Steven Universe Review: “Maximum Capacity” (Season 1B, Episode 17)

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Looks like Greg’s storage unit is at… no, not completing that joke.

I haven’t really cleared this place out since your mom… ahem. – Greg, admitting he just collected 13 years worth of junk. TLC cameras are coming – people have to learn about this insanity!

Airdate: February 26th, 2015

Written By: Hillary Florido, Katie Mitroff, and Rebecca Sugar.

Plot: It’s almost New Years, and what better way to celebrate than looking at Greg’s storage unit, full of garbage collected over 13 years. As Amethyst comes over to sort through the trash, she discovers old tapes of Lil’ Butler, a sitcom that Greg and Amethyst used to watch way back when. The two binge watch, neglecting the world around them.

Review:

Steven Universe is a psychologist’s nightmare come true.

Shocking, right?

Yeah, anybody that’s watched from “An Indirect Kiss” on can probably generate an undergraduate thesis on this goddamn show and how messed up its characters are. (Gotta get that diploma from State somehow!) Unfortunately, there are no therapists in fiction (and even if there were, I dunno if Steven would afford one), so these characters have to work through their mental anguish/trauma/lost Lenores with each other… and in so doing, wind up screwing up Steven mentally for years to come.

This episode… is another example of the characters’ collective descent into madness and despair.

And it all started with Rose Quartz.

Boy, did Rose’s death screw every single one of our protagonists up. Grief is a harsh mistress, and it hammered Greg hard – he’s pretty much gone and hoarded everything in his storage unit since her death. Clearly, he’s been unable to let go of the idyllic past that he once shared, in a futile attempt to at least restore some sense of “the old normal”. I give him credit that he’s held up as well as he has. Granted, I wouldn’t call “living in one’s van” the height of prestige, but he’s relatively content with his lot in life. He’s worked through the loss, and while he’ll certainly never return to the status quo ante, at least he’s… seemingly stable.

Not so much for our heroines.

Hey, when you live for 5000 years, twelve don’t feel like much. The veil of stoicism and resolve has been slipping (“clingy, directionless, pathetic things”, anybody), but now it’s really starting to keel over. And today, Amethyst falls down.

Last we left Amethyst, she broke. Literally – her psyche finally cratered in on itself, and years of intense self-loathing exploded like Vesuvius. In her hellish birthplace. Against Pearl. In front of Steven. (Seriously – keep this kid away from a Psy-moon.) Yeah, this woman’s got issues, and they don’t go away after the fight. Why? Simple – the writers are damn good at what they do, for the most part. They build on these issues gradually.

Here, there’s a nostalgia when it comes to the Lil’ Buttler tapes found in the storage unit. That old partnership between Amethyst and Greg relights again… all in the symbolic veil of 80s sitcoms.

TANGENT TIME!!!

The decade of Springsteen and Reagan wasn’t kind to American sitcoms – or at least, the quality thereof*. While Dead Homer Society put it best, I think it bears repeating – American sitcoms largely relied on formulae, centering on upper-middle class households and dealing with silly situations. Problems were largely resolved at the end of the episode, ignored by the next, and sweet reality could be escaped for 22 minutes. They were largely unchallenging, with light comedy and relatable television. Most of these shows blended into the ether, only standing out thanks to one or two twists – Family Ties was to the 80s what All in the Family was to the 70s, for instance. Even The Cosby Show – probably the most well known of the archetypical 80s sitcoms – was carried thanks to the comedic timing of its namesake and the actors involved.

Now, even the more popular sitcoms have been undermined by reality. Growing Pains was sunk by Kirk Cameron becoming a fundamentalist nutjob whose movies are ripe for mocking. The political satire of Family Ties was undermined by the collapse of Reaganomics, the rebirth of conservative-tinged populism, and/or the rise of Social Justice Warriors, making political discussion far more volatile than it has been (at least in my relatively short lifetime). More seriously, The Cosby Show was recently undermined by the reality of Bill Cosby admitting to committing rape by incapacitation. (Enjoy a Pennsylvania jail, you idiot.)

Granted, attempts to subvert the formula began in the later part of the decade. Roseanne depicted the life of an average working class family, who didn’t live in the most comfortable settings. Married With Children, on the then anti-establishment FOX Network, did so and had every member of the family yield contempt for each other. And, as DHS concluded, The Simpsons finally destroyed the formula by showing utter contempt for virtually every aspect of 1980s/1990s America – reveling in reality for its plots and jokes instead of escaping it.

Now, where was I? Oh, yeah – 80s sitcoms were pure escapism, where the world never really seemed to get the protagonists down. Steven Universe exists in a far more realistic world than those sitcoms – which is cosmic, considering 75% of our core protagonists are aliens. Every action (well, most actions) have consequences that can last for half a season – hence, Steven still being prohibited from watching America’s teacher/mother/secret lover.

And here, the 80s sitcoms are Amethyst’s attempts to return to the halcyon days of the past with Greg – strike lightning twice. But the dagger of Rose’s death and Greg’s partnership with her – reality itself – lingers over the duo. All attempts to escape this, such as by watching mediocre 80s sitcoms, eventually collapse under the weight of what they’re trying to dodge.

Oh, and everything else.

Yes, Greg and Amethyst binge Lil’ Bulter. Several times. Missing out on Steven’s life. Once Greg realizes this, that’s when the plot goes from “awkward” to “pretty unnerving”, as Amethyst tries everything possible to keep the fire burning.

Greg: How did I get so sucked into this show again? It’s like everything else just disappears! 

Amethyst: Woah, woah, don’t go! We’re having a really good time! Here, look. I’ve got the two-part Hawaii special.

Greg: But Steven really wanted me to do New Years!

Amethyst: He’ll be fine. He’s Steven. He’s tough.

Greg: I wanted to be there! (Prepares to skedaddle, but Amethyst stops him)

Amethyst: Here. Here. It would have been like this. (She shapeshifts… into Steven) Whoa! Fireworks! Hey, Dad, come on! Now let’s watch some Li’l Butler!

Greg: Amethyst, you know how I feel about shape-shifting.

Amethyst: (as herself) Geeze, sorry. I was just trying to cheer you up. (transforms into… Greg) Oh, that’s right— I forgot. You’re so sensitive.

Weirded out yet? What we have here is Amethyst trying to corral Greg into the sweet, sweet monotony of Lil’ Butler, only to get rebuked every single time. This attempt is not only futile, but pathetically self-centered. It’s an aspect of her personality that has lingered through the series – often being used for comedy. To see a gear shift to present her selfishness in a more dramatic manner is impressive – these writers are picking off this character one by one.

And then it goes from “pretty unnerving” to “very disquieting”…

Greg: I know you like making me uncomfortable, but it’s not funny. I can’t stay here and humor you. I have to be there for my son.

Amethyst: Well, what about me, huh? I had someone who was always there for me until she started hanging out with YOU!

Greg: Don’t do this, Amethyst. Seriously.

Amethyst: I bet you’d stay for her.

Greg: …you wouldn’t….

Amethyst: What? Do this? (Shape-shifts into Rose, as Greg hides into himself.) Hey, Greg. (Chuckles) Turn around. Check it out! 

Greg: I know you’re doing it! I want to be friends again. I really do. But I can’t let you do this to me again!

Again… that word… their relationship collapsed after Rose regenerated. What occurred is a classic case of jealousy, mixed in with lamentation.

Think back to “On The Run” – Amethyst was the outlier of the gang of misfits that are the Crystal Gems. Rose may have very well been the Gem that rescued her from a life alone, and may have even reduced her self-loathing, if only by a little. Rose was certainly closest thing she had to a parent, treating her as an actual gem rather than the war machine Homeworld intended to use her as. Then, she met Greg, fell in love, and died.

Greg took away the one person that saw her as an equal – or at least, didn’t make rather brash comments or generalizations about her. (Somehow, I don’t see Rose saying something such as “We kept Amethyst.”) Turning into Rose is her warped way of shaming in. “You killed her”, she says with that one action. It is a brutal gut punch, and it works.

Taking the scene from “very disquieting” to “damning”? Steven is there. Yes, Amethyst and Greg are unaware of his presence, but Steven’s experience with his mother has always been through another lens – the videotape in “Lion 3”, the portrait on the wall, the lionization from the rest of the Crystal Gems. Never an ounce of direct contact, and barring time travel, there never will be direct contact. This scene is as close as he’s going to get – and it’s his quasi-sister using the specter to torment his father.

And it is him that makes the two realize just how messed up they are acting.

To turn the scene from “damning” to “brilliantly damning” is the background noise of Lil’ Butler playing until AmeRose turns around. At that moment, the tape comes to a sudden halt. The bubble of escapism pops, this time forever.

Slightly less brilliant, yet still damn good, is that Steven follows it up by giving a very Kirk-esque speech about what the hell they are doing. This isn’t the first time it’s happened – “Ocean Gem”, anybody – but this tendency will get more pronounced as the show continues, as Steven is forced to take up the problems of almost everything and everybody possible. This is an arduous task that he has to handle, and is but a taste of what he has to deal with over the next 75 episodes.

I’ll personally admit that the way it’s handled here is somewhat more “moralistic” compared to the way it was in “Ocean Gem”. Still, the characters being addressed to have both a short-term and long-term issue with the topic de jeur, making it much less “anvilicious” and, therefore, quite easier to swallow.

Some fans have complained about the ending being rushed, that it was overly simplistic. With that being the vision in many fan reviews, I’m going to dissent and say that the ending was actually pretty damn great. It’s certainly not my favorite ending in this show, or even a top 10 (mainly because this show is that good). Still, the cleanup of the storage unit does provide a decent coda to this episode. It was jam packed in “Laser Light Cannon”, and remained that way up to this point.

The fact that Amethyst is the one to suggest the unit be cleaned up makes it especially poignant – even as she suggests moving the mess to her room. In a sense, it’s also rather tragic. Amethyst has taken responsibility for her grave error and is willing to take the garbage that once filled up Greg’s personal space. It was her that put it off – ergo, the continued trash was her responsibility. For a character that often dodges responsibility, this is a fine, albeit somewhat small, step forward.

Adding extra emotion to the final scene is the picture of Greg and Amethyst. Broken as Amethyst first sifted through the hoard and was all too willing to let Greg keep it, she repairs it as she makes her leave. She was able to get past her jealousy and anger for one second. That, my friend, is an impressive gesture in an impressive episode.

Spoiler alert for my reviews – I personally think one of the followups to “Maximum Capacity” is the most moving and brilliant episode that the show’s writers created. Not a knock against this episode, though. It has a moving message, some rather poignant imagery, and great character interaction. Pretty much what I ask for in a great SU episode.

Tidbits:

  • The callback to Steven being prohibited from watching TV is a double-edged sword. The good news is that it showcases the show’s commitment to canon. The bad news is that it renders “Fusion Cuisine” canon.
  • Assuming that Greg didn’t record Lil’ Butler off of the television, that’s gotta be a lot of money he spent on VHS tapes. A lot of money. At least three seasons worth.
  • Steven… is it a good idea to burn garbage? I don’t think so.
  • The decision to set this episode around the New Year really does gain poignancy – I mean, we’re talking about the time to cast off the shackles of the past and look to the future. Hey, we needed the new year back in December.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: Amethyst turning into Rose. Jeez Louise, that’s unnerving.

Best Character: Greg. Poor guy…

Memorable Quote: “I bet you’d stay for her!” – Amethyst. Right in the gut.

Verdict: Gold. I’m putting it in at #12, right behind “Winter Forecast” and “Lion 2: The Movie”.

*From what I can gather, British sitcoms were a lot grimier and more in tune with the MWC/Simpsons breed. Hell, Red Dwarf is one of my favorite shows, and it’s practically a roommate sitcom. In space.

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