Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A reflective, funny episode of Steven Universe finds Steven going through the motions for his mom

Illustration for article titled A reflective, funny episode of Steven Universe finds Steven going through the motions for his mom
Image: Cartoon Network

During Steven’s last visit to Homeworld, he was a prisoner on trial for murder. Now, he’s basically Gem royalty, and bound up in all of the obligations that new status entails. “Familiar” digs into the details of what the Diamonds actually do all day, and what it means that the Diamond ranks now include Steven. It’s a frequently awkward and uncomfortable episode, but also quite beautiful, and downright odd. That makes sense, considering that in addition to seasoned Steven Universe storyboard artists Amber Cragg and Hilary Florido and returning artist Tom Herpich, “Familiar” was also storyboarded by Adventure Time creator Pen Ward, which rules.


Ward and Herpich’s handiwork is most visible in the Pebbles, little domestic servants that we learn toward the end of the episode are created by Pink’s (now Steven’s) life-giving abilities. (Basically, they’re like the Watermelon Stevens, but they live entirely in Pink’s room on Homeworld.) The Pebbles are cute, squat, and also a little creepy, evoking Herpich’s work on Adventure Time episodes like “Walnuts And Rain.” They seem to have some degree of control over Pink’s room, creating shelves, beds, and moving the walls at Steven’s command—and, at the end of the episode, helping him into a newer version of Pink’s old uniform, which further blurs the lines between Steven and his mom.

“Familiar” is full of details that make Homeworld seem a bit softer, less cruel and calculating. Besides just seeing some of the spaces where the non-Crystal Gems spend their time, there are weird, captivating details that suggest that this galactic empire might be a bit wackier than we expected, like the big, expressive Gem faces lining a hallway. Steven tries to say hi to the Gems, who are seemingly engaged in the time-honored practice of court gossip, but they retreat away from Pink Diamond. What’s these Gems’ story? We probably won’t find out, but at least we know they have one.

For the most part, Steven learns about the workings of Homeworld through a series of meetings with Yellow and Blue Diamond, trying and failing to get their input on how he should handle White. Patti LuPone and Lisa Hannigan are both excellent in these scenes, furthering the project of humanizing the Diamonds more than I thought possible in just a couple of episodes. (As Steven puts it in my favorite, laugh-out-loud line of the episode,“I get they’re, like, busy ’cause they’re dictators and everything.”)

Yellow takes her meeting with Steven in the Extraction Room—a sauna that deeply fits with Yellow’s current energy, which is increasingly reminiscent of Kendall from Succession or like, a more ruthless Michael Bluth. She starts to give off the impression of a child who has totally invested in their parent’s approval, only to fail utterly at getting it for some inexplicable reason. Yellow grimly calls the two and a half words Steven spoke to White Diamond “a record,” and when he suggests that maybe she should just fail in order to get White’s attention, she laughs—genuinely—and replies, “Oh Pink, you always did have quite the knack for making me laugh.”

Blue, meanwhile, actually calls Steven by his name—though she still thinks of him as some disguised form of Pink—and reminisces about the time the Diamonds used to spend together as a family, as they sit together in a pool. As she tells him about the games Pink used to play, Steven starts to realize what’s going on: The Diamonds are a dysfunctional family struggling to stay together, not unlike the Crystal Gems at the beginning of the series.


I’m not sure how I feel about the analogy being made here. I appreciate the pacing, and the way we’ve slowly gotten a sense of what actually drives the Gem Empire in a way that adds dimension to Yellow and Blue. But it doesn’t quite feel like that absolves them of all of the terrible things they’ve done in the name of that family, and it really doesn’t address whether those things are going to keep happening after Steven inevitably wins over White. I really hope this gets addressed at some point, because it’s not enough to just understand and befriend villains, if they don’t change. I get that no one on Steven Universe is an irredeemable monster, but even the fundamentally decent (and non-genocidal) Crystal Gems figure out how to make amends when they’ve done something wrong. Is there a future for the Gem civilization?

While we wait to find out the answer, Steven is going to throw a party. Once he gets back from his meetings, he sings “Familiar,” a song exploring the discomfort of experiencing deja vu in his mother’s old life. This is really some of Zach Callison’s best singing on the show—the song feels a little closer to a sketch, but that’s at least in part because it mirrors the uncertainty with which Steven is approaching his current predicament. By the end of the song, he’s wearing an approximation of Pink’s outfit.


Though there will of course be Gems who argue that Steven is just Pink in another form, his epiphany is a little different: That Pink slotted into the Diamond family the way Steven himself did at the beginning of the series. As a goof capable of bringing very busy and irritable Gems together, Steven has some experience with this kind of family dynamic. And an extravagant party is just the place to test it out.

Stray observations:

  • When Pearl shows up, she tells Steven, “I’m only here because I’m bringing your things... and they consider me one of your things.”
  • I loved Steven and Yellow Pearl’s Abbott and Costello routine that ends with Steven asking the Pearl to call him lasagna.
  • Seeing Steven in Pink’s uniform must be super weird for Pearl. Like, weirder than normal.
  • Next week: Steven has a ball, and is “Together Alone.”