Morgan Watches Steven Universe In-Depth: Nightmare Hospital

2018-06-26 (4)Or: Why Connie Maheswaran might be the best, most fascinating love interest in the history of children’s television.

(Note: Although I’ve been spoiled about most of the plot to the series right up to the most recent episodes, this post attempts to approximate, as best as I can, the perspective of someone watching on September 10, 2015, the day this episode aired. To aid in maintaining this perspective in future posts any discussion of this post in places I would be privy to should avoid any events depicted or things revealed past this point. You can also read my original tweets while watching this episode.)

This is Connie Maheswaran.

2018-06-30 (2)I’m going to break the “only-up-to-the-current-episode” conceit for this paragraph (and to some extent the rest of the post), but as with pretty much everyone on the show I already knew a lot about her and her character arc before I started, but there were two things in particular that stood out and became relevant fairly quickly: she was Steven’s love interest (though never stated in so many words), and she was a wildly popular character. At least two different livebloggers have been reduced to chanting her name they love her so much, with Loreweaver breaking out into cries of “CONNIE EPISODE” upon just seeing her, and apparently her relative absence during Season 3 was a source of considerable consternation within the fandom. In a genre where love interests and romance in general can often be treated as an unwanted intrusion on the action of the plot, best shuffled off as quickly as possible, Connie was an example of someone who couldn’t show up enough.

For me, the point where I jumped on the bandwagon was probably her second appearance, Lion 2: The Movie, where Steven attempts to have Lion take the two of them to the new Dogcopter movie but instead ends up in Rose Quartz’s armory, where they end up having to outrun a robot shooting blasts at them. They end up getting back on Lion and finally riding to the movie theater, where Connie says to forget about the movie, making Steven think he screwed up and wondering why she hangs out with him. Connie responds:

I don’t know why you hang out with me! I’m so much more… less interesting than you! And obviously you have some sort of… magical destiny, why would you even care about something like Dogcopter?

2018-06-30 (3)That line made everything else I knew about Connie come together. After spending much of the rest of the episode showing amazement at things like Amethyst’s ability to imitate Dogcopter by herself and Steven having a lion for a pet at all, Connie’s realized that her boyfriend is a protagonist right out of one of her books or movies, and she’s slowly but surely slithering her way into becoming his love interest. More than any other character in the show, Connie is a reflection of the audience and of the reaction any real-world person would have to being dropped into this sort of situation, a fantasy nerd not only dropped into one of her books come to life but finding herself becoming a fairly prominent character in it. In that moment of doubt she thinks of herself as an ordinary nerdy girl utterly unworthy of hanging out with a big hero like Steven, but if he still likes her regardless, she’s living any nerd’s dream come true and she’s going to immerse herself in it and make as much of it as she can.

It’s worth noting that this is a big part of what makes her an ideal love interest for Steven, at least at first. Any “ordinary” girl (or guy – let’s not forget how LGBT-friendly this series is) could give Steven the sort of grounding and continual connection to humanity that Connie does, balancing out hanging out with the Crystal Gems all the time, but Connie is also able to bring a new perspective to the magical side of Steven’s life, reminding him just how awesome his life really is, even before he’s really established himself as a full-fledged Crystal Gem, and more than that her familiarity with the tropes of the genre can actually help him in his quest to achieve his “magical destiny”. Even in Lion 2 she recognizes that there was probably a reason why Lion would deliver Steven to the armory, recognizes how to activate it, and places Steven’s hand on the handprint to do so even as Steven is still complaining about being there to begin with. Later, she gets more directly involved by using her tennis skills to help defeat the robot and, in Ocean Gem, climbing aboard Lion to save Steven from the collapsing water tower. Wanting to be as much of a part of Steven’s magical life as she does means Steven has someone to talk to about his magical problems who can still bring a human perspective to it and doesn’t just shy away from magical stuff, doesn’t freak out when she hears about everything Steven goes through, but wants to jump in with both feet. It gives the two of them a connection that’s rare to almost nonexistent, exemplified by the ways Steven’s magic has already changed Connie’s life directly, fixing her eyesight and forming an unprecedented fusion between the two that underscores just how unique their bond already is.

2018-06-30 (8)But if Connie is going to be a character in Steven’s story, what’s her role in the plot going to be? Her appearances in the second season so far (and to a lesser extent the second half of the first) have been oriented towards answering that question, and a big part of that has been focusing on what sort of character Connie is herself, what her own flaws, problems, and goals are. Part of that process seems obvious enough: though it’s Steven’s idea for her to take swordfighting lessons from Pearl in Sworn to the Sword, Connie wholeheartedly embraces it by echoing what I said in my Season 1 character analysis: if she’s going to be a “part of [Steven’s] universe”, as she said in Full Disclosure, “I don’t want to be a burden, I want to help! I want to be there for Steven, to fight by his side!” But she proves disturbingly receptive to Pearl molding her into her idea of what a “knight” should be, which in Pearl’s case meant repeatedly sacrificing herself for Rose against all sense or logic, and she does so seemingly fully aware that Connie, not being a gem, can only sacrifice herself once, as though she wants Connie’s role in the plot to pull a heroic sacrifice, no matter how nonsensical. Yet until Steven talks her out of it, she’s fully embraced the notion that “you are everything, and I am nothing”.

It actually makes sense that she’d do that: Steven, after all, is the protagonist, the one with the “magical destiny”, and Connie is ultimately just the love interest, and from that perspective it would make sense for her biggest contribution to the story to be to die to give Steven angst, even if that would make her a “woman in the refrigerator”. But Steven, of course, wants none of that, if only because Connie is a fragile human who can only die once, and he’d rather not be without her. If she’s going to put herself in harm’s way he’s not going to let her take stupid risks for him but stand up for her even as she stands up for him. Steven saves Connie from Pearl’s self-sacrificing attitude because he takes the concept of love seriously, takes her seriously, and actually values what she brings to his life. And this is the other half of what makes Connie such a good character, and what makes Steven and Connie’s relationship so fascinating: even outside his magical adventures, Steven is as good for her as she is for him. In both Open Book and Sworn to the Sword, it’s clear Steven wants her to be her own person, to figure out what she wants, not just be his subordinate that does whatever he wants her to or sublimates her desires for what she perceives his desires to be (to say nothing of how forming Stevonnie in Alone Together allows her to do things she’d never be able to do on her own).

2018-06-30 (9)Which brings me to the topic that has become an increasingly prominent theme of Connie’s appearances since the second half of the first season and comes to a climax in this episode: Connie’s home life, what it means for her as a character, and what it says about her embrace of Steven’s adventures. When she’s first introduced, we learn that her dad’s work as a lifeguard leads her to move around a lot, implicitly explaining why Steven held on to her bracelet for an entire year and also why she doesn’t have any friends, but in her subsequent appearances her family appears to be permanently settled down, if not in Beach City itself. Instead, starting in the latter part of Season 1 we start to learn more about her home life and her parents, how they seem to rigidly structure her life and try to protect her from anything and everything. (This episode, in particular, indicates that Dr. Maheswaran has tried to block out every hour of every day for her, engaging in extracurricular activities for most of the time she’s not in school.) It would seem to be an easy bit of pop psychology to conclude that Connie thus gravitates to escapist fiction as a way of escaping from her parents’ controlling strictures; it’s not even clear that they’ve allowed her to be a kid at all. (Connie makes clear in Open Book that her fandom of one particular fantasy series is in part because of the anti-authoritarian themes she sees in it and her frustration with the ending is rooted in her sense that those themes were abandoned in favor of a pat happily-ever-after ending.) Couple that with how little sense of self she seems to have outside her relationship with Steven, given how quick she is to embrace Pearl’s teachings, and it’s tempting to wonder if she’s embracing Steven’s life for the right reasons or is just latching onto something her parents aren’t telling her to do and might shy away from it once she sees what it really entails.

That’s probably overthinking things, though. I’m of the opinion that who people are is impossible to extricate from their experiences; even if Connie has immersed herself in escapist fiction just to get away from her controlling home life, she’s done so for so long that it is ultimately a part of who she is, and certainly she seems to enjoy Steven’s life more than anything her parents make her do. Still, it’s resulted in an increasing tension between what Connie’s parents want her to be and what she’s actually becoming as she’s immersed herself in Steven’s adventures. Steven and his weird magical family is the complete antithesis of the Maheswarans’ vision of Connie’s life, an element they can’t control and know little about, and certainly nothing about what Connie’s doing when she’s with them. Hiding her healed eyes or Stevonnie from her parents is one thing, but given her parents’ concern for her safety, it was perhaps inevitable that Connie’s first appearance since Sworn to the Sword would have to tackle the tension head-on. For Dr. Maheswaran, seeing her daughter bring home a sword is a threat to her daughter’s safety; for Connie it enhances her safety and allows her to protect herself without her parents’ coddling.

2018-06-30 (10)It would be tempting to let this fall into another trope, about the kids who go out and have exciting magical adventures while hiding it from their oblivious parents, but Steven Universe is not that kind of person, nor is Steven Universe that kind of show. Connie may be comfortable with maintaining a Clark Kent-esque “secret identity” for her parents, but Steven has never been shy about dishing about his life to everyone he comes across, and since The Test both he and the show have adopted a firm belief that honesty is the best policy. It helps that, as this episode makes clear, gem monsters aren’t something that stick to the shadows, to some magical land, or even exclusively to Beach City; they’re something anyone can encounter at any time.

Honestly it probably would have been better for me to write this post after Sworn to the Sword (except that a Sworn to the Sword post would have had to be at least half about Pearl), as this episode is really about Dr. Maheswaran more than Connie, but that still makes it a fascinating episode in its own right. Something that always fascinates me about the show, and another thing that makes Connie such an interesting character, is what happens when normal people come into contact with the reality of what Steven and the Gems deal with on a regular basis. Connie wholeheartedly embraced it and wanted to get as much of it as possible, Kofi dismissed the Gems as a “circus act” until the pufferfish monster directly threatened him and his family beyond simply knocking Garnet into his shop, Sadie managed to defeat an invisible gem monster pretty much singlehandedly and at least partly redeem herself for her emotional manipulation in Lars’ eyes in the process, Greg was inspired to write an entire song upon meeting an actual space alien and her friends after he’d already adopted an outer-space theme for his stage persona, the Cool Kids stood up for Steven and his need to unwind by playing with Peridot’s escape pod after all the stress he’d been through with Jenny in particular (who’d already experienced what the Gems could do at that point) placing herself in the path of one of Garnet’s punches when Garnet was about to punch out who she thought was Peridot, and I could write a whole post about Ronaldo’s embrace of Beach City’s “weirdness”.

2018-06-30 (11)This episode gives us a glimpse of someone not already in some sense inured to that “weirdness” exposed to it for the first time, which has only been seen before with Connie, Greg, and William Dewey. Unlike Greg, Dr. Maheswaran actually encounters the dangerous side of “gem stuff” (which we don’t know if Greg experienced first-hand before the start of the series); unlike William Dewey the encounter isn’t played for laughs; and unlike Connie Dr. Maheswaran is an adult more concerned about the danger the monsters pose to her and her daughter than how cool it is or how cool Steven (and Connie) are for defeating them. This episode gives us a glimpse at a character brought face-to-face with something she can’t even comprehend and gives us a sense of the genuine fear she has to confront at the threat they pose, and forces her to wrestle with the notion that, for all her attempts to protect her daughter, when it comes to the fusion experiments Connie is more equipped to protect her than the other way around. And once the danger has passed, she has to reckon with how little she really did know her daughter and how she really reacted to her mother’s attempts to protect and coddle her, and while she does accept that, she also expresses her concern that Connie didn’t feel she could trust her and her desire to know what she’s doing so she can step in if Connie really does get in over her head. Which again, is about as realistic a take as you can expect on the situation considering it involves mutant gem fusion experiments.

Even given the relative uniqueness of Connie’s perspective, it would still be somewhat cliche for Steven Universe to portray her entry into Steven’s world as pure wish fulfillment. Her appearances this season, however, show that this show has never been one to hold up to those expectations, and this episode in particular shows how the reality of what she’s getting into affects her and those she loves, even if for Connie herself the prospect of becoming a fantasy hero is still, for the most part, fun and games. With Steven having mostly already mastered his powers (in both this episode and the last one his use of his shield, the sole province of hugely dramatic moments in the first season, isn’t focused on at all) Connie’s is the one true coming-of-age story left in the show, and it’s one that stands to be fascinating to watch, especially given the self-awareness of the situation she already had coming in.

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