How does an animated show deal with the reality of being a victim of war or a refugee? Of depression and PTSD? Through this kind of episode.
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 3 - "Same Old Earth"
Network: Cartoon Network
Air date: 2016-05-19
Why do I find Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz) so fascinating? Is it her color palette? I do love blue, true. But what else could it be? I love the understated elegance of her design. I love the idea of her abilities making her the equivalent of an interior designer on a Homeworld-dominated planet, but those same abilities becoming more powerful and dangerous than an atom bomb on Earth. I love the complexity of her character and her story.
Maybe more than anything else, Lapis feels like she needs to be part of the Crystal Gems' story. Consider this: the Crystal Gems are lacking a "water" element. Garnet (Estelle) is "fire"; Sapphire (Erica Luttrell) is a part of Garnet, but she seems to contribute to Garnet's passive and introspective side, whereas Ruby (Charlyne Yi) takes the more active role. Pearl (Deedee Magno-Hall) is crane-like, dressed in gauze and shades of white, and fights with a swooping, acrobatic style, making her "air". Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) is "earth", not simply because she's squat, stocky, and the only Crystal Gem created on Earth, but because the show spends more time focusing on her cliff-side birthplace than any of the other Gems' origins. Steven (Zach Callison), as a harmonizing, genitive, all-loving figure, represents a fifth element, which can be interpreted as "love", "life", "spirit", or even "heart" if one wants to take the Captain Planet approach.
With Peridot (Shelby Rabara) representing "mind" or a kind of technological mastery distinct from the "elemental balance" of the other Crystal Gems, and Jasper (Kimberly Brooks) acting as a dark mirror of Amethyst's "earth" aspect, Lapis is the only one left to be "water". As a moody, emotionally tempestuous hydrokinetic, she fills the role perfectly.
That meditation on a theme didn't have a lot to do with this episode, "Same Old World". Then again, not a lot happened in this episode. Despite being a beautiful examination of Lapis' character, "Same Old World" spends almost all of its time as a dialogue between her and Steven. Although we begin with Peridot recalling to the Crystal Gems the journey to deal with the Cluster in her usual endearing miles gloriosus way, Steven's a million miles away, thinking about Lapis. He excuses himself to find Lapis, and Garnet gives him some advice about the kind of trauma an unhealthy fusion would cause to its constituent Gems.
Steven sleeps outside the barn, but wakes up in the night when he hears Lapis getting ready to leave Earth again. Steven admits that he's a little hurt, but understanding Garnet's advice, he lets Lapis depart without an argument. Still, in the morning, Steven finds that Lapis hasn't gone anywhere. She admits that she's stuck in an "adult fear" scenario: she can't adapt to where she is, but she can never go home again. As a stateless refugee, Lapis admits that she's suffering immensely from a lack of a place to be free. Steven suggests that maybe her fear and hate for certain locations on Earth doesn’t mean she has to hate all of Earth. After all, Earth, even for a magical, ageless piece of stone, is massive and varied. Lapis is intrigued by the suggestion, and she and Steven go on a flying road trip to find her a new place to live.
Steven suggests the forest, the region’s major metropolitan, and even -- horror of horrors -- Jersey. While Lapis pooh-poohs all of those places, Steven's sales pitches for all of the areas resonate with her. Lapis inadvertently flies out over the ocean, and she catches sight of an ancient galaxy warp. The warp distracts her to the point that she nearly drops Steven, but when she lands, she explains that it’s the galaxy warp where she was abandoned. Before the first shot of the Crystal Gem rebellion, Lapis had been a civilian traveling to Earth. Caught in the crossfire of war, her body was destroyed and her gem-body was assumed to belong to a Crystal Gem, meaning that the Homeworld Gems imprisoned her for interrogation. When the Crystal Gems won, her mirror was abandoned at the warp.
Lapis and Steven go back to the barn, but having to remember her past makes Lapis depressed. She begins to compare Earth to a cage again, and Steven responds by invoking all of the Earth locations that fascinated her. By telling her that everything on Earth changes, he implicitly makes the point that if Earth can change, then her perceptions of it can change too. And maybe, Lapis herself can change.
In the end, Lapis decides to stay.
Lapis' torture -- and that’s the only word that could be used to describe what happened to her -- helps to explain her erratic behavior. A viewing of "Same Old World" suggests that she's been suffering from extremely acute kinds of depression and PTSD. She's furious at the "betrayers" around her, and trying her best to flee far away from both Earth and the Gem Homeworld. Yet that's not the real heart of the issue. The way that Lapis tells her backstory to Steven, one can tell that she's spent ages thinking about it, the memory of her suffering looping in her mind with enough clarity that she can’t even remember it without breaking down.
I suspect that Lapis might hate herself. Why? Maybe for being in the war zone in the first place. Maybe for being "too weak" to escape from the mirror. Depression and self-loathing rarely provide clear justifications. The irony is that despite claiming that she wants to be free, Lapis has done more than any other character to imprison herself. The Homeworld Gems imprisoned and tortured her. So when Steven heals her, she flies back to Homeworld. When Steven proves he can free her from Peridot and Jasper’s ship, she curls up and tells him to leave her alone. When facing the risk of Jasper hurting Steven, instead of helping the Crystal Gems, she fuses with Jasper and binds herself to the ocean floor. Even in "Same Old World", Lapis is given the freedom to go anywhere in the galaxy she wants, and she chooses to come back to Earth. She does all this because she doesn’t feel like she deserves happiness or to be free.
It makes Steven's response to her that much kinder. Particularly because, in its own funny way, the entire episode "Same Old World" is a thematic reprise of the song "Be Wherever You Are" from season one's "Island Adventure". It isn't hard to imagine Steven getting his ukulele and singing for Lapis:
Isn't this such a beautiful night,
Whoa, we're underneath a thousand shining stars.
Isn't it nice to find yourself somewhere different,
Whoa, why don't you let yourself just be wherever you are.
Steven's advice to Sadie (Kate Micucci) and Lars (Matthew Moy) returns in spirit as a kind of therapy for Lapis. Despite the episode ending with an amusing little scene with Peridot, it doesn’t change the fact that "Same Old World" is a haunting, beautiful, tragic dialogue on being a victim of war and the trauma that haunts people.