Steven Universe Review: “Sworn to the Sword” (Season 2, Episode 5)

A frame from the Steven Universe episode "Sworn to the Sword"

“It was here that I became familiar with the human concept of a knight – completely dedicated to a person and a cause. This is what you must become, Connie – brave, selfless, and loyal.” – Pearl. Oh, this is gonna be a happy episode, right?

Airdate: June 15th, 2015

Written By: Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu

Plot: After seeing Connie ward off a flock of seagulls (they flew so far awaaaaayyy), Steven encourages her to take up sword fighting under Pearl. Despite Pearl’s initial reservation, she takes up on the offer. However, in spite of Steven and Connie thinking they’ll make a great team, her teaching methods are unorthodox and a bit self-sacrificing… by which I mean, her methods are borderline suicidal.

Review:

Ever since I reviewed “Rose’s Scabbard” back in May, I’ve made it no secret that it is my single favorite episode of Steven Universe. Time and time again, I’ve argued that the episode is not only the pinnacle of character pathos, but manages to take a scenario that would be the height of melodrama and hit the perfect beat – between the fantastic score,  the fantastic visuals, the sobering climax, and the ambiguous ending, “Rose’s Scabbard” is known to reduce fans to tears. It was the episode that secured my fandom, and I will never regret it.

However, as I mentioned in the review, just because I think it’s my favorite episode doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the objective best. Not that I don’t think “Rose’s Scabbard” is a remarkable eleven minutes of television – it is. But I have entertained the idea that the show has produced episodes that, on a technical level, are better. In my head, I think of at least two episodes that raise that possibility. There’s “Bismuth”, the half-hour third season special that gave us the titular character and how she impacted the Crystal Gems.

And then there’s today’s episode, “Sworn to the Sword”. Coincidentally, it is the sequel to “Rose’s Scabbard”… as well as two other episodes – “Steven the Sword Fighter” and “Full Disclosure”.

I guess the latter episode is the best place to start, all because of one simple sentence. “I want to be a part of your universe.” With that line, Connie Maheswaran declared herself in for the long haul when it came to her partnership with Steven. Their relationship is one of the most enjoyable in all of (animated) media – balanced, optimistic, yet with that tinge of terror that comes in a budding romance, or at least a very close friendship. Might I remind you of…

 

…all in the same episode.

Thankfully, this episode starts off on a less… stressful note, what with Steven and Connie eating biscuits and jam, all while singing one of the sweetest (heh) duets in the entire canon – “The Jam Song.”

I mean, that song would make Spock smile. It just radiates that joy of being with the one you love, that innocence of childhood, the sweetness of relaxation… it’s only 45 seconds long, but you never forget it. Zach Callison and Grace Roleck could’ve just phoned the vocals in, but no! They convince me that Steven and Connie are part of each other’s universe, now, forever, and for always.

AND THEN SEAGULLS ATTACK! Thankfully, Connie wards them off with her bow. Her comment in “Lion 2” that her life’s excitement extends only to tennis practice sure comes off as dated now, right? I’m serious – imagine the girl from “Bubble Buddies” doing that. Just try. Nope? That woman has fought off the Robot Shooty thing, herself, and took a look at her best friend’s skills.

Fortunately, her ability to ward seagulls off amazes Steven. Unfortunately, he refers her to Pearl – his teacher, and by all accounts, practically his mom. Also, a war veteran and mentally unstable. Who’s been at this game for thousands of years. This can only end quite well.

Thus, we get to the crux of not only this episode, but also one of the great plot threads of the entire series – the symbolism of the knight and his role, especially in a strict caste system.

It recently occurred to me that Homeworld feels like a medieval society, yet one rooted in futuristic technology and a seemingly feminist (read, seemingly single-sex) populace. In that sense, Steven Universe is practically a series based off of Star Trek‘s “symbolic” planets, such as the Ferengi (the capitalists), the Cherons (the racial bigots), the Klingons (the USSR). Gems are symbolic of caste systems through the world, be they formal and fixed (pre-Renaissance European nations) or informal and fluid (the shifting views of gender, ethnicity, and class in modern America). Defection from the strict rules of the upper castes are grounds for severe punishment.

Gems are symbolic of caste systems through the world, be they formal and fixed (pre-Renaissance Britain) or informal and fluid (the shifting views of gender, ethnicity, and class in modern America). Defection from the strict rules of the upper castes are grounds for severe punishment, and each Gem class is supposed to stick to their pre-determined fate – a terraformer, a soldier, a servant, a technician, etc.

This episode, in many ways, contrasts the ideas found in a medieval society against the vastly more liberal ideals found in modern Western societies.

Steven and Connie, through the series, have been depicted as a partnership of equals. True, one often attacks and the other defends, but they complete each other on a barrage of areas – intellect, emotion, reason, passion. Steven and Connie are the modern partnership – one that not only showcases a coexistence within the duo, but also one that defies any sort of barriers that would’ve shifted the dynamic in years past (and, to a lesser extent, today.) Even when they say “My knight” and “My liege” to each other (which, by the way, is genderswapped – just saying), it’s done with a comic aura to it. It’s all just a bit of silliness.

Now, what about the era of the knight?

There exists an interesting aura of romanticism regarding the medieval knight and his relationships. We see him as a man dedicated to his castle, his king, and the fair maiden. He was to be brave, but also fight with a sense of honor. Adding to that is the fact that his protective armor may have very well saved him from blows which would have otherwise been fatal. The knight was the first line of defense for the land, and their devotion seems to get praised as the height of chivalry.

What if that were to be deconstructed? Well, Everything begins with your stance…

“Remember, you do it for him
And you would do it again.

You do it for her.
That is to say, you’d do it for him.”

I’m not gonna lie – in terms of quality, I think I prefer “Do It For Her” over “Stronger Than You”. Not that the latter is a less “iconic” song – if anything, it’s the song for the SU fandom. I just happen to prefer “Do It For Her”, and think that, in some ways, it’s a stronger overall number.

For one, while I absolutely like the rising and empowering R&B melody of “Stronger Than You”, I think that “Do It For Her” carries more intrigue with the piano, flowing from a light little ditty to an absolutely sobering number within the span of two and a half minutes. It actually feels like a musical number you’d see off Broadway.

And that’s not even going into the lyrics.

The first verse is innocuous enough – it’s all just education. Fairly straightforward, quite technical, befitting to Pearl and Connie. Of course, their partnership is gonna start off on the right foot… something that becomes quite unnerving come verse two.

Connie: Keep my stance wide, keep my body lowered.
As I’m moving forward…
Pearl:
Concentrate! Don’t you want him to live?

Already, this simple training exercise in the art of fencing is taking a more sobering turn. Contrast to “Steven the Sword Fighter”, where Pearl seemed to treat Steven’s training with kid gloves, and this seems like a different, a more angered Pearl – one that’s on a war footing yet again. Granted, the way the song is structured might lead to some ambiguity, some room for interpretation that some time has passed between the first and second verses, but the argument still stands.

Haunted yet? Well…

On the battlefield, where everything is chaos
And you have nothing but the way you feel, your strategy and a sword
You just think about the life you’ll have together after the war…

…oh, dear. I don’t think she’s talking about Connie here. I think she briefly entered la-la-land, or as the professionals like to call it, a status of self-delusion and fantasy of what could have been.

But that’s not really horrifying, right?

Deep down, you know you weren’t built for fighting.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not prepared to try!

What they don’t know is your real advantage.
When you live for someone, you’re prepared to die.

…oh, smeg. What the smeggin’ smeg’s she smeggin’ doing? She’s smeggin’ killing her.

…yeah. Pearl apparently has deluded herself into thinking that Humans are about as durable as Gems. Let’s be real here – Gems can survive getting a sword in their torso. Takes a lot to kill them. Humans? I dunno about you… but I personally have my doubts.

Yet even that’s displaced in the sheer freakiness of it all by the simple fact that Pearl is, in many ways, dehumanizing Connie. She’s not treating her as a person – she just thinks of her as Steven’s first and most important line of defense. By elevating her to the most important one in Steven’s life, she’s reducing her to a mere pawn. Suddenly, Rose’s desire to cherish humanity goes out the window… although, as we’ll see in “We Need To Talk”, even that wasn’t what it appeared.

And “you weren’t built for fighting”… it’s been implied thus far that Pearls, as a class, are not considered warriors.

It’s self-delusion at it’s finest… and it gets passed on to Connie.

Deep down, I know that I’m just a human.
But I know that I can draw my sword and fight.
With my short existence, I can make a difference.
I can be there for him.
I can be his knight!

In the span of just a few lessons, Pearl has transformed an egalitarian relationship based on the principles of balance and coexistence into one of codependence, subordination, and dehumanization. I use no hyperbole when I call this the single most unnerving song in the show’s canon – yes, even more so than songs sung by actual antagonists.

If this is supposed to be chivalry, thank God for the Renaissance.

Again, this is the power the Crewniverse yields – they take our common views of history and society and deconstruct them by exposing the drawbacks of these ideals. Tell me these writers don’t have chutzpah.

Even Steven winds up unnerved by this path Connie’s education is taking. Consider a scene in the song – Connie arrives at Steven’s house, and they run off to her lesson excited, as a cohesive unit. After the song, a similar scene plays out, but with a more somber outcome. Pearl blocks any attempt at conversation by rushing Connie off to her next lesson, parting with the line: “She’s going to make a great asset to you.”  Again, that aspect of dehumanization is intriguing.

Just as they leave, a third perspective shows up – that of Amethyst and Garnet, out having their own adventures (not too much unlike “Rose’s Scabbard”, although even there, they were more directly tied into the overall scenario). When Steven confides in them his issue, Garnet responds by pretty much calling Pearl’s status as a knight anathema to many of the traits that were at first associated with the character:

Back during the war, Pearl took pride in risking her destruction for your mother. She put Rose Quartz over everything. Over logic, over consequence, over her own life!

The perfectionist from episode 1, it turns out, was capable of great acts of irrationality. It did make me wonder for a brief second if she was merely putting up a front of logic to try and forgive herself for this constant slip into insanity, given how fruitless it ultimately was. Yet, it’s equally viable that, well, love makes you do stupid, stupid, insane, insane, stupid, illogical things. Like constantly throw yourself to the wolves.

Fair enough, right?

Well, again – she’s a gem. As long as her gem isn’t shattered, she’ll be back like that. Steven imagines Connie doing the same… and can’t even finish the thought without being mortified. Gonna be more than a flesh wound there. He hauls ass to the Ancient Sky Arena, where he hears his worst fears being confirmed. I’m just going to let this exchange stand for itself:

Pearl: In the heat of battle, Steven is what matters. You don’t matter.
Connie
: I don’t matter.

All I’ll add to that is that is also lends credence to this idea that Pearl is doing this to protect Steven at all costs. Besides the irony of that (given the events of “Rose’s Scabbard”, “Space Race”, et al), there’s also the tragedy that, again, she did far more than her damndest to save Rose… only for Rose to meet Greg, get knocked up, and die. Oh, boy…

Steven manages to poke a hole in this logic, though, in the heat of battle. Connie dispatches a Holo-Pearl that was attacking Steven before telling him to leave, arguing that all she’s doing is defending his legacy. Steven retorts…

“If you’re the one protecting me, then who’s the one protecting you?

All while Holo-Pearl charges at her. With this, Connie comes to her senses and realizes that, hey, maybe having some backup from her best friend, her confidante, ain’t really a bad thing. Hell, the two ward off so many Holo-Pearls in such a flowy fashion that really does showcase how in-sync the duo are. They both are aware of the very, very real possibility that the duo will go through some murky waters, and better to do so together than leave one another floating in the wind.

Unfortunately, Pearl disagrees. The two try and prove their case as “jam buds” by fighting against her… and manage to hold her to a shocking draw. (I’d say insert your own Arsenal joke here, but given Arsenal so far this season, that would be a complement to the Gooners.) Steven and Pearl come to blows again, and as Steven insists that he can defend himself and should be part of the fight, the dam breaks.

Why won’t you just let me do this for you, Rose?”

That’s what this whole bloody mess was about. Honestly, it wasn’t about battle – it was about putting up a futile defense for Steven. In fact, it was about putting up a futile defense for Rose. Because that’s what she sees. “Sometimes, I wonder if she can see me through your eyes”, Pearl mourned back in “Rose’s Scabbard”. Sometimes, I wonder if Rose is what she sees in his eyes.

“Sometimes, I wonder if she can see me through your eyes”, Pearl mourned back in “Rose’s Scabbard”. Sometimes, I wonder if Rose is what she sees in his eyes. This woman made herself out as Rose’s confidante, her defender, and damn it, her lover. The former has been debunked, and the middle was a cause of concern rather than a cause of celebration. The latter? I would put money that she deluded herself on that front as well, even with future episodes placed into account.

But that doesn’t mitigate the sheer impact that Rose had on her. Pearl, once again, is forced to look out into the unknown, this time with Steven and Connie forced to take this on. When Connie questions if Rose made her feel like she was nothing, Pearl responds quite to the contrary…

“Rose made me feel like I was everything.

And thus, another one of the show’s great themes is tackled – the impact love has on one another. It brings out the best in Steven and Connie. It brings out the worst in Pearl. It’s a terrifying, liberating, tragic, beautiful state. Rose helped her discover her purpose in life, and without her, she’s floating around. She thought of herself as nothing, made Rose the hill she died on… and is drifting away. Has been. May be for a long time.

Thankfully, unlike “Rose’s Scabbard”, she decides to take this experience to heart and train the two of them as a team. The cycle stops with her… the spectre will not live to haunt another generation.

Yet, the spectre of “Rose’s Scabbard” lingers over this episode. So the question raised is this… what is the better episode? And why do I prefer the former over this?

Because I do. I absolutely think “Rose’s Scabbard” is my single favorite episode of Steven Universe, and not even a rewatch of this has changed my mind here. I love everything about that episode – the haunting background music, the artistic direction, the dialogue, the staggering climax, and the sobering resolution. In my opinion, it is as close to perfection as Steven Universe has reached and – I’m not kidding here – remains one of my favorite episodes of TV. Yes. TV. This is, in my opinion, up there with “Ozymandias” in “Two Cathedrals” in how much I love those episodes.

But it’s not an episode for everybody to start off their SU career on.

“Sworn to the Sword”, in many ways, is Steven Universe‘s greatest hits. I mean, we get Conniverse, we get some Gem War lore, we get a brilliant song, we get great Pearl pathos and Rose lore, epic battle scenes, character development, a saddening climax, and a resolution that ultimately says “life is gonna be alright.” It is, I think, a better all-around encapsulation of the show, even though “Rose’s Scabbard” is, in my opinion, a slightly better episode.

But this episode being “worse” is relative, right? Because honestly, this is a fantastic, fantastic, fan-flipping-tastic episode of Steven Universe.

To put it simply, “Rose’s Scabbard” is the episode I put on whenever I want to be amazed by what Rebecca Sugar and company gave to the world, while “Sworn to the Sword” would be the episode I put on if I want to get others into the show. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

“Sworn to the Sword” is certainly a top-5 on my personal list. In fact, barring a rewatch of two episodes well into the future, I think it will remain a close second.

“You do it for her, and now you’ll say…”

“I’ll do it for him.”

Tidbits:

  • This episode actually starts with a bang – being the first to use the new intro. Ah, how vibrant it is! How well-produced the theme song has become! Seeing the Crystal Gems, Connie, and Greg act close really does show just how much this show has changed.
  • Just out of curiosity, how did Pearl claim inspiration from the era of the knight when the Gem War was around the very early Mesopotamian era? Eh, she was probably just drawing a comparison that Connie would get, but… still…
  • Consider the book that’s being read by Steven to kick off the back half of the episode – “How to Talk to People”. Yeah, it works as a joke, but come on. These writers can make even jokes work on multiple levels.

Wrap-Up

Favorite Scene: “You do it for him, and then you do it again…”

Best Character: After careful consideration, I’ve decided to award this jointly to our three protagonists. That’s how good this episode is.

Memorable Quote: Everybody, say it with me… “WHY WON’T YOU JUST LET ME DO THIS FOR YOU, ROSE?”

VerdictPlatinum. Great plot, sublime execution, and outstanding character examination, “Sworn to the Sword” is a highlight in the Steven Universe canon. It lands at #2 in the Episode Rankings, just right behind “Rose’s Scabbard”, and I don’t think it’s gonna be superseded for quite a while.

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