The strongest moment in tonight’s Gravity Falls is also the episode’s most startling. Dipper and Mabel are vying for Grunkle Stan’s love and, by extension, the right to move into the recently discovered room. Dipper particularly covets the room, running his shoeless feet over the room’s shag carpeting. Mysterious electric sparks fly, and there’s a bright flash of light when Dipper slaps Mabel’s hand. Suddenly, Dipper’s voice is coming out of Mabel’s body and vice versa; the twins have switched bodies. This is a well-worn trope of speculative fiction, but their reaction isn’t. Unlike the times when they were shrunk, cloned, or threatened by the town’s various ghouls, Dipper and Mabel don’t take their latest paranormal predicament in stride or offer some funny observation. Instead, the twins break down in a moment of pure, unfettered horror. They scream repeatedly, Mabel vomits in terror and tries to punch herself out of Dipper’s body, and Dipper rocks back and forth in a corner, repeating the haunting refrain, “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening…” For those fifteen glorious seconds, Gravity Falls isn’t an animated comedy. It’s full-fledged psychological horror, and the sequence conveys just how world-destroying it would be to suddenly fine oneself in another person’s body. It reignites the existential terror that should be fundamental to all body-swapping stories but is so often ignored.
“Carpet Diem” never quite recaptures the brilliance of that moment, which isn’t surprising—the sequence’s success relies on its shock value, in one of the rare positive examples of that term. There are a couple later moments when the twins are forced into traumatic situations, as when Grenda reads her mother’s romance novels to Dipper and when Stan explains the birds and bees to Mabel, but they play the episode swiftly shifts its handling of body switching from horror to comedic horror to outright slapstick. In particular, there’s a great, amusing contrast between the twins’ reactions to swapping bodies and Soos’ reaction to finding himself inside Waddles; while they are almost driven mad by the experience, Soos is ecstatic to be a pig. “Carpet Diem” doesn’t even pretend to take the Soos story seriously, as his porcine bliss is suddenly ruined by a hungry, even more insane than usual Old Man McGucket. He flagrantly disregards the fact that this pig insists it’s actually a man trapped inside a pig’s body, claiming, “That’s what they all say!” There was little chance that Soos’ time as a pig would end well—otherwise, why would he ever bother to change back?—but there’s an admirable simplicity to just how quickly he gets himself into potentially fatal peril.
The Dipper and Mabel story has loftier ambitions, and it doesn’t achieve all of them. Thematically, the body-switching is meant to provide Mabel and Dipper a chance to see the world from each other’s perspective. The episode’s big emotional climax sees the two find common ground, as Mabel realizes that Dipper is so desperate for the room because he feels “awkward and sweaty.” That’s an amusingly straightforward description of what it’s like to be a boy right on the cusp of adolescence, but it doesn’t feel like an insight we have actually seen Mabel glean from her experiences in Dipper’s body. What’s more, Dipper doesn’t mention anything he has learned from his time as Mabel. The episode’s body-switching antics don’t necessarily need a moral, but the one it presents about Dipper and Mabel gaining a new appreciation of each other feels underdeveloped.
After all, the two never actually pretend to be each other, as they are both too busy sabotaging the other’s chances to receive the room from Grunkle Stan. And while it’s funny to see Dipper as Mabel serve Stan a rock sandwich and Mabel as Dipper destroy things indiscriminately—prompting Stan to declare the whole thing weird and flee the room—the story pushes the twins’ actual experiences being in each other’s bodies back into the background. The body-switching becomes a plot device, and an often hilarious plot device at that, but that detracts from the more emotional, character-based point the episode ultimately tries to make. For instance, Dipper’s worst moment as Mabel is when Grenda reads him romance novels, which is a moment Mabel would actually enjoy; there’s an opportunity here for Dibber to experience the challenges Mabel faces, but the episode doesn’t go there. The episode gets closer with Mabel—one could see Dipper being similarly disturbed after hearing a Grunkle Stan lecture on the pituitary gland—but it still feels like a missed opportunity, as “Carpet Diem” tries to do a bunch of different things with the body-switching trope, and not all of them fit together.
Still, I’m not inclined to be all that hard on the episode, because the animation more than makes up for any deficiencies in the storytelling. I was originally disappointed that Mabel and Dipper kept their voices when they switched bodies; my favorite aspect of body-switching episodes is seeing the actors imitate one another, and I’m sure Kristen Schaal and Jason Ritter would have been up to the challenge. But while that would have been fun in isolation, the rest of the episode pretty much demands the characters keep their original voices; that’s the only way Soos and Waddles switching bodies would have worked, for a start. Besides, no matter how talented the voice cast is, the final flurry of body-switching, in which Grenda, Candy, Old Man McGucket, Sheriff Blubs, and Deputy Durland all get into the act, would have been nearly impossible to follow without the voices clearly indicating who was in whose body.
I say “nearly,” because the character animation for the body swaps is seriously impressive. Most obviously, “Carpet Diem” switches around the characters’ teeth so that Waddles gains Soos’ buck tooth—I love the fact that Waddles actually has better teeth once he’s just a pig again—and Dipper’s body is given Deputy Durland’s malformed chompers. But there are subtler touches, as the characters’ posture and expressions morph to match the mind within the body. Even when it’s just the twins who have switched bodies, the worry lines behind Dipper’s eyes transfer to Mabel’s body, and Dipper’s cheeks become just that little bit fuller and more adorable when Mabel has possession of his body. It’s possible to watch this episode on mute and still figure out which character is inside which body at any given moment, and that’s an incredible tribute to the animators.
“Carpet Diem” doesn’t quite find that extra level that the best Gravity Falls episodes do, but it’s still considerable fun. Once again, the show wisely allows its theoretically normal characters like Mabel’s friends and the police officers to swap bodies without their reactions being a big deal; the denizens of Gravity Falls always accept the impossible without much fuss, and that lends the show a reliably fun, freewheeling feel. And through it all, Grunkle Stan remains a hilariously oblivious figure on the edge of the craziness, cheering for babies to fight one another and losing his nerve when a pig-brained Soos reacts badly to Stan’s decision to dock his pay. This is a deeply silly episode, but more often than not, that’s all for the best.
- I’m rooting for Soos and that lady. I think those two crazy kids might just have a shot (they totally don’t). Also, it doesn’t reflect well on Soos that Waddles is apparently way, way better at living his life.
- I’m vaguely worried about how the show seems to have trouble incorporating Wendy into its plots. But just this once, the joke about her entering and immediately exiting the story is perfect.
- One question about this episode’s body-switching rules: do the characters in the show hear the “wrong” voices coming out of each other’s bodies? Or is that just a conceit so that we can understand what’s going on? Stan apparently hears Mabel shouting “Stan, I’ve always hated you!” even when he can’t see her, even though we hear it in Dipper’s voice. So, I’m guessing it’s just a conceit. I’m also aware that I’m devoting way too much thought to this.
- The best mythology-related hint is the reveal of “Experiment 78,” which suggests the Mystery Shack was once the site of some serious mad science, and there are potentially several dozen other experiments waiting to be discovered. Also, as much as Grunkle Stan seems unfazed by this particular secret room—although, in an awesomely subtle bit, the glasses he finds in the room is the same pair he wore in the flashback scene in “The Time Traveler’s Pig,” so he should know something about what’s going on here—we’re still waiting to see just he has hidden behind the vending machine.
- “I am a boy now! What’s up bro, let’s grow some mustaches!” Niki Yang is just the best.
- “A bearded witch chasing a talking pig!” “My horoscope came true.” “Now read mine!” “What are you, Gemini?” “You knew?” “Of course I knew!” Blubs and Durland—and, by extension, Kevin Michael Richardson and Keith Ferguson—are also the best.