18th Jun2015

‘Steven Universe 2×08: Keeping It Together’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“I wish you hadn’t seen that.”

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This is a dang kids’ show, y’all. ‘Keeping It Together’ takes a long, unnerving look at something Steven Universe has had on its radar since ‘Frybo,’ season 1′s early gross-out fest: voluntary and involuntary dynamics. The show has bumped up against the idea softly and repeatedly in its portrayals of imperfect people trying to live life on their own terms from Peedee the disaffected fry cook to Pearl the compulsive problem-solver and floor-mopper. These people are trying to get by in ways that let them remain true to themselves. For Garnet, that means existing as a visible symbol of the love between Ruby and Sapphire, the halves of her fusion.

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The fusion created by Peridot and the Gem homeworld she represents in the darkness under the kindergarten runs counter to this ethos. Not only is Peridot annoyed by where she is and what she’s doing, but her work’s outcome is a living manifestation of what it means to be forced into a connection. The groaning tangle of limbs, including a leg that looks disturbingly like one of Amethyst’s, is a singularly disturbing image. Garnet’s horrified reaction shows us that whatever memories of the homeworld she and Pearl possess, things like this are foreign and unthinkable to them. To Garnet, fusion is a way to go through life protected within the armor of her relationship. To the screaming wraiths who make up the creature she poofs and bubbles, it’s a living hell.

“So this is what the homeworld thinks of fusion,” Garnet says to herself, stunned. The idea that her own people would commit this assault on something she holds sacred is understandably pretty upsetting. The episode isn’t all doom and gloom, though. The opening back and forth about chore wheels and the repeated gag of Steven’s hundreds of identical shirts set a light, breezy tone that carries through into the encounter with Peridot once they track her to the kindergarten. There’s a dissonance between her loony toons antics and the quiet, personal horror of the fusion monster that, while clearly intentional, is a bit distracting.

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‘Keeping it Together’ raises the stakes for the overarching plot by exploring how the birth of new Gems in places like the kindergarten depletes and kills the planets around them. While doing so, it maintains a tight personal focus by grounding its traumas and horrors in Garnet’s concept of self. As the most unshakable Gem it’s always interesting to see her stymied, and her inability to convey to Steven a pain that is alien by virtue of its adultness and, well, its literal alien-ness, is deftly handled. With Steven coming into his own and taking his place as a Crystal Gem(and the show-getting a much-deserved animation bump, unless love is warping my perspective), it’s exactly the right time to complicate the big picture while keeping the focus on small, meaningful points of connection.

Watching these people navigate their unusual lives in an ungainly family unit, with none of the mess or imperfection swept aside, is a special experience for a children’s show to deliver. Steven’s obsolete chore wheel is just a metaphor for all the things in life we can’t control, something that community makes bearable and which isolation exacerbates past endurance. The threat the homeworld represents isn’t just conquest or military dominion, it’s the prospect of lives lived without connections forged for love in all its forms.

Like Garnet says, it’s better when you do things together.

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