Our catch-up coverage of the early days of Gravity Falls (insofar as a show that’s only aired nine episodes can really be said to have “early days”) begins with “Headhunters”—in which Dipper and Mabel investigate the beheading of a wax Grunkle Stan and stumble upon a murderous cabal of cursed wax figures—and “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel”, in which pint-sized telepathic showman ‘Lil Gideon manipulates Mabel into dating him and then just won’t let her break up. These are the last two episodes before the show makes the jump to greatness (again, inasmuch as the term “greatness” can be thrown around for a show this early in its run) with “The Inconveniencing”, and there’s a lot here, especially in “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel,” that hints at a show that’s about to realize all its potential. Indeed, it’s possible the show actually made the jump a week earlier than I thought, but more on that in a little bit.
“Headhunters” is a somewhat unusual Gravity Falls episode in that, for the vast majority of the episode, there’s no indication that there’s anything paranormal going on at all. To some extent, this was a hallmark of the first few episodes—“Tourist Trapped” keeps Norman’s gnomish nature ambiguous until the final act, and technically it isn’t until the final shot of “Legend Of The Gobblewonker” that we see an actual lake monster—but “Headhunters” stands apart because it feels like the show is just telling a straightforward murder-mystery story, albeit one in which the victim is a wax figure. Admittedly, there’s a certain logic to holding back on the full-on craziness until the characters and the audience have had a chance to get acclimated, even if it means some of the earlier episodes feel a bit tentative about the show’s premise. That’s especially true in a case like “Headhunters,” because by sidestepping the paranormal until the very end of the story, the episode is able to focus on building up the larger world of Gravity Falls.
Dipper’s big investigation serves the story of the mystery plot, but it’s more of a chance for us to get know Gravity Falls’ wonderfully weird townspeople. First among equals are Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland, who had bit parts in “Legend Of The Gobblewonker” but come into their own here, spitting coffee into each other’s mouths and gleefully leading raids at the behest of a 12-year-old, one that they’re all too happy to dismiss as just some clueless city boy. Toby Determined has one of the all-time great awful pun names, and his love for a cardboard cutout of Sandra Jimenez just stays on the right side of the line between funny and disturbing (it helps that a repulsed Blubs declares Toby a “freak of nature!”). The unveiling sequence for Wax Stan is also key in revealing just where Grunkle Stan stands relative to the rest of the town. It’s pretty clear that nobody in Gravity Falls has a good word to say about him, at least without a bribe of free pizza.
Even if it’s a bit lacking in other areas, “Headhunters” is the straight-up funniest episode the show has done to date. The biker-bar sequence is full of great moments, with Mabel’s completely unconvincing fake IDs a particular highlight. There are few things in this world guaranteed to amuse me, but a wax army featuring Wax Sherlock Holmes voiced by John Oliver and wax versions of Larry King (“Some kind of, I don’t know, goblin man?”) and Coolio voiced by their real-life, non-wax counterparts definitely make the cut. The tale of how they ended up at the Mystery Shack features Wax Coolio’s fierce declaration that they were bought at “A haunted garage sale, son!”, as well a flashback to Grunkle Stan’s wonderfully half-assed attempt at hiding his dirty dealings (“I said I’m going to rob you!”). Besides, this is the episode that gave the world Duck-tective, the crime-solving water fowl who always quacks the case (sorry, sorry, shouldn’t patronize him).
“Headhunters” feels insubstantial compared to what comes later, in part because the wax figures’ curse doesn’t link up with the twins’ lives in the same way, say, the photocopier fueled Dipper’s pursuit of Wendy in “Double Dipper” or Quentin Trembley helped Mabel work through her silliness issues in “Irrational Treasure.” It’s not the episode that proves Gravity Falls’ greatness, but it’s a solid, very funny half-hour that does a lot of world- and character-building that pays off in later episodes.
“The Hand That Rocks The Mabel” is the only installment so far that can really be considered a Mabel episode—all the others have either been Dipper episodes or given equal focus to both twins—and it places her in one of the most uncomfortable positions imaginable, even if you’re not a preteen girl: having to say “no” to a suitor who just won’t take “no” for an answer. Gideon would be a creep even without his mind-controlling amulet, and Mabel’s only real mistake is to think there’s a way out of this in which nobody gets hurt. I think there’s been some suggestion that Mabel is leading Gideon on at times in this episode, but I have trouble buying that. From the first, Gideon is convinced that Mabel loves her, and he needs no encouragement from her to keep on believing it, going so far as to disregard her fairly blatant hints that she just wants to be friends.
Mabel is in a particularly tricky spot because her entire romantic history involves that one time she almost got made into the gnome queen, so she’s not at all equipped to deal with someone so willing to manipulate her. Even worse, she admits she can’t take Gideon seriously as anything other than a little sister, which means she fundamentally underestimates just how much of a problem he can be. Her mini-breakdown and subsequent trip to Sweater Town is heartbreaking, but thankfully it’s immediately followed by the uplifting moment where Dipper, without any hesitation, comes through for his sister and offers to break up with Gideon for her. That’s the moment that crystalizes the strength of Dipper and Mabel’s bond, and it’s something the show has built on tremendously in later episodes, particularly “Irrational Treasure” and “The Time Traveler’s Pig.”
There’s a heck of a twist lurking at the heart of “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel,” and part of what makes the episode so sneakily brilliant is that it never spells out what the twist is. We know that reading minds isn’t all Gideon can do, and that his powers are centered on the amulet in his lucky bolo tie. He tells Mabel that people do what he tells them to do, and when Mabel is hesitant about his offer, he specifically says that swears on his lucky bolo tie that it will just be the one date, and she relents. Going all the way back to the big song and dance number at the Tent of Telepathy, the crowd stands up in unison when Gideon commands them to, and Dipper is momentarily confused as to how that happens. The episode strongly implies that Gideon is using his powers to force people to do his bidding, and it seems as though his effect on people ranges from the crude and obvious—the crowd standing up on cue, the French waiter allowing Gideon to put his feet on the table—to the subtler and insidious, which might just include his intentions for Mabel.
After all, she mentions on multiple occasions that she doesn’t understand why it’s so hard to break up with Gideon, why he keeps pulling her against her will from the friend zone back to the dating zone. The brilliance of this is that it’s easy to read that exchange as an all too accurate reflection of real-life situations where one person just won’t take “no” for answer. The episode makes just as much sense if Mabel simply doesn’t break up with Gideon because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, and indeed that more straightforward interpretation is well worth portraying in its own right. But the subtext here is that Gideon is using his powers to manipulate everyone, especially Mabel, into doing what he wants them to do, and that’s so creepy that it likely never would have flown on the Disney Channel without being left as ambiguous as it is. Either way, this is a surprisingly daring episode.
“The Hand That Rocks The Mabel” is an episode I like more with each rewatch, in part because I go back and forth on where Gideon’s magical powers end and his normal creepiness begins. Besides that, Grunkle Stan is in fine form in this episode, what with his love of clown paintings and revelations of his Colombian jailtime, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect foil for him than the great Stephen Root as Bud Gleeful. The show doesn’t really use Wendy to her full potential until the following episode, but her quick scene with Mabel in which she runs through all her ex-boyfriends is a great character moment—as funny as her complete obliviousness is as she goes through the list, my favorite moment is actually when she asks Mabel, “How’s that hair tasting, buddy?,” because it’s the kind of honest, friendly interaction that make Gravity Falls so joyous. Thurop Van Orman is an unnerving delight as ‘Lil Gideon, and he’s totally right: His song is quite catchy. Perhaps this episode doesn’t feel as obviously great as “Double Dipper,” “Irrational Treasure,” or “The Inconveniencing” because it’s subtle about how it connects the paranormal elements with the personal story, and because I honestly can’t relate to Mabel’s plight here in the same way I can to the twins’ problems in those other three episodes. Really, “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel” is something of an overlooked classic—and yes, at this point I’m just shamelessly losing all perspective on a show that’s only aired nine episodes. I regret nothing!
“The Hand That Rocks The Mabel”: A-
- Next week, we check out the show’s finest half-hour, “The Inconveniencing.” If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, Disney Channel is currently streaming the episode. Otherwise, your best bet to watch would appear to be next Wednesday, when Disney is rerunning it at 3:35 pm Eastern. There’s a complete rerun schedule here.
- “All the wax guys have that. It’s where the pole thingy attaches to their stand dealies.” The gaps in Mabel’s vocabulary are another great example of how the Pines twins feel like actual 12-year-olds—after all, why would Mabel know wax figure terminology? Plus, like most things with Mabel, it’s adorable.
- A great little moment in “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel” is when Dipper apologizes to Toby Determined for accusing him of murder the previous week. That acknowledgment of continuity and the sense of a larger timeline helps make the world-building feel all the richer.
- In tonight’s battle for most groan-worthy joke, I’m going to say Wax Coolio’s “What’s up, Holmes?” to the actual Wax Sherlock Holmes is a valiant but distant second to the bouncer’s “Sorry, we don’t serve miners.”
- Great moments in John Oliver Britishness: “Fiddlesticks! Humbugs! It’s a total kerfuffle! What a hullaballoo!” All we’re missing is a “sticky wicket” to complete the set.
- “The entire Pines family have invoked my fury! You will all pay recompense for your transgressions!” “What, have you got a word-of-the-day calendar or something?”