“Lion 4” has pretty big shoes to fill: The “Lion” series has produced some of the best episodes of Steven Universe, and there’s a strong case for putting “Lion 3: The Movie” in the show’s top five. Of course, that’s largely on the strength of the episode’s emotional, enchanting conclusion in the discovery of the tape Rose made for Steven, introducing her to the series and profoundly shaping his quest to understand himself. As “Lion 4” begins, Steven has learned a lot of new things about Rose—particularly that she shattered Pink Diamond and hid Bismuth away—but he’s found himself back in the same place, rewinding the tape over and over. “You’re going to be something extraordinary,” Rose tells her son. But why doesn’t he feel that way?

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Rose’s ultimate plans and intentions have been something of a mystery for the entire run of the show. By design, she isn’t much of a concrete presence, communicating largely through her relationships with Greg and the Gems and things like the tape. So it makes a certain amount of sense that Steven has basically turned into a Steven Universe obsessive, scanning the first letter of the first word of every sentence in the video to try to find a hidden clue to what he’s supposed to do, and who he’s supposed to be—his destiny. Being purposeless is a pretty normal problem for a person to have, though it’s probably easier to assume you have a specific destiny if you’re a one-of-a-kind alien-human hybrid at the center of an ancient war.

No such luck. Steven Universe has placed too much of a premium on freedom of choice (and frankly, fleshed out its characters too much) to have such a specific endgame in mind. So though Lion ominously coughs up a key that seems like it should unlock new information about Steven’s “purpose,” his ensuing quest to find what it opens and get some answers is mostly an excuse to reiterate the same truths about his (and everyone’s) existence.

After searching all of the locations he would expect cool the armory, the fountain, Rose’s room (all scored with a medley of the different themes Aivi and Surrashu have made for Rose), and even checking to see if the key unlocks some hidden part of himself, Steven eventually persuades Lion to take him to the desert temple. (This is the same location where Steven met Lion in the first place, and where Buddy met Rose back in “Buddy’s Book.”) Melting in the sun, Steven asks: “Who were you? Who am I?”

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The intensity with which Steven asks these questions, flanked by silhouettes of the Gems, seems portentous in a way that really gives the lie to what’s about to happen: nothing, really. (Even knowing the show as well as I think I do, it certainly suckered me.) Steven opens the door to reveal… a pile of junk that he could have easily reached if he’d approached the “desert temple” from the rear. (There are no walls.) Even though he browses through the garbage and finds videotape for someone named “Nora,” Steven’s frenzied desire for answers doesn’t really go anywhere. Lion takes Steven to Greg, who reveals the truth: The alternate ending of the episode’s title is, of course, that Steven would have been named Nora if he’d been born a girl. That’s it.

It’s pretty easy to see this coming, but that’s sort of the point. Steven has been tested a lot in the last few episode, and he needs to relearn some of the same lessons about being comfortable with his own existence. It would be weirder, really, if he didn’t ask the questions, even if “Nora” ended up being nobody other than himself. (Having said that, I’m sure someone is already nine installments into a Nora Universe webcomic, which I am excited to read in six months.)

But there is another reason for this episode to exist: all of the little moments of Steven being himself, which are the whole point of his existence. When Steven’s eyes narrow at Lion coughing up the key (I will never get tired of sight gags where Steven pokes in and out of Lion’s mane), when he expresses comic agitation at the anagrams he’s constructed, when he tears up at the end of the episode. We’re just getting used to spending time with Steven with a little less forward momentum, in the manner of well, any other long-running TV show. It might be less exciting than the first season or so, but it has to be enough.

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Still, I really hope this isn’t the end of Steven’s questioning, and specifically anxiety over Rose shattering Pink Diamond—it feels like the other Gems are still hiding something, and there hasn’t been the kind of full-on confrontation with that information Steven has been demanding. Just because Rose’s tape was exactly what it looked like doesn’t mean there weren’t other things she was hiding.

Stray observations:

  • What is in that chest in Lion’s mane?
  • So we know Lion is related to Rose, and that’s about it—are you guys cool with not getting more answers on that? (I suspect that I am, since it doesn’t seem to really matter in the grand scheme of things. Though I think it’d be cool to see a flashback episode where Rose uses Lion’s mane as a den, or something.)
  • “A bunch of garbage mom left behind” is a pretty good name for another Steven Universe webcomic, or my extremely good new album.
  • Of course Greg has a “jamming hill.”
  • “Lion 4: Alternate Ending” is written and storyboarded by Hilary Florido and Paul Villeco.
  • A new week, a new bomb! I know all of these episodes are available on the Cartoon Network app, but I’m still going to be reviewing them as they air. If you want to talk about the rest of the week, try to spoiler tag your comments?

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