When Cartoon Network’s animated series Steven Universe wrapped its fifth season in January 2019, fans worried that there was nowhere left for the show to go. The stakes faced by half-alien hybrid boy Steven Universe and his alien warrior friends, the Crystal Gems, kept escalating throughout the series. But in season 5, they faced what seemed to be the last of their major adversaries, and as usual for the show, Steven eventually got through to her with a mixture of sharp reasoning and insightful emotional appeal. Suddenly, the series seemed notably short on remaining threats or dangling plot hooks.
In September 2019, creator Rebecca Sugar and her team released a follow-up film, set two years later. Steven Universe: The Movie presented a bright new future, still worry-free and relatively placid. But then the film introduced a new, horrifically dangerous enemy who erased most of the protagonists’ memories, resetting them to the start of the Steven Universe story. The stage was set for a long road back from square one, a journey that could have potentially set up entire seasons of conflict, or a story that used the same characters, but took a completely different route the second time around. Instead, the movie blitzed past all those dire possibilities, resolved the situation, and put everyone back on track for their happily ever after.
Now, the series’ conclusion, the limited series Steven Universe Future, is looking deeply into that happily ever after. The six episodes released so far all suggest Sugar and company are doing something TV virtually never does. They’re sticking around to explore what victory, normality, and happiness look like after the kinds of world-threatening drama that’s so common in fantasy stories.
[Ed. note: light spoilers ahead for Steven Universe Future.]
Steven Universe Future has yet to introduce any major new traumas that seem likely to change that dynamic. Steven and his warrior friends Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet are still spending time in their Beach City home, interacting with the quirky human locals. But now dozens of other alien Gems — the formerly corrupted survivors of an ancient war for Earth — are being resurrected and integrated into society.
The premise of an inhuman species settling in on Earth has driven entire films and TV shows, from District 9 to Alien Nation to Amazon’s recent series Carnival Row. The idea can be a clear metaphor for human immigration stories, and a way to tackle prejudice, racism, culture clashes, and otherness in a new light. Steven Universe offers another level to that metaphor: Gems are basically construct warriors, created and trained for complete obedience and service to an aggressive expansionist empire. Introducing them to freedom of choice and a peacetime mentality could be a monumentally difficult task.
But so far, the conflicts have been mild, mostly caused by Steven overreaching in his attempts to push the new Gems out of their comfort zones, or by a few old enemies pouting at the new order. The scripts focus more on Steven continuing to mature into his powers and his responsibilities, and on various Gems healing their past traumas and looking for personalized, specific ways forward. The quick problems and quicker resolutions hearken back to the show’s first season, when overplot adventures were rare, and most episodes were just brief and sometimes downright silly trials.
And that’s startling, even for a series that’s made a habit out of groundbreaking content (from gay relationships to devoting an episode and a song to head-clearing meditation) and exploring emotion. Once the big battles of a TV series, or fantasy story in general, are over, the aftermath is almost never a priority. Fantasy’s escapist nature leads it to focus on huge conflicts and huge victories. TV series largely focus on significant stakes and character-shaping, story-changing action. It’s uncommonly rare for a show to take time past the resolution of the final battle to more than hint at what the future will look like for the survivors.
And that’s because the drama that comes after a war is much smaller and more complicated than the drama of the war itself, so stories tend to wrap up as quickly as possible after a villain goes down. Look at Game of Thrones, which capped eight seasons of escalating wars with a brief denouement that put an empathy-free child-king on the throne without addressing what his rule might look like. Or HBO’s Watchmen, which confined its post-crisis wrap-up to a few sentences of reconciliation between an ancient vigilante and his granddaughter, and a “You’re going to jail for your crimes” moment that ended on a slapstick note.
With Steven Universe Future, Sugar’s team seems to be invested in questions that fantasy stories don’t often ask: Can the personal stakes in peacetime be as fraught and meaningful as the larger stakes in wartime? What does closure really look like, given that people’s stories continue past the traditional “The End” goalpost? How do people meaningfully recover from life-changing trauma? What do inclusive, kind protagonists do with enemies that aren’t necessarily dangerous anymore, but aren’t interested in dropping their antagonism and switching sides, either?
All the Steven Universe Future episodes so far have grappled with some combination of these questions. But to date, the most resonant episode has been the series kickoff, “Little Homeschool,” in which Steven tries to talk the series’ first really frightening antagonist, Jasper, out of her hostile, aggressive stance. The setup is a familiar one from Steven Universe: Steven worries that some Gems are still suffering because of his mother’s actions. Amethyst tells him “You should stop trying to fix everyone.” Steven agrees with her, but the show cuts directly to him trying to speak with Jasper anyway.
For Steven, feeling eternally guilty over his mother’s legacy, closure can’t come until everyone’s happy and getting along. For Jasper, comfort is much more complicated: she still defines herself via aggression and dominance, and she can’t be happy or get along until she has some hint that the future will still involve proving herself against a worthy adversary. Their goals seem incompatible — until Steven, with his usual mixture of sincerity and determination, finds a way to thread the needle.
The new series has been taking a lot of time to tie up everyone’s personal loose ends by delving into their psychology. That’s just another reminder that Steven Universe has always spent more time engaged with its characters’ inner lives than their outer battles — or at least, it’s been much more engaged than most stories with how those inner lives affect the bigger picture. With very few exceptions (like Garnet’s climactic spaceship battle with Jasper, or Lapis restraining Jasper through fusion), the characters have generally solved their conflict through dialogue and understanding, rather than through violence. For all the excitement and intensity Steven Universe has mustered over the years, it’s still primarily a show about empathy, and about how the best way to solve conflicts is for both sides to acknowledge, communicate, and meet their opponents’ emotional needs.
The series has had its share of physical battles, but they’ve mostly just been necessary to earn respect and attention, or to push an enemy to a standstill where conversation can happen. And so the end of the battles hasn’t been all that important to the end of the story. The opening sequence of Steven Universe Future teases a few looming threats that haven’t arrived yet, but with potential threats like Jasper, Aquamarine, and Eyeball all outclassed and defanged, it doesn’t seem likely that the final episodes will introduce any huge new villain. (Cartoon Network currently has four more episodes scheduled for release: two on December 14, and two on December 28.)
Instead, Steven Universe Future suggests that the battle against Spinel in Steven Universe: The Movie really was the big dramatic finale for the show’s conflict. Instead of endlessly cycling through more and more enemies, the show’s wrap-up is doing something strange and amazing: it’s reminding viewers that what happens after a fight may be just as important to the participants as what happens during it. It’s capping off years of creative and colorful world-building by building an entirely new world. And maybe most astonishing of all for American television, it appears to be coming to a planned, well-constructed, and satisfying conclusion.