What in the world are we going to do now?
We’ve been massively spoiled by four straight weeks of Steven Universe. Even though Cartoon Network announced that Season Four is going to proceed right out of this “Steven Nuke” on an episode-per-week basis, the past month has been so remarkable that anything else is going foment some serious hunger. Once the episodes stop flowing and the next inevitable hiatus starts, we’re going to have to ruminate on the events of the Summer of Steven for a long time.
“Bubbled,” which aired Wednesday, was the Season Three finale, and HOLY MOLY did it bring things to a new level of intensity. The episodes leading up to it, too…we got a new fusion, the defeat of the Crystal Gems’ most dangerous enemy to date, and some very interesting new information on gem corruption. Certainly, there’s a lot to chew on. Let’s get started.
Undoubtedly, the week’s biggest plot point—and the climax of the entire Summer of Steven—was the revelation that Rose Quartz shattered Pink Diamond. This should put to rest the major fan theory that Rose was Pink Diamond, unless people are unwilling to believe Garnet’s confirmation of the event (and Garnet has no reason to lie). More importantly, it’s totally flipped the table on Steven; he’s specialized in dealing out hard facts of life this summer, particularly to Amethyst, but now it’s his turn to reckon with an incredibly difficult truth.
If Rose Quartz seemed near-infallible to her son before this, that illusion has been destroyed for good. We learned last week that Steven categorically opposes killing (perhaps a consequence of him growing up in peacetime, without the horrors of war normalized), and even though Garnet claims that shattering Pink Diamond was necessary for the Crystal Gems to win control of Earth, Steven’s worldview requires him to hold that Rose’s action was inherently evil. For a kid who’s just beginning to step into (and in some ways past) his mother’s legacy, whose mother’s consciousness is literally embedded in his belly button, this doesn’t just affect his view of his mother…it affects his own self-concept. Even though the super-empathetic Steven would never kill—in fact, he put himself in grave danger twice this week to help known enemies—he can’t escape the fact that a significant part of his identity put aside that maxim for the sake of Earth and her friends.
In many ways, this scene reminded me of a moment in Avatar: The Last Airbender (Steven’s spiritual predecessor in so many ways). When Aang is riding aboard a giant lion turtle, all his past lives tell him he must kill the evil Fire Lord Ozai. At the last minute, Aang finds an alternative, using skills he learned from the turtle to take away Ozai’s firebending. It’s a solution that preserves the purity of Aang’s soul, keeps him morally consistent and wraps the Avatar saga in a pristine ribbon and bow. Aang, like Steven, is governed by a love of all life, and while he’s more temperamental and more prone to go on the offensive in combat, his empathy always wins the day. It would make narrative sense for Steven, if put in a similar situation to that of Aang, to find a way to win without shattering any of the Diamonds. In a single stroke, he would both live up to his mother by winning her war and move beyond her by refusing to violate his core values.
What’s fascinating, though, and what gives me pause in making the above prediction, is the show’s presentation of Rose’s act as self-sacrifice. “She didn’t always do what was best for her,” Garnet says, “but she always did what was best for Earth.” Ordinarily, self-sacrifice—especially in the oft-simpler morality of all-ages entertainment, and especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which Western culture is rooted—involves a character giving up life or something of similar value to save others. Righteous warriors garner admiration, but icon status is reserved for the martyrs, and the martyrs are always figures of peace by the time they die. In “Bubbled,” though, Steven Universe forces us to consider moral sacrifice on par with other forms of martyrdom, an act just as damaging and, so long as it’s righteous, just as admirable as walking willingly into death’s arms.
This view is borne out when we look at PTSD, a devastating syndrome among veterans everywhere that affects the killers just as horribly as the wounded. It’s the reason there’s mandatory briefing for police officers who fire their weapons in the line of duty (regardless of whether said officer has acted righteously or committed homicide). So long as combatants enter a war with a system of morality that values others’ lives, killing an enemy is a painful emotional price to pay in the name of defending one’s people and values. And seeing as Rose poofed Bismuth over the prospect of using the Breaking Point, we have to conclude that shattering Pink Diamond is a burden she carried with her for thousands of years.
What if Steven’s growth involves him realizing that sometimes moral sacrifice is necessary to protect the ones we love? What if, when he faces the Diamonds (you know it’s going to happen), a non-lethal solution proves impossible, and one of the Crystal Gems has to shatter a Diamond to ensure their survival? Would Steven do it, and bear that burden, to spare his friends the emotional pain? I can’t imagine a more empathetic action. We’ve already seen that some characters in Steven Universe are beyond saving. Having the show’s protagonist commit a righteous kill to save everyone he loves would be an unprecedented, hyper-realistic, incredibly bold step for a kids’ television show. I still don’t expect this to happen, but if anyone could pull off that story, it would be Rebecca Sugar and company.
“Earthlings” gave us two pretty huge moments on its own: the formation of Smoky Quartz and Jasper’s corruption. The former seemed like a natural conclusion to the Steven-Amethyst arc that began in “Crack the Whip.” Smoky was born out of inadequacy, and everything about her signals that: her weird, asymmetrical arrangement of forearms, her self-deprecating humor, the fact that her weapon is a yo-yo (which is actually really awesome). Jasper’s attempted fusions, too, are effortts to resolve inadequacies, but the reason Smoky Quartz is healthy and extremely stable is that her insecurities are overcome by love. Behold, some of the best wisdom Steven’s yet dropped: “We’re both not like anybody, and yeah, it sucks. But at least I’ve got you, and you’ve got me.”
Watching Smoky Quartz form was triumphant. Watching Jasper succumb to corruption was awful.
It’s becoming pretty clear that corruption is going to be a major theme of the show going forward. Steven’s learned a lot this summer about what it entails, and with that knowledge has come increasing empathy for these ruined gems. On top of that, combined evidence from “The Return,” “Same Old World,” and “Monster Reunion” implies that the Diamonds, as they fled Earth, used a weapon of mass destruction to corrupt all remaining gems on the planet. According to the prevailing theory, Rose used her shield to keep herself and today’s Crystal Gems safe; everyone else took the full blast. We’ll doubtless hear the full story at some point, but it looks pretty grim. If what the internet has divined thus far is true, the Diamonds are Ramsay Bolton-esque monsters who were willing to actively destroy thousands of Homeworld gems for the sake of crushing the rebellion.
Jasper is the first gem we’ve seen become corrupted, and it raises some interesting questions about how the process works. Fusing with a corrupted gem probably kicked things off, but we don’t know what would’ve happened if she had allowed Steven to help. At the very least, it would have signaled some openness to empathy, a value that distinguishes humans from instinct-governed animals. Had she let love into her heart, she might have been saved.
I have another theory. Jasper has been governed by power and violence since we met her, but that brutality was always guided by the ultra-rational ideals instilled within her by the Diamonds. All Gems on Homeworld—and most of the ones on Earth—pop out of the ground knowing their purpose, and just as is the case in humans, purpose serves as a particularly strong bedrock for a gem’s identity. But Earth is a chaotic, absurd, fundamentally irrational planet that, in the words of Peridot, “sets you free.” That sense of freedom can be terrifying—the sheer proliferation of existentialist literature proves that. Now imagine how destructive it must be to someone who has served exactly one purpose for thousands of years. I think that Jasper, incapable of understanding the disorder of Earth and incapable of returning to the perfect hierarchy of the Diamondocracy, lost whatever guiding principles she had and was left only with her violent instinct, just like a wild beast.
This theory fits nicely into Steven Universe’s overall themes of finding purpose in a world governed as much by emotion as by reason. The Crystal Gems and Steven find that purpose in love. Peridot is quickly getting to that stage; she moved past her identity crisis because, unlike Jasper, she was open-minded. Lapis Lazuli, trapped for so long, is still relishing the mere idea of freedom and is in no rush to find a specific purpose. Jasper, on the other hand, encountered the void and was swallowed by it. We cannot help but pity her.
The little green Dorito was her usual hilarious self. I’ve made some meepmorp to celebrate:
“With A Little Help From My Friends”
“The Best Darn Metal Band In The Galaxy”
“How Not To Make S’mores”
“It’s Not A Trick… It’s An Illusion”
It was wonderful to see Peridot and Lapis getting along so well, and they’ve made the barn fun again. Hopefully, we’ll get to spend more time there as Season Four presses on starting next Thursday.
Zach Blumenfeld is a freelance writer and recent arrival in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.