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

Steven Universe: “Cry For Help”

Illustration for article titled Steven Universe: “Cry For Help”

One of the hardest things for me to handle as a viewer (and as a critic) is the point in a story where teammates, friends, lovers, or whatever start fighting. It’s necessary, if you expect your characters to develop a certain level of depth—they’re not all going to be the same person, which means they’re going to clash, and without legitimate conflicts among the heroes, your story turns into one long series of pointless boss battles. But the logical requirement that this sort of thing happen as an ongoing story continues doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

At a certain point, if you’ve invested enough in a group of characters working toward common goals and care about them (to as much of an extent as you care about fictional characters), any serious division between them will hit you (or maybe just me) like being forced into a painful family squabble. (Given the polarizing fan opinions of, say, certain parts of seasons four and six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I suspect this is true of lots of fans.) “Cry For Help,” over 60 episodes into Steven Universe, represents the beginning of the first such serious conflict, between Garnet and Pearl. (The antagonism between Amethyst and Pearl is there, but it’s too much an established part of their characters to count.)

The best thing about “Cry For Help” is the way it allows this conflict to explode with the force of many, many episodes’ worth of foreshadowing, character work, and straight-up empathy for the characters. Garnet’s cold rage when she finds out that Pearl has been rebuilding the communications hub to have an excuse to fuse with her is completely justified—since we learned that Garnet was a fusion, we’ve had more than enough time to think about how much she cares about the institution of fusion, and how important she considers clear-eyed consent. It’s literally fundamental to her identity, since she’s a manifestation of Ruby and Sapphire’s feelings and philosophy of relationships. And, of course, we know how much she cares about finding Peridot (though the extent to which this is a priority seems to vary on an episodic basis), and not having her time wasted.

Meanwhile, Pearl’s feelings of inferiority are perhaps one of the most well-documented character traits on the show. We have some reason to believe that Pearls, as a general type of Gem, aren’t particularly well-respected or valued. This particular Pearl, apparently defective in some capacity, latched on to Rose Quartz to give her purpose and value, and has lost that in the wake of Rose’s death. And her insecurity about her own strength dates back to “Coach Steven,” the episode this one most strongly recalls (more on that later). She’s certainly willing to be manipulative in the pursuit of her goals, at least in part because she doesn’t quite understand other people’s feelings. All of this information was already present—Peridot, in creating an obstacle substantial enough to justify the creation of Sardonyx, merely serves as a catalyst.

I’m fine with Peridot continuing to show up every now and then to stir some shit up, as long as it keeps being as good as Sardonyx’s first appearance. There was no way this wasn’t going to be a slight comedown from Opal and Sugilite because they were so new and special, but the episode uses that anticipation for comedy, putting some partial fan excitement in Steven’s mouth and allowing Sardonyx to comment on the delay (“Was I worth the wait?”). The whole thing is just the slightest bit silly, picking up on the giddy, loopy excitement Pearl feels at getting to be part of Sardonyx and broadcasting it in details like the score (which is, characteristically, excellent—perhaps even more so than usual) and the dynamism of Sardonyx’s precise destruction of the hub. Alexia Khadime brings a great element of theatricality to the tuxedo-ed Sardonyx, who literally has to say stuff like “But yes, occasionally, I am known to smash” and make it not sound awful. And the storyboard team of Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu allows Sardonyx to treat her revelation like a big deal, laying the groundwork for Pearl’s distressed attempt to explain how important that feeling is to her.

This confrontation is maybe the single most complex moment of the show to date. In addition to Garnet and Pearl’s completely understandable perspectives, we have Amethyst, essentially sidelined for most of the episode (but also the voice of an excellent little song in the middle), caught between her empathy for Pearl and her desire to be on Garnet’s good side (and also do the right thing). In some respects, she becomes the viewer surrogate here, trying to explain Garnet and Pearl’s views to the other, before being, essentially, strong-armed by Garnet into becoming Sugilite and destroying the hub (in a fantastic, terrifying shot of destruction that almost makes up for the lack of Nicki Minaj). If there’s a serious problem with this episode, it’s that there’s a lot going on in this maybe 30 second-long scene, enough to fill up an entire episode of a dramatic series, which makes it difficult to follow all of the nuance, or get the full emotional effect of the split from Garnet’s refusal to acknowledge Pearl. It’s rich, complicated, heartbreaking, and simply human. Which makes it all the sweeter that this scenario is replicated through, of all things, Crying Breakfast Friends.


The framing device of Steven caring about his favorite TV show works wonders here, calling back to “Coach Steven” (when he cries “No! I’ll save you television!” just before Sugilite forms) and giving the characters an opportunity to comment on the very tropes that they’re engaged with. Pear and Spoon (straight-up voiced by DeeDee Magno Hall and Estelle) forgive each other, but, as Amethyst says, “It sure would be nice if things worked out the way they did in cartoons.” (This is a cartoon, but the only person who knows that here is Uncle Grandpa.) We can guess that, eventually, Pearl and Garnet will work out their issues, because Steven Universe has a heart at least twice the size of Sardonyx’s war hammer—but it might not be for a few episodes, and their relationship might not go exactly back to the way it was. That lack of certainty is scary for adults, let alone kids, but Rebecca Sugar and co. are plunging headfirst, with utmost confidence, into emotional, intimate territory generally reserved for Serious Art.

Back in November, I saw some of Michaela Dietz’s recording for this episode during a trip to the Cartoon Network studio (for a piece that will hopefully find a home at some point in the near future), and got my hands on a copy of the script, which I then spent quite a bit of time with, even though I had no idea what was actually going on—keep in mind that this was way, way before the first Steven Bomb, or even before “Marble Madness.” Being in the studio was a really fantastic experience (more on that later, if all goes well), but this episode actually showing up on a television kind of took me by surprise. On first glance, I thought that “Cry For Help” would come way, way down the road, representing the logical endpoint of the show’s maturity, its ability to handle ridiculously adult themes that are usually mangled by even the best writers and make them easily digestible and poignant for kids. I put it out of my head, thinking it wouldn’t show up until the show had reached its destination. I was wrong—this is just the beginning.


Stray Observations:

  • Okay, maybe this is a little too much of a nitpick, but why wouldn’t the Gems just have destroyed the hub? (Come to think of it, how would Peridot have fixed it in the first place, after Sugilite was through?)
  • Pearl’s eyes continue to be one of the best visual parts of the show, whether she is happy (before she fuses with Garnet) or sad (when she watches Sugilite destroy the hub).
  • Everything about Steven teaching Amethyst to do the finger hot dog thing was beautiful, and deserved ten of its own episodes. Also, great line reading from Zach Callison: “Bam! That’s when we’ll get her!”
  • I really wish I had the time and energy to dig in to “Is There Something I Can Do,” because I think it has a lot of the keys to understanding fusion at this point in the show—especially when Amethyst sings “I had to use you to make me feel stronger,” which contains so many ambiguities about human relationships that it’s painful to even consider. I guess the experience of fusion is just different for different people.
  • For a while, I thought I wanted a separate Crying Breakfast Friends miniseries, but the confusion surrounding the show (and Garnet and Amethyst’s opinions of it) is just too perfect—I love the way it functions as a totally opaque cartoon, representing the way a lot of people likely perceive Steven Universe.
  • Welcome back to the third Steven Bomb (officially titled The Week Of Sardonyx), and the second to air just this summer. Will this be the week that finally kills me? Tune in to find out!