Every serialized show has to juggle the weight of its plot with the needs of its characters and viewers. Unless a show has a shorter season- say, ten or thirteen episodes- it’s often illogical and tiring to have every episode be a large, bombastic affair. That’s especially true for Gravity Falls, which just had what may be its two most massive and game-changing episodes ever, and was in deep need of a little downtime. Luckily, it doesn’t squander the opportunity, and makes the episode worth watching for viewers more invested in the plot by using its time to develop the relationships between the two sets of Pines twins.
“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.
When our show started, I was overwhelmed by the amount of passionate, bizarre speculation. A show with an overarching mystery—this type of thing has been going on since Twin Peaks. The asset that we have now is that we have this global community of sleuths inventing and remixing and playing with and questioning and hypothesizing about the answers and trajectory of our series.
The one downside of that, which David Lynch didn’t have to contend with: Cumulatively, the minds of the Internet have solved problems that no single human possibly could. If they can fill holes in a DNA strand, they can fill holes in our plot. [Laughs.] They are now a terrifyingly powerful force to be reckoned with. If you want to keep something a secret, and you also want to tease it, it’s harder than it’s ever been. If one fan comes close to an answer and broadcasts it, it can become as known as the actual plot points—even if it’s not true. It’s a blessing in terms of hyper-engagement. It’s also a curse in terms of “How do our four writers trick the mental might of the entire Internet?”
Before we can talk about “Not What He Seems” as an episode on its own, we need to discuss it in terms of a larger whole- not of the whole of Gravity Falls, but of the whole of the fanbase.
Gravity Falls has been great about giving us unique takes on preteen problems, which makes it all the more interesting that it’s never done a storyline with parents extensively present. Part of that comes from the genre; Dipper and Mabel, in classic fictional protagonist form, have no parental guidance, primarily because Stan really should not be caring for children. But even the children already living in the titular town of Gravity Falls don’t seem to have lives especially entwined with their parents. As it turns out, Pacifica Northwest is the exception, and her relationship with her mother and father is at the forefront of “Northwest Mansion Noir.”
Poor, poor “The Love God”. Following up from three incredibly strong episodes, and directly following “Blendin’s Game”- possibly the most emotionally involving episode the show has ever had- it genuinely suffers in comparison. That’s not to say it’s a bad episode; at this point, I think Gravity Falls is basically unable to have an episode that’s actually bad. In fact, “The Love God” is probably the funniest episode this show has had in some time, running almost completely on jokes. But it unfortunately doesn’t shape up to the high quality the show’s built up as of late, and it’s hard not to see its flaws as especially glaring because of it.
In that sense, this episode is very difficult to talk about. After all, Gravity Falls does need these lighter episodes, sometimes. Without them, the show would become a very different beast, one that’s perhaps a bit too serious, even a bit too serialized. Yes, its ever-present mythos is a large part of what makes the show so unique, and what’s made it so well-loved, but a large part of its appeal is how much of it is hidden from us. So, while these plot-based episodes are usually the series’s best, we need these smaller, sillier episodes. They’re what makes the good of Gravity Falls so good, and they help build the more minor parts of its world, which make the usage of those built elements so much more fulfilling when we deal with them within the plot.
In Person of Interest’s previous season, when Reese cornered HR boss Alonzo Quinn, Quinn told him that the reason HR was so successful was because of loyalty: “that’s how we built the whole damn thing.” Reese would promptly threaten Quinn to the point where Quinn would spill every little detail of his organization’s operations, and that was the end of HR. Even with one of its villainous groups, the show was making a point: everything runs on relationships, even the dirtiest of businesses. The title of “The Devil You Know” is most obviously a reference to the fact that this week the team is protecting Carl Elias, one of its arch-nemesis, but on a deeper level, it’s about the devils we all know. It’s about Elias’s relationship with his henchman Anthony, who turns out to be more than a henchman; it’s about Root and Shaw, and the trust they’ve built over the last few months; and it’s about Link and Dominic, the “young lion[s]” of New York’s criminal underground. We all know devils, and sometimes those devils are the people we love the most in the world- or the people we don’t.
There are a lot of jokes in “Blendin’s Game” whose brilliance can’t really be explained without sounding bizarre. Look, I can’t tell you why I find it hilarious that the people of 207̃012 preface everything with “time” and/or “future”, despite it being their present; they just do, and it’s great (“Ow, my time knee! Oh time dangit!”). The entire concept of Time Baby just sounds kind of wild, but it’s also great. You just have to see it in action. That’s actually true of the more serious aspects of this episode, too, which sound a bit cliche on paper. There are lots of stories about the kid with the missing father, or the character who mysteriously hates a certain day every year, or where the characters travel to the past and run into past versions of the people they know. “Blendin’s Game” doesn’t feel like a unique episode because anything about it is necessarily new. It feels that way because those emotional beats are well-told, well-executed and come to a lovely conclusion.