Steven Universe is a show about a lot of things: love, accepting people for who they are, the power of friendship and kindness. Sometimes, it explores those concepts like any other show would. Sometimes, it explores them through giant robots. This makes Steven Universe the best show on Television.
Spoilers ahead, of course.
“Back to the Barn” might not be the rapid plot advancement of this current “cluster” arc on Steven Universe that we altogether expected after the last episode decided to drop a massive dose of plot on us—but it was still Steven Universe at its absolute best: character building, lore exploration, and a whole lot of laughs. Also, giant robots. I did mention the giant robots, didn’t I?
Yes, Peridot finally informs the Crystal Gems about the scale of the threat they fact with the cluster—adorably aided with a cardboard box diagram made by Steven, complete with a hilarious sock-puppet-monster version of the Cluster—and a plan is set in motion: build a giant drill to get to the Cluster and stop it before it destroys the world. But for all the softening of Peridot we’ve had in the last few episodes, a complication soon arises when she learns she’s got to work with Pearl when the gang relocate to Universe & Universe Universal Space Travel HQ (Gem Drill Division)—a.k.a., the Barn—and in the process, we learn a huge bit of backstory for both Pearl and Steven Universe as a whole.
It turns out a long-running fan theory was indeed true: on the Gem Homeworld, not only is there a sort of engineered Class system—Peridot refers to herself as being specifically designed to be a technician and engineer—but also, essentially, slavery. Pearl is apparently one of thousands of Pearl gems manufactured (and presumably, rather chillingly, sold) for the sole purpose of being servants to other Gems: gems to stand there, look pretty, and serve their masters with steadfast loyalty.
It’s a solid explanation for why Peridot has always treated Pearl specifically so poorly out of the Crystal Gems, as well as a perfect reminder of what a messed up place Homeworld is. No wonder they hate Fusion—two different gems, different classes it seems, coming together to be something stronger, something better, as a whole. But above all—and part of why Steven Universe is a show that is so masterful with its portrayal of characters—it puts Pearl’s behavior in the past in a wholly different, and somewhat heartbreaking, light.
Her desperate need to please at first Rose Quartz (was she Rose’s servant before they rebelled?), and then Garnet as an authority figure. Her constant desire for validation, former hallmarks of her position as a servant. Even her less amicable attributes—the way she sometimes looks down on other humans like Greg, and the way she sees herself as above Amethyst, all now signs of a person who was once at on the bottom rung of the ladder, now with the chance to see themselves as above another person. Hell, the way she tried to instil servitude in Connie as Steven’s Knight in “Sworn to the Sword”, a willing tool and accessory to another person—as she once was.
In one simple revelation, Pearl just became the most layered, most tragic, and most interesting character on the show—a Gem who rose above a position of service and ultimately tried to better herself and be her own person. This is what makes Steven Universe so amazing to appreciate: a new piece of information that makes you go back and completely see past character beats in a new light, a new understanding.
And then, because it’s Steven Universe, there’s a giant robot building competition.
I know it’s a bit of tonal whiplash to go from such introspective character moments to flat out goofiness, as Steven declares a “Robolympics” between Pearl and Peridot, and the two build their own giant robots to face off in a series of trials—balance, speed, throwing strength, still life painting—for the right to lead the project on building the Gem Drill. But that is why Steven Universe is so resolutely joyful to watch: character drama and hilarity go hand in hand, and it’s a wonderfully funny montage as Peridot and Pearl find themselves equal, no matter what Peridot thinks of Pearl as a lesser. But as a product of the modern Homeworld, Peridot just can’t let go of the fact that Pearl is a servant. After they tie, Peridot goads Pearl to the point that she just takes a swing at her, and the two duke it out in their robots.
I love Steven’s innocent cry of “Giant Robots shouldn’t fight!!”. Oh Steven.
Peridot actually beats Pearl—but instead of getting the respect she thinks she’s earned, Steven, Amethyst, and Garnet all rush over to Pearl and tell her how proud they are of her. It naturally confuses Peridot—she won, why isn’t she the one being respected?—but Steven reminds her that they love Pearl regardless of whatever she was: she’s taught herself, bettered herself, to rise beyond that and become the person they know and love, and that’s far better than just winning a giant robot competition (and being a bit of a jerk).
In the process, Peridot is forced to learn that Earth is a much different place than Homeworld—and that maybe she’ll have to better herself before the Gems can stop the Cluster.
Finally, I promised it last week, and thankfully “Back to the Barn” delivered a sublime entry for the first official Pearl Face Of The Week!
She looks like a fainted Pokémon. D’aaaw.