It would be really tough to pull off a full-on sequel to “Sworn To The Sword,” which is maybe my favorite episode of Steven Universe, period. Thankfully, “Gem Hunt” doesn’t really try, instead focusing on the new iteration of Steven, Connie, and Pearl’s group dynamic as they take Connie out on her first mission. The groundwork laid in “Sworn To The Sword” is there (Pearl quotes “Do It For Him” over their walkie-talkies), but it’s mostly in the background of a fun, propulsive outing. They’re not the only team that benefits from familiarity—Colin Howard and Jeff Liu’s second episode is an immense improvement over “Kiki‘s Pizza Delivery Service,” immensely, deftly navigating the low-key humor and sweetness that characterizes Steven-Connie episodes, the slight tension of the Gem monsters, and the off-kilter comedy of one of the best Pearl episodes in some time.

Here, Pearl returns to her season one role as a mostly detached authority figure, but Howard and Liu use our newfound familiarity with her neuroses and insecurities to turn her into a much funnier character. (I find most of seasons two and three’s Pearl humor to be fine, but a little on the broad side.) She’s great here, acting partly as the voice of reason and partly as an irritating teacher, confident in the success of their mission but not above micro-managing her pupils. Pearl arrogantly assumes Connie’s combat competence (of course, she is Pearl’s pupil), makes a few jokes about being the kids’ favorite Gem, and finally shouts into the walkie-talkie loud enough to rouse the ire of the Gem monster, mostly because no one is responding to her. (Ugh, mom! I’m trying to hunt corrupted Gems here, just go away!) But it’s her charge who’s the real highlight of “Gem Hunt.”

It’s been a long time since we had a good Connie episode (“Beach City Drift” is great, but it’s more of a Stevonnie episode). This is a big deal for her, and a very long time coming. So of course Steven takes a bunch of ridiculous photos in different poses, and Connie approaches the mission directly and with a total seriousness that feels consciously beyond her years. (Unfortunately, Connie isn’t old enough to know that you never, ever split up on a mission.) All of the details of how Connie and Steven approach the mission are note-perfect, from Connie’s used copy of How To Survive: The Punishment Of Nature to the quick cut to them giddily eating their rations to the way she pulls Steven out of a snow bank. (At least one of them has to be whimsical!)

Connie is hyper-competent here (especially when she brews vitamin C tea from pine needles), but she’s also afraid, and freezes a bit faced with a combat situation. Connie’s anxiety, and the extent to which she feels like she’s let down Pearl, is a nice little character beat, especially because “Gem Hunt” doesn’t try to suggest she’s gotten over it—instead, she was just setting high standards for herself. And Pearl’s maternal comic distance proves useful to the episode’s conclusion, when the Gem reminds Connie that her entire directive for the mission was just letting Pearl know when they found the monster. We might be used to more high-stakes action, but this is Connie’s first time in a combat situation (other than the Gem mutants), and she had to start somewhere. I’d say she did a pretty good job under pressure—wouldn’t you?

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Connie’s performance is even more impressive considering what happens during the mission. Not only are there two Gem monsters in the woods, there are also humanoid footprints intermingled with the paws, which confuses the whole team. There’s a bit of a fake-out here when Steven thinks the monster might be shifting back and forth between its corrupted and original Gem forms. This is a plausible theory, especially coming so soon after “Monster Reunion,” but Steven talks to the monster in vain. (A sad moment, but the kind of thing that should probably happen more often—otherwise, sweet-talking will just become Steven’s most overloaded power.) It turns out to be a lot more sinister: Jasper is back. (Already!)

Two appearances in just a couple of episodes suggest that, rather than the Ruby ship or Yellow Diamond or anything else happening on Home World, Jasper is stepping up to be the show’s recurring antagonist, the way Peridot was at the beginning of season two. Whether this means she’ll eventually be similarly redeemed is open for debate—certainly, it makes sense as a theory given the show’s general attitude toward “villains,” as well as stuff like this piece of art from Comic-Con. (I’d probably prefer she wasn’t redeemed, mostly because people other than Kevin can just be incompatible with our heroes/total dicks, but we’ll see.) Thankfully, she only shows up for a brief moment, appearing more as an evil punctuation mark than as a full character, which is frankly more of what Jasper is at the moment anyway.

What does Jasper want with the corrupted Gems? The obvious answer is that she’s creating some sort of monstrous fusion shell for herself, but that might be a bit too dark even for this show. If we go that way, though, at least Steven will be there with his camera. (Or shield, or whatever.) The two shots bookending Steven taking this photograph (first, Steven quickly and somewhat confusedly taking the photo, then the shot of Steven looking at the photo of Jasper smirking with the Gems) capture the thin line the show is going to be walking with this material—one side risks making Jasper’s malice too comical, the other veers into intense melodrama and might be too bleak for Steven Universe. If “Alone At Sea” doesn’t quite manage to walk that line with the show’s characteristic deftness (I love the episode, but I’m still not sure it does), will Jasper’s material going forward? We’ll find out… together.

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Stray observations:

  • Steven has the most important thoughts before missions: “I brought board games in case we get bored.”
  • Steven’s most important photo direction: “Now, do one where the joke’s not that funny, but it’s more like a joke that makes you… think.”
  • The one false Connie note in this episode is her apparent focus on the impending end of human civilization, because of things we did to ourselves: “Peak oil, Steven! How do we handle terminal decline without alternate energy sources?” Grace Rolek’s line delivery is funny, but it feels more like it was written for adults than something Connie would say organically. (The best jokes are, somehow, both!)
  • Steven trying to figure out what the monster is scared of: “What if it’s running… from itself?”
  • We’re back for the third week of the Steven Nuke! Don’t tell Garnet.

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