“Steven The Sword Fighter” is, in many ways, a perfect distillation of what makes Steven Universe special. The premise of the episode—Steven (our title character and one quarter of the Crystal Gems superhero team alongside older sister/mother figures Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl) learning how to sword fight—would suggest something über-cool, complete with tons of action, training sequences, and a culminating epic fight between Steven and Pearl, who has been teaching him how to fight. But storyboard/writers Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu lose interest in the sword fighting conceit almost immediately, turning “Steven The Sword Fighter” into a low-key, emotional story about Steven’s relationship with Pearl and the ways we try to deal with death, even if that loss is only temporary.
Very little actually happens, plot-wise, in “Steven The Sword Fighter.” Steven expresses a desire to learn the art of sword fighting, but before he can even swing a blade once, the hologram Pearl has created as a sparring partner to teach him runs her through, forcing her to take a few weeks to regenerate from her gem and leaving Steven without one of his best friends. That’s it. The show has grown to live comfortably in the groove created by that leisurely pace and intense focus, which puts viewer attention squarely on the gorgeous, expressive, clean animation (which has already improved), the always-beautiful score (though there’s no full song from creator and Adventure Time musical wizard Rebecca Sugar here along the lines of “Giant Woman”), and most importantly, the relationships between Steven and the other Gems.
Steven Universe thrives in little character moments between the central foursome, like Steven trying to raise his hand to spar with Pearl and getting silently shut down by Garnet. The show doesn’t really need anyone else—Beach City is full of developed, intriguing characters (Brian Posehn’s hilarious, mellow raver Sour Cream comes to mind), but Steven Universe still doesn’t feel the need to spend time with them when it doesn’t need to. There’s no one in “Steven The Sword Fighter” besides the Gems (unless you count holo-Pearl), and Pearl’s absence defines the episode, while Amethyst and Garnet are almost background characters. It makes sense that “Steven The Sword Fighter” is all about Steven, because the show is ultimately about how awesome he is.
Steven Universe is enamored with the simplicity of childhood; it’s something that’s evident in everything from the show’s habit of using enormous shapes in Steven’s eyes to silently communicate his emotions (usually excitement) to the way the camera lingers on his bored irritation while Pearl tries to lecture him on the basics of swordplay in the background. Pearl might be right, but who wants to hear all that boring stuff about parrying? And even though she’s coming back after her stabbing, Steven’s sadness and frustration at her “death” are treated as completely, deadly serious. Though holo-Pearl is never going to be a sufficient stand-in for the real thing, Steven isn’t being unreasonable for trying to make her one. The program can’t capture Pearl’s obsessive cleanliness, dislike of Amethyst, or her love for Steven, but that doesn’t matter in the face of how much Steven just misses hanging out with Pearl in the moment.
Steven’s plain emotion allows the show to display its interest in continuity, though it’s not the sort you’d expect in a show about superheroes. Steven’s attempts to learn sword fighting lead to a host of callbacks to his similar efforts to activate his gem in the first episode, which aired alongside this one. These references are subtle but loving, particularly Steven taking holo-Pearl to the same tree where he had his conversation with Pearl about dancing petals and the way the TV gets broken in both episodes. The importance of this type of callback draws attention to the relative unimportance of the high-concept, genre trappings. Even more so than in a similar children’s show, the introduction of the gem regeneration process in this episode lowers the stakes (since the gems can’t die), but it also helps somewhat explicitly nudge us into recognizing that the stakes—at least in the world-saving, life-or-death sense, were never particularly important to begin with.
Perhaps best of all, Steven comes close to learning the sort of lesson one would expect from this type of show—that he shouldn’t have tried to replace Pearl with holo-Pearl—but then Pearl comes back, and he happily runs off to get his pot to bang on, singing about her return. That joy is the important thing. Steven’s childishness gets him into trouble when he’s unwilling to pay attention to the sword lessons, and again when he spends too much time with holo-Pearl, but it also wins out again as he uses the “boomerang” technique throwing a broomstick to defeat holo-Pearl. He may have needed to wait for the perfect moment (something he absorbed by osmosis from Pearl), but he still learned most of his fighting skills from obsessively watching Lonely Blade.
It’s unfair to spend too much time comparing Steven Universe and its former Monday companions Adventure Time and Regular Show (which is why I haven’t done it yet), but Steven’s refusal to completely learn lessons identifies a substantial emotional difference amongst the three, at least at this point in their runs. Now, in any given week of Cartoon Network, Finn and Jake and Mordecai and Rigby have taken steps to adulthood, whether its Jake’s acceptance of fatherhood or Mordecai’s relationship with Margaret, journeys that have given those shows their emotional backbones. Steven doesn’t need to grow up, because he’s perfect the way he is. Adventure Time and Regular Show are about what it’s like to grow up. Steven Universe, for now, is about how awesome and special it is to be a kid, and that’s almost as cool as a cheeseburger backpack.
- Welcome to Wednesdays, Steven! The show has already thankfully been renewed for a second season, so here’s hoping this is a vote of confidence by Cartoon Network.
- I want Steven’s Cloud Strife action figure.
- “Oh Lonely Blade, you so lonely!”
- Thanks for dropping in on this with me. Nothing else on television makes me say “Awwww” with such regularity, and it is great. What have been your favorite episodes so far, and why? (I’m a sucker for “Lars And The Cool Kids.”)