. Alright. Main Event time.

Rose=PD is true. Yikes. This isn’t a complete surprise to me (we’ve talked about the possibilities before), but expectation does not lessen the impact of the reveal. Not even a little bit. This revelation shifts the entire series on its head in a way nothing else really could have.

First, I’ll go ahead and establish a timeline, if for no other reason than to try and clarify things in my own head. Pink Diamond had some difficulties/reservations about colonizing and depleting Earth. She seemed to have made various excuses to Blue and Yellow Diamond about running Earth. At some point she started the rebellion, posing as Rose Quartz, in hopes of making Earth too much trouble for Homeworld to bother with.

When this didn’t work, she staged her shattering with the idea that “no Pink Diamond” means Homeworld would have to leave. And so she conspired with Pearl, who shape-shifted into Rose Quartz, to “kill” Pink Diamond so Pink could live as Rose on Earth. Only she underestimated the grief the Diamonds would feel, which led to the corruption attack that ended all gem life on Earth besides Rose, Garnet, and Pearl.

The implications of all this will take the fandom months to unpack. There’s so much to talk about here. Pink’s motivations remain frustratingly vague. At least some of the Rose Quartz propaganda is true. Pink seems to have formed some connection to Earth and its inhabitants that prevented her from letting Homeworld destroy the planet. That part of the Rose Quartz myth is at least partially true. She did care and wanted the Crystal Gems to have freedom on Earth. She wanted gems to be able to escape their preprogrammed destinies.

However, the actual actions pushing her ideas towards fruition are absolutely horrifying. Even more so than before. And it starts with the star of “A Single Pale Rose,” our lovely, traumatized Bird Mom. You can add yet another classic, all-time great episode to Pearl’s unbelievable list of them.

Pearl’s devotion to Rose Quartz has always seemed more than that of the other Gems. While I think Garnet is the truest believer and devotee of the Rose Quartz legend, it is Pearl who truly loved and believed in everything Rose. She was there from the beginning and knows the flaws and secrets others don’t. Her entire life was built around Rose. Many believed she had to have been Rose’s Pearl, but I wondered then why she seemed more important than that?

Go figure that Steven Universe took all the theories and confirmed them all in a single incredible scene. Pearl was Pink Diamond’s Pearl, she shattered her, but only to cover up that Pink was actually Rose. Her mouth-clamping was a direct order of Pink. Pearl’s aversion towards shape-shifting connects directly to the trauma of shape-shifting into Rose to stage Pink’s death. They freaking connected everything.

Pearl as Pink’s Pearl fully explains her devotion to Rose, as well as the betrayal she feels over Rose’s secrets and eventual choosing (Choosening?) of Greg. A truly saddening layer now exists atop Pearl’s existence that I’m having a hard time dealing with. Namely, she never actually broke her programming. She never actually received the independence that the other Crystal Gems did. She was always Pink Diamond’s Pearl, carrying out her orders the way a Pearl is supposed to. Even now she’s simply following her owner’s orders.

So much of Pearl’s character was defined by her uniqueness as a Pearl. She was the renegade who did what Pearl’s aren’t supposed to do. Pearl found freedom, purpose, and love separate from her programming. She was special that way. And of course a lot of this remains true. She still learned skills and love and freedom that other Pearls don’t.

Knowing she did all this to assist in the Rose deception, though…it hurts. It hurts that she never actually broke that control.

This also adds a distance between her and the other Crystal Gems they will struggle to ever truly reconcile. All this time, Pearl knew the enemy they fought against and liberated Earth from was actually leading the fight. She kept a secret that would have broken the Crystal Gems. It’s a secret she kept for thousands of years. Can you imagine the burden she felt over those long years, especially with every discretion Rose had over the years? She could NEVER go to anyone else about it. Not just because of the physical obstacles, but because she could never admit the truth to anyone else. Not without risking losing them.

She can’t even retain her actual hair color. It’s no coincidence how much pinker the hair of her inner Pearls were.

While the Pearls within Pearl were funny at first, they revealed the true burden of her existence and how hard her existence really is. These tangible layers within Pearl’s consciousness are a fantastic way to visually represent the way Pearl has buried the tragedies of her life. It also visualized her continued devotion to her Diamond. She didn’t have to just deal with losing the woman she loved when Rose gave birth—she lost her only reason for existence.

To say this explains her OCD is an understatement. “I’m very good at compartmentalizing everything,” might be the truest, saddest thing anyone on Steven Universe has ever said. Pearl’s entire life is one giant compartmentalization.

Now that the secret is out, I assume things will eventually get better for her. However, it’s going to be a long process. Garnet is not going to take this well. Steven, either. I can’t even imagine how badly Bismuth or Jasper will react when they reenter the picture, or what in the world Greg will think of all this. I’m not even sure what to think of this. Well, besides thinking a lot less of Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond right now. Because this is truly awful.

Think about how much of the rebellion now ties directly to “Rose Quartz”. The forced fusions, the shatterings, the corruptions. Pink Diamond led both sides of the war and is responsible for every sin both sides committed. If she really wanted Earth to be free, she did not need to hedge her bets by prolonging the war using her Diamond resources. She did not need to create battle after battle and cause so many deaths.

It’s obvious Pink Diamond acted with extreme rashness and irresponsibility, and it was everyone else who paid the price for it. She betrayed the gems who risked everything and died for her. Worst of all, she seemed to have no actual plan. This entire rebellion feels like the half-assed, poorly planned improvisation of a bratty kid. A kind of teenage-defiance against her “parent” Diamonds. I doubt she was ever at risk the way everyone fighting for her was. If the Diamonds found out she was Rose, they’d take Earth, put her in time-out, and everyone else would pay the price.

Still, her actions were well-intentioned overall. After all, she clearly felt a real affection for Earth. The Zoo looks a bit more well-intentioned than it did before. And in the end, she did mature. I still don’t question the intentions or motivations presented to us in the aftermath of the war. If anything Rose’s remorse feels even realer than before. Just like with Pearl, there’s an added tragedy to Rose’s existence that didn’t exist before. That of a young woman who made a bad choice and lived the rest of her life with the guilt.

We’re going to be talking about all of this for a long time. There’s just so much to talk about. So much foreshadowing fans are already going back and discovering, with more to come later. The discussions involving Rose and Pearl will continue to evolve with each new previously undiscovered layer of this amazing, amazing show.

If there’s one thing this revelation has reaffirmed, it’s the incredible skill and thought put into Steven Universe from the very beginning. I know we’ve gushed about SU a lot on this site, and these episodes are exhibit A why it deserves every kind word we’ve ever said about it. Steven Universe is a remarkably intelligent show that ranks among the very best on TV. No, not just animated shows. I’ll put Steven Universe up against just about anything on television. Episodes like this prove our point.

And now our watch begins again. Yeah, it sucks. It especially sucks when networks ruin future plot points as casually as tossing trash on the street. But damn if it isn’t worth it when we get episodes like these. Thank you, Crewniverse. And try not to hurt us too badly with the aftermath.

Images courtesy of Cartoon Network

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