Steven Universe decides to spend its final episodes essentially destroying the traditional hero narrative.
Steven Universe (Zach Callison) has succeeded in dismantling the Great Diamond Authority and has created Little Homeschool, a place where Gems can learn to adjust and integrate into humanity. He’s assisted by all of the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, Peridot, Lapis Lazuli, and Bismuth (Estelle, Michaela Dietz, Deedee Magno Hall, Shelby Rabara, Jennifer Paz, Uzo Aduba). During the first ten episodes, we see him realize that there are a few enemies who will just hate him forever, that some gems resist the dismantling of the empire, and that his mother, prior to knowing our Pearl, had actually been physically abusive towards her former Pearl. After the class of Little Homeschool graduates, we also get hints that Steven is having trouble finding his place in the world now that he doesn’t have to defend against the Diamonds.
In the last ten episodes, we find out how true that is. Steven doesn’t really have a clue what to do with his life now, and the lack of purpose is weighing on him. He thinks that his relationships will all fall to the wayside if they don’t have a shared goal, leading him to try and fill the void by proposing to his longtime girlfriend Connie (Grace Rolek). After she tells him that they’re too young (she handles it super well), he starts to find his powers growing out of control. He finds out that, even though his powers have given him superhuman regeneration and durability, his battle-filled childhood has created a lot of trauma. In response to finding this out, Steven starts to lose control of his powers even further which causes him to do increasingly worse things. Eventually, Steven is forced to accept that this time, he is the one that needs help.
I’ll do a Steven Universe retrospective soon about how this show went from a thing I absolutely couldn’t stand to one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but today is mostly just going to be about Future. Steven Universe was always focused, as you would expect, on Steven, a boy hero who was trying to live up to the legacy that everyone said his mom left behind. Then, as the show went on, it was slowly revealed that his mother was not the perfect heroine that everyone thought, meaning that Steven was stuck trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal. While Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond had managed to become more heroic over time, she never made any of her numerous bad acts public, nor did she apologize for most of them (she left one person who loved her stranded in a garden for MILLENNIA). Instead, she pretended they didn’t happen, even if they caused suffering. Despite that, he held fast to his principles and ended up being a hero mostly through empathy and understanding rather than violence.
We’ve often seen the story of the child hero, but this is one of the few shows that ever actually addressed the realistic consequences of that. Steven was raised as the only human on a team of alien superheroes and constantly had insecurities about the nature of his powers. Additionally, he regularly fought monsters, evil gems, even the Diamonds themselves, often getting injured or watching his surrogate family hurt or even “poofed,” which is when a gem loses physical form. In this series, we see that there are two major impacts on his emotional development: First, he now responds to any pain as a threat to his life, a common trait of people who have been through traumatic experiences (as a cancer survivor, this is real and can be crippling at times). Second, he has a messiah complex… except that he already did the messiah part. He actually WAS the person who was destined to become the savior of the universe, but now he can’t find anything to do that fulfills him. It’s a much more accurate take on the aftermath of the hero’s journey than “they all lived happily ever after.”
I also like that the show doesn’t just say “this is going to suck” or “this will all work out.” Instead, at the end of the series, Steven is in therapy, he’s working on figuring out his own place in the new world, and the road may be bumpy. The only thing we know for sure is that Steven will always have his family and his friends with him, and that they’ll help him along when he needs it. That’s the best thing about this show, that it always ends up showing us that the real value is in trust and empathy, because that leads to creating friends out of enemies and friends are what we need most.
This was a bold way to end a series, by basically undercutting the very trope that they had been playing into, but it’s exactly what I would expect from a franchise like Steven Universe. I cannot applaud it enough.
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