Steven Universe Analysis: Stranded

Once again I find myself to be the giddiest of fans as Steven Universe returns for a two-part special event, “Stranded.” These two new episodes have been anticipated since the first was teased at San Diego Comic Con. Get ready for some harrowing space adventures, because I’m about unleash another overly detailed analysis of Steven Universe. 

Our first episode was definitly the most anticipated of the two, “Lars of the Stars.” Clips of this episode were teased way back in July, and I can easily say that the full thing does not disappoint.

The best part about “Lars of the Stars” is without a doubt all the anime imagery. Specifically, the episode is a tribute to Captain Harlock, Lars’ appearance mirroring the titular character, complete with skull imagery in the form of his earrings. The episode has a lot of fun with its premise, making for an exhilirating return from hiatus, and also bringing a much needed dose of action that was absent from the previous Steven-Bomb.

The episode starts with Connie and Steven getting ready to go on their first space adventure together, some time after the events of “Kevin Party.” The two step inside Lion’s mane and pop out of Lars’ hair, but it doesn’t lead to where they expected. They find themselves aboard the Sun Incinerator, a Gem spaceship stolen by Lars and the off-colors to get home to Beach City.

What follows is a series of by-the-books space-anime beats that are just a wonderful spectacle. I cannot stress enough how fun this episode is, and how much the animation adds to that fun. What could have easily been a 3D-animated fight between two cel-shaded CGI ships is still traditional 2D animation and the drama that unfolds amongst the starship battles is brilliantly cheesy and hammed up in the greatest way possible.

Another great aspect of this episode is Lars’ interaction with his crew, the off-colors. These quirky Gems read a lot like Lars’ “uncool friends” on Earth, they have faults that he would have once been angry at and would have made fun of them for. But now? He’s not just “working with what he has,” he’s embracing the quirks and faults of his new friends, not giving them a second thought, knowing just how to rally and lead the team towards victory.

“Lars of the Stars” is a wild ride, a deep dive into the world of space-faring anime — complete with old-fashioned freeze-frame title cards — that does more than pay tribute, it actually contributes elements to the world and story of Steven Universe.

Most of the episode’s content, about 80%, is this wonderful space adventure of epic proportions and beautiful animation. But, this is actually a good thing. There was so much drama and so little action in the previous episodes that we needed an explosive return, something that brought not only excitement, but tension. Yes, every moment of drama is hammed up to 11, but we still feel this sense of danger, that despite Lars’ confidence, things might not end great.

But, the episode isn’t without substance, most of it stemming from Lars’ aforementioned confidence. Lars’ captain persona is cocky and always prepared for anything, perhaps a form of self-assurance, a way to convince himself that he will make it home and/or a result of his numerous past victories. Wether or not the persona is real, it doesn’t matter, it has gotten him to where he is now, in the possession of a ship that will get him home.

But, home actually brings a problem, a problem that results in a signature Steven Universe emotional drop. When Lars learns how Sadie is doing on Earth, he slips back into his old ways. He thinks she is hanging with the cool kids to punish him for being away. This beat hits so hard, not just because Lars is being self-centered and paranoid, but also because it shows how much he was relying on the hope of getting home to get him through his harrowing adventures, specifically the thought of seeing Sadie again.

However, a quick pep-talk from Steven and Connie — which leads them to fuse into Stevonnie in a moment of inspiration — and Lars gets his captain confidence back. A bit more anime imagery — including my personal favorite space anime trope, the tunnel ride to a cockpit — and Stevonnie finds themselves pilot a fighter ship to take out an enemy’s weapons. The plan works, giving us even more great animation (seriously, this episode spoiled us with spectacular imagery), but at a cost; Stevonnie is sent careening towards a nearby planet as the episode ends.

Not much was known about our second episode, “Jungle Moon,” at least not until the “Stranded” event was announced. But, like the first episode, this one was a wild trip, perhaps even wilder.

We start where we left off, with Stevonnie crash landing towards an alien planet. Though the ship is destroyed, Stevonnie is able to save themselves with a bubble before hitting the ground. They are unharmed, but every part of the ship, including the radio, is trashed. Thus, they are stranded with no way to contact Lars for rescue. But, Stevonnie doesn’t let this stop them, they resolve to survive until Lars and the off-colors can rescue them.

What follows is a montage of just that, Stevonnie surviving. They fight monsters, they build shelter, and they hunt for food. However, their hesitance to kill a cute animal for protien leads its mother to chase them through the jungle planet. Stevonnie finds shelter from the alien monster in the form of a mysterious, but familiar Gem tower. They end up setting up camp in the tower for the night, and boy do things get weird.

Stevonnie has a dream about Connie’s mother, but it’s not really her. It’s actually Yellow Diamond, well more of an amalgam of the two. The whole sequence is strange, and my running theory is that Steven’s dream abilities combined with Connie’s normal human dreams — which are most likely stress-driven and centered around her overbearing mother — to make for a nightmarish foray into a memory that haunts the tower.

Out of all this strangeness, we get something very interesting, our first look at Pink Diamond, as well as a peak into her mind. With how Yellow Diamond is depicted as Connie’s mom, and how Stevonnie stands in for Pink diamond in this memory-dream thing, there’s an implication that the two shared a mother/daughter relationship, Yellow Diamond was an experienced planet conquerer and Pink was a bratty, but eager student.

Whatever the relationship the two shared, we know one thing from this memory, Yellow Diamond was strict with Pink, and she acted out because of it. I don’t want to jump any fan-theory guns here, but my first thoughts went back to “The Trial,” where it’s implied that Yellow Diamond had something to do with Pink’s shattering, and I can only wonder if their tense relationship is another piece of the puzzle.

This is the main focus of the episode, but we also learn that the mysterious tower is actually a moon base, one that looks down on a destroyed planet that was once a Gem colony. Stevonnie is able to use the base’s systems to contact Lars, who comes in for the rescue with the Sun Incinerator. The episode ends with an ominous presence, telling us this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Pink Diamond mystery.

The dream was the main substance of this episode, giving us yet another look into the dense history of Gem colonization and hierarchy. I found myself wanting more, and with that desire I came to realize that Steven Universe has gotten damn good at cliffhangers and mystery. For whatever reason, the show’s release schedule is sporadic at best, and unknown at worst. But, the crewniverse at least knows how to play with the strange system. The cliffhangers don’t leave us with a feeling of “we’ll have to wait forever,” but instead lead us to wonder more about where the story is going then when the show is returning.

Perhaps this notion of mine is a garbled mess and/or is just a result of overanalyzing the show’s constant hiatuses (perhaps a way to preemptively comfort myself when the Steven withdrawals kick in) but I truly find myself looking forward to the show’s return, not dreading its absence.

But, I’ve rambled on for long enough. Here’s hoping this hiatus doesn’t last too long, and thanks for reading!


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