24th Nov2015

‘Gravity Falls 2×19: Weirdmageddon II – Escape From Reality’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Aaaand this is worse than the apocalypse.”

Escape From Reality is officially the penultimate episode of Gravity Falls. The series will come to an end sometime in early 2016 with an hour-long finale, not a cancellation but a planned conclusion by creator Alex Hirsch. Here’s hoping the last hurrah has a little more oomph than this one. Escape From Reality is a middling episode in every sense of the world, relying heavily on cameos and one-off jokes while mostly skirting substantive engagement with its central conceit and failing to develop tension in a scenario designed to capitalize on just that.

The flaw at the heart of Escape From Reality isn’t its premise, that Mabel is unwilling to leave a dream world in which her every wish is fulfilled, but that it erases prior character work in order to establish said premise. When Bill trapped Mabel we saw her realize her mistake. Avoiding the consequences of her actions could be an exciting hook, but instead she’s apparently forgotten what’s going on, her denial woven into the fabric of her bubblegum pop wonderland rather than explored as a facet of her character. It’s essentially a brighter, louder retread of Mabel’s character arc up to this point.

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The episode doesn’t even really invest in its own idea. The happiness Mabel’s bubble peddles to its prisoners feels pretty toothless; even Soos’s fake reunion with his father is played mostly for laughs. It’s his response to the mustachioed luchador’s appearance and his offer of a game of catch, though, that comes closest to real pathos. “Even if it is all a dream,” says the handyman, “I gotta play just one game.” What is Mabel being offered, really? A world peeled off the back of a vintage box of sugary cereal? The bubble is so uncomplicated and unthreatening in what it offers and assuages that it places the episode’s entire emotional load on the few brief glimpses of Mabel and Dipper’s childhood together. That history is poignant, but it’s stuffed in between pointedly silly material that never manages to transcend chuckle status.

There’s also the absence of tension. At no point does it seem remotely plausible that Mabel will make the wrong choice. That the show avoids discussing her pain in favor of showing her contentment as a series of sight gags undercuts scenes like Dipper’s brush with the reality of Bill’s prison and the deep, squirming ugliness of an illusory Wendy offering herself up to him before dissolving into a swarm of cockroaches. In an episode nominally about Mabel’s emotional journey it feels wrong-footed to give other characters more screen time and more range. Mabel doesn’t really do much of anything, when it comes right down to it, except state and restate that she’s happy and fine.

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A realm of infinite satisfaction provides ample opportunity to explore what characters really want, what drives them, and what their fears are. We don’t really learn anything new about our heroes, though. The things the bubble offers them are exactly what you’d expect, delivering no curve balls, and the material it does produce feels phoned in. We’ve seen too much of Mabel’s inner fantasy life, a hellscape of synth pop and terrible cartoons, over the course of the show’s run and not enough of her growth. By opting to step back from its ongoing emotional arcs in favor of affirming the connection between the twins after what amounts to 20 minutes of holding pattern, the episode misuses its potential sources of strength and winds up just going through the motions.

It may have teen sensation Dippy Fresh and one of the series’ strongest stingers to date, but Escape From Reality left me feeling cold.

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