Steven Universe Review: "Coach Steven" (Season 1A, Episode 20)

Sugilite vs. Pearl
You’ve messed with Sugilite for the last time! Prepare! For! GLOBNAR!!!!!!

Airdate: August 21st, 2014

Plot: A Gem communication hub is causing bursts of electromagnetic interference. The effects? As Garnet puts it, “it’s hurting television”. Rather than one of Pearl’s strategic moves, Garnet instead opts to use raw power.

“Amethyst, fuse with me.”

Enter Sugilite. Built, arrogant and boisterous, she become reckless in her destruction of the hub. This doesn’t deter Steven, who suddenly wants to become macho, buff, full of muscle. Hell, he even recruits others (Lars, Sadie, Greg) to join him in his quest to become built. Pearl, though, is driven up the wall because of this.

Review (SPOILERS): First, no, I don’t really listen to Nikki Minaj’s music. I could not care less about it. I’ll stick with the Pet Shop Boys and whatever’s playing on WBAB and WLIX, thank you very much. She does a rather good job in voice acting, though.

Now that my disclaimer is out of the way…

There’s a lot of irony in the title of this episode. Despite the title indicating that this will focus on Steven, instead, we get what might be the very first “Pearl Pathos” episode – an episode revolving around fleshing out Pearl beyond her neurotic exterior. That helps combine with a bit of social analysis to create what might be the standout episode from Season 1A.

Strength is the engine that drives this episode. Or, rather, the balance between physical strength and mental strength. After all, this is a rather broad topic that affects us all. What do we think of when we think of strength? Well, there are two primary forms that this can take.

The first lies in pure, unbridled physical strength. Muscles. the ability to lift hundreds in weights, to kick all sorts of ass without breaking a sweat. When it comes to fiction, it allows us to escape into alternate realities where we might not have these physical powers. We even see this in reality, at least in America. Wonder why the NFL is so popular here? A bunch of burly men tackling and running into each other. America is often stereotyped as the nation of pure, unbridled power. There is truth in that cliche.

The second is mental strength. That, my friends, is quite a bit more subjective. Generally speaking, there are three camps. You have those that argue that mental strength involves uncompromising attitudes and holding a strong line when it comes to decisions. (This is one of the reasons why, despite being the most controversial British PM in the public eye, Margaret Thatcher has been ranked highly amongst many political scientists.) You also have those that argue that mental strength comes in planning strategies or striking deals to achieve their goals. (The latter part of that argument is an argument why Donald Trump and the late Jack Layton have – or had – dedicated fans*.)

And, most relevantly, those that argue that mental strength consists of those that manage to maintain composure and levelheadedness while trying to achieve their objectives, serving as a role model for those that look up to them.

So, yeah, “Coach Steven” is pretty relevant. The dichotomy exists between Sugilite and Pearl (pretty obviously.) Sugilite runs on pure, pure strength. Her goal? Knock the communication towers down, and wreck them to the nth degree. Her strategy? Well… make sure they are truly trashed. Here’s the problem – she gets such a high on wrecking up the joint, she doesn’t even give a damn about the well-being of Steven and Pearl. As her own entity, Sugilite runs on pure, unbridled ego. She thrives on the physical power that she inhabits, callous to the damages she causes.

The fact that Garnet and Amethyst are involved implies that Sugilite combines their tendency to use power first and think later, but it also exaggerates those traits to the point of tragedy.

Back on point, we get to Pearl.

Peal is the prime strategist who tries to maintain her image as the mental rock of the Gems. You would expect this woman, at first glance the “only sane woman”, to fill this to the Nth degree. Indeed, she even belts out into a full-blown song declaring that she want’s to be “your rock” and “inspire you” – referring to Steven, who just happens to listen to the song. Yet, even in the song, she comes close to admitting that she’s caught up with jealousy. It almost comes off like she wanted to one-up Sugilite.

Once confronted with Sugilite, though, she completely falls to pieces. Failing to bring her friends back to Earth and getting beaten up by the Minaj-monster, she believes that she isn’t strong enough. Not just physically, but mentally. She feels like she failed herself. It’s a rather insecure, poignant, and tragic moment for a character that was once based in sardonic comedy.

Steven, disturbed by this for reasons I’ll get into next, builds her up, and Pearl comes back to kick ass. As far as the storyline goes, it’s Steven formally taking up the advice that Pearl dished out (in private, no less). It makes Pearl feel like she actually can have a role in the team, that she can serve as someone’s rock – Steven, no less.

In fact, I could argue that this shows Steven as probably the most “normal”, so to speak, of the Crystal Gems, bar Garnet – and even then, there are exceptions to and reasons for that rule, reasons which we will get to in season 2. Granted, he’s been on comparatively few missions and has probably seen fewer horrors (although I doubt he will get Pearl getting stabbed out of his mind anytime soon), but still.

The cherry on the top has to be “Strong in the Real Way”. A piano-driven song, it’s a reflection on how one’s reasons for their behavior can affect another’s actions, even if the former isn’t aware of it. That, and there’s an actual payoff to this song, as well – the climatic fight scene. I liked “Giant Woman”, but I quite liked “Strong in the Real Way”. Minor upgrade, but still.

Steven Universe seems to be in a bit of a rollercoaster ride, rotating between comparatively weak episodes and deeper, introspective episodes. Thankfully, the show is still better than average, so… no big problem. Still, “Coach Steven” is a standout on its own. Introspective, musical, and even funny, it’s a must watch.

Tidbits:

  • This episode vaguely reminds me of Red Dwarf‘s “Meltdown”, where Rimmer tries to build up a bunch of waxdroids committed to peace. His reasoning? To try and destroy those that want to create war. Let’s just say the victory is pretty pyrrhic. Lister tries to argue that this is pure madness, and is promptly arrested by Rimmer… who stays behind the line at the final battle.
  • I personally love how Steven suggests that Lars and Sadie are (or will be) married, if only for a brief while. Even he can sense the tension between them. And even if his suggestion that the two will divorce was rather blunt, it helps keep the character grounded.
  • Also, I personally love how Pearl, who is lanky, is able to ward off Suglite. I like this idea that you don’t necessarily need to be muscular to yield physical strength, either.
  • Oh, and I like how Steven is very, very, very sore after a strenuous first day workout. When this show goes realistic, it goes very realistic.
  • Unrelated note, but https://www.frinkiac.com/ is now able to generate .gifs. Say goodbye to your free time.
Favorite Scene: Yeah, “Strong in the Real Way” takes this, hands down.
Best Character: Pearl. There was little contest here. The introspection was too much.

Memorable Quote: “It’s hurting television” – Garnet putting the electromagnetic interference in terms Steven will understand. This is mainly because it will come back in a later episode. With somber consequences.

Score: Gold. Another great one.

* No, I’m not implying that Donald Trump and Jack Layton are equals. In many ways, they are polar opposites – Trump being boisterous and crude, Layton being more mellow and levelheaded. And I will admit to preferring Layton over Trump (by a mile) as a leader for that reason. Still, the allure of dealmakers and kingmakers is strong.
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