Steven Universe Review: “On The Run” (Season 1B, Episode 14)

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“This is where I was made, dude. One day, just – pop! – right out of this hole!” – Amethyst succulently and briefly describes her horrifying, horrifying genesis.

Airdate: February 5th, 2015

Written By: Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu

Plot: Steven is enthused by his book series, The No-Home Boys, and begins to romanticize the idea of living away from home, especially when he finds out about the genesis of the Crystal Gems. Amethyst is the only one that responds positively to Steven’s newfound enthusiasm – albeit because of her own issues regarding where she came from – and the two run away. Steven finds the life on the road to be less romantic, while Amethyst uses the escape as an excuse to take Steven to her birthplace – the Kindergarten. And thus begins a night of an almost unspeakable heartache.

Review:

The last time I reviewed Steven Universe, we got to see a darker, fallible side to Garnet. Meanwhile, in the real world, the United States of America had just voted to experiment with a real-life simulation of Tropico 4* a new wave of populism. This review is being posted just after the experiment was launched, what with the inauguration of President Donald Trump. (I still can’t believe I typed those last three words as a fact.) How poetic. So, what better way to come back to Steven Universe than by an episode that shines a darker light on another main character?

When you get down to it, Steven Universe‘s central characters are all a part of tragedies pulled together, each one dealing with their aftermaths. From the start, it’s been established that Greg lost the love of his life. Pearl’s mental state is on the verge of a total collapse for various reasons (one of which we’ll see in a few episodes). Lapis Lazuli was trapped in a freakin’ mirror for years. And Garnet and the others, we’ll get to during Season 2 (and 3, and 4).

Here, though, we get a look at Amethyst and what happened to her. And damn, if this episode doesn’t prove that Steven Universe toes the line of tragedy, I’ve got nothing for you.

Our first look at Amethyst, in hindsight, lured us into a false sense of security. A goofy, tomboyish lout who harnesses her powers by instinct, she came off as “the fun one” – Steven’s best friend at the show’s start. Yes, it was an attempt to showcase how she fulfills the “id” role, but what many a viewer probably thought at first glance was that she was the self-confident one. The writers took note of that perception, and then proceeded to chip away at that pre-conceived notion – first with her escape into wrestling in “Tiger Millionaire”, and culminating with her complete emotional breakdown here.

Here’s the thing – Amethyst is more than just a relative emotional outlier in the Crystal Gem dynamic. We find out in this episode that she was actually created on Earth. Yes. Earth. Compare and contrast to Pearl and Garnet – apparent Homeworld natives – and already her status as an outsider becomes clear. Her home is different – and it directly impacts her perspective on the whole situation. Born in a place that is damned to the Crystal Gems, she doesn’t feel like she has a proper home – her birthplace is

Coincidentally, Steven is reading a book called The No Home Boys. Idealizing the concept of runaway kids, it inspires Steven and Amethyst to hit the road. It is a source of irony that our runaways don’t face the romantic aura of homelessness that the protagonists of that book face. Rather, they wind up embroiled in the much more tragic reality of Amethyst’s genesis – that of being a product of the Kindergarten. And no, I’m not talking about the place where five-year-olds took naps and learned basic skills until recent reforms were enacted.

 

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American education is a bit strange.

 

I’m talking about the kindergarten where Gems were grown. Yes, a “child garden” was used to grow young gems. Even without the context regarding Amethyst, that’s freaking horrifying. I’m not talking about your roundabout test tube kids here – we’re talking about a place grown so that Homeworld can harness a bunch of Gems… as soldiers. Yes, a kids show is heavily implying that the antagonists were using effective child soldiers – raising them to fight and die for their country.

Even with this alone, this episode’s plot is one of the most important in the show’s canon. Not only does this confirm that there is a structured Gem society, but exposes the sheer cultural depths in which the government is willing to plumb to expand its power. In fact, if Pearl was to be believed, this was the chief reason for the rebellion – such is the sheer horror of the crime. No wonder why Pearl referred to the Kindergarten as a wretched hive and implied that it was just part of a grand Homeworld plan to take over Earth and wreck up the place, and was willing to exile herself onto a planet she loathes.

Here’s the damning aspect of that – Pearl refers to the situation in nuanced, practically censored terms – a trend that will continue through the show. Unfortunately, Ames sorta heard Pearl’s rather redacted explanation to Steven within earshot. And when Pearl comes to the Kindergarten to try and collect Steven, her own personal kettle which has been heating up for hundreds – if not thousands – of years finally reaches its boil.

Pearl: How much did you tell him?

Amethyst: What? You mean about the bad thing? How this bad place is where bad Gems came to grow more bad Gems?  It that what you’re talking about? Oh, but don’t worry, Steven! Everything’s just fine now! It all worked out! We won! And we shut this place down so that the Earth would be safe from parasites like me!

Tea’s up. Now let’s let it brew.

In that one little rant, the impulsiveness, the snarky behavior, the defiant actions… all of them are peeled away to expose a deep core of self-loathing. Created as part of a war machine for Homeworld, that’s all she can think of herself as – a tool used to destroy her fellow Gems, to kill with little mercy towards the victim. The fact that she is now one of the Crystal Gems doesn’t assuage this sense that she is of little value – rather, it only helps her own view that she is from no world. She doesn’t feel like she fits in – that she’s too damned to be a Crystal Gem. Mix in the fact that Pearl tries to keep the Kindergarten out of mind as much as possible, and the feeling that her genesis is from a literal hell is magnified.

You think that’s bad? Well, Pearl then talks to (an understandably petrified) Steven…

Pearl: Steven, I’m sorry. I never wanted you to see this horrible place.

Amethyst: Then why don’t you just… leave?!!! (ties Pearl up with her whip before launching her into the leg of a machine) Admit it! I’m just an embarrassment to you!

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So, not only do we have deep self-loathing, we have this idea that she’s a parasite to the Crystal Gems – worthless, clingy, pathetic, undeserving of attention, and in her mind, unloved and unlovable. The others, according to Amethyst, seem to put up with her out of a sense of pity – and Steven would do the same now that he knows that she came from a hellscape constructed by the people that the Crystal Gems are pitted against. Not helping is that, with her super strength, she has led herself to believe that she’s an unbridled monster, trained to kill without mercy. (“I don’t want to fight you!” “I wouldn’t want to fight me, neither!“)

And that’s not getting into the sheer quality of the voice actors. Michaela Dietz manages to combine self-loathing with a cathartic take on rage, before mixing it with pure, unconcentrated agony at where she came from.

“I never asked for it to be this way… I never asked to be made!”

Pearl doesn’t get off any easier. For years, she has been rather flippant about the Kindergarten – granting it the damnatio memoriae treatment. On one hand, given the sheer amount of messed-up logic behind the Kindergarten, one would want to forget elements of the universe such as that. But as she tries to ignore the subject, she seems to paint the broadest brush over the area and everything associated with it – ergo, chucking Amethyst’s genesis into the “trash” pile. Doing it for so long was bound to present some reaction – and from a Gem as volatile as Ames, the reaction was akin to a volcanic explosion. Deedee Magno-Hall, though, adds in a sense of confusion to the mix – making Pearl’s tactlessness look more shortsighted rather than intentional.

And all Steven can do is watch as two of his friends/guardians/roommates/teachers/etc. beat each other up – right after he found out Amethyst’s genesis, self-loathing, and sheer fury. He’s seen the Gems fight before, but what they’re doing is no longer just a scuffle – this is a vicious, brutal beatdown over a thousand-year ache. What started as just a fun road trip to imitate one of his favorite book series has become (unfortunately) a contender for the most traumatic day of his life. (We’re only 40 episodes in, guys.)

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Compounding that? When a piece of machinery begins to tip (thanks to Amethyst slicing the leg), Steven generates a bubble to protect the trio. Amethyst deliberately steps out of the radius, and Steven and Pearl can only look on in abject terror as she runs from the bubble, as the machine falls down. For a total of ten seconds, Steven can only think that his lifelong friend attempted and/or committed suicide – and is only able to scream her name out. Zach Callison manages to convey the sheer agony in Steven’s voice – like someone who has seen utter hell for the first time. And the presentation of almost suicidal self-hatred in a cartoon? It’s not unheard of, but the sheer drama is presented so effectively, that it feels more innovative.

(Full disclosure – it was actually this scene that first made me think “wow, this show has the power to impress.” While I didn’t begin actively watching the show for another few months – it was during Summer 2015 that I fell head over heels – to see the voice acting, the writing, and the art direction – the dark, somber art direction – collide in a cavalcade of tragedy as it does in these two minutes, it makes me wonder why I didn’t commit to this show earlier.)

Of course, while Johnston and Liu (and the rest of the writers) love torturing fan’s emotions, even they have some standards. Yes, Amethyst was able to dodge the big machine of death and retreats back to her genesis hole – for that’s what she feels like. A monster who deserves to be sealed away for all eternity. She even dismisses Steven – who frankly doesn’t seem to fully understand the contents of the Kindergarten, but is concerned about the completely devastated emotional state of his friend, his compatriot, and most importantly, a member of his family.

Poetically, it’s Pearl – the one that all but started the day’s mess – that tries to bring some sense of reality into the conversation:

Pearl:  Amethyst… Amethyst, I had no idea you’ve been upset about this.

Amethyst: What? You had no idea? This is, like, my entire existence! You want to pretend that none of this ever happened! You think I’m just a big mistake!

Pearl: No! No, Amethyst, you’re not the mistake! You’re just the byproduct of a… big… mistake…  (realizes that she put her foot in her mouth again) No, that’s not… I… I just never thought of this as you! None of this is your fault. You didn’t build this place. I’m… I’m sorry, Amethyst. I hope you can forgive me. You’re the one good thing that came out of this mess. I always thought you were proud of that.

Wow… I’m rather impressed with just how heavy this one conversation is. What we get is Pearl – the once somewhat haughty and tactless Gem – actually ceding that she’s been in the wrong. It’s done in a manner, though, that feels realistic – she stumbles on her words when first telling Amethyst that she isn’t an embarrassment to the team, that she isn’t a piece of trash or responsible for the hell that occurred during the rebellion. It’s a mark of how this show can create great dialogue – even during mistakes made by characters, it all sounds human.

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So is Amethyst’s response. She is able to come out of the hole, and without a word but with some initial hesitation, hugs Pearl. Not a word is said between them… only tears are shared. These plot threads ain’t resolved – not by a long shot. Still, this is a start.

Personally speaking, I think that Pearl’s and Amethyst’s relationship is one of the more compelling in the show (right behind Steven and Connie’s relationship, as well as the animosity between Pearl and Greg that we’ll see a bit later on.) The two polar opposites create comic relief on its own merits – the intellectual and the everywoman, the slob and the perfectionist, the tomboy brawler and the feminine technician. Any other show would just leave it as comic relief, a divide in how to approach the antagonist of the week, or more recently, put in loads of ship tease. But to add this deep-seated personal drama between the two gives it a moving aspect. It shows what makes Steven Universe stand out – the show focuses on the characters – not as mere archetypes, but as forms so dimensional, you almost forget that they’re ink on paper.

And how does this episode end… the now-shaken Trio (although Steven remains unflappable for now, at least on the outside) heading back to the Temple, leaving the Kindergarten on an ominous note. The episode dies on the sight of an empty, cold, miserable Kindergarten – a place that few want to visit, yet will come back as a central aspect of several episodes in the future.

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There’s an irony to the coldness of the final frames, however – as it brings to an end one of the most human, tragic episodes of Steven Universe‘s first season. Combining breathtaking character development, brutal emotional weight, and some of the best damn dialogue in the show thus far, “On the Run” is truly a classic of Season 1. If no episode before this was able to showcase the emotional weight of Sucrose and Co., this one did it.

Congratulations, Crewinverse, you sadistic nuts.

Tidbits:

  • Fun fact – the title of this episode actually comes from Steven’s book at the start of the episode. Not ten seconds in, and we had a title drop.
  • Given the emotional second half of the episode, it’s impressive that the first half of the episode is as drop-dead hilarious as it is. We have Steven describing The No-Home Boys complete with animations, a raccoon attacking Steven while Amethyst laughs, and Steven trying to sleep on a bale of hay. Even with the elements of emotion in that half, I still laughed.
  • Speaking of which, my god, does Steven have a hell of a time in this episode. Look at it – he suffers two separate raccoon attacks, loses all of his food, being crushed between two hay bales, finds out his roommate has deep-seated self-loathing tendencies and was the genesis of a war crime… damn, Johnston and Liu.
  • And, yes, there is a song in this episode. Cleverly titled “On the Run”, it balances the joyful optimism of hitting the road with Ames’s desire to escape what she thinks is a life that is antagonistic towards her. Jeff Liu, half of the writing duo of this episode, composed this piece. I really like how Rebecca Sugar managed to pick up versatile writers who could compose episodes as well as songs.

Wrap Up:

Favorite Scene: Amethyst running out of the radius of Steven’s bubble. Gutwrenching.

Best Character: Amethyst, our tragic heroine of the day.

Memorable Quote: “I never asked to be made!” – Amethyst. A line that’s almost suicidal, compounded by the aforementioned “favorite scene”? Did Cartoon Network know what they were getting into when this show was picked up? (Well, Adventure Time did have some darker moments, but…)

Verdict: Platinum. In fact, I consider it an effective tie for #1 in the Episode Rankings up to this point. I guess I’ll put it at #2, mainly because I loved “Alone Together” just a bit more.

* Personally speaking, in all seriousness, I doubt that President Trump’s tenure will prove apocalyptically bad for American democracy. I don’t think he’ll be a great president – what with his rampant ego, questionable cabinet, and impulsive behavior, compounded with the concerning actions of his political party – but I want to be proven wrong.

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