22nd Sep2015

‘Gravity Falls 2×16: Roadside Attraction’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Man, RVs are amazing. I can’t believe we’re sitting at a table in a moving vehicle.”

Old men teaching young men to hit on women is a time-honored part of masculinity, but it isn’t hard to see the predatory undertones in teaching boys to pursue and charm. Gravity Falls comes at the institution with a man-eating spider woman named Darlene who preys on gullible, flattery-susceptible men looking to sweet-talk her and pick her up. Darlene is the grisly keystone to an episode of Stan and Dipper bonding after Dipper seeks out Stan’s advice when he finds himself too nervous and hung up on Wendy to talk to other girls. “I don’t know Grunkle Stan, this sounds kind of jerky,” he hesitates when Stan advises him to be a wise-cracking wad. Stan scoffs. “Hey, ‘Jerky’ is just a term non-jerks use to badmouth innocent jerks.”

The episode handles its subject matter deftly and without engaging in ponderous moralizing, relying on Dipper’s growing discomfort and then the sublimation of fear provided by Darlene’s transformation into a literal man-eater to get its message across. Women aren’t prizes (or prey), they’re people with complex inner lives and feelings of their own. The road trip helps to keep things light, using Stan’s grudge against other purveyors of the titular roadside attractions to bring the characters out of their comfort zones and into a looser, more experimental space. The attractions themselves, an upside-down house, a giant ball of yarn, and a cursed mountain full of spider-drained mummies, are fun, but the little old lady who maintains the yarn ball doesn’t really land as the meme the show wants her to be. The presentation of the character comes off as rushed and flat.

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‘Roadside Attraction’ is fully as beautiful as its predecessor, ‘The Last Mabelcorn,’ but it aims less for splashy visions and hallucinogenic palettes and more for the gorgeously detailed Oregon backgrounds which have always been a quiet feather in the show’s cap. From the comfortable mess of the RV park to the foreboding shot of Mystery Mountain, everything is a strange combination of believable and fantastical. Darlene’s transformation from spider-taur to full-blown nightmare is seamless, horrifying, and engrossing in its depth of detail. The episode is bursting with memorable locations. The corn maze is particularly affecting, even when its boundless bleakness is used for humor.

Dipper and Stan bonding, first over smooth-talking women and later over admitting that they don’t really know what they’re doing, feels like growth in what could easily be a stale relationship. Moving Stan more to the forefront of the show has paid off well for Gravity FallsCreator Alex Hirsch is unafraid to make Stan pitiful, heroic, gross, vulnerable, or tender-hearted not as the situation demands but as Stan’s complex characterization dictates. It makes things like knowing that he’s been divorced that much more affecting (unless they’re talking about that horrifying prospector animatronic from ‘Soos and the Real Girl,’ in which case: no), and it creates a surprisingly easy connection between Stan’s fraught, tumultuous inner life and the crazy emotional swings of Dipper’s teenage existence.

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Candy’s pamphlet knowledge feels like a bit of a weak MacGyver moment to hang the ending on, but Niki Yang imbues the character with enough off-kilter self-confidence that Candy’s day in the spotlight feels worth it. Mabel doesn’t have a lot to do in this episode and Grenda is her usual indomitable self, mulling over the idea of naming her daughter “Grenda II: The Sequel” when she’s not extolling the virtues of RV travel or destroying Darlene’s lair with her bare hands. Dipper’s terror at succeeding romantically with someone he actually knows as a fully-realized human being plays well to the episode’s structure and as a counterpoint to the more traditional horror of Stan’s abduction, mostly played for laughs but pinned on some really tremendous visuals.

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Gravity Falls has spent much of its second season in abandoned culs de sac and down weird back-country roads, and while the mythology has grown slowly, the dividends of this slow, digressive approach are becoming clear in the season’s home stretch. It has lavished time on character development and arcs, creating a show where Dipper and Stan joking with each other in a tetanus-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen hot tub is just as much fun as the gang fleeing an arachnomorph in the world’s slowest tram car. ‘Roadside Attraction’ is paced like a real road trip, long stretches of quiet conversation and verbal bonding punctuated by quiet, disarmed nights and little bursts of manic activity. It’s a quiet high water mark for the show.

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