One of the more underrated aspects of Steven Universe is its understanding of pacing. We returned from an unbearably long hiatus last week with a huge bang—the two most perilous episodes since the Crystal Gems were taken captive aboard Jasper’s Homeworld ship in “Jailbreak”—and with that threat out of the way, it looks like we’re in for another lovely stretch of character development. Peridot got her redemption over the course of Season 2; Season 3 seems likely to showcase Lapis Lazuli’s development from a scared, mistrustful, millennia-long captive into (hopefully) a full-fledged Crystal Gem. That should take long enough for the next big plot-moving episodes to hit hard.
Now, let’s get into the major themes we witnessed in “Same Old World”:
“You’d like it in Jersey. The people here seem to hate the earth, too.”
We know from past episodes (namely, the map in “It Could’ve Been Great”) that the Steven version of Earth is not our own. But in “Same Old World,” we got closer to a depiction of our actual planet than we have to date, and it was hilarious. New Jersey takes a lot of crap from the American public at large, but I would never have expected this show to throw such shady shade at the Garden State. This was the hardest I’ve ever laughed at Steven Universe—I actually paused the episode, went back, and watched the Jersey joke at least three more times before I could keep it together. And that came after the Crewniverse smacked down every stock millennial sitcom as Steven and Lapis flew over the New York/Las Vegas hybrid of Empire City. (For the record, I would totally watch a full-on Girls parody with Lapis, Peridot, Pearl and Amethyst. Garnet would be the one tangential friend who has her shit together.)
But there was a purpose to the show’s ripping on New Jersey, just as there was a purpose to the rest of Steven and Lapis’ Aladdin-and-Jasmine-esque trip past Empire City, through the forest, above the clouds, and over the ocean. Steven Universe is committed to loving Earth not only in spite of its flaws, but for them—and showcasing the myriad beauties of this planet alongside its smoggy, disgusting armpit serves as a way to present life on Earth as a package deal: take the whole thing as it is, because it’s the best of all possible worlds. In a way, this view of humanity and the world redeems New Jersey’s very existence, if only for the sheer sake of variety: you can choose to hate life, and that’s fine for the very reason that you’re able to choose to do so.
Steven even mentions to Lapis that she’d do well in Jersey because they despise Earth as much as she does—the important thing is that she’d be choosing an existence on Earth, rather than resigning herself to the idea of Earth as a prison. And that’s the transformation through which Lapis is going to have to go: making meaning out of millennia of suffering.
“I know you can’t go back to Homeworld, but if you stay here, it’ll be your choice to stay here,” Steven tells Lapis after they return from their nighttime jaunt. For Lapis, the very thought of making a choice is revolutionary. The majority of her existence has been defined by imprisonment, figurative or literal. First, she was trapped on Earth in the midst of the Crystal Gem rebellion. Then, she was trapped in her mirror, first by the Homeworld Gems and then, after being cracked, by the Crystal Gems themselves. We know that after Steven freed and healed her, Lapis’ return to Homeworld was incredibly unpleasant—she was forced to become an informant—and then she was trapped in a toxic fusion with Jasper for months. Now, she’s finally free, but to Lapis at this point, being on Earth doesn’t mean freedom: it means further bondage. Watching her break down at the Galaxy Warp as she recounts her story to Steven, whom she had almost dropped in a terrifying moment of psychosis, shows us just how damaged her psyche is, and how long it might take for hope and fulfillment to become engendered within her.
Comparing cartoons to existentialist philosophy often feels lazy and trite, but here I think it’s worthwhile to think of Lapis’ struggle in those terms. Watching her grapple with her horrifying, meaningless past reminded me of the writings of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist known for inventing “logotherapy.” The essence of logotherapy depends on a subject’s ability to create meaning out of suffering, constantly and consciously choosing life over death because life can be made inherently meaningful. Frankl developed his ideas as a prisoner at various Nazi concentration camps during World War II; the man wouldn’t have survived to create logotherapy if he hadn’t lived out his values.
The choice that Lapis is being offered on Earth is one of meaning: either she can choose to establish a fulfilling existence here, willing a new life for herself despite technically being stuck on this planet, or she can continue to suffer without any attempt at creating some new purpose. It’s going to be a challenge for her—we don’t really know enough about her motives yet to determine what she’ll want to do, and the possibility of her directionless-ness could draw her into the anguish that comes when humans realize they’re “condemned to be free.” But with Lapis seemingly here to stay, that’s the process we’re undoubtedly going to watch unfold over the next portion of the Steven Universe story. And luckily for her, it seems like Steven has a natural proclivity for logotherapy.
An aside: even though it was inevitable, I’m so glad Lapis stayed with the Gems instead of trying to hack it on her own in the world. The optimism with which Steven told her about the potential for starting a new life in the show’s version of America reeked heavily of naivete, particularly when we think about how many systemically oppressed Americans would love the privilege to just pick up, settle somewhere new and suddenly have a world of opportunity open to them. Then again, Lapis is a basically immortal, beautiful alien with awe-inspiring hydrokinetic powers, so the rules of American society don’t really apply to her.
Change has been a major theme of Steven Universe for quite some time, as well as a primary reason to love Earth, but it really came to the forefront last night. From Steven’s explanation of the orange leaf as a portent of the changing seasons to his offering that “even Jersey changes,” the thesis statement of “Same Old World” seemed to be that change is a good thing and that Lapis, by embracing Earth’s impermanence, could change herself and her thoughts about the planet and its inhabitants. If the Homeworld represents the idea of fixed functionality, Earth represents a glowing light of aspiration; in the eyes of Steven Universe, it’s the best of all possible worlds not because it can’t get any better, but because it can.
We’re about to see Lapis go through some pretty big changes, so now’s as good a time as any to reflect on the ways the other main characters have changed up to this point:
Garnet’s probably changed the least, just because she was always the most stable. If anything, she’s become stronger as the embodiment of a relationship. But one way in which she has grown noticeably over the entire course of the show has been the exposure of her goofy side, especially when she’s around Steven.
Pearl growth has been far more significant. She’s more confident in herself as an independent Gem than she was in the beginning, and though she still shows devotion to Rose Quartz, the absence of Rose no longer really renders her insecure the way it once did. Rather than defining herself in the negative (Rose is not here), she defines herself in the positive (I have a Steven to protect)—and it’s been a combination of Steven and Garnet showing her that she could create meaning for herself in such a way.
Amethyst, while still the brash, fun-loving little sister of the group, has matured measurably. Her recent behavior, from telling Steven the perils of keeping himself stretched for a long period of time on his birthday, to her stoic response to Peridot’s accidental disses in “Too Far,” suggests that she’s learned the art of restraint. As the closest of the Crystal Gems to Steven in both age and physical size (not an unimportant detail), she holds a good deal of sway over his behavior, and she increasingly seems to have realized that.
Peridot, obviously, has changed the most drastically of any of the Crystal Gems, just because the others have had more than 5000 years to adjust to Earth and she’s only have had a few months. I devoted a sizable portion of last week’s review to her final transformation into a Crystal Gem, but it’s worth saying that the emotional intelligence she displayed then has not gone away between “Gem Drill” and “Same Old World.” During her recounting of the drill saga, she appeared cognizant of dominating the conversation, tried to turn it over to Steven, and then recognized that something was up with him. Pre-drill Peridot might not have done those things.
What’s the catalyst for each Crystal Gem’s change? Steven himself.
Steven REPRESENTS the beautiful process of change. He’s the only Crystal Gem that ages. He’s the only Gem that’s got Earth and its permanent impermanence with him wherever he goes, due to his organic makeup. He’s the only Gem going through the process of adolescence, having to deal with feelings for Connie and simultaneously come into his mother’s legacy. And his attitude through it all—his indefatigable optimism that everything will work out, that life is something to be enjoyed no matter what, that love will win the day and that there’s good to be brought out in everyone—serves as an inspiration to everyone who interacts with him, showing them that change is not an inherent evil, but rather an inevitable aspect of life that can and should be embraced. For a race of sentient, crystalline space rocks from a static Homeworld to accept this idea must be the greatest challenge imaginable, and yet here we are; Steven’s inspiration has helped the Crystal Gems persist despite the loss of Rose Quartz, it’s converted Peridot, and it’s almost certainly going to convert Lapis (we’d hope). It remains to be seen just how long that process will take, especially because we can already tell Lapis is not going to get along well with Peridot.
Oh well… my faith’s in Steven.
One Last Thought
Where the hell is Lion? The episode made sure to show him to us before Steven commenced his search, which was clearly just a plot device to allow him to find Lapis atop the silo. But he never did find his big pink cat… that could be an issue.