Steven Universe: Season 3, Episode 1 - "Super Watermelon Island"
Despite lacking much narrative progression, "Super Watermelon Island" still has a lot of fun, beauty, and subtlety for the open-minded viewer.
Steven UniverseAirtime: Thursdays, 7pm
Cast: Zach Callison, Estelle, Michaela Dietz, Deedee Magno, Matthew Moy, Kate Micucci, Tom Scharpling, Grace Rolek, Shelby Rabara
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 1 - "Super Watermelon Island"
Network: Cartoon Network
Air date: 2016-05-12
The opening to this episode disturbed me once I thought about it. Season one's "Watermelon Steven" at least gave us some plausible flexibility about the sapience of Steven's (Zach Callison) watermelon people, but the writers of "Super Watermelon Island" have really done away with any ambiguity. We've now gotten explicit proof that Steven's inadvertently capable of creating entire species of self-aware beings out of whole cloth. A species with their own religion and culture and, apparently, a willingness to perform ritualistic sacrifices of their own to satiate a monstrous chimera off the shore of their island. Steven Universe: The Shadow over Innsmouth for all ages.
Surprise! Malachite (Kimberly Brooks and Jennifer Paz) is back. What’s more, Lapis Lazuli’s (Jennifer Paz) ability to control her worse half, Jasper (Kimberly Brooks), is finally breaking down. The result is that the two Gems' unstable fusion is allowing Malachite to rampage around the periphery of Mask Island, the adopted home of Steven’s cucurbit culture. Steven, who has apparently been refining his skill to surf into the consciousness of other beings, enters the body of a watermelon person, and eventually runs across Malachite, who devours the hapless tele-Steven. (We'll leave the horrifying question of whether or not Steven was merely steering the body of an unconscious watermelon person for another essay.)
When Steven wakes up, he warns the Crystal Gems that Malachite has returned. Considering Malachite's level of danger a more immediate threat than the Cluster, Garnet (Estelle), Pearl (Deedee Magno), and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) agree to deal with Malachite first, telling Steven and the flustered Peridot (Shelby Rabara) to stay behind. A common thread in the elder Gems' treatment of Steven is a benign condescension towards him, to which he usually responds with frustration. Steven announces to Peridot that he's going to use his projection powers to help the other Gems in any way he can.
Taking into consideration Malachite’s size, it doesn’t take long for Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst to combine into their mega-fusion -- Alexandrite (Rita Rani Ahuja) -- in order to tangle with her. Of course, fighting with a being who’s a millennia-old shock trooper and can control the planet’s oceans isn’t so simple. Alexandrite finds herself on the losing end of the fight until the projected form of Steven goes to find the other inhabitants of Mask Island. The watermelon people have retreated from their village and are hiding in a cave. He manages to give a rousing speech (in Watermelonese, apparently) and convinces his engineered species to go to war against Malachite.
The watermelon people aren't initially successful against Malachite for the same reason that Bronze Age tribesfolk wouldn’t be particularly successful at fighting Transformers. Still, through dint of sheer numbers and a lack of self-regard, the watermelon people manage to harry Malachite long enough for Alexandrite to get the drop on Malachite and destroy her fused form, breaking her into the unconscious Jasper and Lapis. Still, the Gems' victory is short-lived thanks to the Cluster beginning its mantle-destroying birth at the most inconvenient time. Earthquakes cause the ground beneath Mask Island to shudder and crack, and while the Crystal Gems are able to save Lapis, Jasper falls into the rift. Unable to make it back to the Temple in time, the Gems tell Steven through his watermelon avatar that he and Peridot need to stop the cluster alone -- and that they love him.
Narratively speaking, "Super Watermelon Island" isn't particularly important to Steven Universe. Yes, it's neat to see Alexandrite in action for the first time. Yes, it's a delight to have Lapis and Jasper reintroduced to the show. Yes, it's satisfying to finally learn what happened to Steven's ambulatory watermelons, but nobody's character arc advances. Even without seeing the other episodes that come after it, it's clear that the first episode of the third season is a holding pattern for more meaty stories. What kind of dialogue and character development can be eked out of this week's episode? The Crystal Gems are Alexandrite for 90% of the episode, the watermelons don’t speak human languages, and the antagonistic Gems are left unconscious after they're dismantled. Still, don't take that as a negative assessment. This episode was fun in different ways.
The watermelons, as partial inheritors of Steven’s psychology, developed a culture that really celebrates Steven's gender-queerness and in a larger sense, the queer ideology that makes Steven Universe special: baby watermelons are grown and distributed to gender-neutral adoptive families, and the only "gendered" watermelon family seems to be turning it into a game. Notably, it's the "housewife watermelon" that chooses to go to war against Malachite, leaving "her" baby with "her" "salaryman husband". Plus, I’m sure that the writing staff was aware that watermelons are unisexual plants; their flowers are both male and female, meaning that Steven's creations are happily outside of the heteronormative binary, reflections of their creator when he takes part in the Stevonnie (AJ Michalka) process.
I also appreciated the dark, unspoken undercurrents in "Super Watermelon Island". I mentioned one creepy moment I noticed at the beginning of the episode, but consider this: Steven could transform the entire biological structure of a gourd into a walking, sapient social species simply by germinating their seeds in his saliva. He can accidentally create civilizations. What are the limits of Steven’s power to control life? What were Rose’s (Susan Egan) limits? There are many fan theories about Rose's hypothetical role in the Homeworld's imperialism before her rebellion, and I think this episode quietly creates another. Was Rose Quartz sent by the Homeworld to liquidate Earth's organic life to fuel Homeworld's Gem creation process in the Kindergartens? What kind of nightmarish things could Rose have performed if she had no regard for a world's life?
Further, for something billed as a "children's" animation, isn't there something particularly morbid about the fact that we see many of the watermelon islanders (who are, remember, sapient people) being killed trying to stop Malachite? I continue to respect Rebecca Sugar and her staff for not pulling any punches when it comes to the seriousness they want to put across to the audience. I’m sure Cartoon Network’s S&P department overlooked watermelons being crushed, but I think anybody in their right mind -- children included -- could tell that the show was quite openly depicting deaths.
Despite the lack of narrative progression in "Super Watermelon Island", the battle between Malachite and the team of Alexandrite and the watermelon people was a treat to watch. Steven Universe’s battles have always been informed by anime, and they happily take notes from Japanese animation’s respect for the balance between spectacle and fluid choreography. It isn’t hard to see Alexandrite as a pastel-colored tokusatsu hero, and Malachite as a kaiju monster. And you know what? I’m okay with that. One of the nice things about Steven Universe is that its writers don’t mind interspersing big glorious spectacles with heart-rending character dramas and silly low-key episodes. Since those writers are capable of investing wit and passion equally into all of the above, why not sit back and appreciate the giant woman kung-fu fight?