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Robot Olympics and lesson learning on an excellent Steven Universe

Illustration for article titled Robot Olympics and lesson learning on an excellent iSteven Universe /i
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Okay, after that cliffhanger last week, now we’re into the thick of the Peridot-Gems teamup to prevent the Cluster from destroying the world, right? Not quite, because… we still have… a robot fight to get through!

But before that (we’ll get there), we have to start with Peridot and Steven’s science lesson the science lesson! Peridot explains roughly the same things we already knew about the Cluster, except that this time Steven acts as the Cluster (complete with a puppet and absolutely priceless noises) to demonstrate the high stakes to the Gems. As much as this is just exposition, it’s also a smart move, because we know the Earth isn’t going to be destroyed, so the show might as well make some jokes about the prospect before we get in to the serious stuff.


This is, truly, a magnificent Steven episode. Even after he loses his glorious TV (Peridot: “There’s a remote chance something useful could be inside this primitive image cube.”), Steven rebounds in style and brings his characteristic wonder and joy to the attempt to save the world. Everything from spinning on the chair to his more rectangular design when he’s pretending to be a robot to his use of the Cluster puppet at the end of the episode is beautifully animated and drawn by storyboard team Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu. Steven also gets to be the audience surrogate when he basically pitches the concept for the episode. “A giant robo race… with prizes.”

And, yes, there is indeed a competition between robots designed by Peridot and Pearl to determine who will lead the effort to build a giant drill thing-y in order to get to the Cluster at the center of the Earth, or something. It’s a testament to the thought that goes into Steven Universe that the design of the robots says something about their creators. Peridot’s is, indeed, a “vision of ultimate power.” It’s small but sturdy, and it clearly has claws that pack a wallop (and also rockets come out of its ass). Pearl values grace, aesthetic perfection, and flexibility in battle (these might be things we already knew, but it’s still fun to see how closely Pearl relates to the concepts of dance and battle).


So the montage here, showing the ways in which each robot is highly effective and competent but also limited, is basically an entire “opposite people with more in common than they expect become roommates” sitcom packed into just a couple of minutes, like when Peridot’s robot attempts ballet or Pearl realizes she can’t crush things. It’s about synthesis and collaboration (and also really well-done visual jokes). The outcome—a tie—is perhaps inevitable, given that Steven Universe probably wouldn’t be so cruel as to confirm Peridot’s bias against Pearl or allow Pearl to wholeheartedly gloat over her victory. Except that they fight, and, after a quick split-screen, Peridot beats Pearl, briefly—but it doesn’t matter. Peridot crows (“Praise me! Praise me!”), but the other Gems all back Pearl unconditionally, and there’s nothing to suggest that she’s any less competent.

The real arc of the episode is, of course, about Peridot. We already knew that Pearls had some sort of subservient function (though I suppose not explicitly to this extent, where they’re revealed to be essentially Gem protocol droids), and we already knew that Pearl had put in the work to develop technical and battle skills and make herself into a valuable Gem. “I am a natural technician and a certified kindergartner,” Peridot claims, relying on her birth/class/background/[insert other fact about someone that is inborn and ostensibly irrelevant to their value as a person] for her authority over Pearl when it comes to building the robot.


Peridot can’t comprehend the possibility of a Gem working to do something outside their assigned or natural function, which is a pretty good analogue for the way this kind of thing plays out in the real world—one of the better uses of a “lesson” in Steven Universe in the while (the last really excellent one I can remember off the top of my head is way back in “Love Letters,” because that was beautiful).

Still, maybe the best thing about this episode is that Amethyst and Garnet just go with the whole Robot Olympics concept, instead of trying to point out that, like, the Cluster could emerge at any moment and destroy the Earth. It’s a robot fight! (Also, the wordless moment during the competition when Garnet looks at a piece of popcorn, smiles, and decides not to eat it is sublime.) I’m certainly excited for Amethyst and Garnet to get their own Zuko-style episodes bonding with Peridot, though they’ll have a hard time topping this one.


Stray observations:

  • Here’s a full list of the events we see in the Robot Olympics, along with winners: Balance (Pearl), Crushing (Peridot), Ballet (Pearl), Jumping (Peridot), Speed (Tree), Jumping Jacks, Tug-Of-War, Rock Paper Scissors, Blowing Up Stuff, Painting (Subjective), Truck Toss (Tie), and Fight (Peridot).
  • Peridot on the function of Pearls: “They’re for standing around and looking nice and, uh, holding your stuff for you. Right?”
  • The ”art is subjective” joke is incredible and perfect Smart Steven.
  • “But I won! What about the rules?” “Welcome to Earth.”
  • “Stop! Giant robots shouldn’t fight!”

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