Last week, I talked about the strength of Steven Universe’s comedown episodes as emotional bridges between the show’s plot-heavy arcs and its slice-of-life episodes. “The New Crystal Gems” fit into that category chronologically and continuity-wise, but not tonally. For us, the viewers, a splash of levity was probably necessary after a harrowing trip to space that revealed human Teletubbies, a Trunchbullian zoo warden and mentally fragile Diamonds. For Steven, too… Lord knows that boy needed a break from his own mind for a spell, and Connie was kind enough to oblige.
But the real comedown was saved for “Storm in the Room,” and as far as Steven Universe’s comedowns have gone, this is the most devastating thus far. From the moment Connie reminds Steven that he must have a lot to think about regarding the events at the Zoo, we know where this episode is heading—directly into a deep, dark Moria, where Steven is going to have to confront some mental Balrog. The show’s willingness to take this plunge and its superb execution when it does so separate it from other all-ages television.
One consistent criticism I have of Steven Universe is its main character’s tendency to voice his thoughts aloud. Though the show needs to provide some window into Steven’s mind, the monologues it uses to do so often amount to flat, boring process statements, and there’s little Zach Callison’s voice acting can do to keep them from losing some of their punch. For a recent example, check out the warp-speed scene from “Adventures in Light Distortion,” whose climax is drained of gravitas because Steven announces the desperation and guilt that everyone already knows is racking his soul. Effortful grunts and heaving sobs would have been enough.
With “Storm in the Room,” writers/storyboarders Colin Howard and Jeff Liu have corrected this recurring mistake, and it starts not with what Steven says, but with what he doesn’t. The silence following Connie’s departure from the beach house—very purposefully preceded by her reunion with her mother—is a deafening emotional statement. Rather than have Steven fill in the blanks for the viewer, his expressions and some nifty animated “cinematography” tell us everything we need to know. In the figurative and literal shadow of his mother—her portrait dominates the scene the instant Steven is alone—happiness can only be fleeting, and serenity proves impossible. The weary, wizened frown to which Steven’s face resets again and again in this roughly minute-long sequence is unspoiled by any thinking out loud. And the repeated emphasis on his stepstool and the fact that his feet don’t touch the ground when he sits down remind us of how young is the hero that must bear this burden. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and when we remember that Steven has mental control over his physical age, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if he morphs into an old man right there on the couch with his macaroni and cheese. (This, of course, raises the question: What magnitude of trauma will cause Steven to age up permanently… because that has to happen at some point, right?)
The purpose of all this is to get Steven into his mother’s room of the Temple, where Steven’s own mind generates everything Rose Quartz says, what she does and how she looks. His monologue is transformed into self-dialogue, the result more Platonic conversation than Shakespearean soliloquy, and it allows “Storm in the Room” to showcase far more emotional dynamism than would otherwise be possible. In interacting with a figment of his mother instead of grappling with the idea of her, all of Steven’s complex feelings about Rose—the longing, the joy, the resentment and self-loathing—get their moment in the sun (or the rain, as it were). And remarkably, none of Steven’s lines seem canned or terribly heavy-handed. The writing in this episode, particularly when Steven reaches the zenith of his resignation, flows easily and catastrophically.
Key to the execution here is Callison’s vocal performance, which may be his best in his tenure on the show. He takes lines that already run the gamut of emotions and, even while amplifying the peaks and valleys, rounds them off into smooth contours. He exhibits several different colors of laughter, ranging from sheepish—at admitting to thoughts of dyeing his hair pink—to overwhelmed—at the feel of laying his head on Rose’s lap. His audible lack of sincerity and depth as Steven plays games with his mother shows that Lonely Arms and football are just icebreakers; it’s impossible to take him seriously when he wonders if a Charlie Brown-Lucy moment is what his adolescence has been missing, but that’s by design. The height of Callison’s performance, though, isn’t the part where Steven yells at his mom for running from her mistakes and hiding her faults. It’s the denouement, when we get the clearest view of Steven’s self-hatred since he saw Rose looming over him in the sky like Mufasa. Here, all vestige of Steven’s bubbliness or its opposite has been siphoned off by the titular tempest, and Callison delivers a heartrending but steely expression of the hero’s struggle to love himself.
In sum, the self-destructive forces within Steven’s personality, which the show has hinted at since Season Two’s “Joy Ride,” have evolved and dangerously strengthened. By the end of “Storm in the Room,” he seems to accept that his mother’s sins are his own now, and that he must inherit and finish her rebellion. But acceptance is different from embrace, and it isn’t necessarily healthy. Depressed people, for example, often feel resigned to the fact that they aren’t meant to be happy, and they carry on living with that weight. The next step in Steven’s mental development, then, must be his conversion of Rose’s burden from something pressed upon him into something he seizes with a laughing smile. He might win his mother’s war without it—Abraham Lincoln, after all, fought his own battle with depression even as the North fought the South—but for his soul’s sake, and probably for the show’s, Steven needs to come to embrace himself and his destiny. He knows what this looks like, having helped Amethyst do the same in “Earthlings,” but apparently the lessons he learned in “Mindful Education” haven’t yet become ingrained in his thought process. Until they are, exclamations of happiness at seeing his dad and the Crystal Gems—any momentary joy, really—will always ring somewhat hollow, because we know his spirit really looks like this:
Pobrecito Esteban indeed.
This episode was the best exploration of Steven’s psyche the show has ever done, but a few quibbles prevent me from giving it full marks. Most glaringly, Steven calling out Greg and the Crystal Gems’ names at the end of the episode struck me as totally unnecessary, the one moment where Howard and Liu reverted to too much talking.
I’m not certain how I feel about the episode spending so much time with Connie at the beginning. I get that the intent was to show Steven’s valiant attempts at keeping his best friend cheerful and positive while simultaneously distracting himself from his own mind. But it’s obvious from the beginning of “Storm in the Room” that the episode’s main focus will be Steven and his mom, so the first few minutes seem to drag. Connie embodies the viewer, impatiently tapping her foot.
Susan Egan, as usual, is excellent as the voice of Rose. The overly dramatic emotional affect she puts into the character during Steven’s videogames-and-football fantasy is the most obvious sign that this is a fantasy, and it’s a perfect setup for the more realistic, blunter voice she uses to yank a despondent Steven out of some terrible thoughts.
Steven’s fantasy reminded me of the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. What amazed me the most is how quickly he leveled with himself about the unreality of the situation. He didn’t need a Dumbledore to command him to stop visiting the Mirror.
The law student in me wonders if Cartoon Network Studios had to pay royalties to whomever owns Charlie Brown for using that sound effect.
Zach Blumenfeld is like Daredevil, except instead of fighting crime at night, he writes about pop culture. Follow him on Twitter.