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!