Steven Universe – Season 3 Review
“Everybody always tells me how great Mom was. I just don’t feel like I can ever measure up to her.”
The decision to take the second half of what was going to be season two of Steven Universe and instead make it a separate season entirely was an odd one. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t alter the quality of the episodes contained in either of those seasons, but it does mean that, when viewed as independent storytelling blocks, neither season 2 nor season 3 feel quite like a cohesive whole. Season two clearly lacks a proper conclusion as it ends on a excellent but low key character-driven episode, and season three rushes out of the gate as it begins with a large-scale fight against Jasper and Lapis’ twisted fusion Malachite and the conclusion to the Cluster storyline that had been built up throughout season two. This awkward structuring of episodes means that, even though many of the episodes that compose this season are excellent, it is still necessary to hold the producers accountable for the flawed decision to break up what could have been a more united narrative. That being said, Steven Universe has only continued to get better, and, despite those structural problems, this most recent season is still the strongest entry yet.
As was mentioned before, the season hits the ground running as it attempts to handle significant developments with Lapis Lazuli, Peridot, and the Cluster storyline. The ultimate conclusions that are presented are satisfying, but they do feel like an odd starting point. The episodes that follow largely deal with the fallout from those events and attempt to transition our main characters back to Beach City. This early to mid section is the most uneven as it contains the sillier episodes of the season such as Hit the Diamond, which focuses on a baseball game between the Crystal Gems and a group of hostile Rubies, or Restaurant Wars, which focuses on a conflict between the Fryman family and the Pizzas. There aren’t any bad episodes (Restaurant Wars even had a legitimately funny joke involving my least favorite character, Ronaldo), but this subsection does contain the weakest episodes of the season. What leads me to say that it is uneven though, is that it also contains some comparatively strong entries including one of the best Steven Universe episodes to date in Mr. Greg, a tour de force musical episode that strikes at the heart of the tension between Pearl and Greg and does so in no uncertain terms. However, it isn’t until around episode 17 that the season starts feeling a bit more consistent as the focus returns to the subjects of Gem culture, the nature of the rebellion against Homeworld, and Jasper’s plans to defeat the Crystal Gems. Prior to this season, Jasper never had the opportunity to receive much characterization. The finale of season one painted her as the militaristic face of Homeworld, and, until this point, that was roughly the only quality she had going for her since she was relegated to being trapped alongside Lapis. Fortunately, the show takes the opportunity to expand her role and offer up small hints to the nature of her backstory. The season doesn’t end as climatically as the first season did, but it offers up a number of gripping hints that season four’s narrative will no doubt explore.
The character growth that occurs even among comparatively minor members of the cast continues to be one of the show’s most effective tools. As was mentioned before, Pearl’s uneasy relationship with Greg takes the spotlight in Mr. Greg, and Amethyst’s sense of inferiority becomes a recurring motif towards the end. Garnet previously had wonderful characterization in the season two episodes Keystone Motel and Log Date 7 15 2, so it’s unsurprising that she feels a little shortchanged here as she doesn’t have any episodes focusing specifically on her. However, the MVP for character exploration this season actually goes to Rose. By exploring the past through varying accounts, the show starts to explore some of the underlying flaws and issues that Steven’s mother faced. For so long, Rose Quartz was presented as a wise and morally unyielding paragon, so these glimpses of her shortcomings in episodes like Greg the Babysitter, Bismuth, and the season finale, Bubbled, serve to expand and humanize the character. Bismuth, in particular, deserves special attention as it focuses not on Rose’s conflict with Homeworld, but instead explores division that had existed within the Crystal Gems themselves via the introduction of its titular character, voiced impeccably by Orange it the New Black’s Uzo Aduba. The decision to start delving into the more troubled aspects of Rose’s past in order to illustrate the hard choices that she had to make reflects the transition that the show has been making as of late. Steven Universe, at its core, has always been a show about optimism, but it recognizes that optimism is most impressive when it comes in the face of hardship and tragedy.
Before I wrap up, a few Notes and Nitpicks:
- Uzo Aduba is actually one of two actors from Orange is the New Black to make a guest appearance this season. Natasha Lyonne voices a character that shows up in the third to last episode, Earthlings.
- Birdy compared Lapis’ deadpan interactions this season to my general demeanor. Given that she’s one of my favorite characters, I suppose I’ll take this as a compliment.
- Peridot continues to steal almost all of the scenes that she’s in. She even has some legitimately emotional scenes during her early interactions with Lapis.
- Steven gets a multitude of new powers this season as he gains the ability to alter his weight, manipulate the structure of his bubble, the ability to communicate telepathically with others through his dreams and displays clear signs of enhanced strength. The dream telepathy was first brought up in season two’s Chille Tid, but it is expanded on here as he is able to communicate with Kiki while she is sleeping and even takes control of Lars’ body.
- Stevonnie also gets two more appearances this season. I’m always elated to see the show making use of her, and it doesn’t hurt that she actually gets to be in a fight in one of those appearances.
- Best Episodes: Mr. Greg (s03e08) for providing a wonderful character moment for both Pearl and Greg as well as following up on a plotline that could have been disastrous if handled poorly, and Bismuth (s03e20 & s03e21) for exploring a no-win scenario while also introducing a fascinating new character.
- Worst Episodes: The New Lars (s03e10) and Restaurant Wars (s03e12) for just being pretty good. What can I say? This is a great season where even the worst episodes are enjoyable and worth watching.
Steven Universe continues to captivate with compelling and, at points, daring narrative choices. Despite some questionable decisions regarding the layout of seasons 2 and 3, Steven Universe consistently proves that Rebecca Sugar and company are the masters of emotional character-driven storytelling.