It’s a clever system and one that helps retain some mystery even after the truth has supposedly been revealed.
“Not What He Seems,” Gravity Falls‘ 31st episode, is the one in which everything changes. Stan finally gets the portal working on the same day the kids find it, and after a few incredibly tense moments, it opens and Ford emerges. At last, everything is going to be explained.
And it is… sort of.
The following episode, “A Tale of Two Stans,” is beautiful. Devoted almost entirely to Stan and Ford’s backstory, it starts with their happy childhood and runs through their diverging lives and brief reunion that resulted in Ford being lost and Stan founding the Mystery Shack.
It’s pure exposition, but the absolute best kind — exactly the sort of surprising, heartfelt, revelatory history you want in a show, and with an unexpectedly mature tone, to boot. A full blast of dark pasts, old enmities, and tragic misunderstandings, it gives you the sense that, out of nowhere, you’re finally going to be on equal footing with the grownups.
Except that’s not quite what happens. Because all this exposition isn’t objective — it’s a story being told by two adults to two children, and the adults have their own motives for concealing things.
Stan, crucially, doesn’t hold anything back in telling his side of the story. He’s come to trust Dipper and Mabel, and he feels the need to make up for all the lies of his past. So we get (as far as we know) his full history, with all its shortcomings and failures.
Ford, on the other hand, tells a more edited version.
As far as “A Tale of Two Stans” is concerned, Ford had a million dollar idea for an interdimensional portal, but after his partner caught a glimpse of what was on the other side and quit, he decided to shut it down. And he would have if Stan hadn’t accidentally turned it on and pushed him through.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. The idea for the portal came from the otherworldly being Bill, who deceived Ford, possessed him, and fed him the formulas to open a gateway to the Nightmare Realm. Bill tricked Ford into helping him, and the deal they made is the source of all the Pines family’s problems, the reason any of them are in Gravity Falls at all.
But we don’t find that out until nearly the end of the series.
It makes perfect sense, too. Ford’s accustomed to painting himself as the hero. He’s also proud and angry and not used to dealing with children, so he glosses over the mistakes of his past. And the show takes full advantage of the situation. It withholds its darker themes of horror, madness, and betrayal, spreading them over more episodes and the slowing the tide of maturity.
Of course when Ford’s secret is revealed, it’s because Dipper uncovers it, and that’s the important counterbalance to the rule of withholding information. The show uses its characters’ instinct to hide the truth from the kids, yes, but it’s careful to assert that that kind of deceit is both unnecessary and impossible.
The message is clear: even if you think you’re protecting them, kids are going to see through your deception, and they might just save you from yourself in the process.
As heavy as it gets, Gravity Falls stays true to its identity as a kids’ show in one important way: it keeps its tragic ending light. To save the world and his family, Stan sacrifices himself — after tricking Bill into entering his mind, he wipes it clean. He kills Bill and saves the day, but his memory is erased in the process.
Blue flames consuming his consciousness, Stan chuckles and says “I guess I was good for something after all,” then accepts his fate peacefully. It’s a hell of a scene, and if you can get through it without tearing up, you might need to see a doctor.
But the suffering is short-lived. Refusing to give up hope, Mabel shows the amnesiac Stan her summer scrapbook, and it actually works! After just a few pages, his memory starts to return. Stan chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice, but he’s spared the consequences.
And honestly, that’s lovely.
Personally, I could have stood to have the suspense of Stan’s fate stretched a little longer — it lasts for all of three minutes. But I’m also 30 years old and cynical. And if there’s one place Gravity Falls‘ young fans (and Stan) deserve a break from tragedy, it’s in the ending.
Mature themes are all well and good, but there’s such a thing as overstepping, and killing a beloved character who becomes the surprise hero would have been just that. It would have seemed like punishment. After being trusted with something important, in a show that deals so much in trust, the audience would have felt betrayed.
So instead the show ends perfectly. Stan regains his memory. Bill disappears (maybe). Dipper and Mabel turn 13. Soos inherits the Mystery Shack. And Ford and Stan, after finally reconciling, sail away for the adventure of a lifetime on the Stan O’ War II.
All is right with the world, and a new generation of tv fans learn that as exciting and emotionally rich as tragedy can be, there’s a lot of joy and relief to be found in a happy ending.
By hiding its dark elements where they could be so obviously found, Gravity Falls demonstrated a huge amount of faith in its young audience. Alex Hirsch might have been making a show he would enjoy watching, but the average Disney Channel viewer at the time was a heck of a lot younger. And he managed to deliver them rich storytelling and drama whether they, their parents, or the network knew it or not.
That’s a lot of trust to be placed in the audience, but as the show asserts, again and again, kids are worthy of trust. They’re not dumb, they know more than you think they do, and they’re receptive to more grown-up things than you’d expect. Gravity Falls is an exceptional kids’ show — brilliant, hilarious, and carefully crafted. But it also deals with a deft sleight of hand that distracts you while it slips you a serious drama… and maybe steals your wallet.
It’s a gem of a series, and any kid (or film critic in her thirties) should be so lucky as to grow up on it.