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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Universe goes “Back To The Moon”

Illustration for article titled iSteven Universe/i goes “Back To The Moon”
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Assuming nothing insane happens with the airing of tomorrow’s episode, the entire third season Steven Universe will have aired in just under three months. (Remember “Super Watermelon Island”? The premiere only aired in May, which feels like several lifetimes ago.) A lot has happened during this season, including wrapping up a few gigantic plot points (one of which—Malachite—stretched back to the season one finale), returning to Beach City to check in on most of the important characters there (with the glaring exceptions of Mayor Dewey and Nanefua), and introducing a new, looser dynamic for the now-eight members of the main cast.

This last fact is probably the most important to understand where Steven Universe is at this point in its run. Lots of shows have third seasons that could charitably be described as “messy,” which makes sense when you think about the speed of a normal production schedule, and the ease with which a series can start to either run low on ideas or lose interest in its central story. (Consider something like the third season of BoJack Horseman, which at times seems to straight-up ignore BoJack himself in favor of exploring the side characters.) At this point, a show often settles in to explore the unseen corners of its world (including its past), and Steven Universe, though it has a different production schedule than most series, has still fallen into this model, especially after the far more heavily serialized second season. “Back To The Moon,” written and storyboarded by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff, captures all of the benefits and drawbacks of this approach, and wraps up a couple of those threads—starting with the Rubies.

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Steven starts the episode where we left off yesterday, by gawking at the Rubies and expressing what we were all thinking: “I thought we were done with these guys.” Steven Universe, admittedly, rarely does true one-offs, but “Hit The Diamond” was such a pure distillation of the playful, whimsical side of the show that it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Ruby ship never returned, or came back way, way down the line. Instead, it’s been just a few weeks. Their anger is understandable—not only did they search Neptune, they checked every other planet in the solar system before heading back to Earth. But they don’t have much recourse to fighting the Gems, because Lapis “put them in time out.” Steven has her let them out, so that the Crystal Gems can interrogate them and find out why they’ve returned.

It turns out that Steven is the one who gives the Rubies the names we saw in the credits of “Hit The Diamond”: Leggy, Army, Navy, Eyeball, and, uh, Doc, the one who eventually gives up the ghost and admits that they went around the whole solar system looking for Jasper before coming back. The collective rabble of the Rubies, each of which has a distinct verbal and visual personality. continues to provide amusing comic dividends, especially when they claim, rather aggressively, that the Gems won’t be able to get off any “slick disguises.” Pan to: Amethyst, more or less successfully shape-shifted into Jasper. This camera movement is one of the episode’s better visual touches, along with all of Amethyst’s body movements trying to mimic Jasper.

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Amethyst’s improvisation is very funny, and pleasantly underdone—though the thematic implications of Amethyst’s change are obvious, no one ever really remarks on them, other than in one or two of Amethyst’s offhand remarks capturing what she assumes Jasper would say. Nothing about this should make sense, and though it’s funny, it probably shouldn’t sustain the bulk of an episode. But it works, for two important reasons: The Rubies are really, really dumb, and they really, really love Jasper, who they all look up to as a hero. (Charlene Yi gets a ton of mileage out of this, with lines like, “Wow, Jasper’s so funny and strong.”) In fact, the Rubies literally start a slow clap when Amethyst tells them that she (Jasper) has decided to stay on Earth to keep the Crystal Gems as her prisoners.

But the Rubies need to make a report, so we head to the moon as this becomes a core Crystal Gems episode. (Lapis just disappears while the Rubies are busy, and when Amethyst asks if she and Peridot want to join, Lapis responds, “Not really.” It would probably be too stressful to plot scenes with everyone hanging out, for now.) The trip over to the moon is mostly about showing off Amethyst’s awkwardness even as she continues tricking the Rubies, but Steven and Garnet have a great time giving vaguely wooden, scenery chewing performances indicating their ire at being caught by Jasper. (Garnet is “so cross over it.”) Pearl, on the other hand, is an out-and-out theater kid, overdramatizing her pain and dismay at being “caught” by “Jasper,” to the point where Army wants to throw her out of the ship.

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Once they reach the moon and realize that the communicator is wrecked, everyone gets caught up reminiscing about Pink Diamond. Eyeball explains that one of Pink Diamond’s own quartz soldiers started a rebellion, “and took it too far.” She confirms the logical conclusion of Jasper’s remarks yesterday: not only is Rose Quartz not Pink Diamond, she shattered* the other Gem. Garnet and Pearl look away in shame as Steven’s eyes well up. His mother wouldn’t do that, would she? As you might have guessed, I find the whole prospect of “protagonist refuses to kill” moral dilemmas to be kind of boring, but setting this up as something Steven needs to deal with psychologically, rather than a choice he has to make, is smart. He has to reckon with his idealized image of his mother, who is now a part of himself, rather than consider the possibility of shattering someone, which he would never do. (In a way, “Bismuth” is almost all setup for this development, and it works like gangbusters.)

Still, Steven doesn’t quite have the time to process this knowledge. Amethyst has maintained Jasper’s form (for the most part) until the Rubies leave, except that they return to offer “Jasper” a ride back to Earth—and catch Amethyst back in her original form, prompting a brief fight between the Gems and the giant fusion of all five Rubies. Steven hits the airlock button to get rid of them (which is cool, but also feels like a slightly un-Steven move?), then Sardonyx forms and hammers the Rubies out into the vacuum. But on the way, Eyeball grabs Steven and drags him out into space, leading to an abrupt cut to credits, and an ending that I would call a cliffhanger except that there’s no gravity in space. Looks like no one’s going to be able to breathe until tomorrow.

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Stray observations:

  • When Army starts sputtering threats at the Gems, Garnet takes an amusingly maternal tack toward the Ruby: “Hey. Don’t be like that.”
  • We see Eyeball use her Gem as a flashlight—is that something other Gems have done before?
  • One of the Rubies recounts the story of what happened when Rose shattered Pink Diamond: “I was there.” It turns out Eyeball is James Murphy.
  • *It’s possible that Rose didn’t actually shatter Pink Diamond. These screencaps point out the presence of a Gem in the bubble room that does look an awful lot like a pink diamond (but might not be one). There are probably other theories that can accommodate the possibility, but I’ll leave them for the comments.
  • See you all tomorrow for the finale, in which Steven gets “Bubbled.” (We still have the first two episodes of season four airing shortly after, though.)
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