Warning: contains major spoilers for recent episodes, especially “Can’t Go Back.”
This week’s Steven Universe episodes put fans through the emotional wringer. The second episode, “A Single Pale Rose,” will undoubtedly draw the most attention with its game-changing revelations about the show’s mythology. But the first episode, “Can’t Go Back,” offers poignant tragedy in a slightly lower key. It highlights the ongoing struggles of Lapis Lazuli, one of the show’s most poignant (and, for this writer, relatable) characters, and why she is an integral part of the show’s dynamic.
It’s hard to say that One Thing won me over about Steven Universe, but it took awhile for the show to grow on me. The mid-season one arc “Mirror Gem”/”Ocean Gem” was definitely a game changer, where the quirky Adventure of the Week humor and action formula turned into something deeper, a story line with more gravity and stakes than your average children’s cartoon. No longer were the Crystal Gems merely stranded aliens fighting random monsters, they were alien outcasts waging a rearguard action in a long-ago war. And no longer would we, or Steven, automatically view Gems (even the Crystal Gems) as benevolent forces.
The principal catalyst for all this, of course, is Lapis Lazuli. And man, what an entrance she makes!
We first meet Lapis as a mirror, whom Pearl stores in her own gem and thoughtlessly gives to Steven as a way to learn about Gem history. Steven discovers that the mirror is sentient, able to reflect his own words and actions back to him in thoughts, jokes and conversations that leave Steven delighted and baffled. All goes well until Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst freak out at the mirror’s ability; Garnet tries to destroy the Mirror, branding it a “thing, a tool” causing the Mirror to scream. Steven sides with his new friend and releases the gem on the back, which turns into a person: Lapis Lazuli.
Initially, Lapis is elated to be freed, thanking Steven and embracing him as a friend. Until the Crystal Gems arrive, snapping her into a defensive posture. She summons a massive wave to smash Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst, complaining about their mistreatment of her: “Did you even wonder who I used to be?” She escapes, taking the ocean with her in a vain attempt to reach Homeworld. After a further confrontation, Steven manages to talk Lapis down, healing her gem and allowing her to fly back home.
Yet Lapis came back to Earth. And keeps coming back, with her personality deepened and her traumas increased each time. Between a detailed, ever-evolving characterization and Jennifer Paz’s consistently perfect voice over work, striking the right tone between moody teen and otherworldly being, she deserves more analysis than many fans grant her.
Lapis began in an early, unpublished Rebecca Sugar comic as Margo, a teenager whom Sugar describes as “an old self-insert character from high school.” From the bits and pieces Sugar’s released, Margo is a troubled young adult who barely survived high school with her sanity intact. She’s alienated, depressed and struggles to form relationships. Then a much-beloved cartoon character from her youth comes to life…and Margo leaps at the chance to escape into fantasy made flesh. Only things aren’t so easy as she hopes, leading to misunderstanding, manipulation and further despair.
It’s clear that both Lapis and Margo reflect Rebecca Sugar’s own struggles with depression, how she (like many people, mentally ill or otherwise) use entertainment as an escape and a way of connecting with emotions that are otherwise hard to express. The show reflects Sugar’s love for all manner of cartoons, from anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon to Looney Tunes and The Simpsons, while demonstrating how difficult translating their lessons into reality can be. There’s a poignancy to Lapis that many analyses (especially those who brand Lapis “selfish” and cowardly and flaky) seem to miss. More than anything, she is damaged and desperately lonely, a victim of unimaginable trauma struggling to form connections not based around abuse or selfish needs.
In her first two episodes, her conflict’s straightforward enough. Lapis trapped in a mirror offers a literal manifestation of inability to control her own life; not only that, it robs her of her humanity. (We later learn that she wound up on Earth, was poofed by a Crystal Gem, then interrogated for centuries by Homeworld gems who mistook her for an enemy.) Garnet explicitly brands her as a “tool” incapable of thoughts or feelings; this proves a recurring theme not only for Lapis herself, but the hierarchical Gem society in general, where Gems are made for specific functions and deemed “defective” if they deviate from the norm. And their first response to Lapis forming is to instantly fight her. No wonder Lapis immediately wants to leave.
Therefore, most of Lapis’s introduction defines her by loneliness. Steven offers her empathy, and she responds by revealing, if not friendliness, then at least a nicer side. She just wants to go home…but more than that, she wants someone to treat her as a person, not a thing. Her powers are meaningless if she can’t use them of her own free will; her personality is irrelevant when she’s just a “tool.” Steven meets both needs…simply interacting with her allows Lapis to open up and feel like herself; talking to her, rather than treating her as a monster, calms her down; healing her gem allows her to travel home. It would be a nice, poignant storyline if that were the end of it.
But reality is messy, and so is Steven Universe. Not long afterwards Lapis is forcibly returned to Earth, kidnapped by Peridot and Jasper and forced to inform on the Crystal Gems (though she tries hiding Steven’s existence from them). During “Jail Break” she’s imprisoned on Peridot’s ship; Steven promises to rescue her, but can’t, and she barely survives the crash. This leaves Lapis vulnerable to temptation from Jasper, who talks her into fusion to defeat the Crystal Gems. They form the monstrous Malachite, only for Lapis to immediately turn the tables on Jasper and drag their new form to the bottom of the ocean.
This storyline, in particular, provides Lapis much of her depth. Whereas other fusions (Garnet, Stevonnie, etc.) provide expressions of love and trust between two individuals, Malachite is a raging monster who’s unstable, violent and filled with hate. “Chille Tid” explicitly shows Lapis and Jasper wrestling for control over the fusion, a perpetual, mutually destructive fight that obliterates their separate identities into an embodiment of violence (“I’m not Lapis any more…We’re Malachite now!”). Our sympathies are likely with Lapis at this point, between the presentation of her actions as a sacrifice and her disheveled, battered appearance. This grows more complicated later on.
The next time Sugar addresses this directly is “Alone at Sea,” when Lapis joins Steven and his dad Greg on a boating trip. Lapis tries to have fun but is constantly reminded about Jasper, and how awful their relationship was. And, worst of all, how much she misses it. Steven’s aghast, and viewers may be as well. But Lapis admits that she loved the power and strength Malachite gave her, after a lifetime of weakness and exploitation. And she admits to receiving pleasure from the ability to control Jasper, to wreak misplaced revenge on someone who, for all her evil actions, didn’t fully deserve it.
It seems that Lapis’s detractors (and there are a depressing number out there) use this as their springboard to their hating her. Which is understandable, since Lapis admits to what’s essentially domestic abuse (similar, in Agnew speak, to Lawrence of Arabia‘s confession that he enjoyed killing Gassim), but misguided. Jasper, not Lapis, initiated the relationship on the explicit promise that it would make them powerful, not from any affection or love. Lapis, after accepting, merely repays her in kind, offering a fusion of motives from the selfless (helping Steven and the Gems) to selfish (revenge).
Without excusing Lapis’s behavior, it’s unfair to judge it without this context or nuance. Maybe it’s because this is a cartoon (or, worse, a “kid’s show”), or maybe it’s because the leads are females where flaws are somehow less forgivable, but it’s clear that some fans can’t stand when the Gems aren’t perfect. Consider one of the leads: Pearl’s obsessive attachment to Rose and struggles to understand Earth and form her own identity provide a major part of her character development. Yet episodes exploring this lead to backlash from some fans who merely see Pearl’s jealousy and selfishness and not the multifaceted person they inhabit.
Thus with Lapis. Having admitted her unhealthy attitudes, she’s conveniently confronted with Jasper begging her to re-fuse with her. “I’ve changed! You’ve changed me!” Jasper promises, an abusive spouse appealing to Lapis’s vanity and insecurity. Lapis, to her credit, recognizes that Malachite was bad for both of them, and winds up driving Jasper away when she won’t heed Lapis’s warnings. This is a sharp moment of character development; it doesn’t excuse Lapis’s past actions, but it does show that she’s trying to change and be better. The takeaway shouldn’t be that she’s now perfect or recovered.
Because she isn’t. And her other major relationship, her friendship with Peridot, graphically illustrates this. Whether or not you “ship” Lapis and Peridot (I don’t particularly care), it’s clear that their friendship/romance/insert label here is pivotal to both characters and their understanding of Earth. For Peridot, a reformed villain embracing her role as a Crystal Gem, it’s an opportunity to make amends; for Lapis, it’s a reminder of her resentments and struggles to adapt.
After Lapis and Steven take a sight-seeing flight in “Same Old World,” Lapis seems energized with hope and the possibility of living on Earth. Until she returns to the Barn, and finds Peridot already living there. Throughout “Barn Mates,” Peridot attempts to win Lapis’s friendship, only for Lapis to rudely reject each overture. This seems harsh until you recall that Peridot captured and interrogated Lapis for months at a time, making her just another person who callously used Lapis. It takes more than a few nice gestures to convince Lapis that Peridot’s changed.
Lapis’s mindset here is harsh, but understandable. Peridot seems incapable of a heartfelt apology (“You were just full of such useful information. That’s a sincere compliment!”), expecting Lapis to instantly accept her transformation, and Steven’s insistence that she’s a better person means nothing to Lapis; nor do her gifts, which Lapis dismisses as “garbage.” Even so, she learns to tolerate her little green friend and tries empathizing with her; by the next episode, “Hit the Diamond,” she joins the Crystal Gems in an impromptu baseball game with a gang of Rubies to save Peridot.
Peridot and Lapis’s relationship proves healthier than Jasper’s, and helps Lapis acclimate to Earth. She and Peridot watch an awful soap opera called Camp Pining Hearts, create bizarre art called “Meep Morps,” and enjoy each other’s company. Despite this much-needed connection, it’s clear that Peridot’s kindness hasn’t solved everything. Lapis lapses from hostility to flippant indifference, still struggling to connect or let her emotions show. And Peridot, we learn, enables her by refusing to discuss troubling matters, from Jasper’s presence to, in Season Five, a possible Diamond invasion.
Another key episode is “Room for Ruby,” where Navy, a Ruby survivor from “Hit the Diamond” and subsequent episodes, seems to defect to Earth and asks Peridot and Lapis for help. Lapis is constantly frustrated by Navy’s cheerfulness and immediate love for Earth. While she distrusts Navy’s motives, she also immediately blames herself, assuming that there’s something wrong with her for not instantly adjusting.
The episode ends with Navy revealing that the whole episode was an elaborate con to recapture her ship and humiliate the Crystal Gems. Where Steven and Peridot are furious, Lapis is overjoyed. “I was right!” she proclaims as they watch Navy sail into the cosmos, laughing hysterically. In one sense, she was right to mistrust Navy; in another, it’s a validation that there’s nothing wrong with her inability to handle trauma. Comparing yourself to the happiness to others is another inevitable part of depression; if everyone else is happy and satisfied, why not me? Because you’re not other people.
Even when Lapis seems better-adjusted, there’s an inescapable undertow of depression. No longer traumatized, she’s simply detached and lazy, watching TV all day rather than doing anything productive. Between her hair becoming gradually more unruly and Jennifer Paz trading her wounded angel voice for teenage snark, it’s not especially subtle. Even in “Gem Harvest,” when she and Peridot manage to cultivate some crops, she lapses into defeat when the corn and pumpkins don’t magically come to life…or when Pumpkin leaps into Steven’s arms (“It’s just come into existence and it already doesn’t like us”). Why bother?
Which doesn’t make Lapis’s departure from Earth in “Raising the Barn,” her exile to the Moon and subsequent escape in “Can’t Go Back,” any less traumatic. She fully expects Peridot to leave Earth with her, and feels betrayed when she won’t. Yet she can’t bring herself to abandon her friends entirely, keeping watch over Peridot and the Gems and wishing that she had the strength and courage to join them. This leads to a hauntingly poignant song where she expresses her disconnect, her wish that she could be a good person but fear that she can’t. At episode’s end she ignores Steven’s entreaties and flies further into space, proving her fears are both self-confirming and inescapable.
The tragedy of Lapis Lazuli stems from her inability to move on. She suffers from trauma and depression, possibly post-traumatic stress disorder from a life of mistreatment. It’s easy to read her as a frustrating, even negative character, but I feel that’s missing the point. She is difficult; she is hard to understand; sometimes, she’s hard to even like. But it’s all of a piece with her characterization, which seeks for a nuanced understanding of what it’s like to live with mental illness.
We don’t know what Lapis was like before being trapped in the mirror. Maybe she was happy and content with her lot as a terraformer; maybe she had the same issues, in less extreme form. We never see another Lapis Lazuli to confirm or deny any suspicions (it does seem like Gems have default personalities, however much they try to transcend them). We only see the shattered remains of a life gone wrong. And someone who has to pick up the pieces with a minimum of help.
It’s clear that Lapis responds to empathy and understanding. Hence her instant bond with Steven, the one constant throughout her appearances on the show. Hence her growing more attached to Peridot the less the latter tries to impress Lapis and starts treating her as a friend. But she also can’t stand deceit, which explains her falling out with Peridot. And her social awkwardness seems driven less by fear of others than self-loathing; a fear that she can’t connect, that she is different, and that others can’t understand her and she can’t understand them. And that’s it best not to try.
As heartbreaking is it watching Lapis fly into space, it’s understandable. She feels that she’s let everyone down, least of herself. Her mindset doesn’t allow her to accept that her friends love her for who she is; she’s convinced they only see her failures and bad actions. She can’t conceptualize that she’s a person of worth, that she matters to others and that she deserves to be loved. Which is a blinder which she can’t remove, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how many friends she makes.
So many shows, movies and novels struggle to offer sympathetic treatments of mental disorders, from the severe to the commonplace. I still cringe when I see ads for The Good Doctor, which evidently treats autism as a superpower, or the reductive, often-insulting treatments of illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia in other works. So often, mental illness still serves as the butt of jokes and dismissiveness from people who should know better.
Characters like Lapis Lazuli are important. Aside from BoJack Horseman, an animated series with a similarly nuanced take on depression, I can’t even think of a cartoon character I’ve empathized with as readily as Lapis. Sure, I love Pearl and the other Gems as much as anyone; Mabel Pines from Gravity Falls represents everything good and joyful in the world; Hank Hill and the King of the Hill cast are recognizable and funny. But I never felt that I was Mabel Pines or Hank Hill; sometimes I do feel a lot like Lapis Lazuli, even if I’m a cishet white guy and not a queer-coded blue space rock.
People like myself struggling with mental illness share Lapis’s dream that someday we can find happiness on that distant shore. We make mistakes, we hurt and alienate people we love, and we struggle with issues ranging from basic interactions to broader emotions and life-altering decisions. We don’t ask to be excused for our mistakes, just for patience and understanding. Nobody deserves to be alone. Not you, not me, not Lapis Lazuli.