BRO. GENDER IS A LIE, BRO. FIST POUND.
Feeling inadequate and crushed by his lack of chest hair, Dipper seeks help from the manly manotaurs living in the woods; meanwhile, Mabel tries to help Grunkle Stan showcase his softer side.
This is the first episode not to have Alex Hirsch credited on the script – not only that, but it’s a sole credit job, penned by Tim McKeon (his only one, though he did go on to contribute to several more season 1 episodes). McKeon has a pretty solid history in animation, contributing to big names Adventure Time (primarily in its first season) and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and moving over to Wander Over Yonder after his time at Gravity Falls. McKeon seems to have a specialty for goofier, more broadly comical (and highly visual) writing that embraces the “cartoony” nature of animation. It helps with a lot of what makes this episode work, and also might explain why he departed before GF’s considerably darker second half.
Speaking of, I was quite surprised by how much of this episode did hold up upon rewatch, given that I remembered it being one of the weakest on my first time through the series. But my personal deep-seated hatred of gender essentialism aside, there’s a fair amount of subtlety in the tackling of what is, on paper, a supremely trite subject. Its take on “manliness” goes beyond the surprisingly mature finale – more on that in a minute – versus the jock mentality, with the Stan and Mabel subplot at least attempting to offer a third shade that’s both a compliment and contrast to Dipper’s storyline (though it wasn’t quite as fleshed out as it could’ve been – there’s a serious need for more Mabel in the early going). And Stan’s final speech about standing for one’s beliefs even when you’re standing alone is a great lesson – for anyone, as much as it’s couched here for Dipper’s sake as “being a man.” And while the concept of toxic masculinity and dangerous group mentality isn’t exactly a new thing, it’s still worth including in a show for a young audience, when peer pressure is decidedly a thing.
It’s also a fine episode on the music front, featuring both an amazing 80s montage pastiche (“sing about the weird action on screen” is pretty much always a winning move in animation) and a genuinely sweeping Adventurer’s Journey piece as Dipper makes his way up to the Multibear’s cave. Actually, that whole sequence is pretty great. While the script trades in very broad strokes for the characters and the plot, it pours all of its energy into some lush shots of the forest and some amazing visual gags (nipple-fists is one of those things that will never leave you, no matter how you try).
As a last general note of sorts: I know that GF is often considered to be a “jokes first, themes second” sort of show. Arguably, that’s how the crew approached the show as well (albeit with a great deal of love for their cast). And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Variety in tone and approach means there can be something for everyone. But whether a show places emphasis on what it imparts are not, it’s still teaching its audience – something that’s particularly true in shows aimed toward kids. Sometimes these are deliberately placed, sometimes they reflect cultural norms or the mentality of the writers specifically (see: Steven Moffat’s issues with women). And it’s always worth examining what a story is reinforcing or explaining, even if at the end of the day that’s not the part you value the most.
Oh, and in general “lowkey horrific imagery” notes, something which might have to become a regular segment, you can definitely see the meat-colored inside flesh of Lazy Susan’s eyelid when she “winks.” Why this is especially horrific in an episode that features the cuddliest body horror bear I can’t quite put into words, but I know that it haunts me.
Today in Fandom
All shows have episodes that never make it to air, whether for time or plotting or just because the writers never found a way to crack a really great concept in a way that ironed out into a good episode. Thanks to the magic of conventions, sometimes that news makes it back to us, the viewers at home. Which is a very long way to go about saying that a Labyrinth-parody episode died in the writers’ room of Gravity Falls, and it sounds like it would have been an amazing Mabel episode.
The plot, supposedly, would’ve had Mabel summoning a Jareth-analogue who, like the movie, spirits her brother away. Except Mabel is less interested in going on a quest to rescue Dipper than she is in trying to hang out with the gorgeous Not Goblin King; meanwhile, Dipper grapples with his terror of puppets (a character element that did end up making an appearance in the shorts). On the one hand this is another “Mabel has a crush” plot, which was sort of her equivalent of Dipper’s own crush problems in season one (which is to say, since it was easy for the writers to spin jokes or scenarios out of it became a little bit of a crush) so maybe it’s for the best that it didn’t make it all the way to the finish line. On the other hand, imagine the fun the design team could have had.
CREDITS CIPHER: Mr. Caeserian Will be Out Next Week. Mr. Atbash Will Substitute.
Remember at the end of the credits, when we were given the clue “three letters back” to decipher the codes? Yup, that’s out the window now, and we’re moving up to something a little bit harder. This difficulty curve will continue throughout the series, and it’s actually a pretty neat way of introducing scaling concepts of cryptography to a young or inexperienced audience. At the same time, the use of the proper cipher names is a great way to open the door to a research rabbit hole if the right viewer were to find themselves interested. It’s a really subtle, admirable way to encourage learning, and I love the application.
The Atbash cipher is in the same low-difficulty class as the Caesar, but instead of going three letters back it reverses the entire alphabet (a=z, b=y, etc). This code has roots in the Hebrew language – in fact, its name is a description of how to use it: Aleph (first), Tav (last), Beth (second), Shin (next to last), or ATBSH. This encryption method was purported to have been used in the Hebrew Holy Books, and has strong ties to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. The more you know, huh?
Y’all, this is the first time we see Mabel’s scrapbook! Arguably the most important book in the series – and it shows up in an episode where the Journals don’t make an appearance at all (the thread of those two books and the tug of human element vs pursuit of knowledge we’ll be coming back to a lot). Also in terms of foreshadowing, the image of Dipper standing atop a cliff in his misguided attempt to become “manly” is reversed in his big heroic moment in “Gideon Rising,” where he leaps from the cliff (plunging metaphorically and literally into the unknown) in order to save Mabel.
In background info news, one of Dipper’s temporary tattoos features the fairly unmistakable design of Bill’s eye. While I’m not sure this was meant to be a big tell (the “watch your back” element of it notwithstanding), it is interesting as an indicator of how deep into the background of Gravity Falls’ culture Bill has sunk (those temporary tattoos probably came from town, after all). He has eyes everywhere, has from the very beginning, and it’s one of those symbols that’s become disconnected from its source without losing its power.
There’s also a lot of clear Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel symbols in this one, as there have been in every shack-interior scene thus far. Given that it’s one of Hirsch’s permanently unsolved secrets laced into the show I haven’t really seen much use in bringing it up, but it’s one of those things for the deepweb theorists to chew on.
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I was almost unreasonably happy with the casting of Alfred Molina as the Multi-Bear. He has such a great voice that’s been well utilized in animation elsewhere, but something about the way his inherent dignity was played around with here really spoke to me.