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Why 'Steven Universe' Was a Groundbreaking Cartoon, All the Way to Its End

'Steven Universe Future' offered fans an epilogue on Steven, the half-human, half-gem.

After five seasons and 160 episodes of conflict between earth's own Crystal Gems and the Gem Empire they rebelled against, Steven Universe ended with a visually stunning finale in early 2019, with Steven, the alien Gem/human hybrid, finally resolving his identity crisis as he realized he was his own person, not just a reincarnation of his mother. Everything in Beach City and the gem Homeworld felt final, with a peaceful truce between Steven and his biological family, the once-tyrannical Diamonds. And with Steven Universe Future, a season of epilogue which just finished its final episode, the scars of Steven's lengthy battle are laid out as he learns how to live a somewhat normal life.

In the original Steven Universe, which began airing on Cartoon Network in 2013, each episode would follow Steven and his caretakers, the Crystal Gems -- magical, non-binary humanoid aliens: the prim and proper Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), the wild and unruly Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and the ice-cool Garnet (Estelle) -- on various adventures, protecting Beach City from strange, often Gem-related threats, as Steven learned about his heritage and his alien mother, Rose Quartz. Along the way, the Diamonds’ began to appear, and a larger threat to the Earth and even the rest of the universe became clearer. But that arc is now over, and creator Rebecca Sugar (a former storyboard artist and writer on Adventure Time) and her team looked for new ways for Steven to grow, beyond the confines of that particular conflict. 

The first response to this was Steven Universe: The Movie, released in September 2019, which showed that even though the story had effectively reached its end, the series was still capable of growth. Steven’s songs about finally reaching his “Happily Ever After” became disrupted by the battle against Spinel, a vengeful former servant of Rose Quartz. Steven realized he’s still cleaning up the mess left behind by his parents, and needed to adjust the idea of what a happy ending might actually mean for him. This opened the door to the current and final iteration of the show, which began airing in December, Steven Universe Future, an extended epilogue taking place two years after the finale of the main series, further exploring what life for Steven looks like now that his purpose as a Gem has been served. 

If Steven Universe was about a seemingly ordinary boy learning to be super, about his connection to a history with far-reaching implications, Future, a 14-episode season, is about him simply about learning to be human. It’s a task complicated by his adolescence; the certainty of his childhood long behind him, the only thing Steven knows is that living is a lot of hard work, that growing up means different things for different people. Show artist and storyline writer Ian Jones Quarterly confirmed on Twitter that with the culmination of the episode “Change Your Mind,” Steven Universe as we know it had finished -- and the differences between the main series and Future have only become clearer, as the new season mostly leaves behind its sci-fi world for slice-of-life storytelling, slowly winding down to a complete conclusion.

Continuing the themes from the movie, Steven is confused about his feelings over having nothing left to fix, and what his purpose is after the fighting is done. Each episode has shown what normalcy, victory, and The End looks like for other characters: on Little Homeworld, the Earth settlement for Gems, beloved characters are experiencing new things and moving on. But Steven has been tied up in the fight so long that it’s unclear as to what a similar experience would look like for him, his confusion leading into a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, and PTSD in the second half of this season.

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Cartoon Network

Perhaps most talked about amongst the show’s fans, as the season has gone on, are the signs of mental illness Steven has been showing, in ways that have tied into how he has always been: focused only on the problems in front of him, to the detriment of his own wellbeing (“I wouldn’t wanna waste their time,” he says of seeing a doctor). The episode “Growing Pains” dedicated its running time to Steven seeking medical help at the insistence of Connie, giving Steven a rundown on the trauma he is still recovering from. Like many children’s shows it’s done through didactic messaging, but that feels like a requirement for the more intense material of this new season.

It’s a moment handled with care, as Connie’s mother, Dr. Maheswaran, emphasizes the normalcy of not feeling how you “should," and it’s no surprise Steven Universe is tackling the emotional consequences of Steven’s struggles. The show prided itself on groundbreaking storytelling, and its engagement with queer identity was done with an honesty that American children’s shows have rarely been given the means to do (though it still frustratingly found itself censored in other countries, including the U.K., such as with the removal of a kiss between Ruby and Sapphire, the two gems whose fusion comprises Garnet) before related series, like Adventure Time, championed this change.

Sugar’s team does well to balance the instructive language of children’s television with narrative experimentation that speaks to its awareness of its cross-generational audience. There was something for everybody in Steven Universe, with a unique cross-generational appeal in its smart, detailed world-building, comforting innate kindness (something we could all use lately), and breezy sense of humor. There was plenty for the animation nerds in here as well, with an abundance of visual references to classic anime encompassing everything from Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion to Future Boy Conan and Dragon Ball Z. But emotional nuance is one of the greatest parts of Steven Universe’s legacy, and this final season has felt like one last gift, to evolve the emotional development that the rest of the show made its bread-and-butter, imparting a few last lessons about how to move forward after the show is gone. 

It’s a unique venture, asking questions that fantasy stories don’t often ask, looking at what ideas of what “The End” really means, and whether smaller, more personal problems can still matter after facing universe ending stakes. Future is essentially an ending about endings, deciding that some problems aren’t so simple as to just disappear. That understanding that things are never magically okay is comforting in its own way, and that empathy is what made Steven Universe so valuable. 

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Kambole Campbell is a London-based freelance writer whose work has been featured in Hyperallergic, Polygon, Empire and more. Follow him on Twitter @kambolecampbell.