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Steven Universe: “Reformed”

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One of the great things about the family dynamic of Steven Universe is that each of the Gems can function in pretty much any age range in any given episode—because they’re ageless and relatively elastic, they can be overprotective mothers, caring and/or bratty sisters, cool aunts, or even just friends. Each of these roles reveals a different facet of the Gems, who are complex enough characters to pull off this balancing act. Still, Amethyst has sort of settled in as the temple’s resident angsty teen, and “Reformed” is the most sustained look yet at what that will entail.

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Steven manages to set off Amethyst by asking her a series of questions in an online quiz to determine which Crying Breakfast Friend she is—an easy tactic, but also one that allows the contrast between her answers and her actions (eating a massive, explosive sandwich that’s just missing motor oil) to say a lot about where her head is at. (Also, it gives us the names of several Crying Breakfast Friends, the most important show-within-a-show to exist since Single Female Lawyer.) In particular, she’s clearly insecure and uncomfortable in her own Gem skin, especially in relation to the perfectionist Pearl and super-powerful, kickass Garnet.

As much as the Gems have proved themselves able to come together to overcome obstacles or talk about their problems occasionally (in particular, Amethyst and Pearl forming Opal in “The Return”), a single episode shouldn’t be enough to totally resolve those issues—these are complicated, ageless aliens. So the process of perpetual regeneration (reformation?) Amethyst goes through during most of this episode is an effective metaphor for someone trying to reinvent themselves. If you were given the ability to fashion a new body, how would you change it? Amethyst literally gets that opportunity when a creature (The Slinker, as Steven calls it) perpetually “poofs” her, and uses it to come back—too soon—first with four feet, then as a gross facsimile of Pearl, then a misshapen “strongwoman” Amethyst before taking her time on a final, permanent-for-now form (that adds another shoulder strap_.

But with such a strong idea, the execution in “Reformed” feels a bit weaker than the past few episodes. Even though it’s giving us much-needed Gem time, it doesn’t quite hit any new character notes, or reframe existing ones in interesting ways. We know that Amethyst has an inferiority complex and authority issues when it comes to Pearl, at least some of which stem from her status as a newer, initially evil Gem. We know that she looks up to Garnet but occasionally lashes out at the more powerful team leader. Everything is just a tad broad here, especially when the madcap elements of Steven, Garnet, and Amethyst chasing The Slinker don’t quite cohere into something as beautifully silly as “Love Letters” and the emotional elements don’t hit quite as hard as they did back in “On The Run.”

That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff going on in this episode. Storyboard artists Paul Villeco and Raven Molisee clearly have a blast with the various Amethyst redesigns (one of the benefits of the Gems’ ability to give themselves new bodies is that the show’s creative team can change their looks when they get bored), and the cut from Amethyst asking why anyone would want to watch a cartoon about people crying to Steven’s big, weepy eyes is hilarious (and another installment of the show’s ongoing commentary on its fans). Michaela Dietz and Estelle do some excellent voice work, especially when Garnet declares that Steven’s name for The Slinker stuck. And the very end, with Amethyst’s happy face replacing her teen surliness as Steven declares hug time, is exactly the kind of adorable, sweet moment we’ve come to expect from the show.

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Mostly, I’m hoping that there’s more going on here that we’ll discover as the series progresses—especially relating to Amethyst’s worry that she isn’t a fully contributing member of the team. Probably the biggest clue here is when Amethyst tells Garnet she wants to be “stronger,” a word choice that should set off alarms given the series’ obsession with notions of strength (see also: “Strong In The Real Way,” “Stronger Than You,” etc.). At least for now, if there’s an overarching theory of “strength” on Steven Universe, it’s related to a theme that is both present in many, many kids’ shows and near and dear to the hearts of the creative team: being yourself.

Once again, Garnet gives an explicit lesson about being true to yourself, suggesting that the most important thing Amethyst can do is take on a form that feels right to her. But that idea can only go so far, at least in the overt form it’s taken over the past couple of episodes. Steven’s full arc over the course of the show to date has been about him coming to terms with his identity and his own self, teaching the same thing through repeated conflict and new and diverse situations—through showing, not telling. Steven and the Gems still aren’t perfect, so there should be more than enough ways of putting them through their paces without having to say it out loud. That will make it clear that, through it all, they’re great just the way they are.

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Stray Observations:

  • “I don’t understand anything anymore.” Poor Greg.
  • The faux-Pearl form Amethyst takes made me so uncomfortable.
  • Which Crying Breakfast Friend are you? I want to believe I’m Sniffling Croissant, but I’m probably Pining Grapefruit.
  • That skull in Amethyst’s gigantic, messy room is some dark, dark humor, and I like it.
  • “Is it weird that I’m getting numb to this?” This Steven line, after several Amethyst poofs, is kind of funny. But pushing too hard into the comic potential of the Gems reforming undercuts the emotional power of “Steven The Sword Fighter,” and lowers the stakes for the Gems in future fights.
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