Gem Drill picks up right where Super Watermelon Steven left off, with Steven waking up in his regular body to The Cluster causing damage already, and ends up delivering one Steven Universe’s best episodes yet. It’s not necessarily my favorite episode of the series, though it is up there, but it’s hard to find an episode as meticulously well-crafted & thoughtful as Gem Drill ended up being. There are so many elements here to touch upon as the episode wisely utilized most of the prior episodes and character development to deliver an episode with a cohesive and powerful message. If I had to summarize the main points of Steven Universe, I’d say the series is about relationships, individualism, and how those two core concepts interlock with each-other. No episode in the series thus far better illustrates this, than Gem Drill.
The most immediate element of the episode that has to be addressed is The Cluster itself. For the last stretch of season two, the primary focus of the Crystal Gems had been preparing to stop The Cluster. The series quickly positioned The Cluster as the most urgent and dire threat yet, as it’s very existence spells doom for the planet Earth. However Steven Universe isn’t a series that likes to tackle problems with binary view on alignments. With few exceptions, the show has avoided painting people/gems/monsters as simply “hero” or “villain”. Though several have been framed as bad in the past, the series has always moved past that. Instead of condemning Lapis Lazuli or the gem monsters, Steven tackled them with compassion and ultimately seeks to maintain peace through helping them out. So it comes as no surprise that the show went this route with The Cluster rather than sticking with Steven and Peridot successfully Gurren Lagann’in it.
The series already established what the contents of The Cluster are, a bunch of shattered Gem shards with the motivation to become “whole” again. This serves as the basis for their need to fuse and the parallels to the real world are already apparent. People are always looking for ways to identify themselves, which typically exhibits itself through cliques in high school, expressing our passions online, our career, or the relationships we developed, it makes sense that losing one or more component of our conceived notion of ourselves can make us spiral out of control. It’s not uncommon to hear someone suffering from a break-up immediately turn to start another one. Trying to hastily recapture the essence of the relationship, to feel ‘whole’ again instead of ‘broken’. Much like The Cluster, this behavior is more destructive than therapeutic. Already the series is touching into some profound material but we’ve only scratched the surface. Let’s continue drilling deeper because after all, this isn’t the only strong parallel we’re treated to here.
When Peridot debuted mid-way through season one, it was pretty hard to see where her character was eventually going to end up but I don’t think I ever would’ve predicted this, at least back then. For the past ten or so episodes, Peridot has grown a lot through her interactions with the Crystal Gems, and in Gem Drill, we see The Cluster mirror Peridot’s growth. The real beginning of this story arc came with the episode Catch and Release, where Peridot, missing one of her limb enhancers, captures Steven in a desperate attempt to return to the Gem Homeworld. Other episodes in the series have defined Peridot as being strictly tied to the conventional roles established on her Homeworld, someone who confines her worth to the value she provides in her field. With her purpose disconnected, having to walk on one leg, and the whole little issue about the planet exploding, Peridot made a risky move and, as I previously established, it backfires on her. She winds up bubbled for her troubles and if it wasn’t for a meddling Steven, her story would’ve ended there. For this episode and the next episode we see Peridot slowly warm up to Steven and the idea of working in unison to stop The Cluster. Much like The Cluster, Peridot initially refuses the proposal, remaining steadfast in her position to leave the Gems out of it just as The Cluster insisted to still fuse despite Steven’s protests. In both instances however, Steven manages to sway their opinions, usually through example (putting the two shards together for The Cluster, and just generally being a considerate person to Peridot [though you could specify either giving her back her limb enhancement or teaching her about the rain if you want to detail it]).
It’s no coincidence that Peridot’s face turn and The Cluster’s reveal start in the same episode or that both stories coincide here in Gem Drill. Peridot even brings it up herself albeit not directly. We see her briefly lament the loss of her old life on Homeworld before declaring that it’s okay because she has the Gems. It’s also important to note what brings this conversation up, since it extends to the parallel between her and The Cluster. Her nostalgia is spawned peridotite, which is the material used to make Peridot. Setting up a contrast between a “whole” singular material like The Cluster once where and a group of eclectic gems like they now are. I’ve already alluded to it but during the span of episodes leading to this one, Peridot plays the role of the individual Gem Shards and the Crystal Gems represent the ideal she wishes to become. However, it’s not as simple as just agreeing to work together. She can’t just become a Crystal Gem because the circumstances warrant it, nor should it be expected to be an immediate process. After all, the Crystal Gems aren’t a monolith, they’re a collection of several individuals, with unique and diverse personalities. The following episodes from her decision to lend a hand focus on her getting to know each member separately and ultimately establishing a relationship predicated on her attempts to understand their perspectives. Leading to her forming a legitimate bond with each of them in the process. With Pearl she learns that Pearl’s use is not limited to her designed role and that it’s possible to extend past that. With Amethyst she learns boundaries and the importance of empathy and expressing guilt. With Garnet she learned that fusion can be more than a simple tool and how important her attempts at understanding truly are. So come Message Received, when she calls out Yellow Diamond for being a Clod, it’s a true sign of her fully accepting the lose of her old “whole” self and embracing the new “whole” self she created naturally. As it turns out, what we see play out between Steven and the Shards that form The Cluster acts as a condensed version of Peridot’s development. Make no mistake, this is some top-notch stuff, the culmination of episodes in a way that’s more thematic and character driven than simple plot beats.
Believe it or not, there is still more to dissect and unpack with this episode. One little note I didn’t touch upon earlier was the design of The Cluster. Perhaps a bit too obvious to dedicate time to this late in the game but I think it was very wise decision to model them as ghosts-esque figures. As any fan of Supernatural will inform you, ghosts tend to linger around only if there’s some strong emotional attachment or desire to the world. A clever way to incorporate folklore and mythology into a piece of work to add another layer to it.
Perhaps the best aspect of this episode is how well all this sinks in without requiring much thought to piece this puzzle together. Yet there is one element of this episode that took me awhile to parse, The Cluster’s voice. For anyone unaware, The Cluster is voiced by Zach Callison, Deedee Magno-Hall, and Shelby Rabara or Steven, Pearl, and Peridot respectively. Not only did I not notice it on my first viewing but once it was pointed out to me it took me awhile to decipher the intent behind it. My initial thought was simply that they just choose the three stand-outs from a stellar voice cast but it seems unlikely that an episode as expertly crafted as this would throw in a potential curve ball by playing favorites. I’ve also read that perhaps it signifies that The Cluster was primarily formed from Peridots, Pearls, and Quartz but if that was the case, it’s weird that they got Zach instead of Susan Egan (though it would be easier and likely cheaper to go with Zach but I feel the staff has poured too much love into the series for decisions to come down solely to finance). Instead, I think it’s because those three are the characters who most relate to The Cluster’s struggle, tying in the theme even stronger. I’ve already addressed Peridot and I hardly think I need to dedicate time to Pearl, who has several episodes solely about her often self-destructive and reckless love for Rose Quartz. Steven seems like the odd-ball here, his desire for relationships never back-fire worse than getting stuck in a bubble for awhile. But his desire for a stable, whole relationship is likely far greater than anyone else. Even though it doesn’t just extend to his own but the relationships of other and in terms of identity, episodes like Joy Ride so that Steven does indeed have some struggles with this. Perhaps it doesn’t perfectly slot in with the other pieces but that’s my interpretation of it.
Due to the enormous length of this post, I’m going to gloss over any remaining comments I have, which are all derived from the surface elements of the episode. As much as I love the parallels on display, none of this would’ve worked if the content outside of that wasn’t strong. Luckily, the writers were in top-form here, the interplay between Steven and Peridot is absolutely delightful, loaded with plenty funny and genuinely sweet moments. I adore how Peridots priorities positioned Steven over the imminent threat of The Cluster. Stuff like her making sure Steven was fine before continuing drilling or that quick little smile she displayed as Steven was regaining consciousnesses go a long way to portray the caring relationship that formed between the two. The visual direction was among the series strongest too. Boasting some of the most striking images in the series. The music as always, matched the mood and tone perfectly and transitioned with a grace hard to find in most television shows. With Jasper, sporting a new found appreciation for fusion, on the loose, I don’t entirely anticipate this being the last we see of The Cluster but for now, this stands as a poetic conclusion to the arc. One that emphasizes the importance of getting to know those around you and forming real bonds with one another rather than rapidly try to approach a new relationship. That even if you’re broken, you can be whole again, there’s a whole community of like-minded individuals out there for you. That the healing process can be a communal one. The season has just started and if this isn’t putting their best foot forward then July 18th can’t come soon enough.