Steven Universe is known for many things: Its gorgeous animation, complex plotlines, and an enduring underlying message about the importance of loving relationships. But this show isn't all cute songs and pretty colors, and while its had its dark moments in the past — we're still recovering from the veritable body horror in "Keeping It Together" — Steven Universe really takes it to a new level in "Alone At Sea".
In this Season 3 episode we get to see Lapis and Jasper reunite, post-Malachite, allowing the writers to develop the narrative of abuse that has been present in their story from the beginning.
That's all par for the course but there's a twist along the way that turns everything we thought we knew about the couple on its head, inverting Lapis' victim narrative and adding a disturbing note to an already twisted relationship. Because, as it turns out, Lapis was the dominant one in this fusion — and she enjoyed controlling Jasper. Like, really enjoyed it.
An Unsettling Power Dynamic
The idea that Lapis Lazuli and Jasper are an allegory for an abusive relationship is not a new one. This has been apparent from the very beginning, as the brutish Jasper often clashed with the anxious Lapis. The power dynamic was obvious, with Jasper often yanking Lapis around physically. In Season 2, Lapis' decision to fuse with Jasper was seen as a huge act of self-sacrifice, tricking Jasper but quickly gaining control and trapping them both under the sea, and all in an effort to protect Steven.
When we next saw Lapis, it was very clear that she was caught up in a constant power struggle with Jasper. In order to keep Malachite contained under the sea, Lapis had to maintain her dominance.
We saw this as a heroic move on Lapis' part, and one which was very traumatizing for her. After she was released from Malachite in the Season 3 premiere, Lapis' time with the Crystal Gems showed her to still be recovering from her time with Jaspar, and her story seemed to be a classic survivor narrative. Until "Alone At Sea" changed everything.
In a classic Road Trip With Steven tale, Lapis ventures out onto the ocean for the first time since her separation from Jasper, and the stress this puts her under is clear. We first get an inkling about her issues with control when Greg offers to let her drive the boat, and Lapis vehemently insists that she shouldn't be put in charge.
All seems to be plain sailing (eeeeeey!) until Lapis' attempt at fishing ends up alerting Jasper to their presence — and seriously Steven, did you not see this coming? The Crystal Gems literally dunked Jasper in the ocean a few episodes ago!
Predictably, Jasper and Lapis end up having an impromptu reunion on the SS Misery / Lil' Lappy, and this leads to some shocking revelations. Jasper is only too happy to tell Steven how Lapis was really the dominant one in the relationship. Appalled at herself, Lapis explains that she misses not only Jasper, but that she enjoyed hurting her fusion partner.
"I liked taking everything out on you. I needed you, I hated you."
That's quite a shocking bit of development for a character who, up until this point, had seemed to be the perfect allegory of a victim / survivor. It's very bold of the show to step away from the classic martyr angle with Lapis. But although she enjoyed her dominance, that doesn't diminish the fact that she did all this to save Steven.
Yet we have to wonder, looking back on the Season 3 premiere, who was in charge when Malachite battled Alexandrite, and how carried away Lapis really got.
So Is This Abuse Or Just Unhealthy?
It's difficult to know what this new twist on the tale means for the allegory of Lapis and Jasper as an abusive relationship. Now it seems that both parties were guilty of control and aggression. But the odd thing is, as Jasper begs Lapis to take her back, it becomes clear that they both enjoyed this. Now that she's broken free, Lapis realizes she hated being the person she was while they were fused — but even so, when Jasper asks to form Malachite again, Lapis hesitates before she says no.
It's a shame that Garnet wasn't present in this episode to dispense her characteristic wisdom about healthy, loving relationships. But it's really nice to see the other side of the coin, showing viewers how dangerously seductive unhealthy relationships can be. This is one of the reasons why, in real life, people find it hard to step away from abusive relationships. Of course, Lapis makes the right decision in the end... although punching Jasper right back into the ocean may have just aggravated the situation — there's no way we've seen the last of her, and their next reunion will certainly be interesting.
The message here seems to be that relationships, especially unhealthy ones, are never black and white. There is no clear person to blame in this circumstance, as Jasper and Lapis both hurt each other. It's great to see that abuse isn't always villain vs victim, but that both people can contribute to toxicity. And no matter how much they found the fusion pleasurable, ultimately this whole relationship was fifty shades of power struggles and sadomasochism.
Cartoons sure have changed since my day.