There’s a fan theory about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that I’ve always appreciated, not so much due to the veracity of the idea itself but more for what it reveals to us about story and character. The pitch is that Ferris and his girlfriend Sloane (and I suppose by extension Ferris’ parents and sister) are hallucinatory figments of Cameron’s imagination, the products of the psyche of an angry, lonely boy in desperate need of affection and companionship. By this theory, Ferris is a construction of Cameron’s id, the archetypal carefree cool kid he wishes he could know (or even be), and his truant adventures in Chicago are a kind of psychological journey wherein he learns how to have fun and relax as well as how to be courageous and self-determinate in standing up to his father.
In practice, the idea is clearly hogwash—it irreconcilably contradicts the film’s internal logic at every turn—but I like it because it forces one to acknowledge that, while its events still gravitate around the title character, the real protagonist of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is indeed Cameron. He is the character who grows and learns and changes, the character who is most deeply impacted by the film’s narrative, the character without whom the story has no deeper purpose beyond facile entertainment. It is the lens through which the film achieves its clearest and most impactful layer of meaning.
I’d like to propose a similarly divergent reading of one of my favorite TV shows, Gravity Falls. I suggest that the driving character of the program’s greater narrative is not Dipper or Mabel or even good ol’ Grunkle Stan, but Old Man McGucket, the maniacal old coot whose role begins as simple, background comic relief but ultimately transitions into a key component of the show’s central plot. Viewing the story from his perspective, we see that it is he who suffers the greatest fall, the most terrible trials, and is ultimately rewarded with the greatest redemption of any character in the series. The plot may focus on the Pines twins, but McGucket is the story’s spiritual anchor, and by extension the character who gives the show its emotional weight.
The tragedy of Fiddleford McGucket is covertly revealed in his very first appearance on the show, when the Pines twins discover that a local monster is really a complex robot of McGucket’s invention. First time viewers would be forgiven for thinking that this is nothing but a simple gag that juxtaposes the intricacy of an invention with the lunacy of its inventor. This episode takes on a new meaning in light of the second season, however, wherein we learn that Old Man McGucket was once a brilliant scientist who slowly gave way to madness after years of hubris and misguided ambition. Suddenly McGucket is not just a feral kook who happened to throw together an extraordinary device; he’s a brilliant mind who has been damned to waste his energies on ideas which are absurd and meaningless.
A subtle but persistent theme of Gravity Falls is that The Unknown is not mysterious, obscure or disconnected from everyday life by design; it is willing to reveal as much as you are able to explore of it, and will respond with a similar energy of intent to what you put into uncovering its secrets. This is how Dipper and Mabel Pines manage to explore so many of Gravity Falls’ various wonders and horrors while coming out unscathed each and every time: they carry out their adventures with innocence and naivety, giving the benefit of the doubt to even the most fearsome creatures they come across. Although Dipper’s mission throughout the show is to find the author of the town’s paranormal archives and discover the unifying thread of Gravity Falls’ weirdness, the substance of his and Mabel’s excursions generally amount to jaunty excursions into the bizarre in which they rarely suffer serious harm. Even in season 2, when they begin to face more grotesque and dangerous obstacles than in season 1, they are children who stay in a child’s place: permanent harm never comes to them.
This same cavalier adventurism cannot be said of the experiments of Fiddleford McGucket and Stanford Pines, carried out decades before the Pines twins were even born. The show frequently makes a point of contrasting Stanley and Stanford with Dipper and Mabel—the former pair of twins’ truculent and untrusting relationship with the latter’s warmth and closeness is the most common and obvious contrast—but in terms of tangible action taken in the show, McGucket and Pines are the clear yang to the twins’ yin. Even at his most ambitious, Dipper simply wants to discover the truth about the town he’s staying in, whereas McGucket and Pines’ goals are to uncover the nature of creation itself. And the scales of these desires manifest in their consequences: when Dipper and Mabel fuck up, they at worst cause some cartoonish property damage and inconvenience their townsfolk for the span of an afternoon. When McGucket and Pines make their fatal mistake, they, in order of significance: introduce a hellish and all-powerful trickster god into our timeline, lose themselves wandering the multiverse for generations, and experience a complete and incurable psychological dissolution.
This evil god—who goes by Bill Cipher in a human tongue—is crucial to understanding the goals and motivation of Gravity Falls as a story. In the show, there is a direct correlation between goodness, competence and age. The show’s heroes, Dipper and Mabel, are the youngest characters in the program, whereas its main villain, Bill, is billions upon billions of years old. And the show doesn’t make a point of telling us this, but for an ancient evil beyond time and space Bill is not actually very smart. He is frequently defeated in battles of wits between himself and a pair of 12-year-olds, and is even ultimately undone in the show’s finale by a simple trick that a moment’s planning would have been able to see through. But what Bill lacks in wisdom, he makes up for in predatory instinct: he is an exceptional liar, and he is able to see through to his victims’ basest foibles in order to manipulate them to his own ends (those ends almost always being to simply fulfill his own twisted, brutal sense of amusement.)
Let’s now tie this back into McGucket and the central role he plays in the show’s story. In “Weirdmageddon,” Bill is able to put his endgame into play by taking advantage of Mabel’s childish lack of impulse control and fear of her impending responsibilities of adulthood; but he is able to begin his larger conquest in the first place through a more complicated but no less canny ability to manipulate his marks.
As stated earlier, consequences in Gravity Falls are always proportional to the situations that sprout them, and as McGucket and Stanford’s aims are no less than the discovery of new frontiers in reality itself the consequences of this botch are cataclysmic. Although McGucket is concerned that Stanford is taking the experiment too far, he doesn’t have the courage to defy him outright until it is too late: Bill by this point has been corresponding with Stanford for some time and has almost completely turned them against each other. McGucket is pulled into a dimensional rift and sees horrors that defy human comprehension. Instead of working through his trauma, he invents a device designed to erase painful memories, prolonged use of which ends up destroying McGucket’s mind altogether.
Understand that there is not a single other character on Gravity Falls who falls as far as Old Man McGucket; conceptually, no one else is even designed to suffer the type of burden McGucket is saddled with, much less its magnitude. A time-lapse video recording McGucket’s experiments with his memory eraser shows not an immediate descent into mania but a long and painful process of mental dissimilation, one which does not look particularly dissimilar to Alzheimer’s or dementia. While Stanford is sent hurtling through parallel dimensions for decades, he still retains his genius intellect and physical stature. McGucket loses his mind, his family, any semblance of wealth or prosperity he may once have had, becoming an easy punchline, an absurd cartoon cliché. Paradoxically, and ingeniously from a storytelling perspective, the comedy of Old Man McGucket is a product of the tragedy of his circumstances.
But this is what truly separates McGucket from the rest of the cast of Gravity Falls: he doesn’t get a reset button when the adventure finally ends. At the show’s conclusion, the status quo is more or less reset for the entirety of the town after their hellish ordeal with “Weirdmageddon,” and while McGucket is better off than he was at the beginning of the program, he never fully comes back from the horrors he experienced all those years ago. Sure, he recovers some of his faculties, a portion of his genius intuition. He even gets a lot of money, a fabulous mansion and a chance to reconcile with his family by the time the credits roll. But he’s still a crank; he’s still a deranged old lunatic who lost much of his own mind and missed most of his own life. Dipper and Mabel get to go start high school; Stanford and Stanley get to go on the seafaring adventure they dreamed about when they were kids; Old Man McGucket gets a nice house that he walks around in wearing a potato sack. It’s a consolation prize at best, and it’s nothing that will help him get back the years he lost to the darkness of insanity.
Yet despite this, McGucket is the character who truly changes, truly grows from his time with the Pines family. At the end of the show, during the zero hour of Weirdmageddon, McGucket and Stanford speak to each other for the first time after decades of estrangement, through the gaping wound of a broken friendship. We learn that McGucket is one of the needed members of a ritual that will banish Bill back to the dimension that he came from; but before they start, the elephant in the room must be addressed. “You must hate me,” Stanford says with a kind of soft factuality. McGucket’s response? “I spent so many years trying to forget. Maybe it’s time I tried to forgive.”
- In a tragic twist which has its roots in herodom as far back as antiquity, Fiddleford McGucket encounters what is essentially a divine plane which he is mentally unequipped for, and in his hubris invents a device he believes will rid him of his unwanted knowledge of the beyond.
- The plan backfires, and he spends decades in the thrall of dementia, experiencing a kind of perpetual amnesia that robs him of his talents, his genius and his very sense of self.
- When he is granted a second chance at life through a fortuitous encounter with the Pines twins, he uses it to take back some of his mind and ultimately becomes a key player in saving the day from the cosmic evil he helped introduce to the world so many years ago.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t look like the arc of a bit player to me. It looks like the arc of a story’s hero.
Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan describes one of the key principles of the Sufi religion as “exploring the past to find that which belongs to the future.” I think there’s little that can describe the moral and purpose of Old Man McGucket’s role in this story quite so succinctly. Mabel and Dipper Pines are unquestionably the heroes and protagonists of Gravity Falls. But they are not characters we learn from; they are characters we learn through. Through the way they bring Old Man McGucket into their story, we learn that a comedy can have tragic origins. Through them, we learn that a broken thing still has value even if it cannot ever be truly brought back to what it was. We learn through the story of Mabel and Dipper Pines, but we learn from the life of Fiddleford McGucket.
McGucket’s final scene in Gravity Falls is of him settling into his new home. He drops his banjo and bindlestiff—the only two things he owns–on the carpet, proudly surveys his surroundings, and yelps “Welp, I’ve moved in!” It’s a fitting end for one of the most discreetly layered characters in modern TV history: so much accommodating so little, in a present situation that can only make the best from a past nightmare. Dipper, Mabel and Stan may be the show’s heroes, but McGucket is its beating heart, and his journey is quite possibly its crowning achievement.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.