Steven Universe Review: "Steven The Sword Fighter" (Season 1A, Episode 16)

Pearl sword-fights Holo-Pearl.
“My name is Pearl Montoya. You killed Garnet. Prepare to die!”

Airdate: April 9th, 2014

Synopsis: A rainy movie night at the Beach House leads Pearl to mock the movie of choice, Lonely Blade IV. She lambasts the sword-fighting, in particular. One mention of this later, and the Gems go to a cloud temple, where Pearl shows Steven fencing tendencies. The simulation features a Hologram version of Pearl, who loses the first time. Pearl’s attempts to hammer into Steven that these are non-movie sword-fighting techniques, though, leave her distracted. This leads to a bit of a slip-up in the simulation.

Whoops.

Thankfully, it’s only a flesh wound, in a sense. Pearl has to stay in her gem for some time, though, so Steven tries to make do with Holo-Pearl. This seems unwise, however.

Review (SPOILERS): Remember in “So Many Birthdays”, when the Crystal Gems watched Steven almost age to death because he was emotionally disturbed by his aging and humanity? Well, here, the tables are turned, as Steven gets to watch his adoptive mother get impaled by a copy of herself. And, while that episode shifted its tone halfway through that episode, this one stabs it within the span of three and a half minutes. Impressive. (Yes, I am aware that I am going to Hell for that pun.)

As a whole, though, how does this episode stand up?

I’m going to say this right off the bat – Pearl is probably my favorite Steven Universe character. This analysis, though, is largely based off of later episodes. In fact, only one episode before this has focused on her as a character – “Giant Woman”. Pernickety and no-nonsense, yet also somewhat hypocritical in terms of mannerisms, Pearl functioned in that episode as a fantastic comic foil to Amethyst.

Here, her (first) sword fight with Holo-Pearl provides a great view of how her personality and philosophy can work on the battlefield. Being a skilled swordswoman could very well be a reflection of her more conservative nature – an adherent follower of traditional fighting. In spite of this, though, the fight showcases an arrogance about her. Granted, a little bit of arrogance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does contrast with her more stolid nature.

And then she gets impaled.

“I have a medium-sized holo-sword buried in my abdomen. That sort of thing could really put a crimp on your day!”

Back to the first paragraph, this creates a lot of shock for Steven. Why? Well…

  1. It was Steven’s insistence that Pearl teach him the moves found in the movie that caused her to lecture the kid. Thus, she couldn’t keep up the pattern perfectly. For anybody in that position, let alone a 12-year old, of course there is going to be a ton of guilt, whether justified or not.
  2. Steven just realized that Gems do actually have a sense of mortality. Get stabbed, you disappear. And even if the Gem is effectively in stasis before regeneration, for Steven, this is really the first time he sees the nature of life and death – even though he pretty much lived it two episodes ago, and his mother effectively died giving birth to him. Speaking of which…
  3. Steven watched somebody who is effectively his adoptive mother get stabbed in the gut. It would’ve been traumatizing for anybody to witness, let alone her adoptive son.

Combine all of that, and congratulations. Steven suffers the most personal strike against his psyche thus far in the series. (It’s not even the worst psychological trauma he suffers – wait until we get to Season 1B.) In fact, he even suffers from a level of PTSD – once wanting Pearl to teach him the flamboyant moves in Lonely Blade IV, he now connects those scenes in the movie to the moment where she got cut down. What he thought would mark a zenith in his physical development is now torturing him.

Ironically, though, it was the flamboyant move from the movie that helps bring down Holo-Pearl… with a broom, and out of desperation, but still.

Oh, and there’s Holo-Pearl.

She exists as a manifestation of Pearl’s more arrogant tendencies. This makes sense – she’s but a robot meant to fight. Thing is, her most frequent competition – read, Pearl – can regenerate. Steven… I don’t think so. Half human, anybody? Ironically, though, she serves – against Steven’s wishes, mind you – as a direct contradiction of Pearl. She cuts down her favorite tree (from “Gem Glow”), and serves only to fight.

Holo-Pearl does pose a very serious threat. I could argue, however, that Holo-Pearl is a send-up to the idea of “Flanderization” – the exaggeration of a character trait to the point it overshadows said character. Pearl isn’t just a swordswoman who runs on “honor” – she has her nuances and neuroses. (Ironically, some fans – even, I’ll admit, myself at times – tend to think of her as an animated version of Arnold Rimmer – itself a flanderization of her neuroses and ego.)

But the main reason why this episode exists is to establish the Gem “biology”, so to speak. Red Dwarf fans (of which I consider myself one) are very familiar with the concepts of “soft light” and “hard-light” hologram. Whether they phase through walls or not, it requires damage to the light bee (or, if the subpar “Rimmerworld” is to be believed, hereditary traits) in order to terminate a hologram. Steven Universe not only took up on that, but also introduced a more pronounced level of physical vulnerability to the Gems. I actually like this – it allows for more opportunity to create tension, even if the “death” is only temporary.

We’ll delve more into Gem Stasis in Season 2 – what it entails as far as psychology and what occurs in stasis. Besides the reason listed in upcoming episodes, one reason why Pearl may have been in stasis for so long is that she was waiting to see if Steven could take down Holo-Pearl on his own terms.

Other than that, though, it appears there are no major changes for Pearl’s character. (She does seem rather unconcerned by the fact that Amethyst got bloated thanks to eating a cloud.) However, we might see some changes a bit later on. I mean, these are only 11-minute episodes.

I dunno – I really can’t talk about this episode too much. It’s certainly a very good one, though.

Tidbits:

  • First off, as you can tell by the new title, I have decided that, since the episodes in June will mark Season 3, I decided to “split” Season 1 in two parts. I do this purely for symmetry purposes. I am a nerd.
  • Garnet and Amethyst mingle together in a silly little subplot. I liked it, if only because it shows the contrast in how the gang treats regeneration. For Steven, it’s waiting, coupled with the trauma of thinking he caused Pearl’s “death”. For the duo? Just another day in the park. “I got hit by a airplane” will always make me laugh.
  • This is another one of those visually stunning episodes – most importantly, the fight between Pearl and Holo-Pearl. I think, in terms of animation and action scenes in general, that is one of the most visually impressive moments this season.
  • I just love the aftermath of Pearl getting stabbed, because it’s both saddening and (darkly) hilarious. Steven runs to Pearl’s gem, obviously distraught and panicking, and how does Holo-Pearl respond? “Challenger defeated! Level one failed!” Love the disconnect.
  • While not tied to this episode, I must also pay my respects to singer and songwriter Prince, who suddenly died earlier today at the far too young age 57. He was truly an icon of post-disco and 80s music – in fact, I could argue that he helped bridge the gap between disco and rock and roll. Connecting this news to SU, there’s an episode later in the show – “Joy Ride”, to be exact – which had one pretty funny send-up to “Purple Rain”. (Storyboard artist Hilary Florido also produced this brilliant promotional art for the episode.) Farewell, Purple One.
Favorite Scene: I loved the scene featuring Lonely Blade V. It really is the darkest moment in the episode. Yeah, Holo-Pearl was threatening, but that exposure of potential PTSD is realistic in how chilling it is.
Best Character: Tie between Holo-Pearl (for being so menacing) and Steven (for witnessing the first real piece of harm amongst the Crystal Gems.)
Memorable Quote: “Whoopsie-daisy! Steven, it’s fine! I’m gonna be just-” – Pearl, after being stabbed, and just before poofing. Not only do I like how this shows Pearl’s attempts to reassure Steven that she’s not going to die, but if it wasn’t for Gem biology, the first part would be an understatement right up there with “I’m going outside – I may be some time”.
Score: Silver.
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