Steven Universe Review: “Rose’s Scabbard” (Season 1B, Episode 19)

steven-universe-roses-scabbard
Kid… believe me. You haven’t seen the half of awkwardness.

“It held your mother’s sword. Nothing else could fit so perfectly.” – Pearl, not even trying to hide her crush on Steven’s dead mom when talking about the titular scabbard. And believe me, it just gets more unnerving from there…

Airdate: March 9th, 2015

Written by: Rebecca Sugar, Ravin Molisee, and Paul Villeco

Plot: At the Strawberry Fields, Lion unearths an old scabbard. Pearl instantly recognizes it as one to Rose’s sword and begins waxing quite a bit of nostalgia over it. Determined to have Steven comprehend it’s importance, she takes Steven to the storage cave where the sword is said to reside… and is shocked when Steven not only knows how to access the armor and weaponry, but that the sword lay in Lion’s mane. In fact, Pearl is quite shocked that Rose even had a lion in the first place.

A breakdown ensues.

Review (WARNING – LONG):

In 1990, the Pet Shop Boys released their single, “Being Boring” – a song about a man’s idealism being compromised by the inexorable march of time. Once mingling amongst the crowds of parties inspired by “a famous writer from the 1920s”, he’s now alone, having formed his own path of unfathomable success, all while many around him, including one person that was particularly close to him, died. In spite of its comparatively weaker chart performance, “Being Boring” has become Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s most acclaimed song, and it’s easy to see why. It combines beautiful vocals; melancholic themes of love, loss, saudade, and regret; and gorgeous instrumentation.

Bizarrely, that song reminds me of this particular Steven Universe episode, “Rose’s Scabbard”. I know what you might be thinking – doesn’t this connection seem a bit tangential? A pop record and an episode of a cartoon? When you put it that way, it might be. Still… may as well go to another dynamic duo – that of Steven and Pearl.

Full disclosure – Pearl is my favorite Steven Universe protagonist, and probably my all-time favorite character. Sure, many fans might feel enthralled by Garnet, or might really believe in Steven. Personally, though, Pearl is one of the most complex and well-written characters in western animation – behind the intellect she possesses is a character full of neuroses and faults, yet one that remains lovable.

Makes sense, then, that one of my favorite characters is the main focus of an episode that is cited as a fan favorite.

Yes, Steven Universe has had very few bad episodes. And most of them were more “mixed bags” or “mediocre” than downright bad. (“Fusion Cuisine” and “Horror Club”… aren’t making my hall of favorites.) Still, in this show where so many episodes are beloved, this episode, in particular, is hailed as a showcase of the writers in top gear – which, considering some of the episodes I’ve seen so far, is certainly no small feat.

Why is that? Are the fans overhyping this episode? What do I, some dork with a little blog, think?

Let’s start, of course, with Pearl. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Enter Pearl. Once seen as the logistical brainpower of the Crystal Gems, what “Rose’s Scabbard” unearths is psychological trauma, a character utterly deranged, yet utterly shattered. Torn by the war, she is willing to whitewash over the “maelstrom of death and destruction”. Why?

Rose.

From the start of the episode (and even before – “An Indirect Kiss”, anybody), it was heavily implied that she went through the fields of destruction to stand beside this gem she admired, No, seriously – you would swear that Rose was Cincinnatus from the way that she described her. It was love so deep, it transcended straight into madness. Not kidding here. She frames the battle on Strawberry Fields as if it was a great victory, and that they shattered a glorious empire. Yeah, how many anti-Homeworld Gems are left? Hell, Rose actually owned the “armor of the fallen”. Note the fallen aspect – it seems like Pearl doesn’t care about that. We’re dealing with a massive case of rose-colored glasses here.

And what of the titular scabbard? Pearl’s “cache of old photos and invitations to teenage parties”, Rose’s scabbard is this enigmatic object that has landed in her hands – one that starts without its sword. When Steven asks about the sword, with her hands clasped tightly together, Pearl laments the missing connection – “nothing else can fit so perfectly.” The decision to focus on her hands in this scene, combined with the wistful delivery from Deedee Magno Hall, takes the conversation and gives it an added poignancy. Adding on to that is Pearl remarking that Steven looks like his lamented mother – who she has been praising as Cincinnatus. (“She was courageous and brilliant… and beautiful… sometimes, you look so much like her.”)

Checkov’s gun, one of several. That should be a good sign, right? Well…

…Pearl and Steven go looking for the sword in the storage cave. En route, Pearl is quick to try and keep Steven from blabbing about it, and tries to elaborate on just how close she and Rose were… again, making her comparison of Steven and Rose a tad bit awkward. I mean, climbing up the mountain, she talks about how she was Rose’s closest confidante – that she and only she knew every single secret that Rose kept. In any other scenario, this would be irritating exposition. Here? Well, far from it – with what we learn later, these sound like the ramblings of a madman.

And then Steven reveals that he knows about the armory, and Pearl is indignant. He knows how to access the weapons and armor. Pearl is utterly stunned. Once Steven reveals that the sword was in Lion – Rose’s lion – well, she goes over the edge. The illusion of secrecy has been challenged and bested – the woman Pearl thought was able to spill any secret to her was more opaque and transparent than she thought. Trapped in denial, she tries to justify everything with the least rational, most selfish viewpoints available. “An Indirect Kiss” foreshadows this, but it’s still almost shocking to see.

Then, when Steven tries to come to his dead mother’s defense, Pearl says what might be the worst possible sentence imaginable.

“How would you know? You never even met her!

Yeah… remember when Steven noted in “An Indirect Kiss” that he couldn’t get emotionally connected to his mother because he never even knew her? Pearl has used that tragic fact as a pathetic and futile defense to keep herself in a selfish denial. Also, remember when Steven noted that fact in “Lars and the Cool Kids”, yet also used Pearl’s argument that Rose “saw the beauty in everything”? He used that to tell off Lars – who had blasted Steven’s weird mom, albeit without any sort of knowledge about her and in a moment of distress. For Steven, Lars had crossed a red line, and the kid snapped him into shape.

Here, when Pearl decries Steven’s relationship with his mother, the kid just stands stunned. It’s a line he never thought crossable… and when he is, he can only look at this psychological break in borderline terror.

Confronted with this critique, Pearl bolts back to the Strawberry Fields. And once she realizes that Steven is following her, she bolts to increasingly isolated ledges. The place she once felt so free has become the place that she has trapped herself in.

Even more intriguing, at least to myself, is the actual locale here. In February 1967, The Beatles cut the single “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Written by Lennon/McCartney, the song speaks of Lennon’s memories of playing in a field near his Liverpudlian childhood home. Still, the lyrics and composition provide some ambiguity – the idea of the rose colored glasses takes dominance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raven, Paul, and/or Rebecca set it at the Strawberry Fields for this reason. These writers have included send-ups to a plethora of popular culture – the most famous band in the world might be on a shortlist of sendup ideas.

Still, pop culture send-ups aren’t the centerpiece of Steven Universe. That goes to character interactions, animation, and development. And the climax of “Rose’s Scabbard” pulls out all the stops in all three categories.

One thing I’ve noticed amongst some of the most critically acclaimed TV episodes is just how they take these characters that seem invulnerable at the start of the show, and after whittling them away in prior episodes, finally shatter them – defying their own values in the process.

An example that comes to my mind occurs in The West Wing‘s season two finale, “Two Cathedrals”. There, Notre Dame graduate Jed Bartlet, having dealt with a PR scandal and threats of impeachment, finally breaks after his close friend’s funeral and goes on a vicious rant against God – in the Washington Cathedral, no less – before announcing to the Almighty Himself that he intends to leave the office he once loved and chucking a cigarette on the cathedral floor. The scene lasts a little under three minutes, yet is representative of Aaron Sorkin at his finest – producing long-winded speeches and tying in obscure information. Bartlet, the passionate politician who never seemed to give up, abandoned himself – and did so by turning on his faith. (Trust me, the scene carries more power as part of that episode overall.)

Steven Universe accomplishes its betrayal in a span of thirty seconds. Trying to catch up to Pearl, Steven forces himself across various platforms – only for his adoptive mother to dismiss him coldly. “Pearl? Did I – did I do something wrong?“, he wonders in confusion and anguish. Set out to get some form of an answer, he makes one last jump…

stevenuniverserosesscabbardstare

OK… let’s talk about the stare from the ninth circle of hell.

In the span of three seconds, every second of anger and resentment that Pearl held against Steven is personified. Her anger at the fact that Steven crashed has perception as Rose’s sole confidante. Her frustration at finding out that Steven knows far more than she did. Hell, her hatred of the fact that, thanks to Steven, she can’t be with Rose – and in doing so, shattering her hopes of love, or at least her delusions thereof. Her frustration that Steven exists. Heavy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this – Pearl was introduced as the Crystal Gem strategist – logic personified. It was her who taught (or tried to teach) Steven how to swordfight, it was her who has protected Steven, albeit to a damning degree… by all accounts, she raised the kid.

Would you call this stare logical? Would you call it protective? I’d sure as hell call it a teaching moment – a reinforcement of the fact that Pearl has betrayed herself, betrayed Steven…

…and honestly, she betrayed Rose. For one, Steven is, in many ways, a regeneration of Rose. Also, consider “Lion 3: Straight to Video” – Steven’s existence is Rose effectively living her dream, that she became a human being. In her anger, Pearl threw Rose and her ideals under the bus. With this one glare, Pearl told Rose “To hell with your punishments, and damn you!”

And she did so without saying a single word.

Personally speaking, it doesn’t matter how I slice it.

It’s chilling unlike any other scene before or since, even if it isn’t the freakiest. Future episodes will feature psychological terror, characters crossing moral lines, and… whatever the hell this is. But there’s something about this scene that cuts like a knife. This is a character plunging over the psychological edge, smashing into rock bottom, and bringing another character down with her.

Literally – the stare from hell takes whatever energy Steven had and shatters it. Another foot away from the ledge, he would’ve fallen into the abyss. How tragic that the last remnants of a living Rose would’ve died, and the blood would’ve laid on Pearl’s own hands. She immediately regrets what she’s done… but is still too stunned to do anything that could save the kid. Add to that the “Moonlit Battlefield” score from Alvi and Surrashu – so luscious, yet so intense and timed so perfectly – and we have the start of an unforgettable ending.

Thankfully, Steven pulls himself out from the bottom of the island. Thank god for those vines. As he does, Steven can only look on in utter disbelief. “Pearl… you have to tell me what’s wrong…” It’s almost impressive that Steven isn’t outwardly angry – partially because he’s in a state of shock, but partially because he still can’t bring himself to a state of genuine anger. It’s an idea that’s almost alien to him.

Pearl’s response? Mired in defeat, in horror… loaded with despair. There are no more ego-filling answers… just questions.

“Sometimes… you even… sound like her. (Grasps at the grass she’s sitting on.) Do you remember this place? Do you have any of her memories? We were right here, over five thousand years ago…”

What was once a phrase of appraisal has become a sobering reminder of the past…

She generates a hologram of Rose out of her gem. And with that, the genesis for her self-proclaimed raison d’etre spills out. Pearl’s conversation with the hologram – ostensibly a recreation of a prior conversation – all but confirms that she dedicated her life to Rose far beyond a rational level. She was willing to sacrifice her life, just to be beside her. Even if Pearl is in a worst-case scenario and had no freedom to lose – which is heavily implied to be the case – it’s still clear that it was Rose that brought her to rebel.

In the words of Tennant and Lowe, when presented with the choice to join the rebellion or save her life, Pearl bolted through the closing door – certain that she would never be bored.

“Why would I want to go if you’re here?”

But to see Rose’s reactions makes this a bit ambiguous, at least in my eyes. They’re warm and inviting, and seems to showcase a requited love. But is the latter the case? Did Rose really love her, or is Pearl just projecting an alternate reality?

steven-universe-roses-scabbard-hands

And the hands… a recreation of the pose made when describing the sword, they fit so perfectly… a bit too perfectly. It makes me wonder whether this conversation actually happened as showcased, if it came as a self-created justification, or if it happened and Pearl merely exaggerated details in her mind to delude herself… that there was an everlasting connection. “Mr. Greg” does clear the air a bit, but still – these traces of character ambiguity fascinate me.

Once Holo-Rose disappears… “Everything I did, I did for her. Now, she’s gone… but I’m still here.” To see Pearl analyze her own life, her raison d’etre, and come to this conclusion that she’s close to – if not completely – redundant… my word, this is soul crushing. “You get Hoynes!” was filled with a visceral anger mixed with the despair. This is the sound of unadulterated defeat.

And it fades into Pearl realizing just how horrifically she screwed up somewhere… or everywhere. Her obsession turned into a selfishness, her anger almost driving Steven into the abyss, her delusions… Pearl comes to the gutting conclusion that she has become disgraced. With this, she just has one question left – a bookend to her delusion…

“Sometimes, I wonder if she can see me through your eyes. Oh… what would she think of me now?”

To see this once haughty gem brought down to despair, in the span of only a few hours – minutes for the viewer – manages to be quite the gut punch. Pearl, the “sole confidante”, Rose’s closest advisor, is now wondering if there would even be any semblance of a relationship between the two.

How can Steven even respond? Simply, put, he pulls himself back. He’s never had to deal with something this traumatic before. Sure, Amethyst suffered a breakdown a short while ago, but that was a clash between her and Pearl that he happened to wind up mixed up in, and didn’t affect him quite as directly as this has. His face even reads “what the hell do I say?”

And, well, what does he say? Well, he hugs Pearl…

“Well… I think you’re pretty great.

In that one simple sentence, the episode comes to one of the most powerful resolutions possible. It does seem like Rose, affirming that she‘s still here, as well, and that, like always, she’s seeing the good in everything.

But it’s not. Steven has proven himself to be his own entity – holding his own emotions and his own opinions. What he sees are the noble traits in Pearl – ignoring the insults, the delusions, and the fact that he came close to the abyss, Steven still comes to the conclusion that Pearl is “pretty darn great”. It may be an inherited trait, but it came from his own conclusions.

The question remains – would Pearl delude herself into thinking that this is the woman she loves? Or does she face the fact that this is Steven? Either way, Pearl realizes, if only for a moment, that she is loved. She has a raison d’etre… or is her raison d’etre. And the tracks of her tears form on her face, and I’m not crying, I just have allergies to…

steven-universe-roses-scabbard-i-think-youre-pretty-great

…ah, damn it.

What follows is the sobering sound of silence.

No kidding – the last eighty seconds of the show are done without a single sound coming from Callison and Magno. And it is sublime. The only sound is background music – “I’m Still Here”, also by Alvi and Surrashu. In my opinion, it is not only the finest use of background music in the entire series, but it is the best piece of background music in the entire series.

You don’t need voices to see Steven and Pearl bond, Pearl regaling Steven with tales of the Great Gem War (although it is implied that she’s, yet again, romanticizing the conflict), and Steven just looking on, impressed. One part of the scene has Steven dig into Lion and bring out the old Gem colors. Last time Steven dug up something from Lion, Pearl suffered a mental breakdown. This time, she reacts in a more positive amazement. The look on her face carries as much power as an audible gasp could.

steven-universe-roses-scabbard-riding-home-on-lion

And how else should the episode end but with Steven and Pearl riding back to the portal on Lion as the sun rises? It’s so heartwarming… yet it’s also simultaneously gut-wrenching. Insecurity still wracks her mind. Forever, her view of Rose is altered – likely tainted. There’s still the hint, though, that Pearl still longs for Rose despite her prior ideas about her being shattered. She’s still the green light, the dream that will elude reality.

It’s all etched on her face. There’s no joy, no relief. Pearl hasn’t risen like a phoenix as much as she has been lifted in a full body cast from a gorge she fell down. We’ll see her desire to feel something like she once felt with Rose come up again in “Sworn to the Sword” and “Cry for Help”. This will be with her for a long time. The reassurance of “I think you’re pretty great” takes on a more tragic aura. All of this challenges the conventional idea that issues of a mental nature can be resolved in a span of thirty minutes.

And that’s not even getting into what the last episode implied – that Peridot is going to rain hell down on the Crystal Gems. The scene of Steven and Pearl waving the old colors gains even more poignancy. Neither of them are prepared – physically, emotionally, etc – to take on Homeworld. None of them, in fact. Not now. For Pearl – she has nowhere to go but up. And for Steven, he hasn’t seen nothing yet.

Still, one question remains… what the hell is the sum of this long review I’ve put down?

Well, let’s return to the start. “Being Boring”, besides being a song about loss and time, was one that cemented the Pet Shop Boys critical acclaim – showing to the world that their lyricism and musical composition were a cut above most other pop bands (or at least, had become so).

In a similar manner, “Rose’s Scabbard” was the episode that nailed Steven Universe‘s reputation for emotional storytelling and character development into place. In fact, it was this episode that made me love Steven Universe. I liked the show before “Rose’s Scabbard”, but watching this episode – albeit not live – was the one that formally turned me into a devotee.

And yes, that does color my love for this episode. But I don’t care.

The comedy is appropriately placed and hilarious, with every single joke hitting the highest possible pitch. The drama is sublime. The animation is magnificent. The voice acting is wonderful, showcasing genuine emotion without turning melodramatic. The soundtrack is gorgeous. Every single line, every single frame, is essential to the composition of the episode – building off of each second until it reaches a heartrending climax.

Oh, and there’s the tiny little detail of taking a character I liked and humanizing her via a thorough deconstruction. The amount of pathos given to Pearl is absolutely stunning, showcasing saudade in ways few others have before or since.

That’s why “Rose’s Scabbard” is a fan favorite.

And that’s why I say that, in no uncertain terms, “Rose’s Scabbard” is my all time favorite episode of Steven Universe. Even if there are objectively better episodes, which there most likely are, this is the one I would take with me if I was banished to a desert island.

In fact, taking my love a step further… I think it might be among my favorite episodes of any TV show I’ve seen up to this point.

I’m certainly not saying it’s the objective best in that department, either – episodes such as “Ozymandias”, “Two Cathedrals”, and stuff of that nature surely beat “Rose’s Scabbard” due to the ability to be blunter in approaching the themes in those episodes. Still, I don’t think I’ve gotten more enjoyment out of a single television episode than I have gotten out of watching “Rose’s Scabbard”. The fact that I put down at least 3000 words to reviewing this one 11-minute episode should be proof enough of that… as well as any sort of insanity I might have.

I honestly don’t know what else to say except… thank you. Rebecca. Raven, Paul, and everybody else involved… thank you for this tapestry of an episode.

Thank you all, so very much, for “Rose’s Scabbard”.

It’s wonderful…

Tidbits:

  • Over to the comedy aspect that I mentioned, my favorite bit of levity had to be Garnet trying to put the ax into Amethyst’s room. It’s a brilliant bit of background comedy, and adds some levity to the relatively sobering scene.
  • There’s also quite a bit of visual symbolism here. For example, after Pearl slams the wall, the painting of Rose, hung like a religious artifact, comes down and almost crushes Pearl. Draw your own conclusions…
  • Also, note that the episode starts out in the morning on the Strawberry Fields… and ends in the morning on the Strawberry Fields. The cycle continues…

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: The last four minutes… but that’s only if I had to choose. More specifically, the ending. It yields its power within the sound of silence.

Best Character: Pearl. There is no contest.

Memorable Quote: If asked to choose with a gun to my head? “Everything I did, I did for her. Now she’s gone… but I’m still here.” Twist the knife, Rebecca. Twist the effing knife.

Verdict: “Well… I think it’s pretty great.” And, no surprise, it comes in at #1 in the Episode Rankings. I don’t think it’s getting dispatched, at least not anytime soon.

Now I sit with different faces
In rented rooms and foreign places.
All the people I was kissing?
Some are here, and some are missing in the 1990s.
I never dreamed that I would get to be
The creature that I always meant to be.
But I thought, in spite of dreams,
You’d be sitting somewhere here with me…
– “Being Boring”, Pet Shop Boys

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