Wendy brings out the best in Gravity Falls, perhaps because she can so easily bring out the worst. For my money, “Into The Bunker” is the show’s best episode since “The Inconveniencing.” Even if you’re not prepared to go quite that far—and yes, there have been lots of fantastic, ambitious, hilarious episodes that have aired between those two—suffice it to say that this show has made two unabashedly Wendy-centric stories, and they both rank in the absolute top tier of episodes. That’s remarkable, really, because Dipper’s crush on Wendy is generally the show’s most frustrating element. It’s not that his feelings or his conduct are unrealistic—quite the opposite, really—but rather that the whole thing represents such a complete narrative dead end. Even then, the fact that Dipper and Wendy are obviously never going to become an item is beside the point. It’s that Dipper knows that it’s hopeless, so all he can do is torture himself and act like an awkward weirdo around Wendy.
The end result throughout much of season one was a fundamentally internal conflict—Dipper wrestling with his own feelings—that kept translating into an external struggle to keep Wendy in the dark. This in turn tended to make Wendy the object of Dipper’s affections instead of the subject of her own character arc. “The Inconveniencing” laid down the emotional beats that would define Dipper’s interactions with Wendy, and then all subsequent episodes that addressed his feelings—most notably “Double Dipper,” “Fight Fighters,” and “The Deep End”—could do little more than repeat those beats, albeit often while pushing Wendy away from the main action. After all, Dipper is the show’s protagonist, and it’s difficult to construct a story where the mere presence of one of the four main supporting characters turns him into a flustered, gibbering wreck. But as limiting as all this could be—honestly, the main reason this didn’t end up mattering too much was just that Gravity Falls turned its focus elsewhere—there is still real dramatic potential in Dipper’s crush. After all, the emotional beats codified in “The Inconveniencing” are great emotional beats. It’s just that there are really only two stories the show can tell on this topic. Dipper’s acknowledgment of his feelings is one of the stories, and that’s “The Inconveniencing.” Wendy’s acknowledgment of them is the other, and that’s “Into The Bunker.”
Indeed, that’s a big reason I love “Into The Bunker” as much as I do: Wendy is a hugely active presence in this story, and she kicks a ridiculous amount of butt. I’m not just talking about her lumberjacking prowess or her ability to hold her own in hand-to-hand combat with the shape shifter. More impressive is the range of emotion and personality that the episode allows her to convey. She can be every bit the goofball that Soos or Mabel is, voicing her unqualified approval of the former’s scientist impression and offering her own nuanced portrayal of a robot in a closet. She takes charge of the situation without ever bossing the others around; her reassurance to Dipper that her bleeding is no big deal shows the calm confidence of a natural leader, or perhaps just the sensitivity of an intelligent teenager who is careful not to freak out her impressionable young companions.
Most remarkably, Wendy reveals a steely resolve unlike any we’ve seen before, trumping even Stan that one time he punched a pterodactyl to save Waddles. As this episode’s final scene makes all too heartbreakingly clear, Wendy is a few years older than Dipper, so it stands to reason that her adventures would be proportionately more adult. There’s a grim determination to her fights with the shape shifter that indicate she is far more removed from her childhood than are the Pines twins—and Soos, for that matter. Basically, Wendy is cool, but not in a way that feels forced and definitely not in a way that turns her into Dipper’s dream woman; if anything, she’s the dream best friend, but that’s it. There’s nothing even vaguely romantic about anything that she does here; even the protectiveness she shows toward Dipper are far more in keeping with an awesome big sister than a prospective love interest.
“Into The Bunker” manages the tricky feat of reaffirming why Dipper has every reason to be crazy about Wendy—again, she’s awesome—while still making it clear that their relationship is not romantically contoured. Wendy cares about Dipper as a friend, and that is so far from nothing. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful way that Wendy could have shown her friendship and respect for Dipper than by letting him believe all this time that he was doing a remotely good job keeping his secret. The admission that Wendy has always known is a masterstroke for the show, retroactively giving agency to the Wendy of so many awkward first season reactions; suddenly, Wendy is allowed a perspective beyond happy obliviousness. Last Friday’s premiere allowed Dipper and Stan to redefine their relationship into something at least vaguely approximating honesty. “Into The Bunker” gives still further with Dipper and Wendy, and it’s long overdue. Both characters can only benefit from being allowed to move forward as friends, even if I’d wager we’re not completely done with the crush.
The animation adds tremendously to the tenderness of their big scene together; the way Wendy crouches down to be at the same eye level as Dipper is a quick visual reminder of the futile of what Dipper desires, yet Wendy’s body language—and Linda Cardellini’s reliably terrific voice acting—makes it clear that even futile dreams should be respected. “Into The Bunker” is generally a great showcase of Gravity Falls’ ability to animate emotions; the show employs a character design style that allows for wonderfully rich expressions; this is an episode that you could watch with the sound off and still understand all of the story’s critical emotional moves. But such small-scale mastery does not preclude flashier elements, and this episode goes wild with its portrayal of the shape shifter. The rolling animation of the giant caterpillar-like thing is especially impressive in its fluidity, and the visuals really sell the danger when Wendy smashes against that rock. Small as that moment might theoretically be, the animation is able to sell that as real—and, importantly, relatable—mortal peril. Just for that split-second where it looks like Wendy is seriously hurt, that collision with the rock might quietly be the scariest thing Gravity Falls has ever done.
As for the rest of the episode, Mabel and Soos are in fine form. With Dipper and Wendy taking care of the narrative heavy-lifting, those two are mostly allowed to be as silly as they want to be; the sequence where they “prove” they aren’t the shape shifter is the perfect distillation of the pair’s unique dynamic. Still, Mabel is also able to serve as a catalyst for the main plot, taking it upon herself to force Dipper to confess his feelings to Wendy. Wisely, Gravity Falls quietly admits that Mabel is probably overstepping herself without trying to play that out as some secondary conflict; all we really need to see is Mabel comfort her brother after Wendy lets him down gently, and her promised list of rebound crushes confirms—as though further proof were needed—that she’s really just trying to do right by her lovable weirdo of a twin brother. Maybe that’s the real reason I love “Into The Bunker”: This story is so strongly defined by how much each character cares for one another. Sometimes that caring doesn’t manifest itself in the most sensible of ways, but this is a passionate, emotional episode that celebrates its main characters while also acknowledging their mistakes. The fact that it’s hilarious and suspenseful as well is just a lovely bonus.
- Mark Hamill—who will always be a dark horse contender for America’s greatest voice actor, simply because he’s the Joker, now and forever—is great as the shape shifter. His character unavoidably feels secondary to the episode’s emotional story, hence why I spent most of the review talking about that and am now dealing with the monster in the strays. But still! Hamill has a lot of fun in his initial heroic, undeniably eccentric disguise of the journal’s author, and he throws himself still further into the menacing, psychotic shape shifter. Hopefully this isn’t the last time we hear Hamill on the show, because he’s such a natural fit.
- I’m not sure any show currently going has more fun with its pop-culture parodies, and this week’s closing parade of ultra-cheap movies is a thing of beauty. But nothing is going to top the character names of Chadly and Trixandra. Speaking of which…
- “Ah! My face is being eaten a lot!” “Chadly ain’t pretty no more!”
- “Dude, you’re laying on my bra.” Okay, that might have been the scariest moment of the episode. “Awkward” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
- “What is she talking about?” “Nothing! Mabel’s just been eating raw sugar packets again.” “That’s besides the point!”
- “I’ve been down here for a very long time. Years. Weeks, maybe! I miss orange juice.”
- “Isn’t electrical clothing kind of like a fire hazard?” “No! It’s a fun hazard.” Truer words have never, ever been spoken.