Steven Universe Review: "So Many Birthdays" (Season 1A, Episode 13)

Worth noting – not as much hilarity ensues in this episode as this screenshot would imply.

Airdate: March 3rd, 2014

Synopsis: Steven finds out that the Gems are many millennia old. Much to his dismay, he also finds out that they don’t really celebrate birthdays. Steven attempts to make up for lost time by celebrating the trio’s “birthdays”. However, they don’t necessarily enjoy the festivities, dismissing them as childish. Stunned, he begins questioning his own maturity, and begins aging. Really aging.

Review: So, you’re an executive at a network dedicated to cartoons. You pick up this show about a pre-teen boy living with space aliens. Lighthearted, right? Costs you a mint, but the person sending it in has a good track record. (Just make up the dough by selling ad time on a cheap-o flash cartoon.)* The thirteenth script your network censor gets has the pre-teen boy aging rapidly and coming close to death, his own morality put into focus compared to the rest of the cast, and his parental substitutes breaking down as he inches to the abyss.

Lighthearted, right?

Yeah, this is probably the first episode to suggest that Steven Universe might be less 3rd Rock From The Sun and more Babylon 5. It’s an episode with a rather jarring tonal shift, although even the lighter moments have something of a sober atmosphere, what with our pre-teen protagonist struggling with his humanity and age.

Obviously, Steven is a vastly different type of Crystal Gem – half-human, he’s also unambiguously youthful, compared to the clearly adult-ish Pearl and Garnet (Amethyst, I’ll analyze a bit more later on). There have been episodes that have taken on and shown flaws in his Trudeau-esque “sunny ways”, such as “Bubble Buddies” popping his constant “we can get out of this situation” mentality by almost drowning him and Connie, and “Frybo” putting him up with the most cynical pre-teen to walk the earth.

Here, though, he’s confronted with the most damning source of criticism – his parents/guardians. When they pop his bubble of innocence, it actually hurts. He suddenly becomes introspective, fretful of his childish nature. The question is, well, why? But the answer is just as obvious – Steven idolizes the trio. He wants to impress them. We’ve seen that in episodes such as “Serious Steven”. Here, having failed to celebrate their “birthdays”, he feels like he’s let them down.

Even further, since birthdays are a human custom, it also adds to just how different he and his culture are from that of his guardians. In a way, it is one of the first times that we saw him have a sense of culture shock.

And, in the worst possible way, we find out that Steven’s physical age can be influenced by his mental state. Thus, he slowly gets older, until, at the Big Donut, Lars and Sadie think he’s an insane, dirty old man. (I am serious – he asks for the two to put him into his “Birthday Suit – the royalty garb he dons for the Birthdays – and is promptly chased out.)

Thus, we’re treated to the rather cheerful sight of a kid turning 80 years old, and approaching death as his mortified guardians try and reset his age through means that are simultaneously both comically pitiful and horrifically tragic, before breaking down and arguing over the mere thought that they sent him into his death throes. (No, I am not describing a Soap Opera here.)

Fans once pointed to this as the most sobering Steven Universe episode ever. That is, before “Rose’s Scabbard”. And “On The Run”. And “Sworn to the Sword”. Uh, “Cry For Help”? Yeah, this show really does get more depressing from this point on. Besides, we all knew that Steven would be restored, as per the status quo. So, there’s only one question…

…why is it so effective?

It’s a combination of the acting and the writing that makes the scene what it is. Garnet’s line, “I thought violence would be the answer”, is delivered in such a way that makes her really come off as absolutely gutted. Yet, even in the scene itself Garnet only comes close to raising her voice once… “More birthdays. Now!” Estelle’s performance here is gut-wrenching.

Not even Pearl chucking a pie in her face is funny – it’s akin to the desperation of a mother trying her damnedest to keep her son alive. Or, as a visibly livid Amethyst put it, “Are you trying to kill him faster?

On that note, while the character development for the rest of the Gems on an individual level is rather light, we do get a sense of Pearl’s knowledge of human patterns of behavior… or lack thereof. Apparently, comedy is not her forte, as I’ll explain near the end.

As a group, though, the Gems are revealed to be millennia old. This is really the first episode to peer into their alien history, a topic that will become more of a centerpiece of the show later on. The writers have noted that the Gems did alter history with their presence. However, I do find it interesting that the Gems donned clothing reminiscent of the American Revolution. I know this might be a silly headcanon, and was likely implied in another episode, but could the Gems have participated in the revolution itself, or was that picture one from Gem history?

When it comes to criticism that I have against the episode, at least in my opinion the transition from comedy to drama is a bit sudden. Not as jarring as some would believe – after all, there is a “trigger” for Steven’s depression and resulting aging – but it can come off as quite a bit shocking for those unaware. Even “Cat Fingers” had a longer buildup to the terrifying and dark stuff. Here? Not so much.

“So Many Birthdays”, though, explored the titular character of the show in a way not explored before, deconstructing him on his own terms rather than against other forces. The end result is a solid episode, and I think when all is said and done, it will come off as one of the better episodes of Season 1A.

Tidbits:

  • For some reason, Steven at the Big Donut reminds me, at least in character design, of Danny DeVito. And, yes, I could totally imagine a scene similar to that on It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia.
  • I absolutely love Garnet’s reason for keeping Steven’s birthday suit – “It makes me feel important”.
  • I also love the reveal that Onion was actually stealing the arcade tickets. Wow, I love that little bit of continuity.

Favorite Scene and Memorable Quote: While most would go with Steven’s descent into death, my personal pick has to be Steven’s attempts at throwing a birthday for Pearl. The following exchange occurs.

Steven: “Why did Pearl throw butter out the window?”
Amethyst: (To Pearl) “You did what?”
Steven: “To see a butterfly!
Pearl: (Looking confused and hurt) “I never did that! Steven, are you telling lies?

It’s a simple joke, but it exposes enough about Pearl’s knowledge of human customs. Truly, she gives Data a run for his money. (I’ll take this over Generations any day.)

Best Character: Steven. This episode marks one of the first times he becomes an introspective character.

Score: Silver.

*Figure I should clarify at this point that I have only seen part of one episode of Teen Titans Go! It had a clip from the old series interrupted and, I believe, mocked. I didn’t watch too much of the original show, but that scene came off as so crude, it turned me off. With the reception that the show’s gotten recently, and CN’s desire to promote it as “my new favorite show”, chances are, I won’t be too fond of it. Might give it another chance. Might.

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