Season four of Steven Universe was not welcomed with universal acclaim during its initial run. While both the Bombs and select episodes like “Mindful Education” were lauded right out of the gate, anyone who peruses the show’s subreddit would’ve seen criticism lobbed against the season for the abundance of Beach City residents episodes and the lack of any Homeworld threat to propel the narrative arc forward for longer than a five episode stretch. And while I do agree that the disparity in quality between the human and gem episodes was an issue, in hindsight the brilliance of that structure has shown itself.
As I’ve previously noted, season four lacked any type of threat from the Homeworld Gems that persisted across multiple episodes, giving the series a tangible goal to strive for throughout a size-able portion of the season. We didn’t have The Cluster or Jasper this time around, and outside of the Bombs, gems foreign to the Crystal Gems were all but absent sans Navy and that one corrupted gem from the premiere. This is not to be confused with the season not containing a story arc however, as season four does feature one, it’s just rooted in character drama than a conventional conflict. I feel many have pegged the drama as Steven processing his feelings on his mother and while Rose is certainly the catalyst to his internal struggles, I feel like it is misattributed. I propose that season four is all about Steven struggling with his own identity, with the conflicting sides of his nature being represented through his parents, and all this is further supported by the season’s structure.
Still with Rose Quartz being the biggest instigator it only makes sense to begin with her. Season three’s penultimate episode “Back to the Moon” revealed to Steven that Rose was responsible for shattering Pink Diamond, a fact that’s in direct contrast with Steven’s preconceived notions of his mother. Despite how gracefully Garnet explained the situation in “Bubbled” there was no chance it was capable of swaying Steven back to the idealistic vision he once held of Rose, especially not in light of his interactions with Gems like Bismuth, Eyeball, and Jasper. This exhibits itself first in “Mindful Education”, while Steven’s guilt over being able to save the those three is certainly palpable, the most interesting element here is the ties all three have with Rose, each a result of her past. This is visually represented in the episode two, as the butterflies comprising them break up and reform as Rose. The effect on Steven is more pronounced at the start of the “Out of this World” arc, as the perpetual mystery surrounding his mother’s past causes Steven to rush forward disregarding the warnings from Garnet, resulting in his father getting captured by Blue Diamond. Finally the series delves fully into Steven’s emotional issues with his mother in “Storm in the Room”. We witness him contemplating his own notions of who his mother was, the heavenly idealistic one that speaks about the beauty featured in every sport or the war criminal who simply had Steven as a way to avoid dealing with all her mistakes? This episode doesn’t fully resolve Steven’s issues but it does leave him in a better state, as he comes out of it positive in the knowledge that Rose meant what she said in her video (one of the most clever things about that resolution is that it’s rooted in the only direct information he’s gotten from his mother). This leads us to “Lion 4: Alternate Ending”, where is focus has now shifted into trying to extrapolate any further meaning from the aforementioned video. After all, this is the only form of information he received directly from the source, and with the grandeur of her status, it’s only makes sense for him to assume there was some greater purpose to his existence. As he soon discovers, there wasn’t any, she just wanted him to be him.
While this season has constantly been focusing on Steven’s problems with his mother; it simultaneously has also been emphasizing the warmth of the relationship with father. Sans “Mindful Education” which used Connie as Steven’s rock, Greg has been featured as a pillar of support in all the previously discussed episodes. Not only was there that heartwarming conversation at the beginning of “Steven’s Dream” between the two but when the Crystal Gems refused to take Steven to the palanquin, it’s Greg (and Andy, which I’ll get back to later) that lends a helping hand. In fact, the only reason who got captured was because he was trying to handle the situation with Blue Diamond and her Pearl without getting Steven involved. The whole “Out of this World” arc is centered around the goal of saving Greg, and moments like Steven’s breakdown in “Adventures of Light Distortion” where he just sobs about wanting his dad back just highlights how important his father is to him. In “Storm in the Room”, his role is noticeable smaller but nevertheless important, only appearing the end to provide comfort to Steven when he didn’t even know he needed it. Finally, “Lion 4: Alternate Ending” features Greg as a guiding light. When Steven obsessively tries to discern meaning in a message that isn’t there, it’s Greg who manages to clarify everything. The consistent growth in Greg’s relationship with Steven in conjunction with Steven’s emotional development on Rose is certainly no accident.
Like it says in the title, this season is all about the dichotomy of Steven Universe, both the character and the show itself, with Rose Quartz representing the gem side and Greg Universe representing the human side. The gem side is constantly fueled with mystery, danger, and emotional turmoil, whereas the human side is far more relaxing. That of course is not to imply that there exists no struggles for the residents of Beach City but in pales in comparison to the threat Homeworld presents to their livelihood. And there are two clever ways that structure of the season manages to help highlight these two distinct sides of Steven’s life, and thus the show itself. My personal biggest complaint about the season while watching it was the disconnect between Beach City Resident episodes and Gems episodes, that there was so little crossover between the two sides that it actively detracted from the experience of watching them. However in hindsight I think this was intentional in order to best display the different sides of Steven’s life. Now, each of these episodes had their own individual goals to accomplish as well but looking over the season as a whole, it’s hard not to recognize the disparity in content between the high stakes zoo rescue mission and a kid missing his summer friends or even just two friends wrapping up a hobby like wrestling (even though Amethyst is a Crystal Gem, the episode itself deals with daily life occurrences for the human cast of the individuals, the distinct sides of Steven refer more to the high stakes missions of the Crystal Gems more so than the actual species, just to clarify). Not only does segregation of these episodes types make the Aquamarine and Topaz arc all the more impactful but it easily compartmentalizes the episode types in the viewers mind. The fact that show many of the complaints were centered around a particular type of episode is proof enough, even if that reaction wasn’t intended, it’s undeniable that many picked up on episode distinctions.
And just to real quickly segue back into talking about Andy, it’s important to note that no friendly gem was introduced in season four, while several friendly humans were, in order to further contrast the different life-styles Steven has laid out in front of him. Now, that’s not to say that Blue Diamond didn’t have good intentions when she kidnapped Greg, from her perspective she absolutely did, but that doesn’t disregard that fact that her actions negatively affected Steven. Not only did the season not introduced any new friendly gems, but it went out of its way to flip the perception of one, Navy who relished in her revenge against Steven and company. Meanwhile, season four introduces Mr. Frowney, Mystery Girl (who herself operates as a human parallel of Rose to Pearl), and Onion’s gang of friends, and while they were certainly mischievous, they did attempt to make Steven feel incorporated into their events. Most importantly, was the introduction of Andy, who actually manages to lend a hand in “Steven’s Dream”.
Which brings me back to the second clever trick they used in the season’s structure, how both the StevenBomb’s used individual episodes to highlight the two sides of the coin. In “Out of this World” it was in the first two episodes, in both “Steven’s Dream” and “Adventures in Light Distortion” Steven’s obsession over one of his parents leads to complications. In “Steven’s Dream” his desire to learn about the mysteries surrounding Rose lead to his father getting kidnapped, and his desire in save him almost costs them a chance to do so in “Adventures in Light Distortion”. This provides a nice little parallel to the two-part premiere of that StevenBomb, but the situation is later flipped in the season’s second StevenBomb, which concludes with the last two episodes being used, this time with Greg getting the first one.
However, “Are You My Dad?” and “I Am My Mom” don’t operate the same way, neither episode highlight a particular side of the spectrum because these episodes instead fuses the two. After such a long period of time of keeping the two sides separated (far longer than season four), they’ve finally intersect once again, just in time as Steven has recently accepted his position as Rose’s kid. And though I prefer “Are You My Dad?”, it’s actually “I Am My Mom” that contains all the pertinent information, as it’s not to difficult to parse out the meaning behind the titles in context of the series overarching theme. I find perhaps the most fascinating element here is the reveal that Steven’s list in “Marble Madness” is what lead to this whole event happening. Specifically because prior to this, all of Steven’s main struggles came as a result of Rose Quartz’s history. As I’ve previously mentioned, “Mindful Education” reflected this, Bismuth, Jasper, and Eyeball were all heavily influenced by Rose Quartz to the point where they all had trouble distinguishing Steven as a separate entity (albeit Steven kinda forced that on Eyeball). This time, Steven’s actions have caused the issue that threatens to disrupt the life of those he holds near and dear, which leads him to make his stance clear, “I’m not my dad. I’m my mom. I’m Rose Quartz!”
Like I said in my review of the episode, that reads as a declaration of purpose. This season’s main thread has been entrenched in Steven’s identity, and how that is shaped by his relationships with his parents. The season focused on him coming to terms with his feelings on his mother, eventually settling on a healthy perspective thanks to his father’s help. As the two sides collided, while I wouldn’t say his concerns are fully resolved, Steven still has made peace with Rose Quartz, enough to realize that she wouldn’t have wanted him to sacrifice himself like he does at the end of the season. Steven has made his choice, and the journey to get there was too bumpy at the time to truly appreciate the ride at the time. But looking back from the destination, it’s far easier to admire the view.