“Lars Of The Stars”

Grade: A

Finally, another space adventure! Since Wanted, Steven Universe has been paying off a ton of long-running threads, but it’s not just plot. “Lars Of The Stars” is a delightful culmination of part of the show’s long-term anime influences, thrusting the unsuspecting”Steven and Connie into the middle of the space fight. The two go through Lion’s mane to bring Lars a care package (including fresh jeans, his skull gauges, and MC Bear Bear), and though they expect to encounter him cowering in a cave on Home World, they instead happen upon a mostly fully-formed, surprising badass.

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Lars is now a hyper-competent, dashing, smirking space captain with a cool cape, having used his organic invisibility to steal a prototype Gem ship—crewed by the off-color Gems—and commit space crime until he and the others are on a course for Earth. You can feel how much fun storyboard artists and writers Lamar Abrams and Lauren Zuke are having with this conceit, as they give each member of the crew a snappy title card showing off their new job. My favorite is still the opening description Lars as a “reanimated” space pirate, since his new look means that’s also exactly what the Steven Universe crew has done with him, though describing the Rutile twins with the card “Two Gems. One pilot. Zero fear” is pretty good too.

That sense of glee permeates the entire episode, which feels like one of the moments the entire series has been building to. It would have been easy to imagine Steven Universe featuring a space battle with lots of ridiculous jargon straight of an anime from the beginning, but the purpose and deliberateness with which the world has been built finally pays off, as “bingo bongo” becomes an insane catchphrase and Emerald, the Gem chasing the Off Colors, literally screams their names, stopping just short of saying “I’ll get you next time.” The shot toward the end of the episode of Lars cackling in front of Emerald’s looming grimace on the ship’s screen pretty much encapsulates the pure playfulness of “Lars Of The Stars,” and why I’m so enamored with it.

Partly, the episode works because of Emerald, the Gem officer who has been pursuing Lars for at least three sectors. (I would imagine she’s some sort of general, but that’s pure speculation.) Voiced by RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon, Emerald is a fun antagonist, even if we never see her again—both because she effortlessly slides into the role of “recurring antagonist” in a show we haven’t seen, and because the ways Lars eventually beats her is so much fun. Emerald loves the Sun Incinerator, the ship she built and that Lars stole, too much to damage it beyond knocking the shields and weapon systems offline, which allows Lars to call her bluff and get her to admit at least partial defeat. (Paparadscha, by noting that Emerald missed on purpose during the volley, adds some context to the assault—suggesting she might be useful for more than comic relief going forward.)

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Lars might basically be Char now, but he’s still Lars. He plaintively asks after Sadie, only to be surprised by the news that she’s living her best life as the lead singer of Sadie Killer And The Suspects. (Steven’s photos of the band are awesome.) Even though Lars is a cool space pirate, he gets upset that he’s not friends with the Cool Kids, and he assumes that Sadie is trying to make him upset by having fun without him—only for Steven and Connie to use the lessons from their recent fight to get him to realize that both he and Sadie need to keep living their lives.

Abrams and Zuke do a phenomenal job illuminating the small shifts in Lars’ face that show his changing reactions to this information. And Matthew Moy has only been getting better as Lars has become more central to the show, especially when he gets close to outright admitting that he’s in love with Sadie—only to be interrupted by Steven and Connie fusing. (I, for one, am already tense with excitement for the eventual Lars-Sadie reunion, which I imagine will be a pretty great resting place for their respective arcs, at least for a while.)

Stevonnie takes Lars’ suspiciously car-like experimental fighter ship out to do battle with the Destiny Destroyer in order to give the crew time to get the Sun Incinerator’s systems back online. The ship really must be experimental, since when its weapon systems log on the screen reads “bingo bongo” and when there are incoming attackers, it just says “no.” They succeed, but the ship gets hit in the process—and, in Lars’ big moment of triumph, the episode ends with Stevonnie spiraling out of control into the uncertain void of space. We’ve seen this one before, and it usually doesn’t end well.

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“Jungle Moon”

Grade: A-

Like “Lars Of The Stars,” “Jungle Moon” takes several threads of Steven Universe and condenses them down to their pure essence, as Stevonnie finds themselves stuck in a much scarier version of the early Lars and Sadie episode “Island Adventure.” This is the first episode of Steven Universe to not feature Steven Universe at all—at least, not in his standard form. Instead, the episode is a solo (duo?) Stevonnie adventure, as the Steven and Connie fusion stays together throughout the crash and uses the combined talents of their two components to survive on the jungle moon until Lars shows up to take them back to Earth.

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These two episodes were marketed as a mini-arc called Stranded, which gets its name mostly from “Jungle Moon,” and especially from a kickass montage of Stevonnie thriving on the moon. Storyboard artists and writers Miki Brewster and Jeff Liu lavish care on this sequence, which finds Stevonnie taking a cheery, determined attitude toward a situation where, even just a few episodes ago, it would have been easy to imagine Steven and/or Connie shutting down. They grapple for plants, cook dinner, and, shave using Rose’s sword. Stevonnie having stubble is one of my favorite new pieces of information the show has doled out in a while, complicating their body in a way that is just matter-of-fact without needing to say much of anything about their gender. (Like I said last week, this is a world where even the most obnoxious human alive would never misgender Stevonnie.)

Without Zach Callison or Grace Rolek and with almost no humanoid scene partners, AJ Michalka has to carry “Jungle Moon” on her own, and she proves more than up to the task. She gives Stevonnie an air of commitment that balances intensity with comfort, and somehow manages to play a series of soliloquies as part of the ongoing conversation between Steven and Connie that composes the fusion. It’s a big ask to have Michalka carry the episode herself, but by the time she says “Good night Stevonnie,” followed by “good night, Stevonnie,” I’m totally sold. It also says a lot about how fleshed out Stevonnie is as a distinct entity, even in the relatively few times they’ve appeared, that asking them to sustain a whole episode feels like a natural extension of the rest of Steven Universe’s attitude toward point-of-view. Stevonnie even gets their own crazy dream sequence!

In the dream, Stevonnie is at home in Connie’s house, only to see Dr. Maheswaran rise up out of the ground and become an enormous, stern woman—a mental stand-in, we later learn, for Yellow Diamond. Like the dream back in “Steven’s Dream,” Steven (through Stevonnie) is experiencing the memories of one of the Diamonds. In this case, that turns out to be Pink, who we finally get a good look at. She’s much smaller than the other Diamonds, if the dream is to be believed, and takes on more of a kid sister role, impetuously demanding a colony of her own while Yellow is on the phone with a Nephrite, eventually punching the wall and giving us a full glimpse at her face, and her Gem. 

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I’m sure this will be grist for the “Rose is Pink Diamond” theory again, but I don’t know if it’s quite definitive in that regard—seems like the scene largely suggests that the “answer” about the true nature of the Diamond Authority is a bit more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. It does, on the other hand, help flesh out the relationship between Pink and Yellow in a way that lends some credence to Yellow being the actual Gem who shattered Pink.

We’ll learn more about this once Steven and Connie return to Earth, but it’s enough for now, especially in an episode that includes a climactic “fight” with an enormous, birdlike alien that can warp itself into a floating saucer and a quick shot of a selfie Yellow Pearl took with Yellow Diamond. Thankfully, Lars shows up once Stevonnie gets the communicator in the Diamond hub working, and arrives to take the pair home. I don’t know when Steven Universe is coming back, but with this new complication in the story of Pink Diamond, it’s worth asking: Where do we go from here?