Steven Universe Review: “Political Power” (Season 1B, Episode 25)

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Every civilization is three meals away from revolution. Beach City, meanwhile, only made it one night without power.

“Tip the truck!”  – Nanufea. Politics is strange…

Airdate: March 11th, 2015

Written By: Hillary Florido and Katie Mitroff.

Plot: Pearl’s EMP, constructed to destroy the robonoids, instead takes power out in Beach City. With the power still out the morning after, Mayor Dewey is forced to go to the Crystal Gems to try and get some assistance. Steven tags along and gets an inside look at how spin works, as well as how the facade of strength factors in the chain of command. Kinda timely

Review:

I know it’s a bit of a strange way to start off a review of Steven Universe, but stay with me…

Why was Donald Trump elected President of the United States?

I don’t pose that question in a “holy macaroni, we actually elected him” sort of way, although, holy macaroni, we actually elected him. I pose the question in a more contemplative, analytical way – what drove so many people to vote for a political neophyte? The answer, like most things in life, is complex. Reasons given include a rejection of the Democratic Party and the perceived elitism in modern culture, a feeling of the working classes being left out economically and socially over the past few decades, Secretary Clinton coming off as inauthentic and manufactured, concerns over terrorism and crime rates, a few votes used him as a vehicle for more odious rationales, etc.

Still, say what you will about the man, but President Trump’s campaign was undeniably grandiose. That made him stand out amongst a crowd of politicians that stuck to their own platitudes – all while creating a few of his own, ironically enough. He promised his supporters the world by appealing to their Id (even if that attracted and included more insensitive and politically incorrect elements), and generally speaking, it worked enough to get him in.

Now, what does this have to do with our silly little TV show? (Besides the fact that the writers probably got inebriated the day after the election?)

Three words – Mayor Bill Dewey.

…you’re all prepping your torches and pitchforks, I presume?

(Alright, before I continue, I should clarify that this is not meant to be an indictment nor a vindication of any political figure, although I personally dislike President Trump. This is meant more to be a general analysis of leadership. I just use the President, because he’s the most well-known example in the Western World right now.)

The last time a major crisis hit Beach City, Mayor Dewey’s response was… less than inspiring. By which I mean, Garnet slapped a megaphone out of his hand (not his fault, but certainly not the sign of a commanding leader), and he wound up trying to fill the ocean up with a garden hose, sobbing whilst doing so. (And yet he still had more chutzpah than Jeb.) It was a major humbling for a character that had thus far been portrayed as aloof and callous. Since then, the writers have started to make him more sympathetic – hence, “Shirt Club” and his relationship with Buck.

“Political Power”, therefore, revolves around Mayor Dewey trying to rehabilitate his professional reputation with this new crisis – that of a blackout, and one caused by the Crystal Gems, no less. (Damn EMP device.) Steven tags along because the show operates in his POV (an aspect of the series that, as I’ll get to later, serves as a dual-edged sword). His attitude, however, revolves around political platitudes – that of informing the citizens of the best-case scenario, telling them to remain calm, he’s got everything under control, etc. etc. Toss out the campaign buttons and glowsticks, move on to the next batch of frustrated citizens, etc.

The clincher? He doesn’t believe a word of what he’s saying.

Look, Steven. It’s not lying when you’re the mayor. It’s politics.

Let me tell you something. When you work for the government, you can’t control what happens in the world, but you can control how people feel about it. That’s the real weight I carry – making the good people of Beach City feel better, safer, more secure…

What’s my other option? Let the people panic and riot? That didn’t work out so well for Ocean Town. That’s why you’ve got to give the people something to believe in. When they see my giant head on this car rolling down the boardwalk they think “Here comes help!”. Well, some people think “Here comes that exterminator guy.” But then they realize it’s me – their mayor.

There exists an old Roman saying from Juvenal – “panem et circenses”. Give the citizens food and entertainment – their electronic devices being Mayor Dewey’s example of the latter – and they will remain content with their government, no matter what the hell they do. Now, I’m not saying that Mayor Dewey is going to expand Beach City all the way to New England, but he does believe in presenting the basic security of the townsfolk out of fear that they will ultimately turn on and destroy their town – all while putting a human face on it. He doesn’t trust them, he just says what he thinks they want him to say.

Tying this to what I mentioned at the start, consider what President Trump said on the campaign trail. He declared that he would wipe out terrorism, build a grandiose southern border wall that Mexico would pay for, take Obamacare off the map, be the best jobs president that God ever put on the Earth, bring the Rust Belt back from the abyss, rebut mainstream media figures who turned out against him in droves, etc. etc. To his base, he gave off a sense of security and economic freedom. Thus, almost every time he put his foot in his mouth – stroking his ego after a terrorist attack, criticizing a dead soldier’s mom, and his dodgy attitude towards women – the expectation that his poll numbers would sink to Jean-Marie Le Pen levels come Nov. 8th, 2016, proved unfounded. (And, again, there were other factors.)

But ultimately, and it pains me as a liberal to say this, the government can only do so much. (Sorry, FDR.) That’s where PR comes in – one where you try and keep the citizens calm to prevent them from going mad. Now, whether Trump’s election was a sign of PR being used to obfuscate shortcomings in the office and the man, or a reaction against said strategy, will likely be up for debate until the heat death of the universe.

Still, people like this sense of security, the feeling of leadership… and get upset when that security is not delivered on. Dewey’s use of the best-case scenario backfires horribly on him, and the end result has the townsfolk at his throat. You burn the people’s trust, they won’t come back, and might even go for people promising more radical changes – hence, why Senator Bernie Sanders (who, full disclosure, I’m a fan of) and President Trump became cult favorites overnight. That is if the people are able to take to the ballot boxes to reset/reform the system. If not, well…

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Obviously an extreme example, but still. (Taken from Google Images.)

Not helping is that Mayor Dewey is in way over his freaking head in his position. Yes, even with what is implied to be years at this career, it’s also been implied that all he does is campaign. It’s through sheer luck (read: the writers bordering on too idealistic for Aaron Sorkin) that the town isn’t literally on fire. Ocean Town is used as a comparison as what happens when a ruler is unable to spin properly (if not at all), and the fact that the city might not even be on the map rings volumes as to what the role of these leaders are.

Don’t think that this dynamic is limited to politics, however. For years, the Crystal Gems have (understandably) redacted a lot of information about their origins. This is partially because they don’t even know what’s been going on, but has so far been the result of an understandably paternalistic attitude. And it worked… for about 12 years. And on the surface. Then Lapis showed up, and the house of cards went down rapidly – Amethyst was revealed to be not of Homeworld origin, Pearl’s neuroses went to the surface, Gem culture was revealed to be decadent and corrupt, and Peridot showed up to reaffirm that, well, this ain’t over – Homeworld is back and more advanced than ever before.

Even now, they’re trying to keep the mask of stoicism and control on in front of Steven. While not around them, though, they are scared out of their minds. They are coming to terms with the position they’re in – one where they have no chance of anything more than a Pyrrhic victory, and that is a best case scenario on its own merits. This is something they never planned for. This is not the worst-case scenario, but it’s not too far behind.

There’s also a bit of irony to this, as well. Consider that the Crystal Gems rebelled against an opaque, presumably autocratic government with several violations of what we in the real world would call human rights. Our heroes are nowhere near as bad, but their paternalism and own redaction of the situation is kind of ironic, right? This quasi-liberal rebel group actually being somewhat illiberal (in terms we the viewer use, at least) definitely works, though – showing a more sobering, complex side to the Crystal Gems.

In a way, it’s a sequel to “Warp Tour” – except instead of letting them have their victory, Steven now confronts them over the facade. He’s seen all three characters suffer mental breakdowns, and can no longer stand to see

It’s through pacifying a town close to a riot that the connections dawn on Steven. The chains of command have required the presence of strength and stability, to the point where leaders will understate the severity of dilemma. When the truth breaks free, though, it makes said leader come off as weak and wobbly.

The answer is simple – be frank. Be open. Trust the people that follow you, and they will trust you in return. We don’t have all the answers, and sometimes, the answers we do have are flawed. Admit that, and improve. Only by working together – and by that I mean truly working together – can we find solutions to the issues that ail us, or ones we will have to confront eventually.

After all, isn’t that what democracy is all about?

Isn’t that what a group is all about?

And isn’t that one of the common ideas of liberalism – the idea of egalitarianism and how we should practice it to the best of our ability?

Besides the grand political sphere, I do think this is a prime example of the parallels between town-centered episodes and the overall arc done right. Not that it’s particularly subtle, but seeing the two intercept really puts into perspective just how universal the situations he faces with the Crystal Gems really are. Granted, we aren’t in an interstellar conflict, but we do have these great questions over tolerance, paternalism, the balance between emotion and stoicism, the chains of command, etc. These aren’t issues that need exceptional settings and situations – we can (and do) explore these on a daily basis.

These town-centered episodes do get a rather low reputation in the fandom, and I can see where their critics come from. It does seem like the town operates solely within Steven’s lens at times. Still, when done right, these episodes can provide some great insight into our favorite side characters and how this silly little universe operates, as well as our quirky quartet.

On that note, “Political Power” is actually a rather surprising episode in terms of quality. Despite being squeezed in between the start of another five-episode arc and a critically acclaimed two-parter, it does deliver some great insight into the chains of command and what leaders have to face on a daily basis, and how we as the common men and women operate in adversity. I think this might be one of the show’s most underrated episodes. At the very least, it’s definitely among the best of the “townie” episodes.

I would recommend you watch it, preferably with pizza. As long as it’s not chain pizza…

PIZZA HUT? REALLY, PRESIDENT TRUMP?

…on second thought, why in hell was Donald Trump elected President of the United States?

Tidbits:

  • Just one question: why didn’t the EMP destroy every electronic device within a radius? Or was the radius small enough to only destroy a local substation? Right by the beach? Ow, my brains.
  • There’s a brief bit of conversation that reveals that Mayor Dewey has a bit of a crush on Pearl. This, like most ships, led to a small contingent of fans shipping Pewey… which led to some other fans bashing Pewey shippers because, within the show’s canon, it’s implied that Pearl prefers those of a more feminine persuasion. Ignoring the (very) thin possibility of bisexuality, it’s not like fanon exists to explore alternate continuities, right? I say, strictly for the record, let ’em be. I don’t ship it, I have no opposition to it.
  • Turns out the Big Donut also sells a fair bit of boxed ice cream. I knew they sold Lion Lickers (as per episode 1), and Sadie has old lunches from way back yonder in the fridge. Still, boxed ice cream… what, was the Big Donut trying to compete with Baskin Robins?
  • Seriously – does Mayor Dewey have any political opponents? I mean, it seems like he’s always campaigning, but against whom? Then again, politics to the average viewer does feel like it’s constant campaigning, right? Fixed elections – the ultimate dual-edged sword.

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene: I really liked Steven looking into a conversation being held by the trio, yet unable to hear it. Chilling, right?

Best Character: Nanufea, mainly because this is one of the few times that she gets angry. Even the most chill of grandparents have their limits.

Memorable Quote: Dewey’s whole “not lying when you’re the mayor” speech.

Verdict: Here’s a hint – it’s the President’s favorite color.

Surprised? Well, I wasn’t lying when I said that it was one of my favorite “townie” episodes. It really does secure just how messed up the whole situation is – taking the character development from “Warp Tour” and the plot development from “The Message” and combining them together. I really do recommend it, especially as a lead in to the two-part finale.

I’ve decided to place it at #16, right behind “Coach Steven” and “Story for Steven”. Hey, maybe I like political analysis just a bit more than the first flashback episode.

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