No sooner do I lament the lack of Peridot’s (voiced by Shelby Rabara) presence in the recent episodes of Steven Universe, than Rebecca Sugar and her team provide the viewers with a heaping helping of the misanthropic Homeworld defector. And what writers Joe Johnston and and Jeff Liu have provided the audience with is exactly what the show needed at this mid-point in the week.
It’s only been a handful of installments since the gang captured Peridot, but those episodes have been spread out over more than three months of real-world time. So it’s reasonable to forget that Peridot has only been among Steven (Zach Callison), Garnet (Estelle), Pearl (Deedee Magno), and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) for a short amount of in-universe time. “It Could’ve Been Great” addresses this issue head on in a couple ways: with an open acknowledgement of this fact by Pearl, and an original-song-set montage at the beginning of the episode that shows how she is adjusting to life on the planet as well as working with the Crystal Gems rather than against them.
The song is kind of light and fluffy, but it begins with Steven basically explaining the idea of music to Peridot. It’s a nice moment not only because music is so integral to the show, but also because the sequence acts as a character moment for Peridot. She is just beginning to find her own identity outside of the purpose for which she was created, so any action that doesn’t have a concrete reason for existing can be a little confounding; music exists only for our pleasure – it’s an idea that takes her some getting used to, but she does eventually take to it in a fun way.
I’ve worked in special education at an unnamed high school is South Central Los Angeles for several years now, and it’s pretty difficult not to recognize in Peridot’s behavior some of the signs or symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder. She’s aggressive, compulsive, excitable, irritable – all of which are emotions many of us experience, probably daily. But it’s her inability to understand the “why” of many second-nature nuances that really pings my sensors, especially in regards to the second half of episode, wherein the gang travels to the moon in an attempt to find the location of a dangerous Gem construct that they are hoping to destroy. The rest of the cast watches in horror as Peridot eagerly and passionately lays out exactly what the Homeworld gems had planned for the planet way back when, ultimately blurting out the episode’s titular line. She has completely misread the room, and Garnet angrily calls her out for her insensitivity, pushed far to the other end of her usually cool and collected persona.
It’s a scene that is actually hard to watch because I’ve witnessed these kinds of interactions before, from both sides. I’ve been the frustrated authority figure, baffled by a total lack of understanding, and I’ve been the socially unaware outcast, trying so hard to fit in while totally missing out on essential context. I’m sure we’ve all been on either side of that coin, and it’s heartbreaking the way the characters ease into that scene – first by showing how enraptured Peridot still is with all of the Gem artifacts and arcana left on the moon (there are a lot of nice additions to the show’s mythology up there), then little hints of dialogue such as her ignorant praise of the toxic facility in which Amethyst was created, until finally she is unable to contain her admiration for the way things could have been. She gets carried away. Way away.
And through it all Steven tries to be the beacon of positivity that keeps the characters (and the show) from getting lost in their own crisis. His enthusiasm and elation drives the episode through the first two-thirds, and he even tries to redeem it once it’s drifting toward a dark place, but this is Steven Universe, and Steven Universe doesn’t shy away from dark places, even if the character it’s named after would prefer it otherwise. “It Could’ve Been Great” ends with a melancholy, somewhat-cliffhanger, and it’s the best episode of the mini-run so far. It’s funny, until it’s not. It’s sweet, until it’s not. And when all of the good vibes end, that’s when it gets even better. There’s no happy resolution for the characters at the end of 11 minutes – and there doesn’t need to be.
“It Could’ve Been Great” fakes out the characters and the audience in a really subversive way, and that earns the episode four out of five Moon Boys: