I touched on aspects of this issue in my relatively negative assessment of “Soos And The Real Girl,” but Soos is quietly Gravity Falls’ trickiest character. While he works just fine as a big lovable man-child, that characterization is a fundamentally superficial one. Any attempt to dig below the surface has to understand why Soos is so unable to function as anything resembling a sensible adult, and the honest answer is that people probably don’t turn out like Soos without something going at least a little wrong somewhere. In particular, someone as resolutely good-natured as Soos likely isn’t going to hate his birthday without a very good, very sad reason. The revelation that young Soos was neglected by his deadbeat dad is entirely logical and entirely heartbreaking. Tonight’s episode knows it is playing with fire by introducing this bit of backstory, let alone having Dipper and Mabel set about trying to solve it. This could all go very wrong very quickly, which is why it’s so reassuringly mature of the show for Dipper to observe, “This goes beyond anything we know how to fix.”

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It’s that recognition that the episode has written itself into a corner that allows Gravity Falls to push right through it. “Blendin’s Game” has its proverbial infinite pizza slice and eats it too by having Dipper admit this is a problem with no easy, instant solution and then have disgraced time traveler Blendin Blenjamin Blandin immediately yell about how time wishes provide an easy, instant solution for any problem. There’s still a trace of uneasiness as Dipper and Mabel set about getting the time wish, as it’s doubtful Soos would benefit from knowing his father at all, but every time the episode confronts this issue directly, it manages just the right level of nuance. When the twins explain to Soos what gift they have gotten for him, they only suggest that he might want to use the time wish to see his father; they allow him to make his own choice. On that score, Soos’ decision to fix up the twins—and get himself an infinite slice of pizza, which really is a good time wish—is a very sweet affirmation that character trumps plot. Perhaps there’s a story to tell one day about Soos’ dad, but this is not a story that should be defined by that jerk’s presence; rather, it is his absence that matters here, and more than that why Soos’ friendship with the twins means he is under no obligation to feel that absence at all.

This maturity is what defines Gravity Falls at its best, and it’s found all over “Blendin’s Game.” Perhaps the cleverest moment of tonight’s episode comes when Dipper meets the pint-sized Wendy, who unleashes some intergalactic levels of awkwardness by finding the Pines brother cute. For a split-second, it might appear that Gravity Falls is going to use this interaction to pry back open Dipper and Wendy’s thankfully shut relationship window, as though young Wendy’s words are proof of some time-crossed romance. Nah. Dipper instantly recognizes just how uncomfortable this interaction is, and his mutterings in response to Mabel’s “Now you know how she feels, creep!” speak volumes. It’s a great, unexpected way to make totally clear that Dipper—and, more importantly, the show—understands why it was time to move on from that crush.

That insight is also on display in the smaller moments, as when Wendy carefully points out that the Pines twins weren’t to know about Soos’ hatred of his birthday. Her assurance is such a tiny little detail, as is her subsequent wondering whether it wouldn’t be better just to leave Soos to his sadness, but it’s these moments that help to flesh out the larger web of character interactions and relationship dynamics that make Gravity Falls so special. The show necessarily revolves around Dipper and Mabel, but the show works hard to ensure all the other characters have inner lives, too, even if it’s just Toby Determined and his doomed dancing dreams.

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While these more tender moments are what move “Blendin’s Game” into classic status, it would be silly to ignore just how funny this episode is. The far future of 207̃012 is a wonderfully ludicrous place, an apparent dystopian nightmare that instantly becomes much nicer the instant the twins show up. The Time Baby rides the line between Lovecraftian horror and, well, a baby, and the episode has great fun filtering all its godlike actions through the more familiar behaviors of an infant. As for Blendin Blandin, Gravity Falls has shifted somewhat in its treatment of the character in the two years since “The Time Traveler’s Pig,” and a lot of that could well be attributable to the rising star of voice actor Justin Roiland: He is Rick and Morty, after all, and tonight’s episode pokes merciless fun at his distinctive voice. His insistence that he will just keep stammering until Lolph and Dundgren track down the twins feels especially on the nose, as does the guards’ relieved discovery that it’s possible to mute him. But then, the jokes work fine without any such real-world subtext. Blandin’s treatment here is funny irrespective of who happens to be voicing him—well, other than the fact that Roiland is particularly gifted at wringing laughs from otherwise throwaway lines like “That’s a good time wish!”

Another thing that elevates “Blendin’s Game” is that it knows which of its elements to focus on and which to scale back. Time travel is a narrative gingerbread house, and it would have been so easy for the show to get sidetracked by mythology concerns: Dipper and Mabel could have ended up chasing some clue from 10 years ago, or they even could have tried to use the time wish to solve the mystery. Gravity Falls eschews that serialized plot tonight in favor of something tighter and more character-centric. Again, this isn’t just in the big-picture storytelling but also in the episode-specific plotting: Consider how the episode is careful to not let the Globnar competition overwhelm everything else, even going for an intentional anticlimax with the laser tag conclusion. Even for a show as wild and imaginative as Gravity Falls, it’s still possible to be overambitious, and “Blendin’s Game” succeeds as much because of what it doesn’t try to do as what it does. The mystery of Soos’ father can wait. A full examination of the show’s insane timeline can wait. The bigger mysteries of Gravity Falls can definitely wait. All that really matters here is that Soos realizes he is loved and that his birthday is worth celebrating. It’s exhilarating just how Gravity Falls gets us to that point, but it’s that sneaky simplicity and that fine-grained understanding of character that makes tonight’s entry so terrific.

Stray observations:

  • I’ll admit I’m a little surprised that Soos was quite that young 10 years ago. This would appear to put him in his early to mid-20s, which seems a little young, but I suppose it’s not utterly implausible. Honestly, Soos is kind of ageless.
  • “Is this a reality show? Are we in Japan?
  • “Gam-gam, how could you?” “I ain’t no one’s gam-gam, sucker! You just got time tricked!”
  • “They might have powder muskets or slap bracelets!”

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