Between there being just seven days left before Steven Universe Future brings the Crystal Gems’ epic saga to an end, and the fact that people across the world are staying home right now as the public still scrambles to fend off the covid-19 outbreak, now’s a pretty damned good time to go back and refresh yourself on how far Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven have come.
The idea of mainlining 40 episodes of a series might sound daunting, but recall that each Steven Universe episode clocks in around 10 or so minutes. It makes this list essentially add up to the length of a respectable (though grand) miniseries, so there’s plenty of time to watch casually before the series finale airs on Cartoon Network.
While there’s plenty more to Steven Universe’s world—like the day-to-day goings-on in Beach City and the time Steven and his friends spend doing regular kid stuff—below are the episodes that crystalize some of the most important narrative elements the series pieced together before Future.
For all of the deep worldbuilding and mythology the Crewniverse put into making Steven Universe the nuanced story it ended up being, the series also followed the most basic rule of putting its thesis statement right at the top in big, bold letters so that people paying attention might have an understanding of where this was all going. Cookie Cat is a pet for your tummy, but his ice cream bar’s theme song is also an encapsulation of the big mystery involving Pink Diamond. All of this became much more obvious in retrospect as Steven Universe revealed more details about Pink’s relationship with the other Diamonds, and in “Gem Glow,” it works as the most basic version of Cliff Notes is you really just want to know the bare-bones essentials.
One of the ways Steven Universe deftly misdirected users after dropping big hints in “Gem Glow” was by immediately establishing and explaining some important ideas about the Crystal Gems’ relationship to Rose Quartz and how Steven’s being her half-human son complicated their lives in novel ways. The arrival of a Red Eye in Beach City made it clear that, powerful as the Gems were together, there was a reason they all depended on Rose to defend the Earth, and without her, much of that responsibility was destined to fall to Steven.
As Steven Universe progressed, the series veered into the horror genre on more than a few occasions—specifically body horror—in order to convey the sorts of danger the Crystal Gems could sometimes be up against. But, looking back, the idea of losing control of one’s physical form was first established in a big way when Steven’s shapeshifting accidentally led to his becoming a horrific cat mutant.
Initially, the Gems’ long-livedness wasn’t really something Steven ever spent time considering, but the occasion of his birthday prompted him to reflect on both his and their lives in a way that resulted in a magical crisis. It would be a while before Steven Universe got around to emphasizing how Steven’s Gem heritage would present these kinds of existential conundrums for him, but “So Many Birthdays” subtly worked the idea into the narrative right from the beginning.
It wasn’t long, though before Steven Universe clarified that Gems, while durable, aren’t impervious from damage, and while Steven’s since learned that Gems can remake their physical forms with relative ease, the first time he witnessed Pearl poof was a truly dramatic experience he carried with him for years.
In addition to his father Greg, Connie was always Steven’s most important connection to his humanity because of her willingness to share personal elements of her life with him. At the same time the Gems were teaching Steven how to be a thoughtful warrior the way they were, Connie was teaching him to be a regular teenager, an experience that brought the two closer and culminated in the creation of Stevonnie, the first Gem/human fusion to ever exist.
Steven’s uncanny ability to occasionally reveal things about Rose to the Crystal Gems was cause for both delight and alarm because it highlighted the reality that there were things about herself that Rose hid even from them. The destructive power that holding secrets can have came to the fore as Steven plucked Rose’s sword from Lion’s mane, cluing everyone into that—surprise—the big pink lion had something to do with the legendary pink-hued Gem. Steven and Pearl would have more painful heart to hearts about Rose as they both became more comfortable being open with their feelings about her, but this was one of their very first steps in that direction.
Rose’s past was certainly presented as mysterious, but Greg Universe’s past wasn’t exactly the clearest of pictures, either. But like all children who eventually realize that their parents had lives before them, Steven was curious to know about the circumstances of how Greg and Rose met and what the Crystal Gems were like before they became a trio of part-time parents.
Peridot, Lapis, and Jasper’s individual arrivals on Earth each presented a unique sort of threat to the planet, but it wasn’t until the three of them were together with orders from Homeworld that the sheer scale of Steven Universe’s larger landscape came into focus. Together, the trio of invading Gems destabilized the show in a way that forced all of its characters to adapt and grow at an exponential rate that really kicked everything into high gear.
For all the time Steven spends learning to heal other Gems, at this point in the series, his inability to properly heal himself and face his demons begins to manifest. In the same way that watching Pearl poof wrecked him, seeing Garnet forcibly torn apart devastated him because of how helpless he was to stop it.
Connie’s growth as a character isn’t followed quite as closely as Steven’s, but the important role she’s going to play in his future is foreshadowed by the enthusiasm she brings to her sword training with Pearl. Pearl’s willingness to train Connie isn’t initially grounded in the best of faith, but even that speaks to Pearl’s belief that Connie can handle getting involved in the Gem family’s personal drama.
Before the Homeworld Gems actually made their way to Earth to pose imminent threats themselves, the monstrous Gem Cluster dwelling beneath the Earth’s surface was the biggest threat facing the Crystal Gems in an abstract sense. Seeing the brutal experimentation that led to the Cluster’s development added a new level of horror to the Homeworld Gems and hammered home just why the Crystal Gems worked to shield Steven from the truth for so long.
The different emotional relationships a Gem fusion can represent is something the series explored through all of the guest-starring fusions like Opal, Sugilite, and Sardonyx, who were all platonic, by and large. But with Stevonnie, it was clear from the jump that romance factored into their existence, which is what made it necessary for Greg to sit Steven and Connie down to explain the significance of wanting to fuse with someone out of love.
Sardoynx introduced the concept of a Gem fusion only being able to know things that their two constituent parts would actually share with one another when they separated, further establishing that fusions are their own distinct entities. Though Steven didn’t see it at the time, learning those kinds of lessons from Sardonyx would come to bear weight on his understanding about his relationship to Rose Quartz.
Steven Universe was consistently at its strongest when its characters’ dramatic arcs had long tails, as was the case with the Sardonyx affair. Rather than trying to address both Garnet and Pearl’s reads on the situation within a single episode, “Keystone Motel” and “Friend Ship” (which are a few episodes apart) gave both Gems the space to reflect on the strain on their relationship as they considered if and how to come back together as a team.
This episode was crucial if only for that song.
Because Garnet was a Gem whose existence never could have been foreseen (much like Steven), the story of her origins was of similar importance to the Crystal Gems’ history. In telling Steven the story of how Ruby and Sapphire met, Garnet revealed to him why she ultimately became the symbol of love that gave Rose the strength to rebel against Homeworld.
Yellow Diamond merely showing her face via phone call drastically changed Steven Universe’s atmosphere because it meant that Jasper and Peridot weren’t merely wiling away time trying to brownnose their way into Homeworld’s good graces. Not only were the Diamonds (and their Pearls) actively interested in obliterating the Earth, their plans for further conquest were still well underway.
The consequences of Steven not always being able to finish the battles he became involved in reared their heads out of the ocean in the form of Malachite, Lapis and Jasper’s unstable fusion. Her presence and the resurgence of the Cluster hit the Gems where it hurt and reminded them all that the biggest threats in the universe were still yet to come.
Because Steven Universe was never a series that solely lived in a highly excited, stressful space, some of the most memorable moments of its journey into endgame territory were actually chill, all things considered. A squad of Rubies showing up to investigate Earth should have been cause for alarm, but Steven being Steven, of course, managed to turn it into something lighthearted.
The first signs that the series might have been building to a full-length musical feature came as Steven, Greg, and Pearl traveled into Empire City to take in the sights, enjoy a hotel, and end up spilling their guts to one another about Rose. All of the unhealthy, pent-up resentment Pearl bore towards Greg was long overdue to be brought out into the open, but instead of the moment leading to something ugly, Steven Universe instead turned it into some of the series’ most beautiful songs.
After all of the configurations of Crystal Gem fusions were introduced, one of the biggest questions left standing was whether Steven himself was capable of fusing with non-humans. Jasper’s return provided the perfect opportunity to answer that question, and it did it through a story about what it’s like to recognize when the things you dislike about other people are the things you dislike about yourself.
Every so often, Steven Universe’s townie-centric bottle episodes would delve into a fascinating bit about the Gems’ historical interactions with humanity, which was something people seldom spoke about at length. Having sworn to protect the Earth at all costs thousands of years ago, the Gems had just...been on the planet the entire time, meaning that long before Steven and Greg showed up, there was plenty of trouble for them to get into with a variety of other humans.
It’s as true now as it was then: Everyone could stand to sit down and take a break to meditate.
Episodes featuring Steven as a baby were always riveting because a) he was adorable, and b) at that point in time, the Gems and Greg were still learning the basics of how to raise an infant. Beyond that, an episode like this worked as a good reminder that whether he was living out of a van or not, Greg was always game to get in on Gem shenanigans because they were going to be a part of Steven’s life.
Greg being down to follow Steven all the way to Korea to decipher a vision he had in a dream was a continuation of the show’s desire to emphasize Greg’s adventurous spirit, but it also provided the show a way of getting back to the business of introducing new Homeworld Gems of major importance.
Steven Universe’s habit of turning once-terrifying villains into sympathetic characters through song is one of its greatest strengths. And it’s perhaps best seen in its exploration of Yellow and Blue Diamond’s grief over Pink, who they believed to be shattered.
For reasons that immediately became obvious after the first few times he wandered into Rose’s room in the Temple, Steven made a point of staying out of it despite the fact that his gem could unlock its doors. As his need grew to be able to speak with Rose Quartz about his feelings concerning her legacy he inherited, though, venturing into the room became the most obvious solution to his problem.
Lion’s significance was something that Steven Universe never seemed interested in fully explaining, but in his own ways, the large cat did all he could to explain it to Steven indirectly by sharing things with him that Rose left behind.
Steven couldn’t have known that one day, a recording of him would lead to a Homeworld Gem misunderstanding that put the lives of his friends in danger, but this pair of episodes worked as the true beginning of Steven Universe’s final confrontation with the Diamonds.
Homeworld culture was one of the tantalizing bits of the show’s lore that always felt like a glimpse into the Crewniverse’s wilder imaginations. Being brought face to face with the Diamonds who are certain he’s responsible for Pink’s shattering is wild enough, but it’s that much more amazing to learn that the Homeworld Gems have upper-class lawyers and outcast, Off-Color Gems who live in hiding for fear to being shattered themselves.
Paying attention to the significance of Steven’s dreams throughout the series made the big surprise that bubbles up out of Stevonnie’s subconscious while they’re asleep on a far-flung planet really pay off. It wasn’t so much that everything the Crystal Gems told Steven about their past wasn’t true, they simply didn’t know that they were playing party to a plan beyond their comprehension.
The depths of Pearl’s love for Rose was something that none of the other Crystal Gems could ever know, but in learning how that same love ended up hurting them both, Steven was able to put the full picture of his mother’s life together at long last. Steven Universe as always smart about calling back to earlier episodes, and it’s here that the secrets hinted at in “Rose’s Scabbard” are finally brought out into the open.
After one last return to relative normality that gives the Crystal Gems just enough time to settle into the idea that things might be OK once and for all, the Diamonds made their descent onto Earth keen to finish what they started so long ago. But even though the Crystal Gems don’t exactly have a plan as to how to deal with them, they were always at their best when they went with the flow and improvised.
After all was said and done, Steven Universe ended up being a story about teaching people how to change their minds about themselves and others in powerful, life-changing ways. Being able to do that for every single foe who came their way prepared Steven and the Gems to fight what would have been one final battle (and introduce us to some cool new fusions.) But Steven Universe Future had other plans in mind.
Steven Universe Future’s final four episodes premiere on March 27 on Cartoon Network.
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