Or: Suspecting the Crystal Gems.
(Note: This post was excised from the season wrap-up post I did over the weekend, and thus won’t be as consistent at maintaining the unspoiled perspective as future in-depth posts will be. This also means it was written when the episodes in question were the most recent ones I’d seen, and has been left unedited even though I’ve watched several subsequent episodes since then. It picks up from the sentence that was left in the season wrap-up. You can also read my original tweets while watching Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem.)
The Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem finale manages to mold both the well-put-together plot line of the preceding episodes with the exciting action of the climax of Lion 2: The Movie, but it also fully jolted me out of my complacency with regards to trying to watch the series from an unspoiled perspective. Oddly, it does so by kickstarting the plot and the first overriding mystery of the series in what might be considered the most cliche, expected way possible: after Steven frees her from the mirror, Lapis Lazuli repeatedly warns Steven not to trust the Crystal Gems, and when he arrives with them and demands she put the ocean back, she lashes out and says he’s “one of them” and still doesn’t fully trust Steven until he heals her gem, allowing her to return home without stealing the ocean to get there. Lapis doesn’t have much to say about why Steven shouldn’t trust the gems, and what she does say is perfectly consistent with her grudge being exactly as it appears in these episodes: she calls out the gems for never releasing her from the mirror before Steven came along (“You three knew I was in there, and you didn’t do anything! Did you even wonder who I used to be?!”) and a line that, while a direct challenge to Steven’s desire for the gems to get along (and seemingly contradicting Pearl’s speech earlier in the episode about their approach to the corrupted gems), doesn’t really paint the Gems as villains (“Your friends, they don’t really care about other gems! All they care about is the Earth! But I never believed in this place…”). On the surface it’s entirely acceptable to dismiss Lapis’ grudge with the Crystal Gems as never releasing her from the mirror – which she even admits could have come from a simple lack of curiosity about her nature – and not bothering to consider her an actual “person” with feelings worth considering. The most you could suspect them of is wondering whether they actually can’t cure the corrupted gems, or whether they could and don’t want to for whatever reason.
Things are complicated, though, by the fact the Gems themselves don’t necessarily act particularly trustworthy in this episode or even earlier in the series – as early as Beach Party it’s established that while they’ve vowed to protect humanity they don’t particularly care about them, or even about getting along with them (which raises the question, if they don’t care about gems or earthlings, who do they care about?), and in Monster Buddies even after Steven has managed to tame the Centipeedle and make it useful for the vast majority of the mission they’re quick to go right back into fighting mode when it begins acting agitated, even though it should have been made clear to them that that’ll just make the agitation worse, suggesting that while they may intellectually know the corrupted gems are ultimately not so different from themselves, only suffering from their “corruption”, they still don’t particularly see them as anything other than monsters Steven needs to be protected from.
Throughout the two-parter, from the moment the mirror’s nature is made clear to them, they act extremely hostile towards it and dismissive and firm in their opposition against Steven’s desire to give it what it wants, and someone looking for evidence that they actually did deliberately imprison and enslave Lapis in the mirror would have plenty to work with. Pearl seems to be mostly innocent in the whole affair, asking “how could I have known the gem contained in that mirror would be so powerful?” after the ocean is taken away; at the start of Mirror Gem, she produces the mirror from her gem and expects it to work by presenting anything about gem history it’s asked to, and when it doesn’t, decides it’s “finally broken”, suggesting she fully expected the mirror to do what she told it to and Lapis only now resisted for whatever reason (without, mind you, knowing much of anything about Steven’s personality). (She also performs a very elaborate dance-cum-martial-arts-move, previously seen in Lars and the Cool Kids, to summon it from her gem, which seems impractical if she’s used it on a regular basis, but I don’t think her reaction makes much sense if she’s never used it before.) But when she sees it carrying on a conversation with Steven, the tone with which she says “it’s talking to him? It shouldn’t be able to do that, it should only be following orders!” is much more of a sense of being distressed and disturbed than simple surprise, and when Steven first wonders why the Gems can’t get along with their fellow gem(s), she offers a dismissive and mysterious “there’s a lot you don’t know about gems, Steven.” She does later explain that “not all gems are… good” and gives her speech about the corrupted gems, but she doesn’t bother to say anything about why Lapis is a problem beyond taking away the ocean, and she shares Garnet’s concern about what her departure means.
And speaking of Garnet, she comes across as a much more potentially guilty party. When Steven resists her and Amethyst’s call to bubble the mirror, she says something that directly contradicts her claim to want to keep the mirror “safer where we can watch it”, is woefully out of character after spending the previous 24 episodes being the first to trust Steven’s instincts, and even on the surface comes across as incredibly stupid to the point of outright ignoring the evidence in front of her eyes and ears and asking Steven to do the same: “It’s just a mirror, a tool, it can’t want anything.” Furthering her uncharacteristically firm approach to Steven where Lapis and the mirror are concerned, after their initial fight with Lapis on the beach Garnet flatly grounds Steven in the last line of Mirror Gem for “disobeying an order”, with no explanation for why Garnet is still upset with Steven for doing something that, from his perspective, isn’t any different from what she praised him for in Monster Buddies (admittedly they’re interrupted by Greg alerting them to the disappearance of the ocean). And at the end of Ocean Gem she doesn’t seem particularly pleased with how Steven resolved the situation, solemnly declaring “so, Lapis made it off-planet”. Pearl, equally solemnly, asks “What does this mean for us?” to which Garnet responds “we wait… and see.”
Of course, my exposure to spoilers means I know that Lapis’ grudge with the Crystal Gems really is more with her continued imprisonment than with any actual malice on the Gems’ part, and that even if Lapis isn’t per se evil the Gems still had a very good reason not to want her to leave the Earth. But at this point, the audience doesn’t know any of this, and more to the point, Steven doesn’t know any of this. While it’s possible he’d reach the conclusion that Lapis was just irrationally angry about the Gems not releasing her (especially with her gem so severely cracked), and even if the Gems stand in opposition to other gems they do ultimately stand for the Earth and that’s what Steven himself is closer to, her admonition not to trust them has to be weighing in the back of his mind, especially with how desperately Garnet didn’t want him to release her, and especially since Lapis is the first non-corrupted gem he’s encountered outside the Crystal Gems at all. What if the Crystal Gems really don’t care about other gems at all? What if Garnet really did deliberately imprison and enslave Lapis, potentially even misleading Pearl about it in the process? What if the Crystal Gems really are the baddies?
At the start of Mirror Gem, after realizing he’s (vaguely) reproduced the superficial trappings of school without actually understanding its purpose, Steven moans, “Why do I never ask follow-up questions!” That’s something Steven would do very well to take to heart right now. He deserves to know exactly what the Crystal Gems are doing, why it’s worth doing, and why he should side with them and not (necessarily) Lapis, because if there really were good reasons for the Gems to treat Steven and Lapis so firmly and dismissively in Mirror Gem, perhaps whatever consequences resulted could have been avoided if he knew them. Even if the Crystal Gems feel he’s not ready to know the whole story, they should be able to come up with something that paints themselves in a good enough light to assuage Steven’s fears. (And Steven has lost a lot of innocence already, going through enough even before Mirror Gem – turning into a cat monster, being eaten by a giant bird, aging almost to the point of death, seeing innocent humans consumed by magic moss and nearly being consumed himself, briefly thinking one of his parental figures just suddenly and abruptly died before his eyes, finding himself trapped in his mother’s holodeck’s horror-movie version of Beach City, seeing the fused form of two of his moms beating up the third, finding himself surrounded by a bunch of time-travel duplicates of himself then watching them all horribly melt into the water, seeing Amethyst horribly glitch out and having nothing to do with her getting better leaving him with feelings of uselessness – that some livebloggers already think he should get some therapy at this point.) If he’s going to be a full-fledged member of the Crystal Gems he deserves to know what they are and aren’t doing and why. After all, if they don’t trust him, why should he trust them? (It did seem like Pearl intended to give Steven the mirror and have him ask all the questions he wanted without worrying that any of the answers would paint the Gems in a poor light.)
I can accept why the writers wouldn’t want to give too many answers too quickly, but there had better be a damn good reason why the characters wouldn’t provide them. I don’t know much about the plot to the first “real” Season 1 episode, House Guest, but I do know enough about the plot to the second, Space Race, to have some hope that House Guest will actually provide at least some of the answers we’re looking for, though the fact that House Guest apparently isn’t held in high regard, and that TV Tropes’ assessment of episode importance only gives it a 3 (making it “recommended” but not “essential”), makes me antsy. In the meantime, let’s look at what hints we do have from the 24 episodes leading up to Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem and see what it suggests, to someone only up to this point in the series, about the Gems and their relationship to other gems.
- It’s apparent that gems have been engaged in warfare, including on Earth; one can gather as much from what one can catch about what Pearl says about the gem shards in Frybo, and Serious Steven takes place in the middle of a “gem battlefield”. (Serious Steven also has a mural that seems to depict Rose Quartz fighting in the war, but I very deliberately didn’t take a close look at it because the episode didn’t call attention to it and I’m trying to approach things from the perspective of a casual viewer.)
- From what I’ve read, part of the impact of Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem for real-time viewers came from the show’s “implications” that a) the Crystal Gems were the only gems left anywhere and b) the show was a fantasy involving magic and not the science-fiction show it became. I never got the former implication, and both are belied by Pearl’s statement in Cheeseburger Backpack that the place they’re travelling to was “an oasis for gems on Earth“, which instantly raises the possibility of gems outside of Earth somewhere in the cosmos. Of course, with both Lapis and the revelation about the corrupted gems, even that bit of information ends up upended by the two-parter, but it still ends up having less impact than Lapis’ attitude towards the gems. And it’s still highly unlikely that there are any uncorrupted, unimprisoned gems on Earth outside the Crystal Gems, even though they used to be. How much of that can be chalked up to whatever caused the corruption, how much to death in warfare, and how much to something else remains unknown.
- On that note, several pieces of gem technology and architecture seem to run on gems that get bubbled and treated similarly to corrupted gems, and in the case of the gem central to the plot of Steven’s Lion, may even have minds of their own. In that, they may be similar to the gem shards of Frybo with their “partial consciousness”, but are they corrupted or something else, and more to the point, how do the Crystal Gems see them? Is it possible that the gems have seen them in much the same way they saw the mirror before the events of Mirror Gem? The fact the gem in Steven’s Lion doesn’t do anything until Steven throws it onto the beach, at which point it attempts to reconstruct its citadel, suggests it’s not really capable of more than that, at least in its current state.
- While on the topic of gems outside of Earth, the gem communication facility in Coach Steven, for which the Gems’ response to it producing “electromagnetic interference” is to destroy it, is also worth noting. I didn’t think much of it on its own because the Crystal Gems are really the only ones with any use for communication facilities on Earth, but it becomes eyebrow-cocking in the aftermath of Mirror Gem/Ocean Gem. It raises the prospect of the Gems trying to shut themselves off from their fellow gems, for what could be, at this point, good or bad reasons. Either way it does put in a new perspective Garnet and Pearl’s concern about Lapis’ escape.
- Both Lars and the Cool Kids and An Indirect Kiss deal with living, possibly conscious plants that Rose Quartz tended to but which went out of control in her absence. When the moss blooms at the end of Lars and the Cool Kids they seem to have gems in their center. Are they “merely” plants or have they been corrupted as well? Did Steven even do the right thing by delivering the moss to the top of the hill?
None of this really seems to lessen the sense of unease and even raises questions about the degree to which the Gems’ concern about the corrupted gems is genuine. It can’t really be ruled out that the Gems really do, as Lapis says, care about the Earth but not their fellow gems, to the point of imprisoning any they come across. Of course caring about Earth hardly makes them villains, but if they have even less concern about their fellow gems than they’ve let on, there needs to be a damn good reason for it for Steven to accept it. If they’re trying to maintain radio silence they may be outlaws from gemkind, or gems may well be mostly evil outside of our heroes, or even both. The extent to which any of these are true is something that’ll need to be nailed down pretty soon for Steven to make an informed decision of what side of gemkind he’s on.