Steven Universe Finds His Destiny By Losing His Self
(Episode 4.24)Cartoon Network TV Reviews Steven Universe
We’ve been building up to this moment all week. In fact, we’ve been building up to this moment ever since Steven Universe found out his mom shattered Pink Diamond, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
It doesn’t make it any easier to handle his self-sacrifice at the end of “I Am My Mom”—not for us, and certainly not for the Crystal Gems. Pearl’s had her share of emotional moments, but none tops the simple, aghast muttering of Steven’s name into her cold, unanswering hands as tears run down her cheeks and the last vestige of her unrequited love is whisked off to the planet she forsook five millennia ago.
A Logical End for Steven’s Guilt
I wrote only yesterday that Steven needs to find a way to forgive his mother’s crimes, because war is a mess of gray morality in which killing/shattering might easily become a justified act. Any support that idea has received thus far—mostly in the unyielding, violent hands of Bismuth lacked in nuance, and Steven has immediately rejected the notion that deadly force is ever okay. After “I Am My Mom,” though, a fuller such reckoning should be closer at hand. Steven is the audience’s mind and moral compass, and given the evenness and honesty with which the series has treated issues such as abusive relationships, depression and grief, I hope and expect Rebecca Sugar and company to have their protagonist give Rose’s use of deadly force a fair shake, even if he ends up rejecting it.
But Steven is clearly not in a forgiving mood just yet. Part of this intransigence undoubtedly stems from his own empathetic proclivities and near-absolute purity. He’s repeatedly cured the insecurity-fueled transgressions of Pearl, Amethyst, Lars and others with a heaping dose of love and honesty, but none of them killed anyone. More of Steven’s unwillingness to forgive Rose, however, probably comes from the fact that he literally bears his mother’s legacy—and sins—where his belly button would be. Pardoning Rose would mean pardoning himself, and right now, Steven isn’t nearly comfortable enough in his own skin to do that. He’s undergone enough crises of purpose and self-faith over the past year to clarify that any contentment he takes in his circumstances is only fleeting, and his empathic sojourns into others’ minds and feelings—Blue Diamond’s, Lars’, Kiki’s—suggest a strong desire to escape himself. After all, your own existential pain is dulled when you’re busy dealing with the pain of others.
These feeble attempts at self-annihilation were never going to work. Steven Universe is too committed to the values of individual autonomy and self-honesty to let its main character off the hook that easily. But rather than moving in the direction of freedom, Steven chooses to literally accept the legacy and definition of Rose Quartz, the ultimate act of self-annihilation. “She wouldn’t have wanted this, but I do,” he says just before disappearing into the void of the forbidding Homeworld spaceship. Rose, of course, wanted Steven to make whatever choices he saw fit—she explicitly said so in Monday’s episode she also presumably wanted her son to be unfettered by choices she herself had come to accept and embrace.
Which brings us to the key question: Why did he really do it?
On one hand, we have the conventional explanation. Homeworld was likely to keep bothering Earth until a conflict arose. It was obvious at the end of “That Will Be All” that someone would be arriving shortly to wreak havoc and collect more humans to satisfy Blue Diamond’s grief over Pink Diamond. Even though I think the Crystal Gems could have beaten Aquamarine and Topaz (they went down a little more easily than I would’ve believed possible), that would merely have escalated the conflict, because Aquamarine and Topaz are clearly important, powerful Gems whose defeat would have been noticed on high. Under this interpretation, and with Steven’s friends and family directly threatened by Homeworld (and with his dad’s kidnapping still fresh in his mind, and with his memory of having given Peridot the list of “species of humans,” and with his desire for peace overwhelming the situation), the hero chooses to give himself up to save everyone he loves. This is a noble decision, and martyrdom is a common enough trope (see: Jesus, Harry Potter) that Steven Universe executes well in “I Am My Mom.” The dialogue at the very end of the episode feels a little stiff, but Steven saves the scene with a quiet, resolute, heartbroken “I love you” as the spaceship door closes behind him. If we take that to be directed at Connie in particular (she’s the one yelling as he says it), it’s a particularly tragic moment of unrequited love, reminiscent of Princess Leia’s famous line just before Han Solo is frozen in carbonite.
On the other hand, there’s the idea that maybe Steven has had enough of existence. “I can end it for you,” he declares to Aquamarine as he makes his decision to turn himself in. He’s not just ending Aquamarine’s mission… he’s also ending his own painful internal struggle over how to deal with the legacy he shares with Rose Quartz. Most damningly, though, Steven can’t even know if he’s ending Homeworld’s interference in Earth’s affairs, because the Cluster hasn’t emerged yet and that’s bound to upset the Diamond Authority before long. Taking this into account, Steven’s act of self-sacrifice is only partially about saving his loved ones—it’s also about him losing hope for serenity and for his mother’s redemption. With those possibilities off the table in his mind, what’s left for him to do but submit to judgment that will likely confirm his worst moral pangs, judgment that’s been 5,000 years in the making?
This obviously isn’t the end of the line for Steven Universe, although I didn’t anticipate Steven making the trip to Homeworld quite this quickly. The show has at least one more season to go, and there are too many loose ends to be tied up. So when Steven faces the Diamond Authority’s wrath, I’ll be watching to see how he resolves his long-standing existential guilt—and how gets out of his near-certain doom. My guess is that a certain whiny teenager has an important role to play…
LARS IS STILL ON THE SHIP
I noticed this almost immediately upon finishing “I Am My Mom.” I’m sure everyone who watched this week’s entire StevenBomb last Friday noticed, too, but I’m on social media detox right now, so I haven’t read any of the theories the Reddit and Tumblr hiveminds have conjured up about what exactly Lars has in store.
But damn, does that kid have some redemption to go get himself. Especially if what Barb said is true, and he and Sadie are officially a couple. I didn’t get that vibe from “The Good Lars”—it feels more like a “silent relationship,” à la Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in the first third of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—but regardless, running away in fear and leaving the love of his life to fend for herself against a massive Topaz is just about the worst thing Lars could’ve done for his already eggshell self-esteem. Whatever disappointment Sadie had in him after the events of the potluck is now compounded by heartbreak and rage, and Lars knows he deserves every bit of this. The question is whether he’ll be able to shake it off and actually become a hero or hide in a little turtle shell of misery while things get crazy on Homeworld. I would imagine we’ll proceed down the former path, if only because the Crewniverse has expertly laid the ground for Lars to have this sort of moment. His flakiness and self-doubt define him to this point; there’s no better way for Lars to overcome that than for him to battle some Gems, save Steven and realize he’s a valuable person after all. It’s particularly poetic that Steven’s life now likely rests on his skinny shoulders, because Steven has consistently gone miles out of his way to try to make Lars feel more confident.
Connie has some wonderful moments in both “Are You My Dad?” and “I Am My Mom.” I particularly loved the gag where she crumpled the leaf and confirmed that “yep, there’s wind.” Connie has served as Steven’s chief pick-me-up for a while now, so I would imagine she feels particularly hurt and betrayed by Steven’s abandonment of hope and of her.
Going along with the theme of goodbyes I briefly discussed yesterday, watching the Crystal Gems draw pictures of Aquamarine and do their thing on the beach was a wonderful reminder of each one’s endearing personality. Those cans of beans that Amethyst drinks were probably imagined as beer and then made kid-friendly (and Amethyst-weird).
Della Saba puts in a great performance as Aquamarine—almost like a higher-pitched Veruca Salt. Speaking of Aquamarine, Steven’s curiosity about her in “Are You My Dad?” seems to be driven less by empathy (a justification he states in a clunky monologue) than by the possibility, however slight, that he might not be the only human-Gem hybrid in the word. I’ve written before about Steven’s loneliness as a mixed-species being, and unfortunately it gets him into a sticky situation here.
I know that Steven needed to get stuck in that log in order to leave Connie to be captured by Topaz, but that verged on too stupid for me to buy.
When Steven inevitably returns to Earth (how and when?) I hope he has a pair of Distinguished Khakis waiting for him. Better yet, I hope he’s no longer a distinguished boy—this is the perfect opportunity to age Steven up physically.
Zach Blumenfeld definitely failed his law school finals. Follow him on Twitter.