Steven Universe Review: “Marble Madness” (Season 1B, Episode 18)

Round FIVE! Yes. Five.
This is the fight that goes on forever Because it never, ever ends!

“They just keep coming and coming!” – Pearl, as the Crystal Gems beat up the marble pictured above.

Airdate: March 5th, 2015

Written By: Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu

Plot: Steven has to balance two things going on in his life at one moment. The first, is a new book series that Connie introduces him to, The Spirit Morph Saga. He winds up being fantastically wrong when it comes to book order. The second, a series of Robonoids are crashing into the Earth. The Gems defeat them, relax, and fight another one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Review:

Steven Universe is loved for many reasons. Some cite the animation, which is unrivaled at it’s best. Some cite the voice acting – making every single character seem even more real than before. Some cite the show’s liberal values, which have probably caused a couple of fans to ship copies of the few SU DVDs to Mar-A-Lago with rants scrawled on the box. (If anybody actually did so, those discs are probably Diet Coke coasters right now.) Some (such as myself) cite the characters – with one or two exceptions, they are all so vibrant, so sympathetic, and so full of life. And, lastly, some cite the second layer that every good piece of literature/film/TV has… a plot.

“Marble Madness” shows Steven Universe return to its plot – one of political separation, of attempts to get old territory back, and the march of history. Still, this plot is driven by its characters – in this episode, the titular one.

Strangely enough, this episode starts off with said character being introduced to a new book series – The Spirit Morph Saga. The book, clearly a fantastical adventure novel series, centers around a girl who realizes that she’s a witch, and explores her role as such with a “spirit companion”. While possibly based off of His Dark Materials, there seems to be a stunning resemblance to Steven’s current lot in life.

Yes, our hero always knew he was part-Gem  – albeit it was only recently that he got a grasp of his powers, as well as the darker aspects that his status as a Crystal Gem yields. No longer is he merely flaunting his bellybutton gem around for funsies – the dogs of war have slipped into the equation.

Speaking of which, he’s introduced to the book (by Connie, no less) just as the robonoids begin to attack the Earth. Again. And – what else – the trio lay waste to it. It’s their modus operandi – attack, ask questions later. Out of sight… well, not out of mind, but still. That’s worked out so well so far for them. Even here – they attack, dismiss the threat, and it comes back. Five times. In a friggin week. Real Mickey Mouse operation ya got there, ladies.

Even Steven realizes that they’re fighting a futile fight by not getting any sort of information… or trying to get info. Again, though, getting info is apparently not a tactic that the Crystal Gems have followed. Steven’s suggestion that they follow the robonoid is written off by Pearl and Amethyst as insane, and only given tepid support from Garnet. (“We can’t keep fighting these things forever. Well, we can, but I don’t want to.”) Our protagonists have been in “fight mode” and “keep the other away” mode for so long, that it has become second nature to them. Still, it only serves to delay the inevitable.

The quartet wind up back in the bowels of the Kindergarten – that place that Pearl and Amethyst trashed just a couple of episodes ago – and find out the operator of the robonoids. The smooth operator…

Uh... oh....

OK, never mind.

Facing Peridot again, Steven tries to introduce himself like he would a close friend. The other Crystal Gems are less enthused about this idea. “We’re facing an enemy we don’t know with technology we don’t understand. This isn’t the time to be asking questions.” And… this time, Garnet might have a point. I mean, what sort of idiot is going to reveal their tactics and weaponry outright to their antagonist? This ain’t Doofenshmirtz we’re talking about – Peri doesn’t even use the “-inator” suffix!

Of course, Steven doesn’t see the logic in this, so he tries to talk to Peridot. Her response to his question, “what are you doing here?” Bash him with a robotic hand. It’s only after the Crystal Gems thwart her attempts to turn Steven into a pancake that both sides begin letting loose some juicy info…

Peridot: Ah! More? But the Red Eye didn’t report the presence of any Gems on this planet!
Pearl: That’s because we destroyed it.
Peridot: You what? But the records say that Gems were wiped out on Earth. Wait a minute… you’re the ones that have been destroying my Plug Robonoids! Are you the reason the Homeworld Warp is down again? Is this your bizarre icon? Augh! Why do you keep destroying my things?
Pearl: Because we are the Crystal Gems! We’re still alive, and we’re still the guardians of this planet and all its living creatures!
Peridot: …the Crystal Gems?

Nice job, fools. Analysis time!

First off, that red eye in the sky from episode 2? Yup – Homeworld surveillance. (They knew damn well what it was and did a good job hiding it from Steven.) Those plug robonoids they trashed? Well, now they know that they were intended to fix the Homeworld Warp. Also, the records indicating that the Gems were wiped out on Earth? Either the Crystal Gems have wrecked Homeworld’s surveillance equipment before, or some of the Homeworld higher-ups are committing some form of cover-up. I would honestly suspect the latter, given that Peridot might have no knowledge of the Crystal Gems – if so, cover-ups are always a good sign that Homeworld is a democratic society – or is just plain confounded that they still exist.

Then again, maybe Pearl shouldn’t have blurted out the various acts of sabotage and given a name to their group… but maybe she did for a reason. These acts from Homeworld have endangered the citizens of Beach City, and quite possibly, the residents of Earth. And this has been going on for millennia. This was her way of saying “you’ve declared war – wanna see who you want to take on? We ain’t dead yet!”

Peridot is dispatched, but not before screaming one damning line; “I’M REPORTING THIS.” And that‘s when Steven is forced to admit to himself – and others – that maybe his gamble wasn’t worth it. Garnet reassures him that they did get some intel… but also admits that it wasn’t his best move. Which, in the grand scheme of things, puts it rather reasonably. They learned more about Homeworld’s tactics, they found out about the fact that they aren’t alone, and that something is up with Kindergarten. And all it cost them was the Crystal Gem’s privacy on Earth, and almost cost Steven his life. Depending on how you look at this, Steven has either scored a pyrrhic victory or produced a noble failure.

Getting required intel is certainly not a bad idea… but Steven may have gambled one too many times on his optimism, and in doing so, may have helped put the Crystal Gems at the mercy of Homeworld once more. His “sunny ways” had to backfire sooner or later – and this time, it may have led to damning consequences for himself and others. It had to happen sooner or later, and now we have something that’s going to linger over the end of the season like the sword of Damocles.

That’s not to say that Homeworld’s ready to launch a full-scale attack. I mean, even Peridot – so stoic in her first appearance, her nerves begin to get frayed as the episode goes on. A robot, she is not. A flustered bureaucrat, she’s more like. All she didn’t expect in her job was to find out that her routine surveillance and preparation of a dead planet was futile, particularly as there was no dead planet. All she is? A clog in the machine. Thus, her possible status as the show’s antagonist is dismissed from the moment she declares that this anomaly is being reported.

Two sides of the same coin, possibly? One’s optimism and desire to lead helps expose the Crystal Gems. The other’s “just following orders” brought her in contact with said group. Future interactions with these two characters will continue to fascinate, and this is an interesting place to leave off.

While not Steven Universe at it’s knockout best – The Spirit Morph Saga could have played a larger role – “Marble Madness” is integral to the plot’s development, and does so rather well. It’s a solid 11 minutes that brings the season closer to its climax.

So, it’s all plot development from here on out, eh?

Well, not quite.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph of the review, my favorite aspect of Steven Universe is and always will be the characters. They give this rather quirky sci-fi show more life than they would without. They make this silly little show about aliens more human than most TV shows I’ve seen. Our next Steven Universe review will analyze an episode that took a look at characters past and present, and at the risk of spoiling the review, downright floored me.

But that will be then. And this is now.

Tidbits:

  • Much as I disliked the abandonment of The Spirit Morph Saga in the second half of the episode, it does return two episodes from now – in fact, it provides the crux of that episode’s plot.
  • I have to say it – Connie is probably the most unflappable character in this entire show. I mean, a Robonoid crashes into the planet, soaks all of them, and what is her reaction? “I love hanging out at your place.” This woman, man… there is a reason she has become a fan favorite. We are the Crystal Gems. We want to be Connie Maheswaran. Get what I’m saying?
  • I love the implication that Homeworld Gem Tech has advanced years beyond what Earthican Gem Tech currently has. That sword I mentioned has been sharpened.
  • Note that, instead of the ending starwipe going in and closing up the screen, it overtakes the entire screen. Life has gotten darker for our heroes.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene and Memorable Quote: This episode actually contains what might be the funniest piece of dialogue in the show’s history. It occurs as Steven calls up Connie’s house…

Dr. Maheswaran: Connie? The Steven Universe boy would like to speak with you. (to herself) I swear that’s not his real name.
Connie: Hi, Steven! What’s up? Have you read more Unfamiliar Familiar?
Steven: Yeah, but I’m-
Connie: Aaah! Isn’t it amazing? How far did you get?
Steven: I’m in the middle of one of them but, I’m really confused… they keep talking about this Plinkman guy who died. Am I suppose to know who he is?
Connie: Plinkman… but that’s Lisa’s dad! Steven? You’re reading them in order, right?
Steven: There’s an order? Ah, man! I just started with the one with the coolest cover. Hello? Connie?
(Connie just pulls a thousand yard stare.)

Best Character: Green, technician, fails at stoicism, doesn’t want people touching her things?

Score: Silver. They could’ve done a bit more with The Spirit Morph Saga, but this is made up for with some brilliant Peridot scenes and plot development. As for where it lands in the rankings, it comes in at #15, right between “Coach Steven” and “Lars and the Cool Kids”. So, it’s just barely Silver. Just barely.

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