Disney XD’s Gravity Falls ended its most recent episode on a major cliffhanger: Not only does Grunkle Stan (voiced by series creator Alex Hirsch) have a previously unseen brother, but that brother is also the six-fingered author of the journals that exposed twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) to the strange and supernatural truth about their great uncle’s hometown. “Unseen” being the operative term there, as Hirsch and his team have peppered signs of a secret Pines brother throughout Gravity Falls—reaching back to the series’ earliest passages. Following the premiere of “Not What He Seems,” The A.V. Club emailed our most burning questions about the episode to Hirsch; in his responses, the Gravity Falls creator writes about what “Not What He Seems” means for his characters, why those characters are more important than any mysteries they may solve, and how the Internet cracked the case long before Dipper and Mabel could.
The A.V. Club: Why make these revelations now? Did you build the cliffhanger into season two knowing that there’d be a hiatus at some point?
Alex Hirsch: There were a number of reasons, but that was definitely a consideration. It’s not easy to predict how the episodes will be spaced out, and in season one we were told by the channel that there would be a large mid-season hiatus. So to prepare for that contingency this time we decided to treat season two almost like two seasons, each with their own rising tensions and story arcs. That way if it was split up again we’d at least be breaking it into satisfying chapters.
But the other reason—and possibly more important one—is that half of the fandom had already figured the mystery out! As early as “Carpet Diem” in season one, fans were beginning to speculate about the meaning of the mysterious glasses in the Carpet Room, and during the year break between seasons, those speculations grew into full-blown “Stan has a brother!” exposés by the fans. I’m talking PowerPoint presentations, flow charts, timelines—this is probably the first time a Disney TV show has been analyzed like the Zapruder film. When we began season two, we knew that we couldn’t wait all season to dig into this. Halfway through the season seemed like a good compromise.
AVC: The authorship of the three journals was one of Gravity Falls’ biggest mysteries. How do you feel now that you no longer have to keep that secret? Does this free you up to tell stories that go beyond the contents of the journals—or is it the start of a whole new mystery?
AH: Gravity Falls is a show about mysteries and magic but first and foremost it’s a show about characters. The arrival of a new member of the Pines family will have ripples that dramatically affect the lives of Dipper, Mabel, Stan, and others. It’s exciting to finally reveal this big answer, but even more exciting to me are the new mysteries that this will begin to illuminate. Stan sacrificed so much to bring his brother back, but who is Stan’s brother? Why was McGucket so worried? How are the children’s destinies tied up in all this? What is Bill Cipher really after—and who is the true villain in Gravity Falls? For fans of the show, the mystery has only just begun.
AVC: Was Stan’s brother part of your original concept for Gravity Falls? Or was he a piece of the puzzle that presented itself after the series was in production?
AH: Believe it or not, Stan having a secret brother was the plan from the very beginning, and if you start to go down the Reddit rabbit hole, I think your mind might be a little blown by just how many clues and hints we planted pointing to this conclusion, even going back to the very first episode. From blatant things like Stan’s license plate having the wrong name (seen in episode 102, “The Legend Of The Gobblewonker”), to metaphorical clues, like the broken two-kid swing set in Stan’s mind (seen in episode 120 “Dreamscaperers”). Even the title of this episode is a reference to the code “Stan is Not What He Seems” hidden in the theme song seen in our very first episode. Ever wondered why Stan was so distraught at his wax doppelgänger’s “death” in “Headhunters”? The Internet sure did, and they’ve been very busy putting it all together ever since!
AVC: How can Stan rebuild the trust Mabel and Dipper had in him? Or is that bridge burned?
AH: Mabel is a character who’s trusting and forgiving by nature, and I think as long as she believes someone’s heart is in the right place she will give them a second, third, and fourth chance. Dipper isn’t nearly as trusting, so I think that when someone finally earns his trust, it is much more heartbreaking to have it violated. Remember: The kids knew Stan as a liar before they knew him as someone who truly cared about them, so I think for a character like Dipper, he’s more mad at himself that he let himself trust an obvious con man like Stan in the first place. It’s a huge blow to his ego, a huge betrayal, and I think it will leave him feeling isolated from his family in a way he hasn’t been before. Where these feelings take Dipper will be explored in the upcoming episodes.
AVC: In making “Not What He Seems,” were there any cliffhanger episodes from other series that you looked to as an inspiration, or as a guide for what to do/what not to do?
AH: Cliffhangers are a lot of fun, but I think they can be easily abused if you’re not careful. The test I use is this: “Would the episode have still been satisfying on its own, even without the cliffhanger?” If the answer is yes, then the storyteller has earned the twist. If the answer is no, you’re making a soap opera—an endless trail of breadcrumbs but no actual bread. Episodes like last season’s “Gideon Rises” deliver an entire satisfying adventure with its own conclusion before blindsiding you with the cliffhanger, and our goal is to follow that model.
AVC: There’s a “government agents coming for E.T.” vibe to the arrest scene in “Not What He Seems.” Were you hoping to show that Agents Powers and Trigger could pose as great a threat to the Pines as any of the paranormal forces in Gravity Falls?
AH: Definitely. I remember as a kid being scared of the things that go bump in the night, but I was way more scared of adults. We wanted to show that in the world of Gravity Falls, Stan’s actions have had serious consequences, and that Dipper and Mabel are up against something they’ve never faced before. Ultimately though, the agents are just a plot device. Their most important role, from a narrative perspective, is to act as a catalyst to turn our characters against each other and force them to confront their allegiances to one another.
AVC: The events of “Not What He Seems” affect the whole town—were there any citizens of Gravity Falls that you were hoping to integrate into the episode, but couldn’t?
AH: Our episodes have a strict 21-minute time length, and if I go even one frame over that, Mickey Mouse will eat me in my sleep. So every episode has ideas, characters, jokes, and scenes that I wish I could have included but had to be cut for time. Characters are sometimes skipped if they don’t directly affect the plot and we’re tight on time. “Northwest Mansion Mystery,” for example, didn’t have any Soos in it at all for this reason. This is actually something that fans frequently dedicate totally undue drama to. I see stuff like, “There was no Robbie this week! He must be dead!” “Mabel had less lines this week than last week! Hirsch hates Mabel!” “WHERE’S GRENDA?! I ONLY WANT GRENDA!” I’m glad fans love the characters so much, but rest assured Gravity Falls fans! Whoever your favorite character is, they’ll be back, and it’ll be awesome.
AVC: Is there any significance to the “C” shape that the secret code to Stan’s hideout forms on the vending machine keypad? “C” for “Cipher, Bill” maybe? Or is this a “Is it a rock, or is it a face? I think it’s a metaphor” situation?
AH: Your tin foil hat is starting to show, Erik! We never intended any significance to the shape of Stan’s secret vending machine code, but just the fact that you’re asking these questions makes me very happy. When I was 12 years old, I was obsessed with codes, conspiracies, and secret messages. I would record TV commercials with SoundRecorder.exe on Windows 95 and reverse them to see if I was being subliminally influenced to watch Pokémon by Japanese spies. (It turns out I wasn’t. Or was I?) My goal with Gravity Falls is to make people as paranoid and insane as I was as a child, and I’m delighted to see it’s working! Haha. Gravity Falls has transformed the children of America into an army of Dippers. I couldn’t be more proud!
AVC: Where are you planning to take the show from here? And how soon until a new episode airs?
AH: Networks are pretty tight lipped about programming strategies, but I’ve been told that Gravity Falls will return “this summer.” Although I don’t know the exact date, you can trust me: The wait will be worth it. Anyone who enjoyed this first half of the season will have their face melted off by the second half. Get ready!