Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A really, truly epic hourlong Steven Universe nearly spells the end of everything

Illustration for article titled A really, truly epic hourlong Steven Universe nearly spells the end of everything
Image: Cartoon Network

The project of “Change Your Mind”—fully theorizing the Gem empire as a business run by an abusive family, with similarities to the various families Steven has encountered on Earth (the Crystal Gems, the Maheswarans, the DeMayos, the Deweys, the Onion family, etc.), all done while extending that comparison through intense action sequences—is a big lift. It’s especially heavy when it’s surrounded by an extended robot fight, the introduction of several new fusions, and a climactic moment of self-awareness on Steven’s part, seemingly resolving his anxiety over his relationship with his mom, all while wrapping up almost every other loose plot thread the show has.


Looking back on the first couple of seasons of Steven Universe, it seems clear that Pink created her own version of the twisted Diamond family in the original Crystal Gems team. The younger Pearl is broadly analogous to Yellow Diamond, keeping her emotions tightly-wound and living her life to please her authority figure/romantic object. Garnet, as a fusion who lived her life on the unflinching premise that she should never question or contemplate the emotions that drove her, unwittingly took on the role of Blue Diamond. And Amethyst, as a goofy child who ate everything in sight and made everyone laugh, became the new version of Pink.

This was an okay setup as far as it went—Rose may have kept things from everyone and often acted selfishly during her tenure as leader of the Crystal Gems, but she was certainly nowhere near as tyrannical and abusive as White Diamond—but it left everyone with a lot of unresolved emotional issues. Issues that were only identified because of Steven, a person who has no analogue in Gem society. And with his years of practice, Steven basically plows through the Diamonds’ problems, like a video game character who has been dramatically over-leveled for the final boss.

At least emotionally speaking, the Diamonds fall like dominoes. Blue demands that Steven remain in prison until he’s ready to apologize for fusing, but Steven and Connie refuse to do so, and get her to realize that that unyielding nature is exactly why Pink left Homeworld in the first place. Yellow attacks Blue, outraged that another Diamond would give up her obligation to White and to the Gem ideal. (Yellow also feels hurt that Blue would betray her after the way the two have been bonded, both through their relationship with White and their shared grief at losing Pink.) Eventually, Yellow sees that her dedication to following orders and living for someone else is destroying her from the inside. And White—well, we’ll get to that.

Do these epiphanies happen too quickly? Maybe! As thrilling as all of this is, and as bold as it is that it’s all happening at once, there are some moments in “Change Your Mind” that veer a little too much into outright corniness, above and beyond the normal level we should expect from the show. I’m thinking specifically of Connie analogizing her mom’s harsh rules to White’s conduct in her conversation with Yellow: The comparison makes sense broadly, but the transition to Connie’s dialogue—and, especially, the sharp change in sound design, which tones the intensity of the scene down a lot and sends it outside the space of action—makes it feel like almost a parody of the type of quiet emotional moment Steven Universe is known for. It doesn’t help that the shot is static, with Steven just kind of blinking and listening next to her. (Also, Connie’s mom and dad letting her come to space to help Steven is still probably bad parenting, I’m sorry!)

It’s hard to know what, exactly, is supposed to happen now. Are the Gems going to stop conquering other planets to create colonies? If stripping the natural resources of other worlds is the only way they can reproduce, does this mean their numbers are supposed to just remain static, or die out? These are, I think, interesting topics for Ronaldo-level nerds like me. (You could even call them questions for an... expanded... Steven... Universe.) Given the years of conflict and destruction that form the Gem backstory, there are probably some open questions about how the Diamonds can make amends and fundamentally change their society, ones that might even be addressed in the upcoming movie and beyond. But they’re also outside of the scope of “Change Your Mind,” and of what the series has been building to.


If being a bit rushed and leaving some big questions for the future of the show are my most substantial problems with “Change Your Mind,” though—well, then it’s still a pretty damn good and impressive episode, and a really wonderful, hectic capper to Era Two of Steven Universe. (Besides, as Steven tells Yellow Diamond, if every pork chop were perfect we wouldn’t have hot dogs.) And beyond all of this plot, thematic material, and character development, “Change Your Mind” is still an animated episode of television—one with some pretty visually stunning sequences.

Here, the Steven Universe crew’s anime influences come out in full force. In particular, I love the shot of Yellow and Blue flying out of the tower where the bubbled Gems are kept. They slowly fall onto a bridge with Steven and Connie following behind them in a bubble of their own, which gives the shot a lot of kinetic energy and (literal) gravity. Really, everything with Blue and Yellow is deftly done here: Showing the Diamonds changing, right before our eyes, is a huge visual challenge, and the team rises to the occasion—from Blue’s enormous face sliding into repose and softening as she realizes what life was like for Pink, weeping in an entirely new way, to Yellow’s dueling internal anger and sadness as she confronts what she’s been doing with her life, to the pair’s scared faces, dripping with (presumably metaphorical) sweat as they prepare to tell White how they really feel.


Largely, that’s because of Patti LuPone and Lisa Hannigan, who both do fantastic work. LuPone was originally great casting as a villain, but of course she can give a character more depth than that, and proves it in the moment when Yellow demands that Blue stop making her cry—only to realize that those are really her tears. Hannigan, meanwhile, moves Blue Diamond through rage, sadness, and acceptance, to settle on a sort of brittle tenderness that fully emerges in her plea to White: “I know my purpose isn’t to be happy, but I find it harder and harder to enforce your rules when they make me miserable.”

Hannigan also gets one of the more on-the-nose, moving, lines of the episode. When Blue forcefully tells Yellow, “She prefers to be called Steven,” she’s finally listening to Steven when he says that he’s not his mom—but she could just as easily be talking about a trans relative asking to be called by their chosen name. I’m definitely not the right person to write this, but I’d be really interested to read an essay that digs into the way this arc reframes the show as, in part, an extended transition-slash-coming-out story for Pink/Rose/Steven, and what changes about the series when you approach it with that in mind.


White Diamond continues to be the perfect villain to make that connection. Blue and Yellow act like scared children once White’s Pearl arrives to stop the escape. (“Blue, don’t make her any angrier than she already is.”) Her giant robot is a domineering, overpowering force that manages to exude creepiness while also providing grist for a very fun fight. And, as we discover, her Gem ability is literally turning other people into copies of herself, something that’s foreshadowed by an early sequence of Steven’s face alternating with Pink’s original face and Rose’s, culminating in a searing shot of White’s eyes. This goes a long way toward raising the tension of the final, most intense action moment the show has ever had: White Diamond ripping Steven’s Gem out of his body.

Much of the second half of the episode is an extended lead-up to that moment, taking the form of a battle to enter the Gem Voltron. Without going too deep into the minutiae of every moment of the fight, all of the beats are handled expertly—in particular, I loved the last-minute arrival of Bismuth and the newly reformed Peridot and Lapis. (Cue Steven: “Yellow, Blue, did you have a hand in this?” It’s good to know that, even in the most dire of circumstances, Steven will still make terrible dad jokes.) Lapis, by the way, looks like she’s just discovered athleisure, and I am into it.


The other big headline from the fight is that, attempting to free the poofed Crystal Gems, Steven pulls Amethyst out of her hibernation by fusing, which leads to him fusing with both Pearl and Garnet. This scene is basically the definition of fan service, since it gives multiple long-awaited fusions in less than a minute. Everyone gets new forms, including Pearl’s ’80s jacket with shoulder pads and Amethyst’s quasi-wrestling outfit (with ripped black jorts). Beyond a brief appearance of Smoky Quartz, we get a new version of Rainbow Quartz (voiced by Alaistair James) and the appearance of Shoniqua Shandai as Sunstone, Steven and Garnet’s fusion who seems to be a loose parody of kid-friendly ’80s action characters, with a strong, Sardonyx-like level of metafictional awareness of the audience.

Eventually, the four Crystal Gems fuse into Obsidian, the enormous fusion who forms the basis of the statue at the temple. Peridot yells “They’re huge!” just before White Diamond stomps down, revealing that even Obsidian only measures up to roughly the height of one of the enormous feet. But once the Crystal Gems make it inside White Diamond, things really get cooking.


White does, indeed, think of the other Diamonds as being extensions of herself—with their color only being expressed as a result of their weaknesses. The concept of “gaslighting” has been heavily overused in the past few years, but that’s exactly what White does to Steven, trying to convince him that not only is he someone he isn’t (his mother), his influence serves to bring out the worst in other people, rather than their best. White makes things better. White takes over the other Crystal Gems, and hearing them blithely speak in her voice, claiming that they feel better, is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen on the show. Steven almost buys into it.

Hell, I almost bought into it—partly because Christine Ebersole is such a smothering, soothing vocal presence, and partly because of how psychically connected Steven has been to Rose. The episode opens with a nightmare flashback to another time Pink Diamond’s Gem was trapped in that tower, when Blue warned her that White was going to take away her Pearl—a sequence that ends with Steven seeing himself throw up his mom’s hair.


The nature of White’s ability, and the way her character forms around it (or vice versa), are the cause of so many small, careful moments of storytelling in “Change Your Mind” that it feels like a daunting task to list even half of them. She forces Pearl to fight Connie, forcing the student to confront the master. (I appreciate that nobody calls direct attention to this, instead relying on everyone’s memory of “Sworn To The Sword” to do it for them.) Her Pearl, we learn, was originally Pink’s Pearl—a neat piece of writing, given the way the episode starts. And her ability is a kind of combination of Yellow’s force blasts and Blue’s empathetic field, transforming other Gems into puppet-like extensions of her own being. And she first does this to Yellow and Blue after they express their feelings, in a scene that also confirms the Diamonds’ redemption as Steven refers to them with the formal Crystal Gems salutation, “Guys?”

Certainly, this is a bit of an on-the-nose way of depicting how a person like White might feel about the other people in their life. But Steven Universe has never shied away from this kind of on-the-nose emotional metaphor, and, as in episodes like “Alone At Sea,” the show nails it. After a brief, tense confrontation, we get the best, most gut-wrenching moment of the episode, and probably of the series: The absolutely devastating, black-and-white shot of White Diamond using her fingernails to rip Steven’s Gem out of his body. Folks, I’ve been reviewing this show for a long, long time, and I think I have a pretty good handle on what can and can’t happen—and even I flipped out, briefly thinking that Steven might really be a human boy now, or that Pink/Rose would come back in some capacity, or both. I still can’t believe they really did it.


The ensuing sequence is framed in split-screen, as Steven’s human form watches himself form as a Gem, which, in the same vein as the Gem reformations, moves through Pink’s past forms. The Gem changes from Pink Diamond, to Rose Quartz, and finally to Steven—he is Pink Diamond now, though not the same one the other Gems knew. He’s Steven Universe. This is some deeply Evangelion shit.

The pure Gem form of Steven also has access to an enormous amount of power. His shield, now in an abstracted, quartz-like form, like the wire Polygon Fighters from Super Smash Bros., blocks the entirety of White Diamond’s attack. In front of White’s frightened, teary eyes, Steven fuses with himself, and just begins laughing. White is furious, and tells Steven that he’s acting like a child. Steven responds with one of the better comebacks I’ve heard on this show, or any show: “I am a child. What’s your excuse?”


Embarrassment—pink—flushes its way into White’s countenance, and Steven wins. As it turns out, White had been hiding herself from the world, not because she was so committed to how she could change it, but because she was afraid of how it would change her.

It’s not exactly surprising that this is how everything ends. After all, the show’s position has long been that no one in its universe is fundamentally evil, and that just talking to people is often enough to get them to open up—especially for Steven, who is inhumanly kind and understanding. Last year, I asked Rebecca Sugar if anyone was truly evil on Steven Universe. She said, “I think it’s a fantasy that no one is truly evil. I don’t know if that’s true in reality, but it’s certainly true in my fantasy. Why wouldn’t it be?” What is Steven talking his way into dismantling an eons-old galactic empire but the final realization of that vision?


We move t0 a familiar sight: A concert on the beach. Sadie Killer And The Suspects are playing a cover of “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart,” which is just a perfect to see as the entire Gem Voltron lands, bringing the Diamonds into contact with humans. Moments later, the Sun Incinerator lands, and Lars returns to Earth. There’s so much buildup going into this moment that it would hard for the episode to mess it up, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less meaningful to see the glint of recognition between Lars and Lion, or the well-deployed Paparadscha joke when she sees Sadie and says, “Lars isn’t going to know what to say!” He doesn’t—and though it’s not as intense as we might have expected, it does tell us that Lars and Sadie are going to be just fine.

With all of the human, Gem, and animal characters united on the beach, Steven takes the microphone to sing a new version of “We Are The Crystal Gems.” In a closing montage, we see the Diamonds heal the corrupted Gems, using the healing energy of Rose’s pool as a conduit. In keeping with the Steven Universe ethos, everyone is fine. That includes Centipeetle—sorry, Nephrite—Biggs, and Jasper, who immediately tries to go on the warpath before realizing what has happened. Echoing the long-past scene Blue described to Steven of the Diamond family hanging out in Blue’s pool on Homeworld, here the entire Gem family (or, at least, a representative sample) spends some time on Earth just hanging out and getting to know each other.


Once the rest of the Gems have gone home, Greg barbecues on the beach while Steven noodles on his ukulele and the expanded core group of Crystal Gems, including Bismuth, Lapis, Peridot, Cat Steven, and Pumpkin, celebrate the end of the war. In the same pose from the end of the opening credits, Steven sings “Change Your Mind,” a plaintive tune that appears aimed at White Diamond, but that you could hear just as easily being directed at a hundred, a thousand intolerant parents, siblings, friends. Fin.

If you’ll forgive me getting a little more personal than usual here, I’ve been writing about Steven Universe since episode 16, “Steven The Sword Fighter,” which aired in April of 2014. I was 21, much dumber, and very early in my marginally illustrious writing career. I was also a decidedly goofy, awkward kid with occasionally misfiring maternal instincts who hung out with a lot of very cool queer women and had a lot of anxiety about it. (I still do sometimes!)


I love hanging out with these characters and learning more about them, but it sure does feel like the show has done a lot, if not all, of what it set out to do. Now that Steven Universe has worked through its original five-year plan (the last episodes outlined in Rebecca Sugar’s pitch for the show, and the last ones writers Matt Burnett and Ben Levin worked on), it feels like an appropriate time to hang up my jean shorts.

More than that, it feels like Steven is an adult now, in a way that forces me to think about how I relate to him as a fan of the show, and as a critic. In my review of “Steven The Sword Fighter,” I praised the show’s thematic dedication to childishness, to the ways that curiosity and goofiness and an almost painful earnestness can actually be good things that characters (and people) shouldn’t grow out of. I still think that’s at least partly right, since Steven’s empathy and ability to listen to other people is another form of a childish openness to new experiences. But they’re also valuable qualities in a whole person, rather than a substitute for an entire personality. Being a child, especially the kind of child Steven is at the beginning of the show, also means being selfish. It means hiding things from people. It means being like Rose.


Steven has grown out of needing to be any version of his mother. He’s Steven Universe now. Likewise, it feels like I’ve outgrown the version of myself that identified with a younger, less competent, less thoughtful Steven. I still love the show, but after almost five years and 100-something episodes, I think it’s a good time to take a step back and rethink my relationship to the show. Steven Universe will be back with a movie later this year, with new episodes some time after that. I might write about them in some capacity, but I don’t think it’ll be in this space. Keep an eye out, though—there’s always a chance I change my mind.

Stray observations:

  • “Change Your Mind” is written and storyboarded by the large, genuinely epic team of Lamar Abrams, Miki Brewster, Amber Cragg, Hilary Florido, Joe Johnston, Ian Jones-Quartey (!), Christine Liu, Jeff Liu, Katie Mitroff, Kat Morris, Rebecca Sugar, and Paul Villeco. (Everyone is listed in alphabetical order, which seems very cool and of a piece with the message of the episode.)
  • Steven, watching Blue storm into the cell just after waking up from his nightmare:“Whoa, déjà Blue.”
  • Blue tells Steven that “Your time on Earth has warped your sense of right and wrong.” She’s right!
  • Peridot, watching Sunstone: “Unbelievable!” Sunstone: “You’d better believe it.” Peridot: “Okay!”
  • Sunstone is awesome, but she’s also basically the Poochie of Steven Universe, and kind of a parody of cool animation characters from the ’80s. Right after she declares that the Gems are going to take White Diamond down, she turns to the camera and says, “But remember kids, if you ever have to deal with a bully, be sure to tell an adult.” While she’s climbing up the legs, she spews lessons like “You can do it!” “Believe in yourself!” or “Always do your best!”
  • Absolutely going to note there is an “additional animation by” credit for James Baxter, a.k.a. the inspiration for James Baxter The Horse.
  • I genuinely expected Peridot to yell “Why are you hitting yourself?” after Lapis and Bismuth got White to punch her own arm.
  • There are some sweet moments in the background of the episode-ending montages, but I think my favorite is Ronaldo and Lars catching up.
  • (I have a separate essay that delves a bit further into the way the show has handled childhood that’ll be up at Polygon at some point.)
  • And that’s it! This has been the longest-lasting writing assignment of my adult life, and it’s been incredibly rewarding and meaningful to get to spend so much time with such a wonderful and special show. Hope y’all have enjoyed it. Sorry I wrote so much.