Steven Universe Review: Answers Come at a Hefty Cost in “Steven’s Dream” and “Adventures in Light Distortion”

(Episodes 4.11 and 4.12)

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<i>Steven Universe</i> Review: Answers Come at a Hefty Cost in &#8220;Steven&#8217;s Dream&#8221; and &#8220;Adventures in Light Distortion&#8221;

If you follow Steven Universe, you’re doubtless aware that the entirety of this week’s Stevenbomb has been floating around online for the past month. For those of you who’ve seen it already, I hope that this review and the ones to follow will provide you with some fresh insight, beyond what you might have seen on Tumblr or the show’s subreddit. For those of you who waited, your patience and self-discipline are admirable, and you were rewarded with a couple of very solid episodes. “Steven’s Dream” represents the series near its emotional peak, and “Adventures in Light Distortion,” though not quite on the level of its immediate predecessor, gives us some of SU’s most inspired, trippiest visuals to date. (FYI, the rating above is an average of the two episodes.) It also causally reveals some important information about the physical nature of Gems. This GIF, for instance, raises a wonderful hope that we will one day see tiny, adorable Gemlings:

Shrinking Gems.gif
But that’s not why you came here. Let’s talk about that big reveal…

Even a Diamond Has Feelings

All this time, we were led to believe that Homeworld was a cold, utilitarian dominion of rationality, mind over heart. But Blue Diamond (Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, who played at the Paste Studio last August) crying for her fallen comrade—more than 5,000 years after Pink Diamond’s demise—changes Steven Universe’s entire paradigm. The Diamonds may be monsters with little regard for lower beings, Gem or otherwise, but they are not immune to feelings, and this knowledge complicates Steven’s (Zach Callison) views (and ours, as viewers) of both Blue Diamond and Homeworld.

Last we saw Blue Diamond, in Season Two’s “The Answer,” she was ordering Ruby to be shattered for fusing with Sapphire. “They had never seen a fusion of two different types of gems,” Garnet (Estelle) explained to Steven at the time. In the rigid structure of gem society, such disorder did not and could not exist, and as that society’s leader, Blue Diamond took a course of action to ensure that everyone stayed in their lane and that her own position of power remained unquestioned and unthreatened. To us, she appeared heartless and cruel, but to all the Gems present aside from Sapphire, Ruby’s shattering was likely considered a punishment befitting the crime. Such is the power of the Diamond Authority over the minds of their species; they are clockmaker goddesses worshipped like pharaohs.

After “Steven’s Dream,” though, we can see some serious cracks in the rational façade of Homeworld and its rulers. Pink Diamond’s death has clearly impacted Blue, though she almost certainly can’t show it anywhere but at the fallen palanquin of her deceased friend (or perhaps lover?). On Homeworld, Blue must appear perfect at all times: She must not encourage emotion in her subjects, and she can’t acknowledge that the Crystal Gem Rebellion has made a lasting impact on her or Homeworld. For Blue, then, Earth is exactly what it is for the Crystal Gems and for SU’s vision for humanity—a safe haven for love and tears. The only difference is that, whereas the Crystal Gems cherish all life more or less equally, Blue Diamond cares only for her peers. Even after Greg (Tom Scharpling) manages to get on her emotional wavelength by effectively stating the series’ core thesis on grief, she sees him more as a curiosity or a pet. We get the sense that for Blue Diamond, Earth and its people are like your (hypothetical) dead best friend’s goldfish that you’ve cared for since his or her demise. Independently, it would be valueless, but because it represents your friend, you’re loathe to flush it down the toilet when the time comes.

(An aside: Greg was perfect in “Steven’s Dream.” No other character can match his balance of Epicurean joie de vivre, offhand jokes and deep-seated pain.)

All this raises the question: Will Blue Diamond ever come to value lower life forms in and of themselves? The possibility appears to be there, what with Steven crying her tears (the show’s latest grand mystery), and if any being in the universe is capable of forging bonds of empathy with a god-queen, it’s the chubby boy with the rose quartz gem where his belly button should be. But if he’s unsuccessful and things come to a breaking point when Steven and the Crystal Gems face the Diamond Authority, Steven will be all the more shattered by any violence he has to undertake. That’s the cost of humanizing a villain, something Steven Universe has done exceedingly well. By the time Peridot poofed her, even the cruel, seemingly irredeemable Jasper was a piteous creature on a level with Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender; Blue Diamond’s demise, should it happen, will arouse similar emotions.

Steven’s Finally Demanding Answers

For much of SU’s run, fans have pointed out Steven’s decidedly uninquisitive nature. Before last night, the only time he had deliberately disobeyed the Gems in the name of truth was when he freed Lapis Lazuli from her mirror. Whether this arises out of the carefree attitude he gets from Greg or out of an unwillingness to open a Pandora’s box that he knows will devour whatever remains of his innocence remains unclear. Both factors likely play a role. But it’s about time for Steven to show some backbone and rebel against his guardians. The show’s continued success will depend upon Steven’s growth, and acting on his morbid curiosity for once represents a major step forward for the protagonist. Perhaps he’ll even grow up physically in the near future.

And yet I’m afraid that his takeaway from the events of these two episodes will be that his curiosity put his dad in grave danger. The righteous indignation he displays in “Steven’s Dream” when confronting Garnet is, by the climax of “Adventures in Light Distortion,” replaced with as close to a total emotional breakdown as we’ve seen Steven undergo. While much of his monologue during the psychedelic warp-speed sequence feels like being force-fed Steven’s thoughts, his sobbing over his dad oozes genuine pain and is the most childlike Steven has appeared in quite some time. Now, Steven’s experienced trauma before—lots of it, in fact, and quite recently this is the first time that his own action has initiated the trauma. Faced with that realization, the empathy hero may well retract his head back within his shell and stop seeking answers so aggressively.

Steven crying over Greg.gif
It’s also telling and concerning that he blames himself; despite what Steven has learned about good people’s ability to make mistakes (including believing that disco would make a comeback), his proclivity towards empathy renders him less able to hold others accountable for their actions. Unchecked, his preternatural ability to see the best in others could develop into a toxic, comparative self-loathing. We’ve seen other signs of this development in the recent past, particularly in “Mindful Education,” and although in the end Steven accepts the Gems’ reassurance that Blue Diamond is wholly responsible for Greg’s kidnapping, I doubt that he’s out of these new emotional woods. Learning to be honest with himself about feeling bad is one thing; learning not to shoulder others’ burdens needlessly is an entirely different and more formidable beast.

Rebecca Sugar spoke in an interview last summer about how future episodes of Steven Universe would focus on themes of self-love. Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) underwent such an arc over the course of her struggle with Jasper (Kimberly Brooks), and now Steven will likely have to make the same voyage. Given the brutal honesty with which Steven Universe has treated mental health disorders (even if there’s never an official diagnosis), it would not be surprising if the series pulls no punches in sending Steven down a dark path.

The Bits

Lisa Hannigan nails her portrayal of Blue Diamond’s gentle, aching, almost warm voice. It’s the antithesis of Yellow Diamond’s coldness—which probably makes her even more dangerous, when you remember that Blue has ordered gems shattered without a second thought.

Some of the gags in these two episodes made me laugh out loud, particularly when Greg witnesses a Korean animator creating him and when the Roaming Eye collides with three of the Rubies in the asteroid belt.

Nice to see that Uncle Andy’s back in the Universes’ lives for good, although I hope his old plane was able to make it back across the freaking Pacific Ocean.

It’s been pointed out online ad nauseam, but just an obligatory reminder that The Zoo is yet another of Ronaldo’s seemingly insane predictions come true.

Steven and the Gems emphasized that Connie, Peridot and Lapis Lazuli would be responsible for protecting Beach City. What’s going to happen back on Earth during the mission to rescue Greg?

Zach Blumenfeld is like Daredevil, except that instead of fighting bad guys at night, he writes about television. Follow him on Twitter.