Steven Universe Review: "The Test" (Season 1B, Episode 12)

Ow.

“I’m now the owner of the golden can opener. Yes… yes…” – Garnet. Ah, the thrills of opening a can WITH GOLD!

Airdate: January 22nd, 2015
Written By: Hilary Florido and Katie Mitroff
Plot: It’s a rainy, miserable day in Beach City. While looking for another board game to play with the Gems, Steven comes across the Moon Goddess Statue. One thing leads to another, and Steven finds out that his trip to the now-destroyed Lunar Sea Spire was a test – and a relatively easy one at that. Demanding a new challenge, the Gems create a module for Steven to avoid high-intensity dangers. As he almost finishes up, he finds out that this test was fixed, as well.

Review:

Dear Cartoon Network schedule builders, thank you for your obsession with Teen Titans Go and “The Answer”. Because of that, this episode barely airs on TV. I betcha that Rebecca Sugar probably wrote several letters to this extent, and Cartoon Network simply responded by threatening to go back to the days of November 2015, when Teen Titans Go aired with a borderline illegal frequency on the network. (Yes, we get it. The award for sound design went to Rob. Please shut up.)

So, anyway, “The Test”. Whereas “Warp Tour” focused more on driving the plot forward by introducing one of the show’s most beloved characters (by featuring her squishing one of her robonoids), this episode focuses more on fleshing out the Crystal Gem Trio, their relationship with Steven, and how the hell they can function as guardians – especially with the specter of Rose lingering over the quartet.

Yes, “Warp Tour” analyzed and deconstructed the trio’s paternalistic and patronizing tendencies by having Steven prove all three of them wrong – albeit at the cost of his sanity, and almost his life. But that was just the start.

On that note, remember “Cheeseburger Backpack”?

Probably considered the weakest of Season 1A by the fanbase due to its loose art style and slightly sketchier characterization. Personally, I think it’s an alright episode (“Onion Trade” irritated me more with it’s rather awkwardly executed moral), mainly because it serves as a starting point for Steven’s integration into the Crystal Gem structure. And, being his first mission, he slips up. A lot. He forgets the device, and the spire collapses. Still, he did save the crew on two occasions, so it wasn’t a total wash.

Still, though, what makes a mission a wash? What makes a test successful?

And what makes a victory… an actual victory?

Well, these are all things to consider. With Pearl accidentally letting loose that the Lunar Sea Spire mission was a merely easy mission that should’ve been easier (that thing was gonna collapse, anyway), Steven is rather dejected. Even after he pacified a rogue gem, saved the others from a robotic bureaucrat, and fused with a human, this failure – whether it was a failure or not – still lingers in the back of his mind. For all of his successes, he feels like his first trip out was a failure – and the fact that it was supposed to be a training module disappoints him.

With his insistence, the Gems create a new module within the Temple rooms. What really stands out is how the rooms reflect their personalities – Amethyst’s room turns into a rolling ball that comes straight at Steven, causing him to leap for his life. Pearl’s room relies on the memorization of a musical pattern. Garnet, meanwhile, has her module run on dodging flames and extreme spikes – a throwback to one of his earlier missions in “Serious Steven”. Surprising? Well, let’s just say that Garnet’s a Gem of surprises.

Indeed, the module feels vaguely similar to a Holodeck simulation. The main difference? Steven dodges his first obstacle just in the nick of time, thinks fast with his mind to get past the second room, and in the third room, comes pretty damn close to the end by escaping the fire. Once the Ice Cream kid, Steven showcases a whole lot of determination inside him…

…and then the room freezes as he stops in the middle of the third test. Literally – a column with spikes at the bottom grinds to a halt. He slowly backtracks and realizes that the thing is rigged. (Um, Donald, if you want to know what a true rigging is, that is it.) There is no possible way to lose the game. If ever there was an anti-Kobayashi Maru, this is it.

For those that watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there is a reason why we have to face danger. Sometimes, there are arduous obstacles we have to overcome – and how we overcome them constructs our character. Look at Captain Kirk. He reprogrammed the confines of the Kobayashi Maru, and as a result was given “a commendation for original thinking” for cheating. What happened at the end of all of that funny business? His friend died – ironically citing the simulation as the reason behind his sacrifice – and to bring him back, he had to sacrifice his ship and risk arrest and a dishonorable discharge. (He better thank the almighty for those whales.)

What could happen to Steven when one of his friends gets severely wounded? What the hell is going to happen then?

Bizarrely enough, this concept of making a test ridiculously easy and why life shouldn’t be a complete breeze also works hand in hand with a lesson found in what I consider to be Steven Universe‘s political and spiritual antithesis.

South Park had an episode entitled “Fourth Grade”. As it’s title suggests, the main characters start a new school year. There, they have to deal with a harder curriculum, not to mention a teacher that actually gives a damn about their education and their rather loutish behavior. With Cartman’s romanticized memories of the third grade empowering them, the students try and construct a time-travel device with two nerds that fight over the number of episodes Star Trek: The Original Series had. (It was 79, morons).

Countering that, the new teacher gets help from Mr. Garrison (who is living in the mountains in denial over his homosexuality) on how to control the students. After pacifying a time travel attempt, she deduces what exactly is wrong with their proposal and their goal to head back to third grade:

“The adventure of life is that there is always something new – new challenges, new experiences. A fun game is a game that gets harder as it goes. So it is with life. Do you understand?”

Not a bad bit of philosophy from a show which, just a few episodes prior, had said fourth graders flee a gaggle of pedophiles thanks to the Scooby Dooby Doors trope, all the while the FBI were chasing said perverts with the aid and confidence of Marlon Brando lookalikes. (It’s a strange show, South Park.)

Yet, this episode couldn’t leave that lesson – a great lesson, but a rather obvious one – on the table by itself. Rather, it adds a twist – showing a deeply personal aspect to the obviously manipulated test. Walking on top of the module, Steven gets ready to give the Crystal Gems a piece of his mind by defying the test. There, though, he overhears the trio, waiting for Steven to come back, worrying…

Amethyst: What’s taking him so long?

Pearl: I didn’t think mine was very difficult. Do you think he hurt himself?

Garnet: There’s no way! It’s impossible for him to fail.

Amethyst: (Groans) So what’s the point?

Pearl: The point is that he’s come so far. He can make Rose’s bubble! And he’s pulled out Rose’s shield twice. But he’s lost his healing powers. We have to give him another “success”. He can’t lose his confidence like that again.

Amethyst: …we’re bad at this.

Pearl: What?!

Amethyst: Yeah. You can’t control him, and he shouldn’t be taking advice from me, and we don’t have Rose to tell us what to do!

Pearl: But he needs us to show him how to be a Gem!

Garnet: Steven is not just a Gem. There’s never been anything or anyone like Steven. We don’t know what he needs.

There are so many raw moments in Steven Universe that it’s difficult to list them all in a single page of a Word document. I’m not saying that this is the first, but this moment stands out as one of the show’s more introspective.

What we see here is just how deep the Trio are into unfamiliar territory. They’ve fought monsters with gusto, are part of a separatist group, and even with the moral objections to it, they managed to subdue a very, very powerful gem for god-knows-how-long. And yet, it’s raising a child that is causing the most distress to them. All of these supernatural, extreme situations, and yet it’s what is often called one of the major aspects of humanity – caring for a little person – that is really screwing with their mind.

The conversation also shows just how rudderless they are. With Rose, there was a center for the trio to build off of – a source of leadership for them. They are alone in what might be their most arduous task – ironically enough, one brought on by Rose herself. Compounding this is that, honestly, the trio have no freaking plan. And the most damning part of it all is that they know it. Pearl’s in denial about it all, believing that they know a general path for their parentage. Meanwhile, Amethyst knows just how messed up the situation is – a relatively rare moment of clarity from such an impulsive character, which makes it all the more heartrending. It is here where even Garnet – the most rational of the trio – admits that they’re in a dilly of a pickle.

In trying to restore Steven’s confidence, the show a distressing lack of it.

And Steven overheard every single second of it all.

For Steven, this is his Kobayashi Maru. He confronts them about the rigged simulation, the trio might very well be emotionally wrecked. He pretends that it was a feat of strength, then he’s effectively lying, even if it is for the good of the many – a theme that will come back in Season 3’s last few episodes. It really comes down to a moral decision. For Steven, the needs of others outweigh the needs of himself. Literally walking through the fire at one point – sure, it can’t hurt him, but the symbolism is pretty cool – he feigns ignorance of the conversation at the end celebration to give the trio their own moral victory.

And, in a way, they succeeded in giving Steven a test as well – a test of character. They just didn’t know it. Here, he begins to fill the void that Rose has left – albeit in a situation that is very slightly tinged with a grey morality. After all, we wouldn’t lie to our guardians, our friends, or our superiors… right? Why would we do that? (cough*Season3*cough)

It bears repeating that, just a short while ago, Steven was freaking out over the fact that his favorite brand of ice cream was discontinued, and we knew the trio as simply warriors that happened to room with this kid and fill these niches. “The Test” really is a test of just how far this show has gone within a season and a half.

Now if I can put on my aspiring teacher glasses…

Let’s see, marked character development, fantastic animation, appropriate emotional balance, very impressive musical score? Crewniverse, it looks like you guys have taken a lot of time and put a lot of love into this project so far. You’re on track for an A, if not an A+.

Now, my next group, with their presentation on an animated adaptation of the Titanic disaster…

…meet me after class.

Tidbits:

  • I love just how messed up Citchen Calamity (with two C’s – honestly the most creative proper noun from the Crewniverse) is. Also telling is that Steven is the only one to even know how to play the game. Just to make the game seem simpler, maybe before watching this episode, I should look at the rules of Cricket.
  • I love how the module becomes accessible on the outside. It really showcases just how small – and easy, damn it – the entire thing is.
  • If Rebecca Sugar is the queen of the musical number, Aivi and Surrashu are masters of the background music. Combining videogame-esque music with so many genres, they are geniuses at their craft. Also, they’re married, making them the second confirmed couple working for the show (the other being Sugar and Jones-Quartey). Adorable.
  • And if it hadn’t been for you, I would be now in someone else’s digestion… (Seriously – that’s not even the worst Titanic movie out there. They have a two-parter where an octopus stops sharks from planting the iceberg – because hundreds didn’t drown or suffer hypothermia – before passengers go back and find Atlantis. If ever there was proof that Hobbes’ Leviathan is the most accurate text in history, that is it.)
Wrap Up:
Favorite Scene and Memorable Quote: “We’re bad at this.” – Amethyst. Really, just that whole scene is gutwrenching.
Best Character: Simply put, I’m calling it a four-way tie.
Score: Gold. Another fantastic episode revolving around the core four. These writers are on a roll.

Next time, Steven finds out about his future and becomes more paranoid than Pearl.
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