In the tenth episode of Steven Universe Future, Steven makes a bold decision that leads to a crisis. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Steven Universe Future.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of trauma and anxiety.
I WASN’T READY FOR THIS EPISODE. There’s something so compelling to me about this very cute thing–a cactus brought to sentience by Steven, sort of like Pumpkin–ultimately bringing forth one of the most emotionally destructive things I’ve ever seen on this show. Honestly, I feel like a lot of thought went into the construction of this episode, particularly in how it deals with mental health.
So, let’s start with the first shocker: The opening scene of “Prickly Pair” reveals that Steven actually quit Little Homeschool. That seemed like such a huge decision to have happen off-screen, but by the end of this episode, I was on board with that choice. I really like how the last image we got before said decision was Steven on the roof his car, staring up into the sky, uncertain about his future.
And then he did something about it! It’s not the solution to all his problems by any means, which now makes me more certain than ever that the purpose of Steven Universe Future is to LITERALLY give Steven the peace so he can imagine his own future. The first half of this companion show was about Steven being unsure of his place as the world changed. We’ve watched him struggle with his work/life balance. We’ve seen how hard it is for him to prioritize himself over other people. And even though leaving Little Homeschool at least reduces some stress and pressure on Steven, there’s still a giant elephant in the room.
It’s the elephant from the previous episode: Steven is bottling up some pretty intense, complicated feelings. “Little Graduation,” as I hypothesized before, gave us this clue to the source of his new powers activating. Thus, I see this episode as the continuation of that story! What is Steven actually feeling about himself and his life? What is he ignoring?
All of that is made literal through Cactus Steven, and oh my GOD, it works so well as a metaphor for untreated mental health problems. I don’t know that this is the intent of it, but it all fits so well? I feel like a clue to that is Garnet’s comment to Steven upon learning that he’s become a plant parent, albeit one who has named all his plants after the friends in Beach City who left. She told him that this was possibly not the healthiest way to have a hobby. WELL, SHE ENDED UP BEING RIGHT. It wasn’t the plant-owning thing, or even naming them after people Steven loved. No, I get the sense that Garnet knows (and has known) that Steven isn’t dealing with what’s actually hurting him.
THIS HAPPENS. All of this happens!!!! Oh my god, Steven’s accidental creation of Cactus Steven ends up being a literal manifestation of his internal monologue. Because Cactus Steven learns from imitation, and as Steven confides in Cactus Steven, it mimics what Steven really feels.
The thoughts themselves aren’t necessarily bad, and I love the distinction that this episode made. The problem is that Steven had all these private thoughts that were complicated or even rude, and suddenly, they were externalized. Everyone could hear them. THE PEOPLE THEY WERE ABOUT COULD HEAR THEM. It’s a disaster, and then, it only gets worse.
My interpretation of this episode is that Cactus Steven is the most literal representation of what’s buried inside of Steven himself. It gets worse the more that Steven feeds it. One I’ve been learning in therapy is how certain behaviors can exacerbate negative feelings that you have. It’s why psychotherapy has been as successful as it has for me. I am a classic bottle-it-all-up case, since I was taught as a kid to care deeply for others (especially in traumatic scenarios and as a survival mechanism) and to keep all my feelings to myself. Sometimes, I am not even aware of the subconscious things I believe until a third party–my therapist–hears me vocalize them. And like… I feel weird being all, “HEY STEVEN, GO INTO THERAPY,” but I actually think he would benefit from having someone to talk to in that context! He could work out his complex feelings for his three best friends in a way where… well, where a giant cactus doesn’t come to life. The show manages to channel both The Thing and Little Shop of Horrors in Cactus Steven, and it’s scary. It’s painful. It’s awkward!
It’s also deeply realistic. Steven has so many anxieties, many of them due to trauma, and guess what/ When you don’t deal with them, you can often hurt the people around you. LIKE WHEN CACTUS STEVEN HURTS OTHERS WITH THEIR NEEDLES. It’s the metaphor of mental health made literal!!!! I CAN’T GET OVER THIS!!!!
But there’s no single part of this that crushed me more than when Steven finally realized how to get Cactus Steven to stop hurting others. Steven just had to get it to mimic… love. LOVE. BECAUSE STEVEN HASN’T REALIZED IT YET, BUT HE NEEDS TO LOVE HIMSELF. Oh my god, he was so close to that epiphany, yet he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I… I can’t. I honestly feel that was one of the most powerful scenes in the series thus far. SELF LOVE IS RADICAL AND NECESSARY. And I want Steven to realize that! I want him to understand why he’s feeling like he does and what it means to put himself first!
I hope you can tell how much this episode delighted me and also WRECKED me. It’s so damn clever, but it’s also a meaningful look at Steven’s journey over the years. I know I’m a broken record in this regard, but I’m so happy to see this show deal with the aftermath. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced, because AGAIN, this never happens with most other shows!!!
The video for “Prickly Pair” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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