‘Steven Universe’ Post-Show Analysis: Season 3, Episodes 19-21: ‘Steven vs. Amethyst’ and ‘Bismuth’
Welcome to Together Breakfast, the feature where Elle Collins and Katie Schenkel come together to dig in and relish every last drop of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. With the current nightly summer schedule, we’re going to be doing a couple of these a week, and two to three episodes per column. It may be hectic, but hopefully you’ll keep up with us as we dive headlong into the world of the Crystal Gems.
This time Steven and Amethyst fight it out, an original Crystal Gem returns, and Steven has to do the hard thing. Steven vs. Amethyst was written by Hilary Florido and Lauren Zuke, and directed by Kat Morris and Jasmin Lai. Bismuth was written by Lamar Abrams, Colin Howard, Jeff Liu, and Katie Mitroff, and directed by Joe Johnston and Jasmin Lai.
Elle: Things are getting pretty heavy in this run of episodes. Starting with Amethyst putting eggs down the garbage disposal, which is as succinct an expression of depression as any I’ve seen.
Katie: “I’m busy making egg salad” was both a funny line and just really sad in context. We said last recap that Amethyst has clearly gone through trauma during her battle with Jasper, so her coping mechanism makes sense. And the show directly compares that to Pearl’s more upbeat attitude that has manifested in the last few episodes. Which of course leads up to Pearl Points.
Elle: Pearl having little stickers of her face that can be traded for prizes she keeps in her fanny pack is so perfectly Pearl and I love it. Even when Amethyst is at her lowest, choosing to take part in training with Steven feels like a pretty healthy decision. I mean, her motives are questionable --- she really just wants to pit herself against Steven in a competition she’s sure she’ll lose --- but it’s still healthier than her previous plan, which was to sit on the kitchen counter eating mayonnaise out of the jar.
Katie: I’m just imagining Pearl researching teaching techniques after “Sworn to the Sword” and excitingly discovering that human teachers (and dentists) have been applying reward techniques for decades. You’re right that it’s a very “Pearl” thing to embrace.
As far as Amethyst is concerned, I saw her choice as more her realizing maybe she needed to train harder, but using “I can help Steven” as her excuse. And then it’s only when she can’t even keep up with him let alone be better than him that she gets irritated. So what was, as you said, a healthier choice for her coping than just eating mayo, ends up being proof to her of what Jasper said.
The scene also shows why she so often leans toward the underachieving slacker mentality with the others --- if she’s never actually trying her hardest, then they never have to know she isn’t good enough.
Elle: Amethyst feels inferior because she’s small, and it’s only these recent episodes that have given us a clue to how small she actually is. Because we’ve never seen another Amethyst, but we’ve learned that she’s a quartz soldier, and that Jasper and Rose Quartz are quartz soldiers too. And those two are both enormous compared to Amethyst, who’s no bigger than Steven (and Steven’s most like going to grow to be bigger than her).
Her feelings are understandable, is all I’m saying. Getting into such a huge fight with Steven may not have been the best choice, but on the other hand it led to him honing his abilities and learning a new skill (the spiked bubble thing), so maybe it happened to be just the training session he needed.
Katie: Before we see that fight though we have Steven’s attempt at helping Amethyst, which is letting her win at the Lonely Blade video game. On one hand, it shows how much Steven has grown emotionally that he noticed how him winning was making her feel and tried to be subtle in helping her. On the other hand, it might not have been the best idea to keep wearing his jester hat from Pearl’s prize pouch while he did it.
Elle: It’s true, letting Amethyst win was a kind-hearted gesture on Steven’s part, but Amethyst wasn’t buying it for a second, and nothing makes you feel worse than knowing somebody’s letting you win, especially if you feel like it’s out of pity (even if it’s really not).
Katie: There’s some really good stuff here between the two of them: for Amethyst to say rather matter-of-factly that getting mad at herself is just what she does and then she "sucks even more,” and then for Steven to get angry about how he’s been trying so hard to be worthy of being one of them and now she’s upset that he is. But that leads to the fight, where it gets silly how much each of them wants to win their pity contest by complementing the other and putting themselves down.
Elle: My favorite moment actually comes after the fight, when they’re both laying on their backs in the middle of the destroyed arena. When Steven says that he’s not Rose Quartz, the way Amethyst reacts --- making a face and putting her hand over her eyes --- you can see her realize that Steven’s still just a kid and has his own stuff to deal with without her adding to it. It means so much to me how much all of these characters mean to each other, how much they care even at their worst moments.
Katie: “I’m not Rose Quartz” and Amethyst’s reaction to it was my favorite part, too. It was a really honest moment and the admission felt earned as something we all knew Steven has felt for a long time but has kept from saying out loud. And this admission is very, very timely as it’s a core theme in the next episode, the big two-parter Bismuth.
So, Bismuth did not pull any punches, did it? I said at the end of the last recap that I while I was excited, I was also nervous for this episode introducing a lost Crystal Gem and it turns out my gut was right.
Elle: We knew this was coming. There was a preview clip weeks ago, and even before that fans had been speculating about what looked like a bismuth gem in a bubble in Rose’s secret stash inside Lion’s mane. But yeah, this was a really intense episode.
Katie: One more earlier hint for Bismuth --- during Lapis’ backstory in “Same Old World,” we see that Bismuth is the gem that attacked her (and I was very concerned Lapis would show up this episode and go into panic mode).
Elle: Before we get into the twists and turns of this episode, I loved meeting Bismuth. How much fun she seemed to be, and how close she so clearly was with Garnet and Pearl, and how much insight she offered into the history of the Crystal Gems.
Katie: I really enjoyed seeing how Bismuth views this new world and also Garnet and Pearl’s faces as they realize their friend isn’t dead. Bismuth and Pearl doing a clearly old bit, “Who do you belong to?”/“Nobody!” was adorable. I’m also genuinely interested in learning who Crazy Legs, Biggs, and Snowflake were.
Elle: The great thing about this show is that I have faith that we’ll find out one day, however long it takes to get there. It was so interesting seeing the way Garnet and Pearl were around Bismuth, almost like kids. And Steven is so naturally accepting that it was really only Amethyst who thought that Bismuth might be trouble.
As someone who can be cynical and pessimistic myself at times, I appreciated the reminder here that sometimes having a negative attitude doesn’t mean you’re automatically wrong. But of course, Amethyst was eventually won over with a really cool weapon upgrade, which turns out to be Bismuth’s specialty. Well, that and “bismuth” puns.
Katie: Well, one “bismuth” pun. I liked that Amethyst’s suspicion included the fact that this new gem kept using the same pun over and over. I thought it was a nice touch for Bismuth to compliment Amethyst on being able to create a whip like hers. After the last episode, she needed some encouragement from outside her main crew.
During that weapons-making scene, Bismuth brings up the gem elites who she used to make weapons for, and you can already hear the disdain in her voice. And it’s immediately followed by her very intense fighting style that makes Steven very nervous. Lots of signs for what’s about to happen. And if I wasn’t already wary of something going wrong, Steven telling her, “You know, usually when I meet a new gem they try to kill me and it takes me forever to become friends with them” solidified it.
Elle: It was clear from the face she made at the first mention of Rose Quartz that Bismuth was hiding something dark. And you’re totally right that her aggression toward the Homeworld Gems hinted more and more at that as the episode went on. Can I get away with calling Bismuth the Magneto of the Crystal Gems? Because you know I was thinking it.
Katie: That’s a pretty accurate statement, I think. Personally I kept waiting for her to actually use the word “bourgeois” to describe her enemies, but yes Bismuth clearly has quite a bit in common with the Master of Magnetism. Which makes Rose Xavier in this metaphor, and considering how much we’re learning about Rose keeping secrets and making possibly unethical choices behind her followers’ backs... the parallels line up.
And while we the audience can see why Rose opposed Bismuth’s tactics, you can also see why Bismuth saw it as a betrayal. Rose told her she could be and do whatever she wanted, so why would she say no to what Bismuth sees as her greatest achievement?
Elle: I didn’t even really think about it that way, but that makes a lot of sense. Rose encouraged ever gem to pursue their passion, but Bismuth’s passion was destroying Homeworld Gems, and ultimately Rose wasn’t okay with that.
Katie: Meanwhile, Bismuth uses both parts of this episode to earn Steven’s trust, hoping to have a second chance to convince Rose that her weapon is the key to victory. But some of Steven’s best friends are former Homeworld Gems --- even if he wasn’t against killing, he sees his enemies as not only people, but as potential allies and friends.
Elle: It’s true. And that’s particularly shaded by the fact that Bismuth was the one who attacked Lapis in her earlier flashback. If she’d had the Shatter Point then, Lapis would be long gone.
I admit, when I first watched this episode, I was wondering what really is the difference between shattering a Gem and leaving them in a bubble forever. After all, Bismuth’s disorientation at the beginning of the episode makes it clear that bubbled gems aren’t at all conscious. But I think at least one key difference is that when a Gem is bubbled, you can change your mind, realize you were wrong, or give them a second chance. But once they’re shattered, that’s just it.
Katie: Yes, while it can be abused, bubbling your enemies (or those gems who are too damaged to form properly) is still more ethical than completely destroying them.
But now we’re at the big fight between Steven and Bismuth, in which her resentment against Rose really comes out in full force. Since we haven’t brought it up yet, Uzo Aduba’s performance as Bismuth is stunning throughout both parts, but particularly in this scene. She’s an incredible actress and it makes Bismuth’s intensity in this scene both incredibly sympathetic and scary at the same time.
Elle: It’s sort of the same skillset Aduba employs in Orange is the New Black --- alternating between likable and sympathetic and terrifyingly intense. But I don’t mean to disparage her by saying that; she’s really a phenomenal actress. And whether it’s through flashbacks or an eventual bubble escape, I’m counting on hearing more of her as Bismuth in the future.
This fight scene is incredibly intense, and I really like how they make a point of setting up more than once that Steven can really feel the heat of the lava, so we know he’s in serious danger here. And I love that the thing that makes Bismuth think that Steven is actually Rose is that they both worded their objection to the Shatter Point the exact same way. Which drives home that while Steven is not Rose Quartz, he’s very much his mother’s son.
Katie: Agreed. That being said, the core of this episode comes at the end of the fight, when a defeated Bismuth wishes Rose had just destroyed her back then so she never found out Rose lied to the others about her. It’s in his promise that he’ll tell the others what happened that Bismuth bitterly laughs and says, “Then you really are better than her.”
And that’s the thing. We only know bits of pieces of who Rose was, but we know from “We Need to Talk” that she has regrets and we know from this episode that she made bad choices, even for good reasons. She wasn’t perfect. And for all that he is his mother’s son and wants to live up to her legacy, he is learning how he needs to be different from her, too.
Elle: Totally. And emotional honesty is one thing that comes naturally to him. The Steven who tells Garnet and Pearl the truth about Bismuth is the same Steven who told Sadie that it was really him in Lars’ body a few episodes ago, when it would have been so much easier to conceal the truth. The real journey of Steven Universe is not toward becoming a worthy successor to Rose Quartz, it’s toward being the best Steven Universe he can be. And if that sounds cheesy, well that sort of thing is right in Steven’s wheelhouse too.
Katie: And for all that this episode was intense and heartbreaking, that final moment with the Gems quietly comforting Steven shows how far they’ve all come. While it wasn’t exactly a joyous episode altogether, it made for a 100th episode that represented so much of what the show is about.
And with that, we’re nearly at the end of our Summer of Steven! I can’t imagine what the next week of episodes will bring us.
Elle: I can’t believe we only have one more week of this. I’m fully expecting to be emotionally devastated at least once or twice more by then, though. And I’m glad you’re here to experience that with me.