Aging and maturation happen so slowly and so deliberately on Steven Universe (like in life) that it’s often difficult to remember when changes actually happened, and what it was like to see them stick. I went back and rewatched “So Many Birthdays,” the show’s last big birthday-themed episode, before starting to review this one—and boy, is the show different now. The characters were a lot broader (or appeared that way to Steven), the pacing a lot slower and more prosaic, and Steven, especially, was a lot more childish. “Steven’s Birthday” is a bit of a quieter episode, focusing on just how far Steven has come since “Gem Glow” (and, in some respects, how far he still has to go).
It makes sense, then, that the primary focus of “Steven’s Birthday” is also the single biggest difference between Steven at the beginning of the series and Steven now—his relationship with Connie. Even more, perhaps, than his control of his powers, his ability to successfully stand up to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, or even his cool pet Lion, their friendship has allowed him to understand how to interact with all types of people with the same levels of enthusiasm and empathy and be a caring, nurturing, not at all obnoxious person. In fact, Connie is the biggest piece of the puzzle allowing Steven to consistently use his powers (remember how effectively he deploys his shield in “Sworn To The Sword”?). To an even greater degree than Greg, Connie has come to symbolize the elements of the Earth that are worth protecting to Steven—and, perhaps, the possibility of an adult, human life with a human romantic relationship.
“When Connie grows up and becomes president, what is that going to make me? First Boy?”
Steven’s anxiety at the possibility that he won’t biologically age (and, in particular, the above reaction) is the clearest indication yet that there’s an explicit romantic undertone to Connie and Steven’s relationship, or at least that there will be one at some point in the future. It feels kind of absurd to point that out after episodes like “Alone Together,” but the beauty of their relationship has, in part, been the way it often felt more than purely romantic in nature. But as they get older, that will become an increasingly likely possibility, something that they both seem to be aware of in a vaguely conscious way.
Steven and Connie both just look a lot more adult in this episode, which storyboarders Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff do a phenomenal job suggesting with touches like the contrast between Connie’s red dress and her sun hat and the way Steven tries to wear the shirt she got him open over another shirt (a classic fake adult man fashion move that constitutes one of the biggest staples of my wardrobe). They’re changing—except that Steven might not be.
It turns out that Steven is turning 14, over a full year older than Connie (who is “12 and three quarters”). (Honestly, for some reason I keep thinking Steven is, like, ten or 11, but this probably makes a little more sense.) We find this out from a series of birthday photos of Steven (in his birthday suit!), showing Greg progressively losing his hair as Steven gets older, then remains an adolescent for a while, looking the same since his eighth birthday. As in “So Many Birthdays,” Steven plays around with the biological age he thinks he should be, though in this case that’s by stretching himself to the point of constant exhaustion, which backfires when he turns back into a baby.
To its credit, “Steven’s Birthday” never really pretends that Steven won’t go back to normal the way “So Many Birthdays” did, because that would be a manufactured crisis with fake tension. Instead, Steven’s transformations become the cause of a series of funny and sad interactions between him, Connie, and the rest of the Gems. The events are almost mechanistic because of how well we know the characters: Steven will try to be older so he can grow up with Connie, she won’t care what age he is because of the strength of their relationship, Greg and the Gems will freak out a bit and do generally wacky things.
Nearly everyone gets at least one great moment, from Greg using the “human beings” refrain from “We Need To Talk” in the van to Amethyst turning into a car seat to Garnet opening all three of her eyes and sticking her tongue out at baby Steven before solemnly saying, “My power means nothing to an infant.” (Well, Peridot isn’t really in this episode. But she’s busy working on the drill, and having to introduce her to Connie would probably derail the Steven-Connie story.) Still, it all takes a back seat to the quiet resolution that Connie and Steven’s relationship will continue no matter what form they both take in the future.
We don’t even need to see Steven growing back to his normal size—all that matters is that it’s what he’s supposed to look like. What’s so great about Steven are precisely the things that often make him seem childish, so it makes all the sense in the world that he’d be stable at the age Greg calls “adolescence.” Steven grows a single facial hair, indicating that he’ll age in some capacity, but it would almost be nice if he didn’t display any new signs of maturation. If the notable absences of Peridot and the impending threat of the Cluster are any indication of where the rest of the week is going to pivot to, he might have to grow up a little too fast.
- “Oh, Steven. How genteel.” “Clink!” Steven and Connie pretending to be fancy will never not make me giggle.
- “Yo, bring back that shuttlecock!”
- “You should sneak me into a PG-13 movie some time.” “Just kidding, I would never ask you to break the law.”
- “We know how to throw a party.”
- I appreciate the thought, Connie, but Steven doesn’t need a new shirt. His old one is just fine, and is definitely not on my phone case.