a long talk

Rebecca Sugar Says Good-bye to Steven Universe

The trailblazing showrunner on the Future finale, therapy, and the dark side of selflessness.

Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network
Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

Six years after it premiered, Steven Universe is leaving the world of television much better than it found it. Beyond its catchy music, warm, compelling characters, and intricate plotting, the Cartoon Network series has told an important story about one of the biggest themes in children’s media: self-worth.

At the beginning of the series, Steven was uncertain about his identity and keenly aware of the ways in which everyone around him misses his deceased mother, Rose Quartz. Though Steven eventually came into his own, the epilogue miniseries Steven Universe Future, which aired its final episode on Friday night, answers a question rarely asked in children’s media: What happens after you win? In the Future finale, Steven finally comes to terms with himself and his lack of direction after saving the world. But what next? To find out, I spoke with Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar to talk about the series’ ending, taking a step back from the spotlight, and how she and her team plotted out all those interplanetary trips, fusions, and epiphanies in a meticulous chart, debuted here before its publication in the upcoming art book Steven Universe: End of an Era.

The final episodes deal with a lot of serious material, even more than usual. Was that an intentional choice as you planned out Future?
We didn’t want to shy away from the difficulty of the situation. Steven had always added a lot of levity to everything, but he had been doing that very consciously and aggressively, trying to make something positive out of a very negative situation. He’s not doing that anymore. He just doesn’t have the bandwidth.

It’s not repudiating Steven, exactly, but softly pointing out that a lot of his good qualities aren’t sustainable.
It’s interesting that you say those are good things about Steven, because we considered a lot of his selflessness to be his biggest flaw. Throughout the show, his desire to prioritize everybody else’s well-being over his own has been a huge part of his character. In the extended theme song, everybody has their reasons for doing what they’re doing, but his is to be what everybody else wants him to be. That was always intended to be a flag telling you that Steven is struggling. So I was excited to explore that because I realized that a lot of our audience hadn’t necessarily recognized what that behavior was.

My therapist told me to stop doing that this week!
Oh, no! Doing what, prioritizing other people’s problems at the expense of your own?

It’ll come back around. You’ll be a better friend — I don’t mean you, I mean the general you — you can be there for yourself, and you can be there for other people in a way that’s much steadier and more powerful.

If the problem with Steven’s selflessness was always part of the show, at what point did you decide to make it the focus of the epilogue?
While we were working on the movie, we were also working on Future. The more we talked about it, the more excited I got, because I wanted to talk about what happens when you go through experiences like what he had been through. We wanted to explore what it means to spend your childhood working. I wanted to talk about the intensity of the burnout I was experiencing. And on top of all that, I wanted to explore my own experience with mental health — experiences I had not dealt with that resurfaced while I was experiencing the pressures of the show, to the point where, around halfway through, I finally started seeing a therapist.

In the last episode, Steven mentions that he has a therapist. Did you consider showing him in therapy?
I really did not want to show that. I really wanted the character to finally have privacy. As an audience watching the show, and as us writing it, we’re complicit in Steven feeling exposed. The idea of being in that space and watching him unpack it felt like a violation of his privacy. I wanted you to know that he was getting that help, and that he was taking steps to live the life he wanted to live, but I wanted him to be able to do it without the pressure of being the show’s protagonist anymore.

Does Steven leaving the spotlight reflect the way you’re thinking about what comes next?
I do really want to take a step back and reflect on this experience. I’ve been at Cartoon Network for a decade now. I’ve seen the whole entertainment landscape change. It’s been a tumultuous experience. It is for any showrunner, but I think we were ambitious in ways that made it particularly tumultuous. In a way, Future is the beginning of a reflection on that.

The Steven Universe plot chart. (Click to expand.)

You’ve said that you plotted out a good chunk of Steven Universe in a chart, and that you’d talk about it when the show ended. What was the process of making the chart, and how does it feel to look back at it now?
The chart is from 2016, maybe 2015 at the earliest. I started making charts because we had all of these ideas in Word documents — it was almost an exercise in getting it out of my head so that I could keep everything straight. It’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t episodes about each of those ideas yet. In a lot of cases, we’d have ideas that wouldn’t make it into episodes, but that would resurface later. Like “A Single Pale Rose,” the idea of going into Pearl’s pearl was a season one episode.

Each line tracks one of the characters and shows the progress that they’re making, and the ups and downs they’re experiencing. I found it helpful to visualize, for example, where Steven’s head is at, where Connie’s head is at, and then at the point where we’re doing episodes with Stevonnie, their lines converge. I did a similar layout for Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding, with the tracks splitting and then coming back together. When Lars turns pink, his line changes to be pink. And I wanted certain tracks to run parallel, like what was going on with Lars and what was going on with Sadie, even though they were physically separated. I really wanted to have a Greg-themed arc for Sadie while a Rose-themed arc was happening for Lars, and that was a way to track that.

At what point did you decide those arcs would mirror Steven’s parents?
The show is about balance between Steven as a human and Steven as a Gem, so it was always critical to show intimate, human stories that were happening in tandem with these really fantastical Gem stories. If Lars is going on a Gem adventure, then Sadie should be going on a human adventure. The very earliest premise of the show is about how Steven is equally fascinated by both things and we try to weave that through everything. The ultimate reveal is that Steven is Steven, which is very simple and very human, even though we’re expressing it through the idea of Steven being a fusion with himself.

Did you have an image of that fusion in mind for the show’s conclusion?
That was actually planned for episode ten and we ended up holding off. The earliest version of the “Giant Woman” premise was that Steven would achieve the ability to fuse within the episode. I don’t remember exactly who he was going to end up fusing with, but the thought was that when he unfused, his human and Gem halves would have separated out, and he would then have to fuse with his human half to become himself again.

Are there other things you moved so dramatically, or that you’re surprised you tried to do early on?
This is something that I always wanted to talk about. People would ask me, “What was the most hotly contested thing in the writers’ room?” It was the idea of Perfect Steven, which was a powered-up version of Steven. He would be as big as Rose, he would be pink, and he would be really powerful. I had a doodle of it back in 2013. All of us in the room were really conflicted about the idea and ultimately said, “We can’t do Perfect Steven because Steven is perfect.” The idea that there would be a more perfect version of him that’s more powerful, or one that’s bigger, or stronger, went against all of the principles of the show. As we were approaching Future, not only did we bring some of that back, we actually brought back those original concept drawings from 2013. It’s hopefully clear that is not a particularly healthy reinvention of himself, that it’s born out of his frustrations and dissatisfaction with himself.

The “Fragments” episode feels like the turning point of Future. How did you decide what you wanted to do with Steven and Jasper?
I was interested in exploring the difference between Steven’s relationship with Jasper and Steven’s relationships with the Gems. As he is more and more frustrated with himself, instead of turning to people he knows love him, he turns to someone who he knows dislikes him. And in that moment, he really dislikes himself, too. He really needs someone to confront him. He wants someone to fight him. What she says feels honest to him — that he needs an outlet for his anger — and I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong, but their relationship is very unhealthy. She’s a very self-destructive person and he’s becoming a very self-destructive person. They’re a very dangerous combination because they’re both struggling with their own self-worth.

That sounds related to the other unhealthy relationships you’ve depicted in the show.
We’ve explored stories like this before, we just have not explored it with Steven. He’s been pushing a relentless positivity at the expense of his own health through most of his childhood, so it makes sense that he would experience it in a very extreme way. He hasn’t really gotten the support that he provided to other people. He has always felt it was up to him to make sure everyone around him was comfortable — and, in a way, that includes the audience.

Is there anything from the chart and didn’t make it into the show?
We had a Rhodonite story that was part of Future, but it just did not have to do with Steven’s arc so we couldn’t find a home for it. There were several things like that. I really wanted to go a little more into Gem mythology. Back when Peridot was still with the Crystal Gems but hadn’t had her epiphany yet, I wanted to have a scene that was like A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, where she would come out and recite a bunch of Gem mythos as if everyone around her should understand exactly what she’s talking about.

Steven driving off into the sunset. Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

How early did you know you were going to end on this image from the ending credits of Steven in the car? It’s a very teen idea of freedom.
I was talking about Steven driving the Dondai before we started. I had a Toyota Corolla when I was in high school and I was the person that drove everyone everywhere. It was such a different existence to be able to do that, and I really wanted to capture that feeling. In terms of him driving away, we needed to create all new packaging for Future. We had a rule with the [Steven Universe] title cards and end cards that we would be seeing the laundry hand at whatever time of day the episode starts, but for Future, I thought it would be interesting to show the future, instead of showing the moment you’re in. He’s looking forward to this moment where he’s going to go out, do some soul-searching, and move on.

And that was the ending you planned when you first started on Future?
Yeah. He’s so worried that everyone’s going to go their separate ways, but he can do that, too. He can explore the world. It’s also that he’s taking his dad’s advice. When he’s in a difficult place and his dad is telling him to get out and see the world, he’s open to it, but then they have their fight. Even though he’s doing it his way, he’s also really reconciling with Greg.

That fight deals a lot with Greg’s parenting style, which is a stark contrast to the overwhelming focus on Rose’s parenting, or lack thereof.
The big theme of the show is that if you’re a person who doesn’t value yourself, that will end up hurting the people around you. That’s true for Greg, too. He didn’t see how much he would be able to bring to the table for Steven. He did as much as he could, but there was a part of him that felt a human upbringing wouldn’t be enough for Steven. Everyone on the show takes turns feeling like someone else must know better than them, passing things to the next person, idolizing the next person, and then not trusting the decisions that they would make themselves. It’s true of Greg, it’s very true of Rose, and it’s true of every one of the Gems — except Garnet, who’s very good at making decisions, but doesn’t always know what a human being needs or needs to hear.

In retrospect, Rose seems like the secret villain of the show. To what extent do you see her that way?
Rose is the hugest example of these themes of self-destruction. Rose is her own worst enemy — literally, she fought herself. The way she felt about herself caused so much pain for everybody around her, especially the people who loved her and the people she wanted to love. One thing I find really interesting is that the way she idolized everyone around her was very sincere. She thought everyone around her was so much better than she was. So people would be drawn to her, Gems would be drawn to her, and I don’t know if they would necessarily realize that she was worshipping them, which was compounding her own sadness at the feeling that she couldn’t connect with them. It was a tragedy.

Basically, she’s love-bombing everyone around her.
What is love-bombing?

It’s when people are overwhelmingly positive in relationships to avoid something they’ve done wrong, as a tactic.
Yeah, I suppose so. Rose wanted to give everybody the kind of environment she didn’t have, but everything about her is about who she didn’t want to be. She wanted to be loving and healing and compassionate and give everybody so much flexibility and freedom to do anything and be anything. She wanted all these things, she wanted to be this person, but she wasn’t necessarily that person because in her mind she only ever wanted these things.

In Future, there’s a moment that in any other shonen would be a mass team attack, and instead ends up being a giant group hug, which feels very Steven. How did you conceptualize that?
That was definitely something we had on the chart. I had read this book recently called The Deepest Well, by a doctor named Nadine Burke Harris. It discusses the effects of adverse childhood experiences and how it can affect your development emotionally, physically, socially. One of the things that really amazed me about the book was that support from parents and support from friends has unbelievable healing benefits. I wanted to showcase that. It’s physical, how much help they can do.

Anybody want a hug? Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

A lot of the show was inspired by what I’ve been through. Over the course of the show, I came out to my parents, my family, and my friends. In moments where I was really going through very difficult times, I would assume that I can’t let anyone in, that I have to just go through this on my own and come out the other side a warm and happy person that can be there for other people, and I can’t let them know that I’m not actually that person. But the moments in my life where people have been there for me when I was low… the safety that you feel, knowing that someone is going to be there for you, is going to stick around, is going to help you get through something, there’s a healing effect. It’s critical for a person’s health to know that.

“Change Your Mind” has scenes where the Diamonds call Steven by the wrong name, and all these other details that feel like we’re watching someone attempt to come out to their parents. Not that those elements weren’t in the show already, but they feel so sharp in that moment.
Some of it was there from the beginning, but a lot of it was colored by the experience I was having talking to my family about being bisexual and about being nonbinary. I realized as I was working on “Change Your Mind” how critical it was that I know myself better than anybody else does. I needed that foundation. I needed to respect myself. And I began to realize that it’s not one moment of epiphany and then you love yourself. Your relationship with yourself takes maintenance. You have to keep being kind to yourself. And if you don’t, you’ll struggle again. There is not one “clouds part” moment and then you’re good, eternally. It can get cloudy again. So I wanted Future to focus on that.

Do you know what you’re going to do, or how you’re expecting to feel, when you say finally good-bye to the show?
I think it’s going to hit me like a tidal wave. I’ve been trying to set things up for myself — lessons that I want to take, a stack of books that I want to read. I’m hoping to refill my well and reconnect with the world. Absorb instead of produce. I say that now, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t know how to process what I’m going through if I’m not creating something. I’ll probably be working again sooner than I think I will. But I want to take a little time to reflect on what this has been. I’ve changed a lot. I’ve grown up a lot. I want to see where my head is at now.

Rebecca Sugar Says Good-bye to Steven Universe