Now this is more like it. “Onion Friend” doesn’t have anything nearly as explosive as Garnet’s dissolution in yesterday’s episode, but it embodies pretty much everything I love about the show, from the very first shots of Steven putting a sandwich together. The care storyboard artists Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff put into the zoom in, quick the looks at all the specific parts of the sandwich, and Steven’s plotting eyes narrowing before he’s ready to feast (or so he thinks) pours out of each frame, and just looks beautiful. It’s small, it’s funny, it’s sweet.
Let’s put it a different way: I don’t care nearly as much what each episode of Steven Universe is about in the abstract (though that’s certainly a consideration) as I do about how it’s about it, and why. And the level of detail packed into “Onion Friend” and its subtle examination of the way people drift apart and grow to misunderstand each other is just delightful. Think about the way Amethyst initially glumly refuses to eat Steven’s empty container, then delights at the prospect when offered a similar meal by Vidalia. Or the way Onion’s inexplicable hiding in the cabinet at the beginning of the episode, strengthening our most horrifying preconceptions about him, reflects his hiding in the Guy sanctum at the end.
The power of “Onion Friend” comes, at least in part, from the way that it starts as small as possible, with Steven trying to make a sandwich, which he realizes, like any of the Gems, isn’t strong enough to make a meal solo. (“Wait, I can’t eat such a perfect sandwich all on its own! It needs a side.”) Details about the state of the temple—like Amethyst’s full transformation into angry, depressed Sally Draper—are thrown in, but left to simmer until we get to the meat of the episode, after Steven and Amethyst chase Onion back to a garage full of paintings of Amethyst. The portraits appear really strange at first, especially because at first we assume Onion is the one painting them. Is he just obsessed with Amethyst? Is that why he treats Steven so oddly? It’d make sense, especially since the show has tackled romantic fascination with the Gems before, and could be approaching it from a new angle. But, instead, it turns out they’re by Vidalia, Onion’s mom and Amethyst’s old friend from the O.G. Greg days.
Admittedly, there are some continuity questions here raised by the revelation of the relationship. Does Amethyst not remember any of the times she’s encountered Sour Cream around Steven, or acknowledge him as Vidalia’s son? How the hell could they not have interacted for so long in a town so small? There are probably plausible answers to these queries (and I’m sure I’ll hear them), but they don’t matter, because the way “Onion Friend” uses the dusty friendship to address the passage of time is really great. Vidalia and Amethyst describe youthful indiscretion in language just oblique enough to embarrass Steven with the implication of the unknown while still hinting at cool stuff for the audience to imagine. Their laughter and banter is fantastic, and it’s really not hard to imagine them painting the town purple. “You don’t know what I’ve done in these shoes!” Vidalia quips.
We get a ton of backstory, expertly delivered here. As some people predicted back in “Story For Steve,” Marty, Greg’s old manager, is Sour Cream’s father, while Vidalia married Yellowtail and had Onion afterward. Some of this is kept to a low murmur during Steven and Onion’s confrontation over the food-Steven (you can pretty clearly hear their conversation, if you listen hard enough), mimicking perfectly the way that kids can choose to focus on things right in front of them while missing, for obvious reasons, the much more adult, sadder stuff happening around them. Steven’s confusion with Onion (“Why do you hate food?”) is another variation on this, as he ventures deeper and deeper into the bizarre house.
The ensuing sequence develops this amazing little rhythm of escalating weirdness, as Onion first tries to force Steven to feed a cute little mouse to his pet snake, then shows him a video of Onion’s own birth (that he got as a present from Vidalia). It’s super creepy and plays into the horror of Onion’s silence, but you can sort of get a sense for why the kid is the way he is—his father is rarely home, and while Vidalia seems like a pretty excellent mother, she’s also a pretty lax hippie parent-type who is cool with the fact that her son doesn’t talk that much. Sure, why wouldn’t he son feed mice to a snake and watch his own birth? That’s normal, right?
Steven’s discomfort—or, perhaps more directly, our discomfort—is treated largely as comic and not given much weight, appropriately. This is all about Steven coming in contact with something fundamentally different from himself, and trying to understand another person’s perspective, or even the fact that they really are another person. I use “they” because, of course, I’m also talking about Amethyst. When Steven finally agrees to go to Onion’s weird room (“Okay Onion, let’s do this. Whatever weird or horrible thing you have planned for me, I can take it.”) it’s because he wants Amethyst to be able to spend the time with her old friend, and acknowledges that he isn’t the most important person in the room. (There’s the Steven we know and love!)
Vidalia and Amethyst’s conversations echo Steven and Onion’s interactions, showing off the ways we perceive others in relation to ourselves. Amethyst considered herself a “dumb sponge following you around,” while Vidalia found that Amethyst was a model of strength and a guide for her own life. Neither of them are wrong—we always perceive others differently than ourselves, since we don’t have the luxury (or misfortune) of being inside their heads, and only have their words and actions to go on. Trying to reach a middle ground of understanding might lead to Vidalia becoming a more important character as she and Amethyst rekindle their friendship, and it might lead to a possible resolution for Garnet and Pearl as we approach the end of the week.
- I’m using a photo from “Onion Trade” because the file I have from Cartoon Network isn’t working right now, will update as soon as I get a new one.
- Sorry if these have been a little hasty—I honestly haven’t had nearly as much time as I’d like to write them, but I’m hoping that at the end of the week and going into next week, we can all have a fuller, deeper conversation about where the show is at.
- The small scope of this one is really remarkable, when you consider how much happened in the last two episodes.
- Guys! Gals! KAREN! (Also Invisible Guy.)
- Lamar is largely the brains behind Onion. I think I am going to start referring to him in these reviews (for episodes about Onion, at least) as Lord Onion Peeler. For no real reason. Okay, bye.