Steven Universe Rewind – Back to the Barn

Episode Description: Steven and the Gems head back to the family barn to build some robots.

Spoiler Policy: All spoilers up to and including the currently discussed episode will be unmarked. Spoilers for episodes beyond the current point will be enclosed in Future Vision blocks, which will include spoilers for the entire series.

The episode picks up shortly where we left off at the end of When It Rains. Peridot told the Gems she was finally willing to discuss the Cluster. Here, she’s enlisted Steven for a multimedia presentation on how doomed they all are.

You know, considering they were in the Kindergarten, she could have taken them to the control room and shown them the same thing she showed Steven, but then we wouldn’t have had Steven busting out of the cardboard box with a hand puppet, in an attempt to show what Cluster formation would be like. Peridot protests that it won’t look anything like that.

Future Vision

When the Cluster does finally form in Reunited, it takes the form a big, beefy arm. Of course, it’s a partial formation done under its own volition, as opposed to an uncontrolled formation, which likely would have resembled a much larger version of the Gem mutants.

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The Gems are alarmed. Pearl proposes that they’ll need to build a machine to take them to the center of the Earth, but she’s interrupted by… Peridot saying they need to build a machine to take them to the center of the Earth.

I work in tech, so I’ve been there in many a meeting, Pearl.

Amethyst notices Pearl’s sour face at being disrespected, and clearly finds it funny. Even though the Sardonyx incident and Amethyst’s growing maturity have seemed to put them on better terms, Amethyst isn’t quite above it all, although she does have the small grace to drop her smile when Pearl notices.

Pearl remarks that they’ll need parts, and Peridot decides that they should dismantle everything in the house to find useful technology, smashing a microwave, a old-style corded phone, and Steven’s TV/VCR combo, marking yet another time when Steven’s TV gets destroyed. Steven stops her, saying he has a better idea that doesn’t involve destroying the house. Amethyst: “Classic Steven.”

We return to the Barn, a setting last seen in Space Race, where Steven and Pearl created an ill-fated spaceship. “UUU Space Travel” is a reference to that — Steven and Greg declared their operation to be “Universe & Universe Universal Space Travel.”

Pearl suggests organizing the parts in the barn and creating a rough blueprint based on what they have available. Peridot agrees to this, and then attempts to dismiss Pearl, clapping her hands and saying “That will be all!” When Pearl is confused, Peridot stage-whispers, “How do you get her to leave?”

Future Vision

“That will be all” is apparently a “standard” way of dismissing a Pearl, as we see in the episodes featuring the Zoo. It’s even the title of one episode, playing off the moment when Pearl mockingly says it back to Holly Blue Agate.

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Pearl, of course, says she isn’t leaving, and Steven points out that she’s going to help build the drill. Peridot is confused, and as she does, casually drops a critical piece of world lore. “You’re confused. A Pearl can’t build a thing like this… Because Pearls aren’t for this! They’re for standing around, and looking nice, and holding your stuff for you… right?”

So in one fell swoop we have confirmed a few things that you’ve probably suspected if you’re paying attention: Gems are created to fulfill specific purposes; there is more than one of any particular gem type; and that Pearls specifically are a kind of servant class. This has all been hinted at at several points, but the most obvious was probably Jasper calling Pearl “a defective Pearl” back in The Return.

These beliefs are so ingrained in Peridot that she even turns to Pearl, expecting her to agree with her assessment. Our Pearl, of course, objects, and Peridot laughs at her when she says she expects them to work together. “Did you teach her to talk like this?” she says, both angering Pearl and giving us an idea of your average Homeworld Gem’s opinion of a Pearl.

Steven is still confused, so Peridot elaborates: “She’s a made-to-order servant just like the hundreds of other Pearls being flaunted about back on Homeworld.” Arguably, Pearls aren’t even really servants, but more like objects or status symbols. Suddenly, Pearl’s deep insecurities about her place in the universe make a great deal more sense. She was literally designed to be a glorified ornament, and instead, she’s here on Earth, fighting, building, and trying to forge her own path. Her moments of weakness in episodes like Rose’s Scabbard and Cry for Help make far more sense in this light, as she grapples with the fact that she isn’t technically “meant” to be doing any of the things she does, and sometimes props herself up with others.

This aspect of Pearl is, I think, one of the reasons why she’s one of the most beloved and popular characters on the show. While it’s true that most of us weren’t literally created to be servants, lots of us are saddled with societal expectations that are stifling and don’t fit us. In particular, if you’re a woman, while you’re not a custom-order servant, there can be a great deal of social pressure to be quiet, demure, find a man, and manage a household. Pearl’s rejection of her original “purpose” in order to pursue things she finds more personally fulfilling — and her continuous insecurities as she does so — are very relatable.

Future Vision

While Peridot calls Pearl “made to order,” we don’t really get to see what that means until Volleyball, where we learn that Pearls are created in a factory of sorts called the Reef.

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Pearl doesn’t actually deny anything Peridot is saying. Peridot goes so far as to pick up her sash and comment that this Pearl looks like “a fancy one,” as Steven tries to wrap his head around this knew information.

Peridot asks who Pearl belongs to. “Nobody!” she says, angrily pulling back her sash.

“Then what are you for?” asks Peridot. Pearl has no immediate answer.

While it isn’t explicitly said, there’s really only one likely candidate for who Pearl once belonged to: Rose. Knowing that recontextualizes so much of their relationship: Pearl’s willingness to sacrifice her safety for Rose’s; Pearl clinging to Rose’s scabbard, something she likely used to carry for Rose herself; Rose affectionately calling her “my Pearl”; the way Pearl insists that there are secrets of Rose’s that only she knew and her defensiveness over that fact.

Future Vision

Later, of course, we learn that Rose was once Pink Diamond, and Pearl was made to serve her. Although Rose did set her free and clearly cared for her, neither were truly able to fully break out of their original dynamic, and in particular, Pearl didn’t really forge an identity independent of Rose until after Rose was gone. Yes, she learned how to swordfight and how to be an engineer, but both of those were seemingly in service of the Rebellion, a Rebellion she pretty clearly only joined because of Rose.

How much free will Pearl really had in this situation is up for debate. I can believe that Rose didn’t want to force her to do anything she didn’t want to, and I’m sure they both thought it was done freely, but the reality is that Rose started a Rebellion and Pearl really had nowhere else to go without her. If she hadn’t chosen to go with Rose and join the Rebellion, she likely would have ended up caught and either shattered or repurposed for another Gem, not to mention the fact that choosing not to go with Rose would have meant breaking free of her ingrained conditioning, something which she isn’t entirely able to do thousands of years later. Personally, I think it’s possible to accept that Rose meant well and cared about Pearl, while still also recognizing the inherent power imbalance in their relationship.

Even at this point in the series, Pearl is still grappling with the question “what are you for?” Although she’s perhaps accepted intellectually that she doesn’t need to be “for” anything, it’s clear she hasn’t yet internalized it. She has a tendency to put Steven in Rose’s place and make her life about protecting him, which isn’t always healthy for either of them. It isn’t until Future that she begins to live a more independent life.

The exchange about “Who do you belong to?” “Nobody!” gets repeated more cheerfully in Bismuth, in a way that makes it seem like an inside joke between Pearl and Bismuth. Of course, it’s very different coming teasingly from the mouth of an ally and friend, as opposed to Peridot, who at this point is only a very tenuous ally that still subscribes to Homeworld ideology.

Peridot’s comment about Pearl being an especially fancy one could be considered foreshadowing that she once belonged to a Diamond, although it’s a bit muddled, considering she picked out that outfit herself well after Rose’s death.

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Since Pearl apparently doesn’t have an owner, Peridot claims her for her own. “Ha! A Peridot with a Pearl, what would they say back home?” This goes over with Pearl about as well as you’d think.

This indirectly confirms that Peridot is a lower caste Gem, not the sort that would normally (or ever) be awarded a status symbol such as a Pearl — and oh wait, I just realized that I can start talking about the Homeworld caste system outside of Future Vision, and oh boy I have things to say! For example, do you think that Gems in Peridot’s caste even get personal property? My guess is that she does not, and all the tools and tech she uses belongs to the Gempire. Only high caste Gems are allowed personal property and other luxuries like a Pearl.

Future Vision

We later get some more direct confirmation that Peridot is lower caste, and an Era 2 to boot, which clearly makes her underprivileged in Gem society, although apparently not quite as low as a Pearl, who are considered possessions more than anything. She also tends to have a bit of a guilty fascination with doing “elite” things that she normally would not be allowed to do, such as claiming a Pearl here and sitting on Pink’s chair in It Could’ve Been Great.

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Pearl snaps that Peridot is now on their turf and that she didn’t fight a Rebellion just to take orders. “I am a natural technician and a certified Kindergartner! I was made for this!” says Peridot, confirming what she was designed for, which is pretty obvious by now. I am amused by the notion of a certified Kindergartner, though. Do Gems have to take additional training to specialize in something like this, or was she born “certified”?

Pearl and Peridot squabble over who can build better. Steven tries to reconcile the two, but for once his abilities fail him. However, just a moment later he has a better idea:

GIANT ROBOTS

Steven is so immediately thrilled with the idea of giant robots that he proposes they have a robot-building competition. Pearl and Peridot are skeptical for about three seconds before diving into the barn to build robots as fast as they can.

Garnet and Amethyst show up, assuming that the flurry of activity means they’re building the drill. A starry-eyed Steven informs them that they’re building robots now.

Pearl completes hers first. Her robot is tall, lanky, and graceful, much like her, and has a traffic cone for a nose, also much like her. She is wearing the same spacesuit she wore in Space Race.

Future Vision

Once again, in an episode that has a heavy focus on Pearl’s past and her insecurities, she’s wearing a Pink Diamond front and center.

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Compared to Pearl’s robot, Peridot’s is shorter and stockier, as well as being diamond-shaped like her hair.

Future Vision

The Peribot will appear again in Message Received, when she uses it to escape from the Crystal Gems to deliver a message to Yellow Diamond.

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Steven presides over the Robo-lympics, a series of challenges with the right to be in charge of building the drill as the prize. The first challenge is balance. While Pearl’s graceful robot balances perfectly, Peridot’s falls directly on its front, much like Peridot has a tendency to.

Crushing is won by Peridot, who has big claws on her robot. Ballet is won by Pearl, of course, as Peridot doesn’t even seem to know what that is. Jumping is won by Peridot, who has big springs in her robot’s feet that propel her out of sight.

The Speed challenge results in both robots crashing into a tree, and so Steven accordingly awards the point to Tree.

Other events include: jumping jacks, tug o’ war, rock paper scissors, and blasting rocks apart with lasers. Amethyst and Garnet watch and cheer them on. Amethyst is downing handfuls of popcorn, and Garnet starts to eat one piece of popcorn, then decides not to.

In one contest, they are both tasked with painting pictures of Amethyst, who is lounging around in underwear. She has some experience in being a model, as Vidalia used to commonly paint her. Steven looks at both paintings and judges the outcome as “subjective.”

Future Vision

Next season, Peridot will become interested in art as a hobby, although she calls it “morps.” She also, eventually, becomes quite good at drawing, as seen in In Dreams.

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After the final planned event, in which both robots chuck cars as far as they can, Steven declares the result to be a tie, which means they have to build the drill together. While Pearl begrudgingly accepts this, Peridot does not, declaring Pearl to be beneath her. Pearl gets fed up and has her robot kick the Peribot, resulting in an all-out robot fight.

“Stop! Giant robots shouldn’t fight!” shouts Steven, which makes me wonder what giant robot media he’s actually watched. Amethyst enthusiastically cheers Pearl on.

This scenario is really a perfect one for playing on both of these characters’ insecurities. The reason Pearl lets Peridot’s jabs get to her so easily is because they hit her biggest raw nerve: her lack of purpose and feelings of adriftness in the world. She’s spent so much time trying to forge a life apart from the “purpose” Homeworld gave her, and failing at a task compared to the “natural” engineer Peridot eats away at her self-esteem.

Peridot’s self-worth has also taken a massive hit after her failure to escape from the Crystal Gems and the loss of her limb enhancers. Thousands of years of indoctrination has taught her that the only worth in her existence is as an engineer, and that Pearls are mere decorative objects. From her point of view, losing this competition means that she is worse at her designated purpose than the equivalent of a sentient hatrack.

A frustrated Peridot screams that Pearl is just a shiny toy and asks “where do you get off acting like your own Gem?”

Pearl, having had more than enough, punches her hard in the face. As much as I love Peridot, she was pretty much asking for this one.

“What you’re saying may be true, but I’m still gonna kick your butt!” Pearl yells as her robot goes flying towards the Peribot. I appreciate that Pearl doesn’t try to deny her original purpose at all — her argument is purely that she is more than just that.

On a side note, both the color palette and the facial expressions in this episode are top-notch.

Unfortunately for Pearl, her determination does not stop Peridot from catching her robot’s leg and tossing her around, Hulk-fighting-Loki style.

Peridot gloats about winning and being in charge, but she is completely ignored by the Crystal Gems, who rush to Pearl’s side. Amethyst praises Pearl for being awesome and “hardcore.” And how cute is Pearl’s little blush and smile?

Peridot doesn’t understand what’s happening and why they aren’t listening to her, since she won the competition and Pearl is “just a common Pearl.”

Steven: “You’re wrong! If Pearls really are like you say they are, then Pearl isn’t common at all! She trained herself to fight. She learned how to build things. And she works hard every day to be greater than she already is. That’s not common. That’s amazing!”

You can tell how moved Pearl is by Steven’s little speech. She really needed to hear this after the embarrassments she’s suffered.

They turn and walk away, Amethyst commenting that Pearl should come wrestling with her, a reference back to Tiger Millionaire. You can definitely see how the events of the Sardonyx arc has strengthened the friendship between Pearl and Amethyst, as apart from some amusement at the beginning of the episode, she’s been firmly in Pearl’s corner the entire time.

“But I won! What about the rules?” says Peridot.

Garnet shrugs. “Welcome to Earth.”

It’s notable that Peridot’s frustration comes mainly from the fact that the Gems aren’t following the rules they set out by immediately putting her in charge. This is probably the biggest break with her existing worldview, even more than accepting a Pearl can build a robot — the idea that not everything in life runs on a rigid set of rules, with punishments for breaking them.

It’s actually much better for the team that Peridot won. If Pearl would have won, Peridot would have likely begrudgingly gone along with the results because those were the rules established, not because she learned anything. Here, she sees that the Crystal Gems prioritize their care for Pearl above who gets put in charge, a great demonstration of how things work differently here than on Homeworld.

Future Vision

In The Answer, we see that “Welcome to Earth” was Rose’s response to Garnet when she began questioning everything she knew.

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As the Gems clean up the mess left by the Robo-lympics, Peridot approaches Pearl. “I have to admit, it’s… remarkable that a Pearl such as yourself could become such a knowledgeable technician. Why don’t we get started?”

Pearl demonstrates that she’s holding the drill upside down, and she corrects it.

I like this exchange. It’s not an apology and it’s far from perfect. Peridot has been indoctrinated into Homeworld views for thousands of years, and shedding them entirely in a day would be completely unrealistic. But Peridot has also been shown to be quick to learn and adapt. She’s slowly learning that Earth has an entirely new set of rules and we see here that she is making a significant attempt to follow along.

I’ve commented before that Peridot has a tendency to pick up whatever behavior she sees around her — something that’s going to become extremely relevant in the next episode — and you can see that here, where the Crystal Gems’ display of empathy and camaraderie has got her trying to reconcile with Pearl.

Peridot even compliments Pearl on the “round appendages” on her robot. Apparently they don’t have wheels on Homeworld — it seems like they use either hovering or robotic legs for movement. It does seem like it would be overall difficult to create that amount of technology with no concept of the wheel, though.

We get a new background to the end credits, signifying that we’re going to be spending multiple episodes in the Barn. This is the first time the show has moved to a non-Beach-City location for a significant stretch of time.

This episode is truly Steven Universe firing on all cylinders. It’s got great humor, critical character development, interesting lore, and a solid emotional core. I really wish that Pearl and Peridot had more chances to interact on the show, because their dynamic here is delightful.

Next time on Steven Universe Rewind! It’s Amethyst’s turn to make friends with Peridot in Too Far.