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

Steven Universe: “The Message”

Illustration for article titled Steven Universe: “The Message”

Here we go! It seems like Steven Universe is about to get a lot more serious, because the Gems are coming. (I say seems, because if there’s any show I trust to still be funny and sweet in the middle of life-threatening peril, it’s this one.) After Steven made contact with the home world in “Marble Madness,” Peridot is on her way to get him, something that we probably could have figured out, but that the other Gems only discover because of Lapis Lazuli, who has transmitted a message through the Gems’ Wailing Stone. Somehow, “The Message” manages to introduce what will almost certainly be a dramatic run of episodes, and a very real threat to Steven and the Gems, while also being one of the funniest episodes the show has ever done. That’s largely thanks to the talents of one Mr. Greg Universe.

Greg is Rebecca Sugar’s favorite character, something that shines through clearly here. (Greg has gotten noticeably more of a spotlight recently, particularly in “Maximum Capacity.”) He is, in some respects, the most relatable character on the show for adult viewers, even ahead of his son. Where Steven has boundless, childlike optimism, Greg has been beaten down by life—he might be more or less happy (and a super cool dad), but he’s also kind of an overgrown slob living in his van, a dude who just recently made his son and his friend eggs on the waffle iron in the middle of a blizzard. He’s a normal guy surrounded by extraordinary, magical beings trying to save the world (or this show’s version of “The Zeppo”), but he still manages to use his audio know-how to get the message. It’s nice to know that even if Greg isn’t going to be useful most of the time, there are things he’s good at—he can come through when he’s needed.

And, asked to carry the episode, Tom Scharpling more than comes through himself. His voice acting is great, great stuff, capturing Greg’s pathetic side, his admiration for the Gems, and his legitimate coolness and competence as the audio daddy-o, all at the same time. Pretty much everything Greg says in this episode is quote-worthy, from his description of the responsibilities of being in a one-man band (“Lyrics, graphic design, forum moderation”) to his excuse for not going to help with the Wailing Stone when it first goes off (“Plus, I gotta eat the rest of this pizza!”). Greg might have helped the Gems receive Lapis’ transmission, but he would have justified his place on the show with just the exclamation “Help, I can’t relate to my robot son!” (Steven’s reply will be written on my tombstone: “My mind is the internet. I know every continuity mistake ever made on television.”)

Scharpling’s voice acting is assisted greatly by the care storyboard artists Lamar Abrams and Hellen Jo take with Greg—especially the slightly bemused, knowing parental smirk when he yanks the album art away from Steven to prevent it from being smudged and thepride in his eyes when he’s able to be helpful to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. There are quite a few nice visual touches in the beginning of the episode, from the way Steven is positioned as smaller and confused when he asks “Where my jams at?” and Greg’s Water Witch album art, which is pretty cool in a Yes kind of way. My love of this storyboard team’s work is a matter of public record, but it’s gotten to the point where I practically yelp with excitement every time I see that they’ve done an episode. Admittedly, “The Message” doesn’t give them as much to work with as “Future Vision,” but it does allow them to set up the best spotlight yet for Mr. Universe.

Greg’s anxiety about his irrelevance is especially thematically potent given that we’re about to encounter a bunch of hyper-advanced Gems. Pearl first brings up the possibility that the Wailing Stone isn’t a strong enough piece of technology to pick up on the signal, and though that’s not the case, the evolution of society on the Gems’ home world is confirmed by Lapis’ frantic message (which places her deep in the dark background, terrified). It’s not particularly surprising that Gem civilization has moved far beyond what it was capable of during the time when Rose battle—it’s been thousands of years after all—but it’s nice to know that it’s something the writers have thought about. In a lot of other series, the Wailing Stone might just be “ancient Gem technology,” far beyond human capacities, but here it might be just as useless against whatever Peridot will throw at Earth.

It’s a trope of science fiction to have someone try to save the day by somehow “wrangling” a bunch of electronic equipment while sweating and yelling about “almost getting it.” Leave it to Steven Universe to have that be totally justified by Greg’s general doofiness and flailing attempt at capturing the video, and to have the equipment in question be a mixing board. And leave it to Steven Universe to have Lapis Lazuli’s reappearance be as, if not a hero, at least a potential ally. Though she was introduced as a villain stealing the ocean, Steven’s compassion for her is the reason the Gems know Peridot is coming, and the “The Message” hints at an increased level of complexity for her character. Lapis has been away from home for a long, long time, and it seems like she didn’t like what she found when she got back.


At least Lapis has some cool Gems to return to on Earth—Amethyst and Pearl don’t get much to do in this episode, but Garnet gets even more depth as a surprisingly empathic person. Her willingness to listen to Steven’s plans got her in trouble in “Marble Madness,” but she’s still supportive of Greg, something that’s a useful counterbalance to Pearl’s increasing insanity and Amethyst’s gloominess. I really want to see those characters hang out more, because Greg joins Garnet in bringing out a different sense of slightly offbeat humor.

Here, that comes almost entirely from his and Steven’s enthusiasm about things that seem to be at just a slight angle from the things normal people get excited about (people who are better versed in the show‘s influences will probably be able to pinpoint these things better than I can). Greg cares immensely about flanging, other audio effects, and getting rad art out there for his albums, all in weird ways that are both somehow intentionally endearing and fully representative of who he is. If he can maintain that level of lightness to the show amid the looming danger, he might be more important than anyone realized.


Stray observations:

  • Some very good improvised songwriting in this episode from both Universe men, and a lot of excellent, understated music from the rest of the Steven Universe team. I really want to go to a club where they’re playing the audio version of Lapis’ message.
  • There’s apparently a whole show’s worth of material about Greg hanging out with Rose and the other Gems back in the day. Yes, please.
  • Amethyst seems to really not be able to deal with the Wailing Stone. Could there be something else going on with the signal, or a reason she reacts to it so strongly?
  • Who couldn’t use more fuzz?