“The Return”

We are the Crystal Gems

We’ll always save the day

And if you think we can’t

We’ll always find a way

That’s why the people of this world believe in

Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and Steven!

At the beginning of the series, Steven isn’t really a Crystal Gem. He’s a kind of obnoxious kid, trying to understand what’s going on around him. He doesn’t contribute to any of the Gems’ missions, tagging along and slowly learning things about them and how they protect the world. It’s Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (and Steven). He replaced the leader of the team, a woman who defended the Earth for thousands of years and inspired unflinching loyalty in the others Gems (and possibly more from Pearl—I see you, commenters on “Rose’s Scabbard.”) The change in Steven and the Gems, evolution of their loose team into a real family that relies on Steven as much as he relies on them, has happened so slowly and deliberately that going back and watching “Gem Glow” now is a pretty disorienting experience. (I don’t recommend trying, it will be super weird.) “The Return” is all about proving that Steven has more than become his mother’s son, or rather that that’s who he was all along. As he proclaims to Jasper and Peridot, he’s a Crystal Gem too.

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Look at how compactly the beginning of “The Return” sets up that theme of children taking responsibility, with Peedee Fryman rebuking Greg for suggesting he might not be able to close up. The kids can do adult jobs just fine, thanks. The first shot is of Steven banging on the counter like he does at the beginning of “Laser Light Cannon,” beginning a borderline unbelievable number of callbacks to the first few episodes demonstrating just how far he’s come. Steven fires the light cannon that he found in Greg’s since-cleared out magical storage unit with “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” (This time, it’s personal.) There’s an extraordinary amount of pathos from seeing Steven’s cheeseburger backpack and realizing that the Gems expect him to leave with Greg, not only because cheeseburger backpacks are funny but because it also signifies that the Gems and Greg still, to some extent, see him as a child, or at least a less a mature child than he really is.

Back when I started reviewing the show (almost a year ago!), I said that one of my favorite things about it was that Steven wasn’t afraid to be childish, and didn’t need to learn any lessons. It turns out that wasn’t quite right—Steven had everything he needed to be a hero, but those qualities did need to be tempered by experience (not adulthood, just understanding). His loyalty, empathy, and enthusiasm are all things he possessed, for the most part, at the beginning of the series, but he needed to learn how to direct them, learn that there were things he could do to help. Here, Steven fully claims his maternal role, forcing Greg to allow him to go back and protect the Gems with Rose’s—sorry, his shield. He punches the van in anger, setting off the airbag (a nice way to add a little humor to a gripping moment), which leads him to bubble and float to where Lion picks him up to head back to the temple. Zach Callison’s vocal versatility while Steven is riding Lion—the swing from begging Connie to pick up the phone to his annoyance at their voicemail—shows off just how fantastic and multi-faced a creation Steven really is.

Steven is mostly separated from the Gems throughout this episode, but he’s more a part of the team than he’s ever been. He’s part of the initial war effort with the light cannons, leads the evacuation effort, and utilizes his shield to full effect to stop the blast from the Gem’s ship. And the other Gems fully recognize that—Garnet, initially the most reticent, distant, and simply alien of the Gems, is the one who has come to trust him the most over the past few episodes. She’s also the one who manages to sweetly and firmly tell Steven that they’re worried, but also trust him to save the residents of Beach City with the simple eloquence and leadership skills they know he possesses. They trust him to be the protector of the town (showcased in a series of brief, well-placed shots of everyone from the Pizzas to Sour Cream), the one who can call in political favors from Mayor Dewey and help persuade the people of Beach City that they need to leave. Estelle deserves an ungodly amount of praise for this speech (and even more for “Jail Break”—but we’ll get there).

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He might be a crucial part of the episode, but somehow, even given all of the early episodes where he just wants to play around with his backpack and do cool stuff, Steven has never looked or sounded more like a child than when he’s squished into the front seat of Greg’s van, hoping that Peridot will “see how nice all the people are, and she won’t want to hurt anyone.” Greg’s response means the world: “You’re just like your mother.” And then he goes on to reveal to Steven what we already knew: The Gem home world is, if not outright evil, at least not particularly sympathetic to the inhabitants of Earth, and Rose Quartz rebelled against them. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are the remnants of her army, and they protect humanity as a way of atoning for their role in the invasion.

It’s not like we didn’t see all of this coming—after a certain point in the season, it became pretty easy to piece together the broad strokes of the show’s backstory. But even if we could’ve figured it out, Steven couldn’t. He’s sweet, and trusting, and doesn’t get to endlessly rewatch episodes to pick up on minor visual cues or parse dialogue (even if his mind is the internet). And the fact that he hears about it from Greg means that not only does he have to react without the Gems there, he really hasn’t come close to getting the full story. The big move in this first part of the finale isn’t some new piece of information, it’s that Steven knows a bit more of what’s going on around him.

And in fully introducing Peridot and Jasper, the emissaries from the Gem home world, Steven Universe continues to hint at a vast, complex history that I hope we never learn in full. Practically everything Jasper says raises more questions—if Pearl is “lost” and “defective” as Jasper says, does that mean the Gems are all harvested en masse? are there a ton of other Pearls somewhere? when Jasper mentions Rose’s “tactics,” is there something in particular she’s referring to? What could Rose’s shield have protected them all from?

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These new Gems are inhuman—Peridot is exceedingly mechanistic, cold, and focused on completing her seemingly bureaucratic tasks, while Jasper is interested in proving her own strength to the exclusion of all else—something that’s effectively communicated by their associated sound design. If there’s a serious problem with this two-parter, it’s that Jasper’s design strikes me as a little generic on a show where everyone is given such levels of individuation. I’m sure I’ll be eating these words down the road, but for now Jasper is mostly a militaristic enemy, a description that doesn’t even fully apply to Peridot, who is fussy and uncaring but also just trying to do her weird science job. Jasper wants to hurt people.

With that in mind, it’s understandable that the Gems want to protect Steven, but when he says “This is my home, and you’re all my family,” you know he’s ready. We already knew all of this—it’s in the premise of the show, after all—but we didn’t know it, and neither did Steven. He’s gone from trying to be a certain thing to actually being that thing. Or, he has, until Jasper hits him in the face and knocks him out. “The Return” ends in despair, with Steven seriously injured for the first time. Garnet has been destroyed, and the Gems are overpowered by Jasper, Peridot, and their ship. This would be a brutal way to end an episode, if we didn’t have the “Jail Break” ahead.

Stray observations:

  • Steven to Lion: “Stay here. If something happens Dad’ll need a new son.”
  • Mayor Dewey continues to be a decent source of humor, as his van catchily blares “E-vac-u-ate.”
  • Opal splits into Amethyst and Pearl before she can say anything. They couldn’t get Aimee Mann for this one, huh?
  • Peridot: “It calls itself… The Steven.” Same.
  • If the ship is a hand… is there a body that it’s detached from?

“Jailbreak”

Leave it to Steven Universe to have its climactic, gorgeously animated, season-ending fight scene, backed by a nearly three-minute song about the nature of loving relationships. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you?

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I’ve already said most of what I want to say about Steven as a character in the review for “The Return,” but I want to start this one off by noting that his uniqueness as a Gem-human hybried really pays off in a plot sense, as he finds himself able to pass through the Gem containment fields set up in the ship, make them safe for the other Gems to pass through, and later stop Peridot by grabbing her disruptor. The escape only happens because Jasper and Peridot (and, by extension, the Gems back on the home world) don’t see humans as worthy threats, and are therefore incapable of understanding that Steven might be powerful because of his organic nature, not in spite of it. Even with its ominous title card, “Jail Break” is still primarily a celebration of all the things that make the family of Steven and the Crystal Gems great.

Once Steven breaks out, his natural instinct for collaboration teamwork kicks in—he doesn’t know Ruby (Charlene Yi), or at least he doesn’t think he knows her, but he still wants to break out the other Gems, “and we’ll do it together.” Though Ruby is a little uninterested in the others, and embarrassed to be seen by Steven, she still leads him through the ship, where they find Lapis, who has been scared into submission by Jasper and whatever she saw on the home world. Her exchange with Steven (“That’s why we can’t fight them.” “That’s why we have to fight them.”) combined with the shot of Lapis sitting sadly in her cell do a whole lot to humanize her, even beyond “The Message,” something that comes back in a big way at the end of the episode.

Next, Steven finds the softly singing Sapphire (Rica Luttrell, who makes a great impression with just a few lines of dialogue), who leads him to Ruby, where the pair lovingly reunite and… fuse into Garnet! I will admittedly that, while I may have heard the popular fan theory that Garnet was a fusion in passing, it wasn’t actively on my radar until I saw someone mention it in the comments on the “Rose’s Scabbard” review. Thankfully, the writers (in particular, story editors Ben Levin and Matt Burnett) aren’t afraid of clever fans figuring out what’s going on, so this really makes a lot of sense in retrospect. (The moment I realized it should have been obvious was when I rewatched ”Coach Steven” and noticed two Gems fusing with Amethyst to make Sugilite.)

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Though neither Ruby nor Sapphire are given real depth, they explain the way Garnet’s two sides—her feisty, smash-first aggression (Ruby) and contemplative, stoic, funny sage (Sapphire)—blend into one fantastic character. More particularly, Ruby’s nervousness and Sapphire’s calm meld into Garnet’s complex reaction to reforming, disappointed in having revealed herself to Steven in that manner. Steven, in turn, is totally accepting, concerned primarily with whether he’s made a good first impression on the distinct halves of Garnet. Her reply is priceless:“Oh Steven, we already love you.” After bestowing Steven with some quick future vision (which continues to provide many of the show’s best recent visual accomplishments), Garnet sends him off to save Amethyst and Pearl and settles in to fight Jasper.

About three minutes of the episode (a bit more than a quarter of its running time) is devoted to “Stronger Than You,” a song that does triple, maybe even quadruple duty for “Jail Break.” For Garnet, the song is justifying her existence to Jasper as a fusion between Ruby and Sapphire, a relationship bestowing her with power as a total emotional and physical union. For the show itself, the song is explaining the nature of that fusion to us as viewers, while simultaneously soundtracking the climactic fight scene. And it’s funky as hell. Damn.

At first, I wasn’t sure the song quite worked throughout (particularly because, even though there’s a viewing screen in the control room, it’s something of a break from Steven’s point-of-view). But then I watched the episode 10, 15 more times, “Stronger Than You” got stuck in my head, and I realized that, actually, it’s pretty damn well paced and timed to the action through. But also—who cares? It’s pretty inspiring that Steven Universe picked the moment it’d be easiest to delve into action cliches to double down on being itself. Where else would you see the season’s climactic fight being a statement about a partnership and a musical number?

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The fight, in which Jasper basically turns into Sonic (though as always, I’m pretty open about not getting a ton of the homages, which you should tell me about—politely—in the comments), is pretty awesome. I’ve mentioned before that the show’s music, frequently provided by composers Aivi and Surrashu and sung in this case by the rad-as-hell Estelle, serves to deflate some of the tension from the fight scenes, turning them into more aesthetic experiences than real battles. This is the first big one-on-one battle in, say, a Dragonball Z vein (something I expect we will start to see more of, though not too much more), and you can tell boarders Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, and Rebecca Sugar herself are having a great time with it.

Still, as always, the punching is cool, but it’s really beside the point. When Jasper says fusion is “just a cheap tactic to make weak Gems stronger,” she could just as easily be talking about all relationships and emotional support systems, and if Steven Universe has a thesis statement, it’s that loving relationships are the most important thing in life, able to overcome essentially any obstacle. (I am inclined to agree with this thesis, though maybe in a slightly less optimistic way.) So the battle between Jasper and Garnet isn’t really to see which of them is stronger, at least not physically—it’s a contest between Jasper’s lone-wolf warrior ideology and Garnet’s harmony between two people, something that’s bigger than either of them on their own.

Garnet’s relationship is stable, something that doesn’t apply to Malachite, the fusion Jasper practically strongarms Lapis into creating. Here, Steven’s empathy proves the ultimate weapon, as his willingness to care about Lapis is her own person leads her to reject both sides of the Gem fight and drag Jasper, caught within Malachite, down into the ocean. Her decision to stay on the “miserable” planet makes sense. If her message was any indication, she really has no home anymore, and capturing Jasper within Malachite at least gives her a modicum of power. But boy, is it an unhealthy pairing. (Cue Garnet: “Yikes. They are really bad for each other.”)

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Though the initial crisis has been averted, there’s more than enough to get excited about going into season two. Steven still hasn’t had a chance to talk to the Gems about their past, or fully understand the nature of Garnet’s fusion. He’ll have to answer Connie’s phone call at some point. Peridot is bubbled somewhere on the planet’s surface, and Malachite is lurking beneath, with Jasper struggling to break free. Hell, there’s still an entire Gem home world that may come looking for their missing ship, including Yellow Diamond, who is apparently Jasper’s superior. This is far from over.

And while there’s still one more episode this week—technically the first episode of season two, which looks like it’ll be about Steven trying to answer Connie’s phone call—this feels like a more appropriate place to talk about the show as a whole. At the proper end of the first season (there are a few more episodes airing that were produced as part of season one, but they’re more or less standalone installments), it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about just how far Steven Universe has come since ”Gem Glow,” “Laser Light Cannon,” and even “Cheeseburger Backpack.”

It’s probably pretty obvious given the tenor of these reviews (and the way I rallied to have them stick around last year), but Steven Universe is one of my favorite shows on television, period. The characters are more complex and interesting than most of their counterparts on prestige dramas, the plotting more nuanced and thought-through, and it’s visually and sonically striking, practically week in and week out. Even the lesser episodes from its current 2015 run are that way largely because they take a breather to focus on some of the minor characters, people the creative team clearly cares about enough to want to lavish them with attention. The level of care put into each episode of the show, and the way it treats its central themes, has only (visibly) increased as the season has gone on, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

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So give a huge hand to the entire creative team—not just Rebecca Sugar, but also supervising director Ian Jones-Quartey, writers Matt Burnett and Ben Levin, the storyboard teams, voice actors, and everyone else in-between—a hand that won’t smash into their houses and explode. They’ve earned my trust in a way few other shows have, and I’m unbelievably excited to see what they’ve come up with next. See you tomorrow for “Full Disclosure!”

Stray observations:

  • The patterns on Steven’s arm when he moves through the field are pretty interesting, as is the nature of the fields in general. Does it suggest that the Gems are magical, sentient computers? Does it really matter?
  • Amethyst saying “You got this, Pearl!” is the most she really gets to do in these episodes besides comically tying up Peridot, but it’s a really nice throwback to when their head-butting drove a lot of the show. (The brief glimpse of Opal in “The Return,” suggesting that Pearl and Amethyst were able to harmonize with ease, is also rather deft in this regard.)
  • The way Callison says “future vision” is, by itself, one of my favorite things on television.
  • If you, like me, want to independently play “Stronger Than You” on repeat for the rest of your life, I am told there will be an independent version on YouTube. It should be up after the west coast airing, after which I’ll be able to embed it here, probably up in the section of the review that deals with it. UPDATE: It’s embedded!
  • I will say, I’ll be kind of bummed if the show a year or so down the road just ends up being all Gems, all the time. The townspeople of Beach City are just as important, if not more so! Give us more Ronaldo! #KeepBeachCityWeird!
  • Phew. One more day, then we can all take a breather.

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