Time to get down to Bismuth.
“Bismuth” is a milestone episode for Steven Universe, the episode where the series episode count hit triple digits with the holy number, 100. Well, not really. To be honest, they kinda cheated by counting all the mini-shorts they’ve produced as a singular episode in order to inflate their episode count so “Bismuth” received the distinction of the 100th. Regardless of the technicalities involved here, “Bismuth” is certainly treated as the 100th episode. The show pulls out all the stops in order to make this episode a spectacle, from little touches like adding anime eye-catchers (which remind me strongly of Yu Yu Hakusho’s, likely due to the chibi art-style and comedic nature) to the grander changes, such as the twenty-two minute duration as opposed to the regular eleven minutes. Stuff like opting to remove the title card and instead splice in the information during the episode are small details but make the milestone celebration that much more emphatic. And the fact that they didn’t just display them carelessly, instead utilizing Steven’s travels through Lion’s mane to switch the credits is such a minuscule addition but I found it incredibly cool and it illustrates how much care is put into the show. Where even the minor components such as writing and directing credits are doled out in a manner a little more clever than should be expected.
The eponymous episode is all centered around the introduction of Bismuth, whom Steven accidentally releases from the clutches of Rose’s bubble. And immediately the show creates this sense of intrigue and suspense. Not only does it take the entire credits cycle before Bismuth is even removed from Lion’s mane in order to interact with the main cast but right from the start there’s a lot about the situation the spells trouble. From Bismuth’s battle stance awakening, to the fact that she was trapped in Rose’s bubbled secluded in her initially secret, from even Pearl, Lion’s mane despite not being corrupted. There’s clearly something suspicious about this scenario. In true Steven Universe fashion, none of these concerns are immediately addressed, the particulars of Bismuth’s absence and sudden reappearance aren’t as important to Garnet and Pearl as having their old comrade in arms back. The reveal that she was one of the original Crystal Gems only adds more uncertainty to the situation but at the moment Amethyst is the only one who expresses any concern (though only to Steven). The opening half of the 100th deals mostly in comedy, there are hints to the darker content later to come like in the series of facial expressions Bismuth’s makes when Pearl mentions Rose’s explanation to Bismuth’s disappearance, and due to Bismuth’s nature as essentially a living time capsule from a time of war, not all the moments are upbeat like when she learned of the casualties they suffered but generally speaking the first half features brighter content.
Fitting for the 100th episode, “Bismuth” displays both sides of the emotional spectrum and excels at both of them. Even ignoring the more devastating second half, “Bismuth” wouldn’t rank among the funniest episodes of Steven Universe but there’s still a lot of quality jokes throughout. Bismuth is back in Bismuth and her sense of humor is on constant display here, some of her jokes aren’t even a pun on the word business! The strongest features about her jokes here are that they aren’t just jokes, they serve to help establish her connections to the other Crystal Gems, like how her and Pearl joke around about the caste system they fought against or her fusion jokes with Garnet. The montage of them all indulging in Steven’s newer rituals hosts a plethora of great visual jokes. I particularly like the where Amethyst uses shape-shifting to cheat at cards but still loses to the even bigger cheater miss future vision Garnet. Of course, Amethyst’s method of eating a pepperoni chaaaaps pizza burrito abomination is hilarious. My favorite joke however, was Steven’s repetition of “like an oven”. I don’t have any insightful comment about that joke, I just felt like sharing that I had to pause the episode for about a minute just to laugh at that joke during my re-watch of it.
Before I dig deep into the core of the episode, I have a few more stray observations that I wish to communicate. First of all, that despite Bismuth serving as a break from the Amethyst focused episodes we’ve been receiving as of late, the episode still manages to incorporate the main elements from there. I love the dour outlook expressed on Amethyst’s face and through her body language after Bismuth highlights her distinction as a Quartz soldier once again, though I’m glad it’s alleviated quickly through her upgraded whips. Another element carried over is the dynamic between Amethyst and Steven, and how fundamentally different their relationship is within the Crystal Gems. The introduction of Bismuth positions both Amethyst and Steven in the same place, meeting someone new as opposed to the reuniting with a long-lost friend. Allowing for Amethyst to be able to confide her suspicions to Steven without worry for any ramifications. It’s a brief interaction, also serving to further alert us viewers that everything isn’t as it appears, but I really appreciated that’s strengthened by carrying over the focal points of the prior episodes. And finally, the way show uses Lonely Blade to foreshadow Bismuth’s ideology was genius while also containing a neat cultural reference with Muramasa.
But enough dilly-dallying, the high point of this episode happen in the second half, particularly in the final confrontation between Steven and Bismuth. This second half is essentially composed of two different scenes, that contrast themselves in particularly every way imaginable sans two vital components. The first component is the characters involved. Steven and Bismuth are the only that appear in these scenes, though the content in both are vastly different. The first scene is a low-key discussion between the two. Bismuth opens up about her history with Rose, at least to the extent of their initial interaction and her overall impression with Rose. The following scene escalates into essentially a life or death battle, where as valiantly as he tries, Steven is incapable of mitigating the situation back to simple discourse. This drastic change in tone and content is reflected in the lightning selected for these scenes. The series is no stranger to the red oni, blue oni concept, demonstrating it quite effectively with Sapphire and Ruby, but here they apply in order to convey the disparity in mood between scenes. During the night-time conversation the scenery is dominated by a calm blue while during the action sequences in The Forge we’re treated to a red palette. As I’ve previously indicated, there are two primary similarities between involved in this distinct sequences, the second correlation is in both Bismuth elevates Steven over Rose. In the first scene, it’s more of an encouragement than out-right declaration but her final lines in the episode read as a powerful proclamation to Steven’s own value.
The amount of attention I’ve actually allocated to Bismuth thus far has been criminally meager so it’s about time I rectify that. Uza Aduba of Orange is the New Black fame, does a fantastic job of voicing Bismuth. This is yet an example of Steven Universe’s exemplary job of casting. The confidence she exudes in her performance greatly aided her likability and she delivered those emotional stingers at the end of the episode perfectly. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear her sing here but I’ve sampled her work and trust me, she would’ve nailed that too. Bismuth herself is a fascinating character both on her own right and how she relates to the world around her. There’s a clear parallel to current antagonist Jasper in the way that both insist that Steven’s Rose and how power is pivotal to both’s of their character arc. The crucial difference comes in ideology and position, the latter is crystal clear as Jasper’s the opposition to the Crystal Gem not an integrated element like Bismuth whereas the former functions as the reasoning behind it. Jasper’s view of power is supported through her creation, she’s a Quartz soldier, designed specifically for combat, so power is her measuring stick for evaluating worth. This is heavily contrasted by Bismuth, who seeks power to destroy the caste system that designates someone’s worth by their intended purpose upon conception. The framing in this episode makes the point here clear, committing crimes for the right cause is not always a justifiable action. The episode doesn’t out-right condemn Bismuth but it paints her extremist viewpoint as legitimate problem. The road to hell was paved with good intentions after all.
Another compelling facet I’ve barely touched upon was Rose’s role in this episode. As usual with Steven Universe, her influence permeates without ever being shown (minus her portrait). Despite the handful of “No Need for Greg” flashbacks providing us insight into Rose’s character, there’s still a lot about her that’s shrouded in secrecy. For example, we still don’t have much indication on what Lion’s connection to Rose is exactly. The crushing revelation for Bismuth was Rose’s decision to lie about what really transpired. Despite Bismuth’s importance to the Crystal Gems, having outfitted the entire Rebellion, Rose seemingly disregarded her following their encounter, simply choosing to tell the others that she lost sight of her. Rose’s intention was likely to spare the others feelings, at least I believe it to be one of the deciding factors as admittedly, I can think of several possible additional motivations. Regardless, lying for the benefit of others is a trait Steven himself inherited, most prominently expressed in “The Test” but the vital difference there is his lie didn’t compromise anybody else. And while I hold faith that Rose ultimately did still care a great deal for Bismuth, otherwise keeping her secluded in Lion’s mane makes zero sense (I even somewhat suspect she intended for Steven to eventually set her free but that’s a theory for another time), but it’s difficult not to sympathize with Bismuth’s situation. To be so quietly and quickly dismissed in the fashion Rose supposedly did is such a painful discovery that it leads to Bismuth pleading for Steven to shatter her. That ‘death’ is preferable to the treatment she received following her confrontation. I feel this is partially inspired by perceived lack of follow through on Rose’s doctrine. Instead of Rose ‘accepting’ Bismuth’s for who she was by explaining her action to her peers, she lied to them in order for them to retain their vision of her. Steven recognizes her trauma and immediately asserts that he’ll reveal everything that happened. And it’s pretty telling that this statement is what convinces Bismuth that Steven isn’t Rose, as she returns to addressing them independently.
The landmark 100th episode concludes beautifully too, featuring brief scenes expressing the aftermath of the climax. Here the show best displays how it’s visuals and score are capable of carrying persuasive emotions. I love sequences devoid of dialogue that still pack a punch, and the concise nature of them add so much power to them. Within the span of twenty seconds we’re treated to a touching farewell and a family coming together to support each-other following the loss. I love how the series uses positioning here to convey both a natural transition but the closeness between the Gems and Bismuth. It’s worth noting that the only ones holding Bismuth’s bubble are the ones who knew here prior to her conflict with Rose. Steven’s distance from the three as they part illustrates a few things. Most noticeable it allows a great impact from the transition of him watching them say their goodbyes to them coming over to comfort him. It also highlights Steven’s involvement in her ‘demise’, being too close to the incident to properly grieve with the rest.
Even though they had to cheat to classify “Bismuth” as the 100th episode, it’s difficult to admonish them too heavily when they deliver an episode as well-crafted and nuanced as this one. Despite the enormous length of this analysis and review, there is still a large quantity of topics here that I haven’t address. Including visual tricks like Bismuth’s eyes constantly being shadowed out to exhibit her limited perspective, her inability to see past her ideals and preconceived notions about Steven/Rose. To how well The Forge worked as action set-piece, contributing to perhaps the best fight in the series. A melee that operated off heightened emotions and opposing philosophies which were symbolized through the weapons wielded during the bout. Or how tight the pacing is, that even with the double-length the series still breezes by at a perfect tempo. Or how hilarious Lion’s expression is during Bismuth’s exit. There are just a myriad of aspects of “Bismuth” that succeed brilliantly. Whether they’re an inconsequential detail or a crucial plot point, they nailed pretty much every beat they attempted. And the most stellar thing about the 100th episode, is that even with all this adulation I’ve been spewing, it’s probably not even within my top ten favorite episodes of the series. At the very least, I can verify that this isn’t my favorite episode of the season. It’s astounding that an episode this incredible isn’t the apotheosis, which shows just how high-caliber Steven Universe truly is. After writing for what feels like an eternity, I can happily report, that Bismuth hours are over.