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“Beta”

“Bismuth” might have been the first double episode Steven Universe, but tonight’s episodes are much more of a standard TV two-parter, with one episode of setup for a climactic showdown. As in most such cases, the payoff is pretty good, but the setup is even better. “Beta” takes its time laying groundwork for Steven, Amethyst, and Peridot’s showdown with Jasper, but that’s okay, because Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke turn the bulk of the episode into an incredible showcase for Lapis and Peridot.

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We’ve spent some time with both Lapis and Peridot individually over the course of the past three weeks, but we haven’t gotten a chance to see their new living arrangements in the barn. It’s amazing. It turns out that Lapis and Peridot have become really good roommates, partly because Lapis has been infected with Peridot’s love of Camp Pining Hearts, which is constantly playing at the barn. Their energies balance each other out consistently, to great comedic effect—Lapis coolly refuses to fly Peridot, Steven, and Amethyst into the barn, but she also sweetly picks up a tambourine and helps Peridot play music and makes water come out of the toilets for one of their collaborative pieces. Because, oh yeah, they’ve turned the barn into an art gallery.

Peridot had a great idea: “What if we made music, but instead of sound, we used things?” Steven correctly points out that they have discovered art (it seems like Gem society has music and paintings to pay homage to the Diamonds, but less going on in the way of installations and performance pieces), but Lapis’ name for it is much better: meep morp. They have all kinds of morps, from Peridot’s toilet piece (commemorating when she lived in the bathroom) to Lapis’ hanging baseball gear, which reminds her of the time she played baseball. Lapis has also set up a bunch of monitors playing Percy from Camp Pining Hearts saying “I feel trapped” on a loop. Is that about how she spent thousands of years encased in a mirror, then another period of time stuck at the bottom of the ocean as Malachite? “No, I just really like that show.”

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Everything about their interaction is hilarious, from the obvious grave seriousness with which Peridot takes her hosting demands, to their eventual shouted conversation about Camp Pining Hearts before Peridot takes off with Steven and Amethyst. Also, Peridot attempts to use her metal powers to create a one-Gem band, only to have all of the instruments fall at once: “Welp, that’s as far as I’ve practiced that.” But Lapis picks up a tambourine and helps her, something that would have been inconceivable back in “Barn Mates.” By now, Peridot and Lapis’ roommate relationship is really sweet.

Still, the visit doesn’t have its intended effect: Getting Amethyst to forget about Jasper for a moment. She’s not angry at Steven anymore, but she still wants to go one-on-one against Jasper, and is constantly training to get ready for the fight. (With the flail-whip Bismuth gave her, no less. I wonder if Garnet and Pearl plan on using their Bismuth weapon extensions?) Though there’s a sense in which Amethyst should be really into Lapis and Peridot’s morps (cue Steven: “But you love playing with garbage”), she’s just too focused on Jasper. (Cue Peridot, pointing not-so-discreetly at Lapis: “Uh, Amethyst, I try not to use the J-word so loosely around here.”) As a way of cheering Amethyst up, Peridot decides to take everyone (minus Lapis, who is busy watching season three of Camp Pining Hearts) to Jasper’s home: the Beta kindergarten, a facility hastily set up by Home World to produce more soldiers for the rebellion. It’s too small, just like Amethyst.

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The actual Beta kindergarten is kind of a sad place, the deserted, haphazard counterpart to the chilling precision of the primary kindergarten. The mere existence of this kindergarten, and the Gems who came from it, is a pretty cruel thing, if you think about it—there are a bunch of Gems born for purely functional reasons, who came out sideways, all of whom probably had some measure of deformity and went through the same sort of crisis Amethyst is currently dealing with—except that they’re also probably Gem monsters by now, or shattered and pressed into service as part of the Cluster, or something even worse. Only one hole is perfect, and it’s Jasper’s. It turns out even the most hostile, selfish Gems still feel some connection to their home—when Steven, Amethyst, and Peridot come upon several freshly dug holes, mostly serving as cages from captured Gem monsters, there’s only one possible culprit: Jasper.

Stray observations:

  • Never, ever trust Steven when he tells you you’re going to take a day off. Jasper will show up on your vacation.
  • Peridot, watching Camp Pining Hearts: “Oh, get over it Percy. Go make another friendship bracelet.” Lapis: “Seriously.”
  • “Welcome to our home away from Home World!” Nice one, Peridot.
  • Steven loves Peridot’s art installations: “What’s there to get? It’s water… shooting out of toilets!” Same.
  • Today in overly confident Peridot flirtation: “Oh, Amethyst. That’s ridiculous. I should call you… Ridiculousthyst.”
  • I don’t have space for it here, but at some point I would love to write a longer piece about Steven Universe’s habit of making weird jokes about art and art criticism. (See also: Steven’s “subjective” judgment in “Back To The Barn.”)

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“Earthlings”

At first, it looks like the showdown with Jasper is going to end very poorly for Amethyst. Even after “Steven Vs. Amethyst,” she still tries to make a go of fighting Jasper on her own. And though she puts up an impressive show, she fails miserably—Jasper is practically untouched. (One thing I hadn’t fully considered until now: Given the way Jasper is built, a whip is just a terrible weapon for taking her down. It was great for dealing with Peridot’s old limb enhancers and evasive style, but very bad at full-on smackdowns.) But this is a Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco episode, and though there’s a fair share of Gem pathos, the bulk of “Earthlings” is fun, fun, fun, because—surprise!—Steven and Amethyst fuse.

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I know a few people predicted this, but it’s still a pretty cool development for a few reasons—not only has Steven never fused with a Gem before, Amethyst’s fusions with the other Crystal Gems are…. fraught. Pearl and Amethyst only rarely overcome their differences enough to form Opal with any sense of stability, and Sugilitie’s recklessness is rather destructive, to say the least. Smoky Quartz, on the other hand, might not be gigantic, but she’s just having a blast being herself, a smirking pleasantness effortlessly conveyed by her voice actress: Natasha Lyonne of Orange Is The New Black (it’s really Orange week over on Steven Universe, huh). Lyonne is really the perfect choice for a Steven/Amethyst fusion, capturing some of the roughness of Michaela Dietz’s louder line deliveries while adding a slight sense of calm and confidence likely acquired from the newly mature, super-powered Steven. Also, she’s got a yo-yo.

From the moment Smoky Quartz appears, it’s obvious she’s going to beat Jasper, both because it’s the payoff to last week’s Steven-Amethyst arc, and because Jasper has to keep losing to fusions. Blissfully, the boarders don’t even pretend to add dramatic tension to the fight, instead turning it into a comic set-piece with Smoky’s yo-yo, set to a hyper-blippy, borderline ridiculous piece by Aivi and Surasshu which may or may not become my go-to working music. Where most fusion sequences are scary, Smoky Quartz is silly. The yo-yo, too, is an inspired choice of weapon—not only is it an effective combination of Steven and Amethyst’s weapons, it’s also versatile enough to allow Smoky to use it in a series of tricks and grappling moves (mirroring the cleverness with which Amethyst could deploy her whip, if she so chose) and as a bunch of giant fans in an amusing finishing move, deployed when Jasper fuses with one of the corrupted Gems.

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Jasper has a bit of a rough go of it this episode. In the opening minutes, she confronts Amethyst with her personal vision of what Gem society is supposed to look like: a horrifying vision of perfection and purpose that sounds like social Darwinism at best, and genocidal mania at worst. (She tells the corrupted Gem, “You suffer because it’s what you deserve,” and spits at Amethyst and Steven that anyone who fails to fulfill their purpose in service of the Diamonds must be “purged,” both of which are seriously chilling sentiments.) Kimberly Brooks finally gets to inch toward sympathetic, however, when Jasper tries to fuse with the Gem monster and is, essentially, turned away, especially after Smoky’s fan move. Though Jasper angrily asserts that “We can beat them, if we stay together,” the monster runs off, and we finally get a glimpse of sad Jasper: “Nobody I fuse with… ever wants to stay.”

There’s a certain level of pathos here which we haven’t gotten in full, but that I’m sure is coming in the now-inevitable Jasper redemption. Jasper now loves fusing (partly because of the power, but also apparently for other reasons, too), but has been created and shaped by Gem society in such a way as to make her totally unsociable. (Consider: Jasper’s helmet is one of the only Gem weapons that, of necessity, has to exist on its own.) The realization of the position she’s in, and a strong attempt at assessing what she wants, will hopefully lead to a heroic (or at least antiheroic) arc for Jasper that makes sense—and might be sad and painful where Peridot’s was sweet and fun. Worse still, when the dust finally clears, Jasper begins to feel the creep of corruption. (Also, is this an STD metaphor, or…?)

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Steven still tries to heal Jasper because he’s kind like that, but she rejects his help. She’s been fighting against him—or his Gem—her entire life. Her new theory of Rose Quartz isn’t totally off: Rose does pick up new Crystal Gems when they’ve failed at their original purpose, or at least decided their original purpose wasn’t for them. This is what happened to Pearl, it’s what happened to the newly fused Garnet, and it’s certainly what happened to Peridot (who makes a big show of telling Jasper that she’s living on Earth, learning new things about herself and enjoying existence). Of course, from where we’re sitting, Rose is freeing the Gems the way Morpheus frees boring Thomas Anderson from The Matrix, but, you know, this is all a matter of perspective. Jasper was made as a warrior to protect the Earth colony. Rose took away that colony, freed Jasper’s home from Home World control, and also, apparently did something to her Diamond—Pink Diamond.

This seems to validate the “Rose shattered Pink Diamond” crowd, which would be a pretty big revelation (especially in the wake of “Bismuth”), but we don’t get time to sit with it, because Jasper gets fully corrupted before being poofed by the metal bar Peridot has been trying to move all episode. Peridot is mostly comic relief here, trying and failing to use her metal powers for combat purposes, though the seriousness with which she tells Steven they should return to the temple to get Garnet and Pearl is welcome given the stakes of the situation. Her assistance is useful payoff, both to her presence in the kindergarten and so Amethyst has the chance to bubble Jasper and send her home. Michaela Dietz’s line delivery here is as close to a conclusion for the Amethyst/Jasper conflict as we’re likely to get for some time: “Come here, sis.” Amethyst and Jasper may be different, but in important ways, they’re the same.

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So for now, it seems, the battle is over. It looks like we’re back to the low-stakes art fun of “Beta” as Peridot makes plans to build a giant yo-yo as another piece of meep morp, commemorating the fight. But it looks like Garnet, Pearl, and Lapis were busy while the other three Crystal Gems were gone: The Rubies from “Hit The Diamond” are back, and Lapis has trapped them in a series of water bubbles. This is kind of a bizarre note to end the episode on, promising even more frustration for Amethyst in the visual equivalent of playing the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme. I’m here for it.

Stray observations:

  • One question, now that we know Steven can fuse with Gems: Are all of his fusions going to be the same as Rose’s? We don’t know if Rose ever fused with Amethyst, but it’ll be interesting to see if Steven’s fusion with Pearl produces Rainbow Quartz—and if it does, will Rainbow Quartz remember what it was like to be herself before Rose Quartz became Steven?
  • Jasper notes that the Crystal Gems have robbed Peridot of “her limb enhancers, her status, her dignity.” Peridot: “I still have one of those things.”
  • Peridot, gleeful at having finally used her metal powers and poofed Jasper: “You’re… welcome!”
  • The visual touch of having both Steven and Amethyst play as Lonely Blade in “Steven Vs. Amethyst” pays off, as does the rest of that episode, in Steven’s simple plea to have Amethyst accept his help: “We’re not like anyone else.”
  • Here we go, last week of the Nuke! I am frayed and tired but we will get through it together. Clods.
  • Also: Consider your voices in the comments on “Restaurant Wars” heard—I tried boardwalk fries for the first time in Atlantic City this weekend, and they were delicious. I stand corrected.

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