After an episode like “The Good Lars,” I have just one question: how could anyone think that the slice-of-life, Beach City-centric episodes of Steven Universe are mere filler?
Steven will always carry the main narrative on his own show, and particularly since the events of “Bubbled,” we’ve seen him undergo rapid change. He’s progressed to calling his mother a “war criminal” by this point, which is probably not entirely fair to her—it seems that, as things stand right now, Steven would categorically consider killing a person or shattering a Gem a criminal act, no matter how justified it might have been under the circumstances. Doubtless this view is shaped by his battles against Bismuth and Eyeball, which left him traumatized even though he did not shatter either Gem, but it still strikes me as a surprisingly rigid moral perspective for such an empathetic character. Steven is far from acceptance of Rose’s legacy, and even farther from the forgiveness he’ll almost certainly need to grant her if he is to move past the inner conflict she represents.
But enough about Steven. We wouldn’t care about the world Steven and the Crystal Gems are defending if we didn’t care about the people of Beach City, and “The Good Lars” might be the series’ best showcase to date of the town and its people. Part of that is inherent in the Lars-Sadie dynamic, which has always felt hyper-realistic and much more emotionally grounded than the weirdness of Onion or the obsession of Ronaldo, the other two most common focal points of Beach City episodes. (Connie doesn’t count, because she’s a Crystal Gem at this point.) But even within episodes focused on Lars and Sadie, “The Good Lars” stands out for its honesty, its razor-sharp writing, its humor, its pacing… everything, really. Aside from a couple annoying moments from its titular character, this was just about as perfect as an episode of Steven Universe can get. Bingo bongo.
He can be so frustrating, but it’s only because most of us have been self-deceptive teenagers before, and we’ve lived all the mistakes that Lars makes on Steven Universe. Inability to communicate with his crush? Check. Crushing insecurity and self-doubt? Check. Some degree of toxic masculinity? You betcha. The worst part is that Steven and Sadie have pointed these problems out to Lars repeatedly, and just when he seems on the verge of getting over himself, he throws it all away—literally. The ube cake in the trash can represents Lars scrapping whatever beautiful progress he’s made for no good reason, standing in his own way for the sake of standing in his own way.
And it’s a highlight of this show. Steven Universe’s sincerity needs a foil to avoid becoming a parody of itself—the world isn’t filled with emotionally honest people whose problems can all be resolved over the course of 11 minutes with some empathy and a tear-streaked hug. (That show is Crying Breakfast Friends, which we haven’t seen in a long while, probably because SU has grown well beyond it.) Lars’ seeming incorrigible waffling and self-obfuscation is a more formidable foe than any Gem monster Steven might fight—not even spending a day in Lars’ body could allow Steven to clear up the angst within, so how would a pep talk have any real effect? And yet, for a second, it looks like Lars might actually overcome his fear of the unironic potluck. I wasn’t sure I liked his altogether rapid about-face after talking to Steven for one minute, but in hindsight, it’s perfectly in line with his character: A significant part of Lars wants to overcome his crippling esteem issues, but unfortunately, that part needs to win this battle unaided. Once Steven disappears, Lars has lost his crutch, and presumably the mopey, whiny half of his mind prevails in the epic intra-brain wrestling match.
In many ways, Lars’ development reminds me of Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko, too, seemed repeatedly to be on the verge of overcoming his character flaws, only to relapse into selfishness and a tangled web of morality. By the end of ATLA, many fans (myself included) considered Zuko the show’s best character, probably because he underwent one heck of a redemption arc. If Lars goes through a similar transformation, it’ll be entirely of his own volition, and then maybe he’ll finally get the universal recognition he deserves.
Sadie Rules, Too
The monologue Sadie gives at the end of “The Good Lars” is some of the best writing the show has ever done, and aside from it feeling a tad rushed (thanks, time constraints), Kate Micucci nails the line delivery. It paints a picture of a girl who’s just as turbulent as Lars, but who has tried to solve her problems by focusing all her energy on fixing someone else’s. In that regard, she and Steven are kindred spirits—it’s just that Sadie loves Lars, whereas Steven loves everyone. And Sadie, unlike Lars or Steven, has some legitimate issues with external validation. Who would ever want to be known as “Donut Girl”?
We the viewers have known for a long time that Sadie is a badass. She still carries a scar on her face from her island adventure back in Season One, when she became the first human we witnessed defeating a Gem monster. She can sing well. She has great taste in horror movies, and she’s managed to establish herself as a strong, independent young woman despite her overbearing mother. She’s never realized any of this before “The Good Lars,” because she’s spent all her time trying to help Lars see the good and cool parts of himself. But all it takes is a little opportunity outside of his presence—and in the presence of the Cool Kids, who promulgate the idea that it’s cool today to be earnest—for her to find her footing. After a couple hours of potluck, she’s already comfortable enough with them to sing in their presence, something she’s never done before in front of anyone except Steven.
Sadie still loves Lars—I’d be surprised to see that end—but good for her if she actually decides to stop expending so much effort upon him. It’s an important lesson on the dynamics of a healthy relationship, which should never subjugate either person, and it might actually be the impetus that finally pushes him out of his own way.
Also, the Cool Kids Rule
Out of all the characters on Steven Universe, Buck Dewey has the highest ratio of funny things said to overall things said. Also, the dude rocks sunglasses indoors and no one bats an eye, because Buck is the Platonic form of earnest self-confidence without pretension. That’s why he thinks it’s “transcendent” when Lars says “bingo bongo”... such authenticity in that silly phrase!
And Sour Cream has devised the way I am going to celebrate any happy occasion for the rest of my life:
Both “The Good Lars” and “Doug Out” have done an incredible job building tension in their final scenes. Even if you haven’t watched all the episodes already via the Cartoon Network app, you can get the sense that these two sort of function as a reminder of everything that’s beautiful about Beach City… like a kiss goodbye.
I wish more of my potlucks ended with jam sessions.
Good for Steven for getting so excited about ube, and good for Steven Universe for showing off its inner hipster and hopping on the ube train.
Even though it was pretty dumb of Steven not to realize he could just call Lars (the only time I was sort of annoyed with him), it was worth the shot of him soaring above Beach City at night.
Thanks to Sarra Sedghi for covering for me yesterday. Law school finals are rough.
Zach Blumenfeld is going to start calling his group study sessions potlucks in the hopes that it will make them feel better. Follow him on Twitter.