This is a weird episode. It’s not a bad one by any means, but “Golf War” represents Gravity Falls at its absolute goofiest, and the episode isn’t always able to nail the winking tone necessary to sustain such concentrated goofiness. The Liliputtians—that little Dutch guy is right, it does work better written out—are generally meant to be just a bunch of harmless goofballs, most akin to the queen-seeking gnomes from way back in the series premiere, or perhaps the living wax figures from the show’s third episode, “Headhunters.” Either way, we’re talking about antagonists that most recall some of the show’s first ever bad guys. As such, it’s hard for the show in general to not feel like the show retracing its steps over a path it has already walked; in fact, the final shot of Franz menacingly hanging onto the license plate before immediately falling off feels like a move right out of Jeff the chief Gnome’s playbook. It’s actually also a very similar, albeit far more family-friendly, version of a joke seen in the Rick And Morty season finale, but neither show can lay claim to much originality with that gag. This is less about any specific influence—given the shows’ production schedules, I’d guess it’s just a coincidence—and more about the episode just feeling generally derivative, a remix of things we’ve already seen instead of a bold exploration of something new.
That’s not to say the Liliputtians don’t have their charms—their tiny, adorable, murderous charms. The best indication that “Golf War” is a second season episode is the sheer variety of the Liliputtians’ designs; it’s unlikely the show would have built so many different little cultures from scratch, each with its own visual design, speech style, and personality. The animators find every single possible variation on the basic concept of people with golf balls for heads; in particular, the pirates and knights are designed so that it’s not immediately obvious that they too are part golf ball. In its miniature world-building, “Golf War” is a hugely ambitious episode, though I must admit that I’m unsure of the story’s most focused glimpse of Liliputtian society. For about 30 seconds, the episode shifts into a clichéd but deeply felt drama about the miner Big Henry, who apparently leaves his even more pint-sized best friend Polly by giving his life in a gas-filled mineshaft. The reliably brilliant Kevin Michael Richardson totally commits to the absurd pathos of the scene, and the visuals help sell the notion of a proud behemoth giving his life to a cause he believes in.
Now, this is hardly the first time that the show has killed off a character—and, yes, I realize we don’t actually see Big Henry expire, but every explicit piece of evidence supports that interpretation. As a tangent from the main storyline, it makes for a wonderfully dark joke, one particularly sold by the cut to Mabel and Pacifica waiting impatiently for the ball to reappear. I’ll admit I cared more about the plight of Big Henry more than a sane person should, but that isn’t really my concern with the scene. Instead, it’s just strange that the episode completely ignores the character’s apparent sacrifice, shifting immediately to the Pines twins congratulating the jubilant miners, who show no sign that they just allowed one of their own to walk to his probable death. I can understand why the show would so completely downplay the implications of the Big Henry gag, as Dipper and Mabel would probably have to feel at least somewhat complicit in his fate, but their unabashed celebrations make them look callous. Look, I realize how small a thing this is, but it suggests an episode that isn’t quite sure what it wants to say with the Liliputtians, and its attempt to explore several ideas and jokes all at once leads to some weird tonal clashes.
The trickier issue here is with Pacifica Northwest. While she feels like she ought to be a crucial supporting character, her appearances on the show have been oddly limited: She was introduced in “Double Dipper,” had important roles in the next two episodes, and then only made three non-speaking cameos throughout the rest of the season. Tonight is the first time Pacifica has said a word on Gravity Falls since way back in “The Time Traveler’s Pig”—which, for the record, aired nearly two years ago—and so the episode necessarily strains to reestablish her as Mabel’s arch-nemesis. The plot mechanics of this are perfectly serviceable especially when her newspaper-published fashion tips set off Soos’ fascination with W-neck shirts, which have precisely the problem you assume they would. But the episode can’t entirely sell Mabel’s seething disgust, not when Pacifica has been a non-factor for so long. It’s like the show is reaching back to a part of its past that it had never fully explored in the first place.
Honestly, I suspect any episode was going to feel disappointing after a masterpiece like “Into The Bunker.” This is an enjoyable half-hour of television, and I’m not about to argue against a climactic golf cart escape through the putt-putt course, Patton Oswalt as a vaguely Dutch Liliputtian, or a long-suffering Olympic mini-golfer named Sergei. Heck, Grunkle Stan and Soos are barely even in this episode, but their every little cameo is hilarious, particularly Stan’s utter glee at the prospect of breaking into a mini-golf course. The comedy is strong enough here for the episode to succeed, but it lacks the deeper, more incisive core that distinguishes “Into The Bunker,” or even the overwhelming exhilaration of the season premiere, “Scary-oke.” By those more demanding standards, “Golf War” only finds the best version of itself right at the end, as Pacifica is finally allowed to show a more human side. The show nicely mixes character moments, like her quizzical observation that she’s not supposed to take handouts, with more ridiculous gags, like her subsequent unfamiliarity with even the pronunciation of the word “sharing.”
It’s just a bit of a shame that the episode can’t get to that kind of insight until there are only two minutes left in the episode. There’s a hint of the nurture-based aspects of Pacifica’s horribleness during her brief interaction with her parents, but it’s only a hint; the episode is generally too focused on reestablishing the basics of Pacifica’s character—that she’s a horrible, vindictive, spoiled little girl, basically—to really be able to introduce those more nuanced complications. Timing is a factor here. If this episode had premiered right after “The Time Traveler’s Pig,” Pacifica’s character would be familiar enough with audiences that such details could be introduced earlier in the story; she could be just as awful to Mabel for just as much of the running time as she is here, but there could have been more of a sense of the reasons behind her conduct. As it is, the show has to spend more time than is ideal rebuilding a relatively one-dimensional adversary before it can start adding in those extra dimensions. “Golf War” is a perfectly charming little episode, but this isn’t what Gravity Falls is capable of at its best.
- “Who wants Stancakes? They’re like pancakes but they probably have some of my hair in them.”
- “We came as fast as we could!” “We heard a little girl got seriously burned.” “Oh!!!” Okay, that bit was amazing.
- Oh hey, that was Nathan Fillion as Pacifica’s dad. I feel like there’s probably more the show could do with that character down the road, as it’s a pretty tiny role here.
- “Should have charged her for that taco.” “Agreed!”