I want to preface this by saying one thing. If you haven’t watched any Steven Universe, and you want to stay spoiler free, go watch Steven Universe, and then you can come back and we can think about Steven Universe. If you don’t know anything about Steven Universe, I implore you to trust me when I say it is worth your time, and the best way to watch it is to go in blind. Please, bring the joy that is Steven Universe into your life. If you have watched it, and you are caught up with the latest Steven Bomb (which finished airing on January 8th), press on, and let’s think about Steven Universe.
I think I speak for almost everyone who has watched Steven Universe when I say it is so good. So satisfyingly good, on so many different levels. The art is beautiful, the animation is satisfying, the worldbuilding is solid, the story progresses at a great pace, and, my personal favorite, the characters are each so wonderful in their own unique ways.
And we got a bit of each of those in the latest Steven Bomb! Each episode had enough lore, enough character examination, and enough propulsion to make for a great little arc about Steven’s growth and the growth of the Crystal Gems. And man, those backgrounds for The Answer, right? Gorgeous.
The thing that really dragged me in when I first watched Steven Universe )on the recommendation of the fantastic podcast The Toon Goons) was the worldbuilding, or the lack of it. Anyone who has gone into the series with no information about it is in for an amazing ride, because the show doesn’t front load anything. All the theme song tells you is that there are these three beings, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and that they save the world with Steven Universe. They are the Crystal Gems. That’s all you know, and for the first few episodes, that’s kind of all you need to know. But very quickly it becomes apparent that there is a lot more to this story, as hints are dropped about Steven’s mom, Rose Quartz, who was once the leader of the Crystal Gems until… something. Something that probably involved her falling in love with Steven’s father Greg Universe. There are all of these gem monsters that the Crystal Gems have to fight off. There are signs of a Gem war that took place thousands of years ago. And then comes Mirror Gem and Ocean Gem, two episodes that totally upend the world of Steven Universe as we learn that the Gems are aliens. And we begin to doubt just how good the Crystal Gems may be, as they have had a mirror that was powered by another gem, another person. And it would be a whole 26 more episodes before we found out that Garnet was a fusion of the Gems Ruby and Sapphire!
And it only gets crazier from there! There are still a lot of secrets left to ponder in Steven Universe, even as we have just added a new Crystal Gem last week in the form of Peridot, and we have seen one of the members of the Diamond Authority, Yellow Diamond. We know how Garnet was first formed and met Rose and Pearl. But we don’t know how Pearl met Rose, or what Amethyst was like when she was first formed after the Gem War, and possibly most importantly, we still don’t really know who Rose Quartz is. Is she possibly Pink Diamond? Or could she be a Quartz warrior/medic, like Jasper? And why exactly did she decide to give up her physical form to make Steven, who has her gem but is also half human?
But worldbuilding and mystery can only go so far. The thing that makes both of those aspects shine is that they are shown to us through some of the most fascinating characters to ever grace the Cartoon Network. Each of the Crystal Gems has depths beyond their initial cartoon personas. Pearl is more than the overprotective motherly one, she’s a former servant who has seen countless battles in war and is dealing with the death of the woman she loved more than life itself while raising her son. Amethyst isn’t just a gross and silly older sister, she feels like she’s broken, that she’s lesser, and she has to put up a facade just to hide how hurt she feels by her very existence. Garnet seems like the most put together of the lot, but that’s because she’s actually the personification of the perfect relationship between Ruby and Sapphire, and figuring out her psychology fits within the complicated and metaphorical concept of fusion is one of the true delights of watching her.
And it’s not just the gems! There are all of the fun characters of Beach City, like the Pizzas, the Frymans, Mayor Dewey, the cool kids, Onion and his family, and of course Sadie and Lars. But there’s also the two humans closest to Steven, his best friend Connie and his father Greg. Connie is an Indian nerd girl who is simultaneously fascinated and freaked out about her best friends magical world, and does admirably to try to find her place in it. And here’s where I admit that my actual favorite character is Greg, who I cannot help but love so much just for how good he is. His love for Rose is so admirable and real. His relationship to Steven is so positive and so encouraging, I think about how I would like to be a father like Greg Universe. Greg isn’t a perfect person, but he tries so hard and has such a good heart, that you can see why Rose would fall in love with this one man.
And then of course, there’s Steven. The thing that I think of when I’m thinking about Steven is the end of the episode “The Test”. When Steven finds out that the Gems have tricked him, have set up these fake tests to give him a confidence boost because they are scared that they aren’t doing a good job of teaching him, he realizes what’s actually happening. Any anger or frustration he had evaporates, and he is able to fake enthusiasm for the tests he knows that he couldn’t fail. Because Steven has such strong empathy that he knows that he’s not the one that needs the confidence boost. It’s Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. I really liked Steven Universe, but it was the ending of “The Test” that convinced me that this show was important. Steven Universe’s most powerful superpower isn’t his shield, or his magical lion, or his cleverness. It’s his empathy. If the show has one central theme, it’s one of empathy, and Steven embodies that fully.
The writing in this show is so strong, and so funny and nuanced, that it even shows up former cartoon darling of the world, Adventure Time, although you can see how they are related as far as being part of the same movement of amazing animated television. And just like Adventure Time, the show is drawn and animated with such grace and precision that I often find myself rewatching episodes just so I can look at the backgrounds or the subtleties of a facial animation, or a beautiful fight scene.
Inspired by anime, and video games, and all the things that a whole generation of us grew up loving, Steven Universe feels a lot like it should inspire strong nostalgia, but instead it feels totally and completely new in a way that is hard to describe. Maybe it’s because it has a cast that is filled with fascinating female characters. Or how it is filled with representation of lesbian relationships. Or how characters are viewed as beautiful despite their body size. Or maybe it’s just Steven himself. A boy who doesn’t have a cruel bone (or stone) in his body, who is ignorant but curious and learning more day by day, episode by episode.
The only problem with Steven Universe is that we don’t live in the future, when we could watch all of it. And especially with where the show has been going lately! Now that Steven is a lot more grown and learned than he was when we saw him trying to summon his weapon in Gem Glow, it’s good that we have Peridot to be a new vehicle for exploration and complication. Peridot has created an all new dynamic for the Crystal Gems and the show, and not only can I not wait to learn what we can learn about Homeworld from her, and about the war, and Rose, or what fusions she might form with the other gems, I can’t wait to see her continue to talk with Steven and the other gems, and learn about what friendships she will form with them.
(And super spoilers here if you didn’t see the promo that Cartoon Network accidentally put out during the last Steven Bomb: I can’t wait to see how adding Lapis Lazuli to the mix will go! Or what will happen with Jasper! Or whether we’re going to see even more Crystal Gems in the future! I’m just so excited by all of it!)
I am consistently impressed by Steven Universe. The writing is smart and tight. The characters are a joy to watch. The art is glorious. The worldbuilding is fascinating. And the show is a net positive for representation. And the show puts them all together to deliver thought provoking themes, whether they be about discrimination, relationships, or the modern world. Or the aforementioned theme about empathy which embodies almost every part of the show. Rose’s empathy for the Earth, or Greg’s empathy for Rose’s differences to himself, or Sapphire and Ruby’s empathy for each other, or Steven’s ability to almost instantly assess the feelings of others around him, be they gem or human, and do what he can to help them. (I might have to write a separate post about the theme of empathy in Steven Universe, it’s just so good at showing new and interesting ways to explore it.)
Even a show as beloved and wildly regarded as near perfect like Avatar: The Last Airbender has a few clunkers here and there. But Steven Universe is something that I find it very hard to find fault in. And I trust its creators to keep delivering brilliant episodes for as long as they can make them.
I believe in Steven.