"I AM THE ANGEL OF DEATH. THE TIME OF PURIFICATION IS AT HAND."
- Rebecca Sugar (approximate transcription)
If there's something akin to a specific "soul" of Adventure Time on its creative team, that's probably Rebecca Sugar. As responsible (this is relative, but I don't care) for the most touching and hilarious (often at once) episodes in its entire run, a huge part of its popularity (and 90% of its wonderful, catchy tunes) relies on her talent. When she departed to create her own show, a ton of skepticism invaded the internet, wondering both what would happen to Finn and Jake's weekly tales without her and if her new work would be up to par. Results were wonderful on both accounts.
Steven Universe, Sugar's creation, started out as a charming yet slightly formulaic reinvention of a Sailor Moon-esque show, but few of us were conscious of the incredible universe (redundant, I'm aware) that was being meticulously crafted before our eyes from the start. It was soon proven, though; and it's entirely possible there isn't a more memorable show on current television. Personally, I believe there's no better way of honoring and paying tribute to the absolute brilliance and originality of it than shamelessly ripping off an AVClub format, therefore here are the 12 most representative and iconic episodes of the show, exclusively for you, the person who saw the first three and said "well that sucked, hope Twitter shuts up about it eventually, am I right?".
1x13 - "So Many Birthdays" (Raven M. Molisee, Paul Villeco)
It makes her feel important.
The show established lots of things during its first 12 episodes (the father-son relationship between Greg and Steven, the mother-son relationship between Steven and the Gems, his wonderful friendship with Connie, fusions). We'll talk about all of them while they keep being developed during the rest of selected episodes, but I felt it was especially important to highlight the first episode in which the last (its most important?) element was established: uh, OVERRIPEDNESS (okay, this really doesn't work in English, there's a very specific Spanish term for sad-and-gloomy-yet-slightly-cringe-worthy moments - we'll just say "feels", sure, happy yet?). Masterfully oscilating between funny, depressing and just plain awkward is one of Sugar's most remarkable qualities, and she's not going to abandon that exclusively because her work is going to be "directed" at a "potentially easy to traumatize" audience of "children" (after all, many of her most beloved Adventure Time episodes, among which we find the Ice King-Marceline arc and the first entries of the Flame Princess one, are entirely constructed from that specific talent). Because of that, it's not especially surprising to find the episode guiding us step-by-step through Steven's ways of facing his own mortality, but what is especially remarkable is the way the show translates it by resorting (in what will become a key feature of the show) to, in the words of good ol' Eric Thurm, some of the best uses of its preestablished genre as a metaphor for growing up since Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer (specific genre aside, of course, horror doesn't fit as well in current Cartoon Netw-- you know what, I'll just be quiet).
1x22 - "Steven And The Stevens" (Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu)
The sensitive one.
A big part of this article focuses on overanalyzing the most purely symbolical/metaphorical/mythological aspects of the show, but I wanted to leave a little space for SHEER LAUGHTER. Without ever abandoning their incredibly elaborate characters, Steven Universe usually doesn't stop putting ha-ha's [technical term] on the forefront, but few times as constantly as here, in its (again, this is debatable) most purely comical episode. Few moments are dedicated here to anything but making the audience laugh, and even those that could be treated otherwise in a different episode (the cosmic horror of Steven seeing himself die over and over again) are set up in an absolutely hilarious way (that smash-cut to the incredible final tune). The insane rhythm only accentuates this, culminating in a climactic chase through memorable episodes (both past and future) and condensing in 11 minutes everything that's magical about the show when it wants to make us laugh. And to think I was told the original idea was to re-do the (wonderful) original pilot. Thanks for changing your mind, team.
1x25/1x26 - "Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem" (Raven M. Molisee, Paul Villeco/Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu)
A better pun than any of mine.
1x30 - "Island Adventure" (Raven M. Molisee, Paul Villeco)
Raven M. Molisee, reaction face mastermind.
One of the most brilliant creative decisions in the show is Steven-vision. There's a terribly dark and twisted world out there, and we're starting to discover it just now as an audience, but we're not alone. Steven is with us, growing, maturing and dealing with all of the show's reveals alongside us. A concept that could initially seem frustrating (an absence of flashbacks? in 2015?!) ends up being one of the bigger aces up Sugar's sleeve, as she immerses the audience 100% in her universe thanks to synchronizing all our discoveries with our main character's. It's because of this, perhaps, that the episodes not focusing on Steven handling new information on his past (or future, you'll see) can start seeming like "filler" to half the internet, but not wanting Steven Universe to conclude after two installments, it ends up being crucial to deeply develop those who share their day-to-day with the show's star (get it? "star", because... *everybody closes this window*). Lars and Sadie, alongside Greg and Connie (coming soon), could be the show's most interesting human characters, as they already started proving in "Joking Victim", and giving them the spotlight on an episode usually means tons of things, among them massive overr-- *sighs* feels and many adolescent emotions we thought were buried forever. Lars, the spitting image of the fact that not all your non-villanous characters have to be likeable by definition (Ronaldo Fryman, who at this point is THE INTERNET in person, is almost as unbearable to me as -say- Jasper, but since he has the best Tumblr of all time we'll forgive him), is the very definition of insecurity, and maybe that's why his attitude towards Sadie (and the world) ends up seeming tolerable and occasionally even half-charming when it never really should (another baffling skill by Sugar and the crew); while Sadie (who still hasn't sung in the show, which I find quite insulting), possibly stuck in a self-destructive spiral, is practically a mirror of many of us at some point in our life. Taking them out of their comfort zone here and seeing them hit rock bottom is devastating for many of these reasons, and the reveal at the end of the episode just secures how incredibly interesting and, at the same time, almost unhealthy is to see them interact. Their mistakes make them more human than most characters in current fiction, and damn, that's not half bad for a kids' cartoon show about gems with magical powers.
1x32 - "Fusion Cuisine" (Lamar Abrams, Hellen Jo)
G-rated "Michael Scott's Dinner Party".
Personally, I have a bit more of a fondness for the immediately posterior episode, almost a 200-part shonen told in 11 minutes, but this little gem (pun unint-- I don't even know if it was intended at this point, actually) covers way too many things (some of them already covered, some of them politely ignored anyway because I'll talk about them later, sue me if you can) to not consider it part of a list of most representative episodes: its diversity (tomorrow's Fox News headline prediction: "Cartoon Network promotes obese children being raised by groups of lesbians, more after the break"), its mythology (I haven't talked about the fusions so far, but they're incredibly integrated into the show's DNA, to the point where each and every one of them says something very clear about the characters involved in them - and, occasionally, they also say "I forgot how great it feels to be me!" with Nicki Minaj's voice, which is cool too), the Steven-Connie relationship (I've mentioned this so much I'm probably creating way too many expectations for the awful paragraph I'll be writing later) and, above all in this case, father/mother-son relationships. I say that "few shows do this, let alone children's shows" crap way too often, but a big chunk of Steven Universe's charm resides on it being both about the difficulties of growing up and becoming responsible and about learning to be a father/mother. Father/mother figures aren't usually treated as complex, constantly evolving, fucked-up beings (actually, and going back to cartoons, they're usually treated as walking caricatures, because dumb parents are particularly funny when they're all you can find in children's TV - you heard me, Dinkleberg), and it's especially remarkable to me how well this show balances that aspect of its core with Steven maturing. Also, Garnet as Mom Universe will never stop being hilarious. Don't call again.
1x35 - "Lion 3: Straight To Video" (Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, Rebecca Sugar)
I'M NOT CRYING. YOU'RE CRYING. SHUT UP.
Old scriptures speak of a prophecy. You won't find it easily, but many rumors seem to confirm its existence. The hair-raising premonition found inside these manuscripts warns us about a single thing: episodes with the words "...and Rebecca Sugar" on the writing credits. Flee from them, intrepid youngsters. Run as fast as you possibly can. Otherwise, you'll find yourselves constantly leaking fluids and noone will be able to repair you for hours. The first paranormal happening related to the event takes place in this episode, culmination of the Lion trilogy, whose strange friendship/affiliation with Steven has given us great moments (and a title that's actually really funny if you consider the previous one was "Lion 2: The Movie", because... yes, I'll leave, I'm sorry) and many initially incomprehensible introspections regarding who exactly Rose-Quartz was beyond Steven's beloved late mother. Bookending the episode with a wonderful theme that tells us a little more about Sadie's private life, Johnston, Liu and Sugar explore the loss of a loved one in a more direct way than the show has ever done until now (but you'll see - this is starting to be gimmicky but you can't stop me), proving once more than noone is as good as her at bringing out tears and that we should be very resentful for having ruined our day. But that was a tradition even before she got a job at Cartoon Network, so there's that.
1x37 - "Alone Together" (Hilary Florido, Katie Mitroff, Rebecca Sugar)
This moment is so beautiful that I refuse to write a joke here.
This moment is so beautiful that I refuse to write a joke here.
(Bonus points to the episode for the Lars and Sadie sequence, which would've been really easy to take to that jealousy-as-comedy place.)
1x40 - "On The Run" (Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu)
This, aside from being hilarious, made way for the invention of the term "HOBOSONA", so it's already better than the entirety of "Lost". Being crazy today, just dissing on things for no reason.
9:37. Cartoon Network Studios offices. Burbank, California.
Ian Jones-Quartey comes through the door with The Saturday Morning, a cartoon-focused paper that really exists, I swear on Odie's owner Lyman. He leaves it on Rebecca Sugar's desk. The headline says "GRAVITY FALLS REFERENCES LYNCH AND CARPENTER AGAIN: The cheering reaches three websites on the internet".
Rebecca Sugar takes a sip of her coffee. Thoughtful, she spits out: "BRING ME A JUNJI ITO MANGA."
The rest is history.
1x42 - "Winter Forecast" (Lamar Abrams, Hellen Jo)
I just ruined the sweetest moment in the episode for you, fuck the police.
The Steven-Connie relationship is one of my favorite pillars on the show. It's tremendously sweet, constantly positive but entirely human, and can be interpreted as friendship or as romance depending on whatever the hell one feels like. Maybe because of this, "Winter Forecast" can seem like an odd choice of episode, since it initially seems to focus more on its supernatural twists than its human interactions. But that's entirely on the surface. The core of the episode is them, and as Eric Thurm perfectly highlights on the Wired article with the comments from hell (favorite one: "I hate subtle ideologies. Wired is praising the show for sneaking it in, as in "hiding its intelligence." Never trust anyone or anything who/that expresses pride in their ability to deceive audiences. Hitler was also good at that."... what are you all doing on Wired, come back to this window, finish the article), one of the main reasons why Steven Universe is so exemplary is because, for the show, two friends wanting to see the snow is the most important thing on Earth. What's at stake is just that, and the show tries (and achieves) to make us care more about it than about "the world is in mortal danger for the third time this week and only we can save it!" (which, after all, was the formula at the very start). When focusing on these smaller things, the show thrives. And that's kind of beautiful.
1x43 - "Maximum Capacity" (Hilary Florido, Katie Mitroff, Rebecca Sugar)
If this isn't translated to Spanish as MENORDOMO, we'll be mad. Just a heads up.
Rose-Quartz is a tricky character. On one hand, we can't find out too much about her at once, since the previously established Steven-vision stops the format from pursuing traditional flashbacks. On the other, exploring the feelings of the people who've lost her is a particularly hard subject to treat, no matter what you're writing. Maybe because of this it's particularly refreshing to reflect it in a purely visceral way, just all of a sudden, without the audience even expecting it to be the main focus of the episode. And, maybe also because of this, this could be one of the toughest episodes to bear. The decision of intertwining it with one of the silliest, wackiest plots to date (Greg and Amethyst binge-watching an 80's sitcom) is a stroke of genius, and the crew's ability to constantly transform supreme silliness into INTENSITY reaches its possible zenith in this episode's climax, where Amethyst's shapeshifting abilities (whose darker side -talking about both the shapeshifting and Amethyst herself here- we already started to explore in "On The Run", which I didn't mention because I'm the worst and the Sugar/Jones-Quartey sketch was too hypnotic to me), used for EVIL, force Greg and a stunned Steven to face the past in an especially twisted way. But it's all good 'cause Pearl wears a sweater and sweetly taps on a glass.
1x45 - "Rose's Scabbard" (Raven M. Molisee, Paul Villeco, Rebecca Sugar)
It's funny 'cause my heart is dead.
It's funny 'cause my heart is dead.
I have repeatedly verified that reactions to Pearl usually don't have a middle ground. Most fans consider her either their favorite or least favorite character, and this episode has plenty of material to justify both stances. I just finished talking about the complexity of treating the loss of a loved one in fiction, but even an episode like "Maximum Capacity" could be accused of not taking it to its maximum consequences (I'd disagree, but whatever). Here, on the other hand, the most emotionally fragile character in the series is forced to handle the fact that the person she lost ages ago, her best friend (if the subtext doesn't mean anything more, because it's all left fairly open), wasn't everything she thought she was. That she was possibly MORE, in fact. And that destroys her. We've all thought we knew someone just to end up being smashed by reality, but it being too late to do anything about it, to change that at all, just adds another layer of misery to the whole thing. And that's why, in some incomprehensible way, it's almost easy to empathize with someone monstrously yelling "YOU DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HER" to a boy who lost his mother. And that's why every stance in this episode is believable and human, not just Steven's, and that's why the silent final sequence, dressed with perhaps the best piece of music in the entire show, has the weight and the power to destroy us. Because as Pearl returns home on that lion, we're all her somehow.
That was all pretty serious for something containing a mythical beast being used for cheap magic tricks, wasn't it.
1x48/1x49 - "The Return/Jailbreak" (Raven M. Molisee, Paul Villeco/Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, Rebecca Sugar)
Thai image is moving and making noise. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.
Concluding a season is difficult, especially if your show has dedicated 47 episodes to hinting and meticulously elaborating a bigger universe. Your big finale has to be satisfactory both in a mythological and emotional way, give a sense and a purpose to your characters, resort to a bombshell that makes your audience remember you until next season and that at the same time works as a sign of evolution. "The Return/Jailbreak", the second and final double-length episode of the show so far, doesn't have enough with succeeding in all these aspects - it also has the bravery of making its climax, the absolute peak of the half a hundred episodes it's produced so far, be a love song.
And the best part is, it's something entirely justified, something the show has fully earned, something that, after all, represents the show. The reveal itself (clearly planned since the first shot in the original pilot), far from seeming trivial, has been crucial to the character from the start - and, while it's at it, gives way to the most honest representation of what it means to love someone I've ever seen on television. LGBT relationships aren't particularly present on current pop culture in general (not to mention children's programming - damn, I'm doing the "few shows do this..." thing again, someone stop me), but it's comforting to see that at least one of them, as crazily sci-fi as it is, is crafted with as much fondness and care. Of course, the respect for its characters this show has is nothing new, and not only the climax is proof of it - from Greg and Steven's conversation in the van ("No such thing as a good war, kiddo.") to the chilling, spine-tingling fate of Lapis (I won't extend myself on the possible implications of Jasper coercing her into fusing because it's incredibly disturbing to me), the episode is the show's spirit in a 22-minute capsule, and just like the whole thing, is one of the most honest things I know - often hard, yeah, but truly hopeful at the same time. And that's why the people of this world believe in Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl and Steven. Or at least that's why I do.
Crucial episodes that hurt to leave out, so get right on it if you liked those 12, but the list was the list: Laser Light Cannon (1x02, first reveals on Rose-Quartz), Bubble Buddies (1x07, introduction of Connie), Giant Woman (1x12, first fusion/song), Rose's Room (1x19, first episode I'd define as "so fucking creepy"), An Indirect Kiss (1x24, not the first anything but really sweet), Space Race (1x28, a fantastic introspective on the character of Pearl), Garnet's Universe (1x33, a very weird thing) The Test (1x38, a brilliant look on the evolution of the Steven-Gems relationshop), The Message (1x46, something similar regarding the Greg-Gems relationship and a closing line for the ages while they're at it), Full Disclosure (2x01, my favorite essay on Nolan-esque superhero drama), Open Book (2x02, "yes, I also felt quite insulted by the Harry Potter epilogue": the animated series).