When I first began recapping Steven Universe Future, I was a little uncomfortable. I’m used to reviewing television in season-long chunks, only exploring the episodes that resonated the most emotionally. That is how I wrote about She-Ra And The Princesses of Power, Big Mouth, Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons Why and our dearly departed Tuca & Bertie. I felt more comfortable discussing a show once I knew how the shape of the season was going to look. Still, I grew up on A.V. Club recaps. I’ve read every single one for Adventure Time, marveling at the way writers were able to squeeze so much out of 11 minutes. And I found myself frustrated by how much I couldn’t seem to squeeze out of a show I’ve loved for years. I listen to “It’s Over Isn’t It” at least once a month and stopped everything I was doing earlier this year to watch Steven Universe: The Movie. So why is it that writing about this show has been so hard for me? Maybe the answer is that I can feel that it’s over and I’m not ready for it to be.
The show doesn’t seem ready to be over, either. Rebecca Sugar has given us so many endings at the point, and just when you think one is final, another appears. And none of the episodes of Steven Universe Future have the sense of finality you would expect from a show ending on its own terms after six years of lovely storytelling. The most telling example of this being Connie’s curious absence after seasons of build-up establishing the two as partners—in friendship and in battle. I’m glad Connie has her own life beyond Steven, but I don’t think her absence during this crucial moment of change for him makes much sense for the story. This final stretch of the show seems to be striving to paint Steven as a boy alone, left behind as all the friends in his life take what they learned from him and move on. But would Steven really end up this lonely?
Steven has always thrived on being a problem solver. That is how we fell in love with him as viewers. He’s the kind of boy we don’t often see in cartoons. He’s kind, he listens, he doesn’t make trouble on purpose, he wants everyone to be happy and most of all: he loves the idea of romantic love, cheering it on whenever he can. Steven’s power is his love, which is a kind of power usually reserved for female characters where connections to motherhood can easily be made. But Steven isn’t a mom, he’s a boy with the spirit and power of his mother inside him. But he also has her stubbornness and the kind of strong emotion that is often difficult to control. It’s hard to accept, but Steven is just as capable of doing what Rose did to Volleyball—a reality that isn’t lost on him. These final two episodes of the year grapple with that head-on in a way that is both thoughtful and naggingly unsatisfying.
Episode nine, “Little Graduation” (A), hints at a clean ending. The Off-Colors are graduating from Little Homeschool, meaning that Steven’s first year as a guide and mentor to Gems is over. It’s been obvious for quite a few episodes that Little Homeschool is mostly an outlet for Steven’s need to be a leader rather than something he actually enjoys doing. With that in mind, it’s interesting to watch him cling to the school year, making the graduation all about himself and his anxieties about being left behind. He can’t handle the end of Sadie and Lars’ relationship, even though they seem fine with it. He can’t deal with Sadie and the Suspects breaking up, even as she moves on to make more personal music with her new partner. Steven can’t see it for himself of course and keeps trying to do what he’s always done: fix everything. But, in the end, the only person who needs fixing is him. And no one seems to have the time to walk him through that journey.
It’s a stellar episode, and if it had been the last one I think I would be satisfied. It takes dark subject matter—Steven’s need to be in control—and turns it into a sweet story about letting go. This is the kind of wistful, empathetic storytelling that has always set Steven Universe apart from other action shows. But then we get “Prickly Pear” (B+) which is one of the most painful episodes of the series, with hints of similarly upsetting episodes of Adventure Time, like “Frost & Fire” and “All The Little People”. In those stories, Finn is isolating himself physically or emotionally in order to work through his own desires. Here, we find Steven falling into seclusion, channeling his loneliness into gardening. He names his plants after the friends that left him and is excited by the fact that they are the only things that will never leave him. Then, he gives life to a cactus which grows into a monster who becomes the manifestation of all Steven’s worries and petty grievances. And then, in one of the most upsetting sequences in the history of the show, the cactus monster begins fighting the Crystal Gems while repeating Steven’s critiques of them. Like Finn, Steven has fallen into an obsession with control that coincides with his adolescence. As “Snow Day” proved, Steven just isn’t that sweet little selfless boy anymore.
Part of growing up is learning how to recognize that you have needs and figuring out how to communicate them to other people. Steven never learned that because he was too preoccupied with being a hero. But now he has no one to save and he is forced to save himself, but he doesn’t know how to use those tools for his own benefit. I hope these aren’t the last episodes because I would really love to watch Steven learn an important lesson, just one more time before I have to say goodbye.
- Zach Callison does some of his best work this week. The way he asks “why do I need to be needed?” is gutting.
- Sadie’s partner Shep is such an adorable, empathetic person! And it’s nice to see a cartoon nonchalantly introduce a non-binary character.
- Really impressed by how much Lars has grown up. He used to be such a messy character. I guess going to space is the answer?
- Is Steven going to go to therapy? He seems to really need it.