When an episode opens with a squirrel spontaneously combusting, it’s a safe bet that this will be a crazier than usual half-hour of Gravity Falls. “The Deep End” is a joke-heavy episode, and its sense of humor often tends towards the silly and broad in a way not seen since “Dipper Vs. Manliness.” There’s an emotional core to this episode and another bonanza of gorgeous animation, but these are mostly saved for the final five minutes. And while a lot of the jokes work well, the show has trouble getting a grip on its two big guest characters, Mabel’s merman beau Mermando and Dipper’s unhinged boss Mr. Poolcheck. One of the show’s assets is its nuanced, sympathetic characterizations of even its weirdest characters, and while Mermando and Mr. Poolcheck aren’t caricatures, they lack the depth Gravity Falls usually manages for its guest characters. Not coincidentally, the scenes in “The Deep End” that fall flat typically involve these two characters.
The episode opens on the hottest day of summer, which leaves the Gravity Falls municipal pool, to quote Mabel, as the sparkling oasis of summer enchantment. Dipper and Mabel both discover objects of their affection at the pool—for Dipper, it’s his latest run-in with Wendy, who has scored a lifeguard gig, and for Mabel, it’s a mysterious loner who spends all his time in the pool. “The Deep End” splits off its main characters into storylines that range from full-blown plots (Mabel’s romance with Mermando and Dipper’s tenure as assistant lifeguard) to joke-heavy runners (Grunkle Stan’s war with Lil’ Gideon for the perfect pool chair) to background gags (Soos’ heartfelt if deeply stupid attempt to set the inflatable duck guys free), with only minimal interaction until the final act. That means much of the episode has to get by without relying on the interactions between the show’s ensemble, which is also part of the reason the characters feel more amped-up than usual—without familiar characters to provide a check on their more outlandish behavior, Mabel, Dipper, and Stan lose track of what matters in their single-minded pursuit of their respective goals. In other words, yeah, they all go off the deep end, just as the title suggests. After all, experience tells us that Stan would use the sun’s rays to burn a child while cackling with glee if it meant getting what he wants, but Mabel and Dipper would usually be around to act as his conscience.
The strongest story is Mabel’s impossible romance with Mermando. Her fumbling romantic gestures give Kristen Schaal plenty of opportunities to play up the awkwardness of a 12-year-old girl, as she presents Mermando with a soaked sandwich and plays off an attempted kiss as the effects of sour candy. “The Deep End” features some mature storytelling in how it handles Mabel’s arc: Her initial intention is primarily to get her first kiss by any means necessary; she is genuinely infatuated with Mermando, but in a distinctly childish way that’s built around combing each other’s hair and sharing photo albums of her family using their legs. That last element is crucial to the story’s pivot, as Mabel’s pointedly oblivious thoughts on the importance of legs at first seem like a setup for Mermando to reveal that he too wants what the humans have. But it’s not the legs that he envies, but rather Mabel’s family, and he reveals his own desperation to return to the ocean and find his own loved ones.
Because Mabel is 12 years old—or, more simply, because she’s a person—she doesn’t immediately pick up on Mermando’s loneliness, as she accepts his unconvincing assurances that he is glad he lost his family so that he could find her. It’s a tempting lie for Mabel to believe, and so the story temporarily slots into a long history of supernatural romance—The Little Mermaid very much included—in which the paranormal being is willing to do anything and give up everything for the love of a human. But the illusion doesn’t last long before Mabel is forced to recognize Mermando’s misery, and so she resolves to bust him out of the pool and return him to the ocean. It’s a big sacrifice for Mabel, but she’s so fundamentally selfless and kind that the emotional impact of her decision doesn’t become immediately apparent; it’s only when she makes her big appeal to Dipper in the final act that we fully realize how much Mabel is giving up.
As an object of her affection, Mermando ticks all the boxes to be a 12-year-old girl’s perfect crush: He’s handsome, mysterious, possessed of a shockingly deep voice, and he knows at least one chord on the guitar. The character is more consciously silly than the typical Gravity Falls character, and some of his explanatory one-liners about mermaid physiology feel more telegraphed and strained than the show’s usual jokes. He’s more than just a blank object of Mabel’s affections, but he doesn’t display the subtle shading typical of Gravity Falls guest players. He is occasionally tetchy and irritable, two traits that are wholly understandable for a merman trapped in a municipal swimming pool, but the episode isn’t able to build up any other compelling characteristics. Indeed, Mermando is at his absolute funniest when he’s acting like a fish rather than like a man, as his fish-like flailing during his escape attempt—complete with random woodpecker attacks!—is a hysterically funny sight gag and a good example of when “The Deep End” hits just the right tone with its sillier humor.
Dipper steps into the antagonist role in this episode, a victim of his own romantic desperation. His pining for Wendy is even more intense than usual, as he reflects during the stakeout that the assistant lifeguard job is somehow the first step toward marrying her. I’m beginning to worry that Dipper’s crush has relegated Wendy to a more superficial supporting role; her pointed look at him after the awkwardness of the “secret staring contest” suggests she has some sense of what’s going on, but the episode doesn’t build on this. Still, the pool affords Dipper and Wendy ample excuses to goof off entertainingly under the watchful, psychotic eyes of Mr. Poolcheck. Far more than Mermando, Poolcheck is a caricature; there’s some effort to give him nuance in his oddly warm, supportive early interactions with Dipper, but his yelling and unhinged facial expressions fast become one-note. It’s a forgivable false step in the midst of a largely successful episode, but the lack of control over the main characters brings “The Deep End” down a couple of notches.
Still, the overriding strength of “The Deep End” is in how it shows romantic love at both its most self-centered and childish and at its most generous and mature; its shift between the two is a powerful concept to present to viewers young and old alike. Many Gravity Falls episodes find the Pines twins doing right by other people at the expense of themselves, lending several episodes—“The Inconveniencing” and “The Time Traveler’s Pig” are two particularly strong examples—a bittersweet quality that’s unusual for any television show, let alone children’s entertainment. Episodes like “The Deep End” close on little moments of happiness for Dipper and Mabel, as he walks off with Wendy and she receives a slew of message bottles from Mermando, but these are fleeting glimpses compared to the basic truths that Mabel won’t be with Mermando and Dipper won’t be with Wendy. I keep thinking the show will have to address that second point in a more substantive way sooner or later, but stories like “The Deep End” reveal just how entertaining it can be to kick that problem down the road.
- “Mabel? Is there anyone not breaking into the pool tonight? What, is Soos here too?” “Ugh… I’m Okay.” “Go home, Soos.” “You got it.” The character interactions may be minimal for much of tonight, but when they do intersect, it’s pretty darn hilarious.
- “I think someone just sped by.” “Probably just a dream.” “With you, every day is a dream.” Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland remain two of the funniest examples of how well-developed the show’s supporting cast can be.
- Random, disturbing detail: Grunkle Stan clearly got changed in the women’s bathroom. I’m not even going to speculate on that one.
- Seriously, that big chase sequence is one of the most gorgeously animated things the show has done, and that’s saying something.
- The end tag—in which that poor boy in solitary confinement spends apparently an entire year trapped beneath the pool—is a thing of comedic beauty and a good reminder that silly or outlandish humor can be awesome as long as it’s executed well. The boy waving a little American flag during Independence Day put it over the top for me—even after being abandoned by his fellows, he still shows his patriotism.