There are few moments where a single action changed the course of history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Neil Armstrong’s small step on the moon, the invention of penicillin. All are chump change compared to when Mabel and Dipper Pines arrived in Gravity Falls, Oregon for the summer that would change their lives. Created by Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls first aired on Disney Channel on June 15, 2012, ushering in the modern renaissance of young-adult animation we find ourselves in today. Cited as Twin Peaks for tweens, the show ingeniously balanced wacky antics with creepy creatures to craft a macabre serialized story full of heart and engaging mysteries, one that still holds strong 10 years later.
Breaking from the one-and-done episode structure of contemporaries Phineas and Ferb and Fish Hooks (which Hirsch helped develop), Gravity Falls was built around an overarching plot. Almost all of its 41 episodes could be viewed randomly, but watching them in order is mandatory to grasp the many intricate setups and running gags; seeing Old Man McGucket turn from a goofy rapscallion in one episode to a brilliant scientist in another would probably cause whiplash. Hirsch based many characters off his own family members, and the town itself from childhood summers spent in the Pacific Northwest. Sitting on the cusp of teenhood, the problems that Dipper and Mabel faced felt realistic—and very affirming for the YA audience it was aimed at—even if there were a few more gnomes and cryptids than normal. The Pines’ many comedic misadventures through puberty are sprinkled with both heartfelt and genuinely disturbing moments, casting a bewitching sense of uneasy joy that permeates each and every episode.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates Gravity Falls better than Season 2, Episode 10: “Northwest Mansion Mystery.” Directed by future Amphibia creator Matt Braly, the episode seems simple enough on the surface: Dipper agrees to help rid teenage drama queen Pacifica Northwest’s house of ghosts on the condition that Mabel and her friends can attend the Northwest’s “Annual High-Society Shindig Ball Soiree,” an event the rest of the town, in their poverty, are excluded from. In traditional Gravity Falls fashion, there is much more going on than at first glance, and what could be a simple episode about enemies becoming reluctant friends evolves into a mature dissection of classism and the exploitation of the American Northwest. Yes, you read that right. Let me explain.
The ghost haunting the Northwest Manor is not merely a random poltergeist, but the spirit of a lumberjack wronged by the original Northwests back when Gravity Falls was founded. A century and a half later, the lumberjack seeks retribution—not just for himself, but for the poor folk of the town whom the Northwests have historically exploited and ignored. It’s only because Pacifica’s parents refuse to open the gates to welcome the townsfolk that the haunting occurs in the first place; for the Northwests, their money and image are worth far more than their own safety. Being the newest generation, Pacific spends most of the episode uncovering her ancestral deceptions—lying to lumberjacks, the heart of the region’s industry; swindling the native population; literally robbing people—and must choose to either follow her parents’ lead or learn to stand up to them and alter the Northwest image for the better.
In some sense, Dipper is merely a side-character throughout the episode, someone who helps aid Pacifica along her journey of discovery rather than an active protagonist, but that doesn’t make him any less vital. His blunt honesty reflects Pacifica’s earlier mistreatment of the Pines twins, and his sacrifice is what ultimately pushes her to act. Finally disobeying her parents, she opens the gates and lets the town in, lifting the lumberjack’s curse in the process. Although the plot is simplified to fit into a strict 21-minute period, the show thoughtfully uses the Northwests as stand-ins for historical bad actors of the region, and in the process treats its viewers not as children but as educated adults who can handle conversations about complex issues. Pacifica herself becomes a three-dimensional character, her various choices and eventual courage adding much needed layers to her original “mean girl” personality. (In a 2012 interview with The AV Club, Hirsch noted that these “character stories” must be paired perfectly with the monster/magic/impossibility-of-the-week to uncover or explore new aspects of a character before the scripting process even begins.)
This trust in the audience is also reflected in the episode’s use of horror, because there are some truly unsettling moments scattered throughout the episode. The lumberjack’s possession starts as floating cutlery and dishes, but quickly devolves into blood pouring out of taxidermied mounted animal heads while they chant “ancient sins.” The lumberjack himself crawls out of the fire as a burning skeleton; the show being animated does not mean viewers are safe from scares. Although Dipper and Pacifica escape unharmed, the incident forces them and viewers alike to understand that this isn’t a simple haunting, that there’s something more sinister and personal going on. The malevolent power of the lumberjack expresses his deep hatred for the Northwests; the violence complicates his understandable, and perhaps even admirable, intention.
The scares take a bit of a break as the focus shuffles around developing Pacifica and Dipper’s relationship and Mabel’s flirtation subplot before coming back strong at the climax of the episode. With the gates still closed as the party begins, the lumberjack’s retribution spreads through the mansion, turning everyone into trees. While some of the transformations are played for comedic effect—the Mayor immediately plops over after being lignified—the rest purposefully showcase the terror of innocent people being forced to photosynthesize. The Northwests manage to escape their woody demise, once again selfishly profiting from screwing over the less fortunate. Believing Pacifica to be just like her parents, Dipper ditches her and attempts to stop the ghost himself, and the scream he lets out as the wood crawls up his legs is nothing short of bloodcurdling. Feeling guilty over Dipper’s sacrifice and her familial history, Pacifica opens up the gates and the townsfolk rush in, making an immediate mess of the place. Although this happier tone dominates the ending, a cryptic warning about something big coming from McGucket looms large over the credits.
With its ample scares, light-hearted diversions, devotion to character growth, and setup for the grander story, “Northwest Mansion Mystery” is the perfect microcosm of everything that makes Gravity Falls still relevant and watchable a decade later. There are plenty of funny jokes throughout the series, but its trust in its YA audience—a demographic that many companies still refuse to acknowledge—to not only understand but engage with darker, more mature content within a serialized story marks the show as the true progenitor of the recent spate of Disney content. Besides the previously mentioned Amphibia (which recently wrapped its three-season story), shows like The Owl House (created by Gravity Falls alumnus Dana Terrace), Star Versus the Forces of Evil, the recent reboot of Ducktales, and The Ghost and Molly McGee carry on the legacy of big stories full of flawed, and thus realistic, characters. Even outside of Disney Channel, shows like Steven Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and the unfairly canceled Infinity Train have benefitted from Hirsch’s influence on the industry.
The runaway successes of not only Gravity Falls but the shows it has inspired signal that it’s time for cartoons to stop being seen as “kiddie shows” and start being viewed as a medium capable of so much more. Still, even with all of its polish and craft, at the end of the day these shows are all entertainment. On that front alone, we should be grateful to have something as funny, unsettling, and supremely enjoyable as Gravity Falls. So thank you Alex Hirsch, Mike Rianda, and the entire crew for creating Gravity Falls, a town so endearingly quirky and mysterious that it makes us all hope for summer to never end.
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Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.
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