This week's Stevenbomb of new Steven Universe episodes dropped without a clever name alluding to its overarching theme. In a way, that was the perfect move, because things are changing in Beach City. For everyone.
Steven Universe's greatest strength has always been the care it puts into giving its sprawling cast of characters the chance to grow and develop organically. Over the past four seasons, the show's spent the bulk of its time exploring the Crystal Gems' weaknesses, strengths and personalities in almost exhaustive detail.
In these five episodes, however, the time has come show just how the humans of Beach City have been changed by their relationships to Steven, and how Steven's beginning to come into his own as a leader.
For the past couple of Steven Universe's story arcs, the stakes have been raised in a way that's pushed Steven to confront that fact that everyone's parents will lie to them at some point in their lives. In Steven's case, the deceptions at have mostly been ones of omission rather than dishonesty, and in Lion 4: Alternate Ending, he realises that discovering the truths that everyone else is concealing is the key to making sense of his place in the world.
Like all of the Lion Cinematic Universe episodes of the series, Lion 4 pairs Steven and Lion up for something of a non-sequitur mission that leads to Steven learning something about his mother, and by extension, himself. When Lion coughs up a strange pink key, Steven makes the logical assumption that it unlocks something of Rose Quartz's that she's hidden away somewhere on the planet. After realising that the key doesn't open anything located at any of Rose's typical old haunts, like her fountain, Steven begs Lion to take him to whatever lock the key fits into. Begrudgingly, Lion warps into the middle of a desert, and begin to run while Steven rides on his back, slowly dehydrating and admitting to himself that he feels the gems are hiding something from him about his destiny.
After hours running through what seems like nowhere, Steven and Lion come upon the door, which Steven opens only to find Rose's junkyard... and a tape labelled for someone named Nora. Back in Beach City, Steven confusedly confronts Greg about the tape, who gladly pops it into the VHS, revealing that it's a copy of the same video message Greg and Rose recorded for Steven before he was born. The key difference between this tape the Steven's, he notes, is that it was intended for someone named Nora, in the off chance that he'd been born a girl.
It's in that scene between Steven and Greg that Steven realises that regardless of whatever lies before him, neither Greg nor Rose had him with any specific plans in mind. When he tearfully admits that he's worried about figuring out what he was born for, Greg insists that all he and Rose ever wanted for him was to be himself. The episode closes with Rose's recording telling Nora (and Steven) that, in the future, should the gems look to them to lead, they should trust themselves — something that becomes the overall theme to the rest of the Stevenbomb.
The next couple of episodes, "Doug Out" and "The Good Lars", are notable for the conspicuous lack of gems other than Steven. In different ways, they both follow up on Rose's message to Steven asking him to lead those around him in their times of need. "Doug Out" sees Steven, Connie and Connie's dad investigating an after-hours break-in that Steven suspects was committed by some type of gem. "The Good Lars", by contrast, tells a much more straightforward story about Steven and Sadie helping Lars become comfortable enough in himself to admit to the Cool Kids that he likes baking.
Both episodes prominently feature Steven reaching out to his friends with a sort of mature advice that he hasn't really displayed up until this point. When Lars asks him about his newfound wisdom, Steven reasons that he began maturing "somewhere in between learning to summon my shield and finding out my mum was a war criminal". Both episodes also end on dark notes as various people are snatched up by the two new Homeworld Gems introduced in the Stevenbomb's fourth episode.
"Are You My Dad?" is the sort of Steven Universe episode that sends the fandom into a collective tizzy. Its title alone sums up both the whimsy and danger that we've come to associate with Homeworld, and alludes again to Steven's growing maturity. After Steven realises that Lars, Sadie, Jamie the Mailman and Onion have all gone missing, he and Connie set out to investigate for clues. He then meets Aquamarine, a Homeworld gem with a list of humans she and her Topaz escort have been sent to collect.
Initially, Steven's confused when she asks if he's her dad, but as the episode unfolds, we learn that Aquamarine isn't looking for her dad, she's looking for My Dad, a name she assumes belongs to a human. While Aquamarine is miffed that the kids don't have My Dad, she's delighted to discover that she's found a Connie, and the reality sets in that the Homeworld gems are collecting humans.
All of this leads to the Crystal Gems — led by Steven — squaring off against Aquamarine and Topaz in "I Am My Mom", an episode where Steven comes to grips with the fact that he's the reason that all of this is happening. In four seasons of Steven Universe, it's always felt as if Steven and the gems were merely dealing with the mess left behind in the wake of the gem war on Earth, and occasionally interacting with meddlers from Homeworld like Peridot, Lapis and Jasper.
In "I Am My Mom", though, Steven finally begins to see himself as a being a beacon for the Earth's newest troubles and, in a move of bravery, decides to accept his responsibility by offering himself up to Aquamarine in exchange for his friends' safety. Steven understands that Homeworld's obsession with him has nothing to do with who he is as a person and everything to do with his mother's actions, but rather than attempting to reason with the Homeworld gems, he gives himself up.
Individually, this Stevenbomb's five episodes stand as a testament to how much Steven Universe's tertiary characters have grown as people since we first met them. The established canon for Lars, Sadie, Connie and the others is so strong at this point that no one episode needs to spend too much time explaining what they're thinking and the stories as a whole feel stronger and more confident as a result.
As a whole, though, the Stevenbomb is signalling something a bit more complicated for both Steven Universe the show and Steven Universe the person: It's time to grow up. Part of what's made Steven Universe so fun for the past four seasons has been its heady mix of lighthearted fun and occasional brushes with mortal danger. By and large, the threats Steven and the gems have faced have always been presented as nigh-insurmountable before inevitably being overcome. It's like the theme song says — the gems have always found a way.
But Steven Universe is beginning to address the realities of the universe that it's built. It's forcing Steven to acknowledge that his and the gems' successes on Earth are, in no small part, due to Homeworld never really trying to actually destroy them. Aquamarine explicitly says that the Diamonds aren't interested in the Crystal Gems but, in taking stock of the situation, Steven understands that it's only a matter of time before they realise who he is and come to Earth to find him.
It's a dark realisation to come to, but it's a realistic one. Steven ultimately makes the sort of choice that you'd expect from a leader, a choice with consequences he'll have to deal with when Steven Universe returns in the US at the end of this month.