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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gravity Falls: “Northwest Mansion Mystery”

Illustration for article titled Gravity Falls: “Northwest Mansion Mystery”
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The shift in how Gravity Falls has used Pacifica Northwest reveals a lot about how the show views Dipper and Mabel Pines. Until tonight, Pacifica was positioned primarily as Mabel’s arch-nemesis, and this made perfect sense in terms of who Mabel is. Nobody on Gravity Falls—heck, maybe no other character on television—is more totally comfortable in her own skin than Mabel. She’s all about being herself, and she has the total confidence it takes to commit to being the adorable fulltime goofball that she is. Because she’s got such a ridiculously big heart, Mabel isn’t a character who very readily has enemies, and the only real way to do it is to create her complete opposite. Not somebody who isn’t himself or herself; Mabel might briefly be angry with a phony, but she’s too empathetic to not feel sorry for that person sooner or later. No, Pacifica worked as Mabel’s enemy because she too appeared to be utterly genuine. She was nothing but her true self, and Pacifica’s self was unremitting awfulness. Throw in the fact that Pacifica took special pleasure in making Mabel feel bad, and Gravity Falls had created a plausible adversary for Mabel who wasn’t a complete psychopath, à la Gideon.

The only slight problem is that such a character, kind of by definition, has to be awfully one-dimensional. For Gravity Falls to maintain Pacifica as Mabel’s enemy, the pint-sized Northwest must remain utterly, even simplistically villainous. The moment Pacifica attains some complexity, the instant she reveals a deeper context that helps explain her unpleasantness, that’s when Mabel will start to feel sorry for her. Mabel wouldn’t be Mabel if she reacted any other way. That’s more or less what happened over the course of “Golf War,” as the episode revealed Pacifica was very much the product of her overbearing, perfection-obsessed parents, who had deprived their daughter of some very basic knowledge of social niceties. “Golf War” moved Pacifica from someone inherently awful—a Mabel adversary—to someone who could be a better person but had hitherto failed to do so, and that moves her into Dipper territory. Unlike his sister, Dipper is decidedly not comfortable in his own skin, but at his best this moves beyond simple (pre)teen awkwardness. Dipper’s heroism is driven by his keen awareness that he can be better—he can know more, he can do more, he just generally can be more—and so it makes sense that he would be more personally affronted by the Pacifica we encounter here.

Plus, it’s so much easier to distract Mabel than it is Dipper. Indeed, while each sibling can be fiercely protective of the other, Dipper probably edges his sister on that point, and that made it easier to incorporate Dipper into previous Mabel and Pacifica stories; he needed no motivation beyond a well-established need to defend and help his sister. But here, Mabel’s rivalry with Pacifica—which may already be done with after “Golf War,” it’s hard to tell—takes a backseat to Mabel’s love of sumptuous, fancy parties, and that leaves Dipper to slide into the role of Pacifica’s adversary in the Pines family. Dipper’s essential incorruptibility (at least when his hormones aren’t messing with him, but let’s come back to that point) also makes him a good match for a character like Pacifica, who is at best a victim of her awful parents and at worst a willing beneficiary of their ill-gotten fortune. When Dipper said Pacifica was the worst and promised to say that to her face, I wasn’t remotely shocked that she immediately appeared at the door. I was shocked that Dipper so completely followed through on his vow, yet that resolute reaction set the stage for all their subsequent interactions. Dipper’s enmity was honest and hard-won, and Pacifica would need to be better to change his mind.

The main reason I say I was shocked by Dipper telling off Pacifica is that there is one main circumstance in which Dipper will be a total hypocrite, and that brings us back to his hormones. Now that Dipper has officially moved on from Wendy, the majority of fan speculation on Dipper’s romantic future has centered on Pacifica. The law of conservation of characters is definitely in play here: There aren’t really that many other characters Dipper’s age, especially when it’s darn near impossible to imagine Candy or Grenda as potential romantic interests for Dipper. If you’re of the ’shipping persuasion, “Northwest Mansion Mystery” can feel like one gigantic tease, dressing up both Dipper and Pacifica in their finest ghost-fighting couture and having them rely on each other against the spectral lumberjack. That subtext comes very close to being outright text; certainly, there’s confusion and embarrassment aplenty in the wake of Pacifica’s hug, although for once it isn’t Dipper who makes an awkward fool of himself. In the long run, I don’t know if this pairing is worth exploring, and I don’t honestly care that much. (When it comes to Kristen Schaal shows, I only ’ship the Bob’s Burgers kids, because Louise and Regular-Size Rudy FOREVER.) What matters more is that Dipper provides Pacifica the right set of ideals to aspire to, and his essential decency pushes her to prove that she’s more than the sum of her awful lineage.

This is a shockingly compact Gravity Falls episode, at least in terms of its (non)use of the main characters: I don’t have this information handy, but is this the first episode to not include Stan, Soos, or Wendy at all? Even then, Dipper and Mabel barely interact past the first five minutes; from a storytelling perspective, Mabel only matters inasmuch as she convinces Dipper to help out Pacifica, and then her presence allows for that goofy B-plot with her, Candy, and Grenda competing over that dreamy young Austrian noble. Once again, this puts a lot of pressure on Pacifica, and her character expands nicely to fill the space; she’s not an especially funny character by Gravity Falls standards, but that’s where her frankly stunning emotional depth comes so in handy. She is legitimately terrified of her parents, and that dang bell is more unnerving than a more overt threat. Plus, Nathan Fillion’s patrician absurdity is on hand to provide the Northwest family’s share of the gags.

“Northwest Mansion Mystery” feels like a vital next step in the show’s evolution, as Dipper grows ever more confident in his paranormal-investigator role. The scene where he’s taken the ghost outside to complete the exorcism is a case in point: He has no particular hard feelings toward the ghost that just tried to kill him, yet he’s committed enough to letting Mabel have a good time that he tries to just get on with the ceremony and leave this whole horrible night behind him. This is about as selfless an act as we’ve seen from Dipper, as even his screw-up that releases the ghost is born of genuine sympathy for the lumberjack’s plight. Now, I have no doubt that future episodes will bring back Dipper’s occasional pettiness and silliness, and that’s fine. But it’s fun to see an episode that can tell a compelling Dipper-centric story in which he is presented as the story’s straightforward hero. That works because Pacifica, of all people, gains the necessary character complexity to sustain the episode’s emotional arc. Given where her character started back in “Irrational Treasure,” that’s nothing short of remarkable.


Stray observations:

  • “He’s a white whale. Hunting him will destroy us.” Candy is wise in word, if not in deed.
  • “And he should be out of your probably fake blond hair.” Man, Dipper is just stone cold in this episode. Also, yeah, they’re totally happening.
  • “And he’s just started rhyming, for some reason…” I appreciated the lumberjack ghost’s more freeform, improvisational quality. Why be tied down by one particular haunting idiom?
  • So, do you think they get Will Forte in to voice every “Get ’em! Get ’em!”, or is this the most aggressive looping and reusing of the same dialogue in cartoon history? I’m definitely rooting for Will Forte having to come in every single time, but I’ve been disappointed before.