In the fourth episode of Steven Universe Future, Steven helps a familiar face, only to discover something dark lurking beneath the surface. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Steven Universe Future.
Trigger Warning: For extensive and detailed talk of abuse, trauma, and PTSD.
Holy shit. Well, this was my favorite episode thus far, and it was also the most upsetting. I think for incredibly obvious reasons, of course! Well, if you haven’t been following me for a while, perhaps not so obvious. In less than ten minutes, this show managed to depict the complicated ramifications of being abused. There is much here I recognize, that I have experienced, that I literally still continue to deal with to this day. And it’s distilled so easily??? With care? Empathy? Detail? And it still all fits in the framework of the show’s mythology???
So let’s talk about Pearl, Pink Pearl, and Pink Diamond, who learn by the end of this episode that sometimes, abusers isolate their victims. Who learn the power of saying that they are still hurting. WHO LEARN HOW HEALING IT CAN BE TO FIND OTHER PEOPLE WHO WERE ALSO HURT IN THE SAME WAY. I love the red herring that is volleyball, because I assumed that Pink Pearl would somehow get involved with the intense volleyball tournament that the Jaspers were playing. Rather, that’s how Pink Pearl gets her unique nickname: Volleyball. (For ease of identifying her, I’ll refer to her as Volleyball from here on out.)
Yet even in that is a clue towards what we’re going to see later in the episode. Volleyball fawns over how Pink Diamond used to use nicknames on her. Initially, I saw this as part of the pattern that’s been in past episodes. All these gems are learning how to live a life outside of the violent hierarchy they used to be in. It means that they’re all adjusting! And that adjustment will take time. It’s not immediate. So, Volleyball had been close to Pink Diamond as her Pearl, and it felt understandable that she’d still view her through a positive lens. At the same time, Pearl herself was at a much different stage in her understanding of Pink Diamond and what she did to her. She her reaction to Volleyball was conflicted. And then we’ve got Steven, who continues to struggle with what his mother did and what it means to him.
More on Steven later, including a theory. I was very surprised by the trip to The Reef, as I did not expect to ever see Homeworld again after the end of the first series. I figured that chapter of Steven’s story was closed. However, I now see why this had to happen where it did. The Reef itself is a nightmare masquerading as “healing,” which… whoa. What a METAPHOR for what these characters have been dealing with. This was where Pearls went for cosmetic fixes and accessories, so of course Pearl wouldn’t be swayed by the nostalgia of it all. This is how the story hinted at the diverging experiences of Pearl and Volleyball. Both of them were in denial in wildly different ways. So Volleyball’s joy over that ribbon wand represented her view on the past: She saw everything through the lens of her denial. Being Pink Diamond’s Pearl was a magical, whimsical affair! Pink Diamond was affectionate and fun! She was impulsive, couldn’t keep secrets, and, unfortunately, volatile.
All of which doesn’t sound like the Pink Diamond that Pearl knew. God, watching this unfold and realizing what the show was doing? I’m getting goosebumps again. There’s so much literature and studies and anecdotal evidence that supports the split we see here. It is often why it’s so hard for some people to accept that an abuser could have possibly abused someone else. The fallacy here is that because a person treated you one way, that means they had to have treated everyone else the same way. “They were nice to me,” you might hear, “so how could they have been awful to you? It must be your fault.”
It’s a little more complicated than that here because Pearl DOES believe that Pink Diamond is capable of abusive behavior because she knows first-hand. She was on the receiving end of it! Thus, all the stories that Volleyball told about Pink Diamond felt incompatible. Pink Diamond couldn’t have been those things. It was heartbreaking to watch because, as Pearl later confesses to, she didn’t believe Volleyball. Understandably, it seemed like Volleyball was bragging about the treatment she received.
Actually, there’s another layer to this. Pearl came BEFORE Volleyball. And that means that Pink Diamond DID change in big ways. Not all of them, as we learn from Volleyball. She was still volatile and lashed out at others, harming them in the process. It’s the whole reason Volleyball is missing an eye. Her pearl wasn’t damaged; she was suffering from psychological harm. That harm came from how Pink Diamond repeatedly injured Volleyball as a catharsis. It’s an incredibly abusive behavior, but Volleyball couldn’t see it that way, at least not until she found out what Pink Diamond USED to be like.
They are two halves of a whole. And that’s the beauty here. It’s not just about trauma and PTSD and how much those things hurt. When Shell traps Pearl and Volleyball inside to “rejuvenate” them, they both fuse. Over what?
A shared experience of pain.
Together, they learn a fuller story of the person who hurt them. Together, they were able to validate one another. Together, they were able to understand that there is no instant healing from this sort of pain, but rather, you can begin to pick up the pieces if you’ve got love, kindness, and compassion on your side.
I don’t know the name of Pearl and Volleyball’s fusion, but did anyone else get some intense Revolutionary Girl Utena vibes from all of that??? At the very least, it felt like a visual and thematic reference to a lot of magical girl anime/manga. Right??? From the ribbon wand to the whole reason the transformation happened? (Given that Utena is so heavily dependent on emotional growth and the conflict of trauma, I really do think this was full of intentional references.) Anyway, y’all. Pearl and Volleyball, holding hands on the beach, not healed but on a journey of healing together? THIS IS EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER WANTED FROM FICTION. What a rejuvenating message and story! IT’S SO GOOD!
That leaves me with one last thing: Steven’s power. It activates a couple times in “Volleyball.” Both times were within scenes where Steven was reacting to his mother’s legacy. Remember when I pitched (and then immediately dismissed) the theory that this was stress-based? What if I wasn’t specific enough? What if this is SPECIFICALLY about the psychological pain that Steven hasn’t dealt with in regards to Pink Diamond and the Gem War? So much of these four episodes has addressed healing in the aftermath.
Which makes me wanna ask this question: When does Steven get to heal?
The video for “Volleyball” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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