A big reason why Gravity Falls has become so great so fast is that, for all its paranormal craziness, it feels real. Dipper and Mabel are three-dimensional characters, and what's more they’re three-dimensional characters that act like preteens. The show excels at the little details that make the twins seem like real twelve-year-olds—last week’s “Irrational Treasure” had a bunch of good examples of this, such as Mabel complaining about the movie being black-and-white and Dipper reading from his book in a silly gruff voice before thinking better of it. Part of the show’s charm is also how close their sibling relationship is and how, despite their obviously huge differences in personality, they genuinely support each other and enjoy hanging out together. Mabel and Dipper are best friends in a way that’s unusual for most TV siblings.
To see what I mean, let's look at two iconic, wildly disparate examples of animated brother-sister relations, Bart and Lisa Simpson and Sokka and Katara on Avatar: The Last Airbender: In both cases, there’s no question that the siblings fundamentally love and would do anything for each other, but they still often get on each other’s nerves, get into fights, and occasionally torment one another before remembering their underlying bond. With Dipper and Mabel, that closeness is the default. They’re always there for each other, and more importantly it’s their first impulse to want to make the other one happy. It’s not that one type of relationship is necessarily better or more realistic than the other, but Dipper and Mabel’s rapport is part of what makes Gravity Falls so refreshing. It’s also a big part of why “The Time Traveler’s Pig” is so powerful.
Grunkle Stan’s latest moneymaking scheme is the Mystery Fair, a cut-rate carnival full of all the cheapest rides money can barely buy. Dipper has actually taken Mabel (and Tyrone)’s advice from “Double Dipper” to heart and just asked Wendy whether she wants to spend the day at the fair with him. Unfortunately, his newfound romantic impulsiveness leads to a carnival game mishap that leaves Wendy with a black eye—and her guitar-playing, skinny-jeaned creep of a friend Robbie is there to comfort her. When Robbie takes the opportunity to ask Wendy out, Dipper is heartbroken, and all he wants is a chance to undo his mistake. Enter Blendin Blandin, member of the Time Anomaly Removal Crew from the year 207012 (with a tilde over the 7, so it’s pronounced “twenty-sñevendy-twelve”). Dipper uses Blendin’s time machine, which just happens to look exactly like a tape measure, to relive the day over and over in the hopes of not hitting Wendy in the face with a baseball and preventing Robbie from swooping in. Mabel comes along for the ride too, but she’s there to experience again the joy of winning her new beloved pet pig Waddles. Except the only way for Dipper to be with Wendy is for Mabel to lose Waddles forever to her nemesis, Pacifica Northwest.
Much of the episode feels more like Groundhog Day than your more typical time travel story, as Dipper keeps reliving the seemingly unavoidable moment where he accidentally hits Wendy in the eye with a baseball. Indeed, those hoping for a rip-roaring romp through past and future might experience a bit of a letdown, as the Pines twins don’t time travel at all until nearly halfway through the episode and don’t leave the fair until the final third. The lengthy setup is important though in establishing just how heartbroken Dipper is by Wendy going off with Robbie and just how much, in her own adorably goofy way, Mabel loves Waddles. Without these, the big emotional climax wouldn’t be as devastating. Dipper’s repeated failures also bring up some weighty ideas about whether, as he puts it, “the forces of time naturally conspire to undo any new outcomes.”
Always loathe to admit he’s powerless, Dipper shakes this idea off, and the episode takes on a hilariously off-kilter, manic tone as he tries to defeat the will of the universe. In particular, his one attempt to get out of the whole mess altogether by asking Wendy whether she really wants the cuddly toy of indeterminate species prompts a wonderfully grim line reading from Linda Cardellini: “More than anything in the world, Dipper.” It’s hard to believe Wendy genuinely cares that much, but that’s kind of the point—the universe is going a little loopy in trying to keep the timeline intact. The fact that Gravity Falls joins the likes of other great towns like Springfield and Pawnee in its townspeople’s willingness to burn people as witches at the drop of a hat only adds to the general craziness of the Mystery Fair sequence.
Dipper’s willingness to swap Waddles for Wendy leads to the twins’ first true fight, as it becomes clear there’s no way for both of them to be happy. While the race through time is fun—particularly Mabel sharing the joys of the modern age with some Oregon Trail settlers—the big payoff is when the siblings return to the present and Mabel realizes all is lost. Dipper is initially unmoved by Mabel’s misery, noting that she will likely forget Waddles the next day. To prove it, Dipper goes further and further into the future, and Mabel is still knocking her head against the totem pole, mourning for Waddles. It’s a moment where the animation, Kristen Schaal and Jason Ritter’s voice acting, and Brad Breeck’s music come together perfectly to capture Mabel’s complete devastation and Dipper’s mounting hopelessness as he realizes, once again, some things are just beyond his power to change. It’s a mature, melancholy sequence for the episode to build towards, and it makes Mabel’s eventual joy when she’s reunited with Waddles all the sweeter.
Finally, let’s just talk about how ridiculously impressive this episode’s callbacks are. A pioneer slips in a “By Trembly!” that serves to reinforce the show’s commitment to its own mythology, but that’s just the easy stuff. Mabel and Dipper’s subsequent chase through their recent past takes them through scenes in the show’s first three episodes, and Blendin Blandin is later sent back by the Time Baby to pick up the bits and pieces they left behind. And, if you go back to those earlier episodes, Blendin is indeed visible picking things up in all the correct places. What’s more, the horrific Time Baby was actually mentioned in the parchment on Nathaniel Northwest in last week’s episode, which read in part: “An enormous, evil, time-devouring baby from another dimension is frozen in an Antarctic glacier. Fortunately glaciers never melt, so we should be fine.” That’s some of the most awesomely esoteric foreshadowing I’ve ever seen, and it gives me tremendous hope that a later episode will make good on another part of the document: “The statues in Mount Rushmore are actually gigantic presidential-faced robots that will be called into action when America needs them the most.”
Then there’s the dialogue, which has a lot of fun with the unintentionally meaningful lines. There’s the “We have a winner!” right after Dipper finally gets his timeline right and Wendy’s pronouncement that “This is the best present ever!” about her toy when the twins return from the past, but the most poignant is Wendy and Dipper’s final exchange before he sets the timeline right, in which Wendy tells him, “Dude, you lost me” after Dipper tries to explain what’s about to happen, and Dipper heartbreakingly responds, “I know.” This is the kind of intricate, interconnected storytelling that reminds me of Futurama at its apex, and there are few higher compliments I can pay a show. To top it all off, the episode closes with a legitimately moving reference to Babe, of all things. Seriously, is there anything this show can’t do?
- Good news, everyone! Not only is Gravity Falls now an official part of the A.V. Club rotation, we’re going to take advantage of the show only airing two new episodes over the next month by reviewing the earlier episodes we missed. Our catch-up coverage begins next Friday with episodes three and four, “Headhunters” and “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel.” If you haven’t had a chance to see these episodes yet, Disney is rerunning all the episodes next Friday, with these two airing one after the other at 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Eastern. You can also get the full list of Disney’s rerun schedule right here.
- For people overly invested in the largely arbitrary letter grades: I loved the episode, but I just thought it was a slight notch below “Irrational Treasure” and particularly “Double Dipper.” Relative to most shows, “The Time Traveler’s Pig” is probably solidly in the A range, but Gravity Falls has already set one heck of a grading curve for itself.
- TIME TRAVEL NERD ALERT: The show’s time travel mechanics seem to be that people can’t be at more than one place at the same time, which explains why Dipper and Mabel don’t keep meeting themselves at the fair. Admittedly, that seems to contradict their ability to chase through the events of previous episodes, so maybe it’s only a person’s recent past is malleable enough to be overwritten, whereas you can meet yourself in the more distant past. Yeah, I'll admit I have a tendency to go overboard when it comes to time travel stories. Personally, I’m blaming the Time Baby for any inconsistencies… though it’s probably better you don’t tell him I said that.
- “I’ll get you for this! I’ll go back in time and make sure your parents never meet.” “Well, we’re still here.” “I guess he forgot to go back.” So then, who’s up for a sequel episode in which Dipper and Mabel have to stop Blendin from messing with their parents’ first meeting? Might also be a chance to see more of young Stan.
- “When are we?” “The real question is when are we? Wait, did you…” What say you on that exchange: just a general time travel joke, or an Inspector Spacetime reference?
- “Say, do you smell a gallon of body spray?”
- “Guess where I was! That’s right! Fifteen years ago there was a costume store right here!”
- “Where are we? The 70s!?”
- Seriously, Waddles is so darn cute.