This Steven Universe Future article contains spoilers. There is also discussion of physical and mental abuse.
Rose Quartz has been divisive amongst Steven Universe fans from the moment we started learning more about her backstory. While initially idolized by Steven and the Crystal Gems, over the course of the series we have learned Rose has lied about her origin, forced Pearl to keep her secrets, locked Bismuth away, left Spinel on her own (driving her mad with grief), and even gave up her form (i.e. died) without taking accountability for or solving the many issues she has caused.
Some of these actions were justifiable to fans, or at the very least understandable. Spinel was left behind because she was horribly clingy and wouldn’t leave Rose alone. It wasn’t right, of course, but we all have moments of friendship we’re not proud of that perhaps involve ghosting someone without explanation. Rose may have bubbled Bismuth, but it was because of the Breaking Point (although she should have explained to the other Crystal Gems why she did it). Despite lying about her origin, Rose did start the rebellion against home world, one that ultimately led to the relative peace we now have in Steven Universe Future.
Steven Universe’s series arc has been Steven slowly discovering the secrets of his mom and trying to process them. At first, he just wanted to learn everything he could about her, but the more he has discovered, the more complicated Rose became. Steven has learned of both the good and bad Rose has done and has had to learn to reconcile the two. While the other Crystal Gems saw Rose as a hero and mentor, Steven began to see her as the person who left him with all her responsibilities. The more faith he put in trying to rationalize her actions, the more he was disappointed when he learned the actual reasoning behind them. At first, the war against the diamonds seemed perfectly justified… until he found out she was just trying to get out of having a tough conversation with them. The end result was good but the reason it all started, not so much.
By the end of season five, he had seemed to come to a peace about it, even if that peace basically equates to not thinking about it too much. The Diamonds were finally willing to stop their conquests so that meant he didn’t have to keep interrogating his own feelings about Rose’s relationship with them. He learned to love himself and that meant he had to accept his mom in some way too, since he carries her gem. Forgiving her was the only way to be happy, it seemed.
Then we come to “Volleyball”, which adds an even bigger crime to Rose’s past. We learn that, before our Pearl, Rose had another Pearl that was named Volleyball by Steven. Volleyball has a crack in her eye that can’t be repaired by Steven’s magic spit. Desperate to solve this problem, Steven, Pearl, and Volleyball journey to a place that was meant to heal Volleyball’s eye, but even that doesn’t work.
There, Volleyball reveals a story Pearl and Steven have never heard: Once, Rose was so mad about not getting her own colony that it “set her off.” The exchange between Pearl and Volleyball says volumes.
Pearl: “Set her off? What are you talking about?”
Volleyball: “You remember how she was with her destructive powers, throwing tantrums left and right, she had a scream that could crack the walls. She didn’t mean to hurt me. I just happened to be standing too close to her that time.”
This is a bombshell for Steven and his reaction is the same as the audience’s: anger. How could Rose do something like this? She caused permanent physical and psychological damage to Volleyball. The show does not go out of its way to excuse this. In fact, Pearl tells Volleyball:
“I’m sorry for not believing you. It looks like I’m still making excuses for her.”
Volleyball tries to rationalize it with, “She didn’t mean to.”
Pearl counters, “But you were hurt, badly hurt.”
This isn’t about rationalizing away Rose’s actions. The focus here is on how Volleyball (and by extension Pearl) feel about this. This was a smart move by the creative staff because it contextualizes this obviously abusive behavior, intended or not, as inexcusable. I fully agree: what Rose did was horrific.
So…should Steven forgive Rose? Should he wipe away any of the good feelings he has about her because of this? Is every good thing he’s learned tainted by this knowledge? Should he turn his back on her legacy? Should he destroy the painting of her he only so recently put in Lion’s mane for safe keeping? Should he try to be understanding? Should he instead focus on all the good she did after this horrific moment?
These are… complicated questions to attempt to answer and everyone will have their own opinions. Without question, Rose has done bad things. The show has not made light of it. It wouldn’t surprise me if we uncovered more bad things from Rose’s past by the time Steven Universe Future is over.
But… Rose has tried to change. The fused Pearl(s) says as much at the end of the episode. In fact, it seems as if this (apparently) unintended act of violence spurred a great deal of change in Rose. We have to fill in the gaps for now, but Rose left Volleyball behind and got the Pearl we know. She felt so horrific about what happened, she decided to hide most of her other feelings. A critical part of the exchange between Pearl and Volleyball hints at this.
Pearl: “Pink didn’t have any destructive powers, she was a healer. She didn’t throw tantrums she kept her feelings secret.”
Volleyball: “The Pink I knew couldn’t keep a secret to save her Gem.”
Pearl: “Are you kidding? If anything she was too good at keeping secrets, even from me!”
Rose retreated from her feelings to avoid hurting anyone else like she hurt Volleyball. She knew she had to change and she did her best to do so, even if she has stumbled through that work. The knee-jerk reaction of completely cutting off your emotions is understandable. Rose didn’t want to hurt anyone else, and she thought keeping people at arm’s length was the best way to do that.
However, this distance caused problems of a different sort, as Pearl stated. Rose was too good at keeping to herself, too good at not dealing with issues head on. Instead, she ran away from them. She ran from Volleyball, the diamonds, Bismuth, Spinel, even life itself in some ways. Rose was desperate to make up for this original sin, and ended up hurting more people in the process.
So… should Steven forgive Rose?
There is no clear-cut, easy-to-understand answer. It’s easy to say “of course” and be done with it. She hurt Volleyball. We can’t condone that. But what happens if you want to try and be better? What happens when you truly realize you’ve done something horrific and want to change? Are you just written off as bad forever and never allowed a chance to try and be a better person?
It’s a complicated answer. Obviously, Volleyball, if she so wishes, should never have to deal with Rose again. It’s not on her to forgive Rose or accept her as a changed person. Same for anyone else who was hurt by her, including Steven!
So… should Steven forgive Rose?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Rose… is flawed. She is a flawed person and every character in this show surely has complicated opinions of Rose based on their differing experiences with her. The good times she has had with some characters does not erase the bad ones she has had with others… but does her trying to change mitigate those bad things? Is simply her intention to get better a magical cure-all for Steven’s moral dilemma?
This is even more complicated because we’ve been given little information about Rose throughout the series. Large gaps are missing and a huge new one is what she did directly after hurting Volleyball. Perhaps she pledged she wanted to get better… but what did she actually do to make that happen? You can say you want to be better but there’s a limit to that. If you’re saying “I want to be better” but are still hurting others, then your intention only means so much. It’s a good starting point, as it seems it was for Rose, but the intention isn’t action. It isn’t making a real change that includes taking accountability for your actions and changing the impact you have on the world.
Rose did some good things, yes, but was it enough? Was it enough to prove she was making a real change? This, again, is complicated. Do you just need to do X number of good deeds in order to balance out Y number of bad actions? There’s no easy answer to that one, but an important element that should be the start of any accountability?
Rose needed to truly confront what she did instead of running away. She needed to own up to her actions and how they harmed others. As it seems right now, she realized she did something wrong and ran away from it. She didn’t take responsibility, she didn’t consider how this hurt Volleyball in the long run. She just ran away. The same thing she did with the diamonds, Spinel, and everything else in her life.
Steven is now faced with a similar issue. He wants to run away from all these horrible feelings. He doesn’t want to hear anymore about all the awful things his mother did… but he can’t run away from it. If he doesn’t, he may end up hurting people the same way Rose did. The more he runs away from it, the more he buries it deep, the more it’ll end up bubbling to the surface in destructure ways. We’ve seen this already in his battle with Jasper in ‘Little Homeschool’ and his damaging of the Reef. He was close to hurting Pearl and Volleyball in the same way Rose did.
But the crucial thing for me is that Rose is sincerely trying to change. Both Rose and Steven could take a lesson from Pearl. When comforting Volleyball, Pearl admits that she’s never stopped hurting from what happened and that’s what allows her to fuse with Volleyball. Pearl is able to recognize and feel these difficult emotions. She doesn’t run away from them, like Rose did. Pearl learns to confront them head on, messy as it can be.
That’s what Rose should have done. If she had let herself feel her pain, she might not have hurt more people as a result of it. Still, she was genuinely trying. That alone means she is worthy of Steven’s forgiveness, if he’s willing to give it.
That’s the ultimate answer to the question of this article. Only he can decide, just as we as individual viewers can decide. There’s no one answer. However, with the hopeful message of Steven Universe it’s more than likely it’ll choose the path of forgiveness.
Rose is definitely not a perfect person; the show has gone out of it ways across its entire run to address that. She’s complicated and deeply flawed. That’s what makes her such a fascinating character for both the show and Steven to explore.
This kind of moral question is setting Steven up for an emotional journey that is rarely seen in TV: that of learning to deal with a mother who is neither a saint nor a full-on monster, but rather something in-between. If the series made Rose a remorseless monster, it would rob this story of much of its power. By making Rose complicated, it better reflects real life. People are not as cut-and-dry as we sometimes want them to be. Rarely can someone fit inside a simple dichotomy of good and bad. It’s more of a spectrum—one that Rose falls more on one side. Even with a Gem in her stomach, Rose is a deeply-flawed person. One that is trying her best, even if she still makes mistakes along the way.
(It must be reiterated once again that I am not trying to excuse Rose’s actions against Volleyball. These were horrific and I hope we get to see more of Volleyball trying to heal herself, both physically and mentally.)
Shamus Kelley is a pop culture/television writer and official Power Rangers expert. Follow him on Twitter! He also co-hosts a Robotech podcast, which covers the original series and the new comics. Give it a listen! Read more articles by him here!