Steven Universe Review: “The Return” (Season 1B, Episode 26)

steven-universe-the-return

“E-vac-u-ate!” – Mayor Dewey, putting “get out of dodge” succulently.

AirdateMarch 12th, 2015

Written By: Raven Molisee and Paul Vilecco.

Plot: Lapis’s warning was rather prescient, as a hand of death makes its way from space into Beach City. The town bails out, and Steven is sent along to keep them calm and help them carry on. However, Steven encounters a disquiet when he realizes the sheer scale of the conflict and that the Crystal Gems may have thrown themselves to the wolves.

Review:

Well, after two long years, here I am – the end of Steven Universe Season 1.

And what a season it was. I mean, consider that the show was advertised as “some kid rooms with aliens, eats ice cream, and acts like a dork”. Now consider that Season 1B has exposed our protagonists as psychologically messed up, unsure of what the hell they’ve been doing or will do, and you start to realize that either Cartoon Network’s marketing department is incompetent, or Sucrose played them (and, by extension, us) for fools. In a good way.

With Steven Universe cementing itself as a more (albeit not exclusively) serialized dramedy in Season 1B, it was imperative that the two-part finale serve as the coda to the themes that this season was built on. Now the question is – what does “The Return” do to make said coda as effective as possible?

The answer – it focuses on Steven. That’s a good sign.

(And it’s written by the duo that’s partially responsible for “Rose’s Scabbard”. Even juicier!)

Season 1B has taken bullets to the facade of innocence that Steven once held. To wit, he’s discovered that the Crystal Gems are a rebel subsection, one of the trio is considered the Homeworld equivalent of a bastard, another is psychologically in denial over the death of their leader, both of them are self-loathing tragic figures, Garnet’s aura of stoicism and leadership masks her own fears about worst-case scenarios, and most damningly, none of them know what the hell to do with Steven.

Oh, there’s also the little fact that Earth has become known to Homeworld once again, a low-ranking technician has become aware of the quartet’s existence, and leadership is about to send other Gems to beat the stuffing out of them.

Might I remind you that Steven is 13 years old?

So how does this start? Much like “Laser Light Cannon”, Steven is ordering fry bits. With Greg, this time. Already, the sense of normalcy is being tested – Amethyst is off preparing for the inevitable, while the Universe’s are keeping calm and carrying on. They are aware of what is to come as per their conversation, a rather interesting contrast to “Laser Light Cannon” where Amethyst and Steven were just engaging in Seinfeldian conversation. Greg and Steven just don’t know when.

By which I mean, a giant hand from space immediately makes itself known by shattering all of the glass in the surrounding area with a sonic boom. Well, go big or go home, I guess! I mean, what a great design choice there, and I am being serious. The hand really does make the threat feel that more personal, like Homeworld is saying, “you are screwed, resistance is futile”.

Now, according to wise army strategist Arnold Judas Rimmer BSc SSc, there are two options when dealing with an alien threat: 1) take it on and kill it, or 2) run away. After option 1 via the light cannon fails, Steven and Mayor Dewey decide to invoke the Rimmer Directive and call for the entire city to bail out, for the ship might be carrying an armada with more teeth than the Osmond Family. Hey, sometimes, you gotta know when to bail.

Also, it works as a rather interesting follow-up to the prior episode, showing Steven and Dewey showing an honest and frank leadership style in advising the populace to flee, that if they don’t, they all die. It’s still done in a way that indicates that this is but a mere start – Dewey seems to go off on a rather elaborate speech – which showcases the Crewniverse at their best. Things rarely change on a dime, eh? Still, it works, and the entire town begins, well, skipping town.

Unfortunately, this evacuation expands to involve Steven. The excuse given by Garnet is simple – Steven has served as the emotional center of the Crystal Gems for years, and now has to be the rock of a town in panic. Which makes sense – he does express his optimism that Peridot will decide not to turn the planet into a wasteland and will just walk away upon contact. His eternal optimism has been one of the great centerpieces of Steven Universe.

However, this optimism has been shown to not be impeccable. Steven’s attempts to talk to Peridot led to a squad being sent to Earth. He was unable to approach Amethyst because he wasn’t her position of being created as a mere war machine. Pearl is a whole bushel of psychological trauma still being unwrapped. And we’re just getting started.

The Crystal Gems know that they are sending him away, and do so under the assumption that they are screwed. Save Steven while they still have the chance.

I mean, after all, he’s their connection to humanity…

…and quite possibly, Rose’s own attempt at forgiveness for invading Earth.

No, I’m serious – this episode confirms that the Gems are actually aliens who invaded Earth and harnessed the planet’s resources for an unknown evil. The Crystal Gems were a separatist group that condemned the abuse of Earth and drove away Homeworld for a long, long, long time. And all it cost were the lives of several gems… and people. The victory was pyrrhic – too much death, Homeworld was only driven away instead of defeated, Rose and “her closest friends” were exiled forever, damned away from a society they knew. They got Earth.

But was it worth it? Was it ever worth it? And is it worth it to gamble all you have for a philosophy? To rebel against a government/societal goal via insurrection?

This is the question that “The Return” poses – one that will be partially answered in “Jailbreak”. But we do get one opinion here, with Greg’s line:

“No such thing as a good war, kiddo.”

I don’t think I have to say much more on that front. It speaks for itself.

But the issue concerning Steven and the Crystal Gems immediately is the return of Homeworld. And it is through hearing this story (thanks, Greg) that Steven gets an utter gut punch. Rebels the Crystal Gems may have been, they themselves had at least a touch of grey. The guilt that lingered over them for their pasts, their present, now hits Steven like a knife. And he reciprocates it – he all but demands to go back to Beach City, and after accidentally ejecting himself from the van, talks Greg into not stopping him.

Really, in this scene, I feel for Greg. He lost his lover over a dozen years ago, is fleeing the place he once called home, and in the midsts of all this, his son has run off to fight some aliens who have not only killed most of Rose’s comrades and friends, but may very well finish the job here. Consider that his contact with Steven is limited, and now he’s put himself in the line of fire. It really makes the scenes involving him that much more gutting.

And Steven… finally putting everything together, he finally comprehends the gravitas of the term “Crystal Gems”. And what is he doing? Moral support? The trio have thrown themselves to the wolves, damn it! Defenseless, facing down a gang that Lapis said would lay waste to them, Steven’s demand to return back to Beach City is no longer the request of a kid that thinks of this as a silly little conflict.

If they’re going to die, he’s going to make Homeworld’s task far more difficult than they hoped for. He’ll show them the force they tried to take down so many years ago, that Rose and the Crystal Gems felt their guilt over. It’s a beautiful reminder of Steven and how he works out his role as both a Crystal Gem and a Human, or rather, how he’s forced to balance the two spheres he’s stuck in between.

It’s a bit strange that shows that have the most aliens seem to become the most human, eh?

The entire car ride is gutting, moving, and serves to set up the emotional climax of 1B. As Garnet and OPAL!!!!!!!!

OPAL, OPAL, OPAL, OPAL, OPAL!!!!!

I HOPALED FOR OPAL, AND WE GET HER AT THE END OF 1B! I DON’T CARE IF SHE’S VOICELESS, WE GOT OPAL!

…ahem. Sorry. Have to remember, hush hush, keep it down, voices carry…

…anyway, the Crystal Gems are proving less than effective at warding off the Fingerpoke of Doom, when they notice that that kid they sent away doesn’t leave Beach City that easily. (Insert Chumbawamba joke here.) Naturally, they’re shocked – and for good reason. As the hand of death fires on the crew, he defies Garnet’s request to get the hell out of dodge (again), arguing;

“This is my home! And you’re all my family! I… I’m a Crystal Gem, too!”

steven-universe-return-shield

OK, let’s consider the times that Steven has summoned his shield in season 1. The first was a freak accident while eating ice cream, surrounded by the Crystal Gems. The second, Lapis was firing a massive glob of water at Greg and Connie, doing so in an act of frustration against Lazuli. Now? He creates a huge shield against a bunch of supremely powerful Gems, partially as a form of defense, but also in a state of desperation. He refuses to stand down and let his friends, his family, throw themselves in the fire. The Crystal Gems have been running sans defense for a while, and they justified it by (understandably) keeping Steven out of the loop.

With one move, Steven nullifies any reason to do so. He is their moral center, their heart, their love. He is the son of Rose Quartz.

And yet, as we saw in “Rose’s Scabbard”, he’s not just the son of Rose.

He is Steven Quartz Universe, Beach City Resident, fry bit connoisseur, video game enthusiast, best mates with the geekiest girl on the peninsula, able to coin a song on a dime, and with this one move, a Crystal Gem in his own right.

In a list of “my 10 Favorite Steven Moments”, this is getting a spot, will likely hit the top five, and may slide into number one if I disqualify a certain episode. This is what Season 1 was building up to…

This whole battle, this great act of defense, of self-sacrifice, is what Season 1 was building up to…

…and it fails.

Because against this quirky quartet come the Three Musketeers – Peridot the Grunt, Lapis Lazuli the Prisoner, and Jasper.

steven-universe-homeworld-trio

She’s a cartoon alien, and I would be afraid to meet her.

OK, let’s be real here – the main focus is gonna be Jasper. We’ve learned about Lapis and Peridot in their episodes. Still, as a trio, they do form an interesting dynamic.

Lapis is an unwitting pawn in Homeworld’s quest to wipe out the Crystal Gems. Treated like crap from both sides, she genuinely has no skin in the game apart from Steven releasing her from the Crystal Gems’ own unnerving treatment of her. She doesn’t want him hurt, she doesn’t want to be part of this horrific war between the two. She’s brought into the mix as intel, thus proving that she can’t catch a break.

Peridot, meanwhile, is but a cog in the machine. The ultimate bureaucrat, she does her job without any sort of emotion other than mild disgust and extreme aggravation when her routine is messed with. She doesn’t appear to have any serious emotional ties to Homeworld – she’s just doing her job. Still, there’s no attempt to suggest reform, no attempt to defy orders no matter how callous. A job is a job, and Peridot will do it, emotions or ethics be damned.

Jasper, though…

Oh, boy, does she seem to love what she does. The commander of the squad, she is the ultimate warrior – tough, brutish, and completely and utterly ruthless. Jasper knows about the grand conflict, took the side of Homeworld, and will defend that to the end. As a result, she takes pride in her mission, the capture/elimination of the Crystal Gems. In effect, she’s a Cavalier to the nth degree, bulked up.

Still, there is a begrudging appreciation of the other side, so long as they follow basic modes of conflict. To her, Rose turning into a human – a child, no less – is the ultimate in hypocrisy, the greatest cowardice, a fall from whatever grace she may have had. To hide from a battle? In her eyes, sickening. (And given what we learn in season 3, her anger takes on a whole new meaning.)

Oh, and do I have to mention that Kimberly Brooks sets the tone with a very commanding performance? It’s dominating, gruff, morbid… it really makes her brutish behavior stand out that much more.

As an antagonist, she raises Steven Universe‘s stakes to a whole new level. She’s not the tragic everywoman of Lazuli nor the apathetic bureaucrat of Peridot. She knows what she’s doing, is out to get it, and has some form of moral code to boot. The kid gloves are off for antagonists with her introduction.

On her own, she would be a force to be reckoned with. With an apathetic technician at the helm to take orders? She is your worst nightmare. Effectively holding a hostage by her side? That’s just an emotional knife twist. We get the full spectrum with this trio – the powerless, the powerful with a vengeance, and the bystander just doing her job. This can’t end well.

Indeed, all of this combines for a damn good thrashing – electrocuting and dismantling Garnet, traumatizing Steven, and before taking out Pearl and Amethyst, Jasper headbutts the kid out of consciousness.

I mean, what a way for Steven to realize that this ain’t a normal antagonist. He ain’t gonna pacify his way out of this pickle, partially because Jasper has an actual antipathy against the Crystal Gems, partially because she has a method to said antipathy, and partially because he’s knocked out at the end of it all.

That’s how you know this is a two-parter without any knowledge of future episodes. I mean, consider other conflicts that this show has had in the past. “Mirror Gem” might have had a darker ending, but there was at least some form of ambiguity. “Ocean Gem” was (at least at first glance) resolved rather happily, albeit with a new seriousness added onto the show’s canon. While the scars exposed in “On The Run” may never fully heal, there was still this moment of forgiveness. And even “Rose’s Scabbard”, tragic as that ending was, still contained that hint of sweetness from Steven.

This?

This is easily Steven Universe‘s darkest hour, at least in the first couple of seasons. Homeworld has returned, and Lapis has been proven correct. It’s a gutting gear change, but also so well executed.

And indeed, that’s what I can say about this episode. Encapsulating one of Steven Universe’s darkest hours, there truly is an epochal darkness to “The Return” that makes its cliffhanger ending stand out that much more. While the crew will find a way to shimmy out of this mess (I mean, come on, there are several more seasons left), as the old cliche goes, things won’t quite be the same.

I know I’ve said those words before, but Steven Universe revolves around a kid’s life and status quo being ripped apart and rebuilt. If episodes such as “Rose’s Scabbard” and “On The Run” deconstruct his personal life, episodes like this tear apart the world he once knew. Facing an antagonist he can’t persuade quite easily, the collapse of the universe (heh) he once knew has just become more dramatic.

And what a way to bring it down. Fantastically acted, quite tense, and with a haunting and tragic ending to boot, “The Return” is one of the best episodes of Season 1.

What else could break out from this fantastic season to finish it off?

Tidbits:

  • It’s interesting to note that this episode starts during sunset. Consider the events that this episode has, and the effects they will have on Steven’s life… that sunset becomes more poignant, eh?
  • Also, Steven’s icon for Mayor Dewey on his phone is the most unflattering picture imaginable. The humbling of Hizonner continues.
  • Jeez, pulling Peedee from the Fry shop… my god, that’s just sad. Remember the kid’s nihilism in “Frybo”, when he resigned himself to making fries? I mean, this is a new level of nihilism. Fries are his life, and his life is fried.
  • Just wondering, though, and this is a grand issue that I have with the show overall… does anybody else on the planet give a flip about a huge hand coming towards the United States? Are alien invasions just an accepted fact of life? Or is everybody in Capital City (which, given the show’s track record, I presume is the capital) out playing golf?

Wrap-Up:

Favorite Scene, Best Character, and Memorable Quote: “I’m… I’m a Crystal Gem TOO!” After that? Steven Quartz Universe truly is. And then he gets knocked out…

Score: Platinum. What a way to kick off the season finale, full of plot and character development for our hero. In the grand ranking of rankingness, it comes in at #7, right below “Ocean Gem” and just above “Space Race”.

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