Let’s now, as I so often do on lazy Monday evenings, consider the attractiveness of an animated 12-year-old. On paper, Dipper is, by the standards of his peer group, a bit of a catch. He’s smart, and kind, and good in a crisis, at least more often than not. His big issue is that he’s so completely in his own head all the time. Sometimes that manifests as a particularly selfish kind of obsessiveness, and other times—as we see tonight—it turns up as a complete lack of faith in his own abilities, his own worth. Dipper’s basic problem is that he sees no real continuity between his fantastical life as a paranormal investigator, a world in which he’s shown more than his fair share of heroism and compassion, and his life as an average boy on the cusp of teenhood, where he’s just terrible and anxious and self-defeating. His hard-won, well-earned confidence in the former really ought to translate to the latter, and the fact that it doesn’t goes back to a really basic, inescapable fact: Dude is 12 years old. There are plenty of people twice that age—heck, more than that!—who have yet to figure out that it’s totally possible to transfer skill and confidence in one facet of one’s life to the romantic arena.

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What that tends to mean, then, is that otherwise well-intentioned guys—this isn’t a completely gendered thing, but yeah, it’s mostly guys we’re talking about here—like Dipper assume that interacting with those of another gender is less communication than it is a kind of mystical, unknowable cryptography, and the only way to crack that code in the absence of some inborn ability—one that all the cool guys just naturally have, somehow—is through pick-up lines, arbitrary rules for when to contact a person, false bravado, and basically anything else that isn’t, you know, talking to a woman like she’s a person. (Yeah, this subject apparently gets me a bit riled up. Hey, I’m just expanding on the episode’s thesis!) Anyway, the upshot here is that nice enough but desperately impressionable guys like Dipper end up listening to people like Stan, and that’s where things start to go bad real quick.

In fairness, Stan isn’t even the worst possible role model for young Dipper. Sure, he’s a sleazeball, and a jerk, but he’s not actively contemptuous of women, and that somehow still kind of counts for something. Darlene the spider woman identifies the fundamental issue with Stan’s approach, and by extension Dipper’s: By consuming Stan, she is showing him what it’s like to be valued only for one’s body. Dipper’s interactions with the girls he meets are perhaps not quite that crass, but they are inherently selfish, as he sheepishly tries to defend himself by explaining he was just trying to practice talking to girls. But his practicing is someone else’s real life, and he’s more than a little too quick to buy into Stan’s assurances that his roadside flirtations couldn’t possibly have any consequences, because everyone involved understands there’s nothing real there. This is a harsh lesson for Dipper to learn, but one that’s well worth Gravity Falls exploring.

Ironically, Candy might be the person Dipper treats with the most respect, as he makes an honest effort to be open-minded about her interest in him while still trying to leave room to turn her down with minimal hurt feelings. The problem, of course, is that respect isn’t something one can flip on and off like a switch, and all the other girls Dipper—at Stan’s urging, but still—treated as mere “practice” are still out there and still feeling actual emotions. It’s a nifty bit of narrative heightening to have them all show up at once to confront Dipper, but there’s a very solid underlying truth there that the episode brings out. “Roadside Attraction” is one of the show’s most incisive episode in how it explores the more negative aspects of Dipper’s personality, and it’s particularly clever in how it takes him into rather unpleasant territory while still keeping him essentially sympathetic.

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The trick to that, really, is that the show never loses sight of the fact that he’s 12 years old, and it’s silly to expect 12-year-olds to have anything figured out, much less everything. But the show can allow for that while still having Dipper recognize where he and Stan both erred; the episode manages to be crystal-clear about its message without being accusatory. After all, there is value in confidence, in recognizing one’s own value and acting on that sense of self-worth; it just has to be balanced by an equally strong sense of everyone else’s worth, and that’s what eludes Dipper for too much of the episode. “Roadside Attraction” wisely doesn’t feel the need to redeem Dipper with some heroic act of derring-do, because that would be beside the point of his original mistake. He demonstrates he’s learned everything he needed to with his apology card for Candy, and his good-natured acceptance of the fact that she is totally, completely over him, what with him acting like a complete coward and all. Indeed, it’s actually Candy who gets to prove her heroic bona fides here, and she does so in just as insane and potentially destructive a manner as I think we’d all expect from Candy.

“Roadside Attraction” is a hell of a breather episode. Creator Alex Hirsch has said this episode is explicitly meant to be a break from the continuity-heavy stories that surround it, and it works just fine as a half-hour of expected Gravity Falls hilarity. Any episode that unleashes Stan to the extent this one does is likely to be a smashing success—his explanation that calling his behavior jerkish is just a thing people say to make jerks look bad is a highlight, but really everything he says tonight is gold—and Mabel and Grenda are equally strong in a role that lets them focus completely on dishing out the absurd one-liners. But what’s so brilliant about this episode is how it takes the opportunity to step away from the show’s masterplot as a chance to deepen our understanding of the characters, and to explore aspects of them that would be harder to bring out in a Bill Cypher episode. Dipper’s utter inability to relate to women romantically is a topic long, long overdue for such examination, and the result is an episode that niftily combines laughs with some wonderfully nuanced insight.

Stray observations:

  • Oh yeah, Stan would be a terrific comedian. He’d say all the things the rest of us are too afraid to say!
  • For the record, I’m totally Team Upside-Down Girl. She seemed so good-natured about her mother’s unexpected labor!
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Peretti is on hand as Darlene. Her vocal quality, which I can only described as “bored sultriness,” is pretty perfect for the character.
  • Mabel’s right. Grenda would be a fantastic mom.

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