Man, love potion stories are tricky. It can be so difficult to avoid the queasy implications of making characters fall in love so completely against their will. Now, I think “The Love God” just about pulls off what it’s aiming to accomplish, but it has to strain at times to be fair to all its characters, and I’m still not totally sure that where we end up at episode’s end is really best for Robbie and Tambry. Well, it might actually be for the best—as the Pines siblings point out, those two are weirdly perfect for each other—but it isn’t what the two would have chosen for each other. Is it possible to give characters a happy ending without giving them any agency over their own situation?
After all, part of what makes Gravity Falls so special is the respect it shows for its characters: It takes pains to get us to understand and care about not just Dipper and Mabel or even Wendy and Soos but the entire crazy town. Characters like Old Man McGucket or Toby Determined might be there primarily to be the butts of jokes—they totally are—but the show is still capable of showing compassion toward them and recognizing that they are at least occasionally more than the one-note caricatures that the show’s comedy demand they be. By and large, Gravity Falls presents its characters in ways that make you believe that they have existences independent of the plot, that they are their own individuals with their own wants and needs that exist even when we’re not looking at them. Now, maybe all that stuff is secondary to the show’s overriding goals of being funny and entertaining, and maybe it should be. But that thoughtfulness about the show’s own characters is a big reason Gravity Falls is worth talking about on a weekly basis, or at least whatever rate you would call the glacial pace at which Disney XD airs new episodes.
The trouble with “The Love God” is one that all love potion stories share to one extent or another: As the episode’s impromptu lovers, Robbie and Tambry have by far the most important story here, yet they have no control over their own story. If their disastrous blind date is any indication whatsoever, they absolutely fell in love against their will. Sure, it’s “only” Robbie and Tambry, and it’s not as though either is a terribly important character, admittedly, but Gravity Falls hasn’t carved out such a special place for itself by ignoring the inner lives of its characters. Heck, this episode alone manages to take three characters who were previously one-joke characters—Wendy’s other friends Nate, Lee, and Thompson—and give us some sense of who they are as people. In Nate and Lee’s case, that admittedly isn’t much: We learn Nate has been nursing his own crush on Tambry, while Lee makes it clear how much he loves to make fun of people.
But even then, there are layers to the show’s characterization: Nate kept his crush to himself because he knows Lee would just make fun of him for it, while Nate reveals himself as the kind of teenager—maybe just the kind of person in general—who is basically incapable of communicating without somehow giving people crap, most likely because he can’t deal with people getting even remotely real. And Thompson? Well, his isn’t exactly an inspiring story, but he is kind of holding the whole group together through force of humiliating will, so at least he’s got that going for him.
On balance, I think “The Love God” works just fine, mostly because it’s really, really funny. The show doesn’t sidestep the inherent creepiness of the eponymous love god, but having him being a big fat party slob voiced by John DiMaggio—basically the human version of Bender if he learned the tiniest modicum of self-control—makes his deal more palatable than it might be otherwise; the show is careful to have him only use his amorous powers to bring other people together, with his own success with the ladies (and possibly the Will Forte-voiced biker, depending on how you interpret the subtext of the trio exiting the van) being down to his own goofball magnetism. Gravity Falls is also wise to build this story around Mabel, who is just about the only character good-natured enough to come off as not completely manipulative. This season in particular has done a lot of good work in developing Mabel further, and the similarities with her brother become more apparent as she gets more screen time: Both tend to think they know what’s best for others, and both have a hard time letting go of what they think is a good idea once it’s in their head. But Mabel remains the more naturally sympathetic sibling than Dipper, perhaps because Dipper would never do anything as straightforwardly sweet and stupid as fixing up Waddles and Gompers.
Besides, “The Love God” gives just about the most perfect backstory for Robbie possible. The show manages the rare double, possibly triple subversion when it comes time to explain Robbie’s deal. The fact that he lives next to a cemetery and is the son of two morticians appears to explain everything about him, but then we learn his parents are actually the nicest people imaginable. That’s kind of its own cliché at this point—the first example I can think of is April and her parents from Parks And Recreation, but I’m going to guess there are a couple dozen more similar cases—so Gravity Falls twists things still further by revealing Robbie’s parents are specifically positive about being morticians, which takes them back into creepy territory and suddenly makes Robbie make perfect sense once more. Just generally, this is a delightfully dark episode, with way more adult-skewing in-jokes than is typical for Gravity Falls and a perspective that prominently involves teenagers loudly admitting how awful they are. It’s kind of perfect, in other words.
Look, I have my quibbles with “The Love God,” mostly to do with the handling of Tambry, who never really gets that added dimension of characterization that would give some context to her love potion-aided transformation; she’s basically a texting cipher before she eats those chili fries, and she remains one after she falls in love with Robbie. As such, it’s hard not to call her an object of this episode, rather than a subject, and so the episode doesn’t reach that full potential that defines the best Gravity Falls episodes. But the episode does make some attempt to suggest that this isn’t such an awful fate for the two characters, and there’s enough attention paid to the character dynamics elsewhere—not to mention enough jokes—for the episode to work. These love potion episodes really are tricky, and Gravity Falls doesn’t come out of this one entirely unscathed, but it’s still a success.
- Yeah, Dipper really wasn’t pulling off that V-neck. Burn it, indeed!
- Wompers: Gravity Falls’ most powerful power couple. Well, with the possible exception of Lee and Dipper. Those two get each other.
- Anyone else wondering if illusory Wendy would show up as a crush of Dipper’s past?