14th Jul2015

‘Gravity Falls 2×12: A Tale of Two Stans’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Wherever we go, we go together.”

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‘A Tale of Two Stans’ is an episode with a lot to live up to. The mid-season cliffhanger of ‘Not What He Seems’ left us staring at a doppleganger of the irascible and suddenly more-than-humorously-untrustworthy Grunkle Stan, a major upset to the show’s mystery of the week status quo. Ambitiously structured, peppered with callbacks and mythology gags, and more than a little poignant, ‘A Tale of Two Stans’ succeeds both as a resolution to ‘Not What He Seems’ and as a jumping-off point for the rest of the season.

Stanford, as it happens, is actually Stanley, having taken his brother’s name during his dimensional jaunt both to keep up appearances and to escape poverty. The two Stans have some serious beef with one another, a sibling scrap stretching from a high school science fair all the way to Stan’s accidentally banishing his brother through a dimensional portal. The explanation for Stan’s mysterious tattoo(actually a burn scar) is just one of many rewards doled out to the show’s mystery-hungry fan base as the sorry story of the Pines brothers unfolds. Inseparable as boys, the twins salvagd wrecked ships from sewage standpipes and, sunburned and alone, call themselves the Kings of New Jersey.

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The 1960s New Jersey setting grounds Stanley and Stanford’s story with humor and a genuine sense of place. The show’s vision of the Garden State is relentlessly, hilariously aggressive to the extent that the twins’ high school’s science fair is subtitled “What, you think you’re some kind of smart guy?” There’s pathos, too, in the poverty of the Pines family and how it has driven Stan through his life while separating him from his brilliant brother. When Ford gets a chance to cross the country and attend a top-notch academy of science, Stan sees his world begin to crumble and toys with the idea of sabotaging Ford’s science project. When, purely by accident, he succeeds, it sets off a chain of events that tears the brothers apart and sees Stan thrown out of his childhood home and told never to return unless he can bring the millions his father envisioned Ford earning for the family.

Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad‘s Mike, does outstanding work as Stan and Ford’s strict, greedy father. The classic “the narrator says something highly specific and then the character repeats it verbatim within the story” joke lands beautifully thanks in large part to his crackling growl of a voice and an excellent sunglasses-inside character design. He also grounds Stan’s fixation on money in clear, relatable trauma. Stan’s double entendre confidence tricks(It’s A Sham!) are a scream, but his salesman persona is something created to get back at the family that threw him out, not because it’s what he wanted to do. Like the fictional town of Glass Shard Beach, New Jersey, it’s a hacky facade covering up painful emotional truths.

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Soos’s stone-faced declaration that the Stans’ story had better line up perfectly with his fan fiction is a good moment of meta humor, Hirsch winking at his audience before commencing a smart, brisk tightrope walk between giving them what they want and telling the story he and his team have built to over three years on the air. We get the origin of Lazy Susan’s droopy eyelid, a glimpse of many of Gravity Falls’ more iconic citizens in their younger years, and a last-minute solution calling back to ‘The Society of the Blind Eye’ all essentially as set dressing for a sad, genuine story about a broken family and two boys who lost each other and got out of their depths in very, very different ways.

As things wind down, Mabel manages to absorb the central idea of Grunkle Stan’s story while Dipper remains giddy with joy over its details. The episode ends with Mabel staring up at the ceiling in the unlit room and wondering if she and Dipper might someday lose their special bond as twins. The runner, in which Soos does a terrible job explaining Stan’s story to a half-asleep Wendy, is both a funny gag and a smart way to show that it’s the lives connecting the show’s arcane plot points that give those things meaning and weight.

Even a new world can’t bring you joy if you have to leave the people you love behind to find it.

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