By Mark Laherty
In her well-known essay about the alleged genre of hopepunk, Alexandra Rowland compares it to the genre of ‘noblebright,’ which she says is “about goodness and truth and vanquishing evil forever, about a core of goodness in humanity… in noblebright, when we overthrow the dark lord the world is saved and our work is done. Equilibrium and serenity return to the land.” But in the real world, she continues, “There’s no such thing as winning forever. Evil cannot be vanquished, only beaten back for a day or two, and then it trickles back in, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam.”
So. Steven Universe.
‘Change Your Mind’ is a 45-minute special written and storyboarded by pretty much every current SU writer. On Homeworld, Steven and his friends confront the three other Diamonds and try to convince them to change their ways.
This episode feels like the end of the show even though there’s a movie and at least one more season confirmed. I don’t mean this in an oblique sense, in the way that I will occasionally corner someone at a party and ramble on about how Skyfall should have been the last James Bond film or that ‘The Final Problem’ accidentally does too good a job of killing Sherlock. I mean this in a more obvious sense: the plot seems to be finished. There are a ton of call-backs that, in a weird moment of cognitive dissonance, push you toward reading this as the end of the show even if you know it’s not.
This episode contains a lot of punching and jumping around, which is a problem for a show that was never at its best during action scenes. Most of the battling here is functional and some of it inspires the kind of awe and wonder a climax like this should but there are several moments where the choreography feels stilted and lacking in ambition. Character moments tend to interrupt the action rather than always being woven in.
A great example of this is a bit where Steven dives down a chasm to save the other Crystal Gems, who are poofed and haven’t reformed. The freefalling is a great idea and recalls the similar cool part of Iron Man 3. But, it doesn’t work as well as it could because it commits the cardinal sin of this kind of action scene: there’s no sense of where anything is in relation to anything else. When Steven stops falling straight down and instead rides a pipe diagonally, he somehow catches up with the falling gems. This isn’t nit-picking; if we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t understand the danger. We just understand that we’re supposed to feel tense because this is the sort of scene that’s supposed to make you feel tense.
The animation, on the other hand, is perhaps the show’s best. Some may gripe about previous bad trends like visual inconsistencies and the way the heights jump about; that’s valid to a degree. But, it’s difficult to argue with the spectacle of White Diamond’s head-shaped craft. Recall that every frame of the show, though coloured digitally, is drawn by hand. Some movements of the head-craft are smooth enough that they seem like they were rendered in 3D. Meanwhile, Aivi Tran and Steven ‘Surasshu’ Velema’s score is putting its nose to the grindstone. The motif-heavy synth music has always had a strong sense of narrative, so this story has given them the opportunity to shine and deliver their best, most satisfying work. The result is music that will reward careful, sustained attention.
Another aspect in which this feels like a finale is that it rapidly crams in lots of costume changes. Much attention has been given to the three Crystal Gems’ new outfits but the best one, obviously, is Peridot. Her goofy new visor is extra in a way that seems to be a shout-out to the classic anime Gurren Lagann; this show, after all, has always been saturated in that kind of influence. It feels like the team are trying to cram in every idea they had left over, even if the plot has to pause to accommodate them. This is most obvious when we’re introduced to a whole host of new fusions all in one go, just to work through the combinations that haven’t been done yet. Rainbow Quartz 2.0 is a hugely entertaining delight comparable to Sardonyx while Sunstone is a fun, gentle parody of shows aimed at a younger demographic. We also finally meet Obsidian, i.e. the four main characters fused together. She’s legitimately a bit scary, a proper abomination, and therefore the most valid character to have a crush on.
The consumer narrative around this episode tends towards ‘Steven Universe has a complex message about acceptance’ or ‘I cried seven different times.’ So, overwhelmingly positive. More niche subsections of the social internet have interrogated the show’s politics, with some arguing in better faith than others. For me, the episode’s apparently inappropriate finality and its politics overlap because, while this is a good episode that functions as a finale, the show has a moral obligation to not end on this note.
Let me refer to Rowland some more. She writes about how noblebright stories which show a happy ending after the defeat of the villain are inaccurate to the real world because, in the real world, there is no end. For hopepunk, “the fight itself is the point. It’s not about glory or noble deeds; it’s not about an end result because there is no end.” So, hopepunk is about continuously, with righteous anger and obstinacy, fighting for justice.
Now, there are a good few qualifications to make here. One is that righteous anger isn’t Steven Universe’s aesthetic. That’s okay; you obviously don’t need to be angry to do good things. It’s also worth noting that a lot of advocates of hopepunk insist that there’s more to the idea than Rowland’s essay, although I’m unclear on what more there is. Also-also, I have to say that hopepunk isn’t so much a genre as it is a set of loosely defined opinions since genre is about audience expectations and nobody can agree what the heck hopepunk even is.
Having said all that, I’ll submit that Steven Universe here offers us a story where the villains, who are explicitly colonialists and arguably fascists, just stop doing the bad thing, apparently forever, so the entire evil system that has been the driving force of conflict within the show has now stopped, apparently forever. Obviously, finales usually show heroes triumphing over villains, but it’s a bit rich to depict, through barely a glaze of metaphor, the end of colonialism. This doesn’t ring completely true in the way that Thor: Ragnarok did; there’s no sense that there’s more work to be done, another journey to embark upon (for the seven minutes until a purple man murders everyone).
So, the fact that we know a movie and another season is in the works is Good, Actually. Having such an apparently final episode not be the end of all the problems in the story sends a good message, regardless of whether it’s an intentional one: winning a battle does not mean that everything will be okay forever. This is a grim idea, but it feels like the show is gearing up toward expressing another adult problem in a way that kids can understand without feeling overwhelmed because it’s all from Steven’s point of view. That, after all, has been the show’s entire modus operandi since Day One.
One such adult topic is the use of violence in political activism. In previous reviews, I fear I’ve flown a bit too close to the ‘Why doesn’t this family cartoon endorse murder?’ sun. So, let’s take a step back: Steven Universe isn’t totally pacifist. Much of this episode is made up of punching bad guys. When Bismuth, the in-universe representative of crowbar-wielding Marxists (this show is quite something, isn’t it?), announces that she “always wanted to upper-cut an upper crust,” we’re meant to agree with her. It’s just that we understand that after the fight, Steven wants everyone to sit down and talk. To be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as it could be; it counts for a lot that it’s coming from the mouths of in-universe oppressed folks written by LGBT+ folks and POC rather than some sermonising tone-policer fresh from The New York Times. But, it’s not to everyone’s taste.
In a way, it’s difficult to talk about how this episode deals with power structures because it seems intent on only addressing them through the prism of the abusive family dynamics between the Diamonds. When Steven declared in ‘Familiar’ that fixing the family would fix everything, the show apparently expected us to agree with him; they even trot out the same phrasing again. To be clear, ‘abusive family dynamics’ isn’t an exaggeration. The show is preoccupied with ideas of abuse. All the details chosen and emphasised are consistently telling. Blue Diamond, the leader of an empire, is redeemed mainly because she realises she used to mistreat Pink Diamond. To offer a defence, whatever else you might say about this decision, it’s not ‘woobifying’ Blue because the current cultural place of that TV Tropes term is such that it indicates self-indulgence and incoherence that isn’t present here.
By comparison, Yellow’s redemption prioritises ideas about diversity in a scene that runs along the lines of ‘not everything has to be perfect’ that ties that ‘perfectionistic’ impulse (i.e. The Racism) to how they treated Pink Diamond. Now we have more of the picture, we can see that Pink Diamond’s backstory is metaphor-speak for a young LGBT+ person who was mistreated by their family and ran away. What lands less well is Yellow’s distress at being burned out from being made to invade and colonise so many planets. Crack out the universe’s smallest violin.
I’d also like to raise a reading of the show which interprets Steven as a kind of trans allegory; everyone thinks he’s his mom and lots of characters keep calling him Rose. This is especially applicable in this episode, which barely makes it a few minutes before cracking out disorienting, hard-hitting visuals about Steven’s connection to Rose. All of this comes to a head in a frankly astonishing and beautiful final confrontation.
While writing this review, I jokingly ran a poll on Twitter about whether this episode was A) iconic, B) valid, or C) problematic. Maybe you’re one of the people who cried seven times and found this episode to be a perfect work of escapism. Maybe this show still holds an unparalleled power to make you smile and you want it to continue because that’s what you need nowadays. After all, showrunner Rebecca Sugar said in a recent AMA that she originally wanted the show to be a sort of ‘reverse escapism’ that focused on political issues but that she’s since taken a more favourable view of escapism. Equally, you might think that it’s a strong show with a lot to love hindered by significant political failings. So, is it iconic, valid, or problematic?