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Steven Reviewniverse: ‘Familiar’

By Mark Laherty

After several months, we finally have a truly new episode. Since we’re in a heavily serialised stretch, this one feels more like a few plot-light scenes taken in isolation rather than a standalone story. The gist is that Steven has a chat with Yellow Diamond where she gets a few beats, a similar chat with Blue Diamond, then he gets a song and a Cinderella moment.

Last week, I wrote about the problem with the show trying to redeem the Diamonds. Essentially, letting a couple of colonialist (arguably fascist) dictators turn good doesn’t land quite right in the current political context and is quite different to, say, redeeming Vegeta in Dragonball Z.

Does this problem persist? Pretty much. A few carefully chosen lines of dialogue draw attention to their atrocities, like Steven’s “I get they’re busy because they’re, like, dictators and everything.” Our hero is also visibly spooked by Yellow, so I don’t mean to suggest that they’re all buddies now or anything like that. But, the practical solution that the show is putting forward – the praxis, if you will – is that the wider political problems can be solved by tackling the Diamonds’ own family tensions. Steven sings, “Once we’re all together face to face / I’ll show them all the error of their ways / And stop their spread of terror across space!” This is political activism via Jane Austen. The story is now mainly concerned with the interpersonal drama between aristocrats. Once that drama is resolved, they’ll all stop doing colonialism.

Of course, this might all go to hell by the next episode. There’s a branching pathway here. Either the story carries on in the manner of the rest of the arc (and the whole show) or there’s some deliberate subversion of expectations which would function as an attack on the approach of trying to reason with or befriend every enemy. Again, this is the problem with reviewing one episode at a time. In the absence of future vision, I’m going to assume that Steven Universe is going to carry on being roughly the same show that it’s always been. Remember that the only enemy Steven has taken up arms against was Bismuth, for the crime of wanting to take up arms. But, it’s all guesswork at this stage.

Since Steven is the viewpoint character, we don’t get to see much of Homeworld’s wider reign of terror. We hear about Yellow going “off with her armies” to conquer and colonise planets but we never see it. So, the oppressive nature of Homeworld is instead communicated by how they treat the planet’s lower classes who Steven can meet for himself. Previously, we saw this with the Off Colours, and here we’re seeing it again with the, uh, sentient walls. Lots of things on Homeworld that shouldn’t be alive are alive, like hair-combs and statues. Steven is pampered by a team of cute pebbles who seem cheerful but must surely have a miserable existence. Depicting colonialism via existential horror. Neat! Although it does raise the question: even if Homeworld falls and a utopia rises in its place, will those living walls still be living walls? Or are they shape-shifters? What’s with the living walls, Steven Universe?

Also last week, I said that White Diamond would probably be the focus of this week’s episode and review. Even though I was wrong, I was sort of right because White’s presence looms large here even though she doesn’t turn up. When ‘Legs from Here to Homeworld’ was first released, Drew Koenig wrote for Hidden Remote that White “has this kind of uncomfortable ease with the way she speaks that it feels like talking to someone who’s having a dissociative episode.” Based on ‘Legs’ alone, I wasn’t convinced of this reading, but Yellow’s remark that “White never leaves her own head these days and she never lets anyone in” lends weight to it. It’s an interesting approach to a villain. Given the show’s approach to mental illness in characters like Lapis, it doesn’t land as demonising mental illness.

The ending song is quite good. The show obviously has a good record for solid song-writing but a much shakier history of sound-mixing. ‘What’s the Use of Feeling’ and ‘Ruby Rider’ were astonishingly amateurish in that regard. Imagine getting musical heavyweight Patti LuPone to do a villain song for your show only to make it sound like her mic was turned off. So, it’s always a relief when a song works out. Zach Callison shines as usual and the song is well-placed for Steven’s small epiphany, which works as an ending for an episode that doesn’t really have a normal three-act structure.

That epiphany is that Steven and Pink Diamond have something important in common – and not just the gem. Pink Diamond felt like a child struggling to keep up with a team of superheroes, just like Steven did in Season 1. This allows for a fun moment where the show pokes fun at itself and recognises a common criticism of its early steps: “Remember back when I was little and maybe kind of annoying?” More importantly, it’s a big step toward tying the whole story together. Steven Universe is, after all, a coming-of-age story at its heart. Steven has grown up and helped a family to deal with its problems. Now, by way of the lessons he’s learned, he’s going to do the same again to save the universe. The ‘praxis via Jane Austen’ aspect may be frustrating but it’s a sensible and satisfying approach to the ending of the show – if that is what we’re seeing. A sixth season is apparently in the works, but the show could win the rope-tying Olympics for how efficiently it’s been tying up loose ends.

It’s difficult to offer a conclusive judgement on an 11-minute chunk of what’s clearly a larger whole which we haven’t seen the majority of yet. But, I can say this much: what we’ve seen so far of this arc is a strong entry into the show’s corpus but has some significant flaws. Whether those flaws greatly diminish the story depends on where the story goes in the next few episodes. Much more than that, it depends on whether you think sci-fi, even family-friendly sci-fi, should deal at least obliquely with the current state of the world. Steven Universe isn’t essential viewing in the way it was a few years ago, but that’s as much to do with the content of the years as the content of the show, which is still very good.

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.

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