After a few of the most exciting, intense episodes Steven Universe has done, it makes sense that there’d be a bit of a slowdown before the big finish. In “The Zoo,” Steven sees what’s happened to the descendants of the humans kidnapped for Pink Diamond’s zoo, and the answer isn’t pretty—or, rather, it’s too pretty.

The Gems running the zoo have successfully sapped the humans’ will to resist by keeping them in an idyllic paradise, a beach where every need is met and they don’t ever have to think for themselves. There’s voice that speaks to them through their earrings, telling them when to play, when to eat (and what to eat), when to sleep, when to smell flowers, and who to sleep with. This is sort of standard dystopia of the Brave New World variety, and much of the episode feels like it’s waiting for a twist or other form of complication that never quite comes. Instead, Steven gets dropped into the zoo, meets the other humans (who call his dad “Ga-reg”), and then tries to escape.

Still, it’s worth thinking about how appealing this world is, and how effectively it’s woven into the fabric of a kids’ show. In particular, the concept of “The Choosening,” where the humans are put into a pre-planned breeding program, is pretty dark, and handled with a degree of care that hints at what’s actually going on without becoming as explicit as it could be. The residents of the zoo were never given the choice to leave and lead their own lives, and don’t even have a sense of what it would look like to make nay of those choices for themselves. They don’t even understand the concepts of “bad” or “hurt,” which sort of suggests how mind-numbingly boring their existence and intellectual lives have been for three millennia.

This is also a rare case where the show’s commitment to freedom and choice as its primary ethical value rings ever so slightly hollow. I know I’m pushing a little hard here, but it’s not as if there’s a dearth of societies on Earth where people are forced to marry and sex and procreation are heavily regulated. (We kinda live in one!) Here, it’s sort of the final straw, the thing that prompts Greg to finally speak up in opposition to the system, which he’s mostly been enjoying so far, in a nice change where Steven has to be far more paternal in telling his father not to do easy, lazy things.

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It’s also the thing that finally makes the assembled humans upset, as they respond to Greg’s impassioned speech in favor of choosing your partner by all choosing him—only to be summarily rejected. (“I haven’t broken this many hearts since I had all my hair,” Greg says.) The emotional distress of the assembled humans finally summon the Amethyst guards, who, the legends say, only show up when someone is “hurt.” (Steven comically hitting Greg, it turns out, does not quality.) Amethysts show up to collect the crying humans, and in one of the best moments of the episode, one of them tries to comfort the humans as if she were talking to a friend going through a breakup. Meanwhile, Steve and Greg are captured trying to escape. After a relatively placid episode for this show, it looks like the end of this arc will be full of fireworks.

Stray observations:

  • “The Zoo” is storyboarded by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff.
  • Greg had told the other humans about Steven before his arrival. One of them does a pretty spot-on impersonation: “The bits, the bits. That’s you, right?”
  • Did anyone else keep waiting for the other shoe to drop on this one? It felt the whole time like there was going to be something more sinister, or at least different, to switch up Steven’s (and our) initial impression of the zoo.

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