Tonight’s extra-length Gravity Falls, “A Tale Of Two Stans,” is fully aware that it’s the big explanations episode. It repeatedly winks at the fact that, to a certain sector of the show’s fandom, the tragic history of the twins Stanford and Stanley Pines is going to run a very distant second to all the theories and conspiracies kicked around over the last three years—and yes, this show started three years ago, despite being only midway through its second season!—to explain the myriad mysteries surrounding Grunkle Stan and the journals. There’s Dipper, who squeals whenever the journals are mentioned and less than tactfully peppers the just returned Ford with questions about the town’s mysteries. There’s Soos, who warns the elder Pines twins that the story they tell better align with his fan fiction and keeps Wendy up deep into the wee hours of the morning explaining the story, which sounds utterly ludicrous and convoluted stripped of its emotional context. That last point is particularly crucial: The episode’s treatment of Dipper and Soos in general is the show’s way of saying, “Yeah, we get it, honestly, but stay with us here,” and that credits sequence is a reminder of just how meaningless this would all be if the episode were just explanations. (Although, yes, I’m aware that’s a popular thing these days.)

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Even then, there’s a sense that “A Tale Of Two Stans” must sometimes strain to pull our Grunkle Stan into a fully coherent character, pulling together all the little jokes and throwaway references that have piled up over the past 30 episodes, at least some of which probably weren’t meant to be part of some self-consistent master biography. The fact that both Stans are the younger twins’ great-uncles also makes for some tricky narrative needle-threading, especially when their childhood story can only work if they have each other and nobody else; I guess it’s possible for Dipper and Mabel’s grandparent to be a baby in the indeterminate ‘60s, though the math there is tight, to say the least. (And don’t think I didn’t try to do all the journalism to verify that.) None of this is meant to be a demerit for the episode, but rather a way of pointing out that “A Tale Of Two Stans” doesn’t make everything hang together perfectly. The reason it might appear that way, though, is that this episode is so elegant in how it builds toward the more basic truth, one found in the emotional story of Stanford and Stanley.

What’s clever about all this is that the two Stans so perfectly complement each other, with neither really able to reach his full potential without the other. Oh sure, Ford gets a whole heck of a lot further than our Stan, but that’s only because his “normal” brother sticks up for him in childhood and makes him feel accepted, and Ford’s move to Gravity Falls makes it clear that he needs the more levelheaded Stan there to keep him balanced. Ford is way more in the right than Grunkle Stan is—I mean, that’s pretty much true of any scenario involving Grunkle Stan—yet there’s no doubting the sincerity of his final warning to his returned twin: For all Stan’s many misdeeds, he’s not the one whose initial decision to come to Gravity Falls ended up putting Dipper and Mabel in harm’s way, and there’s a legitimate argument to make that everything he’s done since then has been to keep the twins safe and bring his lost brother home. (And make so, so much money.) I mean, you could keep going back and forth on who precisely is cleaning up whose still earlier mess, but it’s hard not to come away from “A Tale Of Two Stans” without thinking that Stan has suffered more than enough for his past misdeeds.

As ever, this all works because Gravity Falls deftly balances humor with emotion, and not just with the self-aware silliness of Soos and the twins in the present day. While the time period of the elder Pines’ childhood is indeterminately ‘60s, the decision to set their younger days on the New Jersey seaside is a bit of wonderfully specific brilliance (which also opens up the latest source of fan speculation, namely that they’re from the same shore community as the Belchers). The casual aggressiveness of the Stans’ childhood is a fun counterpoint to the endless gullibility of the Gravity Falls townspeople, and Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks is just inspired casting as their forever unimpressed father. Banks—and Simmons too, for that matter—brings such a natural, lived-in quality to his performance that it doesn’t matter how silly his lines and his character’s look are. Enlisting actors of this caliber lets Gravity Falls have it both ways: Young Stan’s exile can have all the goofy gags the writers want, yet the emotional beats can still and when they need to.

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And that, more than anything, feels like the real revelation of “A Tale Of Two Stans,” namely just how much of a failure and screw-up Stanley was, that his life only ever worked when he had Stanford by his side … or when he had assumed his identity. Grunkle Stan is such an effortlessly smooth, shamelessly sleazy operator in the present day that it’s easy to assume his cons were always so successful, that being kicked out of his own home would spur him to build an ill-gotten fortune out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Not so, and it adds an extra note of poignancy when Ford understandably insists that, at summer’s end, he will be taking back his home and taking back his life. Everything vaguely worthwhile about Grunkle Stan—whether that’s his monetary success or his relationship with Dipper and Mabel—has come when he was Stanford. What is there even worth going back to as Stanley?

But enough of all that heavy stuff: “A Tale Of Two Stans” is a bonanza for longtime fans, offering everything from the return of the shopkeepers (and those no-good teenagers with their disrespectful rap music!) from “The Inconveniencing” to an origin story for Lazy Susan’s eye to a childhood glimpse of Will Forte’s catchphrase-spouting biker. And I think that speaks as much as anything to the triumph of this episode: It’s driven not as much by a perfunctory need to explain and to connect narrative dots as it is by an honest respect for the audience, by a sincere urge to weave all the random little details that have accumulated over the past decade of the show’s run—going to have to check that exact figure, but it sure sounds right—into this larger tapestry. That’s why there doesn’t feel like any particular doubt that the show can keep going, even as the mystery that has supposed driven the show from day one has been more or less solved. Because, like any great show, the mystery only ever matters to the extent that it tells us something about the characters, and “A Tale Of Two Stans” recognizes that Ford’s role as a source of exposition runs a distant second to his place as someone whose very presence could disrupt the status quo forever. I suppose, just as long as Dipper and Mabel never grow up and get stupid, we should be okay. But that is so rarely guaranteed…

Stray observations:

  • “I got the other thing—what is it called? Oh, right, punching!” Even as a kid, Stan was on point.
  • “Apparently gold is some kind of rare metal!”
  • “I’ve got a mullet, Stanford!” Yeah, no two way around that one, Stanley: That’s bleak.
  • “And so the Murder Hut was born! Later renamed the Mystery Shack.”

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