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I Can’t Find the Big Dipper

I can’t find the Big Dipper anymore.

I’ve begun to take long walks very late at night. I do this because I can, and because I no longer have a boss who cares when I get up in the morning. I take long walks because I am free, freer than most, and because no one tells you the dark side of that. There can be terrible freedom.

It is also for this reason that I no longer pay attention to space, or astronomy, or Mars rovers. It only reminds me of everything I’ve lost.

But, you know what they say: You can take the girl out of the planetarium, but some knots do not easily unwind. And what, are the stars going to gaze at themselves? I’m taking the long walks regardless; I may as well look around, make sure the wheel still spins.

At the moment, depending on the time, Jupiter and Saturn are right next to each other on the southeastern horizon. And if I’m out close to midnight, Mars is high and bright and clear, shining an austere copper. The moon tonight is an unsure gibbous moon in the west, fading, slowly backing down and away from its full height.

Chicago is, of course, light-polluted as hell. But this far north, you can usually find your way around the biggest and brightest, and I’ve always been able to find the Big Dipper. You can find it too, probably. That’s the beauty of the Big Dipper, really – that anyone can find it, even and especially those who don’t know shit about stars.

But I’m looking. And looking. And I don’t see it.

I know it must be in the north; it’s literally always in the north. I know it must be low on the horizon because we are in autumn. And I know that it must be right across from Cassiopeia, which I can see ever so faintly, right at the sky’s zenith, the faint white W blinking candidly at me. I look and look and look, growing rushed and unnerved as I draw more and more lines between stars that refuse to cohere into the object of my search. Am I crazy? Have I gone bizarrely, selectively blind? Have I stepped into the Berenstein universe, where the Big Dipper never was? It might be light pollution of course, but I could always find it before! Have the northern suburbs all agreed to switch on their directional lamps, their stage lights, their spotlights and flashlights and stadium lights, and point them skyward just to gall me?

In every planetarium show, the Big Dipper is the first shape you discuss. It is the starting point, the orchestra’s tuning note, the A at the beginning of the alphabet. To find Boötes, the herdsman, you must follow the arc of the Dipper’s handle, and arc all the way down to Arcturus. To find Leo the lion, you must imagine the Dipper’s bowl as a casserole dish; you must then poke a hole in the bottom and imagine the tomato sauce drip, drip, dripping down onto Leo’s back, and Leo does not like this one bit because deep in his heart he’s just a big old cat. If you want to point yourself north, you must go to the front of the bowl and follow Merak and Dubhe up, up up up to the middling, twinkling Polaris, the axis on which the whole great wheel turns.

The Big Dipper is the light, the hope, the drinking gourd. And it’s gone. It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s fucking gone.

Or at least, I cannot see it.

Or at most, it has been obscured from me.

Each day I wake up, thinking that I have finally let go of any illusion of stability. And each day, what little ground I didn’t know I still had is ripped out from under me, and I am tumbling, tumbling. The Big Dipper is gone, and what can we do about it? Is there a senator I can call? Is this how I am to spend my evening walks? Ambling aimlessly in wide amorphous loops? Connecting dots that aren’t there? Searching ceaselessly for a semblance of sensation in a sopping, sloshing, sickening sea of senselessness?

The sky is still spinning, slowly, and steadily.

That must be something.

There must be meaning in that.

Polaris, that great axis, faint yet powerful, is still up there. I cannot see it either, but this does not cause me as much concern. As the only unmoving star, it does not need to shout as loudly to let its work be done.

There is wisdom in that, I think.

And there is wisdom in the cool autumn wind, and in the slowly reddening trees, and in the cool, wet grass that gives, ever so slightly, beneath my sneakers.

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On the Overemphasis of Hanukkah

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Disclaimer: There is no correct English spelling of “Channukah,” and I have made no attempt in this essay to find one. You have been warned.

My feelings about Hanukkah and its place in the “holiday season” are. . . complicated. 

I grew up in an extremely WASP-y and homogenous part of southern Maine. The crowd around me, however, was mostly pretty liberal — and so the small acts of anti-Semitism that I experienced, rather than being actively oppressive, were often broadly comedic. I never got a single “My pastor says Jews are going to hell,” but I did receive plenty of “Santa got me an XBOX and a dirt bike and three Bionicles for Christmas, and you should convert to Christianity so you can get presents too.”

One time in seventh grade (I don’t remember this story but my mom loves to tell it), my homeroom teacher approached my mother, asking whether I would mind if the class had a Christmas party. My mother responded that he should ask me directly, and told him to prepare for the possibility that I might, in fact, mind. And believe it or not, when my teacher ran into my mom again, he said “I asked him and he said he minded! What am I supposed to do now?”

At which point my mom said something along the lines of “Well, you could just not have a Christmas party.” Which then presumably caused my homeroom teacher to short-circuit. I do remember that we ended up having a Christmas party — not just in homeroom, but in Every. Single. Class. The people of Kennebunk, Maine loved a good Christmas party, and neither hell nor high water was going to stop them.

This was my first brush with the fact that many goyim (a word which here means non-Jews) are quite keen on making other cultures feel “included” in this Holiday Season, but are rarely receptive when you challenge the very notion of such a season.

On the one hand, reiterating this point feels like old hat, but lots of folks still seem not to know about this, so here I go: Hanukkah is one of the minor Jewish holidays. The reason it’s the most famous is simply because of its chronological proximity to that towering December titan, Christmas. Historically, it’s more akin to Independence Day than Christmas, and gift giving on Hanukkah was not a thing until the twentieth century. Against all odds, Hanukkah has been catapulted to notoriety, to the point where it’s seemingly the only Jewish holiday many goyim know about. This is less the case today, but when I was young in Kennebunk, I heard so much “Hannukah is the Jewish Christmas, right?” and saw so many nine-candled menorahs as generic symbols for Judaism that it honestly began to grate. Hannukah itself was never the problem — it’s a delightful holiday, and Lockman family Hanukkah parties absolutely slapped — but its dominance in the non-Jewish sphere made me resentful.

The overemphasis of Hanukkah has continued to this day, of course, just in more subtle ways, and often with the best of intentions. As a theatre critic, now is the time of year when I review shows like Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, or Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle — kid-friendly fare that is often steeped in Jewish history. And on the one hand, these shows are glowing celebrations of our culture; an inarguable social good. On the other hand. . . well, amidst a sea of December shows that are nearly all Christmas-themed, are shows like Herschel or Grace contributing to this widespread misconception, conflating Hanukkah with Judaism? Reducing an entire culture to one holiday? I have never seen a children’s show about Passover, or Purim, or Sukkot, or Rosh Hashanah. 

I don’t really have an answer for you. I guess I’d like more shows about Sukkot (objectively the BEST HOLIDAY, you can’t change my mind), but in the end, what I really want is less Christmas. Nothing makes me feel more like the token Jew than staring at the spreadsheet of Chicago shows I could review in December, and seeing a slew of Christmas media — but look! There’s the one Hanukkah show, just for me! Guess I’ll take that one! (I’ve reviewed Christmas shows in the past, but I’ve disliked most of them for obvious reasons that are usually unrelated to the production, and I’ve decided that it just isn’t fair to the Christmas show.)

A similar feeling comes over me when I see Christmas displays in lobbies of buildings, festooned with trees and baubles and tinsel — and then there’s a cute little electric menorah in the corner. Honestly, when this happens, I feel condescended to. My gut reaction to such a display is twofold:

  1. Jeez, can you tone it down a little?
  2. Please leave me out of this.

And therein lies the problem! In my experience, goyim do not want to be told to tone it down. Christmas is the dominating force, and they’re not gonna back down one bit — but they still want to be nice to you! And if they leave you out of it, how can they feel like they’re being nice?

It’s occurred to me that I’m describing Christmas almost like an invading army. And honestly? For me and a few Jews I’ve talked to, that’s often what it feels like. If there was a War on Christmas, we have long since lost it. December is an occupied country, and the only way to survive in it is to keep your head down, not make too many waves, and pray for January.

And here’s the thing: describing this feeling? Especially to my well-meaning goyishe friends who love Christmas but want to support me anyway? It sucks. It feels like by critiquing the larger phenomenon, I’m trying to poo-poo their individual Christmas traditions, when that’s the last thing I want to do. Things like going home to see your family, creating a spirit of generosity and gift-giving, and celebrating warmth, togetherness, and light in the darkest, coldest time of the year? Those things are objectively wonderful. 

I’ve talked a lot in this essay about “Christmas” and “the goyim” as a large, powerful group — and I want to be careful not to generalize. I hope this doesn’t feel like I’m attacking any individual. But in encountering these things over and over and over again, my frustration with the season has built up, and this is my attempt to describe the shape of that frustration. In all likeliness, I won’t start to hate you specifically if you think, feel, or say anything I’ve described above! It’s the cumulative effect that takes its toll. I’m not asking you to stop loving the things you love about Christmas. I am asking you to take a step back, look at it from the outside, and try to gauge how your culture is affecting the world as a whole. It’s worth doing, especially in an era when anti-Semitic violence is on the rise in America, and religious persecution in general is on the rise all over the world.

***

I have a confession to make. Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that I regularly celebrate.

It feels almost hypocritical to admit that, after railing against its overemphasis for a thousand words. But for a broke millennial such as myself — who’s not quite comfortable enough in their faith to go looking for a congregation — it’s simply the most convenient holiday. Passover requires a big, complicated dinner with lots of room and preparation. Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur involve going to a synagogue. And Sukkot gets its label as the best holiday because it’s the only one that involves building a RAD FORT — and with my small apartment and smaller budget, I just don’t have the space or resources for a RAD FORT.

Hanukkah is comparatively easy. If you can afford a $10 menorah from Target, as well as a $1 box of candles (and if you want a traditional meal in a hurry, a $2.50 box of frozen latkes from Trader Joe’s and a $2 bottle of applesauce) you can afford to have a cheap, easy Hanukkah. You can light the candles and say the blessing by yourself; the party has always been optional. And in a blasphemous twist, it’s the most Instagrammable holiday as well. The simplicity and beauty of the burning candles translates well to social media. 

I can rant all night about how Hanukkah’s importance is inflated and Christmas is ruining everything. But I’m a part of the system like everyone else. And I’m not at all interested in berating myself for that.

***

So. What do we do? How can we move forward from this?

I’m not sure. I’m talking about a small issue here, but of course nothing is as separate as we think. There are larger struggles at play here. 

This morning, I tweeted a dumb joke: “I don’t believe in Christmas. I don’t think it’s real.” And all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I seem to have attracted the attention of Twitter Nazis! Yay! Now, my mentions are full of things like “Happy Holocaust, Schlomo,” and “Say hi to Satan!” I have made liberal use of the block button today, my friends, but they keep popping up.

Should I delete the tweet? Make my Twitter private? That might make them go away for now, but it’d almost feel like an admission of defeat. 

And furthermore, what do I do with the biting anger I’m feeling now? Do I tweet about it? Again, that’d feel like letting them win; telling them they’d got to me. 

This is not metaphor; this is actually happening. And yet, I can think of no better metaphor for the state of the nation right now. How do you comport yourself with dignity when dignity — or at least the illusion of it — went out the window long ago?

Lastly, I know that for many folks, this is a time of reflection and reset. And that is something I have always liked about this particular week; how most of the world just shuts down for a few days, nobody goes to work, nothing seems real, and we all take a few moments of quiet. 

Let’s try to sit in that quiet this week. And maybe, when we open our eyes, there’ll be some concrete solutions ahead of us. Fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.

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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

Laser_Light_Cannon_107

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.