After premiering the first five episodes of its third season during a month-long event back in May, Steven Universe dropped the rest of them like a hydrogen bomb this summer. For four weeks, there was a new episode of the show every weeknight (sometimes two!), a level of saturation that’s more or less unprecedented for a non-Netflix program. Yet it’s hard to imagine a better scheduling structure for this show. It operates perfectly in the middle-ground between all-at-once streaming releases and traditional weekly premieres. At only eleven minutes each, Steven Universe is supremely bingeable, but it’s easier for smaller, quieter episodes to fall through the cracks of a binge session. But that short length also makes weekly airing close to interminable. The Summer of Steven, as Cartoon Network branded it, perfectly suited the show’s speed: a casually-paced character study broken up by bursts of narrative energy.
But season three actually breaks rank from its predecessors in terms of that structure. Unlike seasons one and two, which start slow and take the time to seed their big plot twists and lore reveals, this season begins with some of the most eventful episodes in the show’s history. The two-part premiere––”Super Watermelon Island” and “Gem Drill”––deals definitively with plot threads which have driven the main action of the series for quite a long time. The entirety of season two was spent dealing with the fallout of the last episode of season one. Peridot had to be found and fought and redeemed, and the Cluster had to be revealed and dealt with. There was also the matter of Malachite, but she was moved to the back-burner for a while to make room for the lengthy Peridot arc. These things were part of the narrative fabric of the show for such a long time that the speed with which season three dispatches with them is whiplash-inducing. Malachite is located and beaten into defusing in “Super Watermelon Island,” and Steven and Peridot conclusively (and nonviolently) settle the looming threat of the Cluster in “Gem Drill.” Boom, done, moving on. The show immediately made room for some radical reinvention, and it fully seized on that opportunity.
The first five episodes of the season feel something like a prologue to the rest of it, and not entirely because of how they were aired. The next two episodes––”Same Old World” and “Barn Mates”––deal with the proper introduction of Lapis to Steven’s immediate, er, universe. These episodes settle Lapis and Peridot into a new status quo. By moving them to the barn, the show makes them narratively accessible without forcing them into storylines where they really don’t have a place. The prologue ends with “Hit The Diamond,” an episode which sets up the climax of the season and establishes Homeworld soldiers as a new ever-present danger for our heroes.
One of season three’s most interesting decisions is its recurring revisitation of season one. A few notable episodes are directly followed up from an evolved perspective. “Island Adventure” and the ongoing push-pull of Lars and Sadie is further iterated on in “The New Lars;” “Monster Buddies” gets a direct sequel with “Monster Reunion,” which goes deeper into the mechanics of gem corruption to heartbreaking effect; Stevonnie gets a rematch with their nemesis Kevin from “Alone Together” in “Beach City Drift;” Pearl’s unrequited love for Rose as introduced in “Rose’s Scabbard,” along with her complicated relationship with Greg, gets a full-blown musical episode devoted to it with “Mr. Greg.” The show draws a line back to these earlier episodes as a way of showing off its development and maturation.
In some cases it even seems like the show is bragging about what it can now get away with. As explicit as it was about Pearl’s feelings for Rose in the past, there was always a thin veneer of plausible deniability, presumably to protect the network from homophobic boycotts and letter-writing campaigns. When those failed to materialize, Cartoon Network let Steven Universe off the leash. Pearl doesn’t just say that she loved Rose, she sings it. Stevonnie is specifically referred to as “they,” as is new non-binary addition Smoky Quartz. The show’s radical attitudes towards sexuality and gender don’t have to conceal their radicality anymore. This makes season three feel like the season where Steven Universe finally grew into itself.
But it’s not content with simply outpacing the rest of its medium. Season three sees Steven Universe directly interrogate some of its most fundamental ideals. The double-length 100th episode, “Bismuth,” is the show at its darkest and heaviest. Even before the third-act turn, an overriding sense of dread hangs over the nominally joyous proceedings. Bismuth (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba), a Crystal Gem long thought dead, is discovered in the pocket dimension inside Lion’s mane. Garnet and Pearl are thrilled to see their friend again, and Amethyst is won over by Bismuth’s upgrade to her whip. Even when Bismuth appears as tender and open-hearted as anyone else in the cast, the episode insists on a stomach-churning foreboding. The slightly sinister music is a nice touch, but this episode is all about the editing. The 22-minute runtime allows the show to use the form to a fuller extent than it typically can. Cuts are a little more sudden and jarring, contrasting with what seems like more breathing room pace-wise. The episode will cut on certain actions or movements to accentuate their essential wrongness within the show’s framework, even if it doesn’t outwardly depict them that way. Two post-commercial bumpers show Bismuth as a core member of the group, trying to convince you that she fits right in, even as it subtly implies that she doesn’t.
Several times throughout, Bismuth triumphantly shouts that iconic refrain which begins every single episode: “We are the Crystal Gems!” But she’s always twisting it towards herself rather than joining in, wrenching it away from the rest of the cast and into darker territory. It culminates with her saying it before her mock-execution of a Homeworld gem with the Breaking Point, the first weapon we’ve seen on the show that is capable of killing gems rather than simply destroying their physical forms. The phrase, which has always been a positive statement of purpose, becomes the rallying cry for a violent extremist. Our core beliefs regarding what the Crystal Gems are supposed to stand for fall away, and Steven is forced to make a violent decision of his own. Bismuth is the first sentient gem that Steven has poofed, and her defeat is a profound pivot for the show. Steven was backed into a corner and forced to state a rule which had previously been unwritten: Shattering gems––killing gems––is wrong. He’s speaking both in his voice and in his mother’s, who had the same fight with Bismuth thousands of years ago.
And then, a few episodes later, things are turned upside-down all over again when it’s revealed that Rose herself shattered Pink Diamond, one of the gem matriarchs. In the season finale, “Bubbled,” Steven is trapped with a Ruby soldier who saw it happen. The Ruby tries to kill Steven in retaliation, thinking as most Homeworld gems have that Steven is literally his mother. Not only did Rose commit murder, rendering Steven’s poofing of Bismuth meaningless, but the effects of that murder are still felt after thousands of years. “She didn’t always do what was best for herself,” Garnet explains, “but she always did what was best for Earth.” Steven, dejected and beaten, responds, “Thanks for telling me.” And then, having solemnly upended our entire understanding of the lore of the show, season three ends.
That’s the meat of the season, but there’s too much else going on to discuss it all in one post. There’s a great arc of episodes tackling Amethyst’s insecurity and self-doubt, culminating in her and Steven’s fusion into Smoky Quartz. There’s a great episode called “Alone at Sea” that focuses on the emotionally abusive relationship between Lapis and Jasper. Jasper saying, “I can change! It’ll be different this time!” was particularly eyebrow-raising. “Restaurant Wars” was my favorite of the Beach City episodes. I liked spending time with those characters again after so much time spent holed away in the barn last season.
Not every episode took the show into darker territory, but they’re all much denser than the show has ever been. Season three dove as deep into the show’s primary characters as it did into its secondary and even tertiary ones. The show got richer and more complex with every new episode. This is the part where I would say that I’m excited to see where things go in season four, but season four started just one day after season three ended, because Cartoon Network is run by benevolent lunatics. The ride never ends with Steven Universe. I hope, if you haven’t already, that you’ll hop on board.
Featured Image: Cartoon Network