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Steven Universe’s heart came from its so-called ‘filler episodes’

And series creator Rebecca Sugar says they were some of the hardest installments to write

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pearl in a convenience store with steven and amethyst Image: Cartoon Network
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

In the Steven Universe fandom, episodes that don’t directly contribute to the primary overarching plot are dubbed “filler.” It’s a term lifted from anime fandom, attributed to non-essential episodes which may slow down a show’s pace. The disdain for the so-called filler episodes in Steven Universe is intense — compared to the greater storyline about a millennia-long alien war and the destruction of entire worlds, the episodes about lost kittens, or protagonist Steven Universe trying to complete a collectible-action-figure set, don’t rate particularly highly with fans.

A brief glance at the show’s subreddit offers lists of essential installments, suggestions of which episodes to skip because they don’t drive the plot forward. The list-makers consider episodes to be filler if they don’t contain big revelations, bring new powers to light, or introduce important characters. Virtually anything that focuses on the human citizens of Steven’s hometown, Beach City, instead of on his alien allies, the Crystal Gems, are added to the slush pile.

But the filler episodes give Steven Universe its soul. They don’t drastically alter characters or come with world-ending stakes, but they establish the show’s idea of normalcy and community. They flesh out characters and relationships. They show a day-in-the-life view of an oddball world where “ordinary” for most people doesn’t look like ordinary for the audience. Ultimately, the more Rebecca Sugar and the Crewniverse reveal about the characters in situations where the world isn’t ending, the more the audience knows about them and then cares about them when the stakes are raised. When we know what the characters have to lose — days at the beach, carnival fun times, breakfast together — the desire to see them protect it grows stronger.

kiki and ronaldo pretend to be dating in Restaurant Wars Image: Cartoon Network

Episodes like “Restaurant Wars,” which showcases two warring Beach City food-vendor families, “Sadie’s Song,” where the town puts on a talent show, and “Fusion Cuisine,” where the Gems fuse into a single massive entity to have dinner with Connie’s parents, all bring a sense of regular Beach City life. Some episodes shed light on little-seen locals, like “Rising Tides, Crashing Skies,” a hilarious episode narrated by conspiracy theorist Ronaldo, in the style of the webcast he produces. Steven Universe’s cast isn’t just made up of alien Gems — and deliberately so, since one of the series’ hallmarks is an emphasis on how beautiful and imperfect humanity is. Casting a light on the other residents of Beach City is important to that message, particularly when episodes focus on the juxtaposition of Gem and human life.

Taking a moment to pause from the universe-ending stakes also gives room for the characters’ relationships to grow. “Island Adventure,” for instance, sends Steven to a remote island with doughnut-shop employees Lars and Sadie. Lars and Sadie’s contentious relationship was explored previously, especially in “Lars and the Cool Kids,” but this episode homes in on the trio, particularly Lars and Sadie’s burgeoning romance. It’s not just the human characters, though; the Gems’ internal dynamics and their relationship with Steven are also built up in the moments of respite between big crises.

“Last One Out of Beach City” follows Steven and his Gem friends Pearl and Amethyst on a night out. Pearl learns to let loose a little, as she chases after a mysterious pink-haired woman and strives to be more “hardcore.” Meanwhile, Amethyst and Steven play wingmen. The show had previously featured this trio on adventures together, but never on the way to a rock concert, or in pursuit of a crush. Pearl’s flustered response to a hot girl, the argument between the characters when a cop comes after their car, and Amethyst’s musings on garage rock all bring new facets of the characters to life.

pearl looking flustered near a hot pink-haired biker girl Image: Cartoon Network

The downtime is an essential part of understanding the characters enough that we can see what drives their responses to real conflict. But the explorations of quieter moments also lets the characters be more dynamic, transcending their original archetypes. When we learn about Amethyst’s insecurities and her life outside of the Crystal Gems, like in “Onion Friend,” which reveals her relationship with Onion’s mom Vidalia, she becomes more than the hedonistic, fun-loving big sister figure she started out as. These downtime episodes reveal how at odds Amethyst feels with the rest of the Crystal Gems. When her insecurities manifest in more plot-relevant episodes, it doesn’t seem out of the blue.

The character-focused episodes don’t just imbue characters with their own arcs; they also reflect the show’s bigger themes. But series creator Rebecca Sugar tells Polygon that translating the show’s overarching ideas into smaller moments was often daunting.

“One of the episodes I absolutely love is ‘The Good Lars,’ which exhibits so many of the largest themes of the show,” Sugar explained via email. “Self-sabotage, being afraid you won’t be enough for the people you idolize, trying to shut out every aspect of your upbringing, and running away. Sadie opening up in little ways that seemed impossible, and shifting her feelings not just about Lars, but about everyone, including herself. We spent a long, long time working on the dialogue at the end of that episode. Big lore episodes were, in many ways, easier to approach than a very human episode like ‘The Good Lars.’”

lars, annoyed at sadie and steven in the big donut Image: Cartoon Network

Sometimes, though, a filler episode is just a filler episode: a bit of good fun, a snippet of a day in the life in Beach City, a funny homage to Looney Tunes cartoons in “Kindergarten Kid,” or a moment of odd body horror in “Cat Fingers.” But even without obvious value, these episodes still emphasize who the characters are, how they interact, and what makes this world so special. The residents of Beach City aren’t just a rotating background cast; they’re fleshed out characters.

Steven Universe himself is part Gem, part human. It’s what makes him different from all the other characters on the show. As a result, Steven Universe the show can’t just be about epic Gem battles and deep lore about the Gems’ mysterious Homeworld. It needs to balance the big action with the characters’ human side, to show what about Earth made Steven’s mother Rose Quartz fall in love with it, and made the Gems continue to protect it.

In season 2’s plot-focused episode “It Could’ve Been Great,” the Gems prepare to stop a cluster of implanted Gems from cracking Earth open. Steven takes a moment, though, to stop and sing a song. Enemy Gem Peridot, recently turned to the freedom fighters’ side, is confused, but eventually realizes the importance of “peace and love on the planet Earth.” We don’t get a sense of what those things look like when the show is facing new enemies or corrupted Gems, or when it’s diving into Rose Quartz’s big secrets. But we do in the show’s slower moments, in the “filler” episodes that make Steven Universe a story more about individual, unique people than about the battles they fight.

The first four seasons of Steven Universe are streaming on Hulu. All seasons are available to purchase on YouTube.