There was something uniquely wonderful about Gravity Falls. The Disney cartoon wrapped up its protracted two-season run just last week, having aired its first episode way back in the summer of 2012. Although Disney took four years — and several timeslot shifts and a change of broadcast network — to run Gravity Falls' 40 episodes, the series came out unscathed, developing into one of the most memorable, special cartoons that's been on TV in a long time.
That's because straight through to the end, Gravity Falls never lost sight of its central theme: Growing up is tough, but it's also inevitable.
Ironically, that idea seems rare in kids' media these days, as cartoons are prided on their adult sensibilities. Gravity Falls is a show primarily for and about children — children on the precipice of their teenage years and subsequent adulthood. Dipper and Mabel Pines are quintessential youths.
Both twins were defined by their love for adventure and affection for investigating the world around them; these are qualities most readily found in the under-13 set. What most excited the brother and sister pair about their summer stay in Gravity Falls, Oregon, was uncovering its secrets.
a scrapbook for reminiscing adults
In episodes like the series finale — a three-parter called "Weirdmaggedon" in which these various extraterrestrial forces threaten to wipe Gravity Falls off the map (and, oh yeah, cause the end of the world) — the supernatural weirdness sits in the spotlight. But that element of the show always worked best when it was supporting a greater story about the awkwardness of being 12. Time loops and unicorns are strange and hard to understand, as is adulthood. But they're ideas kids can't help but fantasize about, for better or worse.
After Dipper finds a journal filled with details about the town's supernatural underbelly, he and Mabel (at first an unwitting accomplice) keep it to themselves. Even when the Pines twins discovered that their own uncles were directly involved with keeping these weird forces — like breaks in the space-time continuum, gravitational anomalies and lovelorn gnomes — at bay, it felt like the adults had been let in on the secret, not the other way around.
The last installment of "Weirdmaggedon" managed this balance better than its predecessors. As the series' final hour, it had a lot riding on it: It had to bring both Mabel and Dipper's long summer vacation and the growing war between Gravity Falls' residents and their supernatural neighbors to a close.
The face-off against series antagonist and sentient Illuminati triangle Bill Cipher carried more weight than fights past; that's to be expected. Where previous action-heavy episodes dragged as the emotional core took a backseat, the stakes were necessarily higher in the finale. On the surface, Dipper, Mabel and their local cohort were saving Gravity Falls. Wading in deeper revealed that the twins were really preserving their memories of childhood and what this town had come to mean to them.
In the latter half of its second and final season, the Pines twins were more open about their fear of saying goodbye to Gravity Falls at the end of the summer. Leaving the town would mean going to high school, growing up and growing apart. But the episodes leading up to the finale also saw the twins gaining confidence and spending even more time with their elders, in favor of other kids. It was a striking and subtle change, but an important one.
Coming to terms with that abrupt and uncomfortable transition to maturity is never easy, and maybe that's why media about kids and teens stick with us for so long. Gravity Falls tackled that head-on in ways that cartoons that don't take place in the "real world" or unfold over a set period of time never can. It resonated strongly with people of all ages precisely because it tackled such a specific experience. It was just as much a scrapbook for reminiscing adults as it was a reflection of its younger viewers' realities.
It feels weird and wrong to address this from the position of one of those older fans, of course. Yet the finale reminded the older viewer that growing up doesn't have to mean letting go completely. Dipper and Mabel turn 13 right before heading back home; they've come to terms with that transition, and they've told the audience that's okay. But this is the kicker: A card that Dipper's teenage crush Wendy gives him as a parting gift has an array of signatures from familiar names, and the message "see you next summer."
getting older doesn't have to mean completely letting go
That's what Gravity Falls was working toward the whole time, and it's the message that's best relayed to the kids watching. They're the ones who don't yet know that getting older doesn't have to mean completely letting go. That's why their parents were crying alongside them as the credits rolled for the last time; many adults carry this concept with them always.
Teaching kids this lesson through the eyes of two precocious characters, a preteen brother and sister pair who were openly affectionate with each other — something that's almost unheard of in entertainment — is a wonderful thing. Gravity Falls offered a lot of things, but its unique portrayal of that childhood transition leaves us the most heartbroken at its conclusion.