Steven Universe Review: “Story for Steven” (Season 1B, Episode 23)

mr-universe-sings

This is the tale of how your father met your mother… now including Marty…” – Greg. Lemme guess. It’s gonna take nine years to tell the story only for you to realize you should’ve dated your Canadian tomboy best friend?

Airdate: April 9th, 2015

Written By: Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu

Plot: Greg regales Steven with a story about how he met Rose Quartz. Way back when, Greg was a struggling rock and roll legend playing to scarce audiences. One attendee, Rose Quartz, catches his eye after a Beach City concert. Meeting her further, he winds up in the decision of his life – the aimless career of a rock and roller, or a romance with a far-out space woman…

Review:

A breather from Steven Universe‘s plot development was, in some ways, necessary. I mean, “Rose’s Scabbard” was one of the most emotionally draining episodes in the show’s canon, punching the viewer in the gut and managing to fuse saudade with a tinge of cautious optimism. In the original production order, following that is a Conniverse two-hander that showcases what makes Steven and Connie tick, a “townie” episode that fleshes out the Dewey family and has Steven try and solve an issue on his own merits, and… whatever the hell this is.

But all breaks must come to an end. On that note, Steven Universe plunges back into plot development with “Story for Steven”. Even more intriguing is that this is a flashback episode – one that allows for the show to deviate somewhat from its Steven-centered perspective.

And what better character to inaugurate our first flashback episode than Steven’s own father, and how he quit the rock and roll industry and found love within the span of a few short hours.

Our flashback actually begins with the strums of Greg Universe’s acoustic guitar in the present… which gives way to a powering electric guitar. (Damn fine fade into the past.) You see, in the before time, in the long long ago, Mr. Universe was but an idealistic rock and roll guitarist with a full head of hair, cutting his signature song, “Comet”.

“Comet”, in many ways, is the best way to set the tone for the entire episode. Its lyrics and tone are clearly a take on 80s Glam Rock. However, rather than being a straight-up pastiche of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” or “Nothing But A Good Time”, it seems more of an attempt to pay a loving homage to the genre, while showing its more emotional roots. The lyrics talk about the seemingly idealistic ways of being a rockstar – records fly off the shelves, concerts are jam packed, life is lived day to day because there is no need to think about the future. The song’s subject doesn’t care that his life is aimless – the sheer power of his occupation will carry him far beyond the stars. He gets this bit of joy from what he does, basking in the popularity that he has earned himself.

But there is a hint of reality in the lyrics, particularly the ending. ”

I fly like a comet… soar like a comet… crash like a comet…”

The David Bowies, the Mick Jaggers, the Jon Bon Jovis, and the Paul McCartneys in this world are rare breeds. What you hear on WBAB are the success stories. Even for them, reality can come crashing down in some way or another – whether it’s Sid Vicious taking a lethal dose of heroin, or Scott Strapp suffering a complete mental breakdown, etc. For Greg, it’s clear that he knows that the glamorous life might not be as glamorous as it seems, or at least suspects it.

This ability to provide just a small dose of reality transforms the song from “loving tribute” to deconstruction, and really showcases the writing chops of what I presume is the writing team of Aivi and Surrashu. Fuse that with Tom Scharpling’s vocals and some fantastic visuals, and you have one of the most powerful songs of season 1.

True to the song, as the guitar takes its last strums of the evening, the audience does stand up and applaud.

greg-universe-concert-audience

It’s like he’s playing at Madison Square Garden and Wembley, all at once.

Let’s put it this way – Dave Lister’s musical career was more successful, and he was selling merch out of the trunk of a shot-up Ford in a seedy Merseyside pub car park! Smeg and the Heads at least played to an audience, even if the audience was inebriated. Greg plays to empty beach fronts. His manager is a sleaze that spends most of his concerts fraternizing with (read: impregnating) other women. His merchandise barely sells, if at all.

Hell, Rose Quartz might be the first person to show up to his concerts in a long, long while. But she’s fascinated by this man who speaks about flying among the stars, on a space train to the cosmos. She just happens to be a bit literal about it.

Rose: How will you get back?
Greg: Huh?
Rose: Back to Earth?
Greg: Heh – I’m never coming back!
Rose: Oh, that’s awful! This is your home.

It’s a fascinating look at another take on Rose – one that’s somewhat more naive, yet maybe not less philosophical, than the Rose we saw in “Lion 3: Straight to Video”. I mean, her astonishment at Greg’s metaphor is beautifully ironic, given that she was a rebel to her home nation. Was her reaction a fascination with Earth itself, or just a tragic reminder that she chose to, if not had to, leave her home planet?

The scene also serves as an intriguing contrast – as she disappears for the moment, we get introduced to Marty. Again, Marty is a sleazeball who bilks Greg out of his dough, all while using the concerts as an opportunity to sleep with as many women as humanly possible under the guise that he’s a rich moron. How he gets away with it, I dunno. If Rose is the wide-eyed idealist with a tragic underscore, looking at the best aspects of Earth, Marty is a callous cynic who represents the worst of human nature.

And young Greg is trapped in the middle, a community college dropout just floating amongst the cosmos, waiting to land amongst the stars.

The contrast is cemented in part two – as Greg climbs over a fence that says “Keep Out” to follow a talking purple owl, sending him straight to the Temple. Cue the rest of the Crystal Gems, complete with gaudy 80s-esque dress sense! This was in the salad days, when Rose didn’t shapeshift herself ovaries and a uterus to commit suicide, and it shows… at least, after Rose stops the Garnet from hurling Greg over the fence. They do seem more emotionally open, more stable… a more unified quartet than the one we have right now. It’s a halcyon time for the Crystal Gems – one where they seem at peace with the world around them, with each other.

There is, however, a faint sense that this man, this human, is going to be an epochal figure in their lives. Pearl takes an increased askance towards this human compared to the other three, particularly as Rose cozies up to him. When he leaves, she argues that she could sing, too. “Rose’s Scabbard” all but confirmed that Pearl was infatuated with Rose, but this scene just adds another layer to the duo’s relationship. We’ll get more of a light on Greg’s relationship with Pearl in “Mr. Greg”, but this is a fine sign that the duo will be at odds in the present. And that’s just the start of it all.

What Greg sees is a quartet that genuinely seems to care for each other, protective to boot, and anchored by a woman who doesn’t care what Greg’s dreams are, as long as he follows them. “You don’t want to miss your space train to the Cosmos”, she says in what is undoubtedly one of the most underrated lines in the series. I mean, this one line really serves to cement the perception others have of her character, if not her character outright.

Spending time with this cast, however, makes Greg realize just how enamored he is with Rose – particularly as Marty goes on about his liaisons with various women without any love or affection for any of them. The contrast, again, could not be any more different – Greg is infatuated, but there’s a genuine bit of emotion there. Marty is just sleeping around to satisfy his own immediate pleasures.

Barking orders at him to sing, Greg puts together the opening salvo for a more contemplative, open song – one that Marty rejects. That, combined with Marty all but admitting that he is the only one that knows Greg (read: wants to all but abuse him until he turns a profit), has Greg finally boot the bum on the side of a Delmarvian road. Given just how slimy and callous Marty was through the episode, it’s a profoundly satisfying rebuttal.

Greg’s return is even more emotional of a climax. He serenades this mystery woman he’s infatuated with, only for Rose to refuse to “play with him” (Ah, tad bit of foreshadowing) because Greg has his own destiny to follow. She’s genuinely stunned that his goal changed – again, serving as a hint to what fascinates Rose about humans. But that’s not important – the scene is handled so well, with very little expository dialogue. It all feels so real. It’s a sublime climax to this tale of how a newfound infatuation began, and how Greg landed with the star that was Rose Quartz.

With that said…

…I can’t help but feel that the “newfound infatuation”/”love at first sight” curbs the episode from reaching top gear. I mean, I really like it, but I think for a show that’s willing to showcase emotions in a more raw and complex way, the idea that Greg found Rose and fell in love at first sight and they all lived happily ever after seems overly simplistic, at least by SU‘s relatively high standards.

Now, to be fair, this was a tale told by Greg to Steven, so maybe he was just giving a bit more of a “Cliff Notes” version of how the two fell in love. That, and this newfound romance will be explored even further in the early stages of Season 2. So I guess I could let this slide a little.

Besides that, I also felt that maybe the writers were laying it on a bit thick with Marty’s rather sexist attitude towards women. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of people that think of the opposite sex as little more than a method to satisfy their own carnal pleasures (men and women alike), much like Marty here. Still, it seems like the writers were laying it on a bit thick by the end.

“You want one large woman when you can have multiple smaller women!”
Ugh, Marty, women are people!”

I mean, I like the intent and agree with the message, but it just seems like it could’ve been handled somewhat more tactfully and is just there to make sure that, if we weren’t put off by Marty’s abuse of Greg and his musical talent, we would want him tossed out because of his dismissal of women as sex objects. Again, Johnston and Liu aren’t wrong – they just could’ve had more impact with a somewhat different presentation. We get that he treats women like Lister does his favorite shirts – spelling it out just comes off as a bit excessive.

(Of course, the counter to that is the show’s target demographic is 8-14-year-olds. Make of that what you will.)

Still, even with those considerations, I do think that “Story for Steven” is a solid episode about finding love, how dreams can change, and how the quest for cash ain’t necessarily the be-all-end-all in life. It’s cute, it provides some great character development, and it contains a kickass song. A somewhat more nuanced antagonist and a somewhat less “love at first sight” take on the episode would’ve made it even better, but as it stands, it’s a solid recommendation from me for any fan.

Tidbits:

  • One of the most bizarre aspects of this episode is the highly dated fashion style. I mean, it all screams 80s. Yet, it’s heavily implied (and later all but confirmed) that Marty’s liaison with Vidalia resulted in Sour Cream, who is almost certainly a teenager. Assuming that the show is set in 2013, this means that Sour Cream was conceived in 1994, the latest. Either a) the 80s style lasted into the 90s in the Sucroseverse, b) the writers need to learn how to math, or c) I’m too much of a nerd and need to get out more. Probably all three.
  • Am I the only one who thought the chorus to “What am I Doing Here” was similar to “Strong in the Real Way”?
  • Again, that idea of Rose “playing” with other humans will come back in “We Need to Talk”.
  • I could do without Steven yelling out the episode’s title at the start, though.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene“Some… say I have no direction…”

Best Character: Surprisingly, not Greg, Rose, or Marty. It has to be Pearl – her jealousy creeping up is in a shortlist for my second favorite moment in the episode.

Memorable Quote: “You don’t want to miss your space train to the cosmos.” – Rose. Just the delivery of that line is spectacular.

Verdict: Silver. But I really waffled back and forth between Silver and Gold. I mean, had the flaws I mentioned been less prolific, it would’ve been an easy gold. For now, unfortunately, it falls rather back for me.

Still, it gets a rather high spot in the rankings. It comes in at #16, just above “Marble Madness” and just under the Gold tier.

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