Realistically, there are limits to how much a person can actually be expected to change. Grunkle Stan will always be a greedy, selfish curmudgeon. Soos will always be a buffoon whose oafishness veers between loveable and obnoxious depending on the situation. Old Man McGucket will always be a creepy old prospector with a bunch of terrifying, undiagnosed mental illnesses. Dipper and Mabel are only 12, so there’s at least the biological possibility that puberty will change them both beyond recognition, but that’s unlikely in terms of the show’s larger narrative. As such, Dipper will probably always be a tightly wound sort of guy, someone who generally means well but isn’t above hurting his friends in the name of what he perceives as a greater good. And Mabel will almost certainly remain forever the loveable goofball, someone incapable of marching to anything but the beat of her own drum. All of these characters have their glaring weaknesses, and their potential for growth isn’t really down to whether they can eliminate these character flaws; rather, the key is whether they can find the best of themselves within that narrow range and in so doing transcend their faults, if only briefly.
After all, Grunkle Stan doesn’t end up playing the hero because of some sudden epiphany that he should live his life more virtuously. Indeed, the way he articulates the argument to himself—using the silent Waddles as a proxy for his own conscience—is really just as self-absorbed as anything else he does in the episode. He saves Waddles because he knows Mabel cares about the pig, and he decides that his days are so much better with Mabel around to entertain him. He puts himself at short-term risk because he believes the long-term benefits to himself are worth it. If that isn’t strictly selfish, it’s certainly self-centered, but the end result is that Mabel and Waddles are reunited. As such, Stan becomes a hero in a way that doesn’t betray the less pleasant aspects of his core character or require the show to hit a reset button to get him back to normal. At the same time, Alex Hirsch brings just enough emotional shading to his performance as Stan that it’s possible to see a more genuinely altruistic impulse beneath Stan’s stated reasons for taking on the pterodactyl. “The Land Before Swine” excels in hinting at growth while also celebrating who the characters already are.
The episode also excels at featuring scenes in which Grunkle Stan punches a pterodactyl in the face. Seriously, my job requires that I not just surrender all critical faculties when a show features a crusty old man bellowing “From heck’s cold heart, I stab at thee!” and raining blows down upon a pterodactyl, all while safely carrying an adorable pig in baby carrier, but you good folks are under no such obligation. If you want to declare this episode an instant classic—heck, if you want to declare this the apex of Western civilization—purely on the strength of that incredible moment, then I’m not going to stop you. As a concept, Stan fighting a pterodactyl is already fantastic, but that sells short just how perfectly the episode builds to and handles that sequence. The posing of Stan directly before and after the fight recalls a bruising, old-school action hero; this may just be a coincidence, but I was reminded of Abe Simpson’s poses in The Simpsons’ “Flying Hellfish” episode, which in turn were inspired by Joe Kubert’s drawings in DC Comics’ Sgt. Rock. The judicious use of slow motion—as Stan first leaps toward the pterodactyl and later punches its head while screaming out his war cry—helps build the spectacle of the scene, as does the rousing music. Although my favorite little detail might be the red light that bathes Stan as he declares the pterodactyl is going to have to get through him if it wants Waddles, as the lighting gives Stan the distinct appearance of a devil turned temporarily good, if only to fight an even more terrifying flying devil.
Since I’ve already made one comparison between Gravity Falls and classic Simpsons, I might as well make another with respect to Waddles. One of Matt Groening’s myriad rules for the show’s universe—and, thus, one of the myriad rules the writers ultimately disobeyed in the name of good jokes—was that the animals should act like real animals, rather than like animals in cartoons. “The Land Before Swine” largely follows that lead with its handling of Mabel’s pig. Waddles clearly isn’t a dumb creature, and he’s almost preternaturally well-behaved, yet he still mostly just behaves like a normal pig. He can take on more human characteristics, but those come almost exclusively through Mabel and later Stan’s projection. His total lack of reaction when Stan start arguing about who should be left to be eaten by the dinosaur allows the focus to remain entirely on Stan, and the episode’s sweetest moment comes when Stan waves Waddles’ hoof in greeting to Mabel. I imagine there’s a temptation with a character like Waddles to give him some subtly anthropomorphic characteristics, to allow him the occasional quizzical or bemused reaction to the humans’ latest silliness. But his more straightforwardly animal-like portrayal means he doesn’t distract from Stan and Mabel’s story, and it allows Waddles to focus on what he’s best at: being just ridiculously, almost painfully cute.
“The Land Before Swine” is slightly less successful in its handling of Soos and Dipper’s story. Theirs is a familiar story of two friends with wildly different personalities and competence levels learning to coexist, and a few too many of the story beats verge on cliché. In particular, Soos bursting into Dipper’s darkroom and ruining the photographs is an ancient joke, in part because darkrooms are a good decade or two out of date. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with telling a familiar joke or dated reference, as I discussed at some length in my “Boyz Crazy” review, but then the onus is on Gravity Falls to find some new twist on the old gag. The whole thing feels a tad rote, as though the show is content to repeat the same points viewers have seen before in similar plots. There’s a brief hint of a unique spin early on, as Dipper’s initial frustrations with Soos can seem a little petty when all they are doing is monster-hunting; it could be argued that excluding Soos from something so frivolous is the far worse action. But Waddles’ capture means that Dipper has a valid motivation to tell Soos off, which erases some potential complexity and keeps the focus squarely on issues of trust and belief in one’s friends. The Dipper and Soos story is effective enough, but it doesn’t feel as uniquely Gravity Falls as the main story.
Then again, the main story features a Mabel and Waddles dance party, a cutaway in which Grunkle Stan describes feeding Waddles on the finest creams before being bested by a dirty-fighting pterodactyl, and a climactic sequence in which Stan actually does beat the crap out of a prehistoric beast. It’s entirely possible that no minor plot could ever measure up to a main story with all of that going on. At a certain point, there’s just no denying the majesty of an episode with this level of giddy, exuberant insanity.
- I’ll say this for Disney’s erratic scheduling: Every time Gravity Falls comes back, it feels like an event, and the gap between “Boyz Crazy” and tonight was enough to make this episode feel like a full-blown season premiere. Almost irrespective of the episode’s quality, I found myself smiling just to be immersed in its world again.
- Because I can’t just post a transcript of their entire conversation, I’ll just say that every episode needs to start with Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland doing their thing. Their deeply, deeply stupid thing.
- “Ugh… this guy.” I will never grow tired of characters openly declaring their hatred of other characters. Grunkle Stan’s specific reaction to Old Man McGucket directly recalls Bender’s reaction to about half of the characters in the Futurama universe, most notably that robot preacher.
- “Okay, okay, how’s about Mabel knits Soos a pig costume?” “I like it.” “And we use Soos as a human sacrifice?” “I like it!” This is a funny exchange on its own merits, but Soos’ expression sends it over the top.
- “Yeah! Let’s go save Waggles!” “Waddles.” “Him too!”
- “I could bring people down here and turn this into some sort of theme park. Jurassic… Sap Hole!” This episode is just crying out for a sequel—unless we’re to presume Old Man McGucket will consume all of those sap-encased dinosaurs—and Stan going ahead with a foolhardy amusement park seems as good a premise as any.