Welcome to the first instance of time travel in Steven Universe (or at least The A.V. Club’s coverage of it)! “Steven’s Lion” is, of course, an earlier episode, and a direct prequel to “Lion 2: The Movie.” But it’s what’s airing today, I haven’t covered it yet, and I’m told the reader numbers for the show are on the bubble at the end of the trial period, so make sure to head down memory lane with me. It helps that this is one of the better earlier episodes to go back and talk about, not just because “Steven’s Lion” is one of the better installments of Steven Universe so far but also because it draws direct parallels with a few of the episodes we’ve already discussed.
Of course, “Steven’s Lion” invites comparison to “Lion 2: The Movie” (thanks, episode titles!). In both episodes, Steven tries to get Lion to do something, or several things, unsuccessfully: In that episode, taking him and Connie to the movies and in this one all sorts of activities, from catching Steven to eating a pizza with him. Both resolve themselves with Lion roughly acquiescent, and we learn a bit more about Lion’s purpose as Steven’s protector in both. But the more interesting point of comparison, to my mind, is “Steven The Sword Fighter,” in that almost the entirety of both episodes are focused on Steven reacting to and trying to make a connection with something non-human. This time, Steven tries to befriend Lion like he would a human, in a bit of a precursor to his attempts to form a relationship with Hologram Pearl. That the show has both reused this basic structure when it has other, real people to bounce Steven off—and disposes of the actual fight against the monsters offscreen early in the episode—suggests a lot about what Rebecca Sugar and the other writer/storyboarders are interested in exploring with the character, and where the show will take him going forward—and it’s exciting.
The main difference between “Steven’s Lion” and “Steven The Sword Fighter” is that where Steven ultimately has to destroy Hologram Pearl in order to work through his grief over Pearl’s temporary “death,” here he’s successful in forging at least some connection with Lion (whether that’s in part because Lion is Steven’s spiritual protector or something is up in the air). It helps that Lion is a living being, albeit one introduced as far closer to a normal cat than a mystical, thinking creature. Much of the humor from “Steven’s Lion” comes from the way Steven consistently treats Lion as a thing capable of speech and understanding his commands the way a normal child might treat their pets, even though he uses his hands and terrible ventriloquism to make Lion “speak” later in the episode—he’s a child, but he’s also an at least somewhat self-aware child. Steven’s hurt at Lion for abandoning him at Fish Stew Pizza, and his sadness at possibly letting him go, both mask at least a slight layer of play.
And play is one of the things Steven Universe does best. There’s a deep sense of it throughout “Steven’s Lion” in not only the games Steven tries to play with Lion (jumping off a short cliff, catch) but also in formal elements like the predictable but still hilarious cut from Amethyst saying she knows what to do with the Desert Glass pillow to her and Steven pretend-sleeping in a pillow fort adorned with the gem and the silent series of shots of Lion staring silently at a flailing Steven. Even though Lion isn’t playing along, Steven Universe and Steven Universe are both having a lot of fun (as is Zach Callison, whose exuberant and expressive voice acting I’ve criminally neglected here).
Steven and Lion’s one-sided relationship culminates in their recovery of the pillow, stopping the desert castle from building, in one of the show’s best “action” sequences to date. The nature of the world of Beach City is such that there’s no chance they’re going to fail, so as with most of the other fights it’s more of a set piece for the animators, one that succeeds brilliantly, evoking some serious old-school platforming and presenting awesome desert sculptures. And as always, the music in this sequence is absolutely delightful, continuing the show’s trick of making these scenes look epic while removing any tension. Steven also gets to fix one of his own mistakes here, stopping the Desert Glass after he himself had thrown it onto the beach outside the temple. I know some people get annoyed with Steven’s errors, but he’s just learning how to be a Gem (and is also a child) and if he manages to at least mostly clean up after himself I’m fine with him continuing to mess stuff up.
If there’s a weakness to “Steven’s Lion,” it’s the other characters, who detract just a bit from Steven’s awesomeness (if you can’t tell, I really love when everything is just about Steven) in his attempts to befriend Lion. The Pizza family doesn’t serve much of a function here other than Kiki making the obvious “lion” pun—a pun even I can’t get behind—though Ronaldo Fryman gets some hilarious shading as a laptop-bound conspiracy nut running a blog about all of the stuff that happens around town called Keep Beach City Weird, and the half-second of angry Onion is probably the best use of him the show has found so far. The only Gem with a real character beat here is Amethyst, whose total unwillingness to care about the Desert Glass, even though she “earned” it by getting the monster kill, is pretty predictable and good for only a couple of the laughs “Steven’s Lion” wants us to get out of it. The “welcome to Shrug City, P” line captures Amethyst’s devil-may-care attitude and the way the Desert Glass is ultimately unimportant, but it’s also a well the show has gone to a decent number of times with Amethyst, even in this first season.
Like the tension in Shrug City over the theoretical threat from the Desert Glass, the best part of this episode is the way Steven’s unwillingness to acknowledge that Lion can’t understand him and won’t communicate with him contrasts with his heightened awareness of genre conventions. (“This is how. You’re supposed to act. In the desert.”) This is one of the better things that separates Steven Universe from other shows in similar worlds—no one really takes anything all that seriously, which allows everything to proceed at a slower pace that gives the characters, for the most part, the opportunity to unfold as real people and not entities serving narrative functions. There are even a couple of times during “Steven’s Lion” when Steven feints toward several of the expected endings for this sort of story, whether that’s Lion turning out to have an ulterior motive or Steven “letting him go,” but instead Lion gets to stay, proving a permanent addition to the Gems’ team. This allows for slow, steady development of the show’s world. In fact, if the sequel “Lion 2: The Movie” proves anything, it’s that there is already some character growth on this show, no matter how subtle—Lion doesn’t need to be the focus of Steven’s best friend attention any more, because he has Connie. That’s not the most exciting of changes, but like everything else on Steven Universe, it’s still pretty damned cool.
- Steven is mad Lion abandoned him: “I had to eat a whole pizza by myself!” There’s that play again. Delicious, delicious play.
- “We kept Amethyst.” Never change, Garnet.
- So I said this up top already, but the reader numbers on this feature are on the edge of justifying regular coverage, so get your friends to read this one even if they don’t watch the show. To honor Ronaldo Fryman and his blog, I’ll be taking to the Twitters with the hashtag #KeepBeachCityWeird trying to trick people into reading. I really love writing and talking about this show, and I hope I get to keep doing it with you guys.