Despite its long, complex story and rich themes and character development, Steven Universe can sometimes come off as childish—particularly to those who dwell on plot progression. Often this comes in the same breath as critique of the show’s themes as inappropriate for such a childish piece of media. There’s a cognitive dissonance here to be sure, but it doesn’t come from within the show.
The issue may be that the work it does is largely internal: emotional labor, if you will. The maturity in Steven Universe is comes from personal development: dealing with mental illness, trauma, the complications of relating to others; learning to judge actions, not people. People do awful things sometimes, for reasons based in the pain they carry. Separating the two is one of the first steps toward empathy, justice, and healing.
The show isn’t a grim-dark melodrama; as it unfolds, it becomes a complicated, sober discussion of how experiences affect a person’s emotions; how emotions drive people’s thoughts and behavior; and how this expresses itself internally, externally—individually, interpersonally, systemically. All this can result in generational cycles or systems of violence and abuse—unless it’s addressed at its root.
At the start of the show, the main cast has mostly been frozen in place, unable to grow or move on, for thousands of years. Nearly every character carries some trauma; serves to represent a particular kind of mental illness. The show’s vision of maturity involves learning how to do better. There are no easy answers, relapse is the biggest part of recovery, and mental illness is forever. But, there are ways to learn to respond better—and to break the cycle.
The show’s major conflict lies in the attitudes and circumstances that reinforce these patterns: in the oppression of the status quo. For all its chirpiness, Steven Universe is underlaid with an existential horror, derived from invalidation: the fear of one’s fundamental wrongness, as dictated by others. This comes home in the final arc of season five, which through its strengthened language and focus on themes like conversion therapy nudges the show’s window just enough to lay bare the trans allegory that has in hindsight been woven into the show from day one.
Progression in the show largely deals with breaking down assumptions: about one’s self, about others, about the world that we live in. A big part of that involves learning about and de-mythologizing the past: trying to really understand how things came to be the utter shit that they are today, so you can start to find a way to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over—and just maybe, build a better future.
Plot—this idea that there’s a driving, correct order of events that we’re supposed to take in our lives—is one of those major assumptions. Steven Universe is never really about Things that Happen; in the show as in reality, little that happens happens without cause or consequence, because of fate or some higher demand. The plot is there—structured meticulously to provide a constant pull on the action without calling much attention to itself—but it does its best to keep out of the way. Instead the story comes from the moment-to-moment interactions between characters and how they explore the show’s underlying themes—themes that get messier and messier as the show goes on.
Even the plot-bomb episodes, like “A Single Pale Rose,” what makes them interesting tends to be less the Things that Happen than, well, the mess: all the surrounding implications, and how they feed into what we know of everyone’s psychology; how it clarifies their behaviors, and might show them a route forward.
This kind of development, it’s difficult to showcase in a reel of Mature Goings-On. Reduced to action and individual moments, it’ll just look like a bunch of crying and longing glances and people looking apprehensive. It’s a novelistic form of storytelling, that rewards and relies on engagement. Meet it halfway, and the show unfurls, revealing a difficult kind of a conversation that most television actively chooses to avoid.
The maturity comes in working through all the crap put on a person by society, by prior generations, by relationships—all the expectations and judgments and every reason why one should be ashamed of who one is—and finding the start of an inner peace.