Yay, Steven’s back! But for how long?
Everyone is, understandably, a little on edge after his return from space—they had no idea whether he would come back at all. But where, earlier in the show’s run, his absence might have been more of a joke, for the rest of his family, it’s deadly serious. In particular, Connie is happy to see Steven, but she’s also still hurt—they’d agreed to face any Gem threats together, and instead, Steven unilaterally decided to sacrifice himself. This is a deeply painfully, emotionally honest conflict that’s true to the characters of both Connie and Steven. Of course Steven thinks he has to solve everything himself, and of course his protective instinct is to sacrifice himself. But he doesn’t understand why Connie is upset. When Steven says “It was a tough decision for me to make, but it had to be done,” he’s not only trying to downplay her concern, he’s implying that he was the only one with any authority.
Steven throws himself into trying to clean up the rest of his mess—first trying to inform a distraught Sadie that Lars is really fine, sort of, and then helping Mayor Dewey in his election campaign against Nana Pizza. The parallels between the mayoral race, where a competent woman loses to a buffoonish man, are unfortunate. (In the same way that last year’s “Gem Harvest” accidentally echoed viewers’ potential concerns about interacting with bigoted relatives over the holidays, this episode was written way before the election that plunged the country deeper into hell.) They’re also probably not super productive, since Mayor Dewey isn’t anywhere close to being a bad-faith senile con man racist serial abuser of women—he’s just kind of a silly guy who loves the trappings of politics and has made it his career.
Unfortunately for Steven and Mayor Dewey, Nanefua is a pretty fantastic politician. Her chants are very good. (“Do we want Dewey?” “No!”) Her suit is killer. And she’s genuinely a kind, empathetic leader. When, during their debate, she realizes that her campaign has been too dependent on blaming Dewey for everything wrong with Beach City, she says: “No longer will I point my fingers at you. I will extend all my fingers on both my hands to everyone here today and ask that we share responsibility for the welfare and safety of Beach City together.” This is framed in a shot of Nanefua against an abstracted background, with the camera slowly pulling back from her. (Toks Olagundoye does a fantastic job with the speech, as she does with the rest of the material she gets this episode.) Writers and storyboard artists Lamar Abrams and Jeff Liu do a great job throughout the episode of making her an obvious choice for mayor.
I know Steven can be a bit dense sometimes, but I’m pretty sure he should be able to acknowledge that Nanefua is a much better leader. Really, he’s overcommitting to Mayor Dewey partly because he feels guilty for the mayor being blamed for the Gem-related kidnappings, and because he wants to distract himself from the Connie situation. Mostly though, Steven makes it worse when he points out that the mayor doesn’t really do anything about the Gem hijinks that frequently mess with daily life in Beach City. (He should! Or at least do something besides gawk at Pearl!) And Dewey makes it way worse when he responds to Lars’ continued absence by simply promising to “hire a new doughnut boy,” which is so scandalous that Steven has to break out How To Talk To People. Dewey has never run against an opponent before, even when he made up the position of mayor of high school.
Eventually, the mayor throws in the towel and concedes to Nanefua, which is the right thing to do, but leaves Steven feeling hurt and betrayed—the same way Connie felt at the beginning of the episode. I appreciate the emotional plotting here, but the pacing feels just a little off, especially with such a faulty vehicle for Steven’s epiphany. (Seriously, it’s unbelievable how clearly Nanefua is more competent.) Mostly, “Dewey Wins” is like the Ocean Town jokes Steven writes for the debate—funny enough, and a good way to occupy some time, but ultimately just serving to delay the sad ending. In this case, that’s Steven trying to call Connie to apologize, only to discover, hours later, that she isn’t picking up.
Finally, a good, harrowing TV episode about the dangers and delights of not having cell service.
One thing that cell phones really have changed about human communication is our collective expectation for fast response times, and for responses at all. If you send someone a message and they don’t respond immediately (within five minutes? an hour? a day?), they must be making a conscious decision not to speak to you, right? Why could that be? And what can you possibly do to change it if they’re not around? It’s definitely not the most negative, painful thing you can think of, right? (It is.) In “Gemcation,” storyboard artists and writers Madeline Queripel and Lauren Zuke hone in Steven’s experience waiting for Connie to text him in the middle of their fight. The result feels surprisingly modern for Steven Universe, but just the right level of poignant.
As the days drag on, Steven is drawn deeper and deeper into his pit of despair, allowing the unsent text message from Connie to be a weight on everything else he does. Fulfilling time with friends and family? Activities? A vacation? None of these things are capable of bringing Steven joy when he’s spending every other moment staring at his phone. His distracted facial expressions throughout this episode are excellent, as are Zach Callison’s detached line readings. Also, Steven gets his hopes up every time he gets a text, only for all of them to be Ronaldo asking about his anime DVDs, which makes it even worse. (This is kind of an academic deep cup for y’all, but if you’re interested in this kind of experience and thinking about non-communication, I highly recommend the first couple of chapters in Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse.)
Greg brings Steven, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl out to “Cool Ranch,” an AirBNB-type place to get away for the weekend. There are some fun details here, ranging from Garnet sitting in the hot tub to a sign asking guests to remove all shoes (leading Pearl to pick up and throw the shoes belonging to the hosts), and the presence of what we’re led to believe is a snake. (Recovering from her single bite, Pearl mopes: “It isn’t the pain, it’s the surprise.”) Really, the trip is an excuse for Greg and the Gems to try different, increasingly awkward tactics to find out what’s really bothering Steven. Everyone assumes it’s Gem stuff, the kind of material we as viewers might want the show to focus on—what really happened with Pink Diamond? what does the vastness of Home World mean for our Gems?
But in the end, when Steven admits to having problems with Connie, it’s Greg who manages to get through to him by talking to a “Steven-shaped barrel.” Tom Scharpling does excellent vocal work here, giving the sort of dad advice that the Gems could never really provide. It’s true that Connie probably doesn’t hate Steven, but she’s going to need some time to get over what happened. Everyone will—the vacation was Greg’s way of dealing with it, taking the whole family out to the middle of nowhere where, it turns out, there’s no cell service. The family rushes to the top of a hill to try to see if Steven has actually gotten a text from Connie, but of course, it’s just another message from Ronaldo. Still, they have a nice moment looking up the stars, in a shot that manages to make them feel big sitting on the top of the van and very, very small in the grand scheme of life. Things will probably be okay.
These episodes have been out on the Cartoon Network app for a while, so I really don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we’re not going back to space for a minute. That’s fine with me—it’s part of the DNA of the show, alternating bursts of Gem-oriented action with quieter, character-focused episodes about the people of Beach City. (The end of season three, with its focus on Steven and Amethyst’s respective insecurities, is one of my favorite recent runs of episodes because it seamlessly blends these two strands.) But it also means we’re going to have some episodes that do intentionally smaller storytelling, more in the vein of Lars being afraid to make his desert than Lars dying and reviving on Home World. Hopefully next week’s visit to the barn, which returns to Lapis and Peridot after a while, will have a bit of both strains. See you then!