And the Season One Weird Phase™ continues with “Cat Fingers,” in which we must again ask the Crewniverse, “You were seriously intent on showing this to children?!?”
“Cat Fingers” is a weird beast because it feels like a step back in terms of complexity; I find it almost completely void of anything to analyze. But in terms of the horror movie imagery introduced in Frybo, it feels like a TERRIFYINGLY ENORMOUS STEP-UP. The Cronenberg-esque monster that Steven transforms into by the episode’s climax is so genuinely disturbing that it actually makes my skin crawl.
Mostly, this one baffles me. Let’s get into it!
As Steven and Greg are doing some father-son bonding at the car wash, Amethyst shows up and joins in, shapeshifting into various forms. Steven wishes that he could shapeshift, and Amethyst responds that, being a gem, he probably can. This is backed up by Pearl back at Steven’s house, who explains that all gems have shapeshifting abilities.
Amethyst attempts to teach Steven how to turn into a cat — and while he can’t shift his whole body, Steven does manage to turn one of his fingers into the head of a tiny cat. Excited, Steven runs to show everyone in Beach City. Along the way, Steven excitedly cat-ifies more of his fingers, until all ten are miniature cats. Unsurprisingly, he soon realizes that this is a rather inconvenient way to live, as picking things up is now much more difficult.
As the Crystal Gems are piling into a small boat (called the Gem Sloop) to go and fight a “living island,” Steven attempts to join them, revealing his feline finger problem. Pearl wants to stay and help Steven, but Garnet insists that the mission is more urgent.
Steven attempts to shapeshift back to normal, but only succeeds in making more cat heads sprout up all over his body. As his condition worsens, he runs back to his dad at the car wash. By this time, Steven’s body is very nearly consumed by a riptide of yowling cat heads. Thankfully, Greg and Steven discover that the cat heads absolutely hate water. When a spray from the hose isn’t enough, Steven goes through the car wash and is mercifully returned to normal. Back at the beach, Steven greets the Crystal Gems as they return from their mission, and the episode ends with a delightfully bad string of cat-based puns.
This is the first episode we’ve discussed that I can safely say I dislike. Apart from my general bafflement at the body horror, Cat Fingers borrows a great deal of its structure from the preceding episode, Frybo. Namely, Steven discovers a bit of magic, makes reckless decisions with it, gets into a sticky situation, and then has to get himself out of that situation. As with Frybo, the conflict stems entirely from Steven’s immaturity, and as with Frybo Steven doesn’t seem to learn very much by the end.
However, while Frybo is hardly deep, it does manage to sneak in some surprising and insightful observations while it’s having its fun. The purpose of “Cat Fingers” utterly eludes me. Is it perhaps a story about Steven learning to ask for help, rather than floundering to find solutions to problems he can’t solve on his own? Well, no. While it perhaps takes him a little too long to realize the direness of the situation, when he does he asks for help immediately — first from the Gems, then from his dad. Is it a story about learning to control your own power? Well, no. The solution comes not from any sort of self-control, but from the application of water, the most abundant liquid on the planet.
Garnet manages to give the proceedings at least the hint of an arc: when arriving back from the mission, she tells the other Gems “It just goes to show, you should have a little more faith in Steven.” Here she is the only Crystal Gem expressing any sort of confidence that Steven can figure out problems on his own. However, this still falls short for me because it is no more than one interesting line in a largely inane episode.
One could make the argument that this episode is important because it introduces in full the concept of Gem shapeshifting. There are two things to note here:
- Whenever Amethyst shapeshifts, you can see that the purple gem on her chest (from which she summons her weapon) doesn’t seem to change in size that much, and is always on the chest of whatever she shapeshifts into.
- Although Pearl discusses shapeshifting, she does not do any shapeshifting herself.
These are both interesting details that will become important later — but we will see them repeated many times before they do, in better episodes.
Aside from some amazing comedic moments, I’ve never been able to find much to love in this episode. I have been spoiled, I suppose, by later episodes of Steven Universe that are much more interesting, heartfelt, and ripe for analysis. “Cat Fingers” still very much has the feel of a goofy kids’ show, with low stakes and easily resolved escapades. I think it’s valuable for helping to create that facade, which later episodes slowly strip away. However, if you’re still not quite convinced about the series, I’d give this one a skip.
- Favorite lines:
- “It just goes to show: always listen to me, and never listen to Amethyst.”
- “Eh, that’s fair.”
- Peedee is working the fryer now! Good for him, I guess?
- We never see the Gem Sloop used again (though it does appear one more time), possibly because it seems a terribly inefficient way to get around. Surely the warp pad would be faster? Or, I don’t know, a motor boat?
- Also, sailing nerds on the Steven Universe wiki have informed me that the Gem Sloop is not actually a sloop, but a cutter. Who knew?
- Speaking of the Gem Sloop, we never see the “living island” that the Gems go out to fight, in this episode or in the future. Without spoiling, I’ll say that it’s therefore unclear how this particular monster fits into the series’ mythology.
- This is our first sighting of Mayor Dewey! We don’t like Mayor Dewey very much.
- SLIGHT SPOILER: Okay, so considering one particular fan theory about Steven Universe: Future that’s been making the rounds on the internet, could Steven’s horrifying transformation this episode be considered foreshadowing? Only time will tell, I suppose. Spoilers at the link, obviously.