Steven and Connie’s relationship is one of the best parts of Steven Universe. Somehow, their connection has avoided all of the traps associated with a “love interest” in this kind of hero’s journey. Instead, they’ve consistently been depicted as compatible on a number of levels. The success of this friendship (and more!) might be, in part, because of Connie’s awareness of genre conventions, allowing her and Steven to knowingly riff on all the boring things we might expect from their partnership in a dumber version of the show. So it’s not surprising that the first line of dialogue in “Nightmare Hospital” is “Well, time to assume my secret identity.”
See, as Connie has become a more fully integrated member of the main ensemble, developing a skill in battle, she has also become a superhero—utilizing her now-useless glasses as part of a disguise presented to her family. This turn for the character is great for the show (“Do It For Him” is, I think, the peak of its artistic accomplishments thus far, precisely because of how well it tells this part of the story in such a short amount of time), but it’s bad for Connie—both because of the stress of dealing with her mom, and because it forces her (and the show) into the old, staid, insanely boring problem of hiding her secrets from other normal humans.
It’s nice that, at the very least, this plot resolved by the end of the episode, which ignores the straightforward approach to this “secret” story in favor of riffing on first sitcom tropes (when Connie has to hide Rose’s sword from her mother) and then horror (when she has to retrieve it with Steven at the hospital). That hospital—her mom’s workplace, the site of an attack by a couple of Gem mutants—is a new setting for the show, one that I expect we’ll have to revisit in the near future for some medical tune-ups. While it doesn’t exactly suggest a spin-off, it does get the job done: introducing the fusion mutants as grunts for Peridot, and real ongoing enemies.
This is a smart move both because the mutants can be easily defeated and bubbled (creating a very different type of stakes from skirmishes with Peridot and Malachite, which likely won’t end in total victory), and because it frees Peridot up to not have to show up every other episode (random Gem monsters are okay as far as they go, but they would have worn thin by now, don’t you think?). The mutants also serve to fully introduce another genre into the world of Steven Universe. While straightforward scares are not really a well the show should draw from often, they work in small doses—in “Keeping It Together,” because of Garnet’s reaction to the perverted fusions, and here, because, well, the mutants big scary monsters attacking theoretically defenseless humans in a way that forces a serious conversation between a mother and her daughter. (Sometimes, you stick to the classics.)
Another place where the classics are cleverly deployed: Steven and Connie’s overly verbose language related to Rose’s sword. It taps into both the impulse to grand storytelling that Connie explores in “Open Book” and the knightly ideals Pearl has started to impart on the kids in “Sworn To The Sword.” It’s serious business, but Steven’s earnest love for Connie is why it works, and the fact that they find the whole thing just a little silly makes everything better. (See also: everything about their facial expressions while laughing at Lion chowing through plastic, which manages to be funny in its self-awareness, serious, and fun all at the same time.) The motivation for the plot of this episode is not Steven feeling guilty over Connie being punished (where you might normally expect this to go), it’s about Connie wanted to reclaim Rose’s sword. Some things are more important than getting grounded.
The biggest problem with this episode is its increased focus on the character of Dr. Mahesweran. Look: Connie’s mom is really, really oblivious here. Her daughter has been training with swords, riding around on a magical Lion, and hanging out with a boy whose “parents” are magical Gems capable of fusing into giant bigger Gems (this part Connie’s parents have seen), and yet she’s never seriously investigated who, or what, her daughter’s friend is. This is part of a bigger problem surrounding the way the residents of Beach City react to the Gems, which seems to usually be a mixture of nonchalance and oblivious panic. Like, how could any normal person look at the shard mutants and not think “Hm, this is not a human being, maybe I should check with the other non-humans in the area who are connected to all of this weird magic stuff?” (Put another way: Does anyone even read Ronaldo’s blog?)
Still, Dr. Maheswaran’s ultimate motivation is understandable for any parent—a fear of not knowing where your child is, and a desire to keep them safe. (Remember: The Maheswarans are all about safety.) In this respect, Connie’s mom is remarkably similar to Pearl, particularly her parental single-mindedness in “Sworn To The Sword” (though, obviously, it’s turned in a very different direction). And while her actions are a little broader than you’d expect (especially when Vidalia was introduced with so much detail and complexity just a few episodes ago), the resolution of her conflict with Connie suggests some cool new directions for the people of Beach City, who will hopefully become progressively more integrated and capable of assisting with the main plot.
- Do you know how many kids Connie’s mom sees every day with their faces cut off? “None! Because they all have parents who love them, and who don’t let them play around with deadly weapons like some kind of gang member!” (This line is very funny, but takes on weird implications at the end. Who, exactly, are in these gangs that are supposedly running around with swords?)
- “I hate that abacus.” Aw, poor Connie.
- There are just a couple of things that feel a little rougher about this episode—some of the animation is great (pretty much all of Steven and Connie’s facial expressions), but some of the movements are on the stiff side. And stuff like Dr. Maheswaran complaining about her stethoscope somehow not working should have bothered me, but it’s pretty funny.
- Okay, I squealed at “Keep your hands off my Connie!”
- Exciting, interesting thing: It’s been almost a year since the events of “An Indirect Kiss,” when Steven’s healing abilities corrected Connie’s vision. Is that the first verbal confirmation of the show’s timeline, other than the simple background passage of time/seasons?
- “Dr. West?” Damn, is Kanye going to show up on Steven Universe? (If that happens, I may need to be held for a while.)
- Welcome back, everyone! I’m pretty sure we’ll be in the normal time slot for a few weeks at least, so settle in for some neeeew Steven. I know I really needed this…. did you?