Steven Universe Review: “Open Book” (Season 1B, Episode 20)

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FYI – This is the perfect screenshot to use if you ever want to milk some money off of clickbait! You won’t believe what happens at the wedding! #21 is the cooliest!

“It completely dropped all the anti-authoritarian stuff and described a wedding cake for 50 pages!” “Yeah! That cake was worthy of 20 pages – tops. There weren’t any strawberries on it!” – Connie and Steven, starting an in-depth analysis of a book series. Truly, they are the Siskel and Ebert of the book world.

Airdate: March 19th, 2015

Written By: Hilary Florido and Katie Mitroff.

Plot: Connie is miffed that her favorite book series, The Spirit Morph Saga, ended with the two protagonists getting hitched. Having heard her rant about how the ending defied everything the book was meant to represent, Steven allows Connie to generate her own ending of the book in Rose’s Room. And as is the way in Rose’s Room, everything goes south, as well as a bit psychological.

Review:

So…

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…how do you follow up on that?

I mean, the writers had to know that “Rose’s Scabbard” would drain the viewers emotionally. Let’s also combine that with the fact that there exists a wide swath of fans – myself includedthat consider it their single favorite of Steven Universe. So, how the hell were the Crewniverse going to follow up on what was arguably their Mona Lisa?

They didn’t have to, strangely enough. Thanks to Cartoon Network, they were able to slide “Rose’s Scabbard” at the start of a week-long sequence of more dramatic and plot-driven episodes, up to and including the season finale. Thus, the writers had carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted.

So… what about something of a two-hander to change things up?

Not that the concept of a “two-hander” is that rare on television. It has proven successful before in other shows; most famously, the British soap opera Eastenders has struck gold with its often dramatic two-handers. (Feigning terminal cancer will make a trope popular.) This style allows for an increased focus on, well, two characters – fleshing them out like never before. Even in animation, the style has been utilized – SpongeBob had the two-and-a-half hander “Gary Takes A Bath” (the half being a brief cameo from Mr. Krabs), although it mainly used the style as a comedy routine.

For the most part, though, Steven Universe has stood firmly in the limited-perspective ensemble piece. Yes, Steven is the center of almost every episode, and the show revolves around how he interacts with the various characters and their dilemma of the day/week/whole life. Sometimes, these episodes can revolve around two people – for example, “Future Vision” centered on Garnet and Steven, and later, “The Answer” served as a flashback told to Steven on Ruby and Sapphire. These episodes, however, featured other characters – the other Crystal Gems, Homeworld society, Sadie, etc.

As far as I can recall, “Open Book” is practically the first (and unless I’m missing something, the only) Steven Universe episode to only feature two characters… a clone of one character, a brief appearance of a whale and computer-generated knights, and a brief drawing of two in-universe characters notwithstanding. (OK, maybe it’s not the purest two-hander, but there are only two voice actors. Close enough.)

And what better to experiment with the two-hander style than with a Steven-Connie episode? Hey, after shattering our hearts into a million pieces (no matter what the viewing order, as we will see), this episode puts them back together – presumably to shatter them later on, because the Crewniverse are terminally insane.

It makes sense, though – Steven and Connie’s relationship has become one of the most endearing elements of Steven Universe – and not just for superficial reasons. I mean, this enlightened bookish girl and this romantic heartfelt boy? Crashing into each other? How will they get along? Well, this…

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…should be a damn good sign. The balance of romanticism vs enlightenment has been key from moment one. Connie was wrapped in her book when a rock almost fell on her, and questioned his boundless optimism as Steven tried to free them from the bubble. Steven focused on the glow bracelet she dropped a year ago. Steven is open and honest about the situation involving the Crystal Gems, while Connie tried to put up the facade of traditionalism. Steven reacted with elation when he finds out that he has healing saliva, while Connie wondered what the hell she was going to tell her optometrist. It’s not a case of “where one zigs, the other zags” – it’s a case of the duo approaching scenarios in different manners, and coming off better with the other’s assistance.

Still, a deeper analysis of their contrasting philosophies was bound to occur eventually. What better way to do so than with a book series that she introduced him to?

The schism lies in the ending of the final book of The Spirit Morph Saga – one that featured the heroine, Lisa, and her (humanized) falcon, Archemicarus, getting married. Complete with a fifty-page description of the wedding cake. Connie was less than pleased, thinking that the book was going to end with the ultimate subversion and destruction of the series’ political establishment… only to end in what she saw as a last-minute hookup between the leading lady and her colleague. Clearly, she fell for The Spirit Morph Saga for its themes of anti-authoritarianism, its political and cultural critique, and its deepest lore – and thus, its ending is antithetical to what she expected.

It’s also pretty clear from moment one that Steven doesn’t quite share the same sentiment. He was brought into The Spirit Morph Saga because of the individual character dynamics – namely, the relationship between Lisa and Archemicarus. He took note of how one’s circumstances influenced the other’s behavior, the example being Lisa’s near-death experience, the one that almost shattered Archemicarus. What he picked up on was how these two evolved, and how their relationship developed. In contrast to Connie’s displeasure, he found the ending to be fantastic.

Still, fandoms have a reputation for being… pretty damn volatile. I mean, even in the early 90s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 fandom blew up over Joel vs. Mike. And while that ultimately led to a consensus that both were cool, fandom incidents have arguably gotten worse in the age of social media. Hell, the SU fandom will likely forever be seen as being occupied by Momentum-supporting puritan psychopath manchildren because of the fanart scandal, driving one of the writers off of Twitter, the whole Keystone Motel review row… this was all over a children’s cartoon created by a neo-hippie, by the way.

Needless to say, Steven’s fear of rejection is simultaneously justified and irrational. Justified in that people can get quite volatile when their favorite fictional franchise displeases them, less so in that Connie has largely shown herself to be relatively rational and even-keel. Thus, Steven clams up about his own personal opinions on the book and decides to give Connie access to Rose’s room. Remember last time Steven went into Rose’s room and saw Connie? “He was incredible” repeated ad nauseum.

This isn’t too much different.

Here, some rather choice wording also manages to screw him over. “I want to see you”, he declares at the costume shop he generated for Connie. The operative words – “I want” – create an alternate Connie wholly subversive to him, effectively dependent on his commands. It slowly becomes apparent to Steven, as whatever his heart desires is agreed to by the clone. It takes him a while, but there are far too many agreements and far too few words said by her. I mean, check out some of the sentences said by Cloud Connie…

Hmm, what do you think?

You are a bird of prey.

Wow, from Book Four!

He ate the bones!

If you think so!

And just for the record, the penultimate one is the only sentence that isn’t an affirmation of Steven’s desires. But even with that small credit… this is not Connie. This is not Connie in the slightest. Connie is far more verbose in her vernacular, far more inquisitive, and quite a bit more willing to call Steven out on his flaws (see, “Bubble Buddies”, “An Indirect Kiss”, “Fusion Cuisine”.) It only takes Steven breaking Cloud Connie (“want, want, want, want, want, want, want, want”) to get him to realize just what he did. Unfortunately, since he unintentionally broke the simulation, he sires eight kids, loses his E-Type, gets chased down for $18000 by a psychotic taxman, and winds up buried neck-deep in sand, thrown to the mercy of killer ants.

Oh, sorry, wrong holodeck simulation episode.

Yeah, it’s almost a cliche at this point that any piece of sci-fi that features a holodeck-type room will see that room go on the fritz. It’s how you handle it that makes episodes like this one stand out amongst the crowd. And here, well, this episode stands out amongst the crowd because the malfunction revolves around the characters and doesn’t quite result in them getting thrown to the mercy of killer ants.

Steven’s attempts to dispatch Cloud Connie, however, backfire – she quickly regenerates. The reasoning, of course, is a technical loophole – he asked her to think for herself, but also wanted her to disappear. That’s always the way with computer simulations – complex thinking ain’t their strong suit. Steven tries to run away, but he gets chased down… and here’s where the simulation gets awkward as all hell.

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…like I said, the Crewniverse are terminally insane. What were you eating, Ms. Sugar? (It has to be rotisserie chicken, right?)

At first glance, this all looks like the final defenses against a confession of love. Connie’s attempts to attack her clone prove futile, as she keeps regenerating. “I know you like her… and I know you want her to like you…” the clone says as Connie tries to kick her ass. At the worst possible time, it seems, for Steven – Connie, in this one minute, demonstrates just how unlike the clone she is. She doesn’t need to be told to jump into action – she does so. And that’s what drives Steven towards her. That’s why they get along like a house on fire. Steven sees in Connie the independence, the intellectualism, willingness to take charge, how she’s blossomed from that shy introverted nerd to a more action-centered, straightforward nerd.

“That’s why you want to tell her the truth! Tell her, Steven! Tell her!

Finally, Steven comes clean and admits that he likes THE ENDING OF THE BOOK! That, my friends, is why he couldn’t think of ways to improve on the ending or create an alternate one – he viewed it fine as it was.

And the silly part? Their relationship doesn’t collapse. Connie sees in Steven the romantic, the expressive, the emotive. Their relationship, again, is damn near lockstep – one balances out the other. They function independently, yet become a more cohesive whole when together. Nothing like a silly book is going to get in the way of them. “You’re Steven! You love schmaltz!”

On that note, I can’t help but feel like this episode is a bit meta. In my review of “Marble Madness”, I brought up that the Steven Universe fandom was created for various reasons. Some fans loved how the writers championed liberal themes and ideas effectively, others were drawn in due to the character emotions and the show’s ability to cut into the viewer like a knife. There are occasional schisms in the fandom as a result, but there’s still this feeling that there is little else like it on television.

How else could this episode end but with Steven and Connie discussing the ways in which these characters evolved, how the book made the decisions it did, and the validity of these interpretations? They seem to keep their interpretations in place (“I guess you could read it that way”), but they accept the opposite’s rationale. Isn’t that a message that we seem to need more than ever nowadays?

So, does “Open Book” succeed as something of a two-hander? Putting it simply, it does. It really does showcase what makes the Connieverse dynamic tick, the themes that power these characters as individuals, and does so in a quirky way. It also works as a relatively light, yet not inconsequential, follow-up to the prior episode, whether it be the brutal “Rose’s Scabbard” or the denouement of “Full Disclosure”. It’s certainly not the “standout to end all standouts”, but it is a fun episode to watch.

And besides, is this a bit of foreshadowing to “Shirt Club”? PLAY ME OUT, ICONICALLY 80s SYNTH MACHINE!

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DUN, DUN, DUN-DUN-DUN, dadadada, du du du du DU DU duuuu….

Tidbits:

  • There isn’t too much to say about this one, so just one note – as of press time, season 4 of Steven Universe has wrapped up. And, to be honest, I am fairly certain that season 5 will be the last season. Not because of declining ratings, but because it seems like we’re reaching a point in the show’s story where I don’t know where they will go but to wrap everything up. I love this show, but it feels like season 5 should be the natural end of the show. Rebecca Sugar has promised big things for Season 5 as well. For those complaining that Season 4 had a lot of low-key episodes, maybe it was “the calm before the storm”.
  • Also, on a note unrelated to Steven Universe, it looks like Arsenal could just slide into the top 4 of the Premier League, as per convention of Arsenal always coming in 4th place. Knowing the team, they’ll get in, Wenger will sign a contract keeping him on until the Labour Party forms a government, and the team will proceed to get steamrolled 10-2 aggregate against Bayern Munich. Again. At least I can take joy in the Yankees being fantastic again. And Kelvin MacKenzie getting tossed from The Sun and getting the paper banned from another Merseyside team as a result of his seemingly boundless odiousness.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: Cloud Connie holding down Steven while Connie watches in horror. It’s less weird than it sounds.

Best Character: There are really only two to choose from, so I’m going joint award here.

Memorable Quote: “You’re Steven! You love schmaltz!” – Connie. What else does she have to say?

Score: Silver. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting another standout after the brilliant tragedy that was “Rose’s Scabbard”, but I was still pleased with this one. It lands in at #20 – ironically displacing “Bubble Buddies”, and landing right behind the experimental “Garnet’s Universe”.

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