Steven Universe Opens Up Its Most Traumatized Mind in “Room for Ruby”
(Episode 4.20)Cartoon Network TV Reviews Steven Universe
When Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems collided with some of the Rubies in the asteroid belt on their way to rescue Greg from Pink Diamond’s human zoo, I noted it as a gag that made me laugh. As it turns out, that was actually an important reminder that the Rubies, whom the gang had cast into space at the end of Season Three’s “Back to the Moon,” were still out there, waiting to play a role in the show’s overarching narrative. Steven Universe has proven time and again that it knows how to play the long game, bringing back details from the past to construct a rich, cohesive story. The biggest difference between “Room for Ruby” and the other callback moments, though, is the skill with which the show pulls off the twist at the end. From the instant we met her, Navy was built up to be a perfect fit for the Crystal Gems—I ranked her potential for joining the team second out of the five Rubies after they first appeared in “Hit the Diamond” last June. So even though it’s a stretch to have her adjust so rapidly to life on Earth, it seems plausible—especially because Steven himself is suspicious at first, and even more so when it looked like “Room for Ruby” was set to be an episode about Lapis’ struggle to overcome her psychological trauma.
Then Navy gleefully ship-jacks Steven, Peridot and Lapis, and just like that, there’s a straight-up sociopath in the world of Steven Universe, perhaps its first villain who might not be capable of redemption. This show works in mysterious and wonderful ways.
Still, this was the first great Lapis episode in a long while.
All the Crystal Gems come with some amount of baggage, but Lapis Lazuli’s is on another level. Ever since being freed from her millennia-long imprisonment, she’s been the chief conduit for the show’s most adult and darkest issues—existential malaise, extreme PTSD, mutually abusive relationships. No matter the joy Steven and (increasingly) Peridot bring to her life, Lapis is beat-the-hell-up on the inside, and “Room for Ruby” provides harrowing evidence that even her friends’ love and the passage of time haven’t fully healed her. It also puts the laid-back, apathetic behavior of her past several appearances into context as a defense mechanism, a front she’s been putting on to hide the wreckage of her soul from the world.
Navy is the ideal foil for Lapis: a fellow Homeworld Gem recently “freed” from years of “unhappy servitude.” (I put these in scare quotes because, despite Navy’s duplicity, she may actually have felt this way.) Navy’s seemingly immediately love for everything she finds on Earth is, in fact, completely unrealistic. But whatever guard Lapis rightly maintains at first is let down not because she buys Navy’s act, but because she sees a way of being that she covets yet cannot obtain, at least not right now. Post-traumatic stress disorder and resulting depressive episodes are bad enough in their own right—and I’d argue that Lapis has hardly even begun to overcome these disorders, the events of “Alone at Sea” notwithstanding—but to see someone who represents the antithesis of the depressive mindset can only engender resentment and, afterward, a return to the feeling of brokenness that is a hallmark of the disorder.
Lapis’ desperation to avoid this feeling gives “Room for Ruby” its powerful gut punch. As she challenges Navy to figure out various aspects of life on Earth, her anger rises like a gradual tide, but it’s eminently clear that her rage is fueled by the concurrent rise of her own hurt and fear, a mixture beautifully grasped by both Jennifer Paz’s outstanding voice acting and the episode’s storyboarders, Raven Molisee and Lauren Zuke (a first-time combo that worked really well). One of the best details in “Room for Ruby” comes when Lapis transitions rather abruptly from her poorly-hidden indignance at Navy’s quick mastery of sleep to a pained nervousness at introducing Navy to the wonder of vegetables; the rapid shift captures the uneven, confusing turbulence that swirls within battered, traumatized minds.
And when Navy proves “capable” of immediately loving everything from dirt to her former enemies, that’s enough to force out Lapis’ internal tempest as, in despair and incredulity, she flees the scene and wallows in her brokenness. I appreciated the decision not to have Lapis bare all her scars to Peridot and Steven, because having her blame herself, rather than her horrible imprisonment and her toxic fusion with Jasper, for her inability to enjoy life runs precisely in line with the pessimistic, negative feedback loops that characterize depressive cognition. That said, admitting to her friends that she isn’t OK is a first step, and even if Lapis still can’t open up about her time spent in the mirror or as Malachite—last we heard, in Season Three’s “Beta,” Peridot mentioned that conversation about Jasper was off-limits—it’s simultaneously heartrending and beautiful to see that Lapis is beginning to learn the significance of having people to love and trust.
Even more important is the silence with which Peridot and Steven meet Lapis’ confession. For a show that has historically leaned upon sentimental speeches or simple actions to lift up grieving or unhappy characters, leaving the two without a ready response to Lapis’ problems shows a crucial acknowledgement on Steven Universe’s part that some problems can’t be resolved or even accessed by a single fix-it moment. The only thing they can offer her in this moment is their presence; perhaps at some point in the future, when Lapis is ready to talk through her underlying trauma, words or action (I’m betting on a fusion!) will have a curative effect.
Then, as Navy flies away with her retaken Roaming Eye and Steven and Peridot look up helplessly, Lapis breaks out into uncontrollable laughter… because the Crystal Gems’ loss is her self-esteem’s gain, a sign that maybe something isn’t busted beyond repair within her, that instead it’s the world that’s messed up. And what depressed, damaged minds need more than anything else is hope that things might improve after all, an escape route from the rumination and vicious cycles that entrap people in their state of mental disorder. Lapis is still far from a total recovery, but now she can begin to see her pessimism not as a problem, but as an asset to a team that is otherwise wholeheartedly (and near-blindly) dedicated to empathy and seeing the very best in every single living being.
A couple snags in the dialogue lower my evaluation of “Room for Ruby” slightly, particularly Peridot’s attempted joke about Navy showing them the ocean, which was too long and didn’t really land.
Peridot pointing out the sun as a star to wish upon is both classic Peridot and another hint of a potential romantic fusion between herself and Lapis. Zuke has openly stated that they write the Peridot-Lapis dynamic to trend in that direction, so this moment’s inclusion comes as no surprise.
The look Steven and Peridot exchange when Navy begins rolling around in the dirt is everything I’ve ever wanted out of a friendship.
Speaking of which, how about Charlene Yi’s performance as Navy in this episode? She was just over-the-top enough to sow a seed of suspicion and render Navy utterly detestable by the end. We’re definitely going to see Navy again, and probably soon—by my count, only five episodes remain in Season Four, which means the show should be building toward another big plot event. And adding this development to Yellow Diamond’s comments from “That Will Be All,” I have to imagine that event is going to be another Homeworld visit to Earth.
Garnet’s casual popping of the “Welcome to the Party” balloon is among the top three most Garnet moments ever depicted.
Zach Blumenfeld goes to Columbia Law School just like Daredevil did, but instead of fighting crime at night, he writes about pop culture. Follow him on Twitter.