17th Jul2015

‘Steven Universe 2×17: Historical Friction’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“To be human is to be flawed. A real hero must struggle.”

Steven Universe is in the middle of a quiet run after last month’s high-energy, high-impact slate. Including ‘Historical Friction,’ its last four episodes have dealt with daily life and the minutiae of emotional processing. ‘Historical Friction’ is a cute piece of work and a much better showcase for Jamie than the overstretched ‘Love Letters. The episode revolves around Jamie’s town-funded production of a play about Mayor Dewey’s several-times-great grandfather, William Dewey, credited for founding Beach City some two hundred years earlier. It’s also quietly, gently about making sure that the audience understands that Pearl’s actions in deceiving Garnet in ‘Cry For Help don’t make her a villain.

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The episode uses the play, which Mayor Dewey pitches as a political screed supporting his reelection but which Jamie longs to reinvent for the sake of authenticity and drama, to examine the importance of nuance in characterization. Pearl, who met the real William Dewey, is able to distract herself from her guilt and discomfort by setting the script straight as to how the historical Dewey arrived in Beach City. Steven, as the only person to show up to Jamie’s auditions, lands the role of Dewey while Jamie heroically takes on every other part. His pitch-perfect imitation of Pearl, complete with a party hat for a nose, is the episode’s best joke until Amethyst shows up as a mop with googly eyes.

Pearl is struggling to understand herself even as viewers work to revise their thoughts and feelings on the character in the wake of ‘Cry For Help.’ ‘Historical Friction’ suggests that the desire to characterize someone as wholly good, as Mayor Dewey does his famous ancestor, is as nonsensical as it is seductive. Certain groups of fans invest heavily in their favorite characters only to feel betrayed when those characters do things they find unsavory or morally suspect. The idea that a fictional character must remain pure to stay worthy of good treatment within their fictional universe and of the interest of viewers from without it is a bizarre one, and the show is quick to dismiss it.

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Lauren Zuke and Hilary Florido’s storyboarding gives us a lot of tired, understated emoting in Pearl’s scenes and outsize goofery in Jamie’s and Steven’s work on the play. It’s a good counterbalance, and the light-hearted tone of the play prevents the episode’s message from ever feeling overbearing or histrionic. Pearl’s weariness in her exchange with Steven about mistakes is particularly well-done. Pearl correcting the historical record while revisiting her role in helping humans colonize Beach City doesn’t just give her a chance to unwind and stop dwelling on her mistakes, it reminds both her and us that she’s had a long, incredible life.

Fandom loves to see in black and white. Arguments over whether characters are “good” or “bad” rage on forums all over the Internet, but Steven Universe understands that those questions are neither useful nor interesting. The question of whether or not we should sympathize with Pearl is not a matter of holding her actions up against a rubric and declaring she passes or fails but a matter of seeing her fight to define herself and trying to meet it with our own human experiences. The value of fiction comes, in part, from watching complex people navigate the painful experiences of life.

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