Steven Universe hits 100 episodes with its first full 22-minute installment and to celebrate, the show means “Bismuth.” (Yeah, yeah, I used that joke in the headline, but it’ll be really funny if I do it a third time.) Lamar Abrams, Colin Howard, Jeff Liu, and Katie Mitroff come together on this two-part special, a relatively self-contained story that introduces an intriguing new Gem, hints at some exciting backstory, and manages to say pretty much everything important about Steven Quartz Universe.
When Lion persists in chewing on a commemorative T-shirt Steven got the time he rode the Thunderbird at Funland (complementing his Thunderbird button and framed photo), he hops into Lion’s mane to hide the shirt away and accidentally breaks one of the tree’s branches, unbubbling the mysterious, pyramid-shaped Gem floating inside. She reforms, proving to be a burly Gem with rainbow hair, Crystal Gem star tattoos, and an apron. (She’s almost certainly the Gem that poofed Lapis, judging by the abstracted flashback in “Same Old World.”) She looms over Steven in an awesome title card, backed by intense reverse electric guitars (which Aivi and Surrashu use to really spectacular effect throughout the episode, giving the new Gem a sense of cool, with just the right level of menace). This is Bismuth.
Though this is her first appearance on the show, Bismuth—who Steven eventually pulls out of Lion, after hopping in and out of the mane to consult the Gems first—manages to feel like a natural part of the Crystal Gems, partially bypassing a common problem when new characters get added to a TV show who have ostensibly known the regulars for years. (Or, in this case, millenia.) Partly, this is because her existence helps answer a few outstanding questions about the show: How did the Gems build their weapons, or outfit Rose’s armory? (Bismuth is a blacksmith, originally created to build Gem structures.) Who else aided Rose, Garnet, and Pearl during the rebellion? (Bismuth, along with a few other Crystal Gems, like Ol’ Crazy Lace, Biggs, and Snowflake—whatever they were.) What was the pyramid Gem inside Lion’s mane? (Well, it was Bismuth. That one was obvious.)
Partly, it’s because Pearl and Garnet each have their own individual, well-observed relationship with her. Bismuth acts as a sort of battle-worn older sister to Pearl, jokingly asking who she belongs to. (The way DeeDee Magno Hall triumphantly, ritualistically shouts “Nobody!” as Pearl grins in Bismuth’s arms is ecstatic, and heartbreaking in the context of both their history and the rest of the episode.) Meanwhile, Bismuth teases Garnet about being a permafusion, in the sort of way you would expect an older version of Amethyst. (“You’re one to talk—oh, oh, excuse me—you’re two to talk.”) Garnet making her gauntlet to punch Bismuth in the arm is among the most playful moments she’s had lately—not only is her comedy usually far more deadpan, there’s no one else on the team capable of ribbing her in quite this way.
And partly, it’s because she’s voiced by Uzo Aduba of Orange Is The New Black. Aduba immediately stakes a claim as one of the show’s best guest voices in ages. She imbues Bismuth with a degree of warmth that establishes her as, at least at first, trustworthy and front-facing, equally comfortable with the jokiness of her interactions with Garnet and Pearl, the confidence of her assessment of Amethyst’s whip, and the booming bravado of her speeches, rousing anger and heating up everyone’s blood in prepation for combat against Home World. (Let’s not forget the casual humor with which she deploys the “Bismuth” joke the first two times, than the menace that characterizes the third.) It helps that we get to see Bismuth in, essentially, her home territory: a forge where all of the Gem weapons were made.
The forge is designed explicitly to be used by Bismuth, from the door that opens in the shape of her Gem to her comfort with the lava she uses as a tool to the many, many boxes and drawers filled with unused tools—among them, a set of spikes for Garnet’s gauntlets, a trident extension for Pearl’s spear, and a set of flails that serve as an addition to Amethyst’s whip. It’s also filled with other weapons, some of which I’m sure we’ll find out more about as the show goes on. (Especially that gigantic sword hanging from the ceiling… who was even big enough to use that?)
Still, Bismuth is a bit of a Gem out of water here. It’s easy to forget how much Steven’s influence (and, to a lesser extent, Greg’s) has softened the other Crystal Gems—they used to be an army, but are now just as comfortable playing house as on the battlefield, if not more so. So when Bismuth has everyone sparring with her on the beach, relentlessly attacking as a way of warming up for battle, it’s a bit of a shift. Even though Steven has been training all the time, he’s still uncomfortable with the aggression and militarism on display. (“This is a little intense for me.”) Instead, Steven introduces Bismuth to his own Crystal Gem rituals: playing badminton (Bismuth violently smashes the shuttlecock), cards (Garnet beats Amethyst’s shapeshifting with future vision), and making pizzas. This is about the best that “Bismuth” gets for Bismuth.
Like all of the Gems, Bismuth has a certain level of resentment. But where Pearl and Amethyst have mostly directed their anger inward, Bismuth’s rage is firmly pointed at the “upper crusts” of Gem society. This is fascinating in the way it introduces ideas of class as a rather clear subtext of the rebellion—or, maybe, revolution—and adds an additional dimension to how the Crystal Gems feel about Home World. (We’ve seen hints at the class striation of Gem society before, especially in Peridot’s snootiness and the way Sapphire is treated as aristocracy, but never with quite this degree of clarity. Also, “upper crust” is a great phrase for the way it evokes both the 1% and the actual crust of a planet.) That’s led her to take being a Crystal Gem to be the most important thing someone can be, captured in a series of lovely slow shots of her sparring with Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. When Bismuth tells Steven about Rose’s ability to turn Gems away from their designed purpose, similar to the interaction between Rose and Greg in “Greg The Babysitter,” it’s Aduba’s shining moment of the episode, and it proves one thing: Bismuth is a true believer. That’s what makes her so scary.
Bismuth takes Steven back to the forge to show him a new weapon she’s created, one that she claims is even better than Rose’s sword. Introduced in an epic action shot, the weapon—called a breaking point—uses what looks like a giant pneumatic drill bit to shatter Gems with a single blow. The devastating, lethal new weapon is a powerful metaphorical device in children’s entertainment, the equivalent of the Killing Curse or introducing the fire-bombing airships to Avatar: The Last Airbender—hell, it gets its own setup with the Demon Blade in the Lonely Blade movie Steven watches with the Gems—and it’s the only real false note in “Bismuth.”
The breaking point is a cool and scary tool for killing Gems, but it’s nothing compared to whatever Home World used to corrupt most of the Gems on Earth, and it probably wouldn’t even stand up to, say, Jasper and Peridot’s ship. (Do the ships have shattering capabilities? I suppose it’s possible they don’t, but I’m skeptical.) I know this sounds nit-picky, but it’s really important that if you’re going to attempt this kind of moral dilemma it doesn’t appear forced, and in this case, the seams show just a tiny bit too much to turn “Bismuth” into a very special episode.
Thankfully, it works because “Bismuth” is also a great, great Steven episode. The other Gems are mostly sidelined here, with Pearl and Garnet overjoyed at Bismuth’s reappearance and Amethyst at first frustrated and confused, then super into Bismuth after the new Gem amplifies her destructive power. (This is, I assume, basically viewer reaction.) But Zach Callison gets to do some of his best voice acting work of the season, starting from the opening sequence of telling Lion he’s going to put the shirt “in ya mane,” with an according shot of Steven closing one eye and sticking out his tongue. (When Lion begrudgingly complies, Steven flirtatiously responds, “Thank you boo,” and we all know flirty Steven is the best Steven.) And when Bismuth tries to offer him the breaking point, Steven is, of course, resolute in his opposition to the weapon.
The structure of a 22-minute episode also pays off strongly in the confrontation between Steven and Bismuth, and not just because it gives us more time with Bismuth before her heel turn. The newfound space also allows the boarders to add in more than one or two callbacks in a single episode—especially when Bismuth uses the “Bismuth” joke, and Steven tells Amethyst “Well, it’ll be really funny if she does it a third time,” only for the third time to come when Bismuth lays out the destructive, lethal power of the breaking point to an appalled Steven. (It also gives the Crewniverse an opportunity to make commercial bumpers featuring chibi versions of the Gems, prominently displaying Bismuth as a member of the team, which are extremely cute and should be promptly turned into posters for my room.)
“Nobody’s more Crystal Gem than I am,” Bismuth tells Steven angrily. Her dedication to the cause is obvious—she’s covered in star tattoos, which look like the only real, consistent body modification any of the Gems have done, besides, uh, Garnet’s fusion. But it’s led her into a position that, if not as morally bad as Home World’s, is still pretty bad. Steven, naturally, opposes killing in any situation, which includes the Gems he’s fought. (Remember, every time he meets a new Gem, they try to kill him before he becomes friends with them.) Both Steven and Bismuth are coming at the issue from different perspectives—Steven would be hard-pressed to befriend the masses of Gems Bismuth had to fight, but Bismuth also doesn’t understand the clarity of Steven’s moral compass, and she hasn’t experienced the empathy that allowed him to convert Peridot and Lapis. The ability to choose is important, Steven Universe seems to be saying, but it’s perhaps even more important to use that ability to choose to be good.
Not even Rose made that decision, not completely, because she lied to Garnet and Pearl about Bismuth. There are plausible reasons for her doing this—perhaps she didn’t want to besmirch Bismuth’s memory—but the end result is that Bismuth refuses to believe Steven when he claims to not be Rose. There’s no way for Steven to get out of this, so they fight, reversing Steven’s usual pattern with new Gems. It’s a pretty intense sequence, with Steven trying to avoid combat in the face of Bismuth’s shapeshifting arms. Steven eventually loses one of his sandals to the lava, floating high above the ground, and sustains the biggest single hit we’ve seen him take since “The Return,” when Bismuth hurls him into a wall. Tossing a rock back at her, Steven knocks Bismuth down, then poofs her with Rose’s sword before bubbling her.
Of course Steven would never shatter Bismuth. (Though if being shattered is being killed for a Gem, getting bubbled is… lifetime solitary confinement? It doesn’t seem that much better.) And Bismuth is still sympathetic throughout, largely because of how much Rose seems to have let her down. Bismuth’s look of shock and dismay when Pearl conveys that Rose lied about where she (Bismuth) was, mixed with her natural playfulness, insecurity, and anger make for a potent cocktail, and one of the best moments for the boarders. The real tragedy of Bismuth is that Rose never told Garnet and Pearl what happened to her—what Bismuth was trying to do, why Rose had to stop it, why the best solution, in Rose’s mind, was to bubble Bismuth away. Where Steven’s openness and genuine kindness usually allows him to break through even to Gems who have been set on killing him, he can’t control his relationship with Bismuth. After all, if Rose lied once, who’s to say she wouldn’t do it again? For Bismuth, Rose (and Steven’s) emphasis on verbal communication is literally “just talk.”
So is “Bismuth” the one-shot it feels like? It can’t be—that’s not how Steven Universe works. (And we’ll see that Lapis connection come back, I’m sure.) But I do appreciate the way the Crewniverse use this opportunity to engage in a bit of risky “Bismuth,” telling a relatively self-contained story that contains most of the values of the show in one more or less digestible package, with a fabulous guest star. Even if we don’t see more of Bismuth in the near future, her commitment and willingness to take Gem life couldn’t have been a unique characteristic during the rebellion. This episode feels like the opening of a floodgate into an exploration of what that war was like—and what the Crystal Gems had to do to survive. Remember, even Jasper “respected” Rose’s tactics—they must have been brutal. How will Steven deal with the moral and emotional complexity that comes with this part of adulthood, and with new parts of his mother’s legacy? If the lovely ending shot of a shoeless Steven hugging the Gems, watching a comet go by, there’s only one answer: honestly.
- For what it’s worth, I’d guess that each of the storyboard teams that worked on this one took half of the episode, then everyone was credited alphabetically, but I’m sure someone will ask.
- Best Pearl line—Bismuth reminds Pearl of the time they ambushed the Nephirite piloting a drop ship, and DeeDee Magno Hall gets to mix polite Pearl with badass Pearl: “How embarrassing for her!”
- Best Garnet line—When Bismuth downplays giving her weapons to the Gems, Estelle expresses her pleasure at having Bismuth back on the team, and tries to make her feel better, all in five words: “It was worth the wait.”
- Best Amethyst line—Amethyst doesn’t get a ton to do this episode, since she has no really has no relationship with Bismuth and is skeptical at first. But flailing on the forge with the whip, she comes around, squealing like a pleased child: “Bismuth’s the best!”
- Rose’s secrecy about Bismuth doesn’t really explain why Garnet and Pearl never talked about her—or any of the other original Gems, really. I suppose it might just be that the loss was too painful?
- I’m sure there are other visual reference points, but the Gem dummies Bismuth tries to get Steven to shatter remind me a lot of the way Mike Mignola draws the iron maiden in Hellboy: Wake The Devil.
- “That’s exactly what she said.” Nice one, Bismuth.
- Lots of Lonely Blade this week, huh?
- Phew. This was brutal to review (not sure if you all have noticed, but it’s tiring doing all of these at once!), but it’s also the last episode of the week.(Next week also starts with a two-parter.) What did you all think?