Let’s Talk About That Episode of Steven Universe
It may be just a cartoon, but that was the best advice I’ve received all year.
When Steven Universe came out in 2013, it was instantly a hit. Between its quirky characters, its inventive episodic and overarching plots, and its colorfully animated setting, it was a stunning series all around. Critics loved it. Fans loved it. I love it.
What really makes Steven Universe special is the fact that it lays out all the little imperfections of life within its stories, often without the sugar coating one would expect from a child-oriented cartoon. Characters die or betray each other. Characters don’t get the things they want, or they are forced to make tough decisions that have long-lasting, harmful impacts.
The story of the show is as complex and introspective as it is buoyantly sentimental. There are lessons on everything from friendship to the feelings that accompany losing your home. There are episodes on mental and physical abuse that are captivatingly well-written, and episodes that depict the enforced conformity that we have to play out in our own lives. All of this is woven into a poignant coming-of-age tale about a young boy and his makeshift family. Poetic cinema, folks.
For me, though, there was always one episode of Steven Universe that stood out above all the others.
SPOILERS for season five beyond this point.
In episode eight of season five, “Back to the Kindergarten,” Peridot is grappling with the fact that her friend and barn-mate Lapis Lazuli has abandoned her on Earth. Lapis has literally whisked their shared home away. As a child, I might not have fully understood the full ramifications of this situation, but watching this as an adult, it struck a chord with me that I didn’t expect to be struck by a cartoon of all things.
It reminded me of the times when I had felt hopeless in my personal relationships, when I had felt like the people I had come to rely on no longer trusted or loved me the way I did for them. The episode brought up that feeling of bittersweet longing for what once was, along with the horrible certainty that whatever was once there is now irreparably broken. It’s a feeling many people have had to deal with, and it’s not one that is easy to resolve. It’s a sort of grief, a mixed-up cocktail of regret-fear-anger that persists no matter how much you try to convince yourself you’ve moved on.
In the episode, Peridot is going through these same emotions, stuck in a rut of depression and uncertainty. So, Steven and Amethyst decide to take her on a field trip to the Kindergarten to lift her spirits, but that only makes Peridot more depressed when she sees how dead the land has become. How much of its original life has been stripped away by the process of making Gems. It’s then that Peridot sees a little flower poking through the blackened earth, and she becomes blinded by hope. She can make this place better again. If she can just get more flowers to grow here, she can fix it. It doesn’t matter that the land around them has been sucked dry. If she can rebuild this place, it’s a sign that she can rebuild anything.
I knew, deep down, it would never work. Both the pragmatist and the devoted houseplant mother in me knew she would fail. But I hoped, for her sake and secretly for my own, that she would make it work. That she would succeed and prove that, even in the worst circumstances, flowers can grow anywhere. Relationships can be rebuilt. Things can go back to the way they were.
Then, I saw the stretch of wilted sunflowers — I watched as her hope flaked away along with their dusty corpses — and my shoulders sank. She had set unreasonable expectations for herself and for her surroundings, and I had fallen for it. Heads over heels for a cartoon character, who reflected my worst emotions right back at me. And, in that moment, I felt her words down to my soul: “Once you mess something up, it’s ruined for good, and nothing will ever be able to grow again.”
Just to stab the knife in a little more, the original flower that had given Peridot hope turned out to be another mutant Gem that eats her and nearly gets away before Smoky Quartz poofs it. After that, they all climb back aboard the train that will take them home, in worse spirits than ever.
That’s when the episode goes from good to great. Everyone is in their own heads, thinking about how hopeless it all is, when Steven looks out. Watches the fields of brilliant yellow rattle past. Has a realization.
The right solution doesn’t have to be a perfect one. There’s no point in planting over dead ground and expecting flowers to grow. No point in rebuilding what was lost, if that thing is too far gone.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make something new, can’t plant somewhere else. Somewhere a little brighter and a little more welcoming.
We all face rejection in our lives, whether from employers or publishers or partners. We all have to deal with the sickening fear of not being good enough, of having done something wrong or lost something precious. That doesn’t mean we have to give into that fear, though. Steven Universe, the amazing cartoon that it is, knew that. Just because we can’t fix what is broken doesn’t mean we can’t plant on new ground. Try for a new job. Find a new publisher. Let go of your old partner. Start again.
This is something that I think a lot of modern TV lacks the ability to understand, which only makes this episode all the more special by comparison. The grim, blue-filtered worlds of dramas and detective shows are ever-present on our screens, always whispering to us about how awful the world is nowadays. They’re always pointing to dead flowers and crime-ridden cities as if to say, “See? Nothing will change. Nothing will ever get better.”
In some ways, they’re right. Sometimes, what’s broken cannot be fixed. But the whole truth is, everything can change. It is changing, all the time, for better or worse. The world we live in is in a constant state of flux, and the only way to survive with any modicum of sanity is to just let go and ebb and flow along with it. We won’t always be able to rebuild what’s been broken. We won’t always be able to fix the relationships we mess up. Some things are just like the Kindergarten — hallowed ground. Long past the point of replenishment, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
It just means we need to find a new field, a new place to plant. Find the hope in our hearts to forge ahead, knowing that we won’t always get it right but that we can always try again. In the immortal words of Steven:
“Even if there was nothing we can do for that one patch of land, there’s still a whole Earth blooming all around us.”