It’s a crushing line, made no less heartbreaking by the fact that this particular televised summer is now well into its fourth year. Indeed, the glacial pace at which Disney has broadcast new Gravity Falls episodes has disguised just how locked in this show is to a specific time and place. It’s not simply the story of Dipper and Mabel. It’s the story of the summer they spent as 12-year-olds far from home in the strange world of Gravity Falls. There isn’t necessarily a context for the show beyond that, and so much of what makes Mabel who she is has a lot to do with where she is right here and now. She’s still young enough to hold onto her optimism and her innocence, to believe that things will never be better than they are right now and that any change is necessarily bad. She gets a preview of a dark future when Wendy points out the horrors that await her in high school. She understands the more adult sadness of friends drifting away when she learns neither Grenda nor Candy will be able to come to her and Dipper’s birthday party. And she knows the despair of having to go forward without her brother when she overhears Dipper’s plans to remain in Gravity Falls as Ford’s apprentice.
From a narrative perspective, all this is intended to get Mabel to a point of vulnerability where she could be deceived by a Bill Cypher-possessed Blendin Blandin. Honestly, I’m not sure the writing is quite there to sell the awfulness of the day: Mabel has had bad days before, and I’m not sure the details of her plight are quite awful enough to justify her moment of utter hopelessness. But this is why a show isn’t just about the writing. This is, bar none, the best work Kristen Schaal has done on Gravity Falls. She doesn’t need to tell us this is the worst day of her life, as that’s just a slightly melodramatic articulation of something that’s already obvious in her voice. But then, it isn’t just the acting: The animation of Mabel makes her appear nothing short of crumpled. Everything about her suggests someone who is defeated by life in a way we’ve never quite seen her brought low before. The tone with which she ponders Blandin’s offer of perpetual summer is one of melancholy and longing. She knows this is an impossible offer, and she probably knows how dangerous it is to consider it, yet she can’t resist.
All of which is to say, I get it. Summer ends, after all.
There’s only so much I can say at this point about the Weirdmageddon that kicks off in the episode’s closing moments. That’s something you’re all free to discuss now, but it’s hard to say much at this juncture, given that it’s more of a tease for the next episode than a fleshed-out feature of what we see tonight. Just as spectacle, though, the end of the episode is something to behold. It’s hard to say there was ever a time when Gravity Falls was unambitious in its animation, but this still feels like another step forward, in part because of the physicality that underpins the reactions to the chaos unfolding. It’s one thing for madness to be unleashed, but it’s something else again to see the heartbreak on Mabel’s face, the casual evil on the possessed Blandin, the horror in Ford’s reaction. If this is all Gravity Falls has been building up to, then it’s all the more exciting that the show is firing on all possible cylinders.
Much as that ending is liable to drown out all possible topics of discussion, I do want to take a moment to consider what the show offers earlier on. In particular, Ford remains a fascinating addition to the show, because there are some very definite ways in which he’s far more dangerous than Grunkle Stan. As is only to be expected from somebody whose last fight with his twin brother left him stranded for decades in some hellish alternate dimension, Ford has a not particularly disguised mistrust of sibling bonds, and his offers to make Dipper his apprentice are as much about splitting the twins apart as anything else. Now, that’s not quite how Ford would understand what he’s doing, as he would quite plausibly argue that he’s just trying to give Dipper the opportunity to realize his full potential. But that’s the thing: He believes Dipper has to be by himself to reach his full potential, because it was only when Stan left the picture that Ford became all he could be. There’s no malice in Ford’s actions, but there’s plenty of selfishness and unresolved issues, and he fails to comprehend or even consider that Dipper and Mabel have a fundamentally healthy relationship in a way that he and his brother never did.
The big, pre-Weirdmageddon setpiece for this episode is Dipper and Ford facing off against the alien security system. We can quibble with the logic of a security system that only detects adrenaline—as Ford and Dipper ably demonstrate, there are plenty of serious threats out there that are scary precisely because they feel no fear—but I’m inclined to let this slide because it offers such an effective character beat for Dipper. This is also the rare instance where it’s entirely plausible that Ford could be whisked away to some alien planet for an indeterminate period. After all, he’s not a core character on the show, and he’s arguably such a powerful presence that he needs to be out of the way for Dipper and Mabel to really shine. As such, there’s a greater sense of jeopardy here than there might be if, say, Stan were the one in that automated pod, and it makes it all the more impressive when Dipper risks verything to save his great-uncle.
Start to finish, this is a brilliant Gravity Falls episode, one that ably papers over some slight reliance on narrative shorthand with respect to Mabel’s despair through some truly heartbreaking performances and animation. This episode is probably destined to be remembered as the one in which Bill Cypher tricks Mabel into unleashing hell on Earth, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the final test for Dipper. It’s the melancholy preview of an unwanted future. It’s the subtle investigation of just how quietly messed up Ford is. It’s the big alien action setpiece. Maybe it’s not quite perfect, but it’s damn close, and it’s an episode only likely to grow in importance once we see how the next story seizes upon the plot and character threads set up here. There’s plenty to resolve, and the apocalypse is only one small part of all that. I can’t wait.
Because, after all, summer ends. Whether we want it to or not.