“Grammar, Stanley.”

Sometime last summer[1], I became a dedicated fan of the Disney XD animated series Gravity Falls – a show that seems to produce dedicated fans almost to the exclusion of any other kind. If your sensibilities are anything like mine, it’s easy to see why; GF is a real delight, a sort of X-files-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-The Simpsons (all acknowledged influences on creator Alex Hirsch) that’s both a satire of and homage to the canon of supernatural mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, and coming-of-age stories. It’s all played for laughs, but that doesn’t stop it from having some genuinely creepy moments along the way, in the mold of the best remember-this-is-a-cartoon-for-children shows of the last two decades or so.[2] Indeed, the show’s genius in balancing those and other elements is a big part of its enduring appeal.

Another thing that’s appealing about Gravity Falls (especially to late adopters like me) is that it was always conceived as a finite story – it takes place over the course of a single summer, giving it a chance to build a genuinely sequential through-line and a story arc with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. When the show’s final episodes – the multi-part “Weirdmageddon” storyline – aired this past winter, it was the payoff to a cluster of plot seeds that had been planted early and nurtured slowly over the years of the series’ run time.

As well as being a solidly entertaining hour-plus of television (and bear with me, I promise I’m building to something language-related here), the series finale had some great moments of subverting the expectations of the type of story GF is modeled on. One of these takes place during what looks like it’s about to be the great climactic moment of victory for the heroes – the reveal of a prophecy that’s been mysteriously hinted at since the early episodes, and which is the key to defeating the series’ omnipotent, diabolical arch-villain Bill Cipher. And the sideways turn that scene takes hinges on a moment of decidedly linguistic interest.

(Hereafter be SPOILERS, obviously – not just for the series ending, but for a major reveal of one of the show’s key mysteries that happens two-thirds of the way through the second season. If you haven’t seen Gravity Falls and would rather discover its secrets in the order its creator and writers intended, this is your last chance to turn away.)

Here’s the scene in question, with the setup for the key moment happening around the 3:06 mark:

 

If you can’t see the video, here’s the scenario: The chaos demon Bill Cipher (he’s the one who looks like an Illuminati all-seeing eye come to life) has taken over the town of Gravity Falls and encased it in a bubble of protean weirdness that he intends to expand to the whole world. Stanford “Ford” Pines – long-lost twin brother of Stanley Pines, the grizzled old con-man who runs the town’s tourist trap, the Mystery Shack – knows of an ancient prophecy that can be used to defeat Bill using a magic circle, on which the series’ major characters must stand and join hands, each taking their place on a symbol keyed to some notable aspect of themselves. As the circle is almost complete, Stan (who has been particularly irascible this episode) is the last holdout, and as Ford tries to persuade him to join the circle, we get this exchange:

STAN: Whoa, hey, I’m not the enemy here, people. Don’t forget who literally created the end of the world.

FORD: I’m sorry, Stanley, I know! Just help me fix it, please!

STAN: Fine, just do one thing. Say, “Thank you.”

FORD: What?

STAN: I spent thirty years trying to bring you back into this dimension, and you still haven’t thanked me! You want me to shake your hand, say, “Thank you!”

FORD: Fine. Thank you.

STAN (joining hands): Ah, see? Between me and him, I’m not always the bad twin.

FORD: “Between him and me.” Grammar, Stanley.

STAN (dropping his hand): I’ll “grammar, Stanley” you, you stuck-up son of a gun!

FORD: Don’t jeopardize this, you idiot! Everything’s on the line!

(Shouting and confusion, and the circle is broken)

BILL CIPHER (appearing at the window): “Oh no, it’s Bill.” Right? Isn’t that what you’re all thinking?

(Yes, Ford Pines has six fingers on each hand – a detail tying into one of the earliest mysteries introduced on the show. And yes, that’s the peerless J.K. Simmons voicing him – and while we’re at it, yes, that was Nathan Fillion a bit earlier as the patriarch of the incomparably snooty Northwest family. Gravity Falls has a stellar supporting cast.)

Ford has proven to be a fascinating and complex character in the handful of episodes since he’s been introduced. He’s undeniably brilliant and heroic, and someone a core slice of the show’s demographic – which is to say, gen-X and millennial nerds – are almost certain to identify with as a wish-fulfillment character: the misunderstood bookish genius who rises above his working-class Jersey roots to become an interdimensional adventurer, who wears a trenchcoat and plays the GF-verse version of Dungeons & Dragons[3] and has a basement full of weird magic and mad science. And he also really, really wants to be a hero, and especially to be seen as a hero and have his vast knowledge admired, traits that lead him to be more than a little arrogant, fussy, myopic, self-involved, and hyper-focused on incidental details – qualities which, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s also likely to share with at least some of the portion of the audience that most admires him.

Which is to say, it’s entirely in character for him to stop in the middle of an apocalypse to correct his brother’s grammar with smug self-assurance and utter conviction of his rightness in doing so. And it doesn’t take much time hanging around the tribe of self-identified nerddom to know that there’s a not-insignificant percentage of that population that would applaud him for it and agree with him, and feel that in his boots they’d do just the same.

It’s nice to know that Alex Hirsch, more than a little nerdy himself, does not approve. (Pretty blatantly so – just check out the look of horror on the face of series protagonist Dipper Pines, Hirsch’s own self-insertion character, in the beat right before Ford says, “Grammar, Stanley.”) And it’s refreshing too that the final defeat of Bill comes not through Ford’s magic and cleverness, but (further spoilers) the charlatanry and cunning of his blue-collar brother Stan – who Ford really does think he’s better than, and who, despite a lifetime as a prickly, amoral shyster, makes a truly heartwrenching act of self-sacrifice to give his family and his adopted town a win.

So add to Gravity Falls‘ long list of fine qualities that it’s a story in which grammar peeving very nearly causes the end of the world. Look, it’s certainly no more ridiculous than the collapse-of-civilization scenarios the arch-prescriptivists are always telling us will come to pass if we let our standards lapse and start using singular they or the nonliteral sense of decimate or something. And, unlike those doomsayers, Alex Hirsch has at least gone to the trouble of making his speculative tale seem halfway plausible.


[1] During my previous (ahem) occupational hiatus, which is how I’ve often discovered new TV, typically at very strange hours.

[2] One of the more welcome trends in modern pop culture has been the dawning realization that kids are a great deal more resilient, and capable of processing various things we used to reserve for the adult table – including not just fear, but also nuance and complexity – than we’ve generally given them credit for in the past. Which, to tie things back to matters of language, ought to be all the evidence you need to emphasize code-switching rather than dialect- or register-shaming in language classes. But I digress.

[3] Called “Dungeons, Dungeons, & More Dungeons,” and introduced in a wickedly funny – especially if, like your humble author, you’re a gamer yourself – episode of the same name featuring the voice talents of (naturally) “Weird Al” Yankovic.

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