Steven Universe
Created by Rebecca Sugar
“Mirror Gem” Written and Storyboarded by Raven M. Molisee and Paul Villeco
“Ocean Gem” Written and Storyboarded by Jeff Liu and Joe Johnston
Cartoon Network

“That little boy is in big trouble,” warns Garnet, leader of the Crystal Gems, when Steven Universe disobeys a direct order. But her words are truer than she knows, for Steven’s universe is about to become larger and more dangerous than he ever expected.

“Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem” comprise the half-hour Steven Universe special that aired on Sept. 25 and mark the halfway point in the show’s first season. Created by Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe stars the eponymous Steven, a rambunctious and optimistic boy who is the youngest of the mystical warriors known as the Crystal Gems. Along with Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, Steven protects the planet from the strange monsters that threaten it, all while trying to unlock the mysterious power of the gem he inherited from his mother, the departed Rose Quartz.

The half-hour special begins with Pearl gifting Steven with a magic mirror that can show him the history of the Crystal Gems; unfortunately the blue gem embedded in the back of the mirror is cracked, impairing its power. The mirror begins to communicate with Steven, who reacts with joy and considers it a new friend. The Crystal Gems are considerably less thrilled by the living mirror, and try to take from it from Steven, but he flees and removes its gem. Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst were right to be alarmed–the gem in the mirror is another Crystal Gem, a woman named Lapis Lazuli, and she blames the other Gems for her continued imprisonment.

And then, she steals the ocean.

This is a major, game-changing event in the show’s developing mythology. Steven Universe is excellent at the slow build, gradually revealing information about the Crystal Gems and their magical missions rather than bogging the show down with complicated exposition. The Crystal Gems are otherwordly beings thousands of years old, with their own culture and temples. Along with Steven, the audience discovers ancient Gem battlefields and shrines in a state of beautiful, but crumbling decay, suggesting all along that there were once more than four Crystal Gems, but something happened to the rest of their kind. I previously wondered if there had been an Avatar: The Last Airbender-style massacre of Gems pre-series, but the revelations in “Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem” paint a different, but still compelling, picture.

What sets Steven Universe apart from other fantasy action-adventure shows is its notable lack of villains. The Crystal Gems routinely fight monsters like an enormous pufferfish or acid-spewing “centipeedles,” but these enemies aren’t evil so much as simply destructive. It’s easy to compare Steven Universe to Adventure Time, which Rebecca Sugar worked on previously, and which features a number of mustache-twirling evil wizards and sorcerers, but this show excludes those types of characters. The closest thing to traditional villains have been the Crystal Gems themselves: Sugilite, a Gem Fusion of Garnet and Amethyst whose unrestrained power led to mental instability, and even Steven (even Stevens?), who gets into a fight with himself via time-travel shenanigans. The lack of a cut-and-dry Good vs. Evil storyline adds to Steven Universe’s depth and originality–even Lapis Lazuli, the greatest threat Steven’s ever faced, isn’t really a monster. She’s angry and hurt and wants desperately to go home. (And where is the Crystal Gems’ real home? Here’s a hint: they all wear clothing emblazoned with a star.)

steven universe, lapis lazuli

“Ocean Gem” features a variety of gorgeous set pieces and action scenes, including Lapis Lazuli’s tower made of seawater and The Crystal Gems fighting their own mirror images. (Once again, they fight themselves.) The animation is truly beautiful here, and Steven Universe is one of the best-looking shows on the Cartoon Network. I’ve previously raved about Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, the show’s female leads, and characterization is both sharp and subtle as Lapis Lazuli’s appearance reveals new facets to the Gems (sorry) and their relationships with Steven. (The usually strong and silent Garnet unexpectedly gets the best sight gag of the episode.) The show also has a wonderful supporting cast, including Steven’s father Greg, his best friend Connie, and–my personal favorite–Mayor Dewey (voiced by MSt3K-creator Joel Hodgson). Steven lives in a magical world, but more than any of the other Gems, he has real connections to the ordinary people who live in it. Only 26 episodes in, the setting of Beach City already feels like a real, populated town, reminiscent of the early years of The Simpsons.

But Steven is the gem who shines the brightest. Among all the young boy protagonists currently leading animated adventure shows, Steven feels unique because he’s not a fighter. There’s plenty of action in the show, but the physical powerhouses are the female Crystal Gems, while Steven is instead developing powers as a healer. Steven Universe‘s reversal of the usual fantasy gender roles is subtle but refreshing. Steven wears a pink shirt, is visually associated with roses, has the power to heal, and his weapon–a shield–is defensive rather than offensive. These qualities are rare to find in a male hero; for example, compare Steven to Finn from Adventure Time, who wears blue and constantly wields a sword. But the show never denigrates Steven or tells him to “stop acting like a girl.” The Gems are the Gems, and Steven is Steven. Their strengths are different, but equally valid–and it’s Steven’s ability to heal and act as a mediator between the Gems and Lapis Lazuli that saves the ocean.

Steven Universe‘s half-hour special is a dramatic turning point for the show, with major revelations as well as new mysteries. It also marks a new creative high for the show and features stunning animation and powerful characterization, making it a can’t-miss series for the Cartoon Network. Steven may be in big trouble, but the universe needs to “believe in Steven.”