Here it is: the two part saga that the series has been leading up to for at least a dozen episodes now. We’re ready, Steven Universe. It’s time for “The Return,” the most plot-heavy episode in a good long while.
This is the episode that the quieter episodes like “Political Power’’ and “The Message” were promising us: a big episode promising the return of major antagonists. And the episode knows it, because it opens with a dramatic slo-mo of Steven slamming his fist down on a table. Turns out he’s with Greg at Beach City Fries, demanding “the bits.”
Before he can even get the words out, Peedee has shoved a bag of frybits at him and Greg, and Steven greets him. Greg looks inside the store and asks if Peedee is closing up for the night all by himself, and as it turns out, he is! He’s proud of the fact that his dad gave him the responsibility.
Okay, here’s the thing about that: we can assume Peedee is about seven to ten, given that he’s Steven’s friend and drawn about the same size. Fryers are dangerous work to clean, and you’re handling a lot of oil and hot metal that might spill and result in grease fires later if you’re not careful, or at the very least someone slipping and falling. Closing up a store takes about an hour, and usually it’s not just one person doing it—two people are involved at the very least.
So, Peedee is undertaking a dangerous task alone because his father thinks he can do it, and even though it’s not safe he wants to do it anyway. Peedee’s parallel to Steven regarding family and the way they look at their jobs was mentioned and explored briefly in “Frybo,” but it’s nice to see it come back, though it still says something worrying about both Peedee and Steven.
Greg says that’s a lot of responsibility for a kid, and that his dad must really trust him. Peedee replies, “Don’t patronize me,” but I really feel like commenting on the fact that you’re doing something highly dangerous by yourself at like, seven, isn’t quite patronizing, but common sense.
In any case, Greg and Steven leave the shop behind together with the bits, and Steven starts explaining the marble robonoids to Greg, who seems uncomfortable with the whole subject. He asks Steven if he ever feels like this Gem stuff is “too much for him,” but before Steven can reply, an enormous tremor knocks out all the windows in town, shaking the boardwalk.
Steven and Greg look up in the sky to see a giant hand-shaped ship in the air, pointing towards Beach City. The hand is actually drawn completely realistically, like a 3-D model of an actual hand, adding to the immense creepiness and futuristic tone the Homeworld Gems have been setting.
The Gems are watching it through a telescope and Pearl says the light cannons should be ready just as Steven races up to them with Greg and asks if they’ve seen the hand. They have, and they’re pretty sure it’s Peridot, which is a fair assumption, all things considered. Garnet tells them she’s coming with reinforcements and advanced weapons, and what’s Greg’s response? “It’s happening.”
That was an unexpected way to phrase his concern, but before we can explore that, Steven wants to see the ship. Garnet has them ready the light cannons, and Steven is instructed to “light ‘em up.” What does he do? He tells them one of Greg’s sayings—“If every porkchop was perfect, we wouldn’t have hotdogs.”
Was that Rose’s favorite saying? Was that what made her fall in love with Greg? The Rose Quartz gem runs on love, so it’s a fair assumption. Also, sad.
Unfortunately, the love and sadness doesn’t really faze the ship. It tells them to talk to the hand, swatting the laser lights away. The cannons have no effect, and the ship is still coming. Garnet says they have to evacuate and the whole town might be in danger. Steven says he has to make a call, and that it’s “Time for some political favors.”
We then cut to a shot of Mayor Dewey’s desk, which, interestingly enough has a #1 RAD DAD labelled-mug on it. It’s the same style and font as Greg’s COOL DAD jacket from “Maximum Capacity,” which is interesting; it’s not what you’d expect to see on the Mayor’s desk. Especially since the Mayor isn’t sitting at it, instead wrapped up in the curtains and demanding Steven explain what’s going on.
Steven tells him he has to evacuate, and he does once he figures out a “catchy slogan.” The Deweymobile pulls up in front of the panicking citizens on the boardwalk and has everyone start to evacuate.
Steven turns from the scene to see the Gems and Greg throwing things into Greg’s van, packing up. Steven agrees they should get his dad out of town until he sees his cheeseburger backpack. Pearl is visibly upset, her hair mussed, her eyes big and full with tears as Steven realizes the Gems want him to evacuate too. Greg asks who wants to tell him, implying he and the Gems had a discussion about having Steven evacuate. We didn’t see it, but I bet it was sad and heartbreaking!
As Pearl and Amethyst falter, Garnet comes to Steven and kneels in front of him, telling him, “I know you don’t think we trust you. I know more often than not, we treat you like a child. But the truth is, we rely on you. Your voice inspires us, binds us, reminds us why we promised to protect the planet. You must now be that voice for them.”
We cut back to the residents of Beach City evacuating. Mr. Fryman has to pull Peedee away from the store as he panics about whether they’ll be coming back and when, and everyone else seems to be in a similar state of abject fear and panic. When we cut back to Steven and Garnet, he looks miserable. She touches his face gently and tells him, “If anything happens, you need to be there to protect them—like your mother once did.”
Any time Rose gets brought up, it tends to end the argument, and so it does here. Steven gets in the car with his father and they leave the Gems to defend Beach City as everyone else evacuates. He promises Garnet he won’t disappoint her and she replies, “I know.”
The second Steven is out of sight, the Gems break down in tears, Pearl pushing her face into Garnet’s shoulder to weep. Garnet tells them to pull it together and that they did everything they could for Steven—now they have to protect Beach City.
We cut to everyone pulling out of Beach City in their cars. Greg checks the mirror and watches Peridot’s oncoming ship with a harried expression. Steven is looking out the window, up at the clouds and the seagulls. He says to his father, “Maybe when Peridot comes, she’ll see how nice the people are, and she won’t want to hurt anyone.”
There’s a beat before Greg then says, “You’re just like your mother.” Honestly, in literally every other show, this is the cheesiest thing in the world, and I know, intellectually, the line is cliché as hell, but whenever this show uses it, it hurts anyway. Why? Because of how much they miss Rose, and how wonderful she was. It’s awful, it hurts, it always hurts, I love it.
Greg then adds, “But these Gems aren’t like your mother. They’re not like Garnet, Amethyst, or Pearl…they’re not going to start caring about people now. They didn’t the first time they—“
Greg cuts himself off, suddenly and violently aware he’s given away a secret he shouldn’t have. Steven looks up at him and Greg hastily tries to cover his tracks, saying “It was thousands of years ago—it wasn’t like I was there, or…”
Steven continues to stare at him and Greg falters, adding, “The Gems should be telling you all this, but I get it—they don’t want you thinking of them like that, or…”
Steven presses his dad, asking, “Like what?” When Greg doesn’t respond, he repeats the question until Greg snaps.
He replies, “Like aliens, Steven! Aliens who invaded Earth! All they try to do is make up for it, but they just can’t forgive themselves!”
Steven’s face is contorted in horror as Greg explains over a flashback shot to the Kindergarten, “They were doing something awful to the planet, and your mother couldn’t stand it anymore. She told me that’s why she had to turn on her own kind. She gave up everything trying to stop them and drive the remaining Gems off of Earth.”
Steven, ever the optimist, replies, “So, she saved the world! That’s good!”
Greg gets real and replies, “No such thing as a good war, kiddo. Gems were destroyed—people too. In the end, your mother could only save a few of her closest friends with her shield.”
Now, let’s stop and reflect on this conversation for a second, because it’s intense and important. It’s not exactly clear where Greg is talking about the first Gem war from five thousand years ago and where he’s talking about the invasion that, presuming it happened in his lifetime, before Steven’s birth, and when Greg would be old enough to remember, occurred about thirty years ago, but we do know he means the Kindergarten was what was sapping the Earth. Were Gems a surviving race on the planet until very recently? How many of them died not five thousand years ago, but twenty, thirty?
Not only that, but Rose had to decide who lived and who died. She had to choose from among what we can only assume are hundreds of her soldiers and comrades who she would keep alive. That’s…dark.
And finally, Greg says something very telling, which is that people died, too. People were casualties in this Gem war, and we don’t know who, why, or how many people, but that means human beings got caught up in this and killed. People Greg knew? Was this the recent invasion? Who knows, but whatever the answer is, I bet it will be sad.
There’s a silence as Steven buries his face into his hands and Greg tries to soothe him by offering to take him to the waffle house he likes just up the road. Steven pulls his hands from his face and says something I’m sure Greg was terrified he was going to hear: “We gotta go back.”
Greg, understandably not wanting his young son caught up in an intergalactic war, protests. Steven says it doesn’t matter that the Gems didn’t want him there, because they might’ve just been trying to protect him, but he’s got his mother’s shield, and that might be the only thing that protects them from Peridot.
Greg and Steven argue until Steven demands his father turn the car around. Greg says he can’t let Steven go, even if the Gems need him, because Greg needs him too. Steven gets upset and then punches the glove compartment so hard that the airbag goes off. It’s the first sign of super-strength we’ve seen from Steven, and I don’t even think he knew he could do that.
Greg pulls the van over and Steven tumbles out in a bubble, and the entire town comes to check on them in concern, asking if Greg and Steven are all right. All of Beach City is looking after Steven, and when Steven starts crying, I am too.
He says to his dad that he has to go back. He has to protect them. He asks Greg if he understands, and Greg does the best thing he could have possibly done for his boy. He wipes his tears away and agrees. He says to Steven, “Okay. But you be careful, or I’m gonna run fresh out of family.”
Greg then lets his only child leave to protect the Gems. Steven has him promise to keep everyone in town safe, and he’ll find some way to get there—which means it’s time for Lion to show up! Lion, summoned when they were needed, puts their paw atop Steven’s head, and the two race off back to Beach City.
Steven leaves a message on Connie’s answering machine that essentially boils down to, “Hey we might all die lol txt it luv ya bbs” which is equal parts sweet and kind of unsettling. He’s so casual about returning to fight in a war he doesn’t understand and he also doesn’t understand the whole dying thing either, given that he was raised by semi-immortal aliens.
He arrives just in time to see Opal firing off arrows at the hand that once again have no effect. Steven gets off of Lion and tells him, “Stay here! If something happens, dad’ll need a new son!”
Garnet and Opal watch the hand approach, gaining speed, and Garnet says as they face death, “At least Steven’s safe.”
Cue Steven returning to the Gems. His reappearance startles Amethyst and Pearl out of Opal as Pearl screams for him to get out of here. Garnet tells them it’s too late and for Steven to stay behind them. They assemble in front of him, forming a living shield as the hand-ship approaches, opening its fingers and displaying its palm.
There are three Gems standing on the ship—Peridot and a much larger, more imposing Gem, who has Lapis in their grasp. This Gem towers over everyone on the team—including Garnet, the tallest of the Crystal Gems. They are huge and muscular and ready to destroy the Gems and their base.
Peridot, while complaining about the Crystal Gems destroying their things, gives this new Gem a name—Jasper. And here is something I immediately love about Jasper, and this show: Jasper has a rasping, masculine voice, and is built like a wrestler. They’re thick and well-muscled and still supposed to read as feminine. Steven Universe doesn’t use that as a way to mock Jasper or make it a joke—no, their musculature is supposed to be imposing and powerful, the same as it would be for any other villain. Steven Universe has a wonderful commitment to diversity of feminine body types and Jasper is a great example of that. Even if they are the worst.
How do we know that? Well, her main ambition at the moment seems to be beating the hell out of Rose Quartz and her only regret is that Rose doesn’t seem to be there to do it. And what does she dub the Crystal Gems? A “lost, defective Pearl…a puny, overcooked runt—and this shameless display?”
Jasper’s eyes fall on Steven and all the Gems come to shield him as they ask what it is. Peridot explains, “it calls itself a Steven,” and Lapis immediately jumps in to protect Steven as much as she’s able, saying he’s human and not important to the mission.
Jasper seems unimpressed, declaring that they know what a human is, and that they’re not needed. They order Peridot to just blast the Gems with the hand-ship’s canon, and Peridot does just that. The cannon charges up as Garnet demands for Steven to run. He refuses and she tells him she won’t let him risk his life. Steven’s response?
“This is my home too! And you’re all my family!”
He jumps in front of the other Gems as he shouts, “I’m a Crystal Gem too!” just as the cannon strikes them. When the light dims and the dust settles, Rose’s shield is standing, protecting all of them. This protects the team from the cannon blast, but the jig is up—Jasper knows exactly whose shield that is and finds out that Steven is the new Rose Quartz gem.
Furious, they demand Peridot fire off a barrage, and Peridot complies, leaving Steven stunned and alone as Jasper approaches. They demand to know why Rose Quartz looks like that, and why they’re so weak. Lapis tries to protect Steven, demanding that Jasper not hurt him as Jasper turns on Lapis and demands to know why Lapis didn’t tell them she knew. Lapis says it’s not relevant to the mission, but here we go back to Jasper’s initial stated goal—being the hell out of Rose and letting an unknown Gem dubbed Yellow Diamond know about Rose Quartz.
Before Jasper can do either of these things, a ferocious Garnet leaps up from behind a terrified Steven like a pissed off mother grizzly, going to pick a fight with Jasper. It’s then that we see Jasper’s main weapon—a battering ram styled helmet she slams into Garnet’s gauntlets. Garnet’s last words are demanding Steven to run before Jasper stabs her with a “gem destabilizer.”
The audience gets to watch Garnet fall apart in slow motion, falling backwards and looking at Steven as her face splits in two, her glasses falling away so Steven can see the pain in her eyes. Pearl screams in agony as Garnet’s body disappears, leaving behind her two gems.
Without Garnet to protect him, Jasper approaches him over the imprint of Garnet’s body, looming over the small child as they tell him they were there for the first war. Jasper seems to be addressing Rose like she can still hear Jasper from inside Steven as they talk, referring to Rose like she and Steven are one and the same. They tell Steven that they fought against Rose’s armies and respected her tactics—but what does Rose have now? A fallen base, an army in ruins. She’s failed.
With that, Jasper slams their head into Steven’s, knocking him unconscious and ending the episode.
So this episode was…dark. And brutal. And sad. And I loved it.
There’s a lot we don’t know for certain, but given that the implications are of planetary genocide, both attempted and successful, of the deaths of thousands of Gems and people, and that the human race was around to witness a second war between superpowerful beings, well…
It’s not just that, though. It’s Garnet.
Garnet is the fandom’s beloved “square mom.” Pretty much everyone to a one loves Garnet, and what’s not to love? She’s cool, she’s witty, she’s tall, she’s gorgeous, she’s voiced by Estelle, and she and Steven have a genuine, warm bond that lets us all know how much he thinks the world of her. And not only did we see her lose a fight for the first time, we saw her die.
This episode ended with everyone thinking Garnet was dead. Steven had to watch her shatter into literal pieces to protect him. He’s a child. It’s disquieting and upsetting and it’s so well done that the fear gives way to sadness pretty immediately.
The sadness aside, the introduction of Jasper proves two things: one, Rose Quartz was a lot more metal and hardcore than we were led to believe by the Gems’ testimonies of her, and two, that Homeworld Gems are child-punching monsters. Honestly! Peridot was pretty nasty, but also kind of snotty and comedic—Jasper is straight up concerned with punching Rose, and if they can’t punch Rose they’re going to punch her baby boy. Jasper is the series’ first berserker blood-knight warrior character, and they’re a legitimate and powerful threat.
“The Return” really heralds the end of the Crystal Gems, it seems—at least, for now.