It’s awkward when well-coordinated units get thrown out of sync, right? Everything just feels a little off, and the subtlety of that difference is often more powerful than a full-on dissolution would be, because it has the ability to just make us really, really uncomfortable. That’s why the pacing of the opening scene of this episode works so well, even as it feels like kind of a struggle to get through. Pearl’s awkwardness and excitement at finding Peridot causes her to not only literally ruin everyone else’s jokes, it also frustrates the team’s ability to actually catch their opponent on all counts, to the point where even Steven exasperatedly calls her out.

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Notice that the Gems have barely been together all week. They barely occupy the same space at the beginning and end of “Keystone Motel,” which focuses primarily on Garnet. Pearl and Garnet do not appear in “Onion Friend,” while Garnet and Amethyst sit out “Historical Friction.” When the episode ends, they’re united—literally, when they form a chain trying to bring Peridot back to earth. They almost get there, but let Peridot get away yet again (allowing her to continue becoming a deeply comedic, kind of inept figure).

Before we get there, though, dynamics among the Gems become strained to the point where Amethyst has to step in and try to get Garnet and Pearl to talk to each other—she’s the mature one for once, even if it’s begrudging. She understands why Pearl did what she did, but she also knows that Garnet won’t forgive her, even if they catch Peridot, because it’s not about that. (She also steps in to tell Peridot she doesn’t appreciate “being called a clod.”) This is a welcome development for Amethyst, and one that highlights the way that each of the “filler” episodes have subtly changed the way the three Gems interact together—Amethyst taking on responsibility, Garnet grimly acquiescing to her ongoing pain, and Pearl throwing herself into technicalities and the attempt to finally catch Peridot.

The desperation with which Pearl eventually breaks down and attacks a Peridot hologram is pretty phenomenally rendered, heartbreaking on DeeDee Magno Hall’s part and one of the many small touches Johnston and Liu pack into the episode. Visually, everything is small but exceedingly well-done, from the movements during the initial chase scene to the pan down to Steven, hanging at the end of Amethyst’s whip. Consider the confrontation with Peridot through the communications’ screen—not only is the animation excellent (allowing Peridot to fill multiple screens), we can also hear Steven faintly in the room Pearl is in before it comes through the screen, letting us know she’s close by. Now that’s dedication to detail. Of course, the most care in this episode is lavished on Garnet and Pearl’s conversation.

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“I’m not mad at you,” starts the worst pronouncement a parent can make to their child. “I’m just disappointed.” As a child, this often rings false, because obviously your parent is mad at you—but it’s probably just a coping mechanism. Because maybe what’s so upsetting about disappointment is that anger feels like it’s still living, still confrontational and in the process of defining its object. When you experience anger, something has inflamed your passions because it’s active. Disappointment suggests that you’ve already made a judgment about the other person and allowed your opinion to settle—and you don’t like what you see. It’s the murky, uncomfortable difference between “you did a bad thing” and “you’re a bad person.”

That’s why, to me at least, Garnet’s assessment of Pearl stings so much. The more powerful Gem recognizes that she possesses capacities Pearl does not, but also believes that she has her own flaws and weaknesses (among them, the internal conflict over Pearl’s deception). In a sense, Garnet really is criticizing Pearl’s identity. We don’t know much about the original intent of Pearls as a general model, but it’s safe to say that they’re something along the lines of primarily informational, perhaps administrative, and certainly supportive Gems.

As we’ve seen, Pearl is drawn to authority figures or leaders she can use to give herself purpose—Rose Quartz, Garnet, Steven, even the Earth as an abstracted planet full of people to protect. Pearl literally lives to serve, and tearfully admits she feels useless on her own. Recent events have almost certainly sent that insecurity to the next level—remember Pearl grabbing Garnet’s arm at the end of “Jail Break?” This admission of her own destiny (or lack thereof) helps put a lot of things into stark relief. Her lack of caution and careless dedication to a goal is what allows the Gems to fall into Peridot’s trap. But it’s also an easy way to understand where Pearl’s character is at, and the type of experience she’s having that makes her painfully easy to relate to.

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Think about all of the shady things Pearl has done in the past few episodes—her mania in turning Connie into a knight in “Sworn To The Sword,” her cruel jealousy and obsession with Rose in “We Need To Talk,” or, of course, her trickery in “Cry For Help.” All of these actions become a lot more sympathetic when you consider how rudderless Pearl has been for most of her existence, starting with whatever led her to begin following Rose rather than simply engaging in her programmed or preapproved tasks. (I suspect she was pretty similar to Peridot.) Rose’s death hasn’t helped with that ongoing lack of stability. She’s going through, or about to go through, something really serious—the transformation into her own person, rather than allowing herself to be defined by others.

That’s why Garnet’s advice to her is so good. Like almost all Garnet advice, it’s ridiculously mature and wise. Live for yourself, Garnet says, but choose to serve, which means acknowledging the demands other people make on you and taking them on because you care about them. Pearl doesn’t have to be bound by being a Pearl,Being in a healthy relationship demands that both (or all) participants be comfortable with themselves—something only Ruby and Sapphire have apparently accomplished of all the first-order Gems. In beginning to accept this fact, Pearl allows herself to become a viable candidate for fusion with Garnet, understanding that they need to combine their strength in order to emerge from a tricky situation—but that that’s the extent of their fusion, for now. (Is it just me, or did Steven Universe sort of dramatize emotionally clear-eyed, non-monogamous sex or casual relationships?) And it allows them to take down Peridot—sort of.

Steven and the Gems forcing Peridot to eject her foot feels like a classic TV resolution, and not in a good way—it moves the ball forward just a little bit on the ongoing plot (hopefully there’s something legitimately productive they can do with the foot), allowing the heroes to feel somewhat victorious and determined without actually having accomplished much of anything. But the accomplishment, of course, is the tentative (because who knows how Pearl’s experience will manifest itself) reformation of the team as a unit, and the ongoing emotional stakes the show now feels comfortable playing with. With the real fight over, beating a boss should be a piece of cake.

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Stray observations:

  • The awkward, pained look Steven and Amethyst are giving each other in the press photo is just perfect, and should be pretty easily identifiable to anyone who has ever been trapped in a room with an oblivious, sniping couple.
  • We get a quick look at Peridot by herself, which is an interesting, if slight, deviation from the show’s usual unwillingness to focus on anyone other than Steven. (To the best of my knowledge, the last time this happened was during “Jail Break” when Steven is mostly out of the picture during the musical interlude-fight scene.)
  • Steven continues to be polite to Peridot, yelling “Good morning!” in the best indication yet that “Say Uncle” is canon. Sorry everyone. (Also, Steven really needs to step up his trash talk game.)
  • On the other hand, three shields in one day!
  • More Gem exposition, as Pearl tries to explain the purpose of the old ships that may or may not have brought her over to Earth, which the Gem home world is apparently going to destroy. (Hurray!)
  • Phew. Thanks for sticking with me through this latest Steven Bomb—I didn’t have as much time with these episodes as I would have liked, but it’s still really exciting to see the show move into this territory, and to hopefully have the time to talk about it with you all early next week. The show will be back pretty soon, I think, but until then—let’s all stay fused out there.

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