I started watching the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe a few weeks ago, and I have consistently liked it. A little more than half way into the current episode count, I watched episode 38, “The Test.” Something amazing happened: I cried. An 11 minute cartoon network program made me cry. This episode turned a show about a half-human/half-alien superhero from a boy learning to develop his powers from his super powered mentors into a deep series reflecting our own abilities, despite whatever superpowers or skills we might have.
To explain further background on Steven Universe: there are four Crystal Gems (other-worldly superheroes who always save the day): Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven. Steven’s mother was a Gem. She married a human, and sacrificed her life to give birth to Steven. Steven oftentimes feels like the inferior Gem, since he has not fully developed his powers and knew little about the Gems. Full episode spoiler to follow.
In “The Test,” Steven ask the other Gems to give him a test, so he can prove that he is a worthy Gem. They agree and create a Legend of Zelda-esque dungeon for him to transverse, complete with self-locking barred doors upon entry.
Steven gets through the majority of the dungeon containing a rolling boulder and a music puzzle, but stumbles at the final section. A spiked block from the ceiling is about to hit him, but it suddenly stops. Steven soon realizes that all the “traps” set up by the Gems could never hurt him in the first place.
Steven is frustrated that the Gems cannot give him a real challenge. Overhearing them, Garnet says to the other two, “Steven is not just a Gem. There has never been anyone or anything like Steven. We don’t know what he needs.”
We learn that the Gems are just as confused and frustrated as Steven is, even though they are three of the most powerful beings in the universe. Steven then completes the course and walks through the final door to be greeted with a “Congratulations!” from the Gems. First off, this is an absolutely amazing allusion to the final episode of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion in which the protagonist, Shinji, is congratulated for all his accomplishments. The whole scene feels artificial, forced and painful (and all this most likely takes place in Shinji’s head). Darn you, Evangelion, darn you. Anyway, this brief scene in the Steven Universe episode feels the same: the celebrations are clearly painful and forced, since Steven didn’t actually accomplish anything in the dungeon, since it was all fake.
Instead of complaining to the Gems and asking for a real challenge, Steven describes how difficult and awesome the dungeon was. This is a beautiful moment; as Steven is talking, Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are smiling, proud of how far Steven has come, and proud that all of them can accept their limitations. The other Gems really don’t know what to do for Steven; he must learn his own way, because after all, he is completely unique.
Before this episode, I really enjoyed watching Steven Universe, but now I truly understand it. Also, I wrote this review the second I finished the episode; very rarely does something strike me with such brilliance so quickly. I’m looking froward to more of the Gems’ adventures, but more importantly, how they develop as individuals.