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There's a dream and some nightmares this week on Steven Universe Future

Illustration for article titled Theres a dream and some nightmares this week on iSteven Universe Future/i
Image: Steven Universe
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Perhaps it’s trite at this point to compare yet another piece of media to Twin Peaks: The Return, but there’s no denying that Steven Universe Future is telling a much more somber story about what happens when the optimism of heroism succumbs to bleak reality. What is “happily ever after” really? And is it attainable? In many children’s films and television, the answer is yes. But Rebecca Sugar and their team are taking the harder road instead, risking the clean endings of the first five seasons and the movie to stick with Steven as he navigates adolescence. But how can he move on to the next adventure when he’s already saved the world? What earthly life or career path could stack up to that?

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That’s the main struggle of “In Dreams” (A), a surprisingly haunting 11 minutes of television that shows Steven suffering from nightmares that mirror his anxieties. The images are simple at first—Steven dreams of the Crystal Gems having a party, but the doorway inside disappears just as he reaches for it. Later they become more abstract, with the mood becoming more sinister and Peridot’s face transforming into a test pattern

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Intertwined with all that is a simple story: Steven is trying to bond with Peridot over a revival of their favorite show, but the new storylines are more soapy with less action and they’re disappointed. So Peridot comes up with a brilliant idea to rewrite the story in a way they prefer. This is fun at first, with them working on a story map together and even writing Steven into the show. But as with most episodes this season, everything is derailed by Steven’s innermost fears.

It seems like with each episode, the writers are coming up with new ways to portray Steven’s anxieties, each getting at one singular theme: Steven needs to be needed and no one around him seems to understand how much his identity is wrapped up in that. I keep wondering if the series will end with Steven in therapy, trying to rebuild his sense of self. This is a show for children, but therapy is just as important for them as anyone else, and that ending would be hopeful enough without resorting to fantasy. The opening to the movie toyed with that idea already before quickly setting the storybook ending to the side to tell a more bittersweet, personal narrative.

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So, if this episode is a lot more of the same, why am I rating it so highly? Well, it’s all in the execution. The mixture of the fake television show plot lines with Steven’s nightmares is seamless, often leaving me wondering if Peridot is actually there or just a figment of Steven’s imagination as he works through his abandonment issues. In a way, Peridot is the perfect character to do an experimental episode because her offbeat sense of humor is just as unpredictable as Steven’s mind. It’s a joy to see her, especially because it feels like it may be the last time.

If you haven’t noticed, I love comparing Steven Universe to other shows. It’s a cartoon that feels like a direct response to 90s and early 2000s media in the same way that Regular Show was enamored with the 80s. Any viewer can see how nostalgia has shaped the feel and aesthetic of Cartoon Network shows in a way that sets it apart from other networks. But unlike Regular Show and Adventure Time, Steven Universe mines most of its nostalgia from media aimed at or centering women and girls. Steven’s powers are fueled by love and goodness, much like magical girl anime or even iconic female characters like Cher Horowitz, Elle Woods and, most notably, Buffy Summers.

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Hear me out: Steven Universe Future is very much like the infamously troubling sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the Scooby Gang resurrects her, Buffy returns from death to a world she no longer feels comfortable in. Instead of just moving on with her life she finds herself experiencing a second adolescence, with all the recklessness and chaos that comes with it. Steven, like Buffy, was mostly flailing in the first half of Future, unable to relate to his friends and family in a normal way. He’s a boy who grew up only knowing crisis—much like Buffy’s monster of the week and Big Bad plot lines. Sure there was humor and love, but there was always the threat of battle right around the corner. It’s easy to be the positive one when the world depends on it, but being positive for yourself is a different struggle entirely. He has to figure out how to live for himself now.

“Bismuth Casual” (B) is about Steven learning how to be a human again and questioning whether or not it’s fully possible for him. This episode is also the welcome return of Connie, who has been nowhere to be found for most of the season. She, Bismuth, Pearl and Steven venture out into the human world to go rollerskating and hijinks ensue. Bismuth tries to flirt with Pearl(!) Pearl has a fan club(!) Connie made new friends at cram school(!) And Steven... well, he doesn’t know how to skate. Or talk to Connie. Or go one second without having a freakout. After the inventiveness of “In Dreams” it’s a little frustrating to watch Steven flailing again with no clear path forward. How many times are we going to watch Steven have a panic attack this season and what is it leading up to? Are we going to find out he has an anxiety disorder? I just want some answers, please.

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Regardless of my narrative reservations, this is a really fun episode. Pearl’s fan club is a fun group and the toilet paper gag got a few laughs from me. The Bismuth/Pearl pairing is a headscratcher for me, but I can’t deny that they look cute together. I do find it strange that the episode really doesn’t spend much time with Steven and Connie really getting to know each other again. I know the show is trying to drive home Steven’s feelings of isolation, but if there’s anyone who should be able to understand him, it’s Connie. But my heart melted when I saw Stevonnie again, so it’s hard to stay mad. Watching them glide across the roller rink was like a dream.

Stray Observations:

  • I wonder if they paired Bismuth with Pearl to make us forget about Hot Biker Girl. If so, it didn’t work. But I’ll allow it.
  • Pearl’s favorite song being a commercial jingle is way too perfect.
  • Is Steven ever going to go to high school? College? Anywhere?
  • Is humanity just used to Gems now, or is it just a Beach City thing?
  • The song Stevonnie skates to is “Can’t Hold Me” by Emily King. Is this the first time the show featured outside music? Let me know in the comments!
  • Emily King’s most recent album, Scenery, came out last year and it is very good.
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Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster.

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