What do you do after saving the world, instilling democracy across the universe, and ending an era of brutality and warfare? You realize how none of those things have prepared you for the simpler things in life. In the final bunch of episodes of Steven Universe Future (which I binge-watched this weekend for maximum tears), we saw our hero, Steven Quartz Cutie Pie DeMayo Universe, deal with the fact that he may have saved the universe—but it left a lot of scars that need to heal.
[Spoiler alert for the series finale of Steven Universe Future]
When it comes to child heroes, they are usually portrayed as a sort of emotional Teflon. Nothing really sticks to them, and they are able to bounce back from their trauma because saving the world is worth it in the end. When Steven Universe ended, he had saved the universe, convinced the Diamonds to stop being despots, and brought back the corrupted gems of Earth. At the beginning of Steven Universe: Future, our hero is living in the utopia he created. But what does that mean for him?
Steven is restless and largely purposeless. His powers are still growing, but there are not really any battles to fight. Garnet, Pearl, Amethyst, and the others have jobs and lives outside of just Steven. Connie is in school preparing for college, and Greg is on tour with a new band. That leaves Steven to realize that he does not have a purpose of his own. He has never been to school, he doesn’t really have any employable skills, and because he is older, all of the things he has suppressed inside of him are no longer able to stay there.
In “Growing Pains,” the story finally addresses what’s going on: Steven is suffering extensive psychological trauma. Connie’s mother examines Steven in the hospital (his first doctor’s visit), and we see an X-ray of his skull, showing fractures there, as well as other parts of his body. It’s stated that they healed as soon as they happened, but the cracks are still there. Steven recounts all the things that have happened to him, all the physical and emotional pain throughout the series, and he’s told that his body is reacting as if it’s the end of the world to every single bit of stress—because that is the kind of stress his body is used to.
When his Greg returns early from tour to take care of Steven, we get another episode where they revisit Greg’s childhood. Greg recounts a very laced up, conservative family that didn’t let him do anything, but what Steven sees is the stability that he has been denied.
Steven is angry and afraid of that anger, so he goes to Jasper, someone who can teach him to harness that anger. The problem is that Steven digs down too deep and starts going Tetsuo. He ends up giving in to that malevolent side of himself and accidentally shatters Jasper, so he flees to the Diamonds for answers.
They, all having new powers that are more altruistic in focus, try to help Steven, but he doesn’t want superficial changes. He wants to feel good from the inside, but he doesn’t know how to do that. When he’s allowed to take over White Diamond’s body to communicate with himself, he makes himself (as White Diamond) slam their head into a pillar in a form of emotional self-harm. It’s a dark moment not just for Steven, but for us as the audience. We know this isn’t who he is, but he’s doing it because of this deep self-loathing at no longer having a place in the world that feels right.
He tries to fix things and just causes havoc until he says that he’s a monster and transforms into the final baddie we saw from the opening credits: a large, horned corrupted gem.
I won’t lie; when I saw that moment, I had to stop for a bit because it hurt my heart so much. I love Steven, I relate to Steven, and I certainly understand that overwhelming feeling of thinking everyone you love is drifting away and there is nothing you can do to hold on to them. I understand trying so hard to be happy and okay—then erupting when you realize that you are just not. You can’t be okay right now.
Thankfully, Steven Universe has always been a show where love and kindness wins, so they are able to save the day by literally surrounding corrupted Steven with love and hugging it out. As you see him cry, shrink down, and just curl up around the people who love him most, it just leaves a sense of pure catharsis. I was happy for him and sad that it took him a meltdown to communicate the pain he was in, but so, so glad that the support network of love he built came back tenfold when he needed it.
So what does Steven do next? He leaves home. He decides to get his car and travel, to find his own purpose without needing to look out for the next war. Also, he and Connie kiss for the first time on screen (I believe), and I screamed with joy. He and the gems share a tear-filled goodbye, but Garnet shares that wherever his journey takes him next, they will always be a part of his life. And … I’m crying right now as I type, thinking about it.
Rebecca Sugar created a series that has been so deeply etched into my heart, I almost can’t believe it. After Sailor Moon and Xena, Steven Universe has delivered such a beautifully done, moving, and powerful end to the series without ever having to move away from its sense of optimism and hope.
Thank you, Rebecca Sugar. You did that shit.
(images: Cartoon Network)
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