It’s rare for any of the Crystal Gems to be in a genuinely bad mood for more than an episode or two—with the obvious exception of the Pearl-Garnet arc from “Cry For Help” through “Friend Ship,” there’s not a ton of infighting, and not even much sustained, front-facing dourness in the face of overwhelming odds and near-total isolation. But after yesterday’s episode, Amethyst has a really, really good reason to be moody. She’s been brutally confronted with her limitations, and doesn’t know how to move past them. If she decides to spend some time seriously thinking about how to respond to her encounter with Jasper, she might come out stronger than ever. But that’ll take time. More than anything, Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke use “Steven Vs. Amethyst” to establish how even a slightly less emotionally healthy (read: normal) person would respond to the kind of situations the Gems find themselves in.
Since the end of “Crack The Whip,” Amethyst has apparently been lounging around the temple in a bout of depression, which makes sense. (It’s unclear to me how much time passes between the episode’s opening, when Steven and Amethyst return from the fight, and the next scene. Could be a whole week!) Thankfully, it’s all cut with characteristic Gem humor, like Amethyst putting eggs in the garbage disposal to make “egg salad” out of some depressive impulse—but it’s even more dangerous for looking like typical Amethyst behavior. Jasper really got under her skin, but this sort of slow boil is the kind of thing that’s hard to actively help people with, both because it’s hard to notice and because the person suffering usually has to want assistance. In this case, that assistance comes obliquely through Pearl’s training system.
Amethyst joins the training, ostensibly for fun, but really because she needs to be able to fight Jasper. So she and Steven engage in some friendly competition. (All based on Pearl’s three Ps: Punctuality, perseverance, and positivity.) The increasingly overpowered Steven beats Amethyst in speed, agility, and a straight-up fight against several Holo-Pearls. This makes sense—he has a more versatile grasp of his shield (while Amethyst flails at the Holo-Pearls with her whip) and, of course, Rose’s Gem. Also, Amethyst has been pretty lazy for a long time. (It’s weird that she doesn’t use her shape-shifting to stretch out as a way of cheating the speed test.) When Steven tells her later in the episode that she hasn’t been trying, he’s right… but Amethyst doesn’t really know what it feels like to train hard enough to noticeably improve.
After yet another failure for his friend, Steven tries to make Amethyst feel better by intentionally losing at the Lonely Blade video game. Here’s the best visual detail of the episode: At first, it looks like Amethyst is going to play as a character named Outgoing Fist, but Steven urges her to play as Lonely Blade, with a variant costume. Rather than two different archetypes, the boarders (and Steven) want to depict Steven and Amethyst as the same. Even though Amethyst feels weak and threatened by Steven’s progress (“Now I’m the worst Crystal Gem”), Steven is equally beset by worries about being able to live up to his mother’s legacy. Neither of them are in their original Gem shapes—the flip side of Garnet and Pearl, who have spent their lives trying to get away from their intended forms and purposes.
While both Steven and Amethyst’s differences have potential upside, Amethyst’s size is a real limitation, which she angrily points out in one of the best lines of the episode. Everyone keeps telling her she’s perfect the way she is, but, like all sorts of well-meaning people trying to console someone with a disability, that encouragement doesn’t get around certain facts about the world. It’s the drawback of the Crystal Gem commitment to being relentlessly upbeat, exemplified by Pearl’s focus on positive reinforcement as a training tactic that works for Steven, but maybe less well for Amethyst. (This is what Steven tries with the Lonely Blade game, but Amethyst sees right through him.) Amethyst acknowledges that she’s caught in a loop of self-hatred, which prevents her from actually trying.
In turn, Steven’s anxiety about not being Rose has manifested in his newfound dedication to training, which helps explain all of the abilities he’s unlocked, even as they’re also part of the ways his body is changing (maybe), and have him confused as much as they have him delighted. (“Floating? I forget to use that half the time!”) Steven’s insecurity with the other Gems was one of the most important parts of his original character arc, and it’s easy to forget that even though he developed a certain level of competence around the end of the first season, those feelings don’t necessarily just dissipate in rational ways.
All of these things come to a head in the titular fight, which in classic Steven Universe fashion is premised on compliments, self-deprecation, and repeated acts of combat altruism. (Sample angry dialogue: “You’re the one who’s amazing.”) Steven is partly putting down his abilities for Amethyst’s sake , but he still does a good job pointing out his powers’ inconsistency, even when he discovers a new power during the fight—adding spikes to the outside of his bubble as a way of sticking to a pillar in the arena, which could make the bubble an offensive weapon. (Cue Steven: “Accidents are not awesome!”) The boarders do a good job conveying the goofiness of the fight, with particular attention to the visual moments where Steven and Amethyst express care for each other—Steven slicing through a falling pillar with his shield, Amethyst catching a floating Steven with her whip. It’s a zany mess, which is why the only possible way for it to end is Steven and Amethyst dissolving into laughter.
Steven and Amethyst acknowledge, at the end, that there are things that are wrong with both of them—things that they can work through, but things that are real nonetheless—and that their relationship is more important than any petty squabbling those drawbacks could cause. (The shot of them perpetually trying to grab each other’s hands is great.) I’m hoping “Steven Vs. Amethyst” isn’t the end of this arc for Amethyst, not just because I think it’s fertile territory, but because this would have been kind of a lame capper. Of course Amethyst wouldn’t take her issues out on Steven (at least, not for that long), but that doesn’t mean they’re not still there. Amethyst’s insecurities have been placated, but they’re waiting to haunt her. Just like Jasper.
- Disclaimer: My screener for this episode was pretty visually buggy, so there’s probably even more stuff than usual that I missed. (This month of episodes has been fun, but also, uh, exhausting.) Please let me know what details I should be paying attention to when I get the chance to watch a cleaner version!
- “With these Ps we have the keys to success.” I take this to be the second overt reference after that image of Peridot with a key in “Peace And Love,” so I ask you this: Who on the Crewniverse is super into DJ Khaled?
- Steven uses his Pearl prize: “I don’t even need glasses, so it’s funny!”
- Holo-Pearl: “The sharpest weapon is the mind.” Pearl: “Mhm mhm.” Steven: “Mhm mhm.”
- Holo-Pearl “High five accepted.” Same. (Also, this felt of a piece with Pearl wishing Steven had given her a hug in “Steven Floats.”)
- Pearl: “You’ve ruined the ruins!”
- Tomorrow: Bismuth.