“Super Watermelon Island”

For the first couple of minutes, it seems like “Super Watermelon Island” might just be a one-off about the watermelon Stevens, now comfortably settled in a rustic village on Mask Island—and it’s delightful. There are watermelon chickens, watermelon dogs, a watermelon man with a wheelbarrow who drops off children for families, watermelon hippies playing hacky sack and slapping bongos. And the watermelons have religious or political institutions, complete with their own rituals. One such practices requires selecting a watermelon Steven (through “nose goes,” naturally), making them up like the real Steven and leaving them, King Kong-style, to be devoured… by Malachite.

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With such a strong foundation, “Super Watermelon Island” should’ve been one of the best, most exciting episodes of Steven Universe to date. For months (it feels like longer, given the sparseness of episodes) the show has been building to dual narrative crises: a final fight with Malachite and the increasingly-delayed assault on the Cluster, which get knocked out one after the other tonight. (More on that below.) But the resolution of the Malachite plot feels almost perfunctory, and rather than fist-pumping with joy, it left me a bit cold. (Or, at least, there was substantially less fist-pumping than I would have expected.) Why? It took me a while to figure out what was missing: there isn’t any character development.

The plotting of “Super Watermelon Island” is pure clockwork: Steven discovers he can project inside the watermelon Stevens, which first allows him to discover Malachite’s location just before she frees herself, then helps Alexandrite defeat her with the aid of the watermelon army. That’s it. Everyone does pretty much what we would expect. To put it in slightly broader terms, “Super Watermelon Island” is an adventure, rather than a story, the kind of episode Steven Universe would do more often if it were a normal kids’ show with a procedural setup where the Gems fought a different monster every week. Malachite would, in this version of the show, just be an opportunity for a particularly cool boss fight.

But Steven Universe has built up such an impressive reserve of characters with such deft plotting, even the slightest episodes usually say something interesting about someone, whether it‘s learning a bit about the Gems’ past, Steven’s maturation, or one of the residents of Beach City. Is it unfair to expect more from “Super Watermelon Island”? Maybe, but it’s hard not to compare the fight to all of this great watermelon anthropology.The fight itself is fine, enjoyable in the details of Alexandrite’s arrow briefly taking the form of the Crystal Gems and giving us more of a sense of what the Gem war might have looked like. (Also, fire breath is always going to be cool.) But one of the best parts of Steven Universe has long been the way the show weds fights to the resolution of emotional stakes—making them always more than fights—and that’s absent here.

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Setting up the precise conditions for the episode’s conclusion also requires something that is, if not totally out of character, at least a little off: the Gems benching Steven on grounds that the fight with Malachite is too dangerous. This separation is necessary from a plot perspective, both to set up the watermelon fight and to force Steven and Peridot to take the drill by themselves. But we’ve been through this emotional beat again and again and again—it feels like something the show should have outgrown by now. At the least, if there are just different, newer conditions under which the Gems think Steven should be kept from battle, they have yet to be articulated, and the command is tossed-off. (Garnet’s thank-you to the watermelons feels a little hollow, since it doesn’t come with an apology to Steven.)

I’m quibbling because of high expectations, of course. And, perhaps, because it’s been so long since new episodes aired—it’s been just shy of 30 episodes since Malachite formed, though fewer than ten since we discovered the existence of the Cluster. The show’s airing schedule has dragged out the resolution of the Malachite plot, to the detriment of the writing, which has to do a lot more heavy lifting than it should have. (Let’s reevaluate in a few months.) “Super Watermelon Island” is entertaining, and a solid episode of the show. And it’s hard to take too much issue with an impulse to brevity in resolving this kind of long-term conflict.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to build tension than to release it—this is why the first half of TV two-parters is usually better than the second. And Steven Universe’s set-up for these events, in particular, has been so effective that the payoff feels, in a sense, that it needs to outgrow the narrow scope of the 11-minute episode. That episode length necessitates a tightness and intensity of focus that’s apart of why Steven Universe excels in more human interactions. (We haven’t seen Beach City for a while, and it’s easy to imagine the Crewniverse wanting to get back to Connie, Greg, Lars, Sadie, and all of the town’s other weirdos.)

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Like the show at large, “Super Watermelon Island” thrives in the smaller moments, like the brief glimpse of the watermelon family where the ”wife” is the warrior, kissing her businessman husband and watermelon child goodbye, Steven waking up to find himself in a watermelon body, taking in the natural beauty of their community, or the way everyone spits seeds out when they talk. (Overall, Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, and the entire animation team do a phenomenal job with the watermelon Stevens.) The whole thing reminds me of a remark Pen Ward makes to Maria Bustillos in her phenomenal piece on Adventure Time. Describing Pat McHale, Ward says “A punchline for Pat is the calm smile of a man made of watermelons being revealed through parting morning mist.” McHale doesn’t work on Steven Universe (check out Over The Garden Wall for that), but that sensibility—the ability to find humor in surreal, naturalistic intimacy—permeates much of Cartoon Network’s current programming, and Steven Universe in particular. It clashes a bit with the straightforward fight on display here.

At least with our current Big Bad out of the way—for now—Steven and the Gems can take a bit of a breather. But first, Steven has to wake up, use the drill by himself with Peridot, and defeat the Cluster. The shot of his consciousness receding from the watermelon Steven is a fun, fresh use of the star effect, and it helps set up infinitely higher stakes than this episode: the animation puts us, quite literally, in Steven’s head, and lets us share his panic. Each of the Gems give him a final piece of encouragement, concluding with Garnet’s inevitable “We love you.” This, too, has been done before, but in this case, it’s harder to criticize. What else could she say?

Stray observations:

  • Zach Callison’s reading of “They have a lovely community, but Malachite, she was there!” is great.
  • Also pretty great: Malachite’s appearance cutting into Steven waking up.
  • The one character who does seem to have changed slightly this episode? Jasper, who now seems on-board with fusion as a process. (Also, you can hear Lapis inside Malachite… possibly supportive of their violence?)
  • Peridot is barely in this episode, but she steals it anyway. First: “Just being on a ship with Jasper made me tired.” Second: “Why don’t you just disobey them? Rebel—isn’t that, like, your guys’s thing?”
  • Before we go on to the Cluster, let’s take a moment of silence for the many melons who were lost in battle.

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“Gem Drill”

Pretty much any apprehension I had about the “In Too Deep” event after “Super Watermelon Island” vanished when Peridot yelled, “Am I the only one who understands the meaning of teamwork?” and I cackled for several minutes straight. Shelby Rabara, rapidly showing herself to be a national treasure, runs away with both of these episodes. Her performance in “Gem Drill,” especially, is funny, earnest, sweet, confused, innocent, and pragmatic, all at the same time—the characteristics that make Peridot such a wonderful, engaging addition to the team.

Now that the heavy lifting of her redemption arc is finished, we can see thew new Peridot in action, the way her cold, methodical dedication to her tasks have become flipped on its head and infused with Gem compassion. Where before she was committed to her mission from Home World, here she’s devoted to saving the Earth, dramatized in an intense, zooming shot of her face that outlining the stakes for the episode in neon. Peridot asks Steven if he’s ready for the final race to the center of the Earth, taking on a giant Gem weapon in order to save the planet, practically shouting at him. When he says he doesn’t know, she gets him to lie to her. (Even though this is Steven Universe and there’s no way they would fail.) It’s adorable and exciting, but not just because of the Cluster. No, this is a Steven-Peridot road trip episode.

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Every interaction between Peridot and Steven is priceless, running through several different iterations of their relationship: Peridot wordlessly turns on uncomfortably chipper music (creeping out Steven, and blending nicely with the theme for the Gem mutants) when Steven asks for some road trip music. When they make it deep enough into the mantle to find themselves surrounded by peridotite (which is, in fact, extremely common in the area), Peridot even has her own sentimental, confessional moment with Steven about her home. She’s mostly accepted the loss of her place in Gem society, but “I have something different now.” “What’s that?” “You know… you… guys.” Aw! For a moment, it seems like Peridot really has fully internalized the hyper-emotional sensitivity of her comrades.

Still, they encounter a bit of a conflict of ideologies when Gem mutants attack the drill. Peridot has brought a blast cannon (naturally operated by Steven’s N64 controller), but Steven, ever the pacifist, doesn’t want to fight them when he could just bubble them instead. Peridot’s description of the Gem mutants doesn’t help with that calculation. It’s deeply sad: shattered, totally unaware beings consumed by emptiness and the desire to become whole. (Not that this doesn’t also apply to, uh, people.) It’s scary, and satisfying. Then they reach the Cluster itself, and without the other Gems around, it turns out to be a much harder nut to crack.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Cluster itself, but what it actually is—a liquid pool of Gem shards, reflecting the rocks above—is fascinating, and entrancing the way a lot of the early episodes were with pieces of Gem mythology we didn’t totally understand. The body horror of the Gem fragments comes to fruition, as the billions of disparate pieces of the Cluster cry out their singular desire, taking on brief, ghostly shapes including some rather grabby hands and a very freaky (if a little Scooby-Doo-like) face. As with Malachite, fusion here is presented as evil, or at least wrongheaded—the desire to become something other, to find refuge in someone else, here threatens the well-being of an entire planet, and won’t actually do anything to make the Gems whole. The Cluster screams. It needs to form.

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The sequence when Steven somehow manages to project himself into the Cluster is heavily psychedelic, like the cover of one of Greg’s prog rock albums peeled itself off and settled at the Earth’s core. Storyboard artists Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco do excellent work here—it helps that the Cluster looks like it has a bit more of a computer-animated, three-dimensional style, rendering it slightly otherworldly against the rest of Steven Universe. Steven’s rapid dissolves, floating in an empty expanse filled with the pieces of the Cluster, evokes a whole host of similar encounters (like, say, the Star Child sequence from 2001). This makes sense—the Cluster is bigger than anything anyone could comprehend, a veritable God in waiting. But it turns out, all it needed was a friend (or several).

It’s just like Steven to stop a planet-destroying weapon by helping it find some company. Like many children’s entertainment protagonists, he makes a point of avoiding violence when possible. (For example, Aang.) And where narrative workarounds to avoid killing are occasionally hollow and cheap, this one is pure Steven. After all, the Cluster is so big, it’s hard to imagine even Alexandrite successfully breaking it up—and from the other side of the screen, without a well-established identity, it could have easily been destroyed without giving Steven any sense of guilt. Instead, Steven shows compassion for a gigantic weapon without a real coherent identity, and he’s rewarded by saving the planet, using the combined ability of all of the Gem shards to put the Cluster in a massive bubble. Besides, I suspect this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Cluster, which, with a bit more of an identity, could become a powerful ally in the war against the Gem home world.

With these two episodes resolving dual crises, Steven Universe has done a pretty full clearing of the decks. Of course, Jasper is out there, somewhere—and with her acceptance of fusion and new home inside the Earth’s crust, I have some guesses about what she’s going to look like when she comes back. Lapis is going to have to adjust to life on Earth, the same way Peridot did, and maybe get to know her captor. And Home World will almost certainly send more Gems to clean up Peridot and Jasper’s mess. But for a moment, Steven and the rest of the Gems are free, and that’s thrilling. From a pure plot perspective, they don’t have to spend all of their time on impending doom anymore. More than stopping the world from ending, more than breaking up a monstrous fusion, “Super Watermelon Island” and “Gem Drill” are exciting because they promise the return of one of Steven Universe’s best activities: hanging out.

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Stray observations:

  • I’m not going to collect all of them, but just know that this section could probably be all of Peridot’s dialogue.
  • Steven’s psychic projection plays into both of these episodes, so I hope we get a bit more information about it soon. I’m sure people have theories about this, and I’d love to hear them. Is it an extension of Rose’s healing and empathic capabilities? Or maybe he can mentally fuse?
  • On another show, Peridot replying to Steven’s declaration of love with, “Wow, thanks.” would have been a great sitcom plot. Here, it’s just cute.
  • “We’ll do it together and it’s gonna be great!” “Liar!”
  • Welcome back to another Steven Universe event! I’m glad these episodes are airing a little farther apart, so we’ll have more time to digest them (and I’ll have more time to write these reviews). Next week: a new status quo!

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