ORIGINAL AIR DATE: Mar. 3rd, 2014
SYNOPSIS: When Steven finds out the Crystal Gems don’t have birthdays, he throws a party for them.
The Crystal Gems venture into Amethyst’s room where Pearl once again criticizes her teammate’s messy lifestyle. Steven finds an old painting of the Gems, itself a take on the “Watson and the Shark” art piece. I’ve mentioned frequently that the Crystal Gems have shaped Earth for thousands of years, largely seen through leftover Gem artifacts and structures pristinely perched all over the planet. “So Many Birthdays” confirms the Gems are ageless and have been around far longer than humans, though they aren’t fully immortal and can be injured and killed. Steven wonders how they can celebrate birthdays due to their long lifespan, but they state they don’t as it’s “not their way.” Steven will not stand for this, the Crystal Gems will get a birthday bash and it’ll be the most magical time of their lives!
Steven decides to give each of the Gems’ equal light in the birthday jamboree (complete with a crown and cape costume his dad got for him for his yearly celebrations), starting with Amethyst. Being twelve, Steven’s idea of a birthday bash is what he’d enjoy: lots of cakes and games. So while Pearl thinks this is a little immature for her, Amethyst enthusiastically tries to bash the piñata, only to smack it right into the ocean. Steven hosts Pearl’s birthday next, but it’s even worse. Dressed as a clown, he tries to tell Pearl jokes using her as the main subject in his materials, but she takes it too literally and mistakes them for slander. Steven tries to salvage his act by smashing a pie to his face, but Pearl still doesn’t get why it’s funny. Tough crowd.
Steven tries to pull off one last surprise: tiny cars and kazoos! Pearl is terrified at this point, so Garnet steps in and tells Steven these parties mean nothing to them and that they’re more appropriate for children. Steven can’t believe anyone, regardless of age, wouldn’t celebrate their own birthday. He tries to get them into the cars, but it’s too small for them. Amethyst at least attempts, shapeshifting into a baby so she can ride the car with ease. Steven however can barely squeeze into his, causing him to wonder if birthdays really are childish and that he’s too old for them now. Suddenly faced with a depressing dilemma, Steven walks off to think.
Steven wonders if he’s at the point where his playful demeanor has no place in an adult’s world. Unfortunately this doesn’t just affect him psychologically, but physically as well. His Gem powers activate and suddenly without notice, he ages into a teenager. The more Steven thinks about growing up and taking control of his life, the more he grows, eventually reaching middle-aged. Grumpily, Steven enters the Big Donut and condescendingly rants to Sadie and Lars to get their acts together and grow up. Then he spots his own reflection on the donut display case and realizes he’s an old man. He figures the only way to fix this is a reverse birthday and that means he needs to get his crown and cape outfit. He asks Sadie to help him into his “birthday suit” which is enough for her to drive him out (she having failed to notice he’s Steven.)
Steven’s current age means he’s having a trouble time running, causing him to think he’s getting too old for this. His gem reacts accordingly and he turns into an old man. He collapses in his frail state, but luckily Lion is nearby. Knowing Steven is in trouble, Lion grabs the former boy and takes him to the Crystal Gems.
The Crystal Gems are horrified at seeing the Old Steven literally aging his life away in front of them. It is a terrible reminder that Steven is only half-gem and he likely won’t live the eternal life they do. With mere moments to spare, the Crystal Gems try to give him a birthday to reverse the aging process, hoping the games and jokes will restore him to the silly kid they love. Steven Universe is exceptionally good with its mood whiplash, in any given moment, this pleasant, pastel-colored series that regularly deals with themes of love and friendship can take a serious left turn into a dark, but nuanced lesson that is equal parts nightmare fuel and emotionally upsetting. I’m frequently suspicious of future episode synopsis because what sounds innocuous sometimes reveals a jaw-dropping twist once I’ve watched it.
Observe: “So Many Birthdays” starts off with a boy innocently introducing a beloved ritual of human culture. By the end, Garnet is comically driving a tiny Amethyst car while Pearl dresses up as a clown as she smashes a pie to her face – both in a desperate bid to save Steven from dying. When he doesn’t respond to either, the latter dramatically sobs as she flails her arms up and hugs Amethyst. Without context, it’s gloriously hilarious dark comedy, but it runs concurrent with the urgent, dreary soundtrack; a gray background; and Steven’s barely audible wheezing as he rapidly deteriorates. This is not played up for laughs and as each birthday surprise fails, so does any pretense that this isn’t anything but traumatizing. I can’t emphasize how utterly disturbing it is to see Steven increasingly getting older, it is physically hard to look at without feeling a pit in your stomach. By the time the unflappable Garnet is violently shaking Steven before being reduced to her knees in tears, the episode completely languishes in its despair.
Now in hysterics, the Crystal Gems start feuding with each other. Steven, in his last dying breath, gets fed up with their squabbling and tells them to knock it off, quickly transforming into his young adult self during (a little too quickly, I think, I wished the transition had been more gradual.) His age fluctuates back and forth with his ever changing mood, so the Crystal Gems convince him to return to his rightful age, telling him that the birthdays he threw is what makes Steven Steven and that they love him for it. With renewed confidence, Steven ages back to his twelve-year-old self…except his legs which are still adult-sized. Eh, they’ll work on that.
There is so much to unravel within “So Many Birthdays.” It is about the limited life of the average human, the time that we should use to make the most of what we got, and the frailness of those too afraid to live. It’s about the damaging condescension adults take towards children and the seemingly mandatory obligation that one must replace childish things once you reach a certain age. Old Steven chews out Sadie and Lars for no reason other than they’re young and squandering their time. And it’s about a common perception children have on wanting to grow up and be free of the demands of adult and authority figures; where they are older, dignified, and in control of their lives.
The episode spends the time dissecting each element. There are the usual like Steven learning not to grow up too fast or the Gems essentially apologizing for chiding his behavior, but there are numerous subtle nods in relation to its message. Garnet feels powerful wearing that crown and cape despite dismissing it earlier because it validates her pride. But I think the most notable one isn’t ever commented on: Steven inside the Crystal Gem temple. “So Many Birthdays” decries the unnatural and oftentimes unhealthy habit of strictly defined social structure that is required when you reach a specific age, instead letting it come naturally depending on the individual. In just one episode, Steven both dresses up as a clown and smashes a pie to his face and enters Amethyst’s room freely without any protest from the Gems. They have extended their invitation to their living quarters after forbidding him for most of his life because he wasn’t ready then. Steven has proven himself older and mature that he can handle the next step and it all came from gradual development of his character without sacrificing the things that make Steven who he is.
“So Many Birthdays” brings up a bevy of questions about Steven’s particular biology. If he is half-Gem, half-human and Gems are said to be ageless, can Steven outlive the average person? If Steven can shapeshift his age, does that mean he can potentially control his aging, essentially allowing him immortality? However the episode implies that the age fluctuation is in fact, psychological and tied directly to his state of mind. So what then? Old Steven looked to be on the brink of death which seems to counter it, but that might be due to him thinking he WAS going to die, thus his body responded by literally shutting itself down. The concept of Steven aging will be brought back in another episode that drives this issue a bit further, but it’s another example of the scary consequences Steven has to endure being half of two different species.