While technically not an anime, Steven Universe comes close enough to warrant mention on my blog. For me, anime has always been more of a feeling than a specific geographic location. Steven has that same strange, unnerving feeling that makes many anime memorable. And this most recent run of episodes is particularly interesting because it marks a distinct shift in Steven Universe. Mostly the show meanders, with each story arc being loosely held together. We may be in the midst of a serious character progression, or a plot to destroy the earth, and then find ourselves in what feels like a filler episode, as our heroes do something entirely unrelated to the main plot. This structure reminds me of Samurai Champloo or Cowboy Bebop, in the way that it tells a broader story through smaller, more episodic moments.
The story structure of Steven Universe is what sets it apart from its western contemporaries, even more than its art style or themes. Yes, everything about Steven universe feels foreign alongside most American television, but its approach to plot exemplifies its eccentricity. On the one hand, Steven Universe is different from other cartoons as it has forward progression. What happens in one episode will have irrevocable effects on the rest. But Steven Universe is also distinct from other narrative driven works, such as Game of Thrones or West World. Yes, that’s because it’s a cartoon, but it also approaches its grander narrative in a much different way than other successful shows.
This distinction brings me to the advice of South Park’s creators, which I often here cited in script writing classes or in writing forums – a good story is not connected by the words “and then,” but by the words “therefore,” or “but.” This is wonderful advice for any writer. That being said, I feel like we’ve all embodied this philosophy too deeply, becoming enamored with stories that move forward ceaselessly. Our cultural obsession with “but then” has led to having a gimmicky plot twist in nearly every major movie. Meanwhile, our obsession with “therefore” has led to shows that only contain plot, without any moments for rest and contemplation. Steven Universe is wonderful because there is a clear progression, but the show is not afraid of the words “and then.” We can be in in the midst of an intergalactic struggle, “and then” Steven will wind up on some random, wacky adventure. Life is full of detours and randomness, and Steven Universe embodies this fact.
And this is why the newest deluge of Steven Universe episodes comes as such a surprise. We have five episodes that really feel like one episode, without any possibility of a detour. They are almost like one full length, long form episode, as opposed to the show’s traditionally fragmented style. This choice has a few effects. On the one hand, the emotional resonance can be dulled. I remember what an effect Mindful Education had on me, because of how it came out of nowhere, cushioned between two rather innocuous episodes. As a result of coming out of nowhere, and being self-contained, it was rather haunting. At the end, our hero declares “I’m here,” after plummeting from a floating castle in the sky. They softly land on the grass, and the ending theme plays, this time in the form of eerie ambient sounds. The emotions worked because they came out of nowhere, and were never fully resolved. We just go back to goofy episodes without any true closure. If this episode came after or before a big plot moment, Mindful Education would probably have less resonance. Its appearance would not be so jarring. Mindful Education worked because it existed alongside simpler, “and then” episodes.
Meanwhile, the most recent run of Steven Universe episodes is pure plot – all “and but” and “therefore” moments, creating a different kind of effect. There is no possibility of going back to beach city and hanging out with the residents, or going on fun adventures with one of the gems. Unlike every other episode of Steven Universe, these five lack a feeling of possibility. In Steven universe, this phenomenon appears to be the rule of space. Two of the only other cliff hanger episodes end with Steven being ejected into space, and when Steven and the gang are abducted by Home world gems and taken into space. But why not do these episodes as one long form episode, like Bismuth? Why break off at such a crucial plot juncture?
My theory is that cliffhanger episodes exemplify the feeling of space, and of Home World’s influence. There is a suffocating feeling whenever Steven Universe is forced to follow a particular plot structure. Like its titular character, Steven Universe is a free spirit and likes to wander aimlessly. When the show is forced forwards in a particular direction, it feels uncharacteristically bleak. The sense of “anything can happen” is gone. If the random, out of nowhere adventures in beach city exemplify earth, then a relentlessly forward moving plot exemplifies the feeling of outer space and the sinister gems that inhabit it.
In these five episodes, we get a different kind of Steven Universe, where the characters feel trapped, and Steven feels more alone than ever. Throughout these episodes, he finds himself forcefully separated from his dad or the gems on a near regular basis, and powerless to do anything about it. There is something foreboding about these episodes, and something frightening about his gem adversaries. The climax of this arc, the song “What’s the use in feeling, Blue,” summarizes these episodes perfectly. Between Yellow Diamond’s condemnation of feelings, to the bizarre human zoo and gem society’s cast system, there is a real rejection of humanity. What’s the use in feeling? What’s the use in being truly human? Despite its childish appearance, Steven Universe is always an ambitious show. And these last few episodes may be the most ambitious yet. Yes, ambition comes with missteps, and moments in these episodes overreach, but it’s always reassuring to watch a show try new things. I find myself eagerly awaiting the rest of this strange, fourth season of Steven Universe.