Valentine’s Day Weekend is supposed to be spent with your significant other,or alone on your couch with a pint of ice cream. I did neither of those things. Instead, I spent my weekend with Gravity Falls, the Disney XD cartoon to which I bade farewell with a marathon of binge-watching before tonight’s series finale at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Maybe my live tweeting of the action brought you here, maybe not. Either way, I hope you’ll join me in paying my last respects to a television show that changed children’s cartoons forever.
I was lucky enough to have been introduced to Gravity Falls last summer, when I visited my cousin in Prague and she could not stop raving about it. After the first two episodes I was hooked, and then I was binge-watching the show in the span of a few days, and then I was getting a Dipper Pines hat for my birthday. Evidence that I’m not simply a manchild for behaving this way: even the great Louis C.K. liked the show enough to agree to voice a disembodied head with an arm sticking out of the top. And how about the extensive list of guest stars and presumed fans, which includes Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Nathan Fillion, and freaking Neil DeGrasse Tyson? Like so many others hip to this great show, I believe that the notion of a “kids’ cartoon” being exclusively for kids is bullshit, and Gravity Falls is absolutely worth your while, regardless of your tastes.
Gravity Falls’ strength, like that of any truly memorable show, has always been its characters —starting with Dipper and Mabel Pines, the 12-year-old co-protagonists. Their twin sibling relationship is, as far as I can tell, unique in animated protagonist history. On the surface, they seem a cut-and-dried case of the odd couple, with Dipper’s neuroticism, pubertal-onset insecurity, and analytical mind the foil to Mabel’s unfiltered joie de vivre and doe-eyed naïveté (portrayed magnificently by Kristen Schaal, whose performances highlight most of the episodes).
Plenty of fictional friends have showcased this dynamic, and they’ve all faced the archetypal challenge to such a relationship: overcoming the gap with love. But because Dipper and Mabel are twins, that love is closely intertwined with duty, which makes for a far more powerful bond. With duty come honesty, candor, and an intimate knowledge of each other’s deepest insecurities and flaws—all of which renders Dipper and Mabel totally vulnerable before each other. We get to see the inner psyches of the Pines twins in a way that no other show could ever reveal, because they’re each an X-ray into the other’s soul without any hint of romantic subtext (unless you’re a truly perverted DeviantArtist).
Mabel unlocks and elicits the pureness of Dipper’s heart, which often gets obscured by the ambitions and secret crushes that most guys deal with on a daily basis; in turn, Dipper unlocks and assuages Mabel’s deep-seated fear of change and the passage of time. Who else but Mabel could’ve convinced Dipper to declare his love for Wendy Corduroy, the coolest teenage girl who ever lived, knowing that it was futile and that he would have his heart ripped out in one of the show’s most visceral yet touching scenes? Who else but Dipper could’ve coaxed Mabel out of a fantasyland to rejoin a freak-show reality, rife with death, the ultimate human terror? These are heavy issues with which Hirsch and company have trusted their young audience—issues they can broach in an especially effective way because of Dipper and Mabel—and that trust 1.) has made Gravity Falls an amazing influence on children, and 2.) allowed it to resonate with an older audience.
Of course, Dipper and Mabel aren’t the only standout characters in Gravity Falls. There’s the well-intentioned, buffoonish handyman Soos, whose care for his Abuelita and non-relationship with his father humanize him in a way that stock clown characters have rarely been humanized in animated programs. There’s the über-cool Wendy Corduroy, the show’s superhero and Dipper’s crush, who showcases an incredible range of badassery while still acting like a real teenager (watching her break down at the end of “Boyz Crazy” is so brutal). And then there’s the kids’ Grunkle Stan, the most heartbreaking and dynamic character on the show. His transformation from narcissistic con man to outstanding father figure gains unfathomable depth when we find out that he’s been living with the guilt of having trapped his twin brother Ford on the other side of an interdimensional portal—and when Ford proves himself reckless, self-centered, and myopically focused on scientific inquiry, Stan doubles down on a devotion to Dipper and Mabel’s well-being.
“Everything I’ve worked for, everything I care about, it’s all for this family,” he proclaims in the seminal episode Not What He Seems. In hindsight, I’m eerily reminded of Walter White, and in a way, Stan’s arc reverses that of the meth kingpin; he must regain the trust of his kids, and he does so by becoming a better person and putting them ahead of his business. Many people are predicting that Stan will die in tonight’s series finale—someone will almost certainly die, because Hirsch has no reason to keep everyone alive—and if that turns out to be true, he will have completed his redemption story for the ages in the most tragic of fashions. I, for one, want to see a Disney story finally end in such an all-too-human Pyrrhic victory, and Gravity Falls has proven itself a brave enough kids’ program to make that a strong possibility.
Had Gravity Falls merely constructed brilliant characters for a brilliant world, it likely would’ve garnered critical praise and not much else. But the show blossomed into a full-blown cultural force because it knew to pull on the three cornerstones that go into building a modern cult classic:
1. Thinly veiled adult humor and trippy visuals;
2. Nostalgic references to the ‘90s;
3. Getting the fan base involved.
The first of these happened almost right off the bat when Mabel went for a trip on Smile Dip in “The Inconveniencing,” the show’s third episode, and “ONWARDS AOSHIMA” took over the Internet.
Since then, we’ve seen plenty of dirty jokes and faux-hallucinations (cracks at Dipper’s Internet history, Multi-Bears who like ABBA knock-offs, talking golf balls voiced by Patton Oswalt), but an underrated aspect of Gravity Falls’ appeal has been its willingness to depict legitimately horrifying scenes. Watching town oligarch Preston Northwest’s face get rearranged probably gave some kids nightmares that last to this day. You could probably make the argument that Gravity Falls is the Guillermo Del Toro of kids’ cartoons—and in fact Del Toro himself has lauded the show.
Add in cultural callouts like a boy band that turns out to be test tube clones (voiced by Lance Bass), a blatant homage to Mortal Kombat and Street Fighters called Fight Fighters, and an alternate Dipper named Dippy Fresh (the ‘90s personified), and you have the recipe for a show that will blow up the millennial-driven internets. One glance at the Gravity Falls subreddit is enough to showcase the passion of the show’s adult fans. Or you can look up “Dipcifica” to see just how seriously they’ve taken shipping Dipper with the town’s Regina George analogue, Pacifica Northwest. (Not sure how I feel about that.)
And Hirsch has run with all of this. He’s put ciphers at the end of every episode. He’s tossed in Easter eggs that only the keenest-eyed fans would spot (and they unfailingly have done so). Most notably, he established a mysterious wheel that the community has been debating for the better part of the past two years. It probably means something, and that meaning will probably be revealed tonight, but who knows? The point is, it got the people going. Gravity Falls has had the type of fan engagement most shows would kill for, and that’s going to keep it relevant for decades to come—true fandom doesn’t die.
But tonight, Gravity Falls comes to an end, a revelation that came as a surprise to the world when Hirsch announced it a couple months ago. To me, though, it marked, perhaps, the most beautiful moment in the show’s history: Hirsch knows his story is over. He’s not going to bother extending it only to weather an inevitable decline, or suffer listlessness. “Summer ends,” Dipper tells a distraught Mabel as she hides in her sweater at the end of “Dipper and Mabel vs. The Future,” and that’s the thesis statement of the entire series. Time passes, and with its passage come heartbreak and the loss of innocence… but ultimately we end up wiser and more able to appreciate the joys of the world. Now, with the psychopathic Bill Cipher looming and a very real threat of death to the heroes who will try to take him down, all that remains is to kiss this amazing series goodbye—to let it go out with a bang, and some tears.
And then marathon the entire thing again.
Zach Blumenfeld, a humble editorial intern here at Paste, still hasn’t taken off his Dipper Pines outfit since the weekend marathon ended. You can follow him on Twitter.