Let’s take stock for a second. Gravity Falls is ending. This much we know. After tonight’s episode, there’s one hourlong episode left that figures to tie up … well, just about everything, from the lingering mysteries of Gravity Falls to the relationships between the characters. Oh, and defeat Bill. That’s probably a thing that’s going to happen, too. But before that series finale airs at some predictably unknown date in the future, there’s tonight’s “Weirdmageddon 2: Escape From Reality.” More than anything else, tonight feels like a love letter to the show’s fans, particularly those of the Mabel-loving persuasion. I leave it to someone braver than I to catalog every last reference to a past Mabel fantasy, obsession, or sugar-crazed hallucination, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something from darn near every episode somewhere in her beautiful delusion. First among equals here are Xyler and Craz, making their latest and possibly most real return yet as Mabel’s most bodaciously radical champions … well, either them or Dippy Fresh. That guy is a blast.

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The genius of tonight’s episode is that, at a certain point, it knows well enough to get out of its own way. I mean, there’s a part of me that kind of wants to point out that this episode’s big message boils down to a reaffirmation of Mabel and Dipper’s bond as siblings, which is absolutely something that needed addressing after the heartbreak of “Dipper And Mabel Vs. The Future.” But that still isn’t something where there’s much room to learn something new, that we didn’t know going all the way back in “Tourist Trapped,” and that can feel a twinge disappointing when this is the penultimate episode. I kind of think that. But then I take a deep breath, step back, and say, “Come on, Alasdair, don’t overthink this one. Just look at what the show is doing.” And besides, the episode isn’t shy about the fact that it’s bringing Mabel and Dipper’s story full circle, taking us back to the once awkward, now sincere sibling hug we last saw in that series premiere. There will be plenty of time for big revelations next week. But “Escape From Reality” is more concerned with celebrating the journey we’ve already gone on, and reminding us not to take for granted those things we already know. Wendy told us in the last episode that Dipper and Mabel together can do anything. “Escape From Reality” shows us exactly that.

Before the episode gets to that resolution, though, the show revels in the pastel-colored sugar rush that is Mabel’s imaginary world. The Gravity Falls animation style for its characters tends to be soft, curved, and simple, all qualities that translate well to depicting cuteness. And if Mabel’s fantasies aren’t the perfect subject matter for such treatment, then it must surely be a bunch of flashbacks to pint-sized Dipper and Mabel. Look, all the universe’s most horrific cosmic terrors can wait until next time. As much as this episode is about not giving in to one’s fantasies, “Escape From Reality” tempts the audience just as it does Mabel, Dipper, Wendy, and Soos. Even though Dipper is obviously right and this entire world is nothing more than Bill Cipher’s version of a lotus-eater machine, it’s still a lovely place to spend time in.

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There’s also some nuance to the episode’s underlying psychology. Dipper is necessarily going to be the more consistently heroic of the Pines twins here, as he’s the one who more immediately finds the power to resist Bill’s temptations. Crucially, the episode doesn’t pretend that Dipper is the flawless hero, instead showing just how close he comes to believing the fantasy Wendy is real, and how much he desperately wants it to be true. Gravity Falls has been smart about how it’s played Dipper’s feelings toward Wendy since “Into The Bunker,” as Dipper has made a genuine effort to move on while still harboring some feelings that just refuse to go away. What that earlier episode taught him, however, was the wisdom to recognize wishful thinking when he encounters it, and he is now capable of realizing that this Wendy doesn’t sound like Wendy, mostly because she’s just saying all the things Dipper has ever wanted to hear. Dipper isn’t perfect, but he knows he gets a whole lot closer when he has his friends and his sister beside him, and it’s much harder to fool him with a simulacrum of the real thing.

Mabel, for her part, isn’t being entirely selfish in wanting to withdraw from reality, even allowing for how hurt she was by Dipper’s decision to stay with Ford. “Escape From Reality” doesn’t make this explicit, but it’s telling that Mabel’s control of her realm mostly takes the form of giving her friends whatever they want. Even stuck inside the world’s most perfect prison, she’s still looking to help people, and the ability to do so is part of what convinces her that there’s nothing here she need escape from. Besides, if a 12 year old isn’t allowed the occasional freak-out over the end of childhood and the loss of innocence, then who on earth is? Kristen Schaal’s performance is crucial here, layering in barely concealed heartbreak beneath her usual goofy joyousness. As Mabel herself realizes once the spell is broken, this world of hers is just about the biggest overcompensation in history, and she needs every last bit of that endless whimsy to hide a truth she recognizes the very moment Dipper begins questioning her on the witness stand. After all, people convinced of their own rightness don’t need to cover their ears when someone else speaks.

“Escape From Reality” is the kind of giddy extravaganza that would probably still work great even if Gravity Falls had never sharply characterized Mabel and Dipper, so wonderful is the animation and comedy on display here, with a particular highlight of both being Jon Stewart guest-voicing a vaguely Southern feline judge, complete with playing with a ball of string and remarking on his natural curiosity. But the episode doesn’t need to rely on just those things, as “Escape From Reality” offers a couple simple but poignant vignettes from Dipper and Mabel’s childhood to point out that memories are only bad when remembered alone, but that shared memories have a way of revealing the bright side of things. Again, I’m not sure that “Escape From Reality” really tells us anything about Dipper and Mabel that we didn’t already know, but I don’t think it needs to. This episode works brilliantly on its own terms as a celebration of the show’s core bond and as a showcase for the brightest, most giddily ridiculous elements of Gravity Falls, even if it’s all tinged with the realization that Bill’s world of horrors lurks not far from there. This episode is both a respite from all the terror and a necessary prologue for Dipper and Mabel’s last stand. On both counts, “Escape From Reality” is a triumph.

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Stray observations

  • This is probably just coincidence, but when Mabel and company flew away on a giant Waddles, I couldn’t help but think of another surprisingly sophisticated fantasy cartoon with a multi-part finale. Dee Bradley Baker even voices both Waddles and Appa!
  • Soos’ reunion with his “Dad” is its own quiet kind of heartbreaking. If only Soos could have a father half as awesome as that nice luchador fellow.
  • As adorable as little kid Dipper and Mabel are, why exactly did Dipper just happen to have a razor on him? And couldn’t he have just lent Mabel his hat to cover up the gum? (The answer, at least for the second question, is that Dipper is pretty committed to hiding that birthmark of his. The answer to the first question is probably just to be quiet and let the cuteness wash over me. I’m all right with that, at least this once.)
  • Is there anything greater that Xyler and Craz quoting Sartre to discuss the pointlessness of existence? No. No there is not. Please stop asking silly questions, Alasdair.

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