Steven Quartz Cutie Pie DeMayo Universe has spent the last five seasons of Steven Universe teaching the world just what powerful, transformative forces love and hope can be. But after saving his his galaxy, his planet, and his own mind, Steven’s journey has finally come to an end, so you know we had to talk about it.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: You know, before “Homeworld Bound,” there was a point in time where I really, really didn’t like the idea of thinking about what sort of Gem I might want to be. Not so much that I didn’t think about it, but it felt a bit…wrong? I say all of this because I’m getting way ahead of myself and want, no, NEED, to talk about the Diamonds’ Homeworld throne room that’s become a museum! Also hello, James.
James Whitbrook: Hello, starlight. There is a lot—a lot—to talk about with these last few episodes of Steven Universe, but I am so glad you mentioned our return to Homeworld because, oh my god. It was kind of perfect? It was that sort of subtle, deft, yet deeply enriching worldbuilding move that this show has always made feel sort of effortless, even when it very clearly is not, and I loved every second. Just like, teaching themselves! About their past! With relative critical insight! And that’s before you even get to each Diamond’s little enclaves now just being like…domestic offices. Genius. I loved it, and laughed with each room we visited.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: One of the subtle things I loved about Steven going back “home” was that, on some level, the order and harmony on Era-3 Homeworld really kind of feeds into this idea that, in the end, all of the universe’s problems stemmed from Pink Diamond’s actions. When we first saw Homeworld, it’s was, you know, apocalyptic and seemed in decline, but now that everything’s out in the open and people have cleared things up, it’s become this odd, geometric paradise. And, like, you’ve got to imagine that bothered Steven on some level, because at this point he knows that he’s become the problem that needs fixing.
James Whitbrook: Totally. It’s such a brilliant sequence in terms of the wider themes of this last arc—and really, of the show at large—because like you said, you’ve got this layer of it making it very explicit the nature of Pink’s harm, not just on the personal level of her relationship with Steven, her relationship with the Diamonds and so on, but on a structural, societal level.
But then you put Steven confronted by that at this time of great stress and it just amplifies all these thoughts he’s having about whether or not that, now that he’s accepted Pink as part of himself and part of his identity, he’s also the monster she was capable of being? Him progressively freaking out with each attempt Spinel makes to help him is so well done, up until you get to that tipping point with White. It’s Steven Universe’s message writ large in some ways, that unity and helping each other through trauma will win the day, but the way it’s delivered to Steven in this moment isn’t the way it needed to be, and just amplifies all that internal trauma he’s trying to work through.
But then, also: Yellow Diamond’s lil’ workshop situation? Adorable. Imagine this is where we would get to the first time we met her and she was this horrifying, seemingly unstoppable force.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: What makes Spinel and the Diamonds’ turn so excellent is that they’re all reflections of their ability to see Steven as Steven, and having that fact juxtaposed with Steven finally giving into the idea that he’s Pink is just too good. I think that in each moment where we’re seeing what the Diamonds’ inverted powers are, it’s not just that they’re all trying to act as therapists for him, but almost…giving themselves a chance to have the kinds of relationships that they’d always wanted to have with Pink and possibly other Gems but never quite felt comfortable or able to.
Compared to other Gems that Steven brought into the fold, you get the sense that he hasn’t really spent all that much time with the Diamonds, which makes the way that they’re clearly so delighted by their new pastimes so interesting—because it’s them being like “yes, this is extremely my shit right here” as opposed to it being something Steven explicitly got them into.
James Whitbrook: Haha, yes! And once again, just to keep harping on about how goddamn good this show is at tying all this stuff together, it feels like a natural evolution of that joke we got in the movie, where he’s desperately trying to get away from the Diamonds smothering him, because he’s a teen and that’s what teens want to do when confronted by a doting parental figure.
Now he’s had that distance, he’s had that time away and gone through all this stuff he’s trying to process, and coming back to Homeworld and seeing just how much they have changed in his absence for the better, while he feels in the moment he’s changing for the worse, is both a great way to call back to that desire he had to distance himself and also the show’s wider themes that, well, a lot of these problems, interstellar war or otherwise, really can be solved if people open themselves up to each other and talk things through.
Speaking of him changing for the worse though, we should probably move on from Steven’s little Homeworld sojourn and get to the bit where he, uh, starts changing for the worse?
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Yes, but honestly? I think it really starts to get bad on Homeworld. The moment Steven has with White, on its face is horrific because he’s forcing her to hurt herself, but at the same time while White’s using her powers, it means Steven’s confronting and physically harming himself. That alone just floored me and when you look at it as violent self harm—the sort of thing Steven thinks his family on Earth would never expect from him—you understand why he tries to bottle everything up and keep himself busy by fixing other people’s (nonexistent) problems. It’s not a healthy kind of logic, but it’s one that makes sense and in this odd way really speaks to just how complicated Steven’s become as he’s grown up.
James Whitbrook: Indeed. The confrontation with White—well, with himself through her—is like you said, this very physical moment of violence that’s so shocking, but when he gets back to Earth I was fascinated to see it contrasted with him essentially going through an emotional version of that self harm, when he runs off just trying to solve problems because he’s telling himself “You’re Steven Universe, this is what you do, isn’t it?” and when that just either straight up doesn’t work or goes comically wrong, he’s beating himself up internally about it. He’s not Steven the problem solver, he’s Steven the problem creator, and it’s really surprisingly gutwrenching to watch him spiral through it.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: In a lot of ways, this makes “Growing Pains” so much more devastating in retrospect because Steven’s shapeshifting was already overtaking him without his having sunken to the emotional depths you see him in within this episode specifically. In a weird way, it also sort of recontextualizes all of the new pink-hued powers we’ve seen him manifest over the course of the season in this novel way because I don’t think that in the end we’re meant to understand the whole of what Steven’s going through as a bad thing? Difficult as confronting all of these feelings is for him, he is growing through them in a sense, albeit part of that growth process ends up becoming, well. You know. Extra. In retrospect, we all should have known what that thing with the glowing eyes from the opening sequence was.
James Whitbrook: Oh my god. I only just put two and two together on that. THIS SHOW!!!
But yes, I agree entirely. What we get here is well, obviously bad for Steven—he’s going through some really messy, complicated shit—but like you said, aside from the literal growing pain he goes through in these episodes that we’ll get to in a bit, he’s confronting something that will ultimately lead him onto a better emotional path. He’s just doing so in this very teenage way, amplified by his Gem powers. He’s not reaching out to the people he loves, he’s lashing out, he’s internalizing all this stuff and it just becomes too much and, well…we have to talk about it.
Steven Universe becomes a goddamn Gem Godzilla. It’s…incredible? Like, incredible in the sense that it is completely wonderfully bonkers, but also incredible in that at the same time it’s just entirely heartshattering to watch him hate himself so much, be scared of himself so much, that he transforms into a literal monster because of that internalization of all these emotions. There’s a lot that’s shocking in the moment about these last few episodes, but I think this was honestly the most shocking moment of this entire arc here. It’s great, but it’s also just deeply, deeply tragic to watch.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: At the same time, though, there’s a message there, right? Steven’s physical transformation is rooted in his false belief that he’s a monster and his unwillingness or inability to express those feelings to Connie and Greg and the Gems when they try to reach out to him. That, then—his pushing his feelings down—ends up actually causing the sorts of external damage to the people around him that Steven was always so afraid of, and the fact that the Gems all immediately understand that hit me so hard. I will say though, I was delighted that on some level Blue (was it Blue?) was alarmed that he’d become corrupted because it had and air of that old school Diamond “ugh”-ness.
James Whitbrook: (It WAS blue!) Yes! There’s this sort of casual, “Oh, not again” that feels reflective of their past attitudes that is incredibly funny as an offhand thing but also I think ties into the large moment of, like you said, them realising what has happened and what has to be done to stop isn’t the same old same old. There is a hot minute between the cliffhanger moment of Steven’s transformation and the Gems seeming where you think “oh this is Steven Universe getting on its anime bullshit goodness again, we’re gonna get the Diamond fight 2.0, here we go”, like, you’re expecting the big knock out fight between the fused Gems and this Steven Kaijuniverse (sorry, not sorry).
But immediately they all go “wait, no, the problem is is that he’s not spoken to us about these feelings and we have to let him know we’re here to help him get through them and support him” and it’s just…like, the eventual Gigant-Garnet hug is where I really really lost it the first time watching these episodes, but it was that initial moment where I welled up. That they just got it immediately, there was no fight, it was just…them immediately getting what he’s going through. If only he’d talked! If only he’d reached out! That’s Steven Universe right there, this entire thing distilled into one moment.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Was I maybe hoping to see all the Diamonds fuse together into something vaguely green attempting to sing the large Gem kaiju into submission? Perhaps. But honestly, watching the entire group charing through the ocean and flying through the air had its own sense of grandeur that effectively hammers home how personal a fight this is for all of them as individuals who love Steven and only want him to be safe and secure. That none of them ever actually have to really fight Steven and he really makes clear that he still has some grasp on reality even in his monster form made this feel less like your traditional row between large creatures and more like a family coming together just to be there for something throwing an outside tantrum, if that makes any sense.
James Whitbrook: Totally. And I think that’s what makes this moment all the more beautiful, because like you said—there’s this sense of grandeur and scale to it that makes the fact that it’s build up to such a simple, emotional act. It’s not some kind of knockout punch and then the talking comes afterwards, or, like, I dunno, some Crystal Gem love-beam attack or whatever. Like, it’s not something emotional that’s presented as this combative, angry thing catapulted at him, in the moment, the Crystal Gems’ co-ordination, all this slickness—and it really does look slick as hell, it’s great—it’s all leading to…a hug. It’s so simple, and ultimately what makes it feel so powerful when it happens.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: One has to be concerned about those pink tears mucking up the ocean and what not. In all seriousness, though, this episode was good and it very well would have made for an excellent finale, but…why not go back to the beginning? Coming down from such an emotional high in the previous episode, “The Future” was such a perfect mental palette cleanser because I really don’t remember the last time I watched an episode of Steven Universe without some vague sense of underlying dread about what’s out there waiting to pop up next. Like, you know that the issue here is that he’s leaving Beach City and you know it’s building to everyone having these breakdowns, but the show’s like “nah, let’s take some time to have a classic adventure in which Steven is confused about everything around him for most of the episode.”
James Whitbrook: Right!? I feel like almost…the show could’ve ended right there after Steven turns back into himself and there’s like, the unspoken closure that they’ve confronted these problems and he’s in this emotionally better place, but I cannot think of a more perfect way to have ended the entire show than with “The Future.” There aren’t stake-stakes.
There is not even really this sort of like, emotional fallout in the sense that we typically expect of an episode that comes after these big, heady climaxes as there has been before. Everything is so…simple sounds almost like a criticism, but it isn’t. It’s quaint. It feels like that first season of the show again, not just literally in the sense we get that—truly hilarious—rendition of the Cookie Cat jingle echoing back to the very first post-pilot episode, but in just like…there’s this feeling that’s almost hopeful, of the promise that lies out there? Promise we’ll likely not see, because this is it, for now and I would imagine at the very least for a long, long while. But there’s this freeing sense of simplicity throughout this last episode.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Again, it was right in front of us all along. We’ve been watching Steven driving out of Beach City for the entire season in the end credits while he’s listening to Emily King, and the tone’s always been so calm, reflective, and assuring. I love that the note the series ends on isn’t quite “we’re done, folks,” you get that sense that these characters’ lives are going to go on after we can no longer follow them, and while that’s sort of sad on its own, it’s also beautiful in its own way. You know Pearl’s probably not going to want to live in the house with Greg, Steven and Connie and gonna meet up, but there’s also so much that we can’t know. Bluebird Azurite’s still out there somewhere, but we just can’t know. And that’s…great.
James Whitbrook: Right. There’s this sense of finality to it that has this underlying melancholy but the overriding theme of it all is that, metatextually we know it’s the end of this show called Steven Universe and we are very much sad about that, but these characters don’t know that. They’ve got lives they’ll live, and keep on living, even if we as the audience will have to imagine those lives. They don’t go for the very easy route of making it feel like these characters are dancing around the fact that this is the last time we will see them, and they didn’t, and that in and of itself feels very Steven Universe.
What’s also very Steven Universe, and what I truly loved about “The Future”, is that it’s basically the last 3 episodes, but distilled into 10 minutes and done more jokily? Which feels like such a perfect, perfect way to cap this all off. It brings it back into focus on Steven, Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, makes it playful, but it’s still that same theme that has been put to us over and over again in this show and in this last arc: reach out to the people you love and let them know how you feel, whether it’s sadness or regret or anger or happiness or, above all, love.
I know the bit where Steven drives back at the end and they all messy-cry is funny, but it’s also the point I myself was just like, also actually straight up messy-crying to an almost embarrassing level. It was like the moment I’d allowed myself to just say “god, I love these characters and I will miss that they are a present part of my life in a way I never thought I would.” I was in. A. STATE.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Please, James. You’re being hysterical. More than usual. [I have to go for this interview.]
James Whitbrook: A STAAAAAATE.