WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the finale of Steven Universe Future, which aired last week on Cartoon Network
After a legendary seven-year run, Steven Universe is over. While the show presented incredible fantasy concepts to children and adults all over the world, its greatest accomplishment is its often frank discussions about topics that are rarely addressed on television. The series explores toxic relationships, institutional bigotry and existential questions on morality and self-worth.
With the fifth season of Steven Universe ending the series spanning plot about the Diamonds and Steven Universe: The Movie putting the titular hero in one final conflict, it became unclear what was left for the half-gem, half-human to fight. It turns out, however, Steven Universe Future doesn’t try to one-up the prior finales, and this is a terrific decision.
Steven Universe Future functions as an epilogue to the main action of the series and ties up a lot of loose ends. While our favorite characters go on a few entertaining last adventures together, arguably the series’s greatest strength is taking a step back to see how all these traumatic events affect Steven. The series has always been about Steven’s growth in the face of incredible adversity; however, with all that trauma, it’s important to see how it affects him.
Steven Universe Future shows how the other characters have grown and how this affects Steven. He’s upset Lars and Sadie have drifted apart and that Connie is expanding her social circle beyond him. Steven’s pathological desire to be needed strains his relationships, as in episode 11, “In Dreams,” where he subjects himself to unnecessary trauma to keep Peridot close to him.
“I was hoping when I started the show that telling a coming-of-age story would give me room to grow up along with the characters,” Rebecca Sugar explained in an interview with CBR, “and I realized that my experience with my mental health and unpacking what had happened to me was a huge part of my process of growing while working on the show, so it would only be right to let that be the final, big piece of Steven’s growth, too.”
With only 20 episodes, there is little time to introduce a new Big Bad. One of the big issues with a lot of long-running franchises is that they continuously try to one-up themselves. In a series like Dragon Ball Z, for example, a new bad guy is introduced in every arc. It becomes formulaic after awhile, with many of the new bad guys, despite being more powerful, being less compelling than the previous ones. This is often called The Escalation Problem.
Naturally, Steven Universe is not like Dragon Ball Z. Steven doesn’t resolve his conflicts by powering up. He is barely able to beat Jasper this series due to his out of control emotional state. Even then, him becoming more powerful than Jasper, an adversary who has been around since the first season, isn’t positive. Steven shattering Jasper is a traumatic moment for him, one that he immediately tries to remedy by fixing Jasper.
Even Steven Universe: The Movie suffers a little from the Escalation Problem. Spinel is introduced as a new, even more dangerous adversary, coming out of nowhere to destroy the planet. However, what makes Spinel work is that her appearing out of nowhere is sort of the point. While a villain like Spinel makes sense for a one-off story, it’s hard to imagine Steven Universe doing the same thing two times in a row.
Steven Universe Future would have made a mistake introducing a second Spinel. In fact, the few bad guys that do appear, like Jasper, Aquamarine and Eyeball, are more as annoying than threatening. This is because the real conflict of the series isn’t beating up a bad guy but rather self-improvement.
Many viewers were disappointed how the “final boss” of the series was resolved through emotional connections and love. When Steven’s own trauma drives him to corruption, transforming him into a monster, the fight isn’t ended with the Crystal Gems fusing and fighting the monster-Steven. Rather it ends with everyone he’s helped — the Gems, Connie, Greg, the Diamonds and Spinel — showing him love.
The conflict for Steven Universe Future is internal, not external.
It’s a tough message, but one in-line with the rest of the series’s prior themes. In short, the series is entirely an internal one of self-discovery. It’s fitting, therefore, that the series ended not with a final battle but with feelings being expressed.
Steven Universe Future brings the series to its conclusion without any external conflict, and it's a terrific decision.