What a relief it is to end a Steven Universe hiatus after less than two months. Compared to the show’s other breaks, it feels like we were watching Steven, Peridot and Lapis get ship-jacked only yesterday. At the time, I prophesied that the Crystal Gems would really regret letting Navy get away with the Roaming Eye. But if that’s the case, “Lion 4” does nothing to indicate it. Instead of more plot, we get another introspective episode in the vein of “Storm in the Room; full of Zach Callison talking to himself and heavy on the visuals.
This, of course, happens every so often in Steven Universe, because Steven’s presence is integrally linked to the absence of his mother. And ever since Steven learned about Rose Quartz’s actions during the Rebellion, his defining emotional state has been self-doubt, which can’t really be depicted outside of Steven voicing his thoughts. But I don’t think “Lion 4” handles this as well as “Storm in the Room” did, replacing the magnificent silences that dominated that episode with surprisingly naive, dumbed-down monologue. This show has matured beyond the point where Steven could convincingly believe Rose’s room would show him what that massive key unlocks, and when Steven tried to open his head with the key, I cringed more than I laughed. The joke, like several others in this episode, just did not land. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this show is supposedly marketed to kids, who might find this stuff funny, but I can’t help feeling disappointed whenever Steven flashes such anachronistic immaturity.
That said, “Lion 4” admirably fleshes out Steven Universe’s central philosophy, and there’s plenty of payoff waiting at the end of the episode to make it worthwhile, thanks to the show’s best character making his first appearance since presenting Steven with a mushroom pizza.
Not in a literal sense, to be clear. Steven’s all-consuming question in “Lion 4” is simple: “What is my purpose?” This is the very question to which all Gems know the answer from the moment they emerge from the ground, and some of the show’s best arcs have dealt with what happens when a Gem begins to reconsider that answer. We’ve seen Peridot struggle with the idea that a Gem’s purpose is mutable; we’ve seen Lapis flounder in malaise because she hasn’t possessed a reason for existence for thousands of years; I’ve interpreted Jasper’s corruption as a tumble into the gaping void of nihilism. Typically, Steven has been the catalyst for these characters’ self-annihilation and rediscovery, but here, it’s the empathy hero himself in need of some help. This constitutes a jarring turn of the tables that fits in with the narrative we’ve seen developing over the course of Steven Universe’s fourth season, the all-too-common tale of that one friend you have who can solve everyone else’s problems in a pinch but whose own life is falling apart at the damaged seams. Thinking about Steven’s plight from this angle casts his extreme selflessness in a new light, one that suggests an new, unconscious motive for his uncommon altruism: Getting out of his own head.
Ever since “Bubbled,” when Steven learned that his mother shattered Pink Diamond, he’s been some combination of angsty and depressed whenever we’ve seen him alone. This has only happened a few times between “Bubbled” and “Lion 4”—in “Onion Gang; “Storm in the Room,” and bits of a couple other episodes—but Steven’s cheer and enthusiasm all but disappear during these spells. He even strikes the fetal pose twice, in moments of particularly intense loneliness.
Perhaps he’s compensating for his developing inner void by going full Steven when he’s around other people, as exemplified by his incredible patience for Ronaldo’s Gem-culture appropriation, his bend-over-backward attempts to impress Lars in the wrestling ring, and his altogether hasty acceptance of a former (and current) enemy. I’m not suggesting that Steven’s empathy has gone away—in fact, it’s probably an irresistible compulsion—but now it’s no longer just a means of fulfillment; it’s self-preservation by self-escape. Adopting this theory of our protagonist’s mind also happens to neatly explain why we see something of a return to the naïve Steven of old in the parts of “Lion 4” that grated on me. For all that it seemed Steven had accepted his legacy in “Storm in the Room,” he didn’t walk out of his mom’s room with any sense of how to tie up the messy loose ends of the Crystal Gem Rebellion, and thinking too hard about that results in the feeling of purposelessness that finally overwhelms him in “Lion 4.”
What really saves this episode is its sublime ending. I am slowly coming to the viewpoint that Greg (Tom Scharpling) is the best character on Steven Universe—its most graceful depiction of aging grief (note his eyes welling up with tears during the video for Nora), its most robust example of serenity, the anchor that grounds the Gems in human reality. And whenever Scharpling voices Greg’s special type of dad advice, as he does in “Lion 4,” he does so with a natural, relatable, soothing ease that never sounds patronizing. Meanwhile, Susan Egan is a highlight whenever she gets to voice Rose Quartz, and her “rambling” at the end of the video for Nora in “Lion 4” oozes tenderness, warmth and love that wrap you up in a sonic embrace.
The content of Rose and Greg’s words, meanwhile, is a roughly sketched but elegant explanation of existentialism’s basic tenet as stated by Jean-Paul Sartre: Existence precedes essence. Such a phrase is functional in nature, simple and powerful. But the way Rose Quartz puts it in her address to Steven (“A human is an action”) introduces beauty to the idea, particularly in the way Egan reads gushing excitement into the line. And that’s a key difference between Steven Universe’s kid-friendly, aspirational philosophy and the often bleak, post-modernist promulgations of Sartre.
For Sartre, the freedom to choose how we exist is in constant tension with our desire to have a consistent, immutable identity—hence his famous description of humans as “condemned to be free.” There’s anguish in that tension, and there’s despair when we look into the future and see nothingness that it is our responsibility to fill. It’s often not fun to live with the burden of authenticity and self-definition. Rose Quartz, however, sees none of these difficulties; for her, human freedom is an infinite blessing that we too often take for granted. This is where it’s crucial to remember that Gems are born with a specific purpose and that freedom, seen from the outside by Rose, is therefore an exhilarating and alien concept. If anything, this makes Greg’s advice to Steven even more powerful. He’s lived out the principles of authenticity as far as we have seen, and he’s surmounted substantial human difficulties—financial, familial, romantic—to do so. The fact that he can rest comfortably in his van atop a hill with the knowledge that he loves life and his son is the most inspiration Steven can get regarding purpose.
Now, a bit of a radical theory: What if Rose herself has never experienced actual freedom? We’ve seen signs that Rose Quartzes were designed to serve as a hybrid of defensive warrior and medic, what with the powers that Steven has exhibited (shield, bubble, healing) and the matronly nature of Rose herself. Rose’s love for all life may have been an innate trait that started out as love for Gem life, but then, through some accident of fate we have yet to witness, spread to other species. In Rose’s beautiful description of human freedom, there’s the implicit idea that Steven will get to define himself in a way that his mother never did. In fact, if Rose wasn’t free even in her final years of existence, Steven’s birth and her simultaneous annihilation serve as the only possible way she could have broken out of the inborn drive that had proven inescapable for more than 5,000 years.
We can only wonder what Rose’s consciousness, if it survives in her gem, thinks of Steven’s struggle with self-definition. But for the time being, her optimism about the concept is helping keep her son’s spirits afloat. We’ll see how long he’s okay with just being Greg’s kid.
I’d like to see a clip of Greg getting muscled out of his old jamming tree by a seventh grader with a flute… although, to be honest, the hill looks like a much sweeter spot for inspiration.
Why wasn’t Steven just drinking water at a more constant clip during his long ride through the desert? Kid could’ve avoided a lot of that dehydration.
We got a very purposeful reminder that the treasure chest in Lion’s mane remains a mystery.
If Steven weren’t so myopically focused upon finding his purpose, he might have found some really interesting things in Rose’s “trash dump.” Gotta wonder if that’ll be important in the future.
I may have ragged on Steven’s annoying behavior in this review, but I have to give him credit for the responsibility he takes in household chores and cleaning. Spoiled, 14-year-old me would’ve called for my mom to mop up Lion’s saliva.
Zach Blumenfeld is currently failing his law school finals. Follow him on Twitter.