09th Oct2015

‘Steven Universe 2×20: Back to the Barn’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“What a cluster-”

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“As it seems I have no other options,” Peridot monologues as the episode opens, “I have conceded to reveal some important information to you Crystal Gems.” With Steven’s aid she gives a brief audio/visual presentation on the threat posed by the Cluster, something we spent all of last week learning about in detail. The gravitas isn’t exactly brought home by Steven’s Godzilla sock puppet. Nor is the episode concerned with investing this supposed impending catastrophe with any real sense of danger. Steven Universe just can’t seem to nail the beats that made episodes like ‘The Arrival’ and ‘Jailbreak’ so affecting, and its pacing problems continues to dog even its best efforts.

For an episode which tells us right from the get go that Earth and all its inhabitants are on a razor’s edge, subject at any moment to total annihilation, ‘Back to the Barn’ spends most of its time on an unrelated detour. For Steven, usually so driven and determined when it comes to protecting others, to suggest that Pearl and Peridot resolve their conflicts by building battle bots instead of focusing on the machine that will save the world seems…not…good. That the other Crystal Gems casually accept it makes it difficult to invest in the proceedings, and the episode’s logic is sloppy elsewhere, too. Why, having just stripped Peridot of the robotic limbs that made her so dangerous, would the Gems give her free rein to build herself a much larger and more intimidating suit? You could argue that they believe her desire to survive the coming disaster will motivate her to play straight, but it still seems a lot like handing your hostage a gun.

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The conflict between Pearl and Peridot finally delves into what bits and pieces of dialogue have suggested: Pearl is one of a series of ornamental slaves bought and sold as curios by powerful gems on the Homeworld. It’s a dark thought for a kids’ show and Steven Universe spends too much time wrapped up in bringing Peridot to grudgingly respect Pearl for it to feel anything like as ugly as it is. It’s weird, upon reflection, that the show is investing this much in bringing Peridot around to the side of the angels. It’s true that her fear and sense of inadequacy make her sympathetic, but she’s also a willing participant in genocide and…apparently a vitriolic proponent of slavery?

The two Gems compete in ludicrous Robolympic Games, an energetic sequence of visual gags as Peridot’s crablike mech and Pearl’s self-caricature toss cars, crush rocks, and do ballet. The resolution of the robot plot, with the victorious Peridot standing ignored while Pearl is showered in affection by her friends, looks like it’s telling us that bigotry and aggression may bring power, but they also bring isolation. That might be true here where the warm environment of the Crystal Gems’ home life prevails, but out in the cold void of space Peridot has the full might of the Gem Homeworld behind her. It’s a standard story structure, a bully learning that her unpleasant words and beliefs are defense mechanisms to shield her own self-loathing and loneliness, but the extremity of the beliefs in question warp the formula.

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‘Back to the Barn’ is a side road, and while its action sequences are fine and it provides much-needed progress for Pearl’s character(showing her calm and self-confident is something the show has worked up to for a long time, often by moving in circles), it winds up feeling more or less superfluous. All shows, cartoons especially, have room for humor, distraction, and the unusual, but great narrative work incorporates those elements into its structure. ‘Back to the Barn’ makes them a barnacle on the side of a larger story shelved in order to show robots fighting and a spat between a slave and an embittered lower-class master.

There’s one moment in the episode’s run that touches on the idea of slavery in an interesting and informative way. “Who do you belong to, anyway?” Peridot asks off-handedly as she and Pearl debate who will lead the engineering project. “Nobody!” Pearl fires back. Peridot is unfazed. “Then what are you for?” This is a point worth making, the idea that oppression is primarily a product of ignorance and casual conformity on the part of the masses. Peridot has a kind-of-sort-of idea of what Pearls do, and it’s easier to keep believing those things than it is to engage in any kind of growth or dialogue. I realize I just spent 750 words of a review of a children’s cartoon discussing slavery, but frankly there wasn’t much else to get into.

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