Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 31 through August 6 is "Bismuth," the 100th episode Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe.
Steven Universe began as a cute cartoon about an earnest kid who likes pizza and jingles and lives with his aunts — aliens called the Crystal Gems — near the beach. One hundred episodes later, the show has one of the most complex mythologies currently on television, not to mention some of its best and most selfless heroes.
Over the course of the 100 episodes of Steven Universe, creator Rebecca Sugar, who previously worked on Adventure Time, has found so many ways to blend heavy, adult themes with downright whimsy. It dives into issues like grief and sexual consent, but also delights in letting Steven extol the virtues of having a backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. The show’s also become far more serialized, with standalone adventures peppering a larger story about where Steven and his Crystal Gem family came from.
So it’s fitting that Steven Universe’s 100th episode was a combination of all of the above (not to mention that it also ran a full 22 minutes, instead of the usual 11 minutes.)
The episode — written and storyboarded by Lamar Abrams, Colin Howard, Jeff Liu, and Katie Mitroff — starts off as a joyful reunion when Steven meets a Crystal Gem named Bismuth who’s been trapped for thousands of years, voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba. It begins as a fun reunion between old friends, but eventually Bismuth’s ancient resentment reemerges, taking the episode’s themes into the startling kind of darkness that grips your guts and presses down on your bruising heart.
The story of the Crystal Gems spans thousands of fraught years
If you’re a newcomer to the show and are feeling confused, here’s some context.
The Crystal Gems are alien warriors who have been scattered to the winds after a civil war on Earth pitted them against each other about 10,000 years ago. Two of the Gems, Garnet (Estelle) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), stayed on Earth to protect the planet and hide out from their home world, which is still trying to take them out.
Fast forward to the present day, when they’ve been joined by adolescent Gem Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Steven (Zach Callison), the only known child of a human and Gem. Steven’s mother Rose Quartz died giving birth to him, and he’s been discovering her special Gem powers and personality traits within himself ever since.
Got it? Cool. Because now things are about to get complicated.
In "Bismuth," Steven finds Bismuth, who’s been tucked away as one of his mother’s belongings — Gems don’t die so much as sleep — and sets her free. Bismuth was a close friend of Garnet and Pearl’s, and hasn’t seen them for thousands of years. So when she does see them, she’s naturally excited, overwhelmed, and eager to get back to fighting the Diamonds who destroyed so many of her friends long ago.
Having seen all 100 episodes of Steven Universe, I knew there was a good chance "Bismuth" would take a devastating turn — and sure enough, the end of this episode is crushing.
Almost all of Steven’s powers and tools are defensive in nature, like the pink bubble he can cast around people when they need protecting. But Bismuth’s skill lies in forging weapons specifically designed for maximum efficiency, and tries to get Steven to embrace a particularly powerful weapon that could shatter the Gems — for good.
Even if you don’t know Steven — a deeply earnest and kind boy — all you need to know about his feelings about this request are in this one shot:
Steven grips his stomach, the spot where his mother’s gem lives, and imagines what it might feel like to shatter a Gem — or be shattered himself. He imagines tearing someone to pieces, rendering them broken beyond repair.
And so he looks up at Bismuth’s waiting face, and refuses.
Steven Universe is better than that.
Steven Universe is the joyful, selfless hero we need
Steven is the best hero a kid’s cartoon could ask for — or any show, really. His unwavering loyalty and enthusiasm makes him friends wherever he goes, and his deep reserves of empathy quickly turn those friends into family.
With "Bismuth," the show puts all of Steven’s noblest instincts on display in a way that doesn’t once feel like it’s preaching platitudes. Steven’s just unfailingly decent, extending his kindness and generosity to family, friends, and ruthless enemies alike. So when Bismuth tells him to go ahead and shatter her, we know he won’t.
"Even if we don’t agree," he cries, weapon pointed at her crystalline heart, "nobody deserves this!"
In large part thanks to Aduba and Callison’s incredibly nuanced voice performances, the standoff is gut-wrenching. But there’s never any doubt that Steven’s going to find a way to restrain Bismuth with tenderness, even though it’s harder, even though his heart is breaking.
Steven Universe — both the show and the character — is the embodiment of compassion. Steven may have bubble powers, the ability to float, and a majestic pet lion, but his greatest superpower is how much he cares.
In a world that often feels like it’s on the brink of swallowing itself up in confused anger and hatred, this technicolor series has given us a hero defined by his ability to love, no matter what.
If joy and pizza parties and some light to moderate emotional devastation is your jam, you can watch the first two seasons of Steven Universe on Hulu.