Even as its lore has expanded and Steven Universe has smoothly transitioned from a goofy monster-of-the-week cartoon into a rich, mature, tragicomic space opera, the series has remained firmly rooted on Earth. All we know about Gem culture and Homeworld has come courtesy of incidental contact, and though some new characters have illuminated important facets of life under the Diamond Authority, Earth has always retained the home-field advantage—that is, it’s hard to conceive of Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet (DeeDee Magno Hall, Michaela Dietz and Estelle, respectively) conforming to their species’ civilization. And because of Steven’s (Zach Callison) notoriously uninquisitive nature, we haven’t had much direct explanation of what Homeworld was like. We still don’t even know precisely why or how Pearl defected to the Crystal Gems.
“Gem Heist” doesn’t provide too many answers; there’s only so much culture one can develop on a small, forlorn outpost mostly populated by Earth-born Gems. But all the same, this episode serves as a witty primer for a society with all the flexibility of a sun-baked piece of driftwood, courtesy of the show’s most perplexing character to date.
The episode makes a relatively large deal of introducing the zoo’s warden: a shot of her prim but cruel white boots; a sharp light glistening off her pristine gem; a blue diamond proudly thrust forward on her chest. Only then do we encounter the stern visage of Holly Blue Agate (Christine Pedi). Immediately, it’s obvious that this Gem’s life is ruled by order. So, almost as immediately, it’s obvious that she will kowtow to Sapphire (Erica Luttrell), who is goddamn royalty. Perhaps this devotion to hierarchy helps to explain how utterly stupid HBA turns out to be.
A royal Gem appears entirely without warning, accompanied by a non-regulation Pearl and a specimen from the most infamous of all Gem colonies, and Holly Blue doesn’t ask any questions or appear suspicious at all? Given the militarism of Gem society, one would think that HBA should have been trained in security protocol, that she should have double-checked Sapphire’s arrival on a master log as would happen in literally any other fictional battle station. A minimally competent warden should have smelled a rat from the start, and then the mission would have been doomed. By all rights, it should have been. None of the Crystal Gems has been around their Homeworld-based sistren for more than five millennia, and they didn’t think to bring Peridot, whose intelligence and knowledge of modern Gem technology and customs likely would have proved an enormous help. Instead, though, Holly Blue fawns over Sapphire—beg your pardon, “her Clarity”—and, flattered by her mere presence, leads the intruders directly to the service door that will inevitably provide Greg’s escape route.
Part of me is bothered by the fact that Rebecca Sugar and company would create such an incredibly dumb adversary. Certain aspects of Steven Universe touch on the absurd—for example, the legendary baseball game between the Crystal Gems and five brutally dull Rubies—but a major reason this show has transcended children’s television is the genuine emotional and physical peril its protagonists regularly face. A character with Holly Blue Agate’s combination of supposed power and total ineptitude would feel more at home in A Series of Unfortunate Events’ confederacy of dunces. It’s also telling that “Gem Heist” was the first time I couldn’t mentally square the way SU treats its language barrier; Steven has been able to communicate verbally with every Gem thus far, but for some reason, Holly Blue can’t seem to understand him. It’s the strangest of the episode’s inconsistencies, to be sure, but upon further examination, everything shocking about HBA has to have been done purposefully. Right?
Here’s what I’ve deduced, if we’re ruling out a surprising lack of attention to detail on the story team’s part: Holly Blue is a litmus test for the state of Gem society, and things do not look good. From what we can tell, the civilization’s culture, customs and social order have not changed one bit since the Rebellion. For an earthly analogy, imagine if the Egypt were still ruled by the Old Kingdom dynasty of pharaohs, the ones who built the pyramids, and the Egyptian people still unquestioningly worshipped them as god-kings. That is clearly not the case, because every single civilization or empire in this planet’s recorded history (except our current one) has come with an expiration date, most often occurring when internal and external forces combine to topple a bloated, corrupt regime. The succession of Chinese dynasties justified this process as the “mandate of heaven,” and John Locke offered Western peoples the invitation to replace their rulers should his social contract be violated. Rome fell prey to civil strife and then the Germanic tribes; the Inca Empire failed to unite against Francisco Pizarro and his 150 (!) soldiers.
But Gems are, from what we know, immortal beings. Unlike humans, they aren’t driven by a fear or knowledge of death, and they’re born with an innate sense of purpose that (in most cases) lasts unto eternity. The microcosmic movements within individual humans that eventually build into grand-scale forces of change in Earth’s civilizations simply don’t exist among Gemkind. That’s why Sapphire, after more than 5,000 years, has maintained her noble status. That’s why Holly Blue Agate, a prisoner of her own stale expectations and worldview, is asleep at the mental wheel while the Crystal Gems attempt one of the more poorly planned heists I’ve ever seen. And that’s why, when the supremely charismatic Steven and his friends eventually bring their addictive visions of freedom and self-determination to Homeworld (potentially with an army of Earth-born Amethysts at their back?), they’re more than likely to succeed. Such a calcified social order, having known naught but its own rigid exoskeleton for a seemingly infinite length of time, will be woefully unprepared to face the type of mental, emotional and physical onslaught that the Crystal Gems will bring.
After all, Gem society only barely survived the last time it happened. It’s very subtle, but Holly Blue Agate hints that Era 2 was demarcated immediately after Pink Diamond was shattered. For immortal beings, death—and especially the death of a god-queen—must have been a cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting event on par with the French Revolution and the invention of the atomic bomb. We’ve heard all about the pain the Rebellion caused on Earth, but between Blue Diamond’s unmitigated grief and HBA’s dutiful exposition, we can conclude that the war caused quite a bit of pain and suffering for the other side, too. And yet, instead of making necessary changes, the Diamond Authority appears to have doubled down on its immobile caste system. That stubborn resistance to change will be their downfall.
I didn’t address it much above, because it didn’t provide any enlightenment, but it was equally funny and sobering to watch Pearl, Ruby (Christine Yi) and Steven settle into their disguises.
Sapphire handled herself much better than the last time she and Ruby separated for the sake of a plan, probably because this time she had total command over the situation.
Judging by Steven’s new garb, Homeworld’s last human interaction was probably with the Sumerians.
One more quibble: It seems improbable that no cameras or other visual devices picked up on the rose quartz gem visible in Steven’s belly button.
Best line of “Gem Heist” goes to “¡Pobrecito Esteban!”
Zach Blumenfeld is like Daredevil, except that instead of fighting bad guys at night, he writes about television. Follow him on Twitter.