Well, that was a damn triumph. “Sock Opera” is the second stone-cold classic Gravity Falls has churned out in its still young second season, and it soars for much the same reason that “Into The Bunker” did: Both stories offer incisive looks at the show’s core relationships, and they both do so in a way that allows the show to push ahead with its overarching mystery narrative. Funnily enough, each episode purports to offer big revelations about the secrets of Gravity Fall, but neither really delivers, instead taking an apparent ally in the hunt for truth—the mysterious old man in the former case, Bill Cipher in the latter—and turning him into an especially fearsome antagonist. The reason “Sock Opera” doesn’t feel repetitive is that the resemblance is superficial; the episodes share similar structures, but they develop along entirely divergent paths. Still, the takeaway message is the same: The search for truth doesn’t matter nearly as much as with whom you do the searching. “In The Bunker” taught Dipper that lesson as he finally came clean to Wendy about his feelings. Tonight’s episode has Dipper and Mabel each recognize that all that one has accomplished would not be possible without the support of the other.
It’s crucial that the episode takes both twins on this journey, as it’s relatively rare for Gravity Falls to fully develop emotional arcs for both Dipper and Mabel in the same episode. At first, “Sock Opera” appears to subscribe to the same, rather reductive binary trotted out in previous episodes, namely that the twins can either devote themselves to Dipper’s quixotic search or help realize Mabel’s latest short-term obsession. Some terrific episodes have been built out of that tension—looking at you, “The Time Traveler’s Pig,” with an honorable mention for the Mermando-starring “The Deep End”—and Dipper seemingly sets down this episode’s rules of engagement when he asks Mabel whether her latest dumb crush of the week is more important than figuring out the laptop’s password. Dipper is so obviously obsessive, and the show is still such a long way away from when it would logically allow him to actually find out anything major, that it’s difficult to take his position. But Mabel isn’t on much firmer ground, considering her latest crush, Gabe Benson, is a ponytailed puppeteer whose weirdness is matched only by his vanity. This isn’t Mabel chasing after her heart’s desire; Gabe isn’t Mermando, and he sure as heck isn’t Waddles.
As such, “Sock Opera” develops a more nuanced, mature argument, as Bill Cipher’s deeply creepy meddling forces first Dipper and then Mabel to realize how much they need each other. Because Dipper is the show’s main protagonist, most episodes end up interrogating his flaws, and that’s what the first half of this episode appears to do. We’re so used to Dipper being selfish in pursuit of his obsession that it’s easy to miss his initial selflessness. Sure, he might not want to spend a week helping Mabel with her insane sock puppet rock opera—complete with over 36 original songs and pyrotechnics!—and his attitude leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s odd to take him to task for not being enthusiastic enough in his helping when Mabel doesn’t help at all. The simple fact that Mabel gets fewer episodes in the spotlight—not to mention the fact that she’s just so darn adorable—means that the audience is more likely to support her, less likely to note her shortcomings. The episode is clever in how it uses Bill’s return to drive a wedge between the twins, but it situates Dipper’s mistake as the result of an entirely understandable moment of weakness, while it has Mabel realize how she hasn’t lived up to her sibling responsibilities.
The return of Bill Cipher is itself a masterstroke. “Dreamscaperers” was such an ambitious episode that I wouldn’t have guessed that “Sock Opera” could pull off such a relatively small-scale reappearance for Bill. Compared with the Inception-like plan to steal the contents of Stan’s mind, Bill’s efforts here are shockingly straightforward, with his plans not extending much beyond smashing the laptop and destroying the journal. But my goodness, is Bill ever creepy in how he goes about it. The triangular Bill is unnerving enough, particularly when he rotates the entire plane of existence, but that’s nothing next to Bill in Dipper’s body. His utter joy at having the use of a body again quickly manifests as a deeply unhealthy fascination with self-inflicted pain, and then there’s his casual verbal harassment of Wendy; it’s damn hard to make Dipper, of all people, come across as intimidating, but the suitably unhinged design of Bill-possessed Dipper and Alex Hirsch’s manic voiceover work sells this otherwise underwhelming 12-year-old boy as a genuine threat. The decision to put him in a reverend’s costume for the climax at the puppet show is a particularly inspired touch, lending Bipper an air of ancient, unknowable villainy that perfectly matches what little we know about Bill.
The other characters remain largely on the periphery of this episode. Soos only has one memorable moment—his gleeful response to Bill’s asking whether he wants to know the precise date of his death—but it’s a great one. In past reviews, I’ve compared both Mabel and Soos with Futurama’s Bender, who is the quintessential example of a character who, in the absence of his own storyline, can just churn out incredible one-liner after one-liner. Well, let’s officially throw Stan into that category, as just about everything he says in this episode is comedy gold. “Sock Opera” has a lot of fun with the idea that nobody is paying the slightest attention to Stan, and he’s only vaguely cognizant of what anyone else is doing. As such, he most consigns himself to spouting criminally underappreciated one-liners; it’s okay, Stan, I appreciated the “Bag check for Dipper’s eyes” line, even if the twins didn’t. Completing this episode’s supporting ensemble are Candy and Grenda, both of whom thoroughly embarrass themselves with their unchecked lust for Gabe. Thanks to Candy’s desperate entreaties to the puppet-obsesses weirdoes, this is a Gravity Falls episode that manages to be hilarious in multiple languages.
And then there’s the puppet show itself. The scripted version, with its self-aggrandizing songs about Mabel receiving awards from the mayor and Gabe inexplicably going off to war to fight a Godzilla-like monster, is the perfect window into the madness that is Mabel’s mind. The ghostly Dipper’s fill-in work is equal parts ridiculous and endearing, as Dipper, for all his entirely understandable reservations, still does his best to execute Mabel’s absurd vision; if ever there’s a moment in “Sock Opera” that Dipper removes any doubt about his worthiness as a brother, then it’s surely that. And, just in case any viewer was worrying that Mabel’s initial promises of pyrotechnics would go unfulfilled, she blows up the entire thing, giving us the glory of a slow-motion montage built around puppet Stan’s burning head. That moment is everything that typifies Gravity Falls at its best: ridiculous, shamelessly over-the-top, yet oddly earnest in its convictions and its emotions. After all, puppet Stan’s head burns across our screen because Mabel, in a moment of supreme self-sacrifice, chooses Dipper over Gabe. That ability to connect even the most ludicrous of moments with deeply felt emotion is what elevates “Sock Opera” to the very peak of Gravity Falls episodes.
- Eh, let’s just do some quotes. Stan, take it away: “Whoa, children fighting! I can sell this!”
- “Boy, these arms are durable!”
- “It’s life if coffee and nightmares had a baby.”
- “Here, have a head that’s always screaming!”