It’s rewarding when time passes in cartoons that we love. Getting to see our favorite characters grow and change is a privilege of serialized storytelling, and as more cartoons embrace this format, the stories we see in animation continue to mature. Steven, who has grown up considerably since saving the world in Steven Universe: The Movie, now runs a school to help Gems acclimate themselves to Earth, ushering them into a life outside of servitude. Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst have taken to their new roles as educators, at peace with the way things are now.
But, as any shounen anime has taught us, peace in the universe is an ongoing struggle and Steven Universe: Future seems to be using the limited series format to explore what the first of these new threats might be. In the first episode, “Little Homeschool”, Steven is acting like his old self. Everyone is happy with their new existence except Jasper, and he is compelled to fix the issue. Jasper has always been a difficult character, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her struggling with finding her place in it all. She lives in isolation, training for the moment that the paradise she hates so much comes to an end. When Steven comes to visit, she rejects his attempts to push happiness onto her. She believes that Steven is weak and his optimism is bound to run out one day. That’s a stereotypical villain point of view, but judging by the threats the Gems have had to face in the past, it makes sense to be a little cautious. Steven Universe: The Movie began with a song about how everything is fine now, and not too long after Spinell appears as if on cue, ready for revenge. The universe is imperfect, and Rebecca Sugar and her team are great at introducing challenges that are fundamentally connected to the themes of the show.
Jasper challenges Steven to a fight, and then something interesting happens. Steven, known pacifist, fights back with a power and fury that not even he seems to know that he was capable of. He seems shocked by how own power, and so is Jasper, at least in the moment. When Steven hurls Jasper’s body into the surrounding trees, it’s a sign that there is a darker side to him. Surprisingly, Steven seems to embrace his newfound power. This confrontation sets the tone for how Steven will be challenged by his demons in this final season, both internally and physically.
With this episode, the comparisons to the Dragonball franchise have become more and more unavoidable. Here, the comparisons between Steven and Goku become really clear. Steven’s story has made the jump from the optimistic stories of Dragonball to the more complicated, battle-heavy Dragonball Z. Like Goku before him, Steven has come of age saving the world. And in Jasper, he has found a jaded mentor to help him become stronger. Steven’s fight with Jasper is likely the first physical conflict he’s been in where the fate of the universe doesn’t hang in the balance. And with it, Steven realizes that he still has learning and growing to do.
The way that episodes challenge Steven’s messiah complex is one of the best things about this new season. Even though he’s saved the universe more than once, he’s still a teenager and hardly has what it takes to guide all the Gems who find themselves displaced after the dissolution of their monarchy. And in this episode, he learns the hard way that he isn’t always right and needs to release some of his control. It’s one of the few situations where we’re being reminded that Steven is on his way towards manhood, and though he’s been raised by women, he still has a lot to learn about how his gender factors into his role as the new de facto leader of the Crystal Gems.
The episode begins with Amethyst introducing Steven to GHEM or the Gem Human Excellence Mentorship. It is revealed that he has been doing job placement for Gems, based on their needs and natural abilities. Whether it’s pizza cutting or making snow cones, all the Gems seem happy in their new jobs. But that doesn’t stop Steven from trying to “fix” the situation. He argues that the Gems doing jobs similar to their duties on Homeworld means that they’re still in bondage and that the best way to liberate them would be to get them to take on jobs they aren’t inherently equipped to do. This leads to disaster, putting Beach City through an avoidable crisis. Through it all, Steven realizes that he can’t control everything and that he has to begin to trust Amethyst to work on her own. “I don’t know why I thought I could just take it over like that,” he says, seemingly unable to understand where the impulse to control came from. And yet, the episode ends on an inspiring note: Amethyst has found her calling. And now she can help him find his.
“Rose Buds” and “Volleyball”
The shadow of Pink Diamond looms in the first two episodes of Steven Universe Future. First, Steven finds out that he is capable of rage. And then, he deals with his tendency to be a control freak. These are both qualities he inherited from his mother Rose Quartz, and in “Rose Buds” and “Volleyball,” he is forced to face that head on. They also put more focus on a new aspect of Steven’s character that we only see glimpses of in “Little Homeschool” and “Guidance”. Steven now turns pink when he’s upset, with a glow that mirrors Lion’s coloring and is probably inherited from his mother. Even now, after liberating all the Gems, he still feels an unhealthy connection to his mother with a fear of becoming her that is transforming into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In “Rose Buds” Steven is trying to find the right place to hang a portrait of his mother. Nowhere in the house seems to work and he begins to wonder if the house needs an image of her at all. Later, Steven nervously meets a trio of Rose Quartz who had been bubbled and nervously invites them home in an effort to finally make space for his mother’s memory. But they look like her and act like her, too; soon Greg, Pearl, Garnet and eventually Steven realize that it’s too difficult to have them around. Before they leave, Steven makes peace with the Quartz, but it’s implied that it’s going to be a while before they can come back into his life.
And then “Volleyball” throws everything into chaos. It’s a culmination of something that’s been building ever since Steven first tried to confront the Diamonds over their tyrannical government. In those episodes, Steven had to learn that his legacy is inseparable from his mother’s and he must accept the burden of correcting the damage she and her sisters caused. But when he meets a damaged Pearl (or “Volleyball” as she’s nicknamed) he finds that his magic healing powers don’t work on her. He, Pearl, and Volleyball then journey to The Reef, where all damaged Pearls are sent to get fixed.
The Reef has the look of an intergalactic Apple store, with an obedient robotic voice that talks about Pearls as if they’re pieces of equipment. The voice uses words like “refurbishment” and “accessories” to further drive home how little Pearls were regarded and how singular Pearl’s experience has been as a free person after Rose’s death. It is then revealed that Volleyball was Rose’s Pearl before Pearl, and the crack in her face is the result of abuse. Steven and Pearl are both tortured by this realization and the episode culminates in them being forced to accept that Rose was just as bad as the other Diamonds before she started working towards liberation. And in the process, Pearl gets some much-needed closure via a fusion with Volleyball. The ending line, spoken by the fusion, is enough to make anyone burst into tears: “Now, I get to understand everything. Now, they get to have each other.”