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An older, bigger, stronger version of Steven Universe glows pink while standing in a triumphant pose in Steven Universe Future. Image: Cartoon Network

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The reason Rebecca Sugar made Steven Universe Future, and why it’s the actual end

She knows what comes next for the characters, but she might want to ‘give them their privacy’

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When Cartoon Network’s animated series Steven Universe launched in 2013, it didn’t look like something that was going to change the way American animation handled storytelling. Creator Rebecca Sugar and her team started off with a deceptively simple story: in the first episode, kid protagonist Steven Universe is upset because the company behind his favorite ice-cream sandwich brand is pulling it off the market. The series opener is so hyper-focused on the frozen treat that it barely even registers that Steven is the first-ever hybrid between a human and a race of all-female crystal-based aliens.

Later episodes often foregrounded the struggles between that alien race and Earth, but just as often, they continued to focus on smaller things — mostly Steven’s relationships with the other people in his small beachside town. At its most expansive, Steven Universe was a series about the next evolution of an alien race trying to broker peace between a vast, expansionist alien empire and the weird little blue-green planet that seduced a few of that empire’s rebel soldiers. At its smallest, though, the series was about mindfulness and meditation, about a kid finding his own identity and separating himself from his parents, and about whether some of his friends managed to get their band off the ground.

But it was always about compassion and connection. Over the course of 160 episodes, Steven Universe taught its audience lessons about tolerance and acceptance, about the importance of talking through conflicts and acknowledging emotions. Sugar and her crew also built up a huge science-fiction mythos stretching back millennia. They capped that with a feature film, Steven Universe: The Movie. And then the 20-episode finale miniseries, Steven Universe Future, addressed some of the show’s minor loose ends, while acknowledging the lasting effects of the series’ action on Steven, who is, after all, still just a teenager. The series wraps with Steven headed off on a road trip, but it feels like there’s still a lot of story to tell, about how he continues to process his grief, about what happens to his many alien friends as they settle into their new life on Earth, and how the entire planet deals with its peaceful merging with a new species.

Steven Universe smiles as his friends Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl all take on his form. Image: Cartoon Network

But Sugar says she has no plans to continue the series from here. “As of now, I haven’t approved any official continuation, and aside from the upcoming End of an Era artbook, I am not involved in, and have not approved, any upcoming comics or books or video games,” she tells Polygon via email. “There is no official continuation in development at this time.”

Given how the series has progressed — often with little word between seasons, and abrupt reveals when a new “Steven bomb” was about to drop a bunch of new episodes on the fandom — it’s no wonder fans are wondering if there’s secretly more Steven Universe on the horizon. But Sugar says the sense that there’s more story left to come was part of the plan all along.

”I always wanted this world and these characters to feel sublime, as if it’s always going on before and after the episodes, and continues to exist outside the frame of what you see,” she says.

Has she thought about what might happen next? Is there any hope of the story continuing in other forms, like in books or movies? “The story is continuing off screen and I do know what happens next, at least in certain timelines, for the characters,” Sugar says. “But I would have to decide how and when I’d want to dig into that, or if it’s best to give them their privacy.”

So why split the last part of Steven Universe off into its own miniseries? Why tell the story this way in particular? Sugar says it’s an artifact of the green-lighting and production process. “While I was working on the original series, around 2016, I was told with a fair amount of certainty that we would not be picked up for more episodes,” she says. “I was asked if the remaining episodes from our current pickup would be enough to finish the story we’d planned.”

She didn’t feel she could wrap up what she intended as the story, so she “started fighting” for another six additional episodes. She says she eventually did get those episodes, which became the “Diamond Days” arc, culminating in the three-episode arc “Change Your Mind.” But initially, she was told that no, she had to finish the story without that final arc.

“Immediately after this meeting, when I was told there wouldn’t be more, I went up to my office and wrote the song ‘I Could Never Be Ready,’ which got folded into an episode we were working on at the time,” Sugar says. “I wasn’t ready for the show to end.”

Instead, she asked for a movie finale, “so we could all spend a little more time together as a crew, and in this world with these characters.” Oddly enough, Cartoon Network approved of the idea of a movie — but then wanted the show to continue afterward. “I was told that there was no point to a movie unless it existed to promote more show,” Sugar says. “So all of the sudden, I had 20 additional episodes to work on while working on the movie. I was overjoyed, and tried to conceptualize a way to put the pieces of the story we’d intended to include in the original run into these additional episodes. But everything had to be different after the events of the movie, so I needed to approach these stories from a new angle.”

She also says she’d personally “changed a lot, and learned a lot,” since she first laid out the plan for the series back in 2012. And the new order for a movie and a series continuation had to express that growth, by letting Steven grow up a little bit as well. At the same time, “the show had been an emotional rollercoaster for us, and crew members were moving on. So that became part of the story of Steven Universe Future.”

So when Sugar looked at how to revise the final miniseries arc, she realized she wanted it to be about the process of closure and accepting endings. “Those of us who stayed through all of it needed to find a way to let go,” she says. “I wanted that to be part of the story, too, I wanted moving on to be something we could share with our audience.”

Ultimately, Steven Universe in all its forms — the original series, the movie, and the spin-off finale — are an expression of Sugar’s own life. In particular, the show’s overtly queer themes, its visual and storytelling underpinnings, and its exploration of emotion and catharsis are personal.

Stephen angrily stands in the snow on the top of the cliff where he lives with his Gem friends. Image: Cartoon Network

“My love of anime and my own experience as a non-binary person are both inexorable parts of the show’s foundation,” Sugar says. “The show is a pastiche, but I always try to keep it rooted in something real and personal. There were big visuals we wanted, like a Jasper training montage, and a kaiju battle. We were also inspired by the interpersonal conflict and catharsis in the finale of [the 1990s magical-girl series] Ojamajo Doremi.”

“I wanted to tell a story based on my own mental-health experience, and inspired by a book I was reading at the time called The Deepest Well, by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, about healing the effects of childhood trauma. I don’t think it’s a matter of anime tropes complementing or challenging, [but] staying true to our personal stories on the crew.”

Sugar says the show has been a labor of love and a method of personal expression for her writing and production team as well. “I’d say that the one personal experience we truly all share is a love of cartoons and cartooning. It’s why we all devoted our lives to this art form. That’s how I think of it. It’s all personal and true, including the cartoony stuff, and the anime stuff. It’s what we love, and the language we use to express ourselves.”