The first season of Steven Universe is twice as long as most, and constitutes the whole of the show’s first act. It’s complicated a bit in that the second half of the season was a pickup, tacked onto the ongoing production of the first half. So in episodes 25-26, we have what amounts to a season finale—but instead it serves as a transition and swerve into a rather different back half, that serves to deconstruct the naivete of the first 26 episodes and set up everything else to come.
In particular, season 1b (as people call it) is about Steven’s slow realization that each and every adult in his life is unreliable in a different way, to a different extent. More than unreliable; they’re more screwed-up and scared than he is, and none has a clue what they’re doing. So, this developmentally delayed thirteen-year-old takes it unto himself to quietly parent them; put their needs before his own—which sets his ball rolling on emotional problems that will develop over the rest of the show.
That developing martyr complex combines with Steven’s impression that everyone he loves would be happier if his mom were still around instead of him, a view that he makes explicit early in the next season. He learns to keep these thoughts close, so it’s hard to know what he’s thinking until he states it.
Steven feels he has no one he can talk to, because anyone close to him, he’s afraid to burden them any further. Even Connie, his best friend and for most of the show the only person he feels close enough to fuse with, he’s half terrified at this point of saying the wrong thing and disappointing her.
He feels this need to constantly be on. The cheery, goofy Steven, who everyone expects—that becomes an act; a front he drops when he’s alone, which, once you see it, becomes distressing to witness. It’s in these rare unguarded moments by himself, or around people he doesn’t know too well, that it becomes clear just how much weight the kid is carrying and just never expressing, that he has no clue how to manage.
The one thing that may fuck him up more than anything is the last line on this, the tape his mom left him under mysterious circumstances:
As the show develops, so does his sense of betrayal around Rose. There are big triggers later that amp it up and give specific things to point at, but it’s more complicated, cuts way deeper, on levels he may not fully understand. All this sublimating himself for everyone’s benefit, this masking, it’s a thing he does largely on faith—faith that at least this one mythical person, who in his mind everyone wishes were alive instead of him, knew what she was doing, had an answer or an idea for him to work with. But of course, as becomes very clear, Rose had less of a clue than anyone.
“Take care of them, Steven,” Rose says— but what Steven hears is, “You are responsible for them, now. Your needs aren’t important.” And boy does he take that to heart.
Some 107 episodes later, in the middle of a severe identity crisis, Steven literally trips over an alternate tape, discarded even more carelessly than his own. It’s the same in all respects, except this time addressed to a certain Nora—as clarified, a potential name if Steven had been deemed a girl at birth. Neither tape was stored with care, entrusted with anyone; they both were just left in random corners of Rose’s realm, as if she’d grown distracted and forgotten them.
I think a disturbing aspect of the Nora tape, given Steven’s unraveling psychological state at that point, is its revelation of the act that Rose had put on in his tape. Until this point it had seemed so intimate, like she was speaking to him through time and magnetic decay, but, no. He… wasn’t that special. Now here she is, giving his rousing personal mission statement to… someone else. Someone who doesn’t even exist. It’s hard to process. After everything else he’s been through, this swerve is kind of like one football too many.
It’s the last straw for Steven. From here we go straight into martyrdom. He’s just… had it at this point. Nothing matters anymore, nothing has any meaning except maybe protecting the people he cares about. Realizing that he’s personally responsible for this latest mess, due to spiraling chaos from, yes, way back in season 1b, just clinches it: they’re all better without him.