Much Ado About Malachite

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This post is going to be loaded with spoilers for Steven Universe so continue at your own peril.

PREAMBLE: WE ARE THE CRYSTAL DISCOURSE

I’ve been catching up with Steven Universe lately, and I’m not regretting it. I was curious about the Sailor-Moon-but-with-Serena/Usagi’s-dorky-son premise since the pilot dropped years ago, and finally got around to watching it en masse last year. Overall, as an American answer to the magical girl subgenre, it’s a good series. Its appeal seems to come from the fact that it’s both a children’s show and an adult show told from a child’s perspective. While it’s easy to get swept up in the vibrant visuals, comedy, and action the series has to offer, at the core there’s a story about war, genocide, classism, and loss, with a clueless child protagonist forced to carry on his mother’s legacy at the centre of it all.

Normally, this would have been a trash series where every main character constantly angsts out because of some long-standing trauma that never gets resolved. What we have instead, however, is a series that’s actually surprisingly colourful and optimistic. It seems to be a trend in Cartoon Network’s shows over the past few years to present complex and frightening themes to young audiences, and that’s great. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for, and as they get older they have the capacity to understand how deep and nuanced their surroundings are. Having media that doesn’t treat them as emotionally and mentally fragile sub-entities is incredibly important.

Unfortunately, what we end up seeing more often than not are alleged adults fighting for supremacy over the fandom that particular show births.

There is merit in arguing over the themes and ideas presented in art. Art, after all, means something different for different people, and it’s worth discussing. If I didn’t think that, this WordPress account would not exist. There is something to be said, however, about people who look at Lapis and Jasper’s relationship, and say that Jasper was the victim in that scenario.

I’ll give a quick recap: Steven Universe is the story of a half-alien boy whose mother led a rebellion against her own people in order to save the Earth, and is presently being raised by her three remaining generals. Towards the end of the first season, the antagonist Jasper makes an appearance, bringing with her the character Lapis Lazuli (and yes all the aliens are named after gemstones because they’re all supposed to be sentient gems that take on humanoid appearances). Lapis is a Gem with self-esteem issues and obvious signs of shell-shock who was trapped on Earth for a long time and escaped to her home-world, only to get dragged back.

In the last episode of the season, Lapis is manipulated into fusing with Jasper in a bid to become a stronger, more powerful Gem called Malachite. Lapis uses this opportunity to drag Jasper to the bottom of the ocean, where they spend the entire next season battling each other mostly off-screen. In season three, they re-emerge and are forced apart by the heroes, and midway through the season Jasper reappears and makes a plea to form Malachite again – which Lapis outright refuses.

Many have already compared Lapis and Jasper’s situation to that of an abusive relationship, or at the very least an unhealthy one, and as such it would be very easy to dismiss the people who dump on Lapis’ side of the “relationship.” One can accuse the claims as being the opinions of manchildren rushing to Jasper’s defense because she is the most masculine-looking out of all the Gems, or are bored teenagers trying to get a rise out of the fandom’s overly-sensitive chapters. It is possible, however, that there are some people who do see Lapis as the actual villain, and have their own reasons for it. Whichever side of this fence you do sit on, however, it’s pretty apparent that having Lapis and Jasper fuse together again would be a very bad idea – at least at this stage.

There are some big questions circling the whole Jasper/Lapis situation. Who’s in the right? Will they ever form Malachite again? Should they ever form Malachite again? In order to answer these questions, we need to ask some different ones. We need to look at who and what Jasper and Lapis are, as well as what the concept of fusion means.

Let’s dig deep, children.

PART ONE: INTRODUCTIONS ARE IN ORDER

You can tell a lot about a character based on their introduction. In much the same way the first sentence of a book is meant to drag a reader into the story, first impressions in other forms of storytelling are incredibly important. To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s run through some examples within Steven Universe’s own first episode, Gem Glow.

steven

When we officially meet the titular Steven, he is crying to his friends about the Cookie Cat brand of ice cream sandwiches being discontinued. His first lines of dialogue are: “No! This can’t be happening! This has to be a dream!” It’s an unnecessarily dramatic reaction to such a development, but given that Steven appears to be about ten years old, we expect this. In the same scene, he laments that people seem to prefer the rival brand of Lion Lickers, stating “Kids these days, I tell you what.”

After being presented with the special fridge Cookie Cats were stored in by his friends, we follow Steven home and are introduced to the Crystal Gems, his adoptive mothers. Here, we see the Gems engaging in combat with a hoard of monsters, acid-spitting creatures called centipeetles that disappear into clouds of smoke when they’re hit hard enough. We’ll get back to Steven in a minute, but for a moment let’s meet the Gems. Their fighting styles here tell us a lot about them, so let’s deconstruct them a bit further before moving on.

amethyst

First, we meet Amethyst, catching one of the aforementioned centipeetles with her whip just before it tries to eat Steven, greeting him briefly before she nonchalantly hurls it over her shoulder to an unknown fate. This is a good way to introduce Amethyst’s reckless abandon and her relationship to Steven. It also shows us that Amethyst has a lackadaisical approach to life, and that she puts the people around her in peril, a theme that will come up often.

pearl

Next, we see Pearl, artfully dispatching creatures in a manner that reminds one of both ballet dancing and shaolin kung-fu. During the fight, she is positioned near the back, standing atop the warp gate the heroes use to travel around the world. Pearl is a character defined by grace and discipline, serving as the stuffy nanny of the group who tries to maintain some semblance of order around her and keep Steven out of trouble. As such, it would make sense for her to draw her foes as far from the others as possible, while also blocking the only other exit out of the house – the one that leads to the more exciting parts of the planet.

garnet

Finally, we have Garnet, the cool-headed bruiser of the group. Garnet catches an airborne centipeetle and breaks it over her knee, using to club a second before knocking aside a third and a fourth. The fifth lands on her head, and she proceeds to pull it right in half before casually walking away. Here, we have an image of Garnet as being brutal and powerful, but also in control of that power. Nothing seems to faze her, and it’s very true that throughout the show she seems to be one of the more seasoned Gems, and it will make the moments when she becomes emotional shocking and gratifying. Garnet pulling apart a centipeetle is also great foreshadowing for the big reveal that she’s a fusion, and the moment when her two halves of Ruby and Sapphire are forced to separate.

Getting back to Steven, his involvement during this display is to marvel over the monsters infesting his home, sad that the Gems have to get rid of them. When Garnet proposes going on a hunt for the centipeetle queen, he expresses excitement and wants to tag along, only to have the thought shot down by Pearl. Not long after, he discovers that the Gems bought and hoarded a bunch of Cookie Cats for him to enjoy. His immediate reaction is to break out into song, and recite the jingle/rap ballad of the mascot’s life, a quirky but extremely tragic story of war and abandonment.

In four minutes, we know what kind of person Steven Universe is. Steven is a child who becomes incredibly attached to the things around him, no matter how fantastical or mundane they might be. Whether it’s an ice cream sandwich or an acid-spitting monster, all of these things are beautiful to him and need to be both preserved and protected. He wishes to be seen as wiser than he really is, and be better respected by those around him. Plus, coming back to this episode wrapping up the first season shows viewers that his connection to the spacefaring refugee Cookie Cat might be deeper than we think. Did Steven perhaps see his mother in a snack food mascot? That’s another essay.

Anyway, so now you know where I’m coming from, and that means it’s time to ask what Lapis and Jasper’s introductions tell us about them.

PART TWO: HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER

We’re going to start with Lapis because she turned up first.

lapis

When we meet Lapis, she’s been trapped in a mirror for who-knows how long. Once Lapis is freed, we get this chilling back-shot of her materializing in front of the ocean. The colour scheme here is dark, adding to the air of mystery around this new Gem, and sets the tone for the sadness of her character. Lapis lands on the beach just before the angle shifts to show Steven staring at this bizarre woman that has appeared before him.

That first angle where Lapis’ Gem floats in front of the ocean is incredibly telling in of itself, because no-one else is in the shot with her. These seven seconds of animation tell me everything I need to know about Lapis: she is a dark character drawn to the water because that is her elemental power, who is an elegant but ultimately lonely figure.

This is immediately hammered home by her first lines of dialogue to Steven, who had been protecting her and vouching for her up until that point: “Thank you. You didn’t – You actually talked to me. You helped me.” Gratitude, hesitation, and genuine surprise that anyone would care for her plight. That’s Lapis’ arc in a nutshell.

jasper1

Jasper, meanwhile, presents us with a completely different type of character. Jasper arrives on Earth in a warship shaped like a massive hand, a complex symbol if there ever was one (although the FLCL reference was not lost on me). The pod containing her, scientist Gem Peridot, and the reluctant Lapis rolls onto the ship’s index finger, which slams onto the shore with a thunderous noise. Jasper immediately stands out here, because she’s the only Gem we haven’t met up until that point, but mostly because she is enormous and towers over the other Gems.

Then we have her first lines of dialogue – “This is it? Looks like another waste of my time.” – spoken as she descends onto the beach and surveys the site with a dissatisfied look, with the eerie green lighting adding to the dangerous ambiance and aesthetic of these first shots.

Already, we see Jasper as a proud warrior, disinterested in battling anyone that doesn’t pose a threat to her. Once Steven reveals himself to be Rose’s scion, Jasper suddenly lights up, and her desire to fight the Gems comes through. She delights in battle, and is way too happy to split Garnet apart and head-butt a child, all the while with a wide, predatory grin on her face.

When we first see Lapis and Jasper together, it’s because Lapis is cowering behind the warrior Gem’s colossal form until Jasper grabs her by the arm and drags her into the scene. This not only further characterizes Jasper as something of a brute, but also sets the tone for her relationship with Lapis – and their fusion.

alexandrite1

Fusion in the Steven Universe, er, universe is a tricky topic. The way it works is that Gems have the ability to combine together into a singular entity. Said entity not is only an amalgamation of the Gems’ powers but often has its own personality, which is itself born of its components. What’s interesting about these fusions is how they seem to represent the relationships these characters have with each other. We can see that in the surreal sense of beauty found in the greater fusions of Opal, Sardonyx, Sugilite, and Alexandrite. Their massive, many-armed forms remind one of Hindu deities like Kali or Durga, powerful and destructive protectors of humanity. However, they are able to move and function with ease. This tells us that, in spite of whatever deformations they have, they understand each other and are able to work with one another. This is what a positive relationship looks like. It isn’t perfect, but there is synergy here. It simply works.

And then there’s Malachite, who looks like a Bloodborne boss.

malachite1

Let’s break down her design. Malachite has this wild mane of hair that sometimes obscures the two sets of eyes she has. Said eyes sometimes alternate in shape between sharing Jasper’s serpentine wickedness and Lapis’ perpetual wide-eyed wonder. Her canines are pronounced, which makes her mouth look considerably more bestial. While having an otherwise human torso, her lower half is most notable of all. Four arms spring out of an oblong thorax and provide the legs for the monster.

All at once, I was reminded of two things when I saw this design in full: the first was the centaur, the half-man half-horse of Greek mythology who were a notorious band of warrior-rapists that roamed the countryside; the second was the praying mantis, an insect that eats its sexual partners. Given that we’re talking about a fusion between an aggressive and forceful soldier and her broken but deceptively deadly water elemental companion, those comparisons are clear as day to me. In any case, Malachite’s appearance is monstrous and animalistic, lacking in the war-goddess looks channeled by the Crystal Gems’ fusions.

There’s also the fact that Malachite does not develop her own personality or voice, and if we follow the aforementioned comparison between fusions and relationships, this is important. Whatever relationships we form with others, be they romantic or platonic, there is a certain code or set of concepts that make up what that relationship is. These take the form of in-jokes, nicknames, a certain familiarity or understanding of one another’s needs. That which defines you remains, but there is a distinct dynamic that manifests. You become known as a unit.

Among the healthier fusions, this is demonstrated by having a separate voice actor. Garnet, for example, is voiced by Estelle, rather than Charlene Yi and Erica Luttrell talking over each other. She also has her own personality and opinions, her own likes and dislikes, and a unique temperament. She can get angry; she can be the voice of reason; above all else, however, she remains herself, and it’s in those times that we can see her components, Ruby and Sapphire, hard at work in maintaining their connection.

Malachite doesn’t get her own voice actor. That’s because with Malachite, there is no cohesion or compromise. There is no shared language. They are just Jasper and Lapis spliced together into an abomination. This is demonstrated perfectly in the episode Chille Tid, when Steven astral projects himself into Malachite’s dreams and witnesses Lapis and Jasper chained to each other, trying to keep their heads above water in an endless green ocean. As one rises, the other sinks deeper into the water, and Steven is forced to leave them there, fighting for control of this monster they’ve made.

PART THREE: TOGETHER AGAIN OR NEVER AGAIN?

Let’s go back to the questions I asked right at the beginning and answer them properly based on what we know.

First question: Who’s in the right?

First answer: Nobody.

Well, okay, Jasper did seize Lapis by the leg and slam her into the earth before proposing that they fuse together, and Lapis did accept the offer, only to cage Jasper in a watery tomb for months. I’m inclined to lean on Lapis’ side, and that’s not because she’s probably my favourite character in the show and I have a strong urge to defend my sadgirl aquawaifu. Although that’s totally why I’m on Lapis’ side.

Let’s be fair, though. Yes, Lapis and Jasper have done some odious things, but for different reasons. Lapis stole the world’s oceans, broke someone’s leg, and sold out the Crystal Gems to Homeworld, but being stuck in a mirror for thousands of years, unable to free yourself and see your family again would make you a little messed up. Jasper, meanwhile, knocked out a child, merged with Lapis by saying everyone else was out to get her, and then spent season three either stalking Lapis or assembling an army of Corrupted Gems. And yet, remember that Jasper was raised to be the best of the best, so every act of evil she performs feels like it is done more out of desperation and a need for validation rather than actual malice.

Second question: Will they ever form Malachite again?

Second answer: Not anytime soon.

Lapis already made that clear in Alone at Sea that she doesn’t want to be with Jasper, and Jasper only wants to fuse with someone because she feels weak without someone else’s support. It’s a bad idea. They hate each other. It wouldn’t end well.

However.

Third question: Should they ever form Malachite again?

Third answer: Maybe?

Forgiveness is a theme in the Steven universe (Ha! I knew I was going to do something clever with that). Steven’s mother Rose Quartz believed all life was precious and should be preserved. In flashbacks, she’s seen destroying Gem’s forms rather than shattering their stones, which would effectively kill them. Steven himself carries that spirit, showing empathy and love for everyone and everything around him, no matter what they are and what they do. He and the Crystal Gems reformed Peridot, helping her acknowledge how strange and wonderful the Earth actually is, and have been hard at work making Lapis feel loved and wanted.

This means it’s only a matter of time before Jasper gets redeemed.

If that were to happen, two things could transpire: they never form Malachite again because they’re simply incompatible, or they form again, but create something completely different. If that latter scenario were to come, maybe Malachite would take a different form, and look a little more complete and less monstrous. Remember, Garnet in the episode The Answer looked nothing like the way she does now. Her colours were off, one foot was bare, and there were holes in her garments. Perhaps Malachite 2.0 would change in much the same way Garnet did.

Or maybe it won’t be Malachite at all. Maybe it’ll be something else. Whatever it is, it will have to be on Lapis’ terms.

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