One of the worst things you can say about a television show is that it’s “about family,” as if that were a unique observations. Almost every major series is about a family, whether it’s a biological family (Modern or otherwise), a workplace that “becomes” a family (The Office), or a social group of Friends whose bonds eventually transmute into the familial. “Really, it was all about family” is an empty platitude. The important thing is identifying what kind of family the show is about, and why.
In that respect, Steven Universe is… still pretty interesting. What kind of family, exactly, do the Gems and Steven form? Does that change when you include Greg, or the satellite unit of Lapis and Peridot? Ruby and Sapphire? From the beginning, humans didn’t quite know how to refer to Steven’s relationship with the Gems, but the important thing is that that confusion never really seemed to bother Steven–aunts, moms, sisters, whatever, they’re just his family. “Gem Harvest,” this year’s Steven Universe “fall” special, does more to complicate the family than any episode yet, precisely by introducing something we never thought we’d see: Steven’s biological, human relatives.
Before that happens, though, Steven visits his least-human family. Wearing an extremely good and almost seasonally-appropriate sweater, he goes to visit Lapis and Peridot at their art commune/Camp Pining Hearts fan club/treehouse/barn. In the months since the last time we saw them (Lapis in “Back To The Moon,” Peridot in “Kindergarten Kid”), the pair have put their morps aside for a moment and turned toward putting the barn to its original purpose by planting crops in the fields outside. It’s harvest time in Beach City! Except that Peridot and Lapis assume that their crops will, like Gems, be responsive once they come out of the ground.
Peridot, in particular, is excited to have minions again, and accordingly talks aggressively to the vegetables. (It’s her strongest Zim episode in months.) Nothing happens, so Steven tries to salvage the harvest by using his animating spit to create a pumpkin dog–which naturally flocks to him once it becomes sentient, irritating the Gems. (Cue Lapis: “It’s only just come into existence, and it already doesn’t like us.”) Thankfully, Steven doesn’t lie about how it came into existence, which would have been the normal plot in a family sitcom, and it leads to a very funny scene where Steven carves a pumpkin in a way that’s framed as monstrous and terrifying for the dog, who is scared into taking on Lapis and Peridot as its parents.
But then they run into an angry guy with a loosely New Jersey-adjacent accent (voiced by Dave Willis, the voice of Carl on Aqua Teen Hunger Force) who flies a plane by himself, listens to AM radio, and wants to kick the Gem “hippies” out of his “American” barn. This is Andy, Greg’s cousin, and the rest of the episode follows Steven’s attempt to integrate him into the larger Universe-Gem family.
The subtext of awkward interactions with racist or otherwise bigoted relatives–the clash between biological family and chosen family–is kind of hard to miss, especially when those conversations are more fraught, and possibly more important, than ever. In addition to complaining about “illegal aliens,” Andy is possessive, stubborn, and strongly in favor of traditional marriage. (At one point, we hear him yell, “What do you mean, you weren’t technically married?” to Greg.) And yet, by the end of the episode, he’s been roped into a family dinner (which has a thankfulness ritual, but tiptoes around the actual holiday of Thanksgiving), won over by the Gems, and committed to being a more present, emotionally available member of the family.
I’m sympathetic to this narrative (though I also wish to be excluded from it). I get why the optimism and inherent position of kindness that Steven adopts fits in the format of a children’s show, and why it fits his character, but it still feels a little disingenuous to suggest that overcoming the kind of prejudices Andy evinces are so easily overcome. In the world of Steven Universe, everyone is worth protecting and understanding, but “treat people with love and kindness and they’ll respond in turn” is lacking in many respects. Some people, as we now know (if we didn’t know already) are just bigots. (Side note: This is part of why I love Kevin so much: he’s the closest thing the show has to a straightforward dick who’s a bad person for no reason.) Is there a way to gently tell someone like Steven about real bigotry, and to convince them that some people might be beyond saving?
That might be too big of a question for this space (or this episode), but “Gem Harvest” does do a lot to suggest how Greg might have gotten to this point. Apparently, he had his name legally changed for some reason after leaving home–hopefully, we’ll get a bit more genuine Greg DeMayo backstory as we go. Imagine a young Greg stealing out of his hard-ass parents’ house, taking the family van and going to pursue his dreams as Mr. Universe. Steven responds in shock: “You’re telling me Universe… isn’t a real last name?” This joke would be funnier joke if Steven Universe existed in a slightly more realistic world where most people didn’t have the names of foods.
Greg’s life is far better for having staked his life on music, Rose, and his new family with the Gems–the entire show has made this argument time and again–but that decision comes with a price. Members of your biological family might not be the healthiest people to have in your life, but they’re still people who can be hurt, and have some expectation for intimacy. Greg asks after their Aunt Deb, but Andy–rightly, I think–brushes him off. Greg hasn’t expressed interest in the human part of his family for years, and his questions to Andy suggest that he doesn’t really care. The downside of chosen families is that, sometimes, other people get left behind.
So when Andy tries to take off in the plane, it’s understandable. He doesn’t really fit into the life Greg and the Gems have built, his family is scattered to the corners of the country, and he’s lonely. The stronger character note for Steven here is simply that he wants to get to know his new family member, and already has positive things he wants to learn (like how to peel a potato). It’s a sweet moment, but giving Steven this interaction with a totally new person also highlights the biggest problem with this episode–that Andy’s character feels a bit thin, especially when he’s the focus of so much attention, and especially in an episode where we want to spend time with all of the other Gems, who are in the same place for the first time in a while.
In that respect, it’s worth comparing “Gem Harvest” to the last Steven Universe special, which did something very similar with a new character. The double episode format works very well for “Bismuth,” an episode with relatively tight plotting that required a little bit of character buildup for Bismuth, so she could feel like her own Gem, and make the complicated issues of violence and resistance in that episode feel realer, and resolved more as a result of Steven’s specific values, rather than a broader morality play. “Gem Harvest” never feels quite like that–I forgot Andy’s name between the first and second times I watched the episode.
Still, as always, the Gems make this episode a very fun way to spend your half hour. The storyboard team (comprised of pairs Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco and Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke) does a good job of incorporating everyone, if only for a couple of lines or tasks in making the dinner happen: Garnet and Lapis harvest the vegetables, Pearl and Peridot use their technological skills to turn an old plane into an oven. Amethyst eats cooking oil. And everyone picks up a bunch of life markers to combine as many human holidays as possible into one, including an “It’s a boy” balloon, a grave that says “R.I.P. Andy.” (Cue Lapis: “We’re very sorry for your marriage.”)
In particular, Pearl makes one of the series’ slyest comments on the limited vision of standard family structures when she says, “We heard you like marriage, so we thought, why don’t we all marry each other?” as Andy is presented with a giant wedding cake with at least 15 figures on it, with all possible couples you can make from combining generic brides and grooms. This is easily the best moment of the episode, and the kind of thing it would be really cool to see slipped into more “family” specials.
In everything from art to persuading racist relatives that other people might actually have value, subtlety isn’t the worst place to start–whether it’s in the way the Gems talk about marriage or the way that, over the course of the holiday dinner, the corn Peridot and Lapis planted becomes a metaphor for Gems (and the dinner table comes to represent Earth). But even here, Andy is left out of the conversation. This new family has its own unwritten rules and shared history–that’s what replaces blood ties in chosen families–and if Andy is going to join them, he’s going to have to put the work in to understand them, even as they put the work in to understand him.
Too often, TV shows (and people) assume that families are monolithic, that they mystically form in relation to an inciting incident (whether that’s just someone boning, Michael Scott being the boss of the office, or Rachel running into Central Perk after abandoning her marriage) and exist in the same endlessly repeating structure until the show ends. But any organic, living family is the product of mutual labor. Andy’s assumption that other people (Greg) need to reach out first in order to build a connection can feel righteous for a while, but it leaves you ultimately alone. On the other hand, in a slightly more cynical (possibly even realistic) version of this world where Andy’s hatred of illegal immigrants sticks to the family like a poisonous tar, he’d be the one under an obligation to reach out and try to understand people who aren’t like him. If there’s common ground to be found, everyone has to be willing to find it. Everyone.
- Steven is now named after two people who work on the show: Steven Sugar and Nick DeMayo, the series’ animation director.
- Steven sees Peridot and Lapis’ agriculture setup for the first time: “Did I just die and go to the back of a cereal box?”
- “Garnet says not to lick stuff I find on the ground, but this is for a good cause.”
- Andy calls the Gems a coven, which I’m sure has already inspired a lot of good fanart.
- “For a vegetable garden, I’d say we’re pretty fruitful.” Okay, goofy mom Garnet.
- “Raise your hand if you were thanked.” Okay, kindergarten teacher Pearl.
- But Andy brought all of the Gems together. “She and her partner got the RV,” and their grandfather moved to the Keys.
- See you all for the Christmas special!