When Cartoon Network’s cartoon series, Steven Universe, closed its fifth season in January 2019, fans worried that there might be no room left for the show. The stakes that the semi-alien hybrid boy Steven Universe and his alien warrior friends, the Crystal Gems, faced escalated throughout the series. But in season 5, they were faced with what appeared to be the last of their main opponents, and as usual on the show, Steven finally got through to her with a mix of keen thinking and insightful emotional appeal. Suddenly the series seemed to keep the remaining threats or dangling plot hooks particularly short.
In September 2019, creator Rebecca Sugar and her team released a follow-up film that takes place two years later. Steven Universe: The film presented a bright new future, still carefree and relatively calm. But then the film introduced a new, terribly dangerous enemy that erased most of the protagonists’ memories and put them back to the beginning of the Steven Universe story. The stage was ready for a long way back from first place, a journey that could have triggered periods of conflict, or a story that used the same characters but took a completely different path the second time. Instead, the film missed all of these terrible opportunities, resolved the situation, and brought everyone back on track of their happy lives.
The conclusion of the series, the limited series Steven Universe Future, deals intensively with this happy future. The episodes released so far – six of which will be shown in ten episodes at some point – suggest that Sugar and the company are doing next to nothing that television almost never does. They stick with it to find out what victory, normalcy and happiness look like after the world-threatening dramas so common in fantasy stories.
Ah, normality. Art of.Image: cartoon network
(Ed. Note: Slight spoilers ahead for Steven Universe Future.)
Steven Universe Future, which started earlier this month, has not yet introduced major new traumas that are likely to change this dynamic. Steven and his warrior friends Amethyst, Pearl and Garnet are still spending time in their Beach City home, talking to the quirky locals. But now dozens of other extraterrestrial gems – the formerly corrupt survivors of an ancient war on Earth – are being resurrected and integrated into society.
The premise of an inhumane species that settles on Earth has driven entire films and TV shows from District 9 to Alien Nation to Amazon’s latest series Carnival Row. The idea can be a clear metaphor for human immigration stories and a way to face prejudice, racism, cultural struggles and otherness in a new light. Steven Universe offers another level to this metaphor: gemstones are essentially constructed warriors, created and trained for complete obedience and service to an aggressive expansion empire. Getting to know freedom of choice and a peacetime mentality could be an enormously difficult task.
But so far the conflicts have been mild, mainly because Steven had tried to drive the new gems out of their comfort zones, or because a few old enemies were sulking about the new order. The screenplays focus more on Steven, who continues to mature in his strengths and responsibilities, and on various gemstones that heal her past trauma and look for personalized, specific ways for the future. The quick problems and quicker solutions go back to the first season of the series, where over-the-counter adventures were rare and most of the episodes were short and sometimes silly attempts.
It is true Mayo is scary. Image: Cartoon Network
And that’s amazing, even for a series that has gotten used to groundbreaking content (from gay relationships to dedicating an episode and song to head clearing meditation) and researching emotions. Once the big battles in a television series or fantasy story in general are over, the consequences are almost no longer a priority. The flight of the imagination means that it focuses on big conflicts and big victories. The TV series largely focus on important assignments and character-building, story-changing actions. It is unusual for a show to take some time after the end of the final battle to give more than just an indication of what the future will look like for the survivors.
And that’s because the drama after a war is much smaller and more complicated than the drama of the war itself. Stories are usually ended as soon as possible after a villain has gone down. Check out Game of Thrones, which concluded eight seasons of escalating wars with a short resolution that put an empathy-free child king on the throne without considering what his reign might look like. Or HBO’s Watchmen, who after the crisis limited themselves to a few sentences of reconciliation between an old vigilante and his granddaughter, and a moment “you’ll be jailed for your crimes,” which ended with a slapstick.
With Steven Universe Future, the Sugar team seems to be invested in questions that are not often asked in fantasy stories: Can personal assignments in peacetime be as extensive and meaningful as larger assignments in wartime? What does the conclusion really look like when you consider that people’s stories continue after the traditional “The End” goalpost? How do people recover meaningfully from life-changing traumas? What do inclusive, friendly protagonists do with enemies who are no longer dangerous, but are also not interested in dropping their antagonism and switching sides?
Peace, schmeace.Image: Cartoon Network
All Steven Universe Future episodes have so far dealt with a combination of these questions. So far, however, the most resonant episode has been the launch of “Little Homeschool”, in which Steven tries to speak out the first really scary antagonist in the series, Jasper, from her hostile, aggressive stance. The setup is known from Steven Universe: Steven fears that some gems are still suffering from his mother’s actions. Amethyst says to him, “You should stop trying to fix everyone.” Steven agrees, but the show speaks directly to him and still tries to speak to Jasper.
For Steven, who feels guilty of his mother’s inheritance forever, the closure can only take place when everyone is happy and gets along. For Jasper, comfort is much more complicated: it is still defined by aggression and dominance, and it cannot be happy or get along until it has an indication that the future will continue to be against a worthy opponent. Your goals seem incompatible – until Steven, with his usual mix of sincerity and determination, finds a way to thread the needle.
The new series has taken a long time to fill everyone’s personal gap by addressing their psychology. This is just another reminder that Steven Universe has always spent more time with his characters’ inner lives than with their fights – or at least much more than most stories about how that inner life affects the overall picture. With very few exceptions (such as Garnet’s spaceship fight with Jasper or Lapis, which holds Jasper back by merging), the characters generally resolved their conflict through dialogue and understanding rather than violence. Despite all the excitement and intensity that Steven Universe has shown over the years, it is still primarily about empathy and how conflicts can best be resolved when both sides recognize, communicate and meet the emotional needs of their opponents.
The series had a lot of physical struggles, but most of the time they were only necessary to gain respect and attention or to stop an enemy where conversations can take place. And so the end of the fighting wasn’t that important until the end of the story. The opening sequence of Steven Universe Future reveals a few threats that have not yet arrived, but since the series is more than half complete and potential threats like Jasper, Aquamarine, and Eyeball are outsmarted and distorted, this doesn’t seem likely to be the final episode introduce every giant new villain. (Two more episodes will arrive at Cartoon Network on December 14th, and the last two will arrive on December 28th.)
Instead, Steven Universe Future suggests that the fight against spinel in Steven Universe: The Movie was the grand dramatic finale to the conflict in the series. Instead of cycling endlessly through more and more opponents, the show does something strange and astonishing: it reminds viewers that what happens after a fight can be as important to participants as what happens during the fight. It ends years of creative and colorful building a world by building a whole new world. And perhaps most surprising for American television, it appears to be having a planned, well-constructed, and satisfactory outcome.