In the nearly two years since it first debuted, Steven Universe has done something few kids’ shows do. Created by Adventure Time alum Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is a show that manages to be fun, hilarious, exciting but also deep. It’s massively subversive, a deconstruction of how we view masculinity and strength, and raising questions of gender, identity and growing up in the process.
A few of us here on staff straight-up love Steven Universe. Rather than try and boil what makes Steven so great into a definitive list, we decided to pick a handful of our favorite episodes and write a bit about why we love them. Without further ado, here’s what we came up with, in no particular ranking or order:
Space Race (Episode 28)
What makes this episode memorable to me—aside from its enticing premise, adorable montages, and chillingly sweet conclusion—is what it has to say about Pearl. Up to this point, most of the episodes (surprisingly) have been about Pearl, but this is the first one where we begin to understand who Pearl really is. She may seem stuck up and prissy, but she’s more nostalgic for her old home than her new life on Earth. We’ve all been Pearl in this situation before, where missing our old previous life brings us some comfort, but it’s in the small moments in the here and now that we find not only more comfort, but fulfillment too. In future episodes, Pearl’s anxieties are portrayed in a much more antagonistic light, but in “Space Race,” for just a moment, Pearl feels more human than she ever has before or since.
For Steven Universe to follow up one of its biggest high stakes episodes with one of its softer character pieces shows a strong restraint on the part of the writers and artists, as well as fundamental understanding of their own characters’ needs.
Plus this episode features some of the absolute best background music in the series to date. — John-Charles Holmes
Tiger Millionaire (Episode 9)
Given how far the show has come in the past year, you’d be surprised to know that Steven Universe was off to a rough start. I was grabbed by the premise, and that cute “Cookie Cat” jam for sure, but SU took a few episodes to get its feet on the ground. About seven episodes in, with the introduction of his best friend Connie in “Bubble Buddies,” the show really found its own voice. While I almost put that episode on this list, the show first combined sublime humor with deep storytelling in “Tiger Millionaire.” You wouldn’t think a wrestling pastiche, where Steven becomes the ultimate heel (the titular “Millionaire”), would be full of brilliant character work, but this is just an example of the many surprises the show is full of. Like its parent series Adventure Time, this episode proved that Steven Universe could too provide a thematically rich through line (as you realize Amethyst is wresting for a hidden, personable reason) while never forgetting it’s a show for kids.
It’s also got everything the best SU episodes have: a killer soundtrack, the Beach City townspeople, and some great one liners. Now there’s no sodas for anybody. — Nick Valdez
Steven and the Stevens (Episode 22)
Time-travel is pretty well-worn territory for any kind of high-concept, vaguely sci-fi storytelling, so it’s no surprise that Steven Universe eventually went to that well. Leave it to Steven to put its own unique spin on the trope, though; after very briefly dabbling in trying to alter history, Steven decides to form a boy band…with himself. It falls apart within all of 30 seconds, as the “original” Steven quickly realizes how annoying he can be, which leads to a battle across time culminating in a scene in which literally dozens of Stevens disintegrate into nothing in probably the creepiest way possible (for a lighthearted kids’ show).
“Steven and the Stevens” isn’t the most monumentally important episode of Steven Universe, not by a long shot, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s a prime example of the show firing on all cylinders, taking a core concept and playing it out in a way that feels both fresh and completely true to the characters involved (the scene where the four Stevens try and figure out their band personas cracks me up every single time). It’s also got one of the earliest instances of Steven Universe being just great at musical numbers (give or take a Giant Woman). — Matt Liparota
Island Adventure (Episode 30)
Man, this episode holds a lot of feelings for me. First of all, SU was so confident in its audience that it was willing to capitalize on Lars and Sadie’s relationship and hoped you caught all the action happening on the sidelines. There’s such a deft amount of work done between the characters through background interactions with Steven that they feel like real people. It all came to a head here as Lars, Sadie, and Steven are trapped on a mysterious island and Steven plays the tune “Be Wherever You Are.” Not only is the montage great, but the song’s lyrics and musicality are well crafted. A personal bit: I moved from Texas to New York a few months ago and this song was the first thing I listened to as song as I touched down.
I was a nervous wreck, and the song helped me calm down a little bit. It’s such a beautiful message. Don’t stress and just be wherever, whoever, and whatever you are. — Nick Valdez
Jail Break (Episode 52)
Okay, so let’s get the “big” stuff out of the way, the huge mythology stuff that puts this episode in any top 10 all on its own. First, you’ve got the gem-shattering reveal that Garnet is actually a fusion of two heretofore-unknown-gems, Ruby and Sapphire (something fans had long theorized and is blatantly obvious in retrospect) – in essence, she’s a living relationship. That’s immediately followed up by an incredible musical number-turned-fight sequence, “Stronger Than You,” which manages to feel climactic, expository and emotional all at once; the fact that it’s a legitimately great piece that you want to listen to over and over again certainly doesn’t hurt.
Ultimately, though, that’s not really what the episode is about. Like so much of Steven Universe, this episode touches on what makes Steven himself unique and indispensable, not just as a Crystal Gem but as a person. It’s only because of Steven’s unique status as a gem-human hybrid that he’s able to escape and set the entire episode in motion, as well as attack Peridot head-on when the time comes. Steven has all kinds of amazing abilities, but his real super-power is his big, human heart – something that the Crystal Gems have learned over the course of the series, and something that villainous Jasper can’t seem to fathom. Ultimately, that’s the heart of Steven Universe – one sensitive little boy who loves with all his heart and will do anything for his friends (and maybe even his enemies). — Matt Liparota
Winter Forecast (Episode 42)
Steven Universe, by its very nature of being a cartoon, is all about visual storytelling. The thing about getting this kind of storytelling just right is that you have to carefully nail all the little details. Not only does “Winter Forecast” do this, but the episode is all about the little details you can see. In this episode, Garnet bestows Steven with temporary “future vision” (the ability to see the future by seeing all possible outcomes before they happen) as an approaching snowstorm threatens to keep the Universe family from getting Steven’s best friend Connie home safely.
What follows is a sequence of events of how things could go more and more horribly wrong with the more irresponsible decisions Steven could choose to make. What links these decisions together are small yet incredibly memorable details that makes for an episode full of subtle unforgettable moments—Greg’s cherry sweater (I’m the cherry man!), puddles freezing over into slick patches of ice, and even small unspoken glances between characters. The details come together to tell a cohesive story that makes even the viewers at home feel like they can really see the future. Top it off with one of the sweetest and by far quietest moments in all of Steven Universe, and you’ve got one of the best episodes of the entire show that reminds you that big moments are made from little details… as long as you’re always willing to give them a chance. — John-Charles Holmes
Alone Together (Episode 37)
My favorite character by far is Connie. I like to joke with my friends and say that someday I’d hope to have a friendship that’s as great as Steven and Connie’s, and that’s because Connie’s such a well realized character. She’s not relgated to the romantic interest in Steven’s hero’s journey and he needs her just as much as she needs him. All of that comes to a head with “Alone Together.” An experiment in SU‘s already established gender fluidity, sex metaphors (as the Steven half of their fused form constantly checks to make sure Connie is comfortable), and character relations, the two kids fuse together and it’s as awkward as you’d think. It’s such a natural trajectory for their relationship too as the two enjoy being “not one being, not two beings, but an experience” and only find fault with it when one of them is truly uncomfortable.
The thing of it is, it’s played straight. The fact that a boy and girl are the same person isn’t mined for jokes and it’s a serious discussion about identity. That’s way more than any kids cartoon has done thus far. — Nick Valdez
Joy Ride (Episode 54)
Much like its spiritual successor Adventure Time, one of the best things about Steven Universe is its extensive cast of colorful secondary characters, and the show has spent a lot of time developing and connecting them in unexpected ways. Beach City’s surly, rebellious teens are just a handful of those characters, and they also happen to be unexpectedly hilarious, going back to their first appearance in “Lars and the Cool Kids.” “Joy Ride” takes that development a step further, adding some real shading to characters who by this point had largely been rather broad.
One of the best things about Steven Universe is the way that secondary characters’ initial impression of Steven is that he’s just a naive, goofy kid, but as they spend more time with him they realize just how infectious his enthusiasm for life is. This episode is perhaps the pinnacle of that – the Cool Kids all have semi-normal teen problems, but they pale in comparison to Steven’s burdens post-“Jail Break” – but as they note, his upbeat attitude almost never wavers. Despite first appearances, Steven’s not naive – he’s got real problems that put ours to shame – but he’s not going to get swallowed up by despair, either. “Joy Ride” is, if nothing else, a fun demonstration of how much depth the show’s secondary characters have gained since the show began. — Matt Liparota