“Monster Buddies” was the first episode of Steven Universe that signaled something more than just Gems fighting monsters as the stakes, and it remains one of the series’ masterpieces.
What defined the episode, of course, was a central tension between Centipeedle’s reality as a corrupted gem-turned-monster that hissed and spit acid and Steven’s desired role for her: the kind of pet you can just put on a leash and occasionally feed name brand Chaaaaps under the table. The former nature eventually took over, but thematically, the latter still won out with a hearty implication that as Steven grew, Centipeedle’s future could grow brighter.
“Monster Reunion” is an unsettling counterpart, even counterpoint, to “Monster Buddies.”
Steven wakes Centi from her stasis and sends the gem through disturbing body transformations she had no ability to accept or refuse, and the resulting Gem dives headlong into an uncanny valley just short of humanity.
With perhaps only the exception of the implications in the Crystal Gems’ complicity in the imprisonment of Lapis Lazuli, Garnett’s dissatisfaction at the results prompt her to order Amethyst to put Centi back to rest – violently. There’s even a very deliberate shot of Amethyst’s back, whip at the ready, as she faces Centi stupidly staring at her own reflection like a baby might. This shot represents a sort of brutality that the Crystal Gems have become used to doing over a period of many thousands of years.
Steven quickly has Garnett and the Gems do an about-face and allow Centi to, you know, hang around. It’s cute! She remembers Chaaaaps! She starts squawking happily and drawing crayon art! It’s all very fun.
The deep dive into Steven Universe lore ends with a moment of condemnation, of understanding, both by Steven and especially by Centi, who has realized why she is broken for the first time.
Have you ever seen an animal cry? It’s far more disturbing than seeing fellow honest-to-gosh people do it. Animals have so much less capacity to understand situations, much less that one is truly upsetting and worth anxiety. So it’s that much more disarming when Centi bursts into tears and falls over.
Additionally disarming is that Steven Universe jumps back to its pet subgenre of body horror and its theme (for ostensibly a children’s show!) of trauma. All of this is thrown into our face for several minutes until we approach our resolution.
And it’s a rushed resolution that’s perhaps unsatisfying out of necessity. After all, the realities of what we’re sent through can’t be brushed off with a traditional Steven Universe wrap-up moment, as hard as it tries. Indeed, the titular reunion refers not to Steven but to other Centipeedle-esque corrupted gems. And they’re together. And they’re ever-so-slightly less in Hell. And I suppose that’s as good a place to end the episode as any.
There’s a lot more to “Monster Reunion.” There’s Amethyst’s tone-deaf sense of humor in the face of something serious. There’s Pearl’s nervous, practiced reverence for something she nonetheless seems to not fully understand. There’s Garnett’s habitual pragmatism in the wake of a tragic plague of corrupted gems.
But the most important point remains that throughout the episode, Centi is sent through a rush of trauma and body horror that she couldn’t ask for or speak against. Throughout her experience, the journey is never truly hers. And I believe that the show is inching slightly closer to the truth that this is not entirely the fault of the Diamonds.