19th Jun2015

‘Steven Universe 2×12: We Need To Talk’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Get open, get honest. That’s fusion.”

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Most shows with fantasy conceits similar to fusion use it as part of an ongoing game of power creep, ratcheting up the stakes by combining existing characters into newer, shoutier, more powerful versions of themselves. Leave it to Steven Universe to make it an expression of connection and love, a sort-of-but-not-quite metaphor for both sex and emotional intimacy. Getting into what fusion means to the Gems while exploring the formation and growing pains of Greg and Rose’s romance is a great synthesis of theme and story.

The tone in ‘We Need To Talk’ is close and breathless, evoking the confusion of early connection and infatuation. When Connie and Steven fuse during an impromptu moment of fun outside Greg’s van, memories of Greg’s own experiences with fusion come rushing back. The flashback opens, much as ‘Story for Steven’ did, with a song. “What Can I Do For You?” is a sharp contrast to “Like A Comet,” focused not on Greg’s comedic enthusiasm but on the open question of what his new relationship with Rose might entail. There’s electricity between them, but even though they’re having fun, that energy is still just potential. Pearl’s jealous mid-song dance number and fusion with Rose is meant to discourage the exploration of that potential by characterizing it as essentially hopeless. Rose and Greg are different species, and if fusion, the ultimate expression of emotional closeness, isn’t an option for them then that’s a heavy weight for a new relationship to take.

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The dance number moves into a wonderful little scene in which Garnet explains to Greg, exhausted from trying to copy Pearl’s fusion dance, that the process is about honesty and communication. Greg shouting “EYE…think I get it” when Garnet winks at him is pure gold, and the lesson bears out when his attempt to fuse with Rose falls flat. The two stand together on Greg’s home-built dance stag in a personal moment of a kind that’s pretty rare on TV. There’s a frank, wandering discussion of how huge the gulf between them is, how many points of contact like fusion they don’t have, and how fast they’ve rushed into being together. Rose is old; she’s loved other humans, the tacit understanding being that even if those relationships lasted or found success, human lifespans are short.

Rose feels incredibly well-realized by the end of the episode’s 11-minute run. Her love of jokes and asides, her uncalculated drive to have fun and experience new things, and her unabashedly sensual personality come through in the writing, but the episode’s visuals really pull double duty. Directors Ki Yong-Bae, Sue-Hong Kim, and Jasmin Lai and storyboarders Hillary Florido, Rebecca Sugar, and Katie Mitroff do series-best work with fluid, lovingly-crafted dance numbers and close frames of Rose’s eyes and mouth that really show off the character’s existence in the moment. The intimacy between Greg and Rose after their dance, the believably awkward kiss, tender hand-holding, and palpable uncertainty about the future is a lot for any show to shoulder, much less a quarter-hour kids’ cartoon. Even the setting, the beach by moonlight, works unobtrusively to heighten the sense that this is all a dream mingling into complex but still thrilling reality.

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Steven Universe doesn’t really need any more praise at the ways in which it handles complex emotional dynamics, but there just isn’t any other show on TV right now doing what it does at its level. Greg and Rose may not be able to fuse, but it’s communication and love that imbue relationships with strength. The immediacy of the small, strange ways they hurt and unsettle one another during their exchange should be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to really, actively love another person. It’s not about any one given moment, it’s not about what society or other people feel relationships need to thrive, it’s about the willingness to step into the unknown.

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P.S: I’ve been mislabeling episode numbers. This is the 12th episode of season 2 rather than the 9th. Future episodes will reflect the correct production order.

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