Or: Well, that was a bit of a letdown.
(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 March 12, 2015, the day these episodes 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 The Return and Jailbreak. Also, apologies in advance for going back and forth with Jasper’s pronouns.)
After I wrote my post on The Test, expressing my frustration with the relationship between Steven and the Crystal Gems, Steven Universe really picked up its game the last few months. Almost immediately after The Test, we got episodes where Steven actually managed to find out some important facts about the Gems and what happened to cause such a schism between them and their kind, episodes where Steven actually figured out how to ask followup questions for once, and several emotional episodes fleshing out the character of the Gems themselves. We learned that Rose, Pearl, and Garnet turned against their own kind and kicked them off the Earth to prevent them from draining its resources to create more gems. And then on the heels of that, building up towards the season finale (well, sort of, more on that in a bit), we started building to a climactic showdown, one where the gem homeworld learned of the continued existence of the Crystal Gems and prepared to reignite the war that seemed to have ended so many thousands of years ago, bringing technology far beyond anything the Gems had seen last time they encountered their kind.
All of it was building up to this two-parter, when whatever force Peridot was bringing with her back to Earth (as forewarned by Lapis two episodes ago) finally arrived, in a “ship” shaped like a green hand. I originally thought I couldn’t fairly assess The Return separately from the two-parter it was a part of, but the more I thought about it (especially for reasons I’ll get to in a bit) the more I realized just how masterful it was. For one thing, the first few minutes are set up as a deliberate parallel to Laser Light Cannon, the second episode of the series (which really premiered as the second half of the first episode), with Greg taking Amethyst’s place as the one going with Steven to pick up the bits and everyone looking at the green hand the same way they looked at the red eye in that episode. This time, with no need to figure out where the light cannon is, everyone just sets it (and a three-pack of light cannons to boot) up, gives the signal, fires them away… and the hand shuts them down harmlessly. Steven convinces the mayor to evacuate the town, and Greg starts packing up to flee with everyone else, including Steven’s cheeseburger backpack. Garnet tells Steven that, while they know they sometimes don’t treat him as a full member of the group, in this case they’re not sure they’re going to survive this encounter and he needs to help lead the townspeople going forward. And that’s pretty sound logic, and Steven even goes along with it… until, almost outside of Beach City, Greg implies offhandedly that, for whatever reason, Pearl and Garnet wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for Rose’s shield, leading Steven to decide if they needed Rose’s shield then, they might need Rose’s shield now.
This is the culmination of Steven’s character development over the entire course of this first season. At the start of the series Steven was just a snot-nosed bratty kid who wanted to go on magical missions with his magical moms despite not really having a handle on the powers his magical heritage promised. As late as An Indirect Kiss, the episode before the two-part midseason finale, he worried he might never get those powers, wouldn’t be of any use to the Crystal Gems, and would ultimately have to forget about magic and live out life as a normal human being. Steven’s control over his powers has gotten better – the show doesn’t even bring attention to it when he whips out his bubble, for one thing – but what’s really made him worthy of being a member of the Crystal Gems has been his developing emotional maturity more than his powers. While the first half of the season was about him trying to make everyone get along, including the Gems whenever they started bickering, more recent episodes have seen him figure out why they treat him and each other the way they do, and what to say when they’re at their most emotionally vulnerable (and yes, The Test falls into that category even though I don’t agree with the answer he came up with there). Steven has learned more about why the Gems are as they are, what they’re dealing with and what they need at any given time, what the importance is of what they do, and what his own place is in that. Steven doesn’t go back to the Gems because he wants to, as he would have at the start of the series; he goes back because he feels he needs to. He’s realized, as another parental figure once said to their superpowered charge, that “with great power, there must also come great responsibility”.
Peridot’s “backup” turns out to be a single gem, a hulking brute named Jasper, with Lapis as their captive. Jasper mocks what’s left of the Crystal Gems in front of them, and has Peridot fire a shot from the ship to wipe them out. The Gems still want him to stay back and out of the line of the shot, but Steven leaps in front of them, declares “I’m a Crystal Gem too!“, and summons his shield for only the third time in the series. Steven had previously summoned it during the previous major climax in Ocean Gem, and it seemed to have the effect of disrupting Lapis’ water constructs and getting her to stop the fight, but this occasion comes across as a far more climactic, triumphant moment – partly just because it’s the first time the shield actually gets used as a shield (or has any actual unambiguous use in battle at all), partly because of the reasons just described, but also partly because it’s the moment that Steven irrevocably becomes a valued member of the Crystal Gems, someone who can’t be expected to just “stay safe” in the face of danger, someone as vital to the Gems’ success as any of them. The Gems could have died in that moment if he hadn’t come back and put himself into harm’s way over their objections, and to skip ahead a bit, being captured with the rest of them turns out to allow him to break all of them out, as the force fields that shock full Gems and might as well be as impenetrable as a wall to them only give him a tickle, allowing him to create an opening for the full gems to leave their cells. After these episodes, the Gems owe too much to Steven to leave him behind on anything.
For the moment, though, Jasper recognizes the shield as the one belonging to Rose Quartz, and starts to take the Gems much more seriously. Jasper questions the puny frame he’s found “Rose” inhabiting, Garnet attempts to charge at her only to be hit with a gem weapon that splits her painfully in two and causes her to fall to pieces, Jasper taunts “Rose” over her having fought in the war and now has the rebellion’s leader at her mercy, headbutts him as Pearl and Amethyst charge at her, and smash cut to black. It’s a great way to start off the finale: remind us of how far we’ve come and have a big showdown that emphasizes how formidable the opponents are, leaving the audience in stitches wondering what’s going to happen to our protagonists and if any of them are going to be okay.
So it’s disappointing that the second part, Jailbreak, ends up being such a letdown. It starts out okay: as mentioned earlier, Steven discovers he can leave his cell relatively easily, which the first gem he encounters can’t. Steven is unable to convince Lapis to escape, but the first two gems he does free, Ruby and Sapphire, chase down each other and have a heartfelt reunion in what appears to be the center of the ship, where they fuse into Garnet and give Steven a future-vision of where Pearl and Amethyst are held… and it’s at this point that the episode goes off the rails. Rather than being a properly climactic end of the season or even follow-up to The Return, the episode becomes all about Garnet and fusion more generally, as the middle third of the episode focuses on a fight between Garnet and Jasper, with Garnet rapping a validation and mission statement of her nature as a fusion, in response to Jasper’s disdain for the concept introduced in such an out-of-nowhere way, literally seconds before the song starts, that it comes off, at least in the moment, as being tacked-on to give Garnet an excuse to sing it. Steven freeing Pearl and Amethyst (the two gems we actually knew coming in to care about), Amethyst tying up Peridot, Pearl retargeting the ship to return to Earth, are all relegated to the background of what almost amounts to a music video for Garnet’s song.
I understand why the writers would want to do things this way; a big season finale would seem, in theory, to be a good time to introduce some big revelation about one of the Gems like Garnet being a fusion. But giving her a big song-and-dance about it is the sort of thing you do for an episode specifically about Garnet, one where it makes sense for the climax to focus on her and her fused nature. Jailbreak ends up serving too many masters at once, revealing Garnet to be a fusion, having her affirm that status, and also serving as a suitable climax to the two-parter and the season more generally, and all of them suffer for it (but the last one most of all). There’s nothing setting up Jasper’s attitude towards fusion, nothing indicating anything personal between her and Garnet, not even anything indicating that Garnet might be doubting herself any more than the other Crystal Gems. Jasper says what amounts to one line disdaining the concept of fusion, and Garnet responds with an entire song affirming herself in the face of it, mere minutes after we learned she’s a fusion at all, with little time for us to really absorb it. (To be clear, there was plenty of foreshadowing of Garnet being a fusion if you knew where to look, but that still doesn’t diminish the importance of the moment actually confirming it, and certainly doesn’t diminish the importance of actually seeing the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire, which is kind of the point of the song.)
It’s here that I do have reason to criticize The Return for not doing more to set up the conflict that ends up being at the center of Jailbreak, though again, I understand where the writers are coming from; the first part of Jailbreak, the build-up to the reveal about Garnet, is very well-done and suitably dramatically paced, and having Jasper directly call out Garnet for being a fusion before that would ruin that. But Jasper could call out the concept of fusion more generally, in a way that makes the audience think he’s referring to the use of Opal against the ship, possibly mixed in with accusing “Rose Quartz” of only being as successful as she was by being a fusion herself, with Garnet becoming unusually enraged at his badmouthing of fusion, possibly to the point of making a critical mistake she could then avoid in Jailbreak. Garnet would then become the counterpoint to Jasper’s view on fusion the instant we see Ruby and Sapphire form her, and we’d actually have a reason to care about the verbal and physical smackdown she delivers to Jasper that isn’t delivered literal seconds before it starts, and it would make sense for that to be the focal point of the episode since it would be an ongoing conflict in both parts of the two-parter.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the episode ends rather anticlimactically, with Jasper deciding she needs a fusion of her own to take Garnet on on even footing, badgering Lapis to accept, and the resulting fusion using Lapis’ water powers to drag itself into the ocean against Jasper’s will, all with no involvement from the Gems whatsoever. (It does come back to Lapis’ mistrust of the Gems from Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem, with Jasper trying to use Lapis’ continued captivity as a reason for her to get her revenge, but Lapis’ response doesn’t seem to come from any desire to protect the Gems or even Steven, merely a desire to be the captor instead of the prisoner, even though she’s effectively imprisoning herself as well.) After such a good setup, Jailbreak takes a hard left turn towards resolving a conflict it barely manages to set up at all (again, not to discount the foreshadowing of Garnet’s nature that existed), and makes the ultimate defeat of the two-parter’s major villain be all about fusion, which wasn’t even a topic until the second part, and almost nothing to do with the Crystal Gems.
On its own, Jailbreak is not a bad episode – as I mentioned, the reveal of Garnet being a fusion is done well, and even the song would work if any effort was put into setting up the conflict it purports to resolve. Were it solely a Garnet-centric episode with a properly-set-up conflict, without having to also wrap up the season, it might even be a great episode. Instead, what it is is a bad season finale, a bad payoff to the showdown built up over the past few episodes. And it almost feels like the creators (or Cartoon Network) know this, because there’s still one more episode that’s part of this event, effectively starting Season 2 literally the day after ending Season 1, as if to acknowledge that The Return and Jailbreak didn’t form a real season finale, even though it’s enough of one that one additional episode can’t be more than denouement and tying up some loose ends. It really is sad that the show ended up flubbing the payoff to this part of the plot after so much build-up, or for that matter let the reveal of Garnet’s nature hijack an episode supposedly devoted to another purpose and leave it hard to appreciate on its own merits.