Last week, we got a look at the darkness bottled up within Steven Universe, a boy who’s always been much better at solving others’ problems than reckoning with his own. As deeply emotionally satisfying as it was to spend time in that hole, it was probably necessary for the show to fish us back out—remember, lots of kids watch Steven Universe, and they shouldn’t be deprived of all silly levity. “Future Boy Zoltron” planted us back on our feet with a typical example of Steven getting into an absurd situation and, from there, laying down some real talk with someone who needs it. This won’t be an episode we look back upon as a classic, but there was enough interesting material to merit some discussion, starting with…
As many various mental states as this show has depicted, we’ve only really seen it take depression head-on once: when Amethyst went through her rough patch after getting poofed by Jasper. And even though it was a marvelous depiction of the disorder—I’m thinking specifically of her malaise in “Steven vs. Amethyst”—at the time it was framed more in view of Amethyst’s raging inferiority complex. Last night’s Mr. Frowney was the first character we’ve met who you could reasonably infer suffers from clinical depression or dysthymia (less severe but more chronic than major depression).
In a way, he’s a caricature of the illness, what with his trench coat, his muted color scheme and a face of which every constituent part seems to droop. That bothered me a little bit, as Steven Universe has thrived on nuanced, realistic characters. You could argue that Mr. Frowney’s appearance is a visual manifestation of a depressed person’s mental state, perhaps. But he’s given a history with Mr. Smiley, a context within the show’s world that forces us to consider him as a real character. And real depressed people, quite simply, aren’t often as stereotypically depressed-looking or depressed-sounding as Mr. Frowney. It was hard to invest in his plight—much harder than it was to get emotionally involved with Amethyst’s self-destructive tryst a few weeks ago—because it was hard to buy him as a person. This show has set the bar too high for me to casually accepted hackneyed characters.
What Steven Universe DOES get right, though, is the cognitive process by which depressed people view the world. One of the primary symptoms of the condition is a persistent negative thinking pattern, wherein the affected person interprets everything they experience in a pessimistic light. Depression is incredibly tricky to defeat without intervention because people who suffer from it are unable to wrench themselves out of the rut they’re in; they’re only capable, so long as the depressive episode lasts, of digging themselves deeper. Positive thoughts about themselves and the world, which would be a salvo, become nearly impossible to entertain, and the cycle persists until the underlying causes of the ailment are remedied, ideally by a combination of pharmaceutical intervention and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Garnet’s future vision is a brilliant way to visualize a depressed person’s distorted thinking. We’ve heard it described before as the ability to see multiple possible courses that spacetime might follow—I’d dig deeper in terms of the scientific implications, but I don’t want to get stuck in that quantum tunnel. For the purposes of “Future Boy Zoltron,” all that’s important to note is that future vision should enable its bearer to select the best possible path forward. It’s a really useful tool… unless you’re trying to help a depressed person overcome a negative thinking pattern. There’s no witticism that Steven can deliver on the spot that will cure Mr. Frowney of his depression or even place him on the road to recovery, because as much as Garnet has said that everyone chooses their own future, that proposition has become psychologically impossible for him at this moment; he’ll helplessly and inevitably twist his perceptions into some contortion that fits his dismal self-esteem. Steven is unable to help, because he’s not trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy and he can’t prescribe Prozac. That leaves our empathy hero pretty sad himself.
One thing we see over and over again in this show is that everything isn’t alright all the time—in many cases, there’s not even a way to make things alright. Steven can’t un-poof Bismuth or save Jasper, Rose Quartz isn’t coming back to life, and Mr. Smiley and Mr. Frowney are never, ever, ever getting back together, no matter how much potential there was in their act. All that’s left to do is to make an attempt at closure, which involves confronting the sadness, affirming it, then moving on with a sense of serenity. This isn’t a novel theme that Steven Universe is treating, but to use a gymnastics metaphor, its execution is usually flawless and it’s making the maneuver with a higher degree of difficulty than its all-ages television compatriots. Watching Mr. Smiley deal with the irretrievable past as Steven brought it back to the surface is like watching Simone Biles nail a mostly ordinary floor exercise routine with one or two aerial moves that no other gymnast would even try. “Drop the act, Steven,” he says, fully aware once again of a knife that never really left his gut.
The reconciliation between Smiley and Frowney is the clincher that makes “Future Boy Zoltron” worthwhile. The brief moment in which they relive their glory days is all they each needed to walk away from their ordeal on a positive note, having dealt directly with the bad feelings they had previously left unexpressed and transmuting them the same way Steven did in “Mindful Education”: through pure honesty. And the joke they tell is pure Steven Universe, cheesy but oddly charming. By the punchline (and the requisite hug), the sadness has become funny—not in a mean-spirited sense, but in a way that warms the heart—and the process of overcoming it is complete.
At first, I thought Zoltron was voiced by Tom Kenny… but nope, that was Matthew Moy, who ordinarily voices Lars. Dude’s got versatile pipes.
Looks like Lars and Sadie are getting closer… and Steven’s on the side of responsibility instead of romance.
This episode’s greatest accomplishment was getting us to feel for Beach City’s biggest miser… Mr. Smiley cares about something more than money after all!
Zach Blumenfeld is going to set up shop on the streets of Manhattan dressed as a fortune-telling robot and rake in the cash. Follow him on Twitter.