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Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #4: Together Breakfast

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I think I should probably clarify what I mean by a “skippable” episode of Steven Universe. Judging from a few folks’ reactions, I think my words towards “Cheeseburger Backpack” last time may have come off as a little more. . . uncharitable than I thought. My intention, when I label an episode as skippable, is never to imply that it’s not important to the series, or doesn’t have anything substantive to say. In fact, one could make the argument that “Cheeseburger Backpack” is quite important, as it establishes what a ‘normal’ mission for the Crystal Gems looks and feels like. My goal with every single one of these guides, however, is to get you as addicted to Steven Universe as quickly as I possibly can. And while we are in Season 1, that unfortunately does mean that I might tell you to skip some episodes that have enormous value to many people, if only to slightly speed up your long journey to the really meaty stuff.

“Together Breakfast,” then, is an odd animal. I like it, but I wouldn’t call it a must-see. It’s not emotionally significant for our characters, but it contains foundational information of a completely structural nature — namely, the layout of the Crystal Gems’ Temple. We don’t see as good an introduction to the Temple’s interior until, arguably, “Secret Team,” and there are too many episodes in between that rely on the knowledge laid out here.

I have no choice, then, but to refrain from giving this one a SKIP stamp, despite my impatience (I just wanna write about “Rose’s Scabbard,” dammit!). Let’s get into it.

Synopsis

Alone in the house one morning, Steven entertains himself by making a ridiculously unhealthy breakfast of waffles, popcorn, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce, hoping to share it with everyone. Garnet arrives, holding a mysterious scroll. Refusing breakfast, she holds out her hands to the door at the back of the Temple. Both of the gems in her palms glow, as do two corresponding gems on the door, revealing a room full of floating bubbles. Confiscating Steven’s phone (after he takes a picture of the scroll), she exits and the door closes behind her. Steven tries to open the door with his own gem, but nothing happens.

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Amethyst arrives, and after some shape-shifting antics, Pearl comes out of Amethyst’s room, using the same door. Apparently, the door serves as a sort of magic portal to different areas of the Temple. Despite Steven’s pleading that they all enjoy breakfast together, Amethyst and Pearl exit into their own rooms using their gems — and Steven sneaks in after Pearl before the door closes.

Pearl’s room is a serene landscape full of magical water fountains. Pearl shouts at Steven to get out of there, but he falls down a waterfall to Amethyst’s room — which looks somewhat like the inside of a geode, with rocky crystalline structures all over the walls, accentuated by Amethyst’s piles of human junk. Steven meets Amethyst, who seems to want to eat the waffles for herself. This leads them on a chase through several more surreal areas, including a gravity-bending hallway, a room of floating rocks, and an area filled with red crystal tubes that Pearl (who catches up with them) calls the Crystal Heart. Finally, Steven falls into the bubble-filled room we saw earlier, where Garnet is about to destroy both his phone and the mysterious scroll in a pit of lava.

Amethyst and Pearl whisper to Steven to get out of there, but he’s overjoyed that they’re all finally together for breakfast. Unfortunately, his shout interrupts Garnet’s concentration — and the scroll, which she had been burning inside a bubble, turns into a smoke monster and attacks the team. The monster goes inside Steven’s stack of waffles, inhabits it, and attacks them in the form of enlarged, enraged breakfast food. Steven manages to defeat the breakfast monster by shoving it into the lava pit. Back in the house, the united Crystal Gems make a replacement breakfast, but have lost their appetite for waffles, and decide to order a pizza.

Analysis

This episode is particularly effective at recreating a familiar childhood feeling; that of wanting to spend time with the adults in your life, only to find out that they are too busy or distracted to hang out with you. The otherworldly nature of the Temple is used to accentuate the non-humanity of the Gems, making them seem unattainable and strange — again, a metaphor for the way you perceive your parents when you are a child. Steven gets a glimpse of an ‘adult’ space, and it is appropriately a wild and weird journey.

The difference between the clapboard coziness of the beachside house and the fantastical, gravity-bending Temple is also fascinating on a more literal level. The house contains a kitchen, a living room, and a bed, all evidence of a human inhabitant with human needs; the Temple contains none of those things. Given that we now know about the Gems’ long lifespans, then, it seems likely that the house was built specifically for Steven, long after the Temple itself. This is backed up by the moss and large cracks that cover the Temple’s statue-like exterior, giving it a sense of age, compared to the house’s modern materials and clean state.

We also get a glimpse into each Crystal Gem’s room, providing some insights into their personalities.

The aquatic theme in Pearl’s room is likely a nod to the underwater origins of real-life pearls. The serene magical fountains seem designed both for aesthetic pleasure and organization; I am a particular fan of how she can access and browse her catalogue of swords via dancing. It seems quite convenient and meticulous — but interestingly, Amethyst points out that occasionally items from Pearl’s collection will fall down the waterfall into Amethyst’s room, whom Pearl will then accuse of thievery. Without spoilers, I’ll say that this is a delightful metaphor for Pearl’s emotional state, and tracks with some of her unhealthy coping mechanisms we’ll observe later in the series. 

Continuing to foreshadow future character development, Amethyst’s room is illustrative of her dual identity. It is both the most gem-like and the most human. Lots of delightful earthly junk, likely collected or pilfered from around Beach City, lies in comically tall piles, almost calling to mind the Room of Hidden Things from Harry Potter. But the walls, ceiling, and floor are also covered in crystalline structures that closely echo the look of a real-life amethyst geode. There’s another dichotomy here which parallels Steven’s eventual journey of reconciling his gem and human halves. But for now, I like to savor the thought of Amethyst sneaking around in various comical disguises, stealing random crap from generations of Beach City citizens.

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Garnet’s room — or at least, what appears to be Garnet’s room — is where things get a lot more interesting. Remember back in “Gem Glow,” when the defeated monster turned into a small green sphere, and Garnet put it inside a magic bubble, which then disappeared? Well, here we get a glimpse of where it might have gone. The room is filled with floating bubbles, each with small objects inside. Each one is, presumably, a defeated monster. And when she is trying to destroy the mysterious scroll, we see her try to contain it in a similar bubble. Steven doesn’t seem to take note of this, but we the audience are slowly getting more clues as to the scope and nature of this Crystal Gem gig.

As for the monster this episode. . . well for this one we’re going to have to pull back the beaded curtain and step inside a new segment I’m calling:

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Okay, so if you haven’t seen the entire series and care about spoilers, please skip this section. 

The smoke monster in this episode is a rare case of an antagonist who can’t be explained by the later reveal in “Ocean Gem.” If all the Gems our heroes fight used to be normal, uncorrupted, sentient gems, then what is the scroll? It doesn’t appear to have a gem, nor does it seem to be connected to a larger creature with a gem like the Centipeetles in “Gem Glow.” 

One Tumblr user, whose post I cannot find for the life of me (any help finding it would be greatly appreciated), suggested a theory a long time ago that I find particularly enthralling. What if the ink on the scroll is made from crushed gems?

A truly horrifying prospect, but it’s not too far-fetched, considering both the Gem Shard experiments and the Cluster. Both of those instances proved that Homeworld wasn’t above forcing their own kind into awful, inhumane configurations for the purpose of turning them into weapons. What we see here would simply be a miniaturized version of the same technology. A gemless smoke monster could squeeze through small cracks for which normal shapeshifting would be insufficient, making it ideal for subterfuge. And being able to possess organic matter means that it could neutralize resistance from alien populations, turning their own soldiers against them and paving the way for colonization.

Why put the ink on a scroll, then? Perhaps the scroll acts as a sort of trapping agent, much like Lapis’s mirror, so that the smoke monster can be released on command. This would also explain why Garnet destroying it with fire, and then bubbling it, is such a delicate process. She wants to liberate it from its trap so it can be safely bubbled, but doesn’t want to let it loose either. Another small piece of evidence for this theory: the subtitles on Hulu for this sequence read “DISEMBODIED WHISPERING” and “DISEMBODIED SCREAMING.” The scroll makes similar sounds to what we’ll hear later from the Cluster.

But why destroy Steven’s phone? I’ve gotta admit I’m stumped on that one. Maybe the image itself is designed to drive organic beings to madness, as a safeguard? That’s a stretch, though. Let me know if you have any ideas.

None of this train of thought is particularly pleasant, which is probably why, to my knowledge, nobody from the Crewniverse has ever delved into it — if it’s even intentional. There is always the possibility, in these early episodes, that the team was still figuring out the specifics of the lore.

Conclusion

This episode continues the theme of Steven being obsessed with food — specifically, with unhealthy dessert food. Here, rather than seeing food as an opportunity to unlock his own power like in “Gem Glow,” he conflates it with feelings of family and companionship, to nearly catastrophic effect. The symbolism of food in the show will continue to evolve as we move forward, but here it is once again tied to Steven’s humanity and emotions. 

Additionally, the final scene foreshadows an important theme that will be important in the series — namely, trauma. Two breakfasts are wasted in “Together Breakfast,” despite the second one remaining entirely edible. However, when the Crystal Gems look at the second breakfast, all they can think about is the scarring (and disgusting) experience of fighting the first one to the death. The narrative does not shame them for this, and the suggestion of ordering pizza is framed as a moment of relief. It’s a quick and simplified explanation of trauma, but an effective one, easy for a child to understand, and it lays important groundwork for future events.

“Together Breakfast” is a lot of fun, and writing this review has certainly changed my position on it. There is a lot more here, bubbling below the surface, than I initially thought. The parental relationship between Steven and the Gems continues to establish itself, but hasn’t quite begun to evolve yet. The characters, and the dynamics between them, remain delightful yet static. It’s not an episode I would choose to re-watch for fun, but it’s definitely not skippable your first time through, and worth coming back to now and again.

Outtakes:

  • When Amethyst runs into her room, distraught at Pearl’s straightening up of her mess, there’s a slight animation error. We hear the sound effect of the door closing, but it stays open — and in the next shot, it’s closed.
  • The door-opening effect for each Gem’s room is different. Garnet’s door splits along two lines (one purple, one pink), creating three panels which slide apart. Amethyst’s door splits just once, and the two panels are connected by gooey-looking filaments, creating an almost organic look — again accentuating that she is the most human of the three. Pearl’s door is more literal, splitting once along the middle, with a circular pattern at head level, echoing the placement of her gem. Why does Garnet’s door have more panels? And why does she light up two points of the star instead of one like everyone else? Only time will tell, but it’s worth noting that upon first watch, this was the first episode when I noticed that Garnet had two gems. 
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Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #3: Cheeseburger Backpack

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Well, here we are. It was inevitable, I suppose, that we would come to the first episode to merit a SKIP stamp from me. Now, none of this is to say that I don’t absolutely love “Cheeseburger Backpack” — it is an icon of the show and has some truly delightful moments. However, it feels a little stagnant in terms of the larger story. Still, like any Steven Universe episode, there are some interesting things to look at.

Synopsis

Steven sits on the beach by his mailbox (by the way, does Steven’s house even have an address? His house doesn’t appear to be by any road, but it has a mailbox, and mail carriers know where it is) as he waits expectantly for a package. Jamie the Mailman makes his first appearance and delivers Steven a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger, which Steven eagerly shows to the Crystal Gems. The Gems, meanwhile, are about to embark on a mission; replace a small, magical statue on top of the Lunar Sea Spire to restore it to its former glory.

Steven begs to come along on the mission, and the Gems give him the statue to carry in his Cheeseburger Backpack. Excited, Steven packs as many potentially useful items as he can carry, and they set off.

The group arrives at the crumbling Sea Spire, and proceed to climb their way to the top. At every level, they face obstacles and challenges that might prevent their ascent — but Steven keeps pulling unexpected solutions out of his backpack: a rope of tied-together sweaters as a grappling hook, a leftover sandwich to distract the Crystal Shrimp, and so on. When the Gems reach the top of the Spire, Steven reaches into his backpack only to discover that he forgot to bring the magic statue. He attempts to use a stuffed animal instead, but it doesn’t work, and the Sea Spire collapses into the ocean. The Gems comfort Steven, telling him that he did a good job regardless, and begin the long paddle home.

Analysis

This is the first time we get to see the Crystal Gems embark on an actual mission, and our first time seeing a location outside Beach City — thus far, magical phenomena have only ever infringed upon Steven’s home life. It is also the first use we see of the warp pad, a key magical device throughout the entire rest of the series — and I enjoy the little humorous touches, like Steven sticking various parts of his body outside of the warp stream, that also illuminate for us the mechanics of warp pad travel. 

“Cheeseburger Backpack” is also notable for being the first episode to pull its structure directly from video game narrative conventions. The music has so far been extremely video game inspired, of course, and that theme continues here with several triumphant 8-bit fanfares every time Steven solves a problem. But here we have:

  • A mystical environment that our heroes must progress through by literally ascending through different “levels.”
  • A protagonist with an “inventory” full of items that are useful for overcoming challenges in the environment. 
  • An inventory container, namely the cheeseburger backpack, that seems comically small for all the items that are able to fit into it.

All these mechanics, plus the aquatic setting, almost take me back to playing the Freddi Fish games as a little kid. The influence of video games on Steven Universe will continue to be relevant, and I’m sure we’ll come back to it.

We also have a few small world-building touches, which this episode mostly come from clues in Pearl’s dialogue:

PEARL: Oh, Steven, you should have seen the Spire back in its heyday. It was an oasis for Gems on Earth!

PEARL (looking at the abandoned spire): It wasn’t like this a hundred years ago.

PEARL: Steven! This place is your heritage. I want you to stay and help, but you’ve really got to take this seriously. Can you do that, Steven?

From this, we can conclude a few things we didn’t know before:

  • There are more ‘Gems’ than just our four main characters — and they seem to be an entire race, with a long history.
  • Gems have been on Earth for a long time, but might not be from Earth.
  • Gems seemingly have very long lifespans.

Again, I enjoy the slow trickle of information. 

There is one fun side note here. Ian Jones-Quartey, who co-wrote this episode with Rebecca Sugar and also served as its supervising director, also voices Mr. Queasy, Steven’s talking stuffed animal. Mr. Queasy is equipped with a voicebox that utters various catchphrases concerning gross bodily functions — which might be a connection to Jones-Quartey’s work on another cartoon, Bravest Warriors. In Season 2, Episode 9 of that show, “Dimension Garden,” the character Ian voices, Wallow, is shown in flashback as a young kid — and we see that he has a whole menagerie of talking plush toys who also dispense gross bodily humor to comedic effect. “Dimension Garden” was published on YouTube about five months after “Cheeseburger Backpack” aired on Cartoon Network, so I’m not sure what was inspired by what, but it’s certainly a fun reference either way.

Other than those few things, though, I have surprisingly little to say about this straightforward adventure episode. The central dynamic here, the one most important to the series — namely, the Gems allowing Steven to put his human creativity to the test and forgiving him when he fails — is self-explanatory. It’s entertaining, but relatively free of opportunities for analysis.

Conclusion:

“Cheeseburger Backpack” is skippable not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t do much to progress our understanding of Steven, the Gems, or the season’s arc. All the important information that it reveals, mentioned above, is touched upon again later on, such that a new viewer can pick them up from context clues in better episodes.

The personalities of (and dynamics between) Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are on display here, and are delightful as usual. I particularly relate to Pearl’s type-A agonizing over how messy the Sea Spire is. Amethyst continues to be fun and scrappy, and Garnet continues to be stoic and mysterious, with a strange unmentioned ability to know what challenges lie ahead. Again, however, we’ve seen these traits before and will see them again.

In addition, this episode in particular is a good example of how the animation style takes a while to find itself in the first season. Characters and items fluctuate in size a great deal, and the way Steven’s closed eyelids are stylized is weird and unnerving. Despite some beautiful images, the visuals clearly still have a long way to go.

Outtakes:

  • At the beginning, the song Steven is singing is a hilarious mashup of “Please Mr. Postman” and “Mr. Sandman,” two jazzy mid-20th century songs. “Mr. Sandman” was popularized by the Chordettes, a trio of three singing ladies — but “Please Mr. Postman” was a hit number for the Marvelettes, a group of four. Interesting.
  • The gag where Steven’s belly sticks out of the front of the warp field, preventing the Gems from warping, again seems a tad fatphobic.
  • I like this little touch: at the end of the episode, Steven floats up to the surface of the water and gasps for air. Moments later, the Gems emerge as well — and Amethyst is the only one who is also gasping. Probably just for fun.
  • Ian Jones-Quartey would go on to take the video-game-inspired structure inherent to Steven Universe to its most extreme when he quit the show to work on his own Cartoon Network project, OK KO.
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Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #2: “Laser Light Cannon”

If you are watching Steven Universe for the first time as you’re reading these, you’ll likely notice me assigning meaning and depth to things that you, an initial viewer, might not give a second glance. This episode in particular sets forth a very important philosophical argument that will be relevant to the series time and time again — but it does it very subtly, and couches it in the goofy, childlike tone prevalent in these early Season 1 episodes. As a result, there are definitely moments in this essay where you’ll be like “Dude. . . what are you doing? This is a kids’ show. There’s really not that much to it; what is even happening right now.”

But I assure you, the creators of Steven Universe are playing a very long game, my friend, and appearances can be deceiving. This is gonna be a fun one; let’s get into it.

Synopsis

As Steven and Amethyst are spending an afternoon tooling around on the boardwalk, a menacing orange sphere, which looks like a glaring eye and shines ominously, approaches Beach City from the sky. The Crystal Gems congregate on the beach to brainstorm how to stop it, and Garnet mentions that the only thing powerful enough to destroy the sphere (called a Red Eye) is a light cannon that once belonged to Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. However, Rose Quartz is gone, along with her cannon. Steven offers to go and see his dad, Greg, to see if he might have the light cannon. The gems, skeptical, stay on the beach to brainstorm other ways to defeat the Red Eye.

Greg lives in a colorful van, parked next to the local car wash. Steven arrives and wakes him up, and Greg emerges from the van in an undershirt and sweatpants, disoriented from his nap. After some delightful and adorable dialogue that establishes their loving father-son relationship, they head to Greg’s storage unit to see if the light cannon might be in there. The storage unit is overstuffed and filled with junk, but after a bit of spelunking Steven locates the light cannon at the very back. Perhaps a tad ungracefully, Steven and Greg use the van to tow the light cannon to the beach — and just in time, as the Red Eye has come close enough to start causing some disastrous gravity anomalies. The group panics when they realize they don’t know how to activate the cannon, but discover on accident that Rose programmed it to only respond to Greg’s old catchphrase: “If every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” In a beautiful pyrotechnics display, the light cannon destroys the Red Eye, and the day is saved.

Analysis

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This second episode continues the first episode’s work of slowly building the world and laying down backstory – if you were confused at the whereabouts of Steven’s biological parents in “Gem Glow,” here’s your answer. We also get the story of how Greg and Rose met (he was a traveling musician, and when he played a concert in Beach City, Rose was the only one who showed up), as well as our first glimpse of Rose in the form of a framed photo of her and Greg that Steven encounters in the storage unit.

Perhaps most importantly, we get a very brief explanation as to why Rose Quartz no longer exists:

GREG: And we were always together after that. Until she gave up her physical form to have you.

We’re not really sure what this means yet, but again, I enjoy the slow leak of information.

“Laser Light Cannon” also introduces us to Greg, an important and central character throughout the series. Right from the get-go, Greg’s purpose seems to be to upend some of our preconceived notions about class, wealth, and success. The gems are a little disdainful of him:

PEARL: Greg is. . . nice, Steven, but I doubt Rose would trust someone like him with such a powerful weapon. 

AMETHYST: Your dad is kind of a mess, Steven.

PEARL: Amethyst!

AMETHYST: I’m just saying! Even if she did leave it with him, he probably broke it, or lost it, or dropped it in the ocean by now.

GARNET: True.

And in the scene where we first see him, he is clearly supposed to be extremely schlubby. He lives in a van, works at a car wash, is napping in the early evening, and seems to have a permanent t-shirt tan that his tank top does a poor job of hiding. He’s pretty unkempt, with long hair and a beard. He also has a pronounced hoarding tendency, as evidenced by his practically labyrinthine storage unit.

But despite all this, Greg seems perfectly. . . happy. The traditional markers of success don’t seem to mean much to either him or Steven — rather, they are both content to simply hang out with each other and have a great time. And, you know, save the world. The episode goes out of its way to point out that the things that society tells us we need aren’t always necessary for happiness or fulfillment. And it does this by creating an endearing, loving dynamic between Steven and Greg that is just endless fun to watch. Steven’s unwavering support of his dad’s music, and the goofy little bopping up-and-down dance he does to “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart,” never fail to give me the warm fuzzies when I watch this episode.

Perhaps most importantly, this episode gives us the first use of Greg’s signature catchphrase, which might be as close to a concise philosophical summary of Steven Universe as we get: “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” 

Put more literally: if you expect perfection from every aspect of a process, you will miss out on a world of delicious opportunities. Even more literally: if all you care about is things going the way you want, not only will you be disappointed, but you’ll be denying a fundamental truth of the human experience, and you won’t have any fun. This philosophy is backed up by the lyrics to Greg’s song:

I know I’m not that tall;

I know I’m not that smart.

But let me drive my van into your heart,

Let me drive my van into your heart.

. . .

And if we look out of place,

Well, baby, that’s okay.

I’ll drive us into outer space

Where we can’t hear what people say.

I know I don’t have a plan;

I’m working on that part.

At least I’ve got a van,

So let me drive my van into your heart!

Let me drive my van into your heart!

I think you can interpret this song in a number of ways: on the surface, it is clearly Greg speaking to Rose, but I think it could also be Rose speaking metaphorically to her fellow Crystal Gems (I can’t expand on that assertion right now, but we’ll come back to it). Alternatively, it could be the show speaking to us, the audience, telling us to embrace our own imperfections.

It is no coincidence that Rose made the phrase “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs” the command to unlock her laser light cannon. Metaphorically, embracing imperfection here is the key to unlocking one’s own power. And it’s also not a mistake that the cannon responds to a human phrase, about a human subject, and comes from a human storage unit. Remember, the Gems didn’t bother to look for the cannon, out of a lack of faith in Greg. But Steven has ties to both the Gems, who can fight the Red Eye, and his dad, who has the equipment to defeat it. This won’t be the last example of Steven’s two halves uniting to solve a problem.

Lastly, what does the Red Eye represent? Unlike the Centipeetle that the Gems fought last episode, it doesn’t seem particularly animalistic. Rather than attack, it simply looms ominously over Beach City, looking down on the humans and Gems below. Could this perhaps be a reference to The Great Gatsby, in which a billboard portraying the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg looms over the Valley Ashes, as if God is passing judgment over the events of the book?

I can’t say for sure, but I think we’re on the right track thinking of the Red Eye as an artificial, unfeeling, surveying presence. Believe it or not, we will hear about the Red Eye once more in a future episode. I missed it on my first few watches of the series; it’s a very subtle detail.

Conclusion

“Laser Light Cannon” feels like a significant step forward. It still has that childlike tone common to early episodes, but the animation and storytelling already feel much more confident; the sequence of the firing of the laser light cannon is absolutely gorgeous. I particularly love the things this episode does with color, as the creepy reddish-orange glow of the Red Eye slowly infiltrates Beach City over the course of the eleven-minute runtime. The comedic beats of the show are also making progress; Steven’s aforementioned dance in the van is of course hilarious, but I love love love the image of quiet, powerful Garnet picking up scrappy Amethyst and just freakin’ launching her at the Red Eye like a dodgeball. Followed, of course, by Amethyst’s anticlimactic plunge into the ocean, and her cheerful “I’m alright!”

This episode isn’t necessarily a favorite of mine; despite being ripe for analysis, the interesting stuff is mostly below the surface. As a result, it’s not the best episode to convince new viewers to keep watching, as the emotional engagement has yet to really arrive. But it’s still a rollicking good time with plenty of material to chew on, and it’s integral enough to the series that it does not warrant a SKIP.

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Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #1: “Gem Glow”

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Hello! Welcome to Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide, a series of essays where I plan to go through every single episode of Steven Universe, one of the best shows on television, and look at each one from a critical perspective. I love Steven Universe a lot, so much so that I recently started showing it to my new roommate who had never seen it. Rewatching the series from the beginning has been fascinating to say the least, and I’ve been having trouble finding the words to express to my roommate why I find it so fascinating. I’ve nearly always expressed myself better in writing, and I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of this show, so here we are. I cannot promise these will be regular, but they will always be passionate.

I intend for these to be critical — and like when I write theater criticism, I will not be shy about when I love something. But I would also like to take some unflinching looks at Steven Universe’s flaws, which no piece of art is free of. I’d also like to take a look at the show’s tremendous social impact — SU is arguably the most progressive TV show of all time, and I’d like to celebrate that. At the same time, as it bravely forages into untrod territory in terms of representation, it understandably makes some missteps along the way, which we will also be covering as we go along.

I will also be writing these without spoilers, so that you can read them as you watch the series for the first time. I will occasionally discuss foreshadowing, but I will try my best to avoid context as much as possible when that happens.

For now, let’s start with Season 1, Episode 1, “Gem Glow.”

Synopsis

We zoom in on a lazy beach town, and then into the eating establishment The Big Donut. Our story begins in media res, as a young boy in a pink shirt named Steven discovers that his favorite dessert, Cookie Cat, has been discontinued, and is justifiably heartbroken. The two teenage employees on duty are Lars and Sadie. Lars makes fun of Steven and points out Steven’s “magic bellybutton,” and Steven reveals for the first time the round, pink gem where his navel should be. Sadie is more empathetic, and lets Steven take the Cookie-Cat-branded mini-freezer home.

Steven walks home to his residence, a cozy beachside house which seems to be embedded in the front of an ancient, mysterious temple in the shape of a large, many-limbed woman. Inside, he stumbles upon his three guardians; Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet. They are fighting several green-ish, insectoid monsters, called “centipeetles.” As the three gems defeat the centipeetles, Steven discovers that they (the gems, not the centipeetles) have bought a bunch of Cookie Cat desserts and stored them in the freezer, making him understandably overjoyed. Upon eating one, Steven’s gem glows pink, sparking excitement, but the glow soon fades. 

Steven is saddened, and asks the gems to teach him how to summon a weapon from his gem. Each of the trio has a short session with him, attempting to explain how to do so with their unique perspectives and personalities, and each summons a weapon from her respective gem. Pearl’s gem is on her forehead; she summons a spear. Amethyst’s gem is on her chest (one could argue, near her heart); she summons a whip. Garnet has two gems, one on each palm, and summons gauntlets.

After some false starts, Steven finally manages to summon his weapon, a shield, while eating a Cookie Cat. This leads him to the conclusion that he can only summon his shield if he eats ice cream. Therefore, when the mother centipeetle attacks the house, Steven charges into battle armed with nothing but a freezer full of Cookie Cats, with predictably disastrous results. Thankfully, Steven is nonetheless able to help the gems subdue and defeat the centipeetle, which turns into a small green sphere. Garnet “bubbles” the sphere, and the gems comfort Steven, assuring him he’ll get better at summoning his weapon someday.

Analysis

One of the things I enjoy most about Steven Universe is the way that, over the course of the surprisingly long first season, it slowly reveals tidbits of information to the audience. This makes the worldbuilding feel natural and grounds the story in Steven’s perspective. “Gem Glow” has an outwardly goofy and childlike tone, like many early episodes, which can turn off prospective adult viewers and indeed turned me off a little on my first time through the series. Overall, it’s more interesting to re-watch than watch, given that it contains some lovely subtle foreshadowing of future reveals. Without spoilers:

LARS: Tough bits, man. Nobody buys [Cookie Cats] anymore. Guess they couldn’t compete with Lion Lickers.

STEVEN: Not Lion Lickers! Nobody likes them!

 

STEVEN: *rapping the Cookie Cat commercial song* He’s a frozen treat with an all new taste! / And he came to this planet from outer space! / A refugee from an interstellar war! / And now he’s at your local grocery store!

But beyond that, this episode immediately establishes some interesting paradigms.

First, that Steven lives not with his biological parents, but with three seemingly non-human warrior ladies who live in a magic temple and battle monsters on the regular. The fact that they are seemingly all co-parenting him suggests that, even if the Crystal Gems are not yet explicitly queer, there is certainly some queer coding going on.

Next, that Steven seems to have perhaps an unhealthy relationship with food; he develops an extreme emotional attachment to a dessert, and when he suspects the dessert is the key to his magic power, he force-feeds himself a great deal of it, to comedic effect. As a fellow dessert addict with unhealthy habits around food myself, I can certainly empathize. Where it gets troubling is how the episode portrays Steven’s weight. Several visual gags are based around Steven’s ample stomach surrounding his gem, and basing the plot of the first episode directly around sugary food and Steven’s overconsumption seems just a tad fat-phobic, especially as the joke seems to be at Steven’s expense. This contributes to the misconception that fat people have inherently worse food habits than thinner people, which is not only untrue and unsubstantiated, but perpetuates harmful prejudices. Now, if you’ve watched the series, you know that I will eventually have to revisit this particular criticism, as the portrayal of different body types on Steven Universe goes through many different and thoughtful iterations; we’re definitely going to come back to this point.

Lastly, more so than in the non-canon series pilot, “Gem Glow” gives us a small glimpse at the personalities of each of our three main Gem characters. Pearl is graceful, precise, affectionate, articulate, and exudes Mom Energy. Amethyst is more down-to-Earth; she is the only gem we see in a human environment, namely the Big Donut. We also see her messily eating a donut while there, indicating that like Steven she enjoys the earthly pleasure of eating — and her “chill out” attitude towards weapon-summoning establishes her as a more Cool Big Sister to Steven than a parental figure. Garnet, meanwhile, is powerful and inscrutable, and though she speaks affectionately to Steven, it’s clear he finds her just a little intimidating. Importantly, none of the Gems’ personalities are fully formed yet. We are seeing them as Steven currently sees them, and as many of us see our parents when we are young; as powerful, awesome, otherworldly beings.

The final point concerns the actual mechanism by which Steven summons his shield, which is emotion. Although it goes unmentioned, Steven’s gem only glows in this episode when he is happy. The first time, it is because he is relieved at getting his favorite dessert back — and the second time, when the shield appears, it is because the gems are comforting him and giving him encouragement. That both moments occur during ice cream consumption is incidental. The fact that Steven’s powers are tied to his emotions is incredibly important, but we can’t talk about it much yet.

Conclusion

Overall, I think it’s safe to say that kids might enjoy this particular episode more than adults might. One of the fascinating things about Season 1 is how it starts off as a bog-standard adventure show for kids, and then slowly strips away layers to get at complicated adult issues. As such, seeing as I am writing these guides mostly for adults, many early episodes will garner a SKIP stamp from me, indicating that if you are trying to get to the really good, meaty material, you might want to skip this one. But while I don’t find “Gem Glow” particularly engaging on an emotional level, I don’t think it merits a SKIP given all the important groundwork it lays. And I think that starting on a later episode would be a bit disorienting. I like “Gem Glow,” but I also think it’s more necessary than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.

Uncategorized

Thoughts on the Steven Universe Finale

Contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Season 5 Episode 29 of Steven Universe, “Change Your Mind.” And probably all of Steven Universe before that, so, you know. Avoid this if you don’t wanna hear any of that.

Okay, so we all knew that Steven was going to befriend White Diamond in the end, right? Because that’s how Steven defeats all his enemies. He befriends them, encourages them to think about their lives more healthily, etc. The show is essentially Pokemon if it were about collecting aunts. We know this.

But here’s the thing; the appeal of White Diamond in “Legs From Here To Homeworld” — the thing that was so delightfully terrifying about her — was that she was distant. Above. Deity-like, both in her appearance/demeanor and her disinterest in mortal affairs. To her, the entire war for Earth? Pink/Rose/Steven’s epic emotional journey? The entire scope of the series so far, plus all the backstory and mythology? She describes it as Pink’s “little game,” and hopes that she got it out of her system.

She is to the other Diamonds as the Diamonds are to regular gems, as gems are to humans, as humans are to ants. That’s how far removed she is. That’s why that episode got me so excited, because I was looking forward to seeing HOW Steven would win her over. I knew that he would, of course, but I knew it would be his biggest, hardest task yet.

But then he solved it in one episode — and while I unabashedly loved every second of it, it felt super rushed and just a little bit contrived. And this was a NEW and UNPLEASANT feeling for me because. . . I don’t think I’ve ever had a criticism of Steven Universe before? Yeah, I’m trying to think of one, and I’m coming up empty. Weird. But anyway.

What if this episode. . . what if this episode were exactly the same, but different? What if the Crystal Gems lost the battle with White?

Let’s start at the beginning. I buy that Blue Diamond would help Steven and Connie escape with relatively little convincing; she’s been shown to have the most affection for Pink, and that scene was super good. I have a harder time buying that they’d get Yellow on board so quickly, though, after only a brief fight. What if that fight drove the wedge between Blue and Yellow even further, and it wasn’t fixed by the end?

(Sidenote, but Yellow’s quick redemption was kind of insulting — since we’ve met Pink, the Diamonds have been a metaphor for an abusive family, and suggesting that you can solve such deeply embedded issues after one brief conversation? Yeah, not a great look. It speaks to the problem with the episode at large, but hang on, I’m getting to that.)

So Blue and Stevonnie could briefly overpower Yellow and start to escape. But soon they run into White Pearl and other Gem forces. From then on, the big fight scene could proceed much as it did in the episode, with all the delightful new fusions, with the epic Spaceship Combo Robot, and Obsidian climbing her way into White’s head. THAT WAS AWESOME.

Then, we have Steven’s awesome confrontation with White, and her creepy puppeteering of the Crystal Gems (all AWESOME), which culminates in the horrifying act of White removing Steven’s gem. This was a CHILLING moment, and I had no idea what was gonna happen next.

And what happened right after that was very fitting. A weakened, horrified human Steven on one side — and then on the other side, out of his gem? We see the shape of Pink Diamond, and then Rose, and then. . . someone new. Someone who looks exactly like Steven, but acts distinctly unhuman. Who is calm, collected, mysterious, utterly confident, and just a little scary. I liked this — it was a striking and bold and affecting moment, and it was a clear symbol that the Diamonds are never going to get their perfect Pink back. She’s changed. She has grown beyond them.

But what if Steven didn’t fuse with his Gem self? What if GemSteven shouted at Steven and Connie to make their escape while he fought off White Diamond, just before injuring her just enough to loosen her control over the Gems? Including, of course, White’s Pearl, who of course is revealed to be Pink’s original Pearl.

(Sidenote, but I love the way this is handled in the episode, hinting at PinkPearl’s tragic backstory rather than telling us outright.)

So Steven, Connie, the Crystal Gems, and PinkPearl are all running to get to the Leg Ship. As they go, they run into Yellow Diamond and her forces — and just like when it seems all hope is lost, Bismuth, Lapis, and Peridot arrive in the fixed arm ship! And they make an exciting escape back to Earth, with half of Homeworld on their tail, and it’s all great.

Here’s what I like about my version; Steven doesn’t have his gem. He is weakened, barely able to walk, and he can’t summon his shield anymore. He feels utterly defeated, and hates having to rely solely on his friends to bail him out. It’s a similar feeling to the one that Korra has at the end of Season 3 of her show. He has to reckon what it’s like to be a regular human. You could base several episodes around this feeling, back in Beach City.

Furthermore, we now have PinkPearl as part of the gang. Here’s a Pearl who doesn’t have the last six thousand years of her memory, who is delighted to be reunited with Pink, but distraught and confused as to the circumstances. That’s fascinating; gimme an episode or two about that. Plus, more Deedee Magno Hall is always great.

AND THEN GET THIS! Meanwhile, back on Homeworld, GemSteven stops battling White Diamond as soon as the Gems escape, and flies off into space. We don’t know where he went or what he’s doing, which adds to his mystery.

Meanwhile, White Diamond still develops a flaw. She starts to turn pink around the eyes and loses her control powers, just like she did in the episode — but in my version, she doesn’t realize it at first. And when she does realize, she doesn’t tell anyone. Instead of Steven straight-up TELLING White Diamond that her way of life is unsustainable and having her immediately come around. . . why not have her figure this out for herself? That way, we see her facade of godhood gradually degrade and crack as she struggles to maintain it.

Yellow is still allied with White, and angry with Blue for helping Pink escape. On White’s orders, Yellow imprisons Blue in the very same tower that Pink was put in so many times before. You could have SEVERAL GODDAMN AMAZING SCENES between the two of them. Yellow visiting Blue in her cell, berating her for her insanity. Blue casting withering looks at her. Blue immediately draws a parallel between what they both did to Pink and what Yellow is doing now — and it is this that makes Yellow start to doubt White Diamond’s worldview, rather than a quick conversation on a bridge.

See what I mean about how the episode hit all the correct emotional beats, but too fast? Abuse, dysfunction, and totalitarian power structures cannot be undone in 45 minutes, no matter how hard you try. In real life, those things are fucking difficult to disassemble and process. That takes your entire life, and lots of therapy. I want to see some reflection of that, you know? (And the frustrating thing is, the show usually acknowledges this really well!)

Back on Earth, Steven could have some small-scale adventures as a full human, where he learns how to deal. And he gets to a point where he’s. . . okay. He’s still devastated, but he’s healing. (ALSO I WANT AN EPISODE WITH HIM AND THE TWO PEARLS ON AN ADVENTURE, GIVE ME THIS NOW PLEASE.)

And at some dramatically appropriate moment, GemSteven arrives on Earth from outer space. He doesn’t speak, but they look at each other for a long moment. HumanSteven has gained an understanding of GemSteven in his absence. Only then do they fuse. Steven gets his power back, and he cherishes it all the more.

And then he could go back to Homeworld, where things are rapidly degrading. Blue is in jail. Yellow is getting even more angry and reclusive. White is slowly losing control and coherence. Meanwhile, the Gem populous is in uproar. They want to launch another attack on Earth, but no orders are coming from above.

And now Steven can have those tough conversations with Yellow, and with White. And now it makes much more sense that they would listen to him, because they’ve seen for themselves that he’s right. THEN AND ONLY THEN are they convinced to come back to Earth and heal the corrupted gems.

And even then, don’t rush it. Now you have a bunch of healthy, sentient Gems on Earth who, like PinkPearl, can’t remember the last six thousand years. Do they stay? Do they go? How do you talk to all of them? If they’re leaving, what’s the evacuation plan? If they’re staying, how do they coexist with humans? I assume some of this will be covered in the movie, but I’m not making any bets.

AAAAAAAANYWAY. This turned into a rant. But wouldn’t that have been more satisfying? They’ve got another season, right? Plus a movie. So why not USE it? Why wrap things up that quickly and neatly? Like, I’m not even sure what can happen in the movie that’ll be satisfying. They have literally saved all the corrupted gems, and wrapped up the entire conflict with the diamonds. Christ, even Jasper and Amethyst got a quick reconciliation scene. Every loose end has been tied up.

That being said, this show is still the best thing that has ever happened, quite possibly in the history of anything ever, and I will defend Steven Universe with my life, my soul, my heart, my body, the kitchen sink, and anything I happen to have in my fridge.

TLDR: I agree with every storytelling beat of the finale, but it disappointed me because it resolved everything too quickly. What we saw should have all happened over a season or a movie, not in one hour-long episode.