Since I had so much fun talking you all about the eldrich comedy that is Gumball, I decided going over a few other CN shows would be worth a go. I put a vote up on a few ideas I had, and Clarance ended up losing to Steven Universe, which I really should have seen coming the moment I made that poll. Steven Universe is one of the most popular shows Cartoon Network has, and it’s SUUUUUUUUPER GAY. Like, a yuri magazine in the middle of a trans pride parade on Halloween gay (lets be real, Halloween is the gayest of all the major holidays). But that’s not what I wanted to talk about, because that horse is deader than a meme sniffed out by Comedy Central marketing firms. Instead, I want to talk about the biggest key to the show’s success, the focus on emotional logic.
That’s not exactly a hard term, just my own way to describe focusing on emotional complexity of characters to drive a story than using logical story structure. With a main character who has powers tied directly to emotion, it’s not surprising that emotion is generally far and above the most important element of the series. The premise is that doof kid Steven Universe is raised by his good meaning but low income dad and his three magical guardians, who are actually magical alien space rocks with bodies made of hard light that rebelled against their home world thousands of years ago to save the planet Earth, and now they’re dealing with their home world coming back. Steven also has the added stress of inheriting the powers of Rose Quartz, his mother and rebel leader of the Crystal Gems, the army that saved the Earth and have since been reduced to just Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The series divides itself between episodes revolving around the wacky citizens of Steven’s home town of Beach City, and Steven learning more about the past of the gems and how it impacts his present.
Steven Universe took a very long time to get to the meat of the lore, and it’s just now introducing the major antagonists and not just their henchwomen. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. As Sam Keeper wrote (BE WARNED THAT LINK IS SPOILERS EVERYWHERE), Steven Universe is a show more invested in emotions and relationships that plot and action. While Gumball’s slow charge into meta comedy was a decision that eventually grew from experimenting, Steven Universe seems to have everything planned out pretty concretely from the beginning. However, the bigger picture stuff never got much focus early on, instead more focused on defining the characters and giving Steven time to grow as a character before things got real. It’s honestly kind of amazing that the kid who cried about his favorite snack being discontinued is now an angst filled almost-teen trying to come to terms with the possibility that he might have to kill someone to protect those close to him.
It’s, uh, been quite a run.
Season one of Steven Universe was all about easing an audience into the cast, not the world. While most series want you to get wrapped up in this strange new world and the conflicts within, SU uses its episodic format to instead explore different characters and give us an idea of who they are, what they’re all about, and piece together a much more complex personality overtime. This is done especially well with Pearl, Steven’s most serious and easily frazzled guardian. She’s a proper, uptight person who needs things to have an order, but season one hints at a lot of insecurities related to her relationships with Rose Quartz and Garnet, not to mention her almost antagonistic one with Amethyst. What’s so significant is that each relationship seems to have a very negative effect on her. While her frustration with the younger layabout Amethyst is obvious, her feelings of inferiority compared to Garnet and Rose are odd at this point. They don’t completely fit with her fussy, serious personality, which makes revelations about those insecurities so effective later.
A we learn more about gem society, we learn that Pearl was not only one of the first freedom fighters who helped save Earth from gem control, she was also part of a gem series created solely to serve. Every gem is cut and made for a purpose, and a pearl’s job is usually to serve an aristocrat of some sort. Pearl broke from this purpose and ended up serving Rose instead, not out of obligation, but out of love. The show eventually states this outright, and it helps explain why she’s always the nastiest towards Greg, whom Rose ultimately fell for (Pearl and Greg eventually talk about this through song in one of the show’s most loved episodes). The fact she was created to be a servant has always stayed in the back of her mind, so she has a bad habit of looking up to most everyone else and seeing herself as weak. She was willing to constantly throw her body away to protect Rose, which she can do since gems use light constructs they can reform over time. However, that particular attitude of seeing herself as expendable if to protect those better than her is deeply troubling, and the show eventually tackles why.
Pearl ends up training Connie, a human friend of Steven who discovers his secrets and wants to help fight for Earth. Pearl’s early training, though, drills her own complexes in Connie’s head, and Connie can’t reform her body like Pearl can. It leads to Steven confronting her about it, and it’s one of the few moments where Pearl’s perfectionist persona shatters. It’s important to note that Steven has Rose’s gem, and while it’s poorly explained, the just is that Steven is a sort of reincarnation of Rose. She’s dead, but Steven can use her powers. So when Pearl freaks, she ends up calling Steven Rose, and shouts “just let me do this for you, Rose!” She instantly realizes just what she said, even revealing she still sees Steven as Rose sometimes, and finally lets her guard down, showing the two the side of her she tries to hide. Pearl has a destructive inferiority complex, which ended up straining her relationship with Rose, and does strain with Garnet still. The two eventually are forced to confront the issue after Pearl tricked her into fusion, which is basically one of the worst things you can do to Garnet.
Fusion is a concept where gems can fuse their light construct forms together to become a more powerful being with a new personality and consciousness based on bits and pieces of those who fused. Gem society usually reserves fusion for gems of the same series, to make a more powerful version of a single gem type, but Garnet accidentally broke this rule and exposed her kind to the concept of fusion between two or more different types of gems. Fusion is simply a reflection of a relationship, and the strength of a fusion and its resilience depends on how strong those bonds are. Thus, it’s more difficult for gems of different types to create a proper fusion, but usually more rewarding.
Garnet herself is actually a fusion, and she stays formed all the time. The two gems that make her up, Ruby and Sapphire, are so close that they’ve only defused when forced, when they need their solo talents, or when under extreme stress. Pearl tricking Garnet into fusion so she could feel a bit of that power and confidence Garnet has hurt because Garnet holds fusion in great reverence, central to her entire core being. Being a fusion in gem society is like being openly queer in our society, in some ways. You become an outsider, scorned and hated by others, despite nothing being particularly wrong with it. For a gem, fusion is basically the most intimate way to express a relationship (it’s not just straight sex metaphor, another topic for another time), and being tricked into it is a massive betrayal of trust. The two only reconcile after several episodes when they admit their own insecurities.
For Garnet, she tries to be both the best aspects of Ruby, strong willed and determined, and Sapphire, intelligent and collected. She puts these qualities forth for the sake of her team and to give them a leader they need, but she also has Ruby and Sapphire’s weaknesses. Ruby is impulsive and tends to get overly emotional due to her status as a foot soldier, while Sapphire and her future sight have made her somewhat detached from the here and now, not to mention her tendency to freeze up in uncertain situations. She admits to these insecurities to Pearl, but we see these elements of her all the time, usually hidden under her confident facade. We even see that she has a problem with compulsion and addiction, coming from Ruby’s competitive streak and Sapphire’s ego and future sight. She can’t stop playing a rhythm game in one particularly silly episode, but it’s one of the few times by that point where we see a lesser side of her. It’s a good indication that Garnet isn’t all that she seems.
Then there’s Amethyst, the youngest of the crystal gems. She was a bit of an early fan favorite for being the most wild and silly member, tending to use her basic gem powers for hyjinks and jokes. In particular, she loves changing her light body to different forms, something everyone can do but never does, mainly because they were never taught this talent in gem society. She’s also the most childish, and seemingly the most insecure, getting into arguments with Pearl and occasionally Garnet over her activities off the clock, like her love for wrestling.
There are a lot of early tells that she’s the most troubled of the gems. In a fight about Rose, she takes offense that Pearl seems to see herself as the person who knew Rose the best. She lashes out in the most obvious and ugly ways. She doesn’t make attempts to try and meet the expectations of others or use any tact at all. She constantly plays pranks on Pearl, and they eventually lead to serious spats between the two. There’s also little hints that she wasn’t apart of the rebellion, or that she’s not on the same level of status as the others. Probably the most subtle tell is a joke in an episode that introduces a mysterious lion connected to Rose, where Garnet agrees to keep the lion by making a joke that they “kept Amethyst.” That little barb ends up being a massive piece of foreshadowing.
Amethyst eventually reveals to Steven, in a very passive aggressive and self-loathing way, that she was born on Earth as a defect. Towards the end of the gem war, the Diamonds created some makeshift “kindergardens” to create new foot soldiers. While Amethyst came from the good one, she came out way too late and malformed, much smaller in size and lacking the raw power she was supposed to have. She has a deep seeded inferiority complex, but unlike Pearl, her’s comes from not being apart of gem society. It’s also why she loved Rose so deeply as a mother figure, as Rose was one of the few people who seemed to see something in her she never even saw in herself. It really comes through with the arrival of reoccurring villain Jasper, who’s apart of a similar series as her, but she was born from the lesser garden and somehow thrived in it. She’s top of the line, and horrifically strong. Amethyst’s strange talents come from her experimenting with her powers, which she can only do as a free gem, but it also meant she was never able to learn the strengths of her particular cut. In many ways, she doesn’t feel like a proper amethyst, and she’s completely outmatched by Jasper as she tries fighting on Jasper’s terms.
She ends up being the first, and currently only, gem with the ability to fuse with Steven, as the two share those same sort of feelings. Steven is human, yet has the strange powers of his mother, and he worries about things like being unable to grow properly as a human being because of his odd body that nobody knows anything about. He doesn’t feel like a gem or a human, and that makes him feel like he less than other people he tends to see so much good in. While Pearl feels like a lesser part of an established social structure, Amethyst and Steven don’t feel like they’re even in that structure. They feel like outcasts, worse than the worst of those in the system. The two end up connecting over these shared insecurities, and the fusion they create is the single oddest in the series. It uses a giant yo-yo for a weapon and all purpose tool, and lacks much in the way of expected battle grace, yet manages to use its bizarre talents to lay waste to more traditionally powerful gems. One of the show’s running (and incredibly queer) themes is that differences don’t make you lesser, they just make you different, and that’s not bad by any means. In fact, it should be celebrated.
Steven Universe puts so much stock in not just character development, but character examination. It has a larger plot and in-depth lore, but it’s rarely the main focus. How our cast deal with all that and how it helps shape them into who they are, or reveal parts of them we never see, is what makes SU special. It’s a series about people and emotion, and those emotions end up having the most impart on the story, not expected plot beats. Nobody thinks particularly logically, not even the villains. We now know the main antagonists of the series have emotional reasons for doing what they’re doing, not thinking about what’s best for their kind. What they want is a sense of closure, and they have differing opinions on how to get it. Even the villains before them end up tossing away their rigid order based motivation for personal reasons, shown amazingly well with Jasper’s arc. She starts as a strong, intimidating villain, but eventually reveals that her strength based personality is mainly a way to protect herself from her own insecurities and fears of being seen as useless by her society – or even by herself. Even at her lowest point, she refuses to be seen as “weak,” costing her dearly.
It’s how these characters feel overall that decides how they tackle a problem or situation, and it’s common for them to do desperate or illogical things because of their emotions, which has far bigger implications for the plot than strategies employed with thought. It’s similar to how a tragedy functions, except the series explores how these sort of emotional decisions are reached at all times. You can see this in a recent episode where resident jerk Lars’ reactions to Steven and Amethyst’s wrestling personas affects how they change their personas, or in episodes that shows one of the older characters slowly digging up a past grudge. It even shows this in happier moments, like Steven hanging out with his dad and seeing how they respond to each other in subtle ways, like Greg getting weirded out by Steven’s magical talents, but still trying to learn to accept this part of his son and encourage him.
And keep in mind this doesn’t just go for the main cast, every minor character has a surprising amount of depth and emotional complexity. Everyone has their own stories, and we see them told with great care between these world shattering revelations. Steven Universe doesn’t give you the full picture of what this world is, because it’s not necessary. What is are the people in it. What are they like? What do they like to do? What do they fear? What motivates them? How do they live in their respective societies? Most importantly, what can the audience see in them? What makes SU such a special show is how incredibly human it is, both when it’s joyful and when it gets uncomfortably real, creating a story that moves at the beats of emotions over beats of logical development. It’s not structural story logic, but emotional logic. It’s always introspective. It’s a very rare quality not just in children television, but in most stories altogether.