Gravity Falls isn’t serialized in the sense that this season can really be viewed as a one continuous story. While individual elements may carry over from episode to episode, and the subtle shifts in the status quo have remained largely consistent over the course of the show’s first year, the typical Gravity Falls story is self-contained. And yet, the show has suggested enough big mysteries and larger narratives lurking just below the surface that this season finale really can’t be just another random episode; it somehow has to marshal the season’s disparate threads into a fittingly epic conclusion. “Gideon Rises” takes an ingenious approach to this creative challenge, as the episode focuses on bringing the season full circle. That means a series of callbacks, most of which go back to the very first episode, “Tourist Trapped.” The creepy gnomes are back, and the grappling hook makes its triumphant return. Plus, the series premiere’s most important mystery is, if not exactly solved, then at least clarified in crucial, intriguing ways. This episode represents an end to what began way back in June of last year, but it also ultimately suggests where the show could be headed next.
Like “Dreamscaperers,” this finale has to offer an emotional arc for Dipper that feels like a natural extension of what the audience has seen all year. “Gideon Rises” is rather more successful in that pursuit, as it doesn’t so much force an emotional conflict where one didn’t really seem to exist—as “Dreamscaperers” did with Dipper’s sudden frustration with Stan—but rather draws attention to and then inverts a relationship the audience likely took for granted. Until this episode, the journal was an unambiguously good thing; after all, it provided the initial narrative impetus for all the craziness that followed. But “Gideon Rises” suggests that it’s a crutch, something that Dipper hides behind so that he doesn’t have to be truly brave all by himself. That’s not an entirely compelling argument, because Dipper has already shown his courage and decency on far too many occasions, but then it isn’t really supposed to be. After all, it’s Gideon who makes this argument to Dipper, and it’s only Dipper’s natural pre-teen insecurity that allows the little creep’s words to fester. But Gideon is hardly an objective observer; indeed, his harsh dismissal of Dipper seems far more tied up in his own feelings of inadequacy than any real interest, however slanted, in Dipper’s worthiness as a hero.
Still, Gideon’s words remove Dipper’s last shred of resolve, and so much of the power of “Gideon Rises” comes from watching the world collapse beneath the Pines family. Even when facing the fearsome, otherworldly likes of Bill Cipher, the Summerween trickster, or the Gremloblin, there was never even the slightest suggestion of the nuclear option: namely, calling Dipper and Mabel’s parents. Beyond their arms-only cameos in the opening minutes of “Tourist Trapped,” the Pines parents have been completely ignored this season, which makes Stan’s desperately reassuring phone call to them all the more shocking. As a defeated Stan observes, summer is over, and grim reality is beginning to seep into this magical world. The smash cut from Dipper and Mabel wondering what else they can do to them dejectedly getting on the bus out of town is a heartbreaking moment, and no attempt is made to undercut that sorrow with a quick visual gag or a Soos one-liner (even though he’s perfectly situated to provide such a joke). Gravity Falls earns its ultimate triumph by making its heroes stare long and hard at their defeat.
The divergent paths for Soos and Wendy suggested by “Dreamscaperers” is also very much on display here, and they represent the shakiest territory for the show, albeit in different ways. Wendy pops up a couple times to confirm that she doesn’t want to lose the Shack either and that she has no interest in getting back together with Robbie. These feel like perfunctory check-ins, acknowledgments that the show has to make because she’s still technically a main character, but they could be excised without affecting the episode’s story in the slightest. Then again, if Wendy has become problematic for Gravity Falls—which I’m not necessarily sure is the case, but it’s a distinct possibility—then it’s not really the job of the season finale to bring her back into the fold. “Gideon Rises” needs to finish off the stories the show has spent the year developing; season two can work out how best to reintegrate Wendy into the show as it is now. It’s instructive to see how this episode organizes its vast ensemble: the townspeople become one crazed, Springfield-style mob, with the Pines family and Soos angled as disrespected outsiders and Gideon as the manipulative villain. Wendy’s teenage slacker personality makes it difficult for her to truly join up with Dipper and company, yet she’s also clearly too sane to join the mob. The show can more organically include her father, the crazed lumberjack Manly Dan, than it can find a place for her.
Soos is closing in on the rarefied territory of animated supporting characters most notably occupied by Bender on Futurama; like that lovably crass robot, Soos has reached the point where he merely needs to say his name and announce what he’s doing to get a laugh. The conceit of his myriad odd jobs allows him to pop into any scene, but it’s telling that there’s no particular narrative need for him to be the bartender or the bus driver. He appears in these scenes because some character needs to fulfill those roles, and the writers figure that Soos is a funnier choice than a more minor townsperson or some newly created character. That’s probably correct, but the show may well be reaching peak Soos levels; if his role gets expanded much further next season, the show risks overexposing him. Soos’ obsession with having a fatherly moment with Stan is already wearing a little thin, as is his willingness to eat any food that comes into his field of vision, no matter how disgusting. Still, there’s a definite danger in projecting too far into the future or worrying too much about what jokes will feel tired down the road, especially when “Gideon Rises” finds new ways to get jokes out of Soos. His adorable, cleanliness-focused grandmother is a delight, and Soos is at his best with his extremely convincing disguise (no one would suspect the guy wearing a hat that says “Not Soos”) and his expert analysis of which situation in the bus driver’s manual Gideon’s robot most closely resembles.
Anyway, while these are potential problems the show will likely need to address as it moves into its second season, “Gideon Rises” isn’t really about Wendy or even Soos. It’s fundamentally about the Pines twins, and that’s never clearer than when Dipper launches himself off a cliff and fights Gideon to save his sister. A lesser show might feel uncertain about building its protagonist’s ultimate heroic action around a sibling relationship, instead contriving some way to have Wendy fall into Gideon’s clutches instead. But Gravity Falls has always fundamentally drawn its strength from the bond Dipper and Mabel share, and while they are tested throughout the episode, they never really waver in their support for one another — that, in all likelihood, can be saved for a future season finale. Mabel takes the backseat here, but she lets her grappling hook do the talking for her, and that grappling hook has quite the epic to share. Indeed, that entire running gag is the best callback in an episode full of them, as it both rewards longtime viewers and works on its own self-contained merits. I must admit I doubted creator Alex Hirsch when he said the grappling hook would someday return. I was a fool.
“Gideon Rises” isn’t perfect, at least in the sense that it doesn’t solve some of the issues, potential or otherwise, around the supporting cast. But it doesn’t need to do that, and the reason it earns the highest grade is because it so perfectly executes the story it sets out to tell. No single half-hour could wrap up all the questions Gravity Falls has raised over this season, but this episode shows an impressive knack for knowing which questions need answering and which can be safely ignored. And the biggest question it answers isn’t even really on the radar until the final minutes of the episode, as Stan finally reveals just how much he’s been fooling everyone all this time. Alex Hirsch nails Stan’s reaction to being presented with Dipper’s journal, as he can’t quite mask his initial, genuine excitement before returning to his oblivious disguise. It’s still not at all clear where this is all headed towards, but the show appears on the verge of changing irrevocably. Stan says it best in the season’s final moment: “Here we go.”
Season grade: A-
- This episode is a bonanza for cameos from random supporting characters. Blubs and Durland rightly get most of the attention, but some only get split-second appearances. I noticed time traveler Blendin Blandin in one crowd scene, but I doubt he’s the only character to make such an appearance.
- Waddles is adorable even when being held captive by an evil boy genius. It’s telling that both Mabel and Stan furiously ditch their disguises the moment they see the little guy being mistreated.
- And that wraps things up for the first season of Gravity Falls, and it’s been a blast. This was the first show I ever reviewed for the A.V. Club, so it holds a special place in my heart. Thanks for reading along, and I’ll see you in season two… whenever that is.