“I’m hoping this all aligns exactly with my fanfic, Stan. If not, I will be very disappointed.” Gravity Falls does a lot with that line- points out the obsessive nature of fandom, lampshades Soos’ equally obsessive love of Stan- but it’s also a rather appropriate way to describe the challenge Gravity Falls’ writers must have faced when writing “A Tale of Two Stans.” “Not What He Seems” needed to properly set up the show’s biggest revelation so far in a way that would be satisfying to both those who’d guessed at it in advance and those who hadn’t; “A Tale of Two Stans” needs to elaborate on that reveal while meeting the same expectations, along with juggling the trials of exposition. It’s remarkable that it does so well in the face of those challenges, even if it feels like no episode of Gravity Falls before, especially in terms of its surprisingly serious nature.
Everyone was expecting answers out of this episode, but many of the ones we got are wholly unexpected. We all wanted to know how Stanford got in that portal; we all wanted to know how Dipper and Mabel would react to the news that they have another Grunkle. But “A Tale of Two Stans” delivers much more subtle answers on many fronts, particularly in the case of Grunkle Stan- Stanley– Pines. This episode doesn’t just offer an answer as to why he’d steal his brother’s identity and work on the portal in his basement for thirty years, but it also does wonders in explaining facets of his personality that one wouldn’t expect would need explanations. But everything from Stan’s tattoo (as it turns out, not a tattoo at all) to his constant pursuit of money has an origin in this episode, and it all ties together with remarkable coherence. Stan may be a success in Gravity Falls, but that little backwoods town is the only place where he can be successful, and that success was born of a lie that lasted decades. It’s a reveal that happens at a perfect time in the series- when we’ve grown to love Stan enough that the idea that he wasn’t as good as we thought in “Not What He Seems” was genuinely scary, and that seeing him downtrodden and homeless for much of this episode is surprisingly sobering.
Equal development, if not even more, is needed for his brother Stanford. Ford’s introduction immediately establishes him as a previously unknown major character, and integrating him into the main cast on such short notice certainly requires a lot of buildup. His relationship with Stan, luckily, provides more than enough to show the layers of his personality within the half-hour we’re given. The bitter, disenchanted Ford who came out of that portal is certainly a lot different than the imaginative child we meet at the start of the episode, but it’s not hard to see how he got where he is, even with a thirty-year hole in his life we haven’t seen. Ford felt the only way to overcome his weirdness- which seemed to distract everyone from his talents- was to become enormously impressive, the millionaire his high school principal once said he could be. The impact of losing that chance thus hit him harder than most, to the point where even a PHD wouldn’t mend the wound, simply because it was from a second choice college. Ford’s incredibly intelligent, and likely the only person to ever uncover most of Gravity Falls’ secrets; but he’s also endlessly stubborn, and it’s not hard to argue that if he could simply get over his past, he never would have gotten into that portal. As a child, he wished there was a place for weirdos like him- and it’s a shame he never got to know the residents of Gravity Falls, because they certainly would have been accommodating.
The emotional factor of seeing the original Pines twins grow up and drift apart is what makes this episode more than just an exposition-fest, and that’s not just obvious to a viewer, but to Dipper and Mabel as well. Of course, Dipper doesn’t just share his great uncle Ford’s fascination with the anomalous, but his inability to see past his own feelings as well; he may have forgiven Stan once he realized Stan’s secrets were kept just to save his brother, but the most important thing on his agenda is still getting info about the town, and his sheer excitement over knowing the author of the journals. Mabel, on the other hand, understands the underlying message of the older twins’ stories: that even the closest of people can grow apart. Mabel knows Stan enough to know that she’s the Stan to Dipper’s Ford, too, and that hearing that Stan spent so much of his life miserable isn’t very uplifting. “A Tale of Two Stans” is a surprisingly non-dramatic episode in terms of its present day storyline, dispatching the FBI relatively unceremoniously, but Mabel staring up at the ceiling in the final scene is enough to imply peace won’t stay for long, even if it’s just emotional peace.
- Gravity Falls went out of its way to get good voices for this episode- not just J.K. Simmons as Ford, but also Jonathan Banks as Great-Grandpa Pines, something I don’t think got leaked before this episode premiered like Simmons’ role did.
- What has Ford been dealing with for thirty years on the other side of that portal? Could that be part of why he’s still so mad at Stan, even though Stan saved him?
- An interesting note: Dipper may be more like Ford, but Ford doesn’t take to him as quickly as he takes to Mabel, probably because Mabel is so much like the Stan from his childhood. “I like this kid! She’s weird!”
- All those stories Stan told about being picked on and bad with girls as a kid were probably about Ford, in retrospect.
- “I know what you two little broken teacups need! To hug it out! Hug it out! Hug train’s coming to the station!” Mabel is a shining star in this otherwise dark episode; see also her drawings Ford picks through at the end. “What has science wrought?”
- Gravity Falls is apparently literally in “Roadkill County, Oregon.”
- The callbacks in this episode were fabulous without being overdone (which would distract from the backstory)- we get everything from the origin to the shapeshifter to how Lazy Susan got her lazy eye. My personal favorite was “Shmembulock…Senior.”
- How come McGucket was traumatized after being through the portal for about a minute, but Ford’s doing fine after thirty years? Is it just a matter of getting used to what’s on the other side?
- Speaking of which, Ford better regret what happened to McGucket when he finds out what’s gone on with him.
- If those theories that Bill controls Gompers the goat are true, then Ford’s gonna regret giving Gompers that USB drive.
- “I’ll stay down in the basement and try to contain any remaining damage. Also because we can’t afford J.K. Simmons every episode.”