Nothing really happens in today’s episode of Steven Universe, or at least none of the exciting things you would normally expect to happen in a show about a team of monster-fighting alien warriors. There are no enemies, no training obstacles, not even a real fight. There’s no mention (at least explicitly) of the impending threat from Peridot and the Gem homeworld after last week’s apparently disastrous “Marble Madness.” Just a makeshift family dealing with its painful millenia of history and loss.
The past few episodes have dealt increasingly with Rose’s absence and the way it continues to effect the Gems—a reversal of the earlier episodes’ focus on Steven trying to understand and start to live up to his mother’s legacy. “The Test” is, in part, about the Gems’ lack of direction without their leader. In “Maximum Capacity,” it manifests in Amethyst and Greg working through the way Rose’s “death” has changed their relationship. And “On The Run” introduces Amethyst’s difficult history with the other Gems. All that, of course, has sprung from Steven’s encounter with Rose via videotape at the end of “Lion 3,” an episode that kicked off the show’s current 2015 hot streak (something that shows few signs of slowing down).
That revelation allowed Steven Universe to begin doubling back on its mere 44 episodes of history (for those keeping score at home, that comes out to roughly one season of a network sitcom). “Rose’s Scabbard” is almost entirely about putting older information in new contexts, with Garnet and Pearl explaining some of the history behind the Gem battlefield, Steven learning the names of some of the items he discovered in Rose’s armory, and the Gems finally realizing that Lion has some relation to Rose. (This development certainly took long enough—fans had mostly predicted this after, if not Lion’s first appearance, at least his second—but it gives Garnet an excuse to say “It’s a little obvious.”)
More importantly, “Rose’s Scabbard” begins to lay out Pearl’s history with Rose, and the ways in which she might be unraveling. There have been hints of Pearl’s single-minded mania before (her watching Steven sleep, her insistence that they make it out of the atmosphere in “Space Race”), but this is a new level of emotional rawness. Her ideas are kind of insane (“It’s the mark of a great leader—knowing just what to keep hidden from everyone you’re trying to protect”), but they go a long way toward explaining how much the Gems, and Pearl in particular, have tried to protect Steven from knowing about their history.
As part of the growing complexity of that history, “Rose’s Scabbard” gives us a side of Pearl that’s merely been hinted at until now—the devoted, possibly overzealous soldier, as Pearl takes Steven to Rose’s armory, then loses it when she finds out that Lion has already taken him there. The animation’s almost-rough attention to Pearl’s projections (in particular her ”encounter” with Rose at the end of the episode) combined with the straining of Deedee Magno Hall’s voice convey Pearl’s frustration at the loss of her feeling of specialness, the way her faith in the uniqueness of her relationship with Rose has mostly failed to give her a sense of direction without her commander.
The idea that Pearl resents Steven for being the reason Rose is no longer present is dark, but also totally emotionally understandable, and it gives the show one of its most cutting moments to date: “You’ve never even met her!” The fact that Steven doesn’t simply crumple shows far he’s come, and how crucial his earnestness is to the show’s success. Because remember, if all of these different parts of the Gems seem like too much, too much fast: not only have these characters been around for thousands of years (and developed justifiable depth and serious history), real people are also probably much more complicated than you give them credit for, and it’s a remarkable thing for a kids’ cartoon to hint at that level of complexity. Oh, and we’re seeing them through Steven’s eyes.
Because of course, it all comes back to Steven, who proves himself a very different type of leader from Rose. Contra Pearl (and his mother), the concept of a secret is only attractive to Steven because it sounds cool. But as he’s learned, they can just as easily come back to bite you. Where Pearl is aghast at the casualness with which Steven treats the ancient Gem weaponry and is horrified by Lion, Steven is comfortable just calling the chain balls cool, and provides comic relief by repeatedly calling for “Lion” (in a great voice acting moment from Zach Callison). Steven might be the only kid who’s ever been able to make magic tricks done by pulling things out of a lion’s mane cool, in a beautiful, wordless sequence of simply being there for another person that culminates in Pearl taking Rose’s flag and acting out battle orders while Steven watches in awe.
Still, this is the first episode that starts to show the wear of the show’s hot streak—even if the relationships between the Gems are 5,000 years old, it doesn’t make the same pattern of revelation consistently powerful. These episodes have hit a rhythm, but hopefully that rhythm doesn’t become predictable (particularly in the way each occasionally seems to blow through new information about the Gems).
On the other hand, it also hints at the intensity of what might be next: That Pearl doesn’t go to help Steven when he falls seems like a huge break from her previous characterization, to the point where she literally turns her back on him. (You could argue that she knew he’d be able to climb up, but I think there’s something intentionally unsettling about it.) Besides, even though Steven is adorable and does his best to cheer up Pearl, there’s blank expression on her face as she rides off with on Lion. Something is coming.
- Kids, be like Steven and wear a helmet when you’re riding around on a bike you pulled out of a magical lion.
- Garnet catching the falling portrait of Rose is a nice way to hint at the continued presence of future vision without having it overwhelm the episode.
- There’s no outright mention of Peridot, but the trip to the battlefield is kicked off by Garnet’s suggestion that the Gems can’t leave the old weapons lying around. Sounds like they’re preparing for war.
- Welcome back to regular Steven Universe coverage! In an effort to kill me, Cartoon Network has decided to air one new episode every day this week, including a half-hour episode on Thursday—and I will be reviewing all of them. Steven Bomb, I am coming for you.
- And now that we’re back, what have been your favorite episodes since the last time I was here? I’m pretty in the tank for “Lion 3,” “Future Vision,” and “Alone Together.”