At the heart of tonight’s excellent Gravity Falls episode is a struggle I’m guessing a healthy percentage of us faced in adolescence: when being weird stops being cute and charming and becomes something you get mocked for—and, worse, you’re old enough to realize you’re being mocked—what do you do? Even Mabel Pines, who might just be television’s most adorably goofy 12-year-old, is tempted to abandon being an oddball in favor of being grownup and serious. This is an intensely relatable preteen crisis—indeed, I’d argue every kid goes through this at one time or another, albeit to varying degrees—and “Irrational Treasure”, helped along by a reliably great voice performance by Kristen Schaal, treats the subject with terrific emotional honesty, capturing how much Pacifica Northwest’s unmotivated cruelty wounds Mabel and how frustrated Mabel becomes with herself for her failed attempts at seriousness. It also deals with the topic by spinning a massive government conspiracy around Quentin Trembley, the 8½th President of the United States, who preserved himself in peanut brittle in a shockingly successful attempt to live forever. Once again, the show takes wildly different tones and expertly melds them together, with both the all too real emotional story and the crazy conspiracy plot leading Mabel (and, hopefully, the audience of young goofballs watching at home) to one inescapable conclusion: It’s OK to be weird. Heck, it’s awesome to be weird.
The episode finds Gravity Falls celebrating Pioneer Day, an annual event that Grunkle Stan despises, because how could someone like Stan not hate something like Pioneer Day? The day doubles as an opportunity for Mabel’s arch-enemy Pacifica Northwest, the great-granddaughter of revered town founder Nathaniel Northwest, to remind everyone how rich and important she is. Pacifica completely humiliates Mabel when she tries to get in on the fun, and so Dipper decides to teach the bully a lesson by exposing her ancestor as a fraud, just as his mysterious book says. Dipper and the now supposedly serious Mabel run afoul of Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland, whose job is to protect the Northwest myth at any cost. A series of truly bizarre clues lead the Mystery Twins—Dipper is starting to accept the sobriquet in spite of himself—to uncover the truth about Quentin Trembley, the real town founder whose brief tenure as President of the United States was so embarrassing that he was erased from history and replaced with thirty days of William Henry Harrison. The only chance Dipper, Mabel, and the now resurrected Trembley have of escaping life in a government facility is to enact the silliest, most cockamamie escape plan in American history.
Dipper and Mabel’s treasure hunt is one of a bunch of bravura sequences in this episode. With so many crazy elements in play, Gravity Falls is remarkably adept at shifting its tone from wacky to semi-realistic and back again. Take Dipper’s attempt to decode the first map at the library. Considering everything that’s already happened on this show, his idea to burn the parchment to reveal its secret really doesn’t seem that silly, at least until Mabel casually folds it into a hat-shaped map and he realizes, dumbfounded, “And I was going to burn it.” Similarly, even though Tubs and Durland are most definitely chasing the twins—and at the behest of a shadowy government operative, to boot—the show is still able to have Dipper completely overestimate the difficulty of getting into the Museum of History. Jason Ritter’s hilariously hardcore reading of “We’re in!” is easily my favorite moment of the episode, and it’s also a great example of how awesomely detailed the animation is: Just look at how crazily determined Dipper looks as the museum worker happily gives him a day pass and a blue balloon. And then, after getting in a wonderfully subtle dig at modern art (“It’s not abstract, it’s upside-down!”), it’s back to the very real, utterly bonkers conspiracy plot. Gravity Falls is hardly the first show to feature such breakneck shifts in tone, but I’m not sure I can think of any shows that covers such a wide spectrum of tones and genres. To go back to the X-Files part of its DNA, the show’s comic perspective constantly zigzags from skeptic (like when Dipper “breaks into” the museum) to believer (everything Quentin Trembley-related), and yet the show’s universe never feels incoherent. That unpredictability is a big part of why this show is so fun to watch.
The show’s expert juggling of tones also extends to the cast, as the broad caricatures stand side by side the more fully realized characters. After all, Mabel’s intensely relatable character arc is kicked off by some ludicrously brutal putdowns and insults from Pacifica Northwest. She’s a shamelessly one-note character whose every line of dialogue is calibrated to be as mean and narcissistic as possible. Based on everything we’ve seen in her first two episodes, Pacifica is an entirely irredeemable character, as every olive branch Mabel extends to her is met with more pointless cruelty. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the show ultimately decides to deepen Pacifica and explain why she’s just so horrible—her rather random attempt to get Grunkle Stan to admit the Northwest family is the town’s best family suggests someone with some seriously deep-seated self-esteem issues—but for the time being there’s nothing wrong with her being such a caricature, particularly when it makes for great little moments like Pacifica randomly declaring “We’re perfect” to no one in particular or having her goons throw a girl off a maypole team. In fact, the intentionally one-dimensional characterization works precisely because she’s so over-the-top. She is the absolute apotheosis of the popular middle school bully, and that actually makes it harder for Mabel to dismiss her criticisms than if Pacifica seemed to have human weaknesses or failings. There’s no chance of Mabel finding common ground with this brat, of gaining social acceptance from this group of peers, so she is left with the far harder task of accepting herself.
Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better role model in weirdness than Quentin Trembley. There’s always a danger when a character’s defining trait is “weirdness” that he ends us more random than funny, but Trembley gets in a ton of hilarious one-liners. I’m torn as to which Trembley line is my favorite, but it’s probably a tossup between “Well we didn’t fit through the hole—let’s rebuild the box and try again!” and his reveal of what he did instead of formally resigning: “I ate a salamander and jumped out a window!” Show creator Alex Hirsch’s performance as Trembley hits just the right note between 19th century statesman and clearly unhinged oddball, which is a big reason why the character works as well as he does. You can totally see why the now-Congressman Mabel Pines would realize she doesn’t have to change a thing after spending time with… and why Dipper would just be sort of weirded out by the whole experience. Indeed, his announcement that he didn’t learn anything leads to the episode’s most satisfying moment, where he does what Mabel no longer needs to do and gives Pacifica the evidence that her entire family is a sham. As he observes, “Revenge is underrated—that felt awesome!” There’s truly no end to the great lessons that Gravity Falls teaches.
- Thank you so much for the massive outpouring of support for regular coverage last week. Gravity Falls is still in its trial run here, so let’s go beyond simply voicing our love of the show—although seriously, you guys, that was awesome—and get into some more in-depth discussions about tonight’s episode and the show in general. I know you all can do it!
- Stan gets a great little moment of triumph when he writes “You stink” with his mouth while sitting in the stocks. Admittedly, his victory doesn’t last long all that long, but his moment of complete self-satisfaction is entirely justified.
- Lil’ Gideon shows up to torment Stan with tomatoes, taking a break from his likely far more complex vengeance plot against the Pines men. I really like that the show is willing to bring back its major villains even for little cameos like that.
- “Wood, my age-old enemy!” It would appear Quentin Trembley has the same weaknesses as the original Green Lantern.
- The gag about it being legal to marry woodpeckers was already pretty damn funny, but Trembley’s sudden exclamation, “Is that my third wife? Sandy?” took it to a whole other level.
- HISTORY NERD ALERT: I don’t think the show’s version of history quite makes sense, in part because there wasn’t actually an election in 1837. (Although the death of all non-Trembley presidential candidates in a landslide would give new meaning to the term “Panic of 1837.”) However, I do love Trembley’s story about being chased around by that jerk George Washington, mostly because Washington died in 1799, which logically and rather awesomely means an elderly Father of Our Country took it upon himself to torment Trembley when he was just a kid. Also, the reveal that Benjamin Franklin really was a woman is a terrific callback to Stan’s counterfeiting operation back in “Legend Of The Gobblewonker.”