Let’s be honest: Steven Universe is a weird show. It might be a little more grounded in complex morality than most other kids’ television; its ability to make even its gem characters feel relatable and human, reveling in the joys and sorrows of life on Earth, has been key to its success. But never forget that this is a cartoon, airing on a network that has a long-standing love affair with very strange, sometimes macabre cartoons.
That said, of all of Steven Universe’s oddities—its characters’ unusual names, its vastly disfigured world map, the fact that there was a massive alien war on the planet thousands of years ago—none is weirder, creepier, or more arguably criminal than Onion. Before last night, he hadn’t starred in an episode since Season Two’s “Onion Friend,” in which (among other things) he smashed a mashed potato replica of Steven’s head and showed off a video of his own birth. If you’d like a more visceral callback, here’s a video to remind you of how unsettling he’s been over the course of the show. It’s no surprise that his friends are just as innocently menacing.
“Onion Gang” was a filler-type episode, but it was fun filler, more entertaining than “Future Boy Zoltron” just because of the wonders of seeing Onion walk around with his “whole pantry of friends”: Garbanzo, Pinto, Squash and Soup (who will always be “Pothead” in my mind). And to an extent, it makes poetic sense for this current run of episodes to end with Onion bidding his summer friends goodbye, much the way that Steven Universe fans must say farewell to the show for now as it enters another of its regularly scheduled hiatuses. Since the events of “Bubbled,” there hasn’t been too much plot movement, and it wouldn’t have made sense to start a new arc just before taking what will probably be a months-long break.
Besides, there was some substantive material to pull out of “Onion Gang.”
STEVEN’S A LONELY BOY
I’ve spent most of my Steven Universe reviews portraying Steven as possessing some sort of empathy superpower, an extraordinary ability not just to see the good in every creature, but to slide into their shoes—or rather, their mind—and see the world as they understand it. For the most part, he’s very good at this. But then there are moments when he displays incredible naivete, and those moments remind us of two things: 1.) Steven is 14, and 2.) he’s lived much of his life in isolation from humanity. “Onion Gang” addressed the second of those issues, showing off a side of Steven we haven’t yet explored in depth.
The only two residents of Beach City even remotely close to Steven’s age are Connie and Peedee, and with summer coming to an end, they both have responsibilities to uphold. They’ll both be back in school soon, and even when they’re not participating in the American education system, they’ll be doing homework and (in Peedee’s case) working. Steven—whose perpetual truancy, I’m assuming, was approved through some coercion of Mayor Dewey—keeps plenty busy so long as the Gems have missions for him. But what’s he to do when there’s nothing to do? A lot of kids can relate to that feeling of idleness, and Steven hasn’t seemed to struggle with it much… before now. Perhaps calling himself the lonely boy was a bit dramatic, but he’s correct on principle.
Starting from the episode “Steven vs. Amethyst,” the show has undertaken an exploration of Steven’s self-concept to a depth it hasn’t addressed since the first season’s finale. We’ve seen him reckon with feelings of inadequacy, fear of his own power, PTSD, even existential guilt, and it paints a picture of an adolescent entering a phase of insecure identity. This is, of course, a normal process for teenage boys, but Steven either doesn’t know that or doesn’t want to face the inexorable fact of change as it applies to his own self. We’re dealing with a being whose physical age depends entirely upon his mental conception of his age; it’s possible that his body hasn’t grown since he was eight years old because Steven himself hasn’t willed that transformation. A major aspect of growing up is losing one’s childlike innocence—becoming aware of death’s inevitability, ambiguous morality, and the falsely perfect images of our heroes—and although Steven has come to accept many of those truisms, that acceptance hasn’t come easily. (Yet to be determined: whether he’ll cross some Rubicon that does cause his body to age up permanently.)
Confronting his loneliness wasn’t as big of a step as confronting his sense of responsibility for Rose Quartz’s death, but it was still some progress for Steven toward a fuller embrace of his more general circumstances. And it’s about more than just a paucity of kids his age; as a hybrid Gem-human, he’s simultaneously both species and neither species. We can draw a rough parallel between his situation and that of mixed-race children, who are more likely to suffer from identity problems and subsequent mental health issues than their non-mixed brethren. The recent example of Colin Kaepernick—the NFL quarterback who remained seated during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest American institutional racism, then endured a deluge of abuse based on his half-white background—shows that society at large is less apt to understand the idiosyncrasies of a mixed-race person’s identity. Kaepernick, thankfully, appears confident in his self-concept. Steven? Not so much, and that’s increasingly becoming the case as he slowly realizes his lonely position in Beach City, his Avatar-like function as the bridge between the humans and gems. Of course, love will be his solution, as love always is on Steven Universe, but we can and should expect him to struggle with the feelings of isolation endemic to teenagers, mixed-race children, and 14-year-olds who go on dangerous missions with their alien guardians instead of attending school.
UNEXPECTED FLIPPANCY TOWARD DEATH
The statement on Steven’s loneliness was the strongest thematic element of “Onion Gang.” Less powerful was the episode’s treatment of death, which I thought inspired an unrealistically mild reaction from Steven. Just three weeks ago, we witnessed him undergo a full, PTSD-fueled breakdown when confronted with the notion of killing. Last night, while the Onion Gang’s encouraging him to kill his victorious bug was terrifying to me as a viewer—mostly because I was afraid we’d be seeing a stabbed Bismuth or Jasper again—Steven kept his relative cool. Ditto with his reaction to Garbanzo’s “death” by “car accident”; while Steven did freak out a little bit, it didn’t seem as though he was flashing back to the last time he stared death in the eye (that’s pointedly singular). I’ve written before about the show’s surprisingly flippant treatment of death given its recent events, but to be fair, that was in the context of the notoriously melodramatic character Jamie. This was Steven himself facing a little taste of mortality and, without even attempting to practice Garnet’s mindful self-therapy, avoiding the throes of panic into which a similar situation cast him quite recently. Joking about death is an important step toward accepting its inevitability, but I don’t think Steven Universe has brought its protagonist to that point yet. We need to see that overcoming process before I’ll buy a non-catastrophic reaction to anything that could reasonably trigger a PTSD attack.
SOME THOUGHTS BEFORE WE HEAD BACK TO HIATUS:
I want a spinoff in which Steven and the Onion Gang, in their trench coat, have a full conversation with BoJack Horseman’s Vincent Adultman.
I got a strong Finding Nemo vibe from the ritualistic sacrifice of the winning bug.
Looks like Vidalia isn’t painting Amethyst anymore. Somehow, I think Yellowtail will make a less dynamic model.
Onion sort of showed off a human side in this episode…still somewhat convinced he’s the Antichrist, though.
Here comes another hiatus, it seems. Potential plot arcs I’m looking forward to upon the show’s return: Pearl dating Mystery Girl, Steven learning more about Rose’s morally questionable leadership, a corruption-themed crisis, Peridot’s inevitable first fusion, and… Ronaldo’s conspiracy theories being completely correct.
Zach Blumenfeld will be using the hiatus to actually do his law school reading. Follow him on Twitter.