On its own, "Gem Drill" doesn't fail to charm; as a resolution to the series' long-running "Cluster arc", it's somewhat underwhelming.
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 2 - "Gem Drill"
Network: Cartoon Network
Air date: 2016-05-12
"Gem Drill" begins exactly where "Super Watermelon Island" left off. The Cluster's waking up, and Steven (Zach Callison) and Peridot (Shelby Rabara) are the only ones left on the mainland to pilot the eponymous drill down into the planet's crust.
Trapped in a confined cockpit, Peridot has no way to retreat or hide when Steven starts uncomfortably peeling back the layers of Peridot’s personal issues. Between periods of diving through magma and shooting Gem mutants, Peridot reveals that even though she’s warmed up to the Earth, she may never get over being an exile from the Gem Homeworld. Her seriousness extends to Steven's general Romanticism. There's nothing cruel about the way she says it, but Peridot bluntly informs Steven that there isn't a way, nor is there a reason, to save the Cluster.
They make it to a cavern inside the crust, filled with a massive concretion of broken Gem shards. Peridot begins the process of destroying the Cluster, but the necromantic war-machine responds with some kind of psychic feedback that assaults Steven's nascent telepathy (for lack of a better word to describe his ability to jump into the minds of other beings). Steven passes out and surfs into the mind of the Cluster, finding that rather than a single ego with a buried id, the damage done to the Cluster means that it’s driven solely by those id-impulses: healing, wholeness, freedom. Higher considerations, like ethics and empathy, and even its own past, are locked away where the subconscious would be for human beings. Psychically pummeling Steven with the basic Gem impulse to reform, the Cluster seems unaware of anything outside of itself. Steven manages to make the Gem shards aware of one another, meaning that he's turned a "mind hive" into a single "hive mind". Once "united", the Cluster begins to network and cobble together a rudimentary higher consciousness, one that realizes the harm its "hatching" could do to Earth.
But even with its newfound ego, the Cluster can’t control itself. Like an involuntary bodily function, it will reform with an Earth-shattering body. Peridot finds her drill too powerless to crack the Cluster, and as a last-ditch effort, Steven tries to start bubbling the constituent shards of the Cluster. He can't do it alone, but the Cluster's inspired by the idea, its Gem fragments working together to bubble themselves, reaching a critical mass that allows Steven's bubbling ability to enclose the entire geo-weapon.
Unorthodox as it is, Peridot and Steven are pleased with the results and make their way back to the surface, just in time to greet Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno-Hall) fresh off their victory on Mask Island. Despite the Crystal Gems' surprise about bubbling the Cluster, they hail it as a success. And with Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz) brought back to the Temple to recuperate, the episode ends by shifting its focus to the series' semi-antagonistic hydrokinetic.
"Gem Drill" provides a fascinating counterpoint in some ways to season two’s “When It Rains”. In the latter, Peridot was given a lecture about Earth's water cycle by Steven, and in this episode, the positions are reversed: Steven's ignorance about the inner workings of the planet is met with Peridot's geological understanding of the structure of Earth's asthenosphere, its tectonics, and its mineral makeup. But that's a common theme of the episode. Peridot, excluding Shelby Rabara's exceptional comedic timing ("Wow, thanks", anyone?), takes on a surprisingly thoughtful and somber role here. Then again, this is what Peridot was designed to do. She was made to be one of Homeworld's geologists/technicians/obstetricians, and while she tends to react to the shades of grey and "illogic" of Earth with frustration and immature defense mechanisms, the setting of "Gem Drill" is something that makes sense to her. This is one of the few times that we've been able to see Peridot confident in her own skills and judgment.
Peridot takes the role of "responsible adult" in some scenes -- Peri-mom, even -- and if the Steven Universe universe weren't so "glass half-full" relative to other sci-fi series, Peridot’s arguments would probably make more sense: the Cluster's a living war crime built of the barely aware remnants of dead minds. Its existence is torture, and it's so powerful but so disconnected from rational decision making, that it can't comprehend the kind of damage it can do to the innocent world around it. It is more sound and more merciful to euthanize it. It feels something like a cop-out that Steven could use his abilities to create a third option that resolves the situation neatly, when the whole of the episode set up a painful dichotomy between sacrificing the Earth and sacrificing an involuntary monster.
I suspect that my sense that "Gem Drill" was a cop-out didn’t simply come from Steven being given an easy way out, though. Even if the audience wasn’t aware of it, the whole of Steven Universe up until now has dealt with the Cluster as the central antagonist (the return of the Homeworld Gems in the first season was focused on it). The culmination of 80 episodes worth of plot was resolved in less than 11 minutes.
I don't mind that Steven Universe has short episodes, but when it comes to issues that require it, the showrunners have been willing to do multi-part episodes or let the effects of a particularly revelatory episode resonate through other episodes. I wanted to see more of the Cluster’s mental state. I wanted Steven to have to delve through the shattered memories of a millennia-old monstrosity. It was suggested that Homeworld was willing to mix the corpses of its own soldiers into the mix of the shattered remnants of the Crystal Gem rebels; I wanted to see the Homeworld part of the Cluster's hive mind in a mental civil war against itself. I wasn't unhappy with what we were given, just unsatisfied with the haste with which the running motivation of the series was wrapped up. Still, Rebecca Sugar and her team left the door open for the Cluster to return, so maybe we’ll see more of the Cluster's inner story in the future.
I’m disappointed that this episode, as a climax for the Cluster arc, fell flat. That being said, whenever I’m disappointed with Steven Universe, I can never really stay that way. "Gem Drill" had too much charm, humor, and aesthetic elegance for me to pooh-pooh it. Suffice it to say that, at worst, this episode could be considered "great, but with an asterisk attached".