Whew, this one is a lot. “Alone At Sea” is the densest episode of Steven Universe in a long time, flitting between lowkey humor as Steven takes a boat trip with Lapis and Greg, builds on a consistent sense of melancholy and impending dread, then introduces outright threat and the emotional complexity and grimness of an abusive relationship, all within a single episode. “Alone At Sea” doesn’t strain against its run time so much as it tries to punch through it the way Lapis punches through the S.S. Li’l Lappy. The storyboard team—composed of Hilary Florido, Kat Morris, and Rebecca Sugar herself—does a really excellent job with all of these parts, but maybe doesn’t quite nail all of the transitions, especially at the end. But let’s start with what really works.
I know some of you have been frustrated with the lower-key episodes in Beach City, but the boat trip is maybe the Nuke’s sweetest, best-observed material in this vein. The details are all exactly on point, from Steven and Greg’s love of combo dad-nautical humor (“What crackers go with caviar?” “Water crackers.”) to everyone being the first mate “so there’s no pressure” to the way Tom Scharpling says, “Let’s set a course for fun!” The Greg and Lapis pairing in particular is phenomenal, since they’re perhaps even closer to full opposites in the cast than Lapis and Peridot—Greg is gross, or at least doesn’t really care about hygiene, and is an incredibly expressive, loving person, while Lapis is… basically the opposite of those things. She refuses to take his hand, and when he offers her the captain’s hat, Jennifer Paz evokes all sorts of casual burns when she says, “Thanks, but I’m not putting that on my body.”
It helps that all of the silliness has a point: Steven is trying to get Lapis accustomed to the ocean again. She’s understandably hesitant about approaching it again after everything she’s been through, but as Steven eventually tells her, “Water is a part of who you are. You can’t let one bad experience take that away from you.” As he has been for most of these episodes, Steven is decisively acting on his own good intentions, but he’s a lot more caring and understanding here, closer to “Mr. Greg” than “The New Lars.” It seems to be working, too—Lapis finds at least enough joy in nature that, without thinking, she takes a globe of water out of the ocean so Steven and Greg can go fishing, in a really beautiful shot that manages to evoke a sense of awe in a world full of magical alien Gems. (Also, she and Steven have fun playing with the boat’s horn.) Her spontaneity here is important, since it suggests that she’s willing to simply act without becoming paralyzed or caged up in her own head anymore—freed from doubt.
Then, the storm. When the engine breaks down, Steven and Lapis have a conversation that cuts, rather bluntly, to the core of Lapis’ guilt. It’s not just that she hated being part of Malachite—some part of Lapis wants to be fused with Jasper again. There isn’t much to parse why she feels this way, but there are a lot of possibilities: maybe she doesn’t feel like she deserves anything better (certainly plausible), maybe her life had more of a sense of purpose when it was completely devoted to keeping Jasper in check (true), maybe it was just nice to have someone there, even if it was a hateful and cruel Gem. (Later, Lapis admits she sadistically liked keeping Jasper chained, though she doesn’t say what about it she liked.) I’m not sure what it would be like to watch this as a child, but it’s good to see a kid’s show depicting these kinds of emotions—they might not be healthy, but they’re there, and it’s better to see people dealing with them than to pretend no one ever has this kind of Stockholm’s Syndrome. But Steven doesn’t really get the time to delve into Lapis’ feelings because, conveniently, Jasper shows up.
In the interest of relative transparency, this is probably the hardest sequence on the show for me to think through since “Keystone Motel,” and my issues are, broadly speaking, similar. I get what Steven Universe is trying to do, positing Lapis and Jasper as having been in an abusive relationship. (Those parallels have been around since, essentially, the moment they fused.) But Jasper’s new turn as a monstrous ex trying to get back together comes just the slightest bit out of left field, particularly when some of her dialogue is so on the nose. (I cringed a bit when she said she’d changed—that Lapis had changed her—and not entirely for positive reasons.)
What’s so great about a lot of the more emotionally charged Steven Universe episodes is the way the characters naturally find themselves in positions that are recognizable to us, sitting at home—like Greg and Pearl’s heart to heart in “Mr. Greg” or Garnet’s offer to Peridot in “Log Date 7 15 2.” But the metaphor has to come from the characters organically, and in this case I’m not quite sure it does. Jasper’s appearance is just so sudden, and her confrontation with Lapis over so quickly.
Jasper has admitted she liked the power of fusion, but it’s hard for me to see that as necessitating the reformation of Malachite, rather than some other fusion—especially when they were so horrible to each other. There’s certainly overlap between the addiction narrative that implies and a story about exes getting out of an abusive relationship, but there might be a bit too much daylight in this version. Partly, this is because the show is, as always, from Steven’s perspective, so we’ve never really gotten to see what it was like for the two Gems, and some of the nuance of the conversation might be going above his head, and partly it’s because Jasper was too thinly drawn to have her acquire the emotional weight she should have in this conversation.
All of this, as well as the last few episodes she’s been in, adds up to a simple conclusion: there’s no real sense that Lapis might accept Jasper’s proposal, even for a second, which evaporates some tension from the scene and gives it a sense of false stakes. Still, even attempting to tackle this kind of emotional issue is extraordinarily impressive, and I have a hard time seriously complaining about ambition of this scope, especially when it’s surrounded by visuals like the globe of water or the way Steven is drawn to look smaller than usual in comparison to these other two Gems—he can be supportive, but he doesn’t really know what’s going on. (What’s really going on is that Jasper was a bit too thinly drawn for this turn to work fully.)
Kimberly Brooks does get some good lines in, in particular when she expresses something of the truth about Lapis: “I thought I was a brute, but you—you’re a monster.” The suggestion that Lapis’ guilt is over more than just her actions in “Mirror Gem” or her part in Malachite was a long time coming, and I’m excited to learn what she really did during the war. (Did anyone else get the impression she might have been Centipeetle’s commanding officer, or responsible in some way for the Diamond sanction?) The most important thing for Lapis’ character here is that, like Peridot, she’s committed enough to Steven to protect him from harm—when Jasper moves to kill Steven, Lapis punches her away. And letting Steven in gives Lapis the opportunity to begin moving past the trauma she endured as Malachite. She’s only at the point where she can start appreciating the natural beauty of the ocean from above, but it’s a start.
- “I may be rich, but buying a boat would be going a little… overboard.” Somehow, this is also a great Greg-Steven episode, even though they don’t interact quite as much as Steven and Lapis.
- From the moment Greg says “correction, we rented a boat,” you know the S.S. Misery—sorry, S.S. Li’l Lappy—isn’t making it back to shore.
- “Sometimes, it isn’t about the fish you keep, but the company you catch.”
- I really thought there was going to be a twinkle when Jasper flew off, or that Kimberly Brooks was going to get to say “Looks like Jasper’s blasting off again!”
- I’m definitely still working through my issues with the episode, but in my experience that usually means there’s a lot there, and that I’ll come to really appreciate it upon rewatch. What did you all think?