The Summer of Steven is over, both for us and in the world of the show. It’s easy to see why Cartoon Network chose to keep Season Four moving for the next few weeks, though: not just to wean the rapid fan base and prepare them for the next hiatus, but also to air a back-to-school episode just as many kids are going back to school. Well played, guys.
Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan in Steven Universe, and Connie’s study schedule was rudely interrupted by the discovery of Buddy Buddwick’s journal and the gem-related escapades it contained. On the surface, this was a fun, light-hearted episode—a continuation of the breather that Season Four has been thus far—but as always, there are some pretty deep, dark themes to tease out.
If you’ve read any of our Steven Universe coverage before, you know I like to view the show through the lens of existentialist philosophy—specifically, the idea of meaning-making. Last week, for example, I theorized that gem corruption arises when gems lose their sense of purpose and, rather than recovering, go incurably insane. The void is some tough stuff to handle.
In “Buddy’s Book,” we take another direct trip to the void, this time through the eyes of Buddy Buddwick, the onetime first mate of Beach City founder Captain William Dewey. His tale begins with his release from Dewey’s service and subsequent entry into what recent, jobless college grads call the quarter-life crisis. “Would anyone remember my name, or will it be washed away by the ocean of time?” he wists. An atheist existentialist armed with modern science would claim there’s nothing there for us after death, that our legacy, our name and everything we care about will eventually be obliterated by universe-scale forces beyond our control… and that, in spite of this inherent absurdity, we have a tremendous freedom and responsibility to find subjective meaning for our lives. Buddy successfully makes this leap early on, deciding to pull a Magellan and explore the unexplored world, which of course eventually turns into him exploring gem-related locations.
(Speaking of which, we’re starting to develop a consistent and growing knowledge base of Gem-altered Earth’s geography. Who called the Strawberry Battlefield being in Scandinavia?)
The real trouble strikes when Buddy’s self-concept as an explorer and discoverer takes a massive hit. He’s just a human tourist visiting gem sites, he thinks to himself, not a real explorer. And as he spirals into a dehydrated, desperate despondency in the desert with Rose Quartz spotting the elusive sand castle, he decides his life is meaningless. “Eat me,” he tells one of Rose’s lions. “That’s all I’m good for.”
At first glance, I was reminded of a very silly scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Then, the implication hit me: this was attempted suicide. If Rose’s lion had actually been a feral beast instead of an adorable, overgrown house cat, Buddy would have been dead meat.
On one hand, let’s continue our analysis of the episode’s events. Suicide here would not have been the right call, at least according to most existentialists, though they use different explanations. Albert Camus, for one, wrote that suicide is an inauthentic end to the human experience, which is defined by consciously deriving subjective meaning from an absurd world. Jean-Paul Sartre respected humans’ freedom to choose suicide, but ultimately rejected it as an abdication of our responsibility to free existence. Killing yourself represents the termination of your potential and, because humans are defined by their potential, it’s an act of bad faith; suicide is not true to human existence. The reason I bring up these existential tenets is that it seems like every time Rose Quartz is on screen in Steven Universe, she’s expressing her fascination with the human capacity for growth, change, potential and meaning-making. As she’s the spiritual guide for most of the show’s main characters (and, by extension, for we the viewers), it makes sense to assign existentialist values to SU. In this case, it’s Buddy coming around to the philosophy, creating new purpose in becoming an author and keeping the allure of the abyss at bay.
On the other hand, we need to talk about how blithely Buddy’s suicidal moment was presented. It’s not as if Steven Universe is always this untroubled by the prospect of death; on the contrary, Bismuth’s plea to be shattered was one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments, and Rose’s “death” looms over everything the Crystal Gems do. That’s why I was a little disappointed by the relative lack of emotional heft when Buddy inserted his head into the lion’s mouth. It was inevitable that he’d survive, yes, but the nonchalance of the lion and of Rose gave me the feeling that Buddy’s life was being a bit disrespected. The ultimate sign that his existence lacks meaning in the show’s broader context is probably that, despite myself, I’m still chuckling at the GIF that led off this little essay.
Obviously, SU is a kids’ show, and even plot-heavy kids’ shows need some breaks for innocent delight. And like other animated shows, it works in a medium that’s inherently divorced from reality and therefore allows for darker ideas to be presented in a more palatable, enjoyable package. (My colleague Brogan Morris recently wrote a wonderful piece about how BoJack Horseman has mastered this art.) So is it a bad thing that, even after all it’s given us, Steven Universe could unconcernedly toss in a suicide attempt that would be horrifying if presented in live action? Not necessarily. “Buddy’s Book” was still an enjoyable episode with plenty of fun moments, and I’m probably digging deeper for this existential interpretation than Rebecca Sugar and company intended for anyone to dig. But it’s a sign of the respect the show has earned that a significant part of me wanted them to take seriously a dude putting his head in a lion’s mouth and asking to be eaten.
The old-timey Crystal Gem outfits. +1 for Pearl’s powdered wig.
Lion’s parking job. Now let’s see him parallel park in Empire City.
Connie’s priorities. She was gonna ace those classes anyway.
Jamie’s dramatic flair. “The Sojourns of Buddy Buddwick” better be opening at Beach City Community Theater this fall.
The Palanquin(!). Cue an explosion of online theorizing.
Zach Blumenfeld is just happy that Steven Universe is staving off the next hiatus. Follow him on Twitter.