It’s been a while since an “intense” episode of Steven Universe didn’t telegraph itself as such—the first season, especially, was so heavily characterized by episodes that ended with devastating emotional gut punches, that some time around “On The Run” (coincidentally, another Amethyst insecurity episode) I started watching with a sense of constant emotional paranoia. Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco do really excellent work with the first one of these the show has done in a while. The seams show a bit in the transition from “fun-filled lark” to “impending spiritual crisis,” but that doesn’t diminish the fact that “Crack The Whip” is something that’s been a bit scarce the past two weeks: a full-on Steven Universe surprise.

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Let’s start with the episode’s first surprise: Connie showing up at the temple for sword training, just as Pearl and Garnet go off to hunt for Jasper. With the day free and Amethyst in charge, Steven, Amethyst, and Connie spend a few hours goofing off, the way only Amethyst can. They hang out at the beach, eat doughnuts, chase birds, and even rave with Lion, in a sequence that’s a ton of fun both visually and aurally—I love the way Steven’s hair gets wet from the soda he opens on himself, as well as Aivi and Surrashu’s unbelievably peppy, vaguely ’80s montage sort of score that still remains totally in line with the rest of the show’s music.

Amethyst’s comic side is the most front-facing one, partly because she’s a funny character, partly because Amethyst likes it that way. But this is an especially funny episode for her, from the way Michaela Dietz expresses her mocking Pearl (“Very irresponsible, Pearl”) in her faux-classy voice to the way she shape-shifts her eyes to her feet, then stops paying attention to Steven and Connie’s sparring. She doesn’t have the eye for form, or interest in technique, that would put her on the same level as Steven, Connie, and Pearl’s dedication to fighting (or training), but that doesn’t mean Amethyst doesn’t have insight, or anything else to bring to the table. Her advice about looseness and improvisation is important—note the way she poofs one of the Gem monsters. It’s not “pretty,” but then again, that’s not Amethyst. Still, that approach has its limitations, which Amethyst runs into when Jasper shows up. Again.

Though Jasper is (maybe) at risk of being overexposed, this is easily her best episode since “Jail Break.” Partly, this is because she’s engaged with something outside Lapis, but also it’s because we start to get a sense for what actually drives Jasper outside of her mission for Home World. When Kimberly Brooks smirks that “fighting is my life,” it’s a way of communicating the extent to which Jasper buys into Home World’s deeply teleological approach to Gem life and creation—fighting is Jasper’s purpose, and she takes great joy in that. That commitment to violence for its own sake gets even creepier when she says, retreating, that “Jaspers keep going, until we get what we want.” (I can only assume that at some point this will include Lapis, and then the “abusive relationship” subtext of “Alone At Sea” will get downright nauseating.)

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Amethyst, confronted with the knowledge that her ideal form was intended to be similar to Jasper (they’re both Quartzes, remember), lashes out in a rage and attempts to take on the other Gem one on one. This ends badly—Jasper poofs Amethyst. This entire sequence is very intense, fraught with fragility and softness in all aspects of the production. Look at the expressive, almost dissolute way Villeco and Molisee draw Amethyst when Dietz spurts out, “Rose said I’m perfect the way I am.” It’s a proud declaration, but it doesn’t get Amethyst past her own insecurity, or past Jasper’s helmet. When Jasper responds, “Then she had low standards,” the dark, intense, low-angle, excessively detailed shot tells you everything you need to know about how much the encounter is affecting Amethyst.

For a moment, it seems like Jasper is going to take Amethyst hostage, but in the head of the moment, Steven and Connie shows up, and uses her sword to knock Jasper into the monster, poofing the creature and sending Jasper back to lick her wounds. (“Hm, I guess she lives in the ocean now.”) This is the best fight sequence the show has done in months, maybe the best since “Sworn To The Sword”—perfectly capturing the balance of crystalline aesthetic beauty, sweeping visuals, and sheer awe that characterizes the best of Steven Universe action. It’s stunning, and you would think that finally getting to see Stevonnie fight would be the high point of this episode, but it’s not. Instead, when the battle is over, our focus is squarely back on the newly reformed Amethyst, and the high/low point of “Crack The Whip” is, instead, a single Michaela Dietz line reading: “Oh, good! You didn’t need me at all.”

Stray observations:

  • Steven can make two shields at once now! (And over the course of the episode, he generates at least five, if you include the Stevonnie shield.) How many can he do in a day now?
  • Sadie singing Greg and Marty’s burger jingle is a really excellent low-key moment here. (It’s nice to remember that other people are more exposed to broader pop culture than Greg.)
  • Connie, at the end of the fun zone montage: “I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun in one day.”
  • When Jasper asks Steven where the other Gems are, he says “They’re not here right now!” as if he was answering the phone.
  • Poor Sour Cream, Gems have been messing up his beach hang time for literally his entire life.
  • “Fusion, fusion, it’s always fusion!” If Jasper ends up becoming a Crystal Gem, I’d bet it will happen when she fuses with one of the main characters. Who’s it going to be? (Hoping for Peridot, but it would probably be Garnet. Or Amethyst. Who knows?)

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