Steven Universe is a show that starts out strange, odd, completely weird, and grows to become something with ridiculous amounts of depth. From the story of a young boy who has his powers triggered by Cookie Cat Ice Cream bars, to a complex tale of how the passing of one Rose Quartz has changed the lives of those close to her, Steven Universe has become one of the best series that Western Animation has to offer. Every character is just so, so good, so well designed, so relatable. However, it is through the titular character, Steven Universe, where we see the best thematic elements of what the show has to offer.
Steven starts off the series as a young kid, idealistic, always happy, and confident that everything will be alright. As the series progresses, he never stops hoping for the best, but he’s forced to confront situations that make him rethink his view of the world, and grow dramatically. The story of the Crystal Gems is ultimately Steven’s Coming-of-Age story, and there’s so much in the series that build it up as such. There is one supernatural element of the story in particular that I feel epitomizes this growth, and that is the way the series uses bubbles.
There will be sizable spoilers here, as one might expect. I’m just gonna talk about how bubbles in the series and what they mean in regards of Steven’s growth- analyze just how he grew, and how he might continue to grow. Hopefully, it’ll be pretty interesting!
The Point of Bubbles
Bubbles in Steven Universe aren’t meant to be anything particularly childish, and in fact, they serve a rather practical purpose. In-universe, bubbles are the Crystal Gems’ way of containing their beaten enemies, locking them in stasis so they can’t hurt anyone else. When bubbled, the entity being bubbled seems to have no real perception of time, and are generally not able to reform- in essence, they are locked from the outside world. Bubbles can be used to store objects as well, although this is not seen as often- Steven actually stores some Chaaaaps for a while though!
Basically, the Crystal Gems all have the ability to bubble other gems, or other dangerous objects, and they’re mostly used to contain beaten enemies, signifying that the fight is gone. However, Steven has a more unique sort of ability- combining his natural shield powers with bubbling, he can produce a bubble-like shield around himself, and people close to him. This can be used to shield from attacks, keep safe at the bottom of the ocean, or even, as we’re going to see later on, stay alive in the emptiness of space.
The point of all this is simply to say that bubbles can be seen throughout Steven Universe to fill a very practical role- they act as a shield, a barrier, and as safekeeping. They’re used very practically, whenever the situation calls for them, and as such, are seen often, but never seem to be used to explicitly deliver a message- well. For most of the series. But we’ll get to that.
The Centipeetle, Peridot, and Bismuth
There are three events throughout the series-well, actually a lot more, but we’ll concentrate on these for now- that point to the idea that bubbles are a bit more meaningful than they initially seem.
First on the list is when Steven tries to befriend a corrupted gem that had initially been bubbled- the Centipeetle. With his unrelenting will to forgive and show love, he was able to prove that the Centipeetle wasn’t mindless, but in the end, he couldn’t heal the corrupted gem. Pearl consoles him, saying that maybe one day, his powers will be enough- and come season three, the time seems to have come. Setting the Centipeetle free again, Steven is able to partially heal her for a short time, learning more about Homeworld, the Gem War, and his own powers in the process. However, it’s not permanent- and instead of sealing her back up, Steven lets her go- an important point to note.
Also, we see Steven pop another bubble partially through season two- this time, containing a recently bubbled enemy, the Homeworld gem, Peridot. This was one of very few instances of Steven blatantly disobeying the Crystal Gems, realizing that Peridot was something more than just another corrupt gem. After setting her free, Steven is able to talk with her, giving him knowledge about Homeworld, a threat known as the Cluster, and eventually, he is able to make a new friend. Dealing with such an individual, in blatant disregard to his caretakers, and learning more about the world around him as a result of this, is another large step to Steven’s growth.
Third, and perhaps most prominently out of all these instances, in Steven’s meeting with Bismuth, who Rose Quartz herself sealed away. Popping the bubble that contained Bismuth, Steven found his ideals and morals pushed like never before, eventually being forced to re-bubble her. Asked the question of whether Rose, his role model, should kill to achieve her means, Steven found a part of his foundation rocked. After all, Rose wouldn’t kill anyone..right?
These events all speak to some sort of growth, but the nail in the coffin for me is what happens at the very end of season three- in my opinion, the largest emotional climax in Steven’s story so far.
“Bubbled,” and Steven’s Innocence
Episode 104 of Steven Universe, I won’t even lie, was the inspiration for this whole mini analysis, and provided the most blatant use of bubbling as a reflection of Steven’s character. This episode starts innocently enough- Steven is stuck in space with an enemy Ruby, using his bubble to keep himself alive. They exchange banter, Steven tries to be friendly towards the Ruby, but it doesn’t work out. Upon learning that Steven has Rose Quartz’s gem, the Ruby becomes obsessed with shattering – killing- Steven, and in desperation, Steven tosses the Ruby outside of his bubble in order to survive. Curling up, Steven shows that he feels cold, tired, and he shrinks his bubble, waiting for someone to save him.
This moment is absolutely HUGE for Steven’s character. Having just learned at this point of the idea that his mother actually killed in the old war, and being confronted with this reality himself, Steven has no choice but to acknowledge that morality. He essentially abandons the Ruby in the cold of space, simply to stay alive himself, and once he does that, he shrinks in, legitimately bubbling himself until the Crystal Gems can find him.
I’d like to propose that bubbles in Steven Universe are reflective of how Steven himself learns about the world and grows. In the beginning of the series, we see that Steven’s ideals are tested, his scope of the world is expanded when he pops the bubbles. With the Centipeetle, with Peridot, Steven encounters the ambiguous line between being good and evil, showing that the bubbles don’t contain purely malicious beings, despite how the Crystal Gems try and shelter him. Later, with the return of the Centipeetle, and with Bismuth, we see a grown Steven confront far more than vague mysteries: we see him deal with the reality of his powers, the reality of the gruesome nature of the old Gem War.
“Bubbled,” then, forces Steven for the first time to confront the most painful truth so far: the reality of death, the idea that “kill or be killed,” might have some merit to it. Alone, cold, all he can do after that is retreat in his bubble, psychologically, emotionally, retreating from the world until he can find safety again. Bubbling in this sense, could also be seen as a coping mechanism- a way to deal with the problems he is not ready for, until such a time he is ready for them. The final moments of season 3 emphasize this idea all the more. Steven, rescued from the darkness of space, has everything explained to him by Garnet- the harsh truth of his mother’s tough decisions regarding, essentially murder. Out of his bubble, safe, but sad, all Steven says is, “Thanks for telling me.” It shows a final acceptance by Steven, and speaks to his growth as a rapidly maturing character- still innocent and naive in many ways, but able to confront the realities of the world in a way he simply couldn’t have before.
Steven is an immensely complex character, and one that I personally love a lot. Maybe it’s something about those innocent, yet really strong types that gets me. Anyways, through the usage of bubbling throughout the series, we get a very clear picture of the development Steven undergoes. Whether or not such a usage of bubbles was intentional, I can’t help but think it’s rather interesting, just how Steven’s growth can be tracked like this. With the Stevenbomb over, and still quite a few more episodes of Season 4 to go, I’m looking forward to seeing how Steven Universe will continue to grow!