When the larger plot of Steven Universe started to kick in, I wondered how the show would handle having actual, active antagonists. The first “face” of opposition we saw was everybody’s favorite angry little slice of pie, Peridot. A common trope in anime is the baddie who eventually changes sides and joins the heroes. We get to see that play out with Peridot, though it isn’t an easy road for her, and she still seems uneasy with things. Her path does represent the dream that Rose Quartz built her rebellion on, that a true, free life was better than even a high place in the rigid hierarchy of Gem Homeworld.
We have had one short glimpse of Yellow Diamond, but the one real “villain” of the show so far has been Jasper. She works well as an antagonist since she is not only an imminent, physical threat, but offers a fundamental challenge to the Crystal Gems’ beliefs. To Jasper, Garnet embodies a transgressive relationship, Pearl is a slave who doesn’t know her place, and Amethyst is a born failure. Jasper is the biggest threat to Amethyst and attacks her greatest weakness: her lack of self-worth and belief that she is flawed and unworthy. Jasper’s ultimate insult: “You could have been *me*!” hits hard. Fortunately for her, she has Steven for a friend. Together they are a force that Jaspar repeatedly demonstrates she can’t understand: two people working together to be stronger.
Steven’s conflict with Jasper is on a different level. Jasper simply refuses to believe that Steven isn’t his mother, and dismisses his own identity. Steven is left with only responsibilities of his mother’s legacy – and the guilt for the sins Rose Quartz may have committed in the past, actions that Steven is only just becoming aware of (and mature enough to process).
Jasper is ultimately, a character in her own right, though we see only brief moments of her inner self. There is her painful, codependent argument to Lapis to restore their fusion: “I’ve changed. You’ve changed me!” and her sad “Nobody who fuses with me wants to stay…” She never gives herself the chance to be more than the role she was born to. She won’t let go of the belief that Rose Quartz built her army of misfits and damaged individuals not to help them, but because people at their low point are easy to manipulate. (Which may have a grain of truth to it, from what we’ve seen of Rose).
Jasper, as a character with her own beliefs about the world, is in the end challenged by the *heroes’* worldview – and breaks rather than changes or grows. That’s quite an interesting arc for a baddie on a cartoon. We’ve yet to see much of the Big Bads of the show, the Diamonds, so there’s a lot more challenging storytelling for the show to explore.