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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rebecca Sugar Knows What She’s Doing: My 8 Favorite Steven Universe Moments (so far)

            I love Steven Universe.  Lots of people love Steven Universe.  And with the show now well into its second season, it’s not hard to see why- it’s set in a fabulously creative world with funny, compelling characters, is littered with some of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard in a kid’s show, it’s relentlessly fun, and is gorgeously animated to boot.         

            If that was all the show had going for it, it would be good enough.  But it’s not a good show.  It’s a great show, one of the best animated series currently running.  And I give much credit for this to the astonishing talent the creative team behind it has shown in fully utilizing every second of every episode to broaden the emotional depth of the world and its characters.

            For a show with only 11 minutes allotted per episode, even less than packed storytelling successes like Gravity Falls or the Avatar franchises, SU episodes, surprisingly, don’t feel nearly that short.  There’s a remarkable weight the creators are able impart through tiny scenes, quick asides, and silent moments that, in lesser hands, would either be empty bits to kill time, or would be relegated to the cutting room floor by an overzealous studio hack.

            Make no mistake, Rebecca Sugar knows what she’s doing with this show, and to celebrate what she’s given us so far until the next round of episodes comes out this summer, here is a quick rundown of what, for me, are the most meaningful moments in the show (so far). 

**spoiler alert- I don’t want to devote too much space to describing what happens in each scene, so I’m assuming anyone reading is caught up on the show and knows the episodes I’m referring to**

8. Peridot discovers the rain (Season 2: Episode 19- “When It Rains”)

            These are the sort of scenes I adore seeing in animated works, because it’s the sort of thing that would otherwise almost always get cut, especially in shows with episodes as short as those in SU.  With the Gems away on a mission, Steven finally convinces Peridot to step out of the bathroom and teach her about the world.  She is initially terrified of the rain, but when Steven steps outside, we get a brief shot of her slowly reaching out her hand and feeling water for the first time.  It’s only a short moment, but it’s reflective, almost childlike, leaving a much bigger impact on the viewer than something like that normally would. 

7. When Greg tries (and fails) to fuse with Rose (Season 2: Episode 9- “We Need To Talk”)

            There are so many things in SU, especially the whole concept of fusion, that can be directly used to talk about the intricacies of love, sex, and relationships both romantic and platonic (and lately its specifically sexual overtones have gotten VERY overt), and one of the best examples is when Greg reveals to Steven that he once tried to fuse with Rose in order to improve their relationship and be closer to her.  It obviously fails, which really upsets Greg but just seems to amuse Rose.  The conversation that results does a remarkable job of packing a wealth of commentary on the contradictory and confusing feelings of being in love, and all the anxiety and anxiousness about the future that entails, into just a few short minutes.  Anyone who has been in at least one serious relationship has experienced that crushing sensation when you are worrying yourself sick about something, and your partner just…doesn’t…get it.  How many animated images can you think of that better capture that sensation than the sight of Greg laugh-crying, and Rose’s response? 

6. Garnet’s split, post-Pearl (Season 2: Episode 12- “Keystone Motel”)

            With Pearl having betrayed Garnet’s trust just to be able to fuse with her again in a previous episode, Garnet struggles so much with her feelings over it that it literally drives Ruby and Sapphire apart for a night while they are on a road trip with Greg and Steven.  It’s the first time we really get to see what Ruby and Sapphire are like, what sort of characteristics, personalities, and powers they have, which their brief introduction at the end of Season 1 didn’t provide. 

            I love this scene for how it touches on a key part of family dynamics.  The scene is practically a commentary on how fights, separations, and open disagreements between partners can affect their kids.  The whole episode is from Steven’s perspective; he tries to be around Sapphire, but the literal coldness of her anger and hurt freezes the room, and drives him outside.  He tries to go swimming with Ruby, but the literal fieriness of her rage evaporates the entire pool, and Steven once again feels forced to leave. 

            This powerfully shows how, when two partners are openly struggling to deal with something bad, it can deeply affect children even when the issue has nothing to do with them.  What brings the two back together at the end of the episode is not a resolution of their problem, but rather the realization that their inability to handle their anger in a controlled and mature way was upsetting Steven, even though they obviously didn’t intend that.  This episode should be required viewing for wannabe parents. 

5. Amethyst turning into Rose (Season 1: Episode 43- “Maximum Capacity”)

            Good God, this scene is messed-up as all hell.  And I love it for that.  After Greg and Amethyst have spent days obsessively watching a ridiculous old sitcom they used to love called “Little Butler” (as someone who just recently discovered “The Nanny,” I can sympathize), Steven goes to find them and inadvertently stumbles on what can only be described as this show’s version of bedroom role-playing, with Amethyst having transformed into Rose to taunt Greg about wanting to leave.  The embarrassment hanging in the air when the two realize Steven saw everything is painfully palpable, and it opened up SO MANY QUESTIONS about what exactly went down between Greg, Rose, and the other gems.  Yeah, I know a later episode nixed the possibility of Amethyst and Greg have an explicitly romantic relationship, but somehow, even going back to this episode with that knowledge in hand in no way diminishes the tense emotional of this scene.    

4. Steven and Lion chase after Pearl (Season 1: Episode 45- “Rose’s Scabbard”)

            This was the scene that made Pearl my favorite character on the show.  They tried to recreate it later on in the episode where Connie learns swordfighting, but the cake had already been taken by this earlier episode, which revealed more about Pearl and her complicated relationship with Rose than any other scene before or since.  It’s moving, it’s heartbreaking, and it was one of the turning points of the show from being just really good to becoming genuinely great. 

3. Stevonnie’s creation and self-discovery (Season 1: Episode 37- “Alone Together”)

            Since SU is, at least on the surface, a kid’s show, I can’t quite say that the moments after the creation of Stevonnie are explicitly erotic, but there is a clear sensuality to how Stevonnie’s hands slowly move over the contours of this newly-created body.  Since Rebecca Sugar subsequently confirmed that Stevonnie identifies as neither male nor female, this moment plays out as a beautiful celebration of the pure human form, detached from any subset of identity.  The whole episode easily ranks as one of the series’ best, but even within its contours the magic of this particular scene will always stand out to me.   Also, good Lord does Stevonnie have Steven's laugh.  

2. Steve and Connie sit and watch the falling snow together (Season 1: Episode 42- “Winter Forecast”)

            While I consider myself a Man of All Seasons, the silences to be found in wintertime will always have a special, metaphorically warm place in my heart.  Maybe it’s a symptom of growing up in cold-deprived Georgia, but I absolutely adore snow, and no amount of shoveling, car damage, or travel delays will ever allay that. 

            This is, without a doubt, the number one reason why this quiet moment at the end of the “Winter Forecast” episode counts as one of my absolute favorites of the whole show, but I think there is a larger magic to how the scene, done using dark night tones and quiet sounds, embodies many of those small, peaceful moments rarely found outside of childhood, where the world seems to still in its revolutions, the bigness and scariness of the unknown fades away, and only calmness and peaceful wonder remains. 

1. Rose’s Video for Steven (Season 1: Episode 35- “Lion 3: Straight To Video”)

            As of this writing, Rebecca Sugar and others working on SU have made no claim that there is any particular spiritual, religious, or philosophical “message” underlying the show’s world, story, or characters.  There are certainly some morals regarding trust and honesty and friendships and relationships in particular episodes, but the show is first and foremost a fun fantasy-adventure romp, with any “teaching” being secondary to that.   
            And yet, like fellow Meisterwerk The Last Airbender, it’s a show that has a lot to say about love, life, and the beauties of the greater universe we coexist in, and these are what make some of its best moments so special.  Some might say that this is despite the fact the show isn’t trying to pass along a particular philosophy, belief, or what have you, but honestly, I think these parts resonate precisely because they aren’t of some grand indoctrination scheme.  Most of us humans have a strict aversion to being preached to, and usually instinctively call out shows/movies/books/etc. that seek to do so.  Ironically, this makes us all the more likely to be open to the truths that simple stories can convey without even consciously trying to do so.  When a show like SU comes along, one that’s trying to just be sweet and funny and a lot of fun for everyone, and every now and then slows down to say something important about life, it feels so much more genuine, meaningful, and earned. 

            For me, there is no finer example of this (and thus no other scene that comes close to being my favorite in this show) than when Lion reveals to Steven that he has a home video made by Rose herself, expressly for Steven to see when he’s old enough to understand.  I won’t go into any further detail than that- it’s a moment that can only be experienced to be fully grasped- but it’s one of the most beautiful and moving moments I’ve ever seen in an American animated show. 

            And that’s a wrap!  It won’t be too much longer folks!  Soon, the Steven Bombs will rain down upon our heads once more.  And there will be much rejoicing. 

-Noah Franc

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