Before Cartoon Network released the synopsis for “Last One Out Of Beach City,” the episode seemed like a stone cold lock to feature some sort of evacuation crisis. We’ve seen it before, and with the Diamond Authority good and pissed off at Earth, we’ll probably see it again. But as is often the case on Steven Universe, titles can be misleading. Instead of a gut-wrenching disaster, we got the show’s most fun episode of 2016, maybe ever—even more fun than Lapis and her bat flips in “Hit the Diamond,” and seeing as that’s still my Twitter cover photo, that’s saying a lot.
PEARL, THE LOVE-DRUNK PUNK
Given the Summer of Steven’s broad narrative focus on Amethyst and Steven arcs, it’s been awhile since we’ve had a Pearl feature. Last we saw, she was belting out “It’s Over, Isn’t It” to an unresponsive Empire City sky and overcoming both her unrequited love for Rose and her animosity toward Greg. It was really deep and really beautiful; I still think “Mr. Greg” is the best eleven minutes Steven Universe has ever aired. But we already knew that side of Pearl existed, couched in the neurotic, control-freak behavior that covers the Rose-sized hole in her soul. What we saw last night seemed like pretty much the opposite of the Pearl we know. She was, in Amethyst’s (unfinished) words, a total badass. (Nice one, Crewniverse.)
But was this new Pearl with no plan really a complete departure from her character? I’d suggest not. At the start of the episode, Pearl’s motivation to go to the show seems pretty straightforward: it’s part of the shift we saw at the end of “Mr. Greg.” In an effort to redefine her life and purpose on her own terms, instead of in relation to Rose, she feels the need to leave behind the aspects of her personality that burdened her in the past. She’ll drink a juice (another nice one, Crewniverse) and pop her collar because that’s what she thinks the cool kids do, and Pearl hasn’t been cool since she was rebelling against Homeworld several millennia ago. We’ve heard her wax poetic about those days before, but here it seems like she’s just trying to prove a point. She doesn’t like juice—she’s posturing. It’s an effort to convince not only Steven Amethyst but also herself of her fresh start. And it’s hard to blame her…it’s not an easy thing to create a new self-concept, and most attempts to do so are bound to be fraught with a trial-and-error period. Just about the only thing Pearl knows about herself after the events of “Mr. Greg” is that she needs to be there for Steven. Everything else, if she’s truly come to terms with Rose’s passing and with her anti-Greg sentiments, is a blank slate.
It’s not until Rose’s doppelganger walks through the door of the Big Donut that Pearl finds the authentic rebel within, the rebel that’s always been there but has lain dormant for a few thousand years.
We know that Steven Universe is, at its core, a show about love and the crazy, stupid, life-affirming things it makes people do. In this case, it makes Pearl run a red light and reenact Need For Speed on the rural Delmarva road. It’s abundantly clear that Pearl is doing these things for the Mystery Girl, and that this isn’t the faked rebelliousness of her Nirvana-cum-James Dean jacket. This is more like the recklessness that pushed Pearl to sacrifice her physical body for Rose over and over in battle, or the recklessness that almost got her and Steven blown up in her makeshift spaceship. With her feelings for Rose reactivated, she loses all sense of inhibition and acts the way she did when the love of her life fought by her side, pursuing love—or, in this case, the possibility of love—to the detriment of just about everything else. In the past, we’ve seen this come across as alarming, but in the context of “Last One Out Of Beach City,” with Mike Krol’s raw garage rock blaring in the background and Amethyst egging her on, Pearl’s renegade streak is freaking awesome.
Of course, not all of Pearl is down for this, and her inner conflict returns when she strips off the high-waisted jeans and the cool, collar-popped jacket. But the root of this conflict isn’t what Steven and Amethyst perceive to be Pearl’s doubt in her badassery; it’s a struggle between her desire to move on from Rose and the uncontrollable passion that returned when she became physically attracted to someone for the first time in 14+ years. Part of her knows this is stupid, especially because the Mystery Girl is a human and not a gem, but she also can’t deny how alive she felt during the gang’s escape from the cops in the name of pursuing her new crush. It’s nice to see that the latter force wins that battle.
In the end, it turns out, Pearl was punk all along. Punk music, like every rock revolution since Elvis first gyrated his hips in the ‘50s, has its heart in rebellion against a boring status quo. It began as a democratization of the guitar, a reaction to the flowery Yeses and technically masterful Led Zeppelins of the world that sought to return rock music to ordinary, not-so-talented musicians who thrived on passion alone. In the intervening years, punk has become a general banner for so many subgenres, most of which seek to amplify marginalized voices and disrupt society in some way—riot grrrl for feminism, queercore for LGBTQ people, anarcho-punk for enemies of capitalism. And although the music itself is angry, it comes from a deep-seated hope for personal freedom. In that respect, the Crystal Gem Rebellion was absolutely a punk movement, a violent reaction to Homeworld’s rigidity on behalf of free life and free love, and a Pearl who would dare fuse with a Rose Quartz soldier had to be considered one of the alpha punks of the entire gem species. That’s Pearl’s authentic self—a love-drunk punk, not the no-fun stickler she had become since the fighting stopped—and it shines through in “Last One Out Of Beach City.”
SPEAKING OF LOVE…
Steven Universe has earned its fair share of praise for its fearless depiction of LGBTQ characters, but until now, all those characters were technically genderless space rocks. Mystery Girl is the first human lesbian we’ve seen. It’s not out of the question that we’ll see her share the strange human ritual of “kissing” with Pearl in the future…in fact, I’d expect that to happen. Out of all the potential ‘ships this show has conjured up in its fans’ minds, this is the only one that’s based on clear mutual attraction, and I don’t think the Crewniverse will let it hang as a loose end. Pearl entering a romantic relationship with a human would be a major step forward for her development, not only as a way for her to move past Rose but also as a way for her to come into a greater, more humble appreciation for humanity. To this point, her regard for people seems to fall somewhere between outright disgust and haughty condescension (to the point where she flirts by claiming responsibility for saving the Mystery Girl’s planet and species). It’s fairly obvious that Pearl fought for Earth because it was a place where she’d be free to love Rose Quartz openly—rescuing the humans was a secondary concern. Now, 5000 years later, she has a chance to finally understand what Greg taught Rose about humans’ real potential.
Aside from the long-term plot implications, seeing a depiction of an out-and-proud human lesbian is HUGE for kids’ television and, really, television in general. LGBT characters, while still far from commonplace across the entertainment landscape, have become more prevalent since Steven Universe premiered in 2013; The Legend of Korra even had its main character walk off into the series finale sunset with another woman. Still, though, most lesbian television characters who’ve played significant enough roles to earn a place in the popular memory have endure a coming-out process as a plot point. They rarely enter the stage already comfortable in their sexual identity (not nearly as frequently as gay male TV characters, at any rate), and they even more rarely look like Mystery Girl does. The fact that Steven Universe is normalizing her appearance and immediately obvious sexuality—it just is, without any big deal—has the potential to bring untold positive change to LGBT representation on the small screen.
A FEW TASTY LITTLE RIFFS
As awesome as this show’s original songs are, it was really cool to see them bring the very real Mike Krol and his music into the episode. The two songs featured, by the way, are “Like A Star” and “Fifteen Minutes,” both from his 2011 album I Hate Jazz.
Amethyst knows a lot about human social processes.
Strawberry Sugar Shock Shutdown is literal diabetes in a can.
I’m going to use “my appearance is a conscious manifestation of light” the next time I’m at the bar and see where that gets me.
Was I the only one getting some major Scott Pilgrim vibes from this episode?
Zach Blumenfeld is probably drinking a juice right now. Follow him on Twitter.