‘Steven Universe’ Post-Show Analysis: Season 4, Episode 5: ‘Future Boy Zoltron’
Welcome to Together Breakfast, the feature where Elle Collins and Katie Schenkel come together to dig in and relish every last drop of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. However, with Elle away embracing her inner Tiger Millionaire at the King of Trios wrestling tournament, we’ve brought in CA contributor and Steven Universe connoisseur Jon Erik Christianson this week to fill in.
In this week’s episode, Steven has a debt to pay to Mr. Smiley and ends up helping people along the way. Future Boy Zoltron was written by Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco, and directed by Hye Sung Park, Ricky Cometa, and Kat Morris.
Katie: Jon Erik, thanks for joining me today! So after the intensity of the last episode, I was hoping we’d get something a little lighter (which is how the show usually likes to balance out its darker storylines). I think having Steven pretend to be a robot and tell beachgoers’ fortunes counts as lighter! Having the machine be sort of a mix between Astro Boy and Zoltar was a nice touch.
Jon Erik: Thank you for having me, Katie! So...what’s a Steven Universe again?
I kid. As far as “lighter” goes, it was definitely a much heavier shade than I was expecting. But it’s this show, so of course it was.
I really appreciate the episode’s concept, especially since precognition is a real thing in this universe. Before it aired I found myself wondering: will Garnet or Sapphire factor in? And Garnet did! The show took a neat cultural touchstone (I can’t speak for everyone, but I grew up near an arcade fully equipped with a Zoltar-like machine) and really amplified it.
Katie: We also got to see Mr. Smiley again, in easily his biggest role on the show yet. It was very much in character for him to buy a fortune telling machine that would suck up everyone’s money. It’s also practically predictable at this point that Steven once again makes Mr. Smiley’s day just a little harder, this time by breaking Zoltron.
It says a lot about Colton Dunn’s sunny performance that even as he’s making a child dress up as a robot in a box to pay off debts, I’m going, “Well, I can see where the man is coming from on this.” I think it certainly helps that Steven is clearly having fun.
Jon Erik: Yeah, absolutely. Steven gets to dress up as a robot and further help (meddle in?) the lives of Beach City citizens? I wouldn’t be surprised if breaking Zoltron was his plan all along!
Actually, this episode does bring up a question for me: is the show’s narrative setting up Steven’s willingness to help — and sometimes even unduly meddle — in the lives of Beach City citizens as an overt flaw? Because I’m increasingly getting more and more uncomfortable every time he tries to treat Sadie and Lars as his personal fan fiction and I can’t tell if (when?) the show’s going to comment on it.
Obviously Steven has done incredible good for his friends and peers, but I’m beginning to wonder if his constant Saving of the Day is making him... pushy.
Katie: So normally I’d say yes, since the last time he was in an episode with Sadie and Lars he definitely went too far. This time though, I was bracing for Steven to try to push them together, but (at least for me), it felt like he did a way better job of focusing on each of them as a person rather than shipping them. And this time he did have a reason for giving his advice --- they did ask a question and he is a question-answering robot. If what he said to them (and what he says to the other people on the boardwalk) was unsolicited, that’d be one thing, but I was okay with it here because future robot has a job to do.
And thanks to his new job, Steven ends up giving advice to so many of the Beach City residents, including a pre-crime Onion. I have to admit, Onion taking Steven’s advice to mean he should put on a ski mask when stealing quarters was my favorite gag of the episode.
Jon Erik: But that’s part of it, though: they were consenting to advice from what they thought was a vintage arcade robot (who’d probably spit out lucky numbers) and instead got it from someone who’s already once stepped over the line with them before. (Though kudos to Steven for convincing people he was actually a robot.)
But I enjoyed the rest of the advice — Steven misjudging Onion’s response was superb — as it didn’t have prior boundary baggage. “Zoltron says that’s a question for your doctor” was another favorite of mine. As we saw with Mr. Frowny, people tend to monologue strange questions when they think no one’s watching.
What did you think of Mr. Frowny’s story?
Katie: I liked it! I like how his mere presence on the boardwalk threw Steven’s day out of balance. Brian George did a great with the voice work. I could almost see a gloomy cloud over his head the whole time Steven is trying to bring him a little sunshine. Mr. Frowny’s whole demeanor is very unnerving, and the music work for his scenes play into that really well.
Jon Erik: “Unnerving” is a great word to describe Mr. Frowny’s presence. George’s performance, the music, and what felt like a more highly rendered animation style definitely made Mr. Frowny feel like a character out-of-place with the show. And some of Steven Universe’s most interesting episodes — "Chille Tid," "Cat Fingers," anything with Onion — tilt pretty hard into uncomfortable territory.
I am struggling a bit with a possible... message? for the episode. Future vision’s consistent depiction of Mr. Frowny as miserable in all outcomes — compacted by the realization that this isn’t a temporary “mood,” but his entire persona — almost skirted near nihilistic for me. But! Mr. Smiley invoking their old routine seemed to invite some promise.
Maybe the lesson is finding value in work? In comedy? Open communication with friends? Steven can’t fix everything? Garnet has the best entrances? Or maybe there is no lesson.
Katie: So, I’m going to take a stab at the lesson, if I may. Up front, I do think it’s about open communication --- it’s when Frowny finally stands in front of Smiley to talk to him and Smiley stops defaulting to humor that they’re able to get to the core of what happened. And for a moment Steven’s future vision is right, as you said --- Mr. Smiley tries to talk to him and Frowny makes a self loathing comment. But then Smiley keeps talking to him honestly and openly.
I think the other main theme of the episode was closure. Mr. Smiley mentions vaguely early in the episode that things just didn’t work on with his act, and Mr. Frowny internalized the act’s break-up to the point where he thinks he can’t do anything right. It seems like both of them thought the blame was on themselves, so letting each other forgive themselves and find a little peace … I mean, it’s not the happiest ending, but it’s not quite sad either.
Part of me also kind of appreciates that Mr. Frowny presumably goes back to his home instead of sticking around; he just went on a trip to find his old partner, not move to the town. That being said, I do hope we see him again.
Jon Erik: You know, I can get behind all of that. And I think the episode further clarifies that Sapphire/Garnet’s “future vision” comes with a ton of caveats. I hope we see him again too. Yet another Beach City human plot I’d love to see developed more — ideally a smidge faster, alongside the rest of the Beach City human stories (I demand to know where this show is heading with Lars).
And one last question comes to mind, and it’s painfully on-brand for me: did you get the faintest of “jilted ex-boyfriends” vibes from them too? It’s 100% textually possible that it’s not there — straight men are allowed to have intimate friendships, of course — but some of the wistful sadness around some of their lines definitely led me down that way of thinking.
Katie: You know, I didn’t personally read exes between them, but the great thing about this show is that if you read subtext into a same sex pairing, there’s still a pretty decent chance it’ll become text at some point, so who knows!
Jon Erik, thank you so much for joining me for this week of Together Breakfast. It was a lot of fun breaking down this episode with you.
Jon Erik: No prob, Bob! And if you ever need me to fill-in again — I even can do Historical Friction era Jamie-esque performances of you or Elle — I’m always game.