In its fourth season, for the first time, Steven Universe has unequivocally won me over. I’ve always liked the show, but invariably had little nitpicks here and there across its first three seasons. With season four, it’s possible that I’ve simply warmed up the rhythms of the show, its careful balance of silliness and seriousness wrapped up in a fantastical, queer package. That’s part of it, but I think what’s actually happening is that Steven Universe has matured into a complete show able to marry its elaborate backstory with fun one-offs without any of its earlier awkwardness.
To explain, allow me the privilege of going off-topic for a moment. The videogame Oblivion is an Elder Scrolls game and, hence, an intimidatingly intricate single-player RPG. It’s a good game, but bracketed between predecessor Morrowind and successor Skyrim – each unmistakably among my favourite games of all time – it feels like a comparative disappointment.
I’d argue that the main failing of Oblivion is its inability to attain an equilibrium between its overarching narrative – that of demons invading from another realm and threatening the entire universe – with low-key emergent narratives of dungeon crawling and weapon crafting that are a necessary part of an Elder Scrolls title. There’s too much tension to allow you, as a player, to satisfactorily complete tiny subquests while you’re constantly reminded that the fate of the world is in your hands. (Granted, there are other missteps – a poorly-designed adaptive difficulty system, and the comparative homogeneity of the Cyrodiil setting – but let’s cut this digression short.)
Early Steven Universe suffered similar growing pains. Creator Rebecca Sugar has crafted an incredibly rich universe that only gradually is revealed to us over the course of the serious, meaning the series jolts from low-key troubles like protagonist Steven (Zach Callison) fretting about donuts or friendship to monstrous Crystal Gems like Jasper (Kimberly Brooks) threatening the entire existence of Steven and his Crystal Gem guardians Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst. It made for a tricky balance, with the mythology episodes sometimes feeling overly serious and more trivial episodes feeling comparatively trifling.
By season four, however, Steven Universe has fleshed out its lore to the point that its able to pair up both the breadth of its backstory and its small-scale Beach City dramas without ever feeling unbalanced. This season is full of fun little goofs, opening with an episode-long homage to Road Runner and continuing with episodes about the kayfabe of wrestling, making friends in your teens and Ronaldo’s ill-conceived attempt to join the Crystal Gems. These – frequently funny episodes – sit happily alongside more serious episodes, whether it’s a Very Special Episode concerning talking about your feelings, or a multi-episode arc where a trip to Korea ends up with Steven’s dad Greg (Tom Scharpling) abducted to an intergalactic zoo – necessitating an intergalactic jailbreak. While I still prefer the smaller-scale episodes, the whole season feels complete and satisfying in a way earlier seasons struggled to.
It doesn’t hurt that the writing has gotten better at keeping these two sides of Steven Universe connected – shall we say fused? One of my favourite episodes is “Last One Out of Beach City”, where Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Steven head out of town for a rock show. It’s a low-key opportunity to explore Pearl’s notoriously fastidious personality as she experiments with a rebellious edge – relatable to, oh, anyone who’s either a teenager or has even been a teenager. But it reminds us of the overarching Homeworld narrative through the appearance of a mysterious red-haired biker lady, looking very much like Rose Quartz. Later in the season, when Lars (Matthew Moy) ponders how Steven has become so mature, he ideally answers that it must’ve occurred “somewhere in between learning to summon my shield and finding out my mom is a war criminal.” Funny and a clever way of tying a seemingly inconsequential episode to the broader narrative.
Though “Last One Out of Beach City” isn’t just my favourite episode for its character work or how delicately it ties a one-off episode to the overarching storyline. Steven Universe is a famously progressive show, populated by women of colour and implicitly exploring themes of gender and consent with real nuance. It’s unmistakably queer, but rarely does it showcase queer sexuality. Pearl’s crush on this mysterious pink-haired woman in this episode feels more revolutionary that her canon love for Rose Quartz, because it has that frisson of hormones absent from her fairytale(ish) unrequited love. This isn’t abstract; it’s immediate. And hopefully will make a real difference to young queer kids coming to terms with their identity.
Of course, you don’t watch a show simply because it’s progressive or well-intended; you watch it because it’s entertaining. And in its fourth season, Steven Universe finally demonstrates how successfully it can pair these heady themes with a constantly entertaining, sharply-written show. Looking forward to season five.