Here comes a thought: Mental health concepts in ‘Steven Universe’s’ climactic series finale

Steven Universe (Miranda Blackgoat @Mirandablackgoat / Courtesy)

Steven Universe has officially ended, but the concepts and lessons imparted remain.

In terms of word association, the term finale carries with it some very clear and distinct connotation. When used in regard to music or film, finale signifies that whatever preceded the climax has come to its ceremonious end; and as is more commonly seen in television programming, the word implies that the time to move on has arrived.

To some degree, finale denotes the irrevocable decision to end the relationship established between viewer and storyteller.

As a result, the realm of television programming tends to throw the term finale around with varying degrees of indifference, usually as a result of financial loss, low ratings/viewership or poor critical review. Despite the various hurdles that a television series must overcome in order to maintain viability in the eyes of studio executives; on occasion a series arrives that far exceeds initial studio expectations and in turn thoroughly ingrains itself into the hearts and minds of its viewership.

Through the combination of various elements such as science fiction, action adventure, comedy and its unique take on mental health issues through the format of a children’s cartoon; Steven Universe has achieved a considerable accomplishment that is seldom seen in cartoons. Show-runner Rebecca Sugar’s usage of thoughtful, memorable character development and emphasis on complex concepts such as acceptance and understanding make saying goodbye to Beach City difficult and yet, somehow deeply uplifting.

For the uninitiated, Steven Universe is a coming of age story rife with elements commonly found in cartoons of the adventure genre. There is a hero, there is a villain and along the way adventures are had and discoveries are made. The main difference between Steven Universe and other cartoons lies in the execution of various contemporary themes such as self-identity, acceptance and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma and PTSD.

There are real, palpable issues presented in Steven Universe among the varied cast of characters and it helps to establish one of the core facets of Steven Universe. Everyone is different, everyone has issues and everyone deserves acceptance and validation. If the GLAAD Media Award is any indication, Steven Universe masterfully handles it’s treatment of mental health, gender identity and sexuality in a way that is wholesome and deserving of it’s enthusiastic LGBTQ+ fanbase.

“Steven Universe opts to use the language and emotions of mental health struggles without directly alluding to them in a way that makes a substantial impact without directly alienating those who would be negatively affected by more direct depictions of things like trauma,” says Hazel Mariah, a fan of the series. “The deliberate abstraction makes the concepts more widely applicable to a breadth of people with unique experiences.”

Through the span of five seasons, a spin-off show as well as a podcast, comic series and accompanying video game series, the story of Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems is told. While generally comical, the story captivated audiences with it’s portrayal of adolescence and relevant themes. As the show progressed and characters were developed, relationships were built and strained, where coping mechanisms were explored, all the while keeping in tune with it’s science fiction setting.

While the series had always exercised extreme caution with it’s representations of mental health issues, it wouldn’t be the recent limited series finale Steven Universe Future, that the portrayal of depression, apathy and PTSD would be brought to the forefront. In the interest of remaining spoiler free, (you’re welcome) the series finale of Steven Universe Future revels in themes expressed in the tried and true formula that came to define it’s vision. Love yourself and who you are and be understanding of what makes everyone different.