Note: If you haven’t caught up on Steven Universe, read this primer and then catch the hell up.
Well done, Cartoon Network. What a way to jump back into the action after more than four months of hiatus.
Last night’s Steven doubleheader was far more about action than any sort of character building—because when Malachite’s about to break loose and the Cluster’s about to destroy the world, there’s not much time for anything else. This being Steven Universe, though, there were still plenty of reasons to love and laugh embedded within the fabric of the episodes. Now that everyone has finally caught their breath following the prevention of the Gem-pocalypse, let’s take a closer look at the most important, beautiful, funny aspects of “Super Watermelon Island” and “Gem Drill.”
Leave it to the Crewniverse to bring back the Watermelon Stevens not just as a plot device, but as a continuation of the show’s themes.
In some ways, the watermelon society isn’t so different from how we might imagine the Gem Homeworld to look, particularly in the way that they reproduce—cutting the baby watermelons from a vine reminded me eerily of Gems emerging from a Kindergarten. And like the Gems, the Watermelons seem to operate under a fairly ritualistic paradigm, though it’s one characteristic of a submissive species rather than a dominant one. (One of my favorite tidbits from “Super Watermelon Island”: the use of nose goes to determine which melon gets sacrificed to Malachite.)
But compared to the Gem Homeworld, at least from what we’ve heard from Peridot and others, the Watermelons live a much happier, more egalitarian life. It’s so egalitarian, in fact, that male watermelons stay home to watch the kids while their wives run off to fight against a psychotic, unstable, über-powerful Gem fusion. Obviously, to this point in the show, most of the fighting has been done by the female-identifying Gems; we wouldn’t expect Greg Universe to take up a weapon and go join them in battle, because he’d be woefully out of his league against their opponents. But all of these watermelons are on equal footing, so to see that their society is one where lady watermelons can play the typical man’s role in a married couple is yet another example of Steven Universe subverting gender norms.
That said, we now know that Steven can warg into his watermelon bodies, Bran Stark-style. Take note of this new power, because it’s the type of thing that the show could not only bring back with the watermelons, but also apply to other life forms connected to Steven or his mother. Will we see Steven warg into Lion in future episodes? All of a sudden, that’s a possibility.
Last time we saw Malachite, she was completely at odds with herself, the embodiment of a constant power struggle between Jasper and Lapis Lazuli. In “Super Watermelon Island,” it’s clear that Jasper’s aggressive personality has won out, as the chains that held Malachite to the ocean floor break. But what happens after that is truly fascinating: Malachite seems to come to enjoy being together once the Crystal Gems show up to fight her. With Jasper and Lapis Lazuli working as a team, it looks like they’re going to win the battle—and given how much Malachite relies on her hydrokinesis powers against Alexandrite, it’s probably safe to assume that Lapis isn’t a totally unwilling participant.
What explains this rapid shift? It could come down to the theory that every fusion we see in Steven Universe is representative of a certain type of relationship, and Malachite is an abusive one. Remember, Lapis Lazuli was violently coerced into fusing with Jasper at the end of the Season One finale “Jailbreak,” and throughout their co-existence, she’s been locked in a constant struggle that she’ll inevitably lose to her more powerful, more nasty partner. Malachite is a poisonous fusion, one that’s good for neither party… but even poisonous relationships can have their moments of satisfaction. When Malachite tells Alexandrite, “There really is something more to this fusion thing,” it makes me think about such disturbing concepts as Stockholm Syndrome, sado-masochism, and the fact that female physical arousal, which not controlled by the conscious mind, is not a rarity during rape. Whatever pleasure Malachite’s Jasper component is getting out of this fight, it’s coming from the feeling of sheer power, not only over Lapis but over Alexandrite; whatever pleasure Lapis is deriving, it’s probably more passive and subconscious. We know she’s not a huge fan of the Crystal Gems, to be sure, and maybe the thrill of fighting them represents some sort of twisted fantasy. But Lapis is a fan of Steven, and she knows that hurting Alexandrite would make him very sad. It’s hard to believe she’d do that if she were in full possession of her will.
So there’s the darkness of “Super Watermelon Island,” and it’s pretty darn dark. But the good news is that healthy love, as it’s wont to do on Steven Universe, wins out in the end. That’s a reason to be happy. Another reason to be happy: Lapis is finally free. But we’re bound to see Jasper resurface at some point, right?
Has there been any character who’s changed as much as Peridot has over the course of this show? We know that Earth represents a place where humans and Gems alike are free to express their feelings, where emotion shares the throne with reason. The Crystal Gems’ main purpose is not just protecting that freedom to feel and love, but living it. And even though Peridot’s effectively been on their side since standing up to Yellow Diamond in “Message Received”—she could have asked to be picked up and left the Earth to die, but she chose to keep protecting it—it’s in the act of actually drilling down to stop the Cluster that we finally see Peridot in touch with her emotions, crystallizing the lessons she’s learned from Steven and Garnet and Amethyst and Pearl.
Her transformation is beautifully encapsulated in two lines, as she and Steven pass through the asthenosphere (excellent geological knowledge by the Crewniverse, by the way):
“I know I can never go back to Homeworld, but it’s hard not to have some feelings for where you came from. But it’s fine, I have something different now… you know, you guys.”
This is the closest Peridot’s ever come to saying she cares about another living being; that is, really caring, not just blind devotion to an overlord. With a single tear, she wipes away her past and commits fully to a new life with the Crystal Gems, her new family, the first real family she’s ever had. Of course, near-death tends to bring extreme emotional honesty out of people (never forget the plane ride from hell in Almost Famous, or literally any movie scene where a sobbing person confesses unrequited feelings for a supposedly-dead crush), but those revelations also can’t help but stick. Peridot might not be able to use the word “love” yet—the best she can do is say that other life forms matter “far, far less” to her than Steven does, and then respond to his declaration of love for her with “Wow, thanks”—but at least everything’s out on the table now.
Now that they’ve survived the horrors of the Cluster, it seems as though Peridot will be more open in her affection for her newfound companions, who will continue to unlock her emotional intelligence. Throw in her lethal sarcasm (“You’re a real anarchist” may have been the single funniest line in “Super Watermelon Island”), and we’ve got the makings of an even better character going forward. Earth wins.
Finally, we glimpsed the true nature of gem shards: they’re lonely people looking for company. Oftentimes, loneliness can lead people to destructive behavior: forcing a bad relationship, withdrawal from the world, seeking out ways to annihilate oneself because the void is unbearable. The Cluster hasn’t been fulfilled in thousands of years; dealing with an unfulfilled existence for that long would persuade anyone to jump at the first fools’ gold of companionship, even if taking that step is the worst possible decision. Steven’s greatest supernatural ability throughout the show has been his capacity to believe in others’ happy endings—he didn’t give up on Peridot, he never gave up on Lapis Lazuli. And it was this power that allowed him to get through to the Cluster, find out that, like everyone else stuck on Earth, it’s just trying to find love, and convince it that—in the words of Radiohead—true love waits. Now, in its bubbles within a bubble, it’ll have time to discover that for itself.
That Steven was able to do what he did, and in a dreamlike state no less, seems like a deus ex machina on one hand—I can’t think of another way that he and Peridot could have survived their mission—but on the other hand, it was yet another sign that Steven is growing into his mother’s legendary reputation for empathy and healing. Between convincing the Cluster not to settle for destructive loneliness and then bubbling the whole damn cluster, “Gem Drill” was a major step forward in the development of his powers.
Both absolutely melt my heart. I’ll go with Garnet, just because the playfulness remains in Estelle’s voice even when the Crystal Gems are sending Steven off on the most dangerous journey of his life.
And with that, the Earth is safe… for now. We’ll check back in next week.