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GRAVITY FALLS Season 2, Episode 10 Review: Northwest Mansion Mystery

It’s kinda hard to imagine that Gravity Falls has been on hiatus since last Thanksgiving, but here we are. In that time, the show has only further cemented its reputation by finally releasing toys of its characters, as well as winning the Annie Award for Best Animated TV/Broadcast Production For Children’s Audience (upping its 2012 Annie Award for Voice Acting won by Kristen Schaal and complimenting its 2014 Creative Arts Emmy win). Clearly, this weird little show is catching on, and Disney, as it’s demonstrated from time to time, knows to let something so idiosyncratic go its own way.

The show marks its grand return by putting Dipper and Mabel’s former arch-rival Pacifica Northwest (Jackie Buscarino) in one of the most common ghost story/horror scenarios: a haunted house tale. The lighting and background work specifically, along with the fact that all the characters are in fancy dress, brings to mind the classic haunted house tales that arose during the dawning of British Gothic literature during the Victorian era. It’s a nice fit for the show and it infuses the stylistic trappings with its own charm, all while building to some very deep emotional character work.

The Plot

The Northwests (Nathan Fillion and Kari Whalgren) are busy preparing for their annual fancy summer party. Berating the staff (him) and Pacifica for wearing the wrong shade of green dress (her), they’re interrupted by an unseen force rising all the fancy dishware up in the air and tossing it about. The family hides and realizes that, as their party is in 24 hours, they need to find somebody to take care of this ghost. A newspaper extolling Dipper’s capture of a giant vampire bat gives Mr. Preston Northwest an idea…

The next day, Dipper is settling into a weekend-long marathon of Ghost Harassers on the Used To Be About History Channel (a joke that made me snort) but is interrupted by Mabel, Grenda (Carl Faroulo) and Candy (Niki Yang), as well as a news bulletin about the big Northwest bash. The girls swoon over all the high society (and all the high society boys), but Dipper quickly points out that Pacifica has been nothing but awful to them and he would gladly tell her, “You’re the worst” to her face.

He gets a chance to do so–and gladly does–when Pacifica shows up incognito at the Mystery Shack and asks for his help. Mabel pleads with Dipper, and he agrees to help in exchange for three tickets to the party. Pacifica grudgingly acquiesces and then escorts the four kids by limo to the Northwest manor. The girls immediately go into party mode, while Dipper, after being properly dressed in a stifling suit, is taken by Pacifica to the main room where the haunting has been happening.

Dipper quickly finds the ghost in what looks like a haunted painting, which he scoffs at as that’s a “Category 1” ghost according to the journal, and prepares to banish it. But the ghost quickly turns out to be a Category 10–a fire-bearded, one-eyed lumberjack (Kevin Michael Richardson) with an ax sticking out of his forehead–and given that the journal’s only advice for dealing with those is “Pray for mercy,” Dipper and Pacifica book it.

Running across the muddy lawn, Dipper frantically flips through the journal and learns that ghosts from paintings can be trapped in a silver mirror. he finds one in an open patio room, but Pacifica argues against it, saying that as that room contains her parents’ favorite carpet pattern, they’ll freak out if mud is tracked in. Dipper tries to persuade her, but she refuses and their struggle sends them tumbling into a secret room.

Dipper finds a small silver hand mirror and successfully captures the lumberjack ghost. But what’s the ghost’s story and why does it want the Northwests destroyed? And how will Mabel, Grenda and Candy deal with both being at a fancy party and finding a young Austrian baron? And just why is Pacifica so cowed by her parents?

The Execution

Given that a new, shortened version of the theme song, along with a new backwards message, is used during the opening, it’s almost like Alex Hirsch & Co. have known how missed the show has been and want to get down to business. It’s a smart decision, and the accelerated pacing is similar in the episode. What seems so cut-and-dry after just a few minutes is actually used as a red herring to explore some characters.

In particular, Pacifica, first introduced in Season 1 as a spoiled, rich brat (although she got her comeuppance when it was established her family didn’t actually found the town), is made truly sympathetic. Her environment is revealed to be harsh and controlling, and she resents it and exhibits genuine remorse for all her petty cruelties. Her redefining from just being Mabel’s enemy, which began in “The Golf War,” is brought to its apex here. Buscarino sells it with a wonderful vocal performance, and I really hope (and trust) this development will be followed up on and expanded in the future.

Dipper, with his straight-forward can-do attitude, is a perfect foil for Pacifica, and Jason Ritter holds up his end of the banter (incidentally, those of you who ship Dipper/Pacifica will find a ton of fuel for that fire here). What’s interesting is that Dipper is wholly confident and wholly competent. It’s significant that he’s given an off-screen adventure only hinted at in the newspaper headline but we’re never given any more of it. It plants the idea that he’s bloomed from an awkward kid to a confident adventurer without us knowing it. It’s a really cool change and it’s a great step forward for Dipper.

While the comedy isn’t as vital to this episode, what’s there is pretty funny. The trio of Mabel & Friends are fun in their kookiness (particularly in their fancy get-ups), but they have some conflict of their own, which Schaal, Yang and Farulo all sell. Fillion, of course, is the perfect blue-blood snob and his ability to switch from that to ruthless, domineering dad is just an example of how good he can be as an actor.

As the lumberjack, Richardson brings a booming gravitas and sense of loss when describing the lumberjack’s tragic back story. He also makes the rage completely felt and justified; this man has been wronged and wants revenge. Said wronging is depicted in a flashback that gets close to the melancholy terror of Over the Garden Wall (which is probably the only other show like Falls that I can think of).

As I said, the backgrounds, lighting and design all sell the classic horror of this setting. The storyboard team–Emmy Cicierega (who’s apparently my age, a realization that makes me feel unaccomplished), Alonso Ramirez Ramos, Vaughn Tada and Luke Weber–deeply know and understand this setting; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were all Shirley Jackson fans. The script by Mark Rizzo, Hirsch and Jeff Rowe and Matt Braly’s direction complements this sensibility and expands it.

Final Verdict

This is a great return for the show that not only pays tribute to horror tradition but asserts its own identity in the process. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

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Categories: TV

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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