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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Universe: “Keystone Motel”

Illustration for article titled Steven Universe: “Keystone Motel”
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Welcome back, Ruby and Sapphire! Sorry we had to see you again under these circumstances.

After the emotional distress of Pearl and Garnet’s fight, we return to a bit of a… frosty situation. (Sorry.) Pearl is painfully overeager, borderline pathetic in her attempt to find Peridot and get back into Garnet’s good graces—to regain her trust. But she doesn’t fully realize that finding Peridot isn’t going to solve the problem, since Garnet is giving Pearl the silent treatment because of what she did, not because of what it caused. You can’t earn trust back just like that, with grand gestures. It takes time.

And time—or at least a little time—is exactly what Garnet gets when she invites herself on a road trip to a grimy little motel in Keystone (“The state named Keystone?”) along with the Universe men. Greg tells her that, as much as he’s done a good job selling some of the qualities of the place, it isn’t all that great “I’ll be the judge of that,” Garnet says, noticeably twitching, alerting us that something is wrong in one of the nicer visual touches in “Keystone Motel.” Accordingly, after an extremely quick drive, Garnet splits—because Garnet and Pearl are in conflict, but Ruby and Sapphire are fighting, too.

Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship as depicted in this episode, the first place we really get to see it breathe (though not really) is elemental, in a number of senses of the word. (The obvious one being the way their anger manifests, in Ruby as an all-consuming flame and in Sapphire as encroaching ice.) Mostly, storyboard team Paul Villeco and Raven Molisee use it as an opportunity to externalize some relationship cliches and make them literal, like Sapphire actually being “above it” by floating onto the bed. Their argument about whether to immediately forgive Pearl consumes most of the episode in this alternating between fire and ice.

As we learned in “Jail Break,” Garnet is a conversation between two points of view, not a perfectly in-sync pair of two people sharing one perspective (the way you would find, say, Marshall and Lily in some episodes of How I Met Your Mother). Accordingly, we get to see those two individuals as themselves, and see the ways their individual flaws combine to form something greater. Ruby takes fusion as more fundamental and serious here, while Sapphire’s future vision gives her an opportunity to take the long view and know (or think) that, since things are going to work out in the end, there’s no reason to be upset in the here and now. (This also feels like a sort of interaction with fan concerns over the length of the Garnet/Pearl split.)

And that kind of weary patience is kind of how the detours in this episode feel to me, honestly. We know Garnet will re-fuse at the end. As much as the fight with Pearl is upending the show’s status quo, there’s really no way Ruby and Sapphire will stay apart for long, in the same way that we would never get a whole week of Sugilite—at least not yet. It’s just not a viable thing for the show to do. So even Ruby burning the pool or Sapphire freezing the toilet or the general awkwardness at the diner is funny enough, it all feels a little perfunctory. It’s important so we can learn more about Ruby and Sapphire as characters, which we don’t do quite as well as I would have liked.


As always, the resolution to the conflict is mostly emotionally spot-on. As much as it can be a little cloying, the sudden floodgate of mutual apology represented by Ruby and Sapphire’s breakdown is certainly something that happens at the end of fights within relationships, and the extent to which Steven and Greg both end up being right (Ruby and Sapphire needed to talk, but they also needed some space until they were comfortable doing it) is nice. But the way that Steven becomes the catalyst for that, by asking whether he’s somehow to blame, seems a little hamfisted—he’s come too far to act that childish (Steven is now consistently the most mature character on the show), and the obvious divorce analogue doesn’t work as well as it should. Mostly, it’s all very sudden and less particular than the show usually cares to be.

That’s why this episode is, if not really a case for lengthening the episodes (since the creative team is working very precisely in 11-minutes), then maybe just an argument for two-parters or something. The amount of powerful emotional stuff happening here between Ruby and Sapphire is just too dense, especially when it’s our first real introduction to the characters. The beats are hit a little too hard, and frankly it just feels the slightest bit off in a way Steven Universe normally does not.


In part, my concern is because the animation is noticeably a little rougher than usual, which has the unfortunate side effect of turning Ruby and Sapphire into… well… cartoons. This is the kind of thing I’d normally be a little easier on, but, again, this is our first substantial encounter with Ruby and Sapphire as their own characters, and some of the visuals make it tough to connect with them in the way that we can connect with Pearl’s excitement at the fact that Garnet is sort of talking to her again.

What this really does is call attention to how much command of detail matters, and how perfect Steven Universe generally is at demonstrating it. Taking the show’s prowess and control for granted means that when scenes appear the way they might on another show (like the way there’s sort of creepily no one else in the “best diner in the world”) makes everything feel a little bit less full of life. But if that’s the worst you can say about an episode of television that explores a ridiculously complicated, long-term, queer relationship—the first episode in a long, long time that I didn’t feel quite worked—we’re not in such a bad place after all.


Stray observations

  • Greg is, as always, a king and master of life. “I’m off to see a man about a tunnel brush. An internet man. If I’m not back in an hour, call the police.” Cue Steven: “Okay!”
  • Steven: “Square pizza? What’s wrong with this crazy state!” Greg: “Son, there will come a time in your life when you learn to accept all pizza.”
  • Future vision starts to get used for comedy here, when Sapphire says stuff like, “43. But there’s not much on” in reference to Steven trying to watch TV or “Such is fate” about the toilet freezing. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find these that funny. Maybe the voice performance needed to be a bit more serious?
  • The best part of this episode is the way Estelle says “Not now” at the end, which basically conveys the entire emotional arc by itself.
  • Mostly, this made me want a real Ruby-Sapphire flashback episode, where we see the origins of the name “Laughy Sapphy.” Because aw.