Steven Universe Review: "Lion 3: Straight to Video" (Season 1B, Episode 9)

I wonder what kind of lunch my mom would’ve made me? Maybe actual space cookies! (sighs) I just wish I knew a little more about her. – Steven, unaware that he said the secret phrase…

Airdate: December 4th, 2014

Written By: Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, and Rebecca Sugar. (Yup, the creator wrote this.)

Plot: Sadie, disenchanted with the fact that her mother kept making her lunches, tosses one of them to Steven. This gets him thinking… what was his mother like? Could he get one more hit at the woman who brought him into the world? Well, thanks to Lion, he can… although it almost results in his suffocation.

Review:

You know, there is a question that often presses into my mind when I think about a certain sci-fi show… when did the Steven Universe Imperial Phase begin?

Or, rather, what is a Steven Universe Imperial Phase?

Well, to put it simply, the Imperial Phase a term Neil Tennant (of Pet Shop Boys fame) coined to note an era when a production or producer (in this case, the show) is judged to have done no harm. In the case of Steven Universe, this entails emitting critically beloved episode after critically beloved episode, being hailed as something so awesome that one has to wonder if the show is being written by super-humans.

The second question is – has it ended yet? Sure, there have been incidents in the fandom that have left them fighting off a stereotype of overzealous SJWs who constantly post on Tumblr that Hillary Clinton is the second coming of all major religious prophets combined. And of course, this could lead to a prejudice that the show is a hotbed of quasi-progressive SJW groupthink*. Still, the show’s critical standing remains strong – ratings on The AV Club haven’t dipped below a B yet, and “The Answer” even got nominated for an Emmy. (Then again, given that “Jurassic Bark” lost to “Three Gays of the Condo”, the Emmys aren’t exactly paragons of what is good.)

The third is, of course, when did it start? Opinions in the fandom in terms of “first great episode” range from “Mirror Gem” to “Jailbreak” – so, generally, Season 1B can be deciphered as the general start of the show’s Renaissance.

I’ve mentioned this idea before – mainly concerning the two-parter “Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem”. Still, I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. Sure, “Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem” stretched the show’s boundaries from silly “monster of the week” into a myth arc that stretches through the galaxy. But after that, we had some inconsistent episodes, including two of my least favorite – “House Guest” and “Fusion Cuisine”.

Personally, I don’t think the Imperial Phase was truly confirmed yet with “Lion 3”, but it is not only a huge step towards the start, but it served as part one of a three-part link that cemented the show’s critical acclaim.

For it is in this video that we meet the thus-far sanctified Rose Quartz. No kidding here – what we have heard from the characters is that she was a remarkably patient, lovely, kind woman. Pearl was very, very fascinated with the woman, and her death still lingers over the entire show.

Of course, appearances aren’t everything. Thus far, her room has collapsed, her plants almost killed a bunch of teenagers whose only crime was trespassing, her fountain was an overgrown deathtrap, and she appears to have been the leader of a group going against other Gems. Granted, the latter often results in sanctification (come on, do you really believe that Washington skipped a rock across the Potomac?)

Steven, however, knows just how beloved his mother was to her comrades and lovers. Consequently, he feels that he lives under the specter of his mother. Remember “An Indirect Kiss?”

I don’t know how to feel about you. But everyone else does. I wish I could have met you. Then, this place would make me sad, and I could cry healing tears, like you.

All Steven has gotten about his mother is second-hand information – exclusively from those closest to her. The closest contact he had before this episode is the fact that he once went into her room, which basically functioned as a holo-deck… and broke down as he used it. Incredible, it was. Functioning, it was not. The point is, though, he never really got to know his mother. He knows he can’t meet her… but he wants to know what she was like.

Lion is all too happy to oblige – initially, it seems like he’s suffocating Steven in his fur. And, as with all things centered around this cat, there is something deeper. He would protect Steven with his life – so there’s a method to his clinginess. After building this up by first showing Lion as supposedly clingy, we get confirmation that, well, he was Rose’s lion, and that his mane is a mysterious, complex world – one that also functions as a storage cabinet. (Methinks Rose never heard of Public Storage before she regenerated.)

In his mane sits a videotape named “For Steven”. Yeah, remember when Sadie noted that VHSs were boxy DVDs? Yup – Rose and Greg made one. Good thing she showed Steven the “Big Donut” videotape.

And speaking of her, she becomes the first person to get a glance at the contents of the tape. The beginning of the episode showcases a malaise that she’s having involving her mother. She tires of her lunches, and is tired of being treated like a child. She doesn’t exactly get how lucky she has it. It’s actually her giving Steven one of her older lunches that kick-starts the entire episode’s plot. I absolutely love the contrast – one is tired of her mother coddling her, the other never even got to know his biological mother.

This, then, is where the contents of the tape come in.

On a beach, way back when, we get a look at Rose and Greg, appearing as carefree as possible. The specter of the damning pregnancy, though, lies in Greg’s declaration that Steven is going to have “the coolest dad this side of the cosmos!” Sure, they goof around, but there’s a tragic aura – that this is very well going to be the last of Rose and Greg together. It’s sweet and somber.

And then Rose speaks to the camera…

Isn’t it remarkable, Steven? This world is full of so many possibilities. Each living thing has an entirely unique experience. The sights they see – the sounds they hear – the lives they live, are so complicated… and so simple. I can’t wait for you to join them.

Breaking this down line by line exposes a tapestry of hope, of humanism. Based on this statement alone, there was something about the Homeworld that was restricting the lives, restricting the patterns of behavior of its inhabitants. While Humans have various personalities and goals in life, they don’t have to live with the worry of “am I doing right for my species?” It’s our first hint that the Crystal Gems were protesting against the more autocratic nature of Homeworld, and that they yearn for a humanist – a liberal** – experience.

But then the gongs drop as she turns the camera on her…

Steven… we can’t both exist. I’m going to become half of you. And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that’s me – loving you and loving being you. Because you’re going to be something extraordinary.

You’re going to be a human being.

Take care of them, Steven.

Honestly, there is more depth in that one speech than in the entirety of “A Night In Sickbay”. (Granted, that’s not a hard feat, but still.)

First, let’s get to the obvious. “We can’t both exist.” She knew very well that her pregnancy was a Kobayashi Maru. The second Steven was conceived, she was on deathwatch. The implications were clear as day to her… yet she didn’t appear fazed. At all. In fact, she was pretty cool with it. Sure, she rationalizes it by saying that “I’m gonna become half of you.

Still, that leads into my second point. For Rose, the desire for a humanist experience might have very well been her goal. If she can’t be an actual human, she’ll come pretty damn close by regenerating into her own child. The question is, was this her endgame? If so, then it’s a rather interesting – albeit manipulative – move on her part. She could very well be using Steven as a means to an end – to become the species that she always wanted to be.

But that last line… “Take care of them, Steven.” She damn well knew that Steven would not only be in line for a leadership role in the Crystal Gems, but she knew that the trio would be utterly, completely shattered by this turn of events. Consider that the Gems have lived for thousands of years. Consider that a pregnancy is nine months, and this holds true for Rose. For the Trio, this means that Rose was dead within what felt like days.

Again, remember “An Indirect Kiss”? “They’re a mess without her guidance. Directionless, pathetic, clinging things… It’s going to be okay, Garnet!” Rose Quartz was seen as the leader of the quartet. With that leadership role gone, there is an emotional and leadership vacuum. We’ve seen it wreak havoc on Pearl… and it’s gonna show in the behavior of the other three.

It’s incredible, because if you take it that way, the scene shows Rose as rather calculating, almost treating Steven as a vehicle to live out her ultimate desire…

…and yet it’s still one of the sweetest things this show has ever done, and ever will do.

I mean, maybe my interpretation is off-base. Maybe she was just referring to this brand new life that she and Greg had generated, and was just trying to make the best of a pear-shaped situation. (Again, she’s toast once the kid comes out.) And maybe she was just taken in by the sheer beauty of humanity, and her admiration of Greg.

The fact that both interpretations are perfectly valid, though, just shows how beautifully constructed this show – this episode in particular – is. It’s certainly sweet on the surface level, has a hint of tragedy in context, and can still taste good with a hint of bitterness.

The impact it has on Steven is simple – it represents the first time he heard his mother. And, if this tape is any indication, she was the sweetest person one could hope to meet. But, given that Steven Universe is adept at noting the layers of every character, we are going to learn more about her in the next few seasons. Either way, Steven is moved to tears by the tape, and at least has something – a super-primary source, even – to work off of.

But it also impacts Sadie. This is a woman (probably early College aged) who’s relationship with her mother appears a bit on the cool side. Here, she realizes that, well, she doesn’t know how lucky she has it. Her mother appears to be kind, loving, and most importantly, didn’t regenerate at the end of the third trimester. What did she take out of the tape? “Appreciate your mother, because you might meet somebody who never got to meet them.” Yet, it’s handled so well that you barely even notice it – it serves as a bookend to the episode, but still carries an emotional impact.

Such is the power of this tape that the two of them are speechless and in tears after it ends. Even as Lars tries to interrupt by opening the store (unusually forthright for him, although he might just be lazy), he backs away (slightly unnerved) as soon as he sees their reaction.

“What in the world did you guys watch?”

On both a small level and a large level, putting this tape in has shaped Steven Universe. Not only does Steven have something to base his mother off of, but so do the viewers. This tape will be something that the writers will build on – as we look to Rose’s interactions with others, friends or foes.

As for the idea that this could be the start of a Steven Universe Imperial Phase, this episode certainly has all the hallmarks. You have genuine emotion, a simple but very well enacted plot, and some of the best character interactions so far. I find it rather cool that this is Rebecca Sugar’s first episode since “Cat Fingers”, because it shows how the show has accelerated from “good” to “fantastic.”

But this is just part one of the “three-in-a-row” that I feel cemented the show’s status as a critical darling. Next time, Steven winds up getting more information about fusion.

And it is going to be glorious.

Tidbits:

  • One small thing that irritated me about this episode is that the events of “Island Adventure” aren’t really followed up on. You have this teenage tragedy, and it’s sorta glossed over. Granted, this episode is so good that I’m willing to forgive this quasi-transgression. That, and Lars did back away from Sadie and Steven after they watched the video. So the two are improving a little bit. Just a little.
  • This episode also produces probably the most haunting Pearl moment in the episodes I’ve covered so far – she admits that she watches Steven sleep sometimes… by which I mean, often. Given that Steven is a regeneration of Rose, this continues the theme of Pearl pining over her lost Lenore – a theme that was hinted in “An Indirect Kiss” and will become the center of a plot in a few episodes.
  • Yes, Rose is played by Susan Egan. For those unaware, she was the voice of Megra from Hercules. I just love how her smooth, mellow-esque voice contrasts with Greg’s more goofy, louder voice. (Thanks, Tom Scharpling.)
  • I love how they just end the episode after the first line of Sadie’s phone call. Nothing more needs to be said.

Wrap Up:

Favorite Scene: The tape. Obvious answer, yes, but damn did I get a shiver down my spine.

Best Character: Lion. I did briefly contemplate Sadie for her character development, but Lion had his intelligence showcased yet again.

Memorable Quote: “You’re gonna be something extraordinary… you’re going to be a human being.” – Rose. Years from now, when Steven Universe is taught in English courses at community colleges up and down the country, that quote will come up. Both as a character motive and as the show’s mission statement.

Verdict: Platinum. Rose + Ambiguous Motives + Lion being exposed as Storage Unit + Character Development All Around + Beautiful Art = Awesome.

As far as where it stands in my rankings, it enters in at the top of the list, knocking “An Indirect Kiss” down to #2.

I don’t foresee it being there for long, though. Because next time, Steven and Connie have their lives more intertwined than they ever thought possible.

 

And on a side note…

I am aware that Red Dwarf XI has made its debut on the UKTVPlay platform in the UK. As I mentioned at the start of the month, I will not be watching it until it becomes available in the USA – preferably on iTunes. I’m hoping that I only have to wait until next Friday. Really hoping.

* I think I should clarify that, at least in my view, Steven Universe has the potential to be for liberal socialism what South Park is to libertarianism – what with its ideas about communication and critique of elitism, as well as its stabs at some unethical business owners and operators. I don’t think it goes overboard about it. And make no bones about it – I love both shows, albeit I’m not as fanatic about South Park as I am about SU. Still, has Steven Universe entered the pop culture zenith the way South Park has? Not just yet. It’s getting there, but it isn’t there just yet.
** Liberal, in this case, meaning increased personal liberty.

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