Tonight’s episode finds Gravity Falls at the height of its powers. It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s more madly ambitious than just about anything else the show has done, and it suggests a template for what the show might look like as it wraps up its first season and begins its second. It nimbly sets up the season’s climactic encounter with Gideon while introducing another, far more formidable character who is almost certain to show up again down the road. It boldly experiments with different animation styles, creating a memorably surreal mindscape without ever letting the absurd elements overwhelm the show’s underlying heart. The episode subtly acknowledges the show’s past while setting up some intriguing hints about the future of Gravity Falls. Most of all, “Dreamscaperers” is a joyous celebration of all that Gravity Falls has accomplished over these first 19 episodes, yet it does so without a whiff of self-congratulation. This episode simply goes out and demonstrates what the show can be when firing on all cylinders.
The episode’s most memorable creation is Bill Cypher, a dream demon that resembles the Eye of Providence wearing a top hat. The writing and Alex Hirsch’s voicework hit a fascinating balance with the character; Bill is capable of genuine rage when his plans don’t work out, yet there’s always the sense that he’s just toying with the kids, allowing them to temporarily beat him because it amuses him. The episode not so subtly hints at Bill’s future plans for Gravity Falls, and there’s also a sly suggestion that he takes on Gideon’s task because of some unfinished business of his own with Stan Pines. The sequence where he rips teeth out of a passing deer and gives it to Gideon is a gleefully disturbing moment, one highlighted by the disquieting background music and the monochrome color scheme. There’s a real sense that Bill represents a presence unlike anything seen before on Gravity Falls, and the show isn’t quite ready to fully play this particular wild card.
If there’s a slight knock on this episode, it’s in its handling of a couple of the main characters. Over the last few episodes, Gravity Falls has made a concerted effort to elevate Mabel to equal status with Dipper, allowing her to take the lead role in “The Deep End” and “Boyz Crazy” while making her the emotional crux of “The Land Before Swine.” She’s still a total goofball, but she’s now a scarily competent goofball who is capable of defeating a demon, at least temporarily. On the other hand, Dipper hasn’t always benefited from the reduced time available for his own stories. His emotional arcs tend to be more complex than Mabel’s, and it often takes time for the show to properly define the contours of his latest issues. In this particular case, Dipper’s issues with Stan come across as a little too arbitrary; it’s possible to see how Stan’s treatment of Dipper could have built up some long-simmering resentment, but their last significant interaction back in “Boyz Crazy” seemed to leave them in a place of mutual understanding, even love. Dipper and Stan’s complicated relationship is worth exploring in more detail, but it feels like a somewhat odd fit for the season’s endgame; ideally, “Dreamscaperers” should offer a valedictory examination of themes and ideas that have run through the course of the season, and this doesn’t quite fit that.
Still, even if the initial impetus for Dipper and Stan’s story is a tad under-motivated, it’s hard to argue with the results. On a basic narrative level, Dipper’s temporary refusal to help Mabel and Soos provides an effective sorting mechanism that separates the characters long enough for each to get their heroic moments; Mabel gets to thwart Bill by shooting the safe combination into the bottomless pit, and then Dipper gets to save his friends from the enraged demon. But more importantly, “Dreamscaperers” reveals just who Stan is in a way it never has before. The crass and confident old man was once a wimpy little kid, someone who let the world walk all over him. There’s room to quibble with whether that description really applies to Dipper, who has demonstrated tremendous bravery time and time again in facing supernatural foes, but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Dipper already more or less believes in himself, but he wants some affirmation that his own great-uncle cares about him. Even if Stan’s tough love is arguably a little misplaced, the key here is that Stan really does love Dipper, and the old man sees a kinship between them that he wouldn’t admit to anyone (other than Soos, I suppose, but I don’t think he counts). As a bonus, the Gravity Falls animation style is particularly well suited to depicting young Stan in a ‘50s milieu, so here’s hoping a time travel episode next season explores that corner of the show’s universe in more detail.
At this point, I suspect the creative team may have hit a bit of a wall when it comes to writing for Wendy; if the show isn’t actively building plots or subplots around her, it seems difficult to incorporate her as a minor player in other stories. Wendy gets two lines here, and her role can essentially be described as “just randomly hanging around the Shack on a rainy day.” That’s not a bad use for her, exactly; I’m not complaining that the show has taken a break from the ongoing story of Dipper’s hopeless crush, and everybody just quietly moving on from the events of “Boyz Crazy” does seem like a decent character decision. But it does make Wendy seem superfluous, and it’s a little disappointing that the show hasn’t yet found a way to incorporate her into the craziness like it has with Soos. After all, the one episode that really throws Wendy into the world of the paranormal is “The Inconveniencing,” which is also the only episode I definitely would place ahead of “Dreamscaperers,” so there’s certainly plenty of potential in giving her more to do.
But perhaps Gravity Falls has evolved in a different direction, namely one that positions Soos as equal with the Pines twins. I wouldn’t be surprised if this episode ends up feeling like an early preview of a typical second season episode, with the slightly altered character dynamics on display here carrying over to next year. For most of the show’s run, Soos has worked well in small doses, but the writers have recently become confident enough to expand Soos’ role. To their credit, they have consistently kept his buffoonery on the right side of obnoxious; indeed, there are multiple moments in tonight’s story where Soos recalls animation’s ultimate loveable oaf, Homer Simpson, particularly when he responds to Bill’s reference to a “fat one” by prodding Mabel and loudly whispering that the demon is talking about her.
In a sense, the show is circling all the way back to the format of its second episode, “The Legend Of The Gobblewonker,” which also featured Soos as a third member of the team. Increasing Soos’ presence generally means the show as a whole gets sillier, which certainly recalls its very early days. And yet, the show has become sophisticated enough in its storytelling and its character work that it can more easily spotlight a character so delightfully silly. Soos works best as comic relief, and Gravity Falls has become just serious and dramatic enough that it can really benefit from the kind of comic relief he offers. Indeed, considering how the episode ends, it looks like the final episode of Gravity Falls’ first season is going to need all the silliness it can muster, because dark days are ahead.
- I realize I spent quite a bit of time discussing my minor problems with this episode, which is partially because so much of what I loved about this episode are things that don’t require much analysis beyond saying, “That was awesome.” So then, Mabel shooting kittens out her arms? That was awesome. The episode’s perfect recreation of crappy, terribly written ‘80s animation in the form of Xyler and Craz? That was awesome. That quick glimpse of Stan’s dad? That was awesome, even if I’m not totally sure why I feel that way. Basically, if something was in this episode and I didn’t mention it in the review, I probably thought it was awesome.
- In terms of this episode celebrating the show’s past, there are some absolutely fantastic callbacks on display here. The return of Mabel’s hamster ball—also from “The Legend Of The Gobblewonker”—is a major highlight, as is a quick glimpse into Stan’s life in a Colombian prison. “Dreamscaperers” also finally acknowledges Stan’s secret door behind the vending machine, but Soos dismisses it as boring. Honestly, if that’s the last we hear of it, I wouldn’t complain all that much.
- “Allo, allo, allo, who’s quite for a stick in the pudding?” Yep, I can see why the British dog-man is so terrifying.
- “Awesome comeback, Mabel!” “Don’t treat me like a child, Xyler.” It’s up against some unimaginably stiff competition, but that might be favorite Kristen Schaal line reading ever. The fact that the patronizing complement comes from John Roberts, who voices the mother of Schaal’s other animated character, is also a great little in-joke.