Random Episode Ramblings #1: “Not What He Seems” (Gravity Falls)

A while back, a certain reader of mine requested at some point that I take a look at individual episodes of some shows. I considered the proposal and ultimately decided that it’d make another good series to write that would keep me going for a while…the only hard part being that I had to parse down to singular episodes I really liked. Most of the time, I usually am thinking about shows in their totality because I’m writing the graded reviews that are a major focus of this blog, and I also know other bloggers already do this kind of analysis…but I’m here to put the “AniB spin” on it. (I suppose I can grade episodes too!) So here’s the first episode I’ll talk about: “Not What He Seems,” from Gravity Falls.

There are any number of individual episodes worth talking about from Gravity Falls, the critically acclaimed Disney show that I talked about a while back, and it remains a personal favorite of mine, but I’ve decided to discuss a keynote episode of the show that brought together the best of its episodic and overarching storytelling blend, which in turn delivered on a great deal of buildup from the very first episode of the show (Tourist Trapped). It’s an episode that reveals in one explosive 22 and a half -minute package the truth about the journals, the culmination of a great deal of character development for Stan Pines, who I also wrote about in a character analysis piece, the actual purpose and reason the Mystery Shack exists (and it’s not just as a dumpy tourist trap), and finally, the explosive reveal of the mysterious “author of the journals,” in what is still an incredibly-well choreographed and animated moment.

 

It goes without saying that Not What He Seems is a Stan-centric episode, but beyond that, it’s how he ties into the entire current of mystery underpinning the entire show. While I talked at length about Stan’s role in another article, part of what makes this episode so memorable is the buildup to it. At the end of the prior episode- Northwest Mansion Mystery, Fiddleford McGucket’s fixed laptop shows a doomsday clock; since the finale of season 1 (Gideon Rises), the audience is aware of the massive portal underneath the Shack, and that the other journals were in the possession of Stan, who hid his double life working on said portal…until now.

The cold opening begins with Stan working in the basement again, apparently using toxic waste to fuel his endeavors. It also showcases another reason this episode stands out- the absolutely stellar animation. After the intro, the episode starts innocuously enough like so many other Gravity Falls episodes before it- as Stan decides to join in on some mischief with fireworks and then water balloons- and then, the facade is broken as the government shows up.

Watching Dipper and Mabel formulate an escape plan and then discover the uncomfortable truths about their “Grunkle Stan” before he had a chance to tell them is both genuinely uncomfortable and tense- a testament to the staff that such emotional sentiment was built up to this episode. In true Gravity Falls style though, there is still some unexpected moments of humor that work- and in this case, it’s delivered by Soos, whose well-meaning, albeit ham-handed attempts to protect the Shack and Mr. Pines bring just the right amount of levity to an episode where “serious” takes precendence over “humorous.”

The final 5 minutes of the episode however, is genuinely some of the best stuff you’ll ever see in animation, as the buildup come to a (literal) earth-shattering conclusion that brings many narrative threads to a head at a critical moment. Stan escapes from jail in a very cool scene (and Durland and Blubbs are playing pinata in the corner, haha), the twins have made their unsettling discoveries in Stan’s personal office (fake I.D.s’, newspaper clipping of his “death”, and a lot of doubt) and Soos shows up to protect the vending machine in the Shack’s gift shop, where after a brief reunion and struggle with Dipper and Mabel, the trio discovers the secret behind the door.

I’ll pause here for a moment to really take in the work on the drawing in these scenes. The creative team did an absolutely terrific job evoking “apocalypse,” from the reddened sky and sun, to the town literally tearing apart at the seams, and the portal itself, its massive energy surge threatening to warp the fabric of existence and send our characters into an unknown oblivion. It’s true that the writing made most of this episode and Gravity Falls on the whole, but Not What He Seems is taken to another level by the art itself- just look at this still panel:

“Grunkle Stan…I trust you.”

The decision to have Mabel make the final decision in such a key narrative moment was a crucial writing decision. Shown to be the “fun” sibling, with an insecurity towards growing up (and grown-up affairs), she is asked a hard question rooted in very real implications, a roaring rift gate potentially ready to unleash the apocalypse, and a difficult comparison: was Stan the “grunkle” she came to know over the course of the summer, or the strange man of double lives and false aliases her and her brother came to find? This line of questioning would be difficult for an adult, let alone a 12 year old girl…and she went with “trust” as an answer. Was it smart? In the long-run narrative, yes it worked out, but logically without further information it was not…but from a character-building perspective it was a perfect decision. Simply put, it showcased Mabel’s greatest strength- her ability to emphasize and give the benefit of the doubt to mostly anybody, was also her greatest strength, and that sometimes, the biggest decisions in our lives are not always as cut and dry as we want them to be, or pressing a giant red button, as Dipper would have been wont to do.

So “my brother, the author of the journals,” appeared. Ford’s official debut served as the conclusive finish to many questions in the show, and while his emergence from the portal is a massive turning point in Gravity Falls, it is secondary to everything else that happens in this amazing episode. The next episode in the show (A Tale of Two Stans) explained a great deal of backstory, but Not What He Seems served as a mid-season finale to end all mid-season finales. Alex Hirsch even described at one point that the episode was likely slated to originally serve as season 2’s endpoint, with a final season focusing on what the final 9 episodes did instead, but the result was still brilliant in setting the table for the sprint that was the end of Gravity Falls, but also as a stand-alone episode.

There’s probably plenty more I can say about Not What He Seems, or Gravity Falls as a whole, but it’s even better to go back and watch it again. And if you read this far and have never seen the show or this particular moment, do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s one of the best shows this decade, and in this author’s opinion, the best Western animated show of the same time period. Honestly, there’s more than one episode from the show that could make the cut for this column, but in the end, one of the most influential episodes in the show both as a standalone piece and pertaining to its role in the overarching story gets the nod as a stellar work of animation.


Like what you see? Want more Gravity Falls material, or episode reviews? Leave a comment!

 

Advertisements

Author: anibproductions

I am the founder and writer of AniB Productions, currently a fledgling blog with a focus on animated shows from both the East and the West. Love Buffalo sports, good political discussion, and an interesting conversation wherever I go.

4 thoughts on “Random Episode Ramblings #1: “Not What He Seems” (Gravity Falls)”

  1. As the series has now come to an end, I do think this episode has lost a bit of luster, but not much to be sure. There was a real sense that anything could happen and that the show would really never be the same again after the episode aired. It was compounded by the fact that by this point people didn’t know that the show was in it’s last arc and were expecting a lot more twist and turns before the end.

    However, the show did ultimately go back to normal A Tale of Two Stans (even with the addition Ford) which was a bit of a bummer, at least for me.

    That aside it’s still an excellent story, one that’s oddly helped by the rather less then stellar pace of the second season (particularly the last half). While there certainly was some fore-shadowing, the shift from normal everyday goings on to crisis mode is quite jarring and very effective (the show would do this again later with Dipper and Mabel vs. The Future).

    While we did learn a lot about Stan I feel that the story was much more about how the twins being confronted with an uncomfortable revelation. The fact that one of their loved ones may have lied and (indirectly perhaps) betrayed them. Dipper and Mabel react very differently and least within the context of the episode you don’t know who has the right read of the situation, or what the consequences of their actions are.

    One thing that I did find directly annoying with the episode is the fact that Wendy is rather blatantly and lazily written out of the episode, which is a pretty common pattern with her and big episodes for some reason. Another was the fainting bit at the end which is probably one of the most obnoxious pieces forced humor in this show, right when the episode was at it’s emotional peak no less. But with how great the rest of the episode is I think these can be easily forgiven.

    All told I think Not What He Seems will stand with Crossroads of Destiny as one of the great animated season finales (I know it technically isn’t one, but it is functionally).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great insight, Kashihara! Actually, this article was inspired by your request a while back and I’ve been looking for a foray into specific episode reviews- so Gravity Falls was a great place to start, considering my knowledge of the series.

      As for the episode itself, I think it was the perfect payoff for many of the show’s events leading into it, and I’ll agree on the point that this episode is as much about the Pines twins’ uncomfortable discoveries and the reality of an unpleasant, frightning situation, as much as it is about Stan and the revelations about him and his past. The two points dovetail together, and it’s part of the reason the final part of the episode has the impact it does.

      I actually never really though too heavily about the absence of Wendy here, and you’re actually right about her lack of participation in one of the show’s key moments. While she gets a spotlight in the finale arc (Weirdmageddon) and appeared in another personal favorite of mine with heavily plot relevance (Into the Bunker), she’s oddly gone for an event that could have culminated in the apocalypse. Overall, the episode doesn’t really suffer from not having her, but it’s a good observation.

      Finally… I love Crossroads of Destiny. That’s another episode from another fantastic show (ATLA) worth writing about; even to this day, the emotional tension and stress in that episode is perfectly crafted.

      Like

      1. Well, I’m happy you took me up on that request, though I hope it doesn’t put too much more stress on you then you already have.

        Yeah, Wendy often gets left out of some of the more plot relevant episodes of the series which can be pretty weird when you see Soos seems to always get a spot in those same episodes. I remember one review of the series once joked that the reason for that was because Wendy was “too competent”, but I think it mostly just comes down too the fact they didn’t much in the way of plans for her past the whole “Dipper’s Crush” thing and being the subject of “pft, teenagers. Amirite guys?”kind of humor. I also have the sneaking suspicion that the creative team just did not have a lot of interest in her, especially not when compared to characters like the Pines Family and Soos.

        That aside now that you’ve reviewed the high-water mark of the series it might be interesting to do something a little more controversial in this series, though I think you yourself had said that you don’t think the series has any bad episodes.

        Crossroads of Destiny is pretty amazing by any standards. It pretty much a kid-friendly version of the sorts of twist filled and shocking finales you might get in a premium TV show like Game of Thrones.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think if I revisit Gravity Falls for “controversial”, the unanimous decision would have to be Weirdmageddon Part 2… it’s not a bad episode, but a lot of people love it as a change of pace, and a lot of people hate it as the way they resolved Dipper and Mabel’s emotional struggle (and chided it as “rushed.”) I may talk about some other series’ episodes first though…like Crossroads of Destiny.

        I’m glad you suggested I write about episodes. These types of articles are more time-consuming, but well worth it I think.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s