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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Universe: “Historical Friction”

Illustration for article titled iSteven Universe/i: “Historical Friction”
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The pacing of the Steven Bombs have, generally speaking, been pretty good, but intense. Several of the episodes are gut-wrenching, but at least one is always a bit of a diversion—I’m thinking “Political Power” or “Rising Tides/Crashing Skies.” Today, Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke bring us this week’s breather (yesterday was too emotionally heavy to count), as Jamie and Steven team up to bring their love of the theater to the masses of Beach City.

Honestly, this episode is, for the most party, pretty simple—Steven and Jamie’s passion for acting (sorry, “Acting!”) drives them to work on a performance of a government-funded play by Mayor Dewey about the city’s history. The play is bad, but Pearl rewrites it, then they perform the new version and everyone is mostly happy. Fun stuff! (Also, if we are getting a long-term arc where Jamie becomes a respected actor and director after moving up and out of the competitive Beach City local theater world, I am here. for. it.)


Mostly, everything is par for the course for one of the episodes of Steven Universe we spend with a specific denizen of Beach City, without much of the surprise pathos. (Jamie is consistently in the right here, and if he and Steven are a little over-dramatic, it’s both funny and pretty consistently in-character.) I’m not sure if there was an homage to something specific (let me know!), but the frozen “flashbacks” as Jamie reads the play are, I think, the first time the show has ever really substantially deviated from its animation style, give or take an Uncle Grandpa crossover.

Speaking of which: The 50-foot-giant in the original version of the play already reminded me of fusion, so it’s not surprising that the Gems were integral in founding Beach City, reportedly saving William Dewey from a monster (suggesting the war was ongoing even back then). This is a cool bit of backstory that I assume we’ll see come into use later on, but it’s mostly a curiosity for now. It does, however, give Pearl, who we first see sitting silently on the couch (it’s not hard to believe she’s been sitting like that for days), an opportunity to get off her butt and do something. After reading Mayor Dewey’s play, we get a refreshingly class Pearl moment: “This isn’t just boring, it’s historically inaccurate!” And we get another at the play itself, when she’s hyper-earnestly supportive of Steven: “There he is. Hi Steven! You’re so talented!”


My main gripe with this episode is that, other than that brief look at her at the beginning, there isn’t too much difference between the way Pearl acts here and the way she does the rest of the time. It’s not that she necessarily would need to go overboard and throw herself into the play as a way of overcompensating (certainly, that Pearl story has been done), but it’s easy to forget where “Historical Friction” falls in the arc we seem to be getting for her. Even just some slight indications of the kind of sadness she’s holding back would have been greatly appreciated.

Still, there are lots of great small moments here, like Mayor Dewey’s attempt to hit on Pearl (leading her to just get up and walk away), but from the perspective of the ongoing story, there’s not much going on. In fact, there isn’t a ton of character development, either—instead, there’s exposition (sort of) about the history of Beach City, and some sneaky drama criticism using Jamie and Steven (and also Buck) as a mouthpiece.


Jamie says: “How can a guy have no faults? To be human is to be flawed. A real hero must struggle.” This is storytelling 101, but it’s also a sneaky commentary on what’s been going on with the characters this week. Pearl and Garnet’s rift might cause some measure of anxiety from fans (and from Steven!) but it’s useful character-building, because it will further define the two Gems and force them to actually fight for their relationship—if they care about it. A simpler, more condescending version of the show would be like Mayor Dewey’s original play, allowing the characters to become gigantic at a moment’s notice and destroy all obstacles without real stakes. Steven’s response to Jamie seems relevant: “That’s so beautiful! And also totally not represented in Mayor Dewey’s script.” Without conflict and difficulty, there’s no beauty. Or to use a cliche: no pain, no gain.

I’m really hoping that Jamie takes the next step from minor, comic character to real person at some point in the future. He’s indefatigable here, which is cool and great, and done in a self-consciously cheesy way as he literally sparkles (showing off his extremely long eyelashes) while planning to put on the play. And his impressions of the Gems are actually pretty good—especially his Garnet. (No wonder Nana Pizza hits on him at the end of the show.) It’s a lightness we’ve mostly been missing this week, and that I suspect we won’t get tomorrow. After all, the best moment of the episode is Pearl softly saying “When did you get so smart” to herself in relation to Steven’s understanding of what it means to be human. As the Week Of Sardonyx closes out, I expect Pearl will have to deal with that very Gem-like humanness more than she cares to admit.


Stray observations:

  • “The great William Dewey didn’t struggle. He was good at everything on the first try, just like me when I wrote this play.” Oh, Mayor Dewey.
  • Do we know what happened to Buck’s mom? It’s really cool that the show just casually drops a bunch of single parents or non-traditional families into the background without commenting on it.
  • “This could either make or break my hobby.”
  • “Oh please, goddess of noogies, don’t hurt me.”
  • Uhhh, we all totally know what Mayor Dewey is going off to do at the end of the episode, right?
  • “Okay, Beach City it is.”
  • I see you, Ian Jones-Quartey episode order on Tumblr. I promise guys, I will fix this some time next week.

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