This is a deceptively simple episode that marks something of a turning point in the narrative.
The story begins when Steven rediscovers the Moon Goddess statue from episode 3, which subsequently reminds him of his failure on that mission.
Garnet: You did your best on that mission, and that’s what counts.
Steven: But the Sea Spire! It was a special, important Gem place.
Pearl: Oh, Steven, no no no! If the Spire had been crucial, we wouldn’t have used it as a test for you. It’s fine, really.
Pearl is really excellent at digging holes for herself (and occasionally the other Gems). And something tells me that was more of an executive decision from Garnet which Pearl adopted after the mission failed, considering that she did seem quite keen on saving the Spire in that episode. And knowing that it was a “test” (which he subsequently failed) doesn’t make Steven feel any better about the outcome.
Steven: I need another test! A hard one!
Pearl: But Steven, you’ve come so far…
Steven: Let me prove it! Test me! Test me!
So they all work together to build a dungeon for him (which is naturally quite video game-esque, much like the Sea Spire).
I must commend Amethyst for the purple Indiana Jones aesthetic (I suppose it was only a matter of time for the one with the whip to make an Indy reference).
Steven: Oh, a music puzzle! Must be Pearl’s room. Only she would make me think.
Everything goes more or less as expected until he reaches the end of Garnet’s fire-themed room, where he’s ambushed by spikes.
And this is when he realizes that none of the seemingly lethal obstacles will actually hurt him.
Steven: What? It didn’t even matter? This too? Everything’s rigged!
Honestly, either Garnet seriously overestimated Steven’s reflexes, or else I’m tempted to say she wanted him to see it was rigged…maybe.
Steven: I…can’t believe it. “It won’t be easy”, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it”! How am I supposed to prove myself if you guys keep-
Amethyst: What’s taking him so long?
Then he gets to hear what the Crystal Gems were thinking with their “test”, and like many episodes of this show, I’m blindsided by the feels.
Garnet: It’s impossible for him to fail.
Amethyst: Ugh! So what’s the point?
Pearl: The point is that he’s come so far! He can make Rose’s bubble, and he’s pulled out Rose’s shield twice, but he’s lost his healing powers…we need to give him another success. He can’t lose his confidence like that again!
Amethyst: …We’re bad at this.
Amethyst: Yeah. You can’t control him, and he shouldn’t be taking advice from me, and we don’t have Rose to tell us what to do!
Pearl: But he needs us to show him how to be a Gem!
Garnet: Steven is not just a Gem. There has never been anything or anyone like Steven. We don’t know what he needs.
It’s a moment of surprising vulnerability from all three of them. They don’t really know what they’re doing, only that they have a responsibility to Steven to help him grow, like every parent or guardian. And in that moment, Steven grows up a bit, as recognizing that your parents are fallible beings, too (just with the added perspective of however many more years), is a necessary step in growing up.
Then he stoically finishes the dungeon, where he’s met by the Gems’ applause and congratulations – an obvious nod to the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where the whiny teen protagonist has a sudden breakthrough of self-actualization. I’m pretty sure this is meant as a contrast, since Steven knows that it’s all essentially meaningless.
Steven: I can’t believe you guys. That was so…insane! Where do I even begin? Man, you guys should’ve seen me! […] I did it! I really did it! I…you guys are the best. Thank you so much for doing this for me. This was just what I needed.
On one hand, hearing how far they think he’s come had to be encouraging to him, but he’s clearly doing this more to validate them than the other way around. He finally understands that they might be more lost than he is, and this is one way to help them. On the one hand, it’s always sad when children feel the need to look after the adults in their lives rather than the other way around, but on the other, it marks the beginning of a new epoch in their relationship. At some point, you have to recognize that your parents/guardians are just people, with their own wants and needs, and your relationship can shift to being a more equal exchange.
Thus, from here on out, Steven’s no longer so intent on proving himself to the Crystal Gems, and for their part, they don’t really ask him to. Instead, he begins to understand them all more deeply on a personal level, exploring and expanding their bonds.
Until next time…