Gravity Falls, from the very first episode in which Dipper discovered the journal and Grunkle Stan disappeared behind the vending machine, has run on secrets. To keep its overarching narrative intact, the show has had its characters keep information concealed at every possible turn. In this effort, the general craziness of the show’s characters has been of great help. For the longest time, it was just about plausible for Stan to studiously avoid interacting directly with the show’s paranormal elements—and then to shrug them off when he occasionally did—because, well, he was a loon, and far too obsessed with his own monetary gain to care much about what was going on about him. Since we’ve learned about the true story of Stan and his brother Ford, though, the show can no longer entirely hand-wave its tendency to withhold crucial information by distracting us with jokes. There kind of has to be some reason why Stan—and now Ford—just won’t tell people the truth, even when it seems like it would make everything so, so much easier to just go ahead and do so.

As far as Ford goes, Gravity Falls gave it a certain amount of leeway with Stan’s warning to him at the end of “A Tale Of Two Stans,” as he was forbidden to let the kids anywhere near his dangerous experiments for the rest of the summer. But even that isn’t really sufficient to explain just why Dipper and Ford can’t openly discuss what’s going on here; after all, since when has either of those two cared what Stan tells him to do? The obvious emotional underpinning for Ford’s refusal to divulge details, and the one that Dipper initial seizes upon, is distrust, and that feeds nicely into Dipper’s own paranoia about what he’s going up against in Gravity Falls. After all, the show’s preeminent warning is “Trust no one,” and that goes double where Bill Cypher is concerned. But even that motivation isn’t quite enough, because, after all, what good reason does Ford have to not trust Dipper and Mabel?

The more compelling emotion here, then, is shame, as that’s an inward-facing feeling, and one that neatly explains why Ford is so desperate to keep Dipper at arm’s length. His refusal to tell the truth has little to do with Stan’s warming or Dipper’s inexperience, but rather much to do with Ford’s foolish decision to ally himself with an ancient evil like Bill. And, on this point, tonight’s episode drills down to Ford’s crucial weakness, which is his susceptibility to flattery whenever his own prodigious genius is concerned. On this point, he and Dipper have all too much in common; Ford falling prey to Bill’s false claims of being a muse to a once-in-a-century genius is its own kind of awful, but it’s not so far away from Dipper using his own thoughts to convince himself it’s fine to sneak inside Ford’s mine for answers. Dipper and Ford both have the same dangerous, seemingly paradoxical combination of overconfidence and self-doubt, and that kind of hidden insecurity is just the sort of thing that leads to mistakes that they will endanger lives to keep covered up.

For all that much-needed character focus given over to Ford, let’s not bury the proverbial lede any longer: Mabel and her friends lead a triumphant takeover of this episode, as the quest for unicorn hair proves every bit as hilariously frustrating as Ford predicted it would. After a bunch of episodes that kept the focus very strongly on the Pines family (give or take Soos), it’s refreshing to see so much time given over to Grenda, Candy, and Wendy, with the first two in particular able to get laughs with pretty much any given line. Like Stan and Soos, the most consistently laugh-generating characters in the core cast, Mabel’s friends are creatures of close to pure id, and it’s always a blast to see how characters with two very different personalities manifest their overlapping interest in everything from boys to unicorns. In both Grenda and Candy’s case, it’s equal parts violent and unnerving, though it always remains endearing enough to stay on the right side of entertaining. Besides, who cares what those two do to a unicorn?

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Actually, let me rephrase: Who cares what those two do to that unicorn? Because seriously, that is one hilariously awful mythical creature. Gravity Falls has been deconstructing fabled beasts ever since those gnomes pretended to be a zombie teenager, but never has the show quite so delighted in the seediness of the paranormal as it does so tonight. Again, there’s all flavors of ridiculousness on display here, with the unicorn proving itself plenty underwhelming well before its compatriots make it clear that it’s running a scam. But that’s nothing compared to the extended detour in which Wendy, Candy, and Grenda get involved in some byzantine plot to round up butterfly and fairy dust traffickers, which frankly could have been the plot of its own miniseries, let alone its own episode. This again is where it’s good to be reminded of the strength of Gravity Falls’ bench, as that’s probably the longest we’ve seen the show go without featuring a single Pines character (give or take occasional extended forays into the latest machinations of Lil’ Gideon or even Blendin Blandin). What’s so great about this is that the scene really could only work with a character like Grenda, someone who hits just the right balance between feeling believable in an impromptu undercover cop plot and who is still enough of a little kid that the show can tell this quick joke with a bunch of gnomes.

And, in the midst of all that, there are some damn fine points the show has to make about how women tend to be valued, a point underscored by Wendy’s observation: “We’re crazed, angry, sweaty animals! We’re not unicorns, we’re women, and we take what we want!” Given how Wendy frames her resistance in terms of the characters’ womanhood, it’s not hard to see Mabel’s mistreatment at the hands of the unicorn as a nice, effective commentary on how people, and girls and women in particular, tend to be judged not so much on their own merits as individuals but rather how they measure up to some external, ever-shifting rubric of purity. The show doesn’t overdo this point, and the fact that the unicorn is running a scam means the focus shifts away from the specific point of how Mabel is being judged to the ridiculousness of letting this specific individual judge anyone, but still! This is an episode where the emotional intelligence runs high, and letting all the show’s main female characters get to lead the way in their own main plotline gives Gravity Falls a chance to explore issues that are harder to access when Dipper is also there as a major character. (I suppose I should stress it wouldn’t be impossible to tell this story with Dipper around, just that it ends up working really well with keeping the focus tight on the show’s women.) It’s one more reason “The Last Mabelcorn” feels like a change of pace from other recent episodes, and one more reason this is another reliably strong entry in the show’s second season.

Stray observations

  • “I can assure you if there’s an owl in this bag, he’s long dead.”
  • “I haven’t been in this dimension for a while. It’s okay to give children weapons, isn’t it?”
  • “I wouldn’t trust a horse who wears makeup.”
  • “Get me a flagon of your daintiest honeysuckle, please.”
  • “Tell it to the adorable owl we dressed as a judge.”

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