Steven Universe: the Show that's Not Afraid to Feel

So, as usual, I’m late to the party – six years late, to be exact. Steven Universe debuted in 2013, and I’ll admit that, on my first try watching it a few years ago, I bailed before the end of the first episode. Why, I couldn’t say – it’s fair to say that the early seasons weren’t received as well as the later seasons. The show was still finding its feet and I didn’t want to have to wait for it to do that. Not to mention that I was still on a high from my marathon-binge of Adventure Time, and I guess I was expecting Steven Universe to be something it wasn’t. I dropped it like a hot coal and didn’t come back to it again until last year. 

And, wow…I’m so thankful I did.

For me, the turning point came with the introduction of Lapis Lazuli at the end of season one, a Homeworld Gem who the Crystal Gems unknowingly kept imprisoned in a mirror. Don’t get me wrong, episode after episode of silly, inconsequential shenanigans is totally my thing, but getting into the real meat of a story is always exciting. Meeting Lapis changed a lot of things. Suddenly, we realised we didn’t know as much about the Crystal Gems as we first thought. Suddenly, these new Homeworld Gems were thrown into the mix. Suddenly, the stakes were raised, and we had no idea where the show was going to take us next. That’s a great way to tell a story, and this show has been doing just that, consistently, for five seasons.

Nothing could have prepared me for that giant, yellow hand slowly approaching Beach City, even with Lapis’ warnings that an attack was coming. Nothing could have prepared me for Peridot, the one leading that attack, ultimately betraying Homeworld and becoming a Crystal Gem. Nothing could have prepared me for the Fusions, for the fight scenes, for the endlessly touching moments between characters that, above all, feel real. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that it’s only fiction. Because even though the protagonist is a half-Gem, half-human hybrid, with a pink pet lion and three, sexless alien refugees for a family, Steven Universe is one of the realest shows I’ve ever watched.

This is a show that refuses to shy away from the bad stuff. This is a show that goes where other shows might not want to go. When Steven watches the video left to him by Rose Quartz in Lion 3: Straight to Video (S1E35), we’re right there with him – with his grief, his loss, his sadness. When Amethyst is convinced she can’t beat Jasper in Earthlings (S3E23), we’re right there with her – with her insecurity and hopelessness. When Garnet is paralysed at the sight of the hand cluster in Keeping it Together, (S2E8) we’re right there with her – with her fear and anger. These are feelings we’ve all felt, at some point or another, and Steven Universe isn’t afraid to make us admit that. Not in a bad way, but in a way that simply makes us go, “oh, right…this scene is making me feel things.” And that’s okay.

It’s more than okay, in fact. Television shows, whether they’re cartoons or not, should provoke feelings within us. Any kind of media should. Entertaining an audience is good, but being able to really connect with them is better. The Crewniverse, the team behind the show, have even gone on record as saying that, when it comes to writing episodes, their main goal is to simply make them relatable to anyone who happens to be watching. Sure, a lot of Steven Universe is fantastical and abstract, but so much of it is grounded in what’s real – in the real lives of the writers and artists alike that work on the show, and that shines through to the rest of us.

Then, the season five finale came along, and… part of me loved it. Another part of me didn’t quite love it so much. The show has many flaws – just like anything else in the world. There are missed opportunities for character development and some slower than average episodes, to name a few things. The finale wasn’t slower than average, but therein lies the problem – the whole episode went at breakneck speed.

We saw Steven fuse with both Pearl and Garnet, as well as the fusion of all four of them together. We saw Lapis and Peridot’s new forms. We saw Blue and Yellow Diamond hash out their issues, then saw them confront White Diamond, then we actually met White Diamond, then we saw her pull out Steven’s gem. And then we saw the reunion of Steven and pink Steven. And after all of that, Steven, alone, managed to talk White Diamond into leaving Homeworld and visiting Earth, which she actually did without destroying the planet. Sure, she doesn’t look comfortable on Earth, but that’s a reaction a thousand times better than I’d expected. 

Seem like a lot all at once? That’s because it was.

The finale was huge – too huge. It crammed so much into forty minutes that the episode seemed like an over packed suitcase. Not to mention that the last five seasons have been spent painting White Diamond as this terrible, unmovable force who nobody could possibly reason with – but, she wasn’t. It took about ten minutes, give or take, to change her mind, or at least make her reconsider her totalitarian beliefs. Everything that happened in the finale could have been spread over several, shorter episodes. We could have had an episode on Lapis and Peridot reforming and working out their differences after the events of Raising the Barn (S5E7). We could have had whole episodes dedicated to the fusions between Steven, Garnet and Pearl, like with Smoky Quartz. We could have had so many episodes getting to know White Diamond a little better, not just through stories, but through screen time.

But maybe I’m being a little too harsh. I did still enjoy it.

And it’s fair to say that the finale contains one of the most memorable scenes from the entire show – the fusion of Steven, and pink Steven. How physically appealing the scene is is one thing, with it being guest-animated by former Disney animator, James Baxter. Another thing entirely is the meaning behind it; accepting, and ultimately loving, who you are.
For a long time, Steven has tried to be anyone but himself. He’s tried to be who other people have expected him to be – Rose Quartz, or Pink Diamond. The inheritance of his mother’s gem convinced him he couldn’t be his own person. But seeing pink Steven, the very embodiment of his gem, flicks some kind of switch inside his head. He’s Steven, always has been Steven – nobody else – and he loves himself just for being him. That’s an incredible message of self-acceptance that a lot of people, especially young children, could benefit from hearing.

And that message is a big part of why I love the show. It’s the very backbone of Steven Universe; be yourself, unapologetically. There’s only one of you, after all.

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