“I’m a Crystal Gem, too!”
In that one simple line, at the climax of “The Return”, we get to take a look at the grand overreaching theme of Season 1B of Steven Universe – what is Steven? In exploring that theme, Season 1B takes itself several cuts above its predecessor and cemented Steven Universe‘s place in the science fiction and animated pantheons – the latter moreso than the former.
In fact, I would probably call 1B my favorite of all of the Steven Universe seasons so far – pending a rewatch of Season 2, of course. It’s strange because it probably has a higher ratio of “dodgy” episodes compared to 1A (“Fusion Cuisine”, “Horror Club”, and to a lesser extent, “House Guest”) and 2 (maybe “Rising Tides/Crashing Skies” there), but there were more episodes rated “Gold” or Platinum in 1B than in 1A. In other words, it was slightly less consistent but made the top of the rankings more frequently.
There is a bit of irony in that, given that for one, the animation was far more consistent. I mean, there were some weird moments (mainly related to episodes written by Lamar Abrams), but the rubbery look of the first few episodes of 1A is largely gone, replaced with a more polished, consistent style that still felt vibrant. The timing of crucial action sequences is perfect. Even the simplest actions such as turning one’s head carry with them an expressiveness that provides a proper punch.
Said punch, though, lies in the plot development. 1A was largely focused on Steven’s misadventures in Beach City, with a spare few episodes dedicated to the overreaching arc. In fact, 1A was really the “prologue” season, setting up the plot development that became present in 1B. Here, we got a look at the less than pleasant origins of the Crystal Gems, both as a group and, in two cases, as individuals. We got to see the great schism that exists in Gem society – that of the tyrannical and logical to a fault Homeworld versus the more liberal and emotional (also possibly to a fault) Crystal Gems, the latter reduced to a rump, the former technically advanced beyond the latter’s abilities.
These plots took on an increased complexity, with many episodes (for good or for ill) ending with a less than pleasant, if not downright tragic, aura. Even those that ended in a seemingly happy manner seemed to carry the idea that the conflicts that engineered them were far from resolved. It leaves you sucked into the show.
But even that wouldn’t be possible without some of my favorite bits of character development in any TV show I’ve seen.
The central theme for characterization in Season 1A was “partnership”, with Steven and his dynamics with the Crystal Gems and the townsfolk being peeled apart. 1B’s central character theme? Pathos.
Boy, oh, boy, if you love yourself a good bit of character pathos, I can recommend nothing else than just streaming Season 1B of Steven Universe.
Let’s start with Garnet, as she’s probably had somewhat less pathos compared to the rest of the characters. The reveal that she was a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire resolves the great je ne sais quoi of her character – that of her relative mental and physical strength, a rock that inspires the others in the quartet. These two polar opposites acting as coequals, if not as one, really speaks a lot as to her character. Even then, though, this doesn’t mean there are hints of tragedy. Besides the prejudice that Homeworld Society has towards fusion – that Garnet is a negative example of the practice – consider that the duo’s less than stellar aspects of their strengths can often create unnecessary stress from Garnet. “Future Vision” had her believe that Steven would adjust easily to the reveal, for one – a flaw in the titular power. There’s also the fact that she seems to embody the “punch first, ask later” mentality of the trio – one that has kept their eyes off the prize. That mental conflict, while normally in sync, can prove costly.
Overall, though, she is much, much more stable than Amethyst. That self-loathing hinted at in “Tiger Millionaire”? Well, it comes out in full force in “On The Run”, often cited as one of the better episodes this season. She despises her past, loathes her genesis, and as such, thinks of herself as a waste of human space. Suddenly, her more rebellious behavior begun to make sense, with Amethyst trying to reject a convention that created her as a war machine. Nobody knows how to tackle this, so the response is to do as they’ve always done – retract, censor, and deny. And it built up in Amy until the kettle over boiled.
And even then, she runs a very close second to Pearl. My favorite character in the show cemented her position in my rankings in 1B. True, a good chunk of that is on the back of one episode, but what an episode. Instead of the fastidious and logical character we once knew, Pearl was peeled away to be a character who seemed to have everything in the rebellion… and lost it with no chance of recovery. Of course, what seems to be the case is not always the case, and her undying love for Rose could very well have been a one-sided delusion on her part. There’s some ambiguity regarding that. Still, what we have is a character that once put up the appearance of having it all together slowly peeled away before being completely deconstructed.
Combined… these three have no idea what the hell they are doing. They’re stuck raising Rose’s kid, facing a reignition of a battle they thought won, and forced to confront the whole story and present it to Steven.
This leads us to, well, how Steven developed as a character. Make no bones about it – this kid has been sheltered all of his life. Even with the knowledge that his mother is dead, its only now that he realizes the grand impact her life and death had on his life and that of those around him. He’s stuck dealing with a fragile trio, the aftermath of a conflict that she was involved in, and just how little the Crystal Gems have disclosed to him. And, mind you, he’s only thirteen years old. Only 13 years old, and he’s forced to confront the fact that there is something seriously wrong with his life.
He doesn’t know how to comprehend all of this. No thirteen year old should find out that one of his guardians regards herself as a war machine, or that another resents his existence. Not in the way he put two and two together. The fact that he handled the latter the way he did is something of a minor miracle, and even then, the end result is more “bittersweet” than anything.
Add onto that the fact that he slowly comes to terms with the gravitas of the Crystal Gems – that he is part of an organization that turned against their own species, their own society… but did so with the rationale that they protected the Earth, that they did so each other. The title that he once treated like a joke comes back with a seriousness at the end. When he shouts the quote at the top, it’s not just a mission statement – it’s a newfound appreciation for what entails.
Steven’s not completely out of childhood. Consider him calling Homeworld “mean” during “Jailbreak”. His frame of reference still doesn’t comprehend the horrors that were committed, or rather, that there can be horrors committed. Still, this is a rather poignant first step in his maturation.
And the other characters – from Peridot being fleshed out as a flustered bureaucrat, Lapis resigned herself to despair before finally taking action against a world that abused her as much as the Crystal Gems, Jasper defied her own philosophy in a futile gamble, Greg’s backstory was exposed, Connie’s insecurities slowly became assuaged as she and Steven bonded (and even literally became one), even Mayor Dewey became more representative of the tragic nature of our political system.
The only characters I think became less likable compared to 1A are Ronaldo, Lars, and Sadie. The latter two didn’t get much development outside of “Island Adventure” (with “Horror Club” doing little for the duo), and “Keep Beach City Weird” did severe damage to Ronaldo, proving him to be a psychopath. Thankfully, these are relatively minor characters, so all is forgiven.
Honestly, a dodgy couple of episodes aside, I think of 1B as a marked improvement over the already cool 1A. Again, it might be the show’s best season in terms of animation, character development, plot development, etc.
Now, for the obligatory awards…
- “Not Carrot Scalp” Award for Funniest Episode: “Garnet’s Universe”. NUMBERS HAVE NO MEANING!
- “Improving Kleenex Stock” Award for Saddest Episode: “Rose’s Scabbard” for its gutwrenching second half. “On The Run” and “Maximum Capacity” tie for joint second.
- “Facing Manchester City” Award for Scariest Episode: “On The Run”, for giving the viewer the first peek at the sheer atrocities that Homeworld generated and for showing just how psychologically tortured our protagonists can be and are.
- “Jar-Jar Binks” Award for Least Favorite Character: Ronaldo “Alex Jones” Fryman. Actually, I apologize for that comparison. At least Alex Jones seems to have a life. Maybe. I think.
- “President Jed Bartlet” Award for Favorite Character: Step forward, bird mom, you tragic soul.
- “Worth Buying the Record Player Award” For Best Song: How come Estelle only had one #1 in the UK? “Stronger Than You” is the show’s modus operandi!
- “No Television For 1000 Years Award” For Least Favorite Episode: If I never see “Fusion Cuisine” again, it will be too soon. It’s unfunny, contains subpar characterization, and is just pointless.
- “Showtime’s Adaptation of Unfamiliar Familiar” For Favorite Episode: “Rose’s Scabbard” should be buried in a vault to be seen by future generations. I don’t know if I believe in perfection, but “Rose’s Scabbard” comes damn close.
Overall, if I were to give a verdict, I give 1B a Gold. If it wasn’t for those few dodgy episodes, I very well would’ve tossed it a platinum. Still, 1B is an awesome season. Do not skip it under any circumstances.