Objectively Better: Logic, Compassion, And Peridot in ‘Steven Universe’
After two and a half months without new episodes, Steven Universe warmed up January with a new Steven Bomb week last week. While the first couple of episodes focused on Steven’s birthday, starting with the heart-melting story of Ruby and Sapphire’s first meeting, the last three episodes were specifically about Peridot, the Gems’ sometimes enemy, and now uneasy ally. There were several developments for the character, but none that stuck with me quite so much as what happened in the fourth episode of the week, “Message Received.”
Since she was first introduced a year ago (a year ago from the last episode of this Steven Bomb, to be precise), Peridot’s overwhelming mindset has been that logic is key above all else. Despite Steven working to teach her about the Earth and why the Crystal Gems protect it, the compassion of our heroes just isn't logical to her. She believes that her leader Yellow Diamond, member of the elite Diamond Collective who wants to use the growing gem cluster to gut the Earth for all its resources and expand the Gem Empire, is the most logical creature on their world. Gleefully, Peridot tells Steven of the Diamonds: “There’s a reason they’re in charge. There’s objectively better than us! Every gem has their strengths and weaknesses, but not them.” She even beams as she describes Yellow Diamond, “the most perfect, the most reasonable, rational, efficient decider ever to exist in the universe!”
In “Message Received,” Peridot finally has a chance to secretly contact her leader for the first time in months and get off the planet. She takes it, to the immense disappointment of Steven, who obviously sees it as a betrayal and a sign that Peridot learned nothing from her time with them. However, she ends up surprising the Crystal Gems, and herself, by denouncing Yellow Diamond right to her face.
The reason for her official turn to hero? During the communication, when Yellow Diamond coldly confirms with Peridot that despite setbacks, the project will go to plan and she’ll be moved to another planet, Peridot gathers her courage and suggests an alternative to the gutting of the planet/killing of the planet’s inhabitants. This plan would be more logical because it conserves the resources (which have flourished since the Diamonds’ forces were there thousands of years ago) in a more sustainable way, unlocking greater potential for the planet without destroying life. In her mind, her ever logical leader would certainly understand why this is the better choice.
Instead, Yellow Diamond (voiced with a perfect icy hostility by Patti LuPone) sneers at her. She doesn’t care about sustaining resources or the Earth’s potential: “I want that cluster, and I want that planet to die.” When Peridot protests, Yellow Diamond flat out shouts that she doesn't care what Peridot thinks, and she’ll take great pleasure wiping the Earth off their star maps. That's when Peridot gets angry, shouts back that the Earth is full of things worth protecting, and furiously declares Yellow Diamond to be a foolish clod... before panicking and closing off communication. The episode ends with our brave Peridot in the fetal position, horrified by the choice she just made, as the Crystal Gems joyfully congratulate her and officially call her one of their own.
What I like about “Message Received,” what I keep coming back to as I think over the episode, is how it explores logic and reason. Often we see logic as something cold, unsentimental, even cruel. With that mindset, it makes sense for Peridot to see Yellow Diamond’s cold apathy (which presumably she’s almost exclusively seen from a distance) as perfectly efficient and logical. And it makes just as much sense for Peridot to be utterly baffled by the Crystal Gems because they're all about kindness and helping others and letting love be the driving force of their actions. Empathy doesn’t seem efficient. Kindness doesn’t seem logical. “Your emotions rule out reason!” she shouts at Steven, ever frustrated, just before having the chance to contact Yellow Diamond.
But this episode shows that just because love isn't always logical, that doesn’t make selfishness and cruelty logical by default. In fact, cruelty could be even more illogical (in this case literally consuming more energy than is needed for the sake of being cruel). I don't know if I've seen a kids show make that point so clearly before. So much of kids' media focuses on compassion and love with the suggestion that these are “just the right thing to do,” regardless of reason.
Yet, the beauty of this episode, and the beauty of Steven Universe as a whole, is that Peridot's turn to a full-fledged hero isn't a denial of her feelings about logic, but a full embracing of it. In other words, doing the right thing can also be the reasonable thing to do.
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