The Magic of Steven Universe in 3 Episodes

Steven Universe comes to an end tonight. I had planned to undertake a massive Steven Universe rewatch to prep for the finale, and, of course, a GIANT ESSAY to go along with that rewatch, cause all I wanna write, and all I wanna type, is a GIANT ESSAY (GIANT ESSAY).

But all of my planning has gone the heck agley at this point, because I’ve ended up watching this show in lockdown, glued to Twitter and panicking over medical reports and hate crimes. Rather than just a fun rewatch, Steven Universe has become bright life saver. Maybe shaped like a donut? Here in my apartment, the Crystal Gems always save the day.

I’ve watched a show—billed as a kids show, but one that wrestles with “adult” themes better than almost any series or movie I’ve ever seen—that is about building community, that resolutely subverts every expectation a person would have about this kind of series. It’s the kind of show that buries its entire narrative arc in a jingle for an ice cream sandwich sung by a giddy child, and then continues to work out space opera plots and emotional trauma in the most unexpected ways possible.

When Steven Universe premiered in 2013, it seemed like a cute show about a magical little boy whose mom had died in order to give birth to him, leaving him to be raised by three even-more-magical companions, who were each a different familial archetype: Garnet was stern and forbidding, the disciplinarian of the trio; Pearl was the typical sitcom mom, overbearing and precious about Steven’s every accomplishment, and Amethyst was the brash big sister. His dad, Greg, was a former rock musician who ran a car wash, lived in a van, and seemed to scream DEADBEAT.

But as the story continued, it became clear that this wasn’t a show that held people to their archetypes. Garnet isn’t stern at all, she’s actually the most emotional Gem, a literal embodiment of joy, and is the first to encourage Steven to do crazy shit because she believes in him. Pearl is only a helicopter parent because Steven is all that remains of his mother, Rose Quartz, who was Pearl’s One True Love. Amethyst is almost incapacitated by self-doubt, and uses sarcasm to hide it. Greg isn’t a deadbeat at all—he’s the one who raised Steven from infancy before handing him over to the Gems for magical training. Steven himself grew from an eager little boy into a sometimes exhausted (though still enthusiastic) offbeat messiah figure/healer. And the show itself was happy to take risk after risk, reinventing itself constantly and subverting every trope it came across. Rather than writing a GIANT ESSAY about all of this, I’m going to look at how three early episodes tweaked expectations to tell their stories.

 

Lion 3: Straight to Video

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

Steven’s relationship to his mom is, at first, similar to a lot of characters growing up under the tyranny of the Dead Mom trope. He yearns for her, idealizes her, watches wistfully as other characters share moments with their mothers, and most of all wishes he could talk with her. But the way the show finally deals with this isn’t through him finding a diary, or a dream sequence, or the Mirror of Erised—it’s kind of a combo of all three of those things, but with a couple of beautiful subversions.

The episode opens in the Big Donut, and seems like it’s going to be one of the fun “life in Beach City” episodes. Steven and Lion are butting heads over Lion’s favorite food, Lion Lickers, which Steven HATES because they put his beloved ice cream sandwich Cookie Cat out of business. It’s adorable. But it leads into that wistfulness I mentioned because Sadie’s mom packs her a lunch every day, and she hates it. And can we unpack that lunch for a sec? How perfect is that? It’s such a small thing that of course Sadie, who seems like she’s a late high school student, would want to be independent. Her mom still packs her lunch like she’s been doing all of Sadie’s childhood. Sadie doesn’t eat it, and feels bad, but can’t tell her mom to stop, but also can’t let her find out she doesn’t eat the lunch every day. Steven, meanwhile, lives alone and makes his own lunches in the microwave every day. His meals are typically donuts, pizza, and popcorn. The idea of a mom making and packing a lunch is a luxury he can barely even imagine. This is all done in a scene that lasts less than a minute, and it never gets maudlin or self-pitying, it’s just clear that Steven wishes he had a mom. Not an unreasonable thing, right?

When he tries to go to bed, he has these vivid dreams of a savannah, but he also starts choking, waking to find that Lion is sleeping on top of him. Anyone with a pet has been here. But it soon becomes clear that Lion is trying to smother him. He’s burying Steven in his mane to grant the boys wish to meet his mother. We already knew that Lion had a connection to Rose Quartz, but now it’s clear that he operated as her walking, roaring bag of holding. When Steven goes into Lion’s mane intentionally he finds a tree festooned with her stuff – a Mr. Universe concert tee, the old Crystal Gems standard, a few other things that become important in future seasons, and a video with his own name on it.

Now here’s why I get stuck on this—a lion’s mane? Why is a lion’s mane Rose’s attic? A literal bag of holding makes sense. Even the TARDIS makes sense in a way—it was an inconspicuous disguise for a ship that defied the laws of Earth physics. Fine. But…a lion? Who glows pink? And loves ice cream? But the weirdness of Lion flows easily into Steven’s dreams, allowing him to access the magical thinking he needs to find Rose’s stuff. The deadpan disdain Lion holds for the boy undercuts any saccharine “Boy and His Dog” tropes. He does love Steven, but it’s a cat kind of love, and he only shows it under extreme stress.

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

And when Steven watches the video, of course there’s the requisite moments of Rose telling her son how much she loves him, but the message is framed by her filming Greg messing around with the guitar, and long shots of waves and crabs scuttling over the beach. This isn’t a plot convenient, perfectly-lit memorial video—it’s the kind of video a person would actually make in this moment. It’s awkward and jumpy (and blurry! Look how blurry!) and there’s stuff in it that doesn’t need to be recorded for posterity, but is just filmed because a person who isn’t sure about tech is messing around with a camera. (To that point, I also love this because of how gloriously pre-Instagram it feels.) Steven gets his moment of connection, but it’s on Rose’s terms, it happens because Steven’s magical and mundane lives crash into each other, and the heartfelt message is inextricable from retro technology and goofiness—but that doesn’t make it any less heartfelt.

 

The Answer

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

There are hints throughout the first season that Garnet is a fusion, but we don’t learn this for sure until the two-part season finale, “The Return/Jail Break.” Steven and his family face off with two hostile Gems from the Gem Homeworld, Peridot and Jasper. Peridot is at first the utter stereotype of an officious bureaucrat, the kind of character Kirk would have fought in OG Star Trek. Jasper is a warrior, all screams and grimaces. She’s violent, hateful, and openly disgusted by Garnet—which is how we get confirmation that Garnet is indeed a fusion, but also how we learn that fusion is considered an abomination on Homeworld.

Jasper attacks, and Garnet is violently de-fused and reverts into a pair of Gems, one red and one blue. (The term for this is “poofing” which sounds cute—but this only happens when a Gem is hit with an attack that would straight up kill a human.) Steven sees Garnet explode, sees the two gems lying on the ground, and then Jasper headbutts him and knocks him out. When he wakes up he finds Ruby, who leads him to Sapphire. They fuse back into Garnet, and that’s how he learns that one of his moms is actually two moms fused together in a sort of permanent marriage.

It turns out that the Gems had planned a whole scenario of Garnet de-fusing so Ruby and Sapphire could introduce themselves to Steven as part of his birthday celebration. Instead, rather than learning the truth in a closed circle of family he finds out that the Gem who raised him is a completely different person than he thought, in an abrupt and horrific way—which also robs Garnet of the ownership of her story.

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

In the timeline of the show, Steven’s world has abruptly become much larger, and much darker. A curtain has dropped, and he’s seen some of the machinery that the adults in his life were hiding. And we learn this along with Steven; if we were expecting a fun fluffy comfort show, we now know we’re not getting it. And in the meta commentary that this show is so, so good at, we’ve also just watched as a queer couple were horrifically outed and gaybashed. Their own coming out narrative was taken away from them and now they’re having to scramble to put their family back together while dealing with the trauma and betrayal.

This is all heavy stuff – the equivalent of Mythology Episodes in things like The X-Files or Supernatural – before we get to “The Answer”, when the show gives over an entire episode to Garnet taking their story back. She wakes Steven up at midnight on his birthday, and tells him the Ballad of Ruby and Sapphire, how they met, how they fused, how they rescued each other from being shattered on Homeworld, and how that led to them meeting Steven’s mother. Their story is beautiful, and shows us the good parts of being a Gem. The writers give that story its own showcase rather than folding it into the official “Steven’s Birthday” episode that follows it, and they show us that rather than just going ahead with the big family reveal Garnet had originally planned, that Jasper took away from them, Garnet found a way to turn the story into a private moment of bonding between her and her son. The family is knit back together in time for the celebration in the morning.

 

Mr. Greg

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

And speaking of knitting things back together! The show spends the first two seasons hinting that the relationship between Pearl and Steven’s mother was more intense that simple friendship—not that there’s anything simple about friendship. The writers also complicate Pearl by having her trick Garnet into fusing with her, becoming extremely possessive over Rose’s memory, being extra-clingy with regards to Steven, and being openly resentful of Greg. Many viewers figured out early on that Pearl was in love with Rose, considering them partners on a Ruby and Sapphire level, and that Pearl was literally heartbroken when Rose chose to sacrifice herself to have a child with Greg. But when the show finally deals with it head-on, it does it via its first-ever musical episode, and folds it into a ridiculous sitcom trope. In “Mr. Greg”, Greg finds out that he’s a multi-millionaire because his sleazy manager sold one of his songs for a fast food jingle. He decides to take Steven on a trip to Empire City (the show’s New York City stand-in) and Steven invites Pearl. What begins as a fun sequence of Greg and Steven shooting the works in the big city transforms into an exploration of Pearl’s grief and confusion over Rose’s choice of Greg, and, finally, after a couple of heavy nudges from Steven, a reconciliation between the two of them as they bond over their shared love of Rose and her son.

It’s not just a gorgeous episode, it also moves the emotional arc of the story forward through songs, and it shows Steven’s leap in maturity when he reveals why he brought Pearl on what could have been a father-son bonding trip. But most of all it gives us Pearl in a tux, singing a ballad to her lost lover:

…and extra most of all, it gives us a peacemaking dance between Pearl and Greg that highlights their fantastic spats, two pairs of “men’s” shoes moving in rhythm, a matter-of-fact, queer-as-all-hell image in the midst of a story about grief.

Screenshot: Cartoon Network Studios

Over the course of five seasons, a movie, and an epilogue, Steven Universe has created an enormous, complicated coming-of-age arc. But for me it’s these detail moments, and the fun subversions, that make the show one of the best I’ve ever seen. And as sad as I am that it’s ending, I can’t wait to see how they wrap up Steven’s adventure.

Leah Schnelbach is NOT OK with the fact that this show is ending, and might just rewatch it again immediately. Come save the day with them on Twitter!

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