After last week’s lighthearted traipse through the past (notwithstanding the debatable sincerity of any melodramatic suicidal tendencies), we should have known that last night’s Steven Universe would be a trip. That said, I was not expecting “Mindful Education” to make me yell an amazed obscenity at my television as I watched alone in my apartment.
This is what did it:
Yeah, that was terrifying, mind-blowing, and paradigm-shattering.
Up to this point, we’ve gotten a limited glimpse at Steven’s relationship with Rose Quartz (which, as he’s said, is complicated). The Steven-Amethyst arc a few weeks ago explored his feelings of inadequacy that stem from his lack of her power. Characters ranging from Bismuth and Peridot, to Jasper and Eyeball have forced him to consider the blurred line separating his identity from his mother’s. A line in the Season Two episode “Joy Ride” lets us know that Steven thinks the Crystal Gems hold him responsible, to some degree, for Rose’s “death.” But the image above is the first time we bear witness to a crucial pillar of Steven’s self-concept: he feels guilty for having killed Rose Quartz.
Look at her face in the frame above. That is not the face of the loving, empathetic Rose Quartz we’ve constructed from others’ stories of her. That is a face that pronounces doom, that proclaims guilt and flashes anger with the force of a goddess. Of course, one can point out that there are many reasons Steven feels guilty in regards to Rose—he can’t match her legacy, his replacement of her is a letdown to the Crystal Gems—but this sequence is preceded by nightmare hallucinations of his violence toward Bismuth, Jasper and Eyeball. In that context (and beyond the profound expression of PTSD it represents), there can be no doubt that Steven, at some level, thinks of himself as having committed matricide. And no matter how persuasively anyone tells Steven that his existence was Rose’s willful choice, he will continue to live under the tremendous burden that he came to be only through the forced nonexistence of another person.
In many ways, Rose’s massive specter in the sky reminded me of Simba’s encounter with Mufasa’s ghost in The Lion King. Simba, too, harbors feelings of guilt over having “caused” Mufasa’s death. It’s those feelings that drove him from Pride Rock and keep him away. But Mufasa’s ghost is a helpful sage that eventually convinces Simba to overcome his reluctance and return to his people. Rose’s ghost, on the other hand, looks vengeful and utterly accusatory. She doesn’t offer help or any pathway to redemption, because unlike Simba, Steven doesn’t have a Scar to eventually confess to murder. Simba can be absolved of responsibility; Steven cannot. Not even if Steven became more powerful than his mother ever was, would he be able to shrug off the weight of being the reason for her disappearance from the universe. The impossibility of redemption is a really dark theme, certainly not one you’d expect to see in children’s entertainment and especially not in a show as ordinarily upbeat and positive as Steven Universe. But it’s precisely the show’s profound ability to deal with such darkness that makes it shine so brightly.
Connie delivers the single most important line in the episode, one of the profoundest lines in the show’s entire run:
“You have to be honest with yourself about how bad it feels so you can move on.”
Taken only in relation to Steven’s poofing of Bismuth, or his failure to help Jasper, or his hurling of Eyeball into space, this line seems to relate more toward the process of overcoming PTSD. Exposure therapy, the most effective method of treating the disorder, centers on a direct reckoning with the bad experiences, a reliving of the horrible feelings they arouse, and the subsequent fading of those feelings once they’ve been properly processed. It takes tremendous self-honesty to successfully undergo exposure therapy, and it usually requires the help of a therapist (played here by Connie) to guide the sufferer through the painful ordeal. Real therapists, of course, can’t physically add the strength of their own minds to those of their patients the way that Steven and Connie can by fusing into Stevonnie, which might explain why Steven was so quickly able to be self-honest, brave and determined. We don’t know if the feelings are gone, but at least for the time being, conquering them was as simple as falling through a cloud of white butterflies.
Things get far more interesting when you apply Connie’s statement to Steven’s guilt over having “killed” his mother. This isn’t the situational guilt of a soldier who has killed enemies on a terrifying battlefield; this is guilt Steven feels over his very existence. It’s much harder to banish, because the crime, so far as he’s concerned, is that he’s alive.
The only tenable way for Steven to alleviate that repugnant cost of living (because suicide is not an option) is to accept it as a part of life, immerse himself in the guilt, and then emerge anew, having separated himself to some degree from his history. The act of living is not always inherently pleasurable—anyone who thinks so is experiencing fantasy, not reality—and it’s often a miserable slog. Steven Universe is great at many things, but its best quality might be its brutal honesty in dealing with this fact. Pearl has endured 14 years of unabated grief since Rose’s passing. Just a couple weeks ago, Steven told Amethyst, “We’re both not like anybody, and yeah, it sucks.” Now, his very identity is the source of his misery. But in each of these cases, the only way forward is for the Crystal Gems to accept their circumstances, bear witness to the joys of being alive, and move forward with each other’s help.
Friedrich Nietzsche calls this resigned determination “amor fati,” which translates to “love of fate.” Essentially, his argument is that people are constrained by their own past, which prevents them from fully experiencing the joy of life. To overcome ourselves, we must not simply overcome any permanent system of morals and values (a more controversial part of his argument, and not one Steven really treats); we must overcome the very notion that life should be good, only good, and that painful ordeals are an evil. Life is pain, at least in part, and if we can come not just to accept but to love that truism, we can move past it and come to rest in a mental state that lets us affirm life as it happens—the good and the evil. In this way, both the good and the evil become good, we can love the very fact of being alive instead of letting it tear us apart, and we can lay in a field under a beautiful sky with an untroubled mind.
When I began reviewing Steven Universe for Paste, I spoke of “love” as the show’s soul. “Mindful Education” showed us the most powerful application of that love thus far: its ability to overcome Steven’s existential guilt (at least for now).
“Here Comes A Thought” is only the second song Garnet has sung on Steven Universe. Rebecca Sugar and company don’t unleash the Grammy-winning member of their vocal cast often, but when they do, it’s awesome.
Connie might be a little too badass now. It’s lucky for her there didn’t seem to be any witnesses to her destruction of that poor kid.
How will next week’s episode top this?
Zach Blumenfeld is a freelance writer and first-year law student who will be relying on Steven Universe to stay sane over the next few months. Follow him on Twitter.