15th Jul2015

‘Steven Universe 2×15: Keystone Motel’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Not now.”

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‘Keystone Motel’ is a small episode concerned with big things. It feels overfilled and sometimes unfocused, but if its look at a long-lasting queer relationship is uneven, it’s impressive that it’s happening at all. Garnet, looking for space in the wake of her fight with Pearl, rides along with Greg and Steven to a motel in the neighboring Keystone State. Once they reach the grubby motel from which the episode takes its name, stress causes Garnet to divide back into Ruby and Sapphire. Bringing Ruby and Sapphire back in the wake of yesterday’s episode, ‘Cry For Help,’  which dealt with how deceit and dishonesty can complicate the process of fusing is a smart storytelling move, but the opportunity for character development delivers mixed results.

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‘Keystone Motel’ never really clicks. Ruby is angry at Pearl, Sapphire wants to move on and refuses to engage emotionally, and Steven wants the two of them to reconcile. These beats are hit often and directly, leaving little room to develop Ruby and Sapphire beyond showing Garnet’s relationship as a synthesis of two very different people who see the world in divergent ways. It’s a pity that their reintroduction coincides with a noticeable animation quality dip, because a little visual fluidity and subtlety really could have helped to land the two Gems. Instead, the two of them(and especially Ruby) wind up looking static and unreal. The environments around them don’t fare much better, from the uninteresting hotel room to the talked-up but uninspired diner food. The latter looks almost like clipart at times.

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Sapphire radiating glacial cold while Ruby literally burns up with anger seems like a really blunt, uninteresting way to show how the characters are feeling. On top of that, they state and restate their thoughts without getting into any real discussion. Their reconciliation, prompted by a weirdly divorce-like scenario in which Steven(with uncharacteristic immaturity) asks them if he’s the reason they’re fighting, is hasty and feels as inevitable as any of the Future Vision gags Sapphire stone-facedly delivers. It’s cute, though, and there’s attention paid to their body language together that’s absent from the rest of the episode.

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It’s that sense of inevitability more than anything else that keeps ‘Keystone Motel’ from coming together. Knowing that Garnet is in conflict with herself is only interesting if that conflict is substantive, but the show is overeager to reassure that Ruby and Sapphire could never split it. It’s television stasis, even more direct with children’s television, and maybe it’s an unfair complaint to level against Steven Universe which leads its field in so many ways, but threats both external and personal need teeth if they’re going to feel real. Sapphire says that knowing an outcome ahead of time doesn’t render feelings experienced in the present irrelevant, but she’s her own best counterargument for showing that when we feel a conclusion is foregone, engaging on an emotional level becomes a challenge.

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