Steven Universe: Prepare For #Stevenbomb 3.0 with a #Stevenbomb 2.0 Analytical Catch-Up

Steven Universe Steven Connie Pearl Sworn to the Sword 1

Steven Universe has me surrounded! I surrender!

Yes, it’s time for yet another Steven Universe megapost. What can I say? It’s not like I lay awake at night thinking about it! Wait—oh God! I do! With “Steven Bomb 2.0: Stevens of Rage” evaporating into the past and “Steven Bomb 3.0: Universe Never Sleeps” tilting over the horizon, I reckon it’s time to play a little recap for all the fans and fanatics who might have been sleeping on the smaller stuff this past month.

So here’s a little (a lot of) analysis of the prior Bomb to freshen your memories and whet your palettes for the oncoming emotional onslaught that’s bound to hit Beach City tonight. And awaaaaaaaay we go!


 

“Sworn to the Sword”: Connie’s Fencing Foray Foils Pearl’s Perilous Pedestal

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“Everything you have, everything you are, you’ve got to give!” – Pearl

You don’t put your partner on a pedestal. Sage relationship counselors, sassy best friends, incoherently hormonal teens, and douchebag fratstars all come to understand this in time (though they may all phrase it differently). If you want a healthy relationship, you have to meet your partner on equal terms. Blind worship reduces and leads to unreal expectations. Nevertheless, pedestals are plentiful throughout the media we consume as kids and adults, elevating the boombox-wielders of the world because hey, dramatics can be fun to watch.

Steven Universe, as a cartoon produced for kids, is in a unique spot to rectify the representation of truly healthy, equal relationships, primarily through genderless-lesbian permafusion Garnet. First, we had her immortal earworm “Stronger Than You,” which espoused the strengths of mutual romance in the veneer of a badass fight song. Later, the Crystal Gem topples a pedestal in “Love Letters,” rebuffed the advances of an infatuated mailman who barely even knew her name.

But in “Sworn to the Sword,” unhealthy relationship dynamics have a new, familiar face, and Garnet ain’t anywhere near to save us. Over the course of 11 brilliant minutes, Pearl’s love for her dearly departed-into-a-belly-button Rose runs amok.

Steven Universe Sworn to the Sword Pearl Rose

For the Steven Universe fans who went out for ice cream during “Rose’s Scabbard,” Pearl’s (un)dying love for Rose Quartz still wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Pearl blushes blue at the memory of her crush and captain, and lashes out whenever the bond between them comes into question. When viewed through a Rose Quartz lens, Pearl is at her most vulnerable, mournful, jealous. “Rose’s Scabbard” was my favorite episode of the previous Steven Bomb for this exact reason.

“Sworn to the Sword” puts this relationship, fleshed out by innuendoes and spare moments of emotional clarity, under a brutal microscope. Pearl viewed herself as Rose’s knight, a position of total fealty undeniably complicated by some degree of spurned romantic attraction. She would do anything for Rose—she would even do that. After 5000 years, Pearl internalized her devotion, transforming it from an emotional attachment to an obsessive mindset. She divorced the personal from her duty, Rose the Gem from Rose the Liege. Rose leads with her shield, but Pearl couldn’t care less. A knight is ready to ride or die, and Pearl’s all out of “ride.”

Unbeknownst to Steven and Connie, ego death of this sort is the ultimate goal of Pearl’s swordfighting lessons. Teaching a suggestible child with established self-esteem issues to disown their personality and prepare for honorable death would be a heinous prospect if it weren’t disguised in a song as terrific as “Do it For Him.” One verse at a time, angling from kindness to coldness and back again, Pearl inculcates Connie with the literally selfless mindset of a knight, rebuilding the young girl in her image.

“You just think about the life you’ll live together after the war,” Pearl sings, “and you do it for her… that is, to say, you’ll do it for him.” Pearl keeps confusing the pronouns precisely because she’s not singing about Rose or Steven: she’s singing about her idea of them. She fell in love with her devotion, she’s “Sworn to the Sword” instead of “Sworn to Rose.” She’s gone beyond the pale in pedestal worship.

How do you cure an indoctrinated mind from itself? In earnest Steven Universe fashion, Steven resorts to kind, brute force confrontation, directly stepping into the line of fire to save Connie in the heat of battle. A clever callback raises the stakes instantly: the episode weaponizes Pearl’s toxic teachings via Holopearls, visual grammar that calls upon a menace established way, way back in “Steven the Sword Fighter.” By smashing headfirst into these duplicates, Steven helps Connie restore her faith in herself (and her belief in Steven’s crucial, human fallibility).

Steven Universe lives and dies on the flaws of its characters, and Steven stepping up for his flaws helps Pearl see her own, in a moment I would describe either as “psychological breakthrough” or “oh Jesus Christ did I really just SAY that?!” In the end, the show comfortably rests on the active compassion that has made it so unique in the cartoon landscape. No amount of indoctrination, mental mutilation, or bitter blow to self-esteem can be fully undone in one day or 5000 years, but making someone feel like everything—or at least something—can be enough to set them on the right track. With the right tools, they can build some steps and waltz right up that pedestal, meeting their beloved face to face for the first time.

But that’d be weird ‘cuz Rose is a Steven now.

Stray Swords

  • Connie warping for the first time is a wonderful, casually played moment. Her giddiness is contagious, really selling the feel of someone being exposed to magic for the first time (even though this is like, what, her fifth time? Never change, Connie, is all I’m sayin).
  • I understand, Steven. “DO YOU WISH TO ENGAGE IN COMBAT” gives me chills too.
  • After several dozen trips down this memory lane, the image of Connie seeing her reflection in her sword sticks out. It’s the item that would, over the next few minutes, warp and trap her identity within it.
  • I’ve given short shrift to how flat-out funny this episode was. Steven researching up on his social skills might have been the best visual gag the series has ever done.

Steven Universe Sworn to the Sword 2

  • “Don’t you want him to LIVE?” Jeez Pearl, mellow out.
  • “Yo Steven! WHY YOU STANDING THERE ALL SAD LIKE THAT?!” Amethyst, don’t mellow ever.

“Rising Tides/Crashing Skies”: Beach City Through A Layman’s Looking Glass

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 “Are you brave like me? I’m so brave to be doing this.” – Ronaldo

Long live the weirdos of the world! Cartoon Network’s renaissance has embraced the sense of weirdness that has, in large part among teens and young critics, made such a renaissance possible. Weirdoes are a dime a dozen, like Adventure Time’s Magic Man, whose recent transformation into a “normie” is treated as nothing less than tragic. Yet, on a fundamental level, weirdness is a mineral as fundamental to these shows as colors or storyboards.

What, then, would it be like to finally see a cartoon universe from a vantage point untainted by weirdness? It’s not an entirely original concept—The Simpsons asked the same question when it gave us poor, indelible Frank Grimes—but it’s a fascinating exercise nonetheless, especially for Steven Universe’s universe. Here we have, for all intents and purposes, a human boy surrounded by an outrageous alien lifestyle, itself surrounded by a large, normal contingent of humans, itself surrounded by the even larger, now constant threat of alien doom. It’s a layer cake of janked-up mythology, fraught with untapped tension between superheroes and regularzeroes. “Crashing Skies/Rising Tides” has monumental ambitions to tap that well, getting to the bottom of the Crystal Gem conspiracy that’s kept Beach City weird as long as we can remember.

Well, at least that’s what Ronaldo Fryman tries to do. Like a young Frank Grimes with Cheeto Puff dreadlocks, Ronaldo attempts to comprehend the strange universe he calls home, to little effect. Unlike ol’ Grimey, Steven Universe understands Ronaldo’s search for meaning, showing us that his documentary raises some legitimate points as it takes potshots at his unflagging dramatics. As an episode of comedy, digging into the internal logic of the show’s very premise, “Skies/Tides” has its cake and eats it, too.

Ronaldo—or “Frybo,” as Pearl mistakenly calls him—sets out to figure out why fantastic danger draws itself to Beach City; once he diagnoses the Crystal Gems as the source, he tries to run them out of town through the sheer power of investigative websclusive journalism. Yep, it’s the Ronaldo power hour as runs around town, interviewing civilians about the events of “Jail Break,” indulging his worst instincts as an amateur conspiracy blogger. It’s a very silly affair that, like the best filler episodes in a tall-order show schedule, shines a light on the periphery of the show’s world.

Turns out that the teenaged Fryman is actually the perfect window into the mundane world of Beach City. As a muggle purveyor of weird occurrences, Ronaldo straddles the line between Gem and normal, while his outlandish character archetype remains relatable and grounded in truth—who out there doesn’t know someone that obsessive about something? His inquisitive nature allows him to prod Nanefua, Kiki and Jenny, and Mr. Fryman (does he have a first name?) for their opinions in a way that our usual heroes cannot. Ronaldo is weird, but he’s just a human. His documentary, poorly edited as it may be, gives us a first “truly human” glance at Beach City.

rising tides crashing skies steven universe

The episode is a gentle reprieve from the usual interstellar dramatics that have dominated Steven Universe’s post-Steven Bomb 1.0 discourse, keeping its pace quick with slapstick comedy and metatextual sight gags (Garnet doesn’t lie: “Rising Tides/Crashing Skies” really is poorly edited). We get a glimpse of Beach City outside of Crystal Gem influence, but arrive at the conclusion is a necessary component for its continuing intrigue, danger be damned. Ronaldo says he’s looking out for the safety of the city because that’s his documentary’s thesis, but at his heart he’s just another greedy viewer like you or me.

He needs the weird. Beach City needs the weird. Weird makes the world go ‘round.

Stray Skies

  • Ronaldo gets a bad shake around some parts of the fandom, but he has been my favorite weirdaboo since his overenthusiastic debut in “Cat Fingers.” The personality contrasts they draw between him, Steven, and Lars in past episodes (and a little bit in this one) also help to keep his less endearing moments grounded.
  • And can we talk about how kind he was to Peedee at the end? When he calls it a wrap, he just thanks his little brother for all the work he did behind the camera. It’s a terribly sweet moment from one of the more self-obsessed Beach City residents—of course, undercut by another misplaced edit.
  • Mayor Dewey – Mayor Dewey (Mayor Dewey)

Mayor Dewey - Mayor Dewey (Mayor Dewey)

  • Steven Universe – Gracious Host

“Keeping It Together”: Deconstructing Garnet

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“When you split up, is it like you disappear?” – Steven, to Garnet

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I had my first nightmare, but I vividly remember its contents. Horrible Mother and I were walking out of the supermarket, carrying bags to the car, when she suddenly turned around. With a demonic grin on her face, she began to laugh loudly without opening her teeth. I couldn’t move, so she lifted me off the ground and shook me until I woke in a cold sweat.

My young, nubile mind had trouble processing what I had seen for days. This person I trusted, I thought I knew, she had become something… different. And that was terrifying.

“Keeping It Together” is powered by the same flavor of nightmare fuel, milking terror from the cracks in Garnet’s unflappable façade. All series, she has been positioned as the de facto leader of the Crystal Gems after Rose Quartz’s transubstantiation, a figure of strength and respect. The rock that Steven, Pearl, and Amethyst can all rely on in times of need. When things are falling apart, Garnet is always the one keeping everything together.

We saw her shades come off in “Arcade Mania” and “Future Vision,” and we even saw her physically broken in “The Return,” but none of these incidents could really prepare us for the horror that unfolds in “Keeping It Together.” The light around her changes entirely. She becomes something… different.

The primary metaphor for describing Garnet’s nature is a mutuality between Ruby and Sapphire’s different aspects: “I am their fury, I am their patience, I am a conversation.” Ever since “The Return,” a portion of the fandom has latched onto this light and slightly misunderstood it, ascribing certain actions to Ruby and Sapphire instead of understanding that Garnet, the conversation, is her own damn person. But we see the terrible kernel of truth behind this fandom analysis in “Keeping It Together.” For a few terrifying moments, Garnet nearly ceases to be.

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This climactic undoing is especially potent in large part because of Estelle’s masterful voice acting. Her performance has been a slow burn since episode one, gradually revealing more and more hints of charm, charisma, and kindness to couple with Garnet’s natural, stoic grandeur. If we did not buy Garnet as an infallible leader, someone truly worthy to lead and coach the Crystal Gems, genuine threats against her would not maintain nearly the same level of tension. For the first time, we see this personality break down completely into its component parts: the fury and the patience nearly divided. She is transformed into something different, unfamiliar, and that thought alone is just as terrifying as the misshapen beast that fell upon her.

And about that beast… sweet mother of mercy. Those forced fusions are one hell of a creation from Sugar and the Crewniverse: they are the unholy marriage between sound design, body horror physicality, and layers of metaphor that I shudder even to contemplate. During their formation, their silhouettes show four distinct gems, stretching their arms out for help, sucked into a knot at the hip. All to the tune of discordant horns and literal screams. Like I said: sweet mother of mercy! Oh, and plotwise, their unveiling is a revelation on par with Peridot’s introduction, a thematically rich avenue that opens up a whole new underworld of possibilities. Plus, thanks to their unique ability to freak Garnet the fuck out, they carry an even greater uneasy significance.

I’ve talked long enough about Garnet and forced fusion here—except I haven’t. “Keeping It Together” is one of the heaviest, most harrowing episodes of the series, and Estelle carries the weight like it is nothing at all. Her conversation with Steven at the end, reaffirming the importance of informed consent in a functional fusion, makes sense of the preceding horror, the tall glass of cool water following a nightmare. “Fusion is a choice,” she says, “Those gems weren’t given a choice. It isn’t right! It isn’t fusion!” There is a ton to unpack from this conversation, from Garnet’s righteous indignation to Steven gracefully putting the focus back on the genuine love that keeps her together, even when she splits apart.

The strongest weapon against the forces of evil can be a simple reminder of what’s good. Garnet knows intimately the strength of a positive fusion, and understanding that makes her, well, awesome. Steven Universe draws heavily from its positive outlook to solve problems, to the show’s own strength, and Steven and Garnet’s conversation is emblematic of that positivity. The Crystal Gems may not know the mechanics of undoing forced fusion—if it can ever be truly undone—but Garnet is Exhibit A for a fusion that works. And you wouldn’t want to split up that pair.

Stray Socks

  • Okay, NOW I’m done talking about Garnet. How about a little Steven praise, then? When Garnet is splitting at the seams, we get a brief return of Coach Steven, whose brief reassurance that “This isn’t like you!” keeps her from panicking herself to death. Once again, we see how central Garnet’s identity is to her continued survival, and how Steven’s empathy allows him to keep the rest of the Gems grounded, motivated, and cognizant of their central truths.
  • The forced fusion works as a villain because of its meaning and history, not just its surface level design. When they “attack” Garnet, you can’t even tell if they are reaching out for help or actually attacking her; when Garnet starts to come undone, they seem to be destroying her with suggestion alone, that trying to comprehend them is way worse than actually seeing them.
  • “Go ahead, crystal clods! Go ahead, wreck this place, see if I care!” Peridot, as usual, is a gleefully evil space nerd. Her helicopter retreat is patently ridiculous.
  • Is there any deeper meaning to the prevalence of laundry/clothing in the episode? Eh, maybe.
  • Speaking of which, the overhead shot of each Gem’s laundry pile is a perfect character-based visual gag.

keep it together laundry

  • “If we do, the entire planet will become…” “Janked.”
  • Giant metal virus falls on Peridot. Cue Steven: “Do you think she’s hurt?” Ugh Steven, can you just be a callous hypermasculine self-centered jerk for ONCE in your LIFE???

“We Need To Talk”: Human Evolution

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“Can’t you just talk to me? Like a real person?!” – Greg Universe

“I’m… not a real person.” – Rose Quartz

Rose Quartz is not perfect. It took us until “We Need to Talk” for that fact to be clear, to finally see her outside of Greg’s love-at-first-sight lens, or Pearl’s postgemous pinings. She was not a perfect partner or a perfect lover. Least of all, she was not a perfect person. She wasn’t even a real person!

In a world populated by generously flawed characters, Rose stood out for her clean record as a revered leader of space rocks, but “We Need to Talk” radically changes that dynamic through the simple act of showing her in a different light. To accomplish this, we take another trip down Greg’s memory lane, the same narrative conceit used in “Story For Steven,” though this time around the rosy halo of his comet soul has settled down a bit. Greg is a little more acclimated to being around the Gems, Rose is a little more familiar with his mouth, and everyone else is pickin’ sides.

It’s wonderful to see Rose take her first steps towards three-dimensionality, but the true star of this show is Pearl. Deedee Magno-Hall retroactively deepens the shit out of present-day Pearl by playing her pre-Steven self as an eyelash-fluttering soap opera villainess. Cruelty born from romantic betrayal flows through her veins, canyons away from the overprotective matriarch we already know so well. Even though her performance is outsized, even a little caricatured, the steep tension between then- and now-Pearl give the proceedings an extra layer of tension. Her heel turn stays palatable.

Though I, for one, found Pearl as seductive provocateur to be entertaining as hell and rooted in emotional truth, even if it seemed like a reductive move on the surface. This episode is all about bridging the gap between human and Gem, and Pearl taunting Greg because he’s trying to steal her girl is really about as human of a motivation as you can ask for. Greg initially makes the mistake of trying to get back at her on gem terms, mimicking her dance to the step. He tries, and fails, to drop a spoonful of gemness into his raw humanity.

No, Greg discovers the secret to connecting with Rose Quartz was to approach her as a human and hope she can reciprocate. Spoiler alert! She can’t. As it did in “Love Letters” and, oh hey, “Sworn to the Sword,” Steven Universe once again proves that love ain’t easy, that sometimes that old adage really does ring true: humans are from Earth, Crystal Gems are from Gem Homeworld. The perfecto goggles come off and we see Rose in all her alien imperfection, an accidental nugget of condescension who can’t help but talk down to Greg when he’s trying to bare his heart, human-style. Theirs is a romance that is not naturally predestined, textbook love-at-first-sight stories be damned.

You can pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in half.

You can pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in half.

“You are so much fun,” she sings. “I haven’t planned on finding you quite this entertaining.” She isn’t speaking to a lover on equal footing. She’s speaking to a cute dog that she, uh, happens to be making out with. Luckily, once again persistence and optimism save the day, and the two interstellar mates get on each other’s level by committing to the one aspect, despite their cultural barrier, they can effectively communicate with: words. Greg outlines his cavalcade of feelings in as literal, clear terms as possible, and Rose tries to understand them the best they can.

They evolve beyond human and Gem in their embrace. They begin to fuse. Emotionally, mentally.

Pearl, our erstwhile villainess, had counted on Greg failing utterly to connect with Rose’s gemhood, and is understandably disappointed, but the note we leave her on isn’t one of anger or resentment. Contrary to her venomous braggadocio, Pearl exhibits straight-up melancholy watching Rose spin Greg on his impromptu dancefloor. Here, we are treated to another hint of evolution, a crucial moment where Pearl might begin to put some pettiness behind her and grow up with Greg and Rose. Oh, and Amethyst might be getting some Greglike extensions, too.

“What can I do for you?” can be a rhetorical question, but “We Need to Talk” provides an answer right there in the title. Fusion isn’t the thing that “no one else can do,” rather, the answer is a lot simpler. Talk, get on the same level, and change.

Funny Humans. They’re All So Funny!

  • Connie and the Family Universe going through Greg’s old records at the beginning is an embarrassment of great pop culture references. Steven Universe infrequently goes to that well, but when it does, it makes it count.
  • Pearl mic drop!
  • Greg mic drop! “Aw jeez what am I doing these things are expensive.”
  • The looks Greg and Rainbow Quartz exchange during the duet speak more volumes than, well, pretty much any other storytelling device the Crewniverse could have used there. Admiration, surprise, infatuation, and healthy dollops of jealousy pretty much all at once. You got the kit, you got the caboodle, what else do ya need.

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  • “First you need a gem at the core of your being. Then you need a body that can turn into light. Then you need a partner you can trust with that light.” “Metaphorically?” “Literally.” A+ joke, plus a neat metatextual note to the fandom to quit reading so much into things (aww shit, I broke that rule again).
  • Assorted awesome things I didn’t even friggin touch on, that’s how dense this episode is in the knee-deep goodshits: Stevonnie, CASUAL STEVONNIE, the choreography throughout, Garnet still being the best at relationship advice, Muppet Baby Amethyst!

“Chille Tid”: Just Go To Bed

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNLKhkAa5II

“Sleep is a curse, and yet a curse I need to live.” – Steven Universe.

“Chille Tid” is a wonderful deception. An episode dealing with the fate of Lapis Lazuli/Jasper/Malachite, arguably the most intense and demanding subplot in the show’s growing mythology, oughtn’t spend the vast majority of its runtime in plotless setups and tangential dreamscapes, yet it does. Sure, in the last minute the delicate balance between Lapis and Jasper shifts to potentially form a more stable, dangerous Malachite, but that’s pretty much all that happens. The episode defies expectations by staying loose, and a less forgiving critic might even call it a Trojan horse.

But what a nice Trojan horse it is. The premise is simple: the Crystal Gems are looking for Malachite deep under the sea, but they need a break. Steven tries to teach them how to sleep, but he establishes a link in his dreams that allows him to communicate with Lapis. Echoing Connie’s oath of fealty from “Sworn to the Sword,” Lapis demands that Steven just leave her alone because damnit she’s keeping Jasper on lockdown for him, what can’t he just let her do this for him!

It’s a wandering structure, akin to the currents of oceans and dreams, that arrives at one hell of an intense climax, but the wanderings do suffer a little bit from a certain disjointedness. Aside from a few transcendental moments, the episode doesn’t quite get weird enough to match its cerebral premise; Ronaldo would not be too proud. Steven’s first dream is a powerful, sorta trippy comedy setpiece, but each subsequent trip into his headspace feels like a retread or a wasted opportunity.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh, because seriously, that first dream might be the toughest act to follow. On the heels of “We Need to Talk”s ambiguous ending, in which Steven doubts his own humanity by clutching the gem in his belly, Steven’s dream tries to rekindle his sense of self by imagining himself as the Beaver Cleaver of a human Crystal Gem family. Pearl the mother, Amethyst the rebellious sister, Garnet the impossibly cool role model—these are already familiar archetypes. But Steven’s mental adjustments, and their black-and-white studio cage, lends an air of just-so-slight melancholy to the masterful spoof.

Oh yeah, then Lapis Lazuli shows up at the door bleeding the goddamn ocean out of her bloody bleeding ocean eye sockets.

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Going to sleep ain’t always a quiet rest. On the other hand, taking a break ends up being the key to catching (or at least catching up with) the quarry. Since traditional methods are total bunk, Lapis and Jasper can only be found with dream logic. For all three of Steven’s dreams, Lapis entering the picture signals a shift into nightmare mode, taking on a quality of fear that morphs into reality. The two share a mental and physiological (mineral?) connection we cannot fathom, the exploration of which was cut short by Garnet donking out on the floor.

Even though its callbacks to previous episodes in the week positioned “Chille Tid” as a summation, chock full of “Keeping It Together”s fusion/body horror and “Sworn to the Sword”s poison oaths, the episode as a whole feels more like a precursor, softly and darkly felt. Not much happens, but all that nothing still feels very, very consequential. After all the shit each Gem went through in Steven Bomb 2.0 (except Amethyst—what was she up to?), they needed some time to slow down while the gears revved up for Steven Bomb 3.0. Now that Malachite’s fully formed, the ball is back in her court, and who knows what hijinks she may get up to in these coming days?

Stray Seas

  • I wrote this fairly late at night. I also forgot this episode was all about dreams and sleep. This was hard.
  • ”Chille tid!” is such an unnatural phrase to drop in conversation, but when Estelle says it, I wonder how we ever got by just saying “hello.”
  • What can even be said about Pearl’s dream? With 3/5 episodes in Stevenbomb 2.0 hammering home the Pearl/Rose dynamic, it really had the potential to fall flat, come off as a little too much too soon. But Greg’s pizza tongue made it alllllriiiiiight.
  • Truly, they look awesome:

Chille_Tid_Steven Universe cmon hic morty

  • “I don’t get tired. I get results.” Pearl’s behavior in the raft is so antithetical to how she usually acts. Amethyst even corrects her semantics! What a strange, complicated week for the daintiest of all Crystal Gems.
  • Alright, now that we’re all caught up… y’all ready for Steven Bomb 3.0?! Y’all ready or not for that, y’all better be ready for this!