After seven years of showrunning her groundbreaking animated saga Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar is trying to process what comes next.
Luckily enough, she had a whole season to workshop her feelings through her characters.
“In a way, that’s what all of Future is,” Sugar says of the arc of the series finale, Steve Universe: Future. “It’s us figuring out how to move on.”
Steven Universe started out with a relatively straightforward plot: Steven, an eternally optimistic teen, protected the Earth alongside the Crystal Gems, a group of gemstone-based aliens who defected from their race and settled on Earth eons ago after an intergalactic civil war with the gems’ ruling class, the Diamonds. The main arc of the show told the story of how Steven, who’s half-gem, eventually overthrew the Diamonds and restored peace across the galaxy. In addition, he unraveled the mystery of his mother, Rose Quartz, the leader of the rebellion who, after falling in love with a human, had to give up her physical form to have Steven.
Steven Universe: The Movie, which premiered last September, was meant to cap off what many thought was the final season—a victory lap to show what life had been like for Steven two years after the events of season five, and giving him one last bad guy to take down.
But, thankfully, Cartoon Network green-lighted 20 more episodes that would become the epilogue arc, Steve Universe: Future—and, arguably, one of the best final seasons of television.
Future represents what we don’t see very often in a hero’s journey, let alone one that’s primarily for kids: an introspective look into finding out who the hero is once the action is over. And, to Sugar’s earlier point, figuring out what comes after that.
“As we were looking at loose ends, it became so obvious that the biggest one is really Steven and his own personality,” Sugar says. “We started to look at Future as an opportunity to really explore that, the way that his selflessness was also related to his struggling with his identity.”
Steven’s driving force throughout the whole series has been helping everyone else. One of his principle powers is, in fact, the ability to heal both people and objects instantly. But as gems and humans happily settle into their ever after in Future, Steven struggles to find his own sense of normalcy.
Fits of panic physically manifest in him as he randomly glows pink and or his body distorts in unnatural ways throughout Future. It’s explained in the episode “Growing Pains” that Steven is experiencing the gem version of the stress hormone cortisol: His body is so used to extreme moments of danger that now it goes into fight mode over small, everyday stresses like friends moving away. A doctor very clearly states that Steven is suffering from PTSD, a topic rarely, if ever, explored in a kids’ show.
“When we started working on the show in 2012, I swore from the very beginning that it would be a very personal and very honest show,” Sugar says. “One of the things that I wanted to talk about was my own experience with anxiety and with panic attacks, and ways that I was learning in real time to deal with that.”
The idea of tackling anxiety in the show first appeared in a significant way in season four’s episode “Mindful Education,” with the song “Here Comes a Thought.” After a character unintentionally hurts someone, they learn to process their emotions in a healthy way. Sugar, who experienced her own past trauma, started seeing a therapist around that time and began practicing mindful mediation. She wanted to write a song about it and brought the idea to singer-songwriter Estelle, who voices the character Garnet.
“I asked her if there was a way to write a song that was both calming and fast. When I would be extremely nervous or when I would be in a panic, it was never helpful for me to have someone tell me in a calm, slow way that I needed to calm down,” Sugar says. “It made me feel like I was doing something wrong. So I wanted to write a song that would put me where that person is in terms of that frantic feeling.”
However, when it came to Future, Sugar says a lot of what she had written for the main series was indeed an expression of herself, “but without a certain level of understanding.”
“Future was an opportunity for me to look back on the series as a whole and try to put it into a new context,” Sugar says.
What helped Sugar was reading pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris’s book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.
“My personal mental health struggles, a lot of them relate to an experience I had in my early twenties. But then to read this book about what happens when you have an experience like that in your childhood, when you’re really still developing in a lot of major ways, it was really eye-opening,” Sugar says. “As opposed to just putting my own personal experience into Steven and the characters of Steven, I also wanted to put it through the lens of what that would have been if it had happened to me when I was younger.”
Steven’s PTSD also begins to unlock stronger and more dangerous powers. That coupled with his refusal to admit anything’s wrong and deep-seated anger that he didn’t even realize he was harboring ultimately becomes too much for him to bear: Steven believes he’s a monster, so he transforms into one, making the final boss of Steven Universe Steven himself.
It’s not until he learns to accept the love and support that his family and friends have been offering him that he’s able to transform back into himself. Future‘s final episode takes place a few months after his monstrous meltdown: He’s in therapy and has made the decision to move out and start a new chapter in his life. For a show that’s become as equally beloved for its original songs as its emotionally nuanced themes, one would expect there to be a grand finale number, the final bow of heartfelt odyssey.
“I didn’t want him to have to perform,” Sugar says. “I’m trying to set him free.”
That said, what Sugar says is the final song has been hiding in plain sight this entire season.
During the end credits of every episode of Future, there’s a song playing in the background of a shot of a car driving along the coast of Beach City, Steven’s fictional hometown. Turns out that shot is actually Steven leaving the city on his road trip of self-discovery. And the song playing is one Sugar wrote and R&B singer Emily King performed.
“I consider ‘Being Human’ to be the song of the final episode,” Sugar says. “I wanted the weight of it to be not just that you’re hearing it in the episode itself, but that it’s been on the horizon for you the whole time.”
Sugar was first introduced to King’s music through Estelle when they were hashing out the song “Here Comes a Thought.”
“So as we were approaching Future, I’d always wanted an opportunity to work with Emily King,” Sugar says. “She was so connected to a time when I was trying to find the strength to pick myself up out of a really difficult place. Having her voice on that song was really meaningful for me.”
A full circle moment, indeed—but the question still remains: What’s next for Sugar?
“Right now, I really want to refill the well. I have a big stack of books I want to read,” Sugar says. “I’ve spent a decade working on commercial art, so I want to make sure that I haven’t lost the connection for making art for myself. So I’m going to learn for awhile.”
Future wrapped up such a sprawling series in a way that was both satisfying as well as clearly leaving the door open for more episodes, which Sugar isn’t entirely opposed to.
“I’m certainly interested in spending more time in this world with these characters. But the thing about Steven Universe, it’s about Steven Universe and I want to give him the time to heal,” Sugar says. “I want to give that to my team as well. So I’m not really sure for certain what’s going to happen in the future. I have a few ideas, but I’m going to take a little time to reevaluate everything before I jump into them.”