Dreams, Fears and The Unknown: ‘Over the Garden Wall’ at 5

Cartoon Network

In the five years since its debut, Patrick McHale’s 10-episode miniseries, Over the Garden Wall, has become something of a codex for millennial anxiety. While it may seem like a strange candidate at first, the miniseries is a cultural oddity that synthesizes antiquated narrative conventions and contemporary animation sensibilities making it feel both arcane and modern. It is that strangeness that has given Over the Garden Wall ongoing cultural relevance. Age does not diminish its value because it is so untethered to the context of its initial release, November 3rd-7th, 2014.

That timeless quality is present from the miniseries’ opening moments. The main theme, a crooning piano ballad titled ‘Into the Unknown’, plays over a montage of strange locations shrouded in mist and shadow. The tune has a vintage quality and the locations look hauntingly familiar, like a place you’ve been before but forgotten about it until now. That feeling, of finding the familiar in something that should be foreign, the gap between knowledge and memory, is called the uncanny. The term is defined by its opposition to the Scottish Word canny, which translates to “known”. The word uncanny, therefore, literally means “not known” or, as it is more commonly called, “the unknown”.

The Unknown is also the name of the mysterious forest in which Wirt and Greg, protagonists and half-brothers, find themselves lost. Children lost in woods are perhaps the most common of fairy tale conventions: Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, the list go on. Those forests are dark and deep, filled with anonymous dangers, and at their center lurks a malicious evil that must be confronted — a witch, a wolf, an evil fairy. When analyzing the cultural significance of this narrative recurrence, Jung said forests are “essentially culturally elaborated representations of the content of the deepest recesses of the human psyche”. In literary analysis it is generally agreed that fairy tale forests represent unnameable fears with which we must reconcile to grow up; this is the case for The Unknown as well. However, where past forests have been a hub for tangible fears— stranger danger, the price of disobedience, the necessity of humility— The Unknown is representation of a more existential fear: uncontrollable and uncertain futures.

From the outset, The Unknown feels displaced from time, with objects and architecture from different eras of history co-existing despite centuries of cultural separation between them. In the penultimate episode, it is revealed that Wirt and Greg are not, as we are led to believe, pilgrims from the past but in fact late-20th-century teens who have fallen into a river where they are currently drowning. The Unknown is a mutual hallucination, a transitional purgatory between life and death. The Unknown’s collage of history is merely what Wirt and Greg know history to be, objects and imagery— an oil lantern, a may-pole dance— things that are familiar but in the most emotionally-detached sense, the uncanny.

A may-pole dance © Cartoon Network

Yet even as Wirt and Greg fall backward into a pastiche of the past they also move forward. The historical heritage of each location they encounter on their journey tracks a linear progression towards the present. In episode two, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” they stumble into Pottsville, a 17th-century pilgrim village. Episode four, “Songs of the Dark Lantern” sees them in an 18th-century tavern.  A 19th-century Victorian-era mansion is the setting in episode five, “Mad Love”. And finally, they ride on an early 20th-century steamboat in episode six, “Lullaby in Frogland”. Even though time in The Unknown is fixed in the past, Wirt and Greg still exist in the present, and the linear progression of the historical anomalies reflects that. They are moving toward a crux point where the former catches up with the latter.

The Unknown’s temporal dissonance between past and present makes it a fitting place for Wirt and Greg to become lost, as they themselves are trapped in a tailspin of indecision. Wirt — the elder, teenage-brother— has a crush on a girl, Sara, but lacks the confidence to ask her out. Greg — the younger, kid-brother — has stolen a rock from an old lady’s garden, and wants to give it back, but is afraid of being punished. To face their respective problems would mark the acceptance of an uncontrollable present, where their future lies in the uncertain hands of others. In refusing to face this reality they are effectively living as in the past, like younger versions of themselves, while the present occurs around them.

An early 20th Century steamboat © Cartoon Network

Their state of transition — Wirt from boyhood to manhood, Greg from innocence worldliness — is reflected constantly throughout Over the Garden Wall. The Unknown is slipping from Autumn (a transitional season) into Winter; Quincey Endicott’s mansion — which, as Wirt notes, is another historical anachronism of French Rococo and Georgian architecture — merges into Margueritte Grey’s; and their cursed talking bird-guide, Beatrice, seeks to transition back into her natural human form. In episode four, “Songs of the Dark Lantern”, the tavern patrons declare Wirt the Pilgrim: a person who travels from one place to another.

But even the process of picking that title requires a transition. The patrons, via song, confidently announce their jobs (Butcher, Baker, Midwife, Master, and his Apprentice, Unhappy Tailor, and the Highway Man) before sizing Wirt up, and initially declaring him the Lover, a young man on an emotional quest to win the heart of a woman he pines for. They ask him to sing his story like they have just done, as a means of testing his readiness for the role they have bestowed upon him. Wirt botches it, his delivery is pitchy and tempo-less, a stark contrast to the charismatic song of the patrons, proving his lack of tenacity. While Wirt fits the criteria of the Lover by pining after Sara and is well suited for it because of his romantic tendencies, he lacks the gumption required to express how he feels. So, until then he is searching for the courage he needs, a Pilgrim.

It is in Wirt and Greg’s pilgrimage that Over the Garden Wall soars as the urtext for millennial angst. Because while they are physically traveling, The Unknown is not a physical space, but rather a shared hallucination. In this way, their pilgrimage is not a literal journey, but rather emotional and internal. Wirt and Greg are traveling towards versions of themselves that they can reconcile with the future and their place in it, both the travelers and the destination. The essence, the driving force behind their journey is encapsulated in the lyric “If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?” from ‘Into the Unknown’.

If the world will remain ambiguous and deceptive Wirt and Greg will bury themselves in fictions of their own creation as a means of coping. Wirt, young and anxious, uses his literary and cultural knowledge to create an illusion of calm. He writes Frostian poetry, appreciates architecture, and plays music, fronting as someone who is more knowledgeable and assured than he is to hide his total absence of understanding and control. Greg, meanwhile, actively behaves childish and naïve to try and deflect harsh realities. Emblematic of this is his “rock facts”, absurdist statements that he proclaims as truth to bring levity to dire situations like in episode eight, “Babes in the Wood” when in response to Wirt’s despondence Greg says:

“Did you know that dinosaurs had big ears, but everyone forgot this because dinosaur ears don’t have bones?”

Greg’s reliance on these fictions and the fact that he tethers them conceptually to the rock which is the source of the guilt he is attempting to ignore is a manifestation of the question Over the Garden Wall is toying with. Greg feels he cannot atone for stealing the rock, so he invents rock facts to distract from that, dreaming turned into pretending.

Greg’s “rock fact” rock © Cartoon Network

There is something immediately relatable about Wirt and Greg’s difficulty with accepting the uncontrollability of their circumstances. To live in the 21st century is to grapple with an unclear future, the outcome of which is dictated by powers beyond any one person’s control. Their behavior, shying from a tough reality in favor of a controlled fiction, is an encapsulation of the mentality that draws people to engage with media like Over the Garden Wall. However, on this topic, Mchale is very clear. To live via the dream of escapism alone is to effectively be in The Unknown, in a constant state of transition, always in a place between places. And if you are always are constantly between one place and another then you are in neither and thus nowhere at all.

However, this is the conceit upon which Over the Garden Wall is built. The miniseries plays out as an examination of the role of fiction as told through the lens of fiction. Disguises (themselves, a type of fiction) are an ongoing motif throughout the miniseries. In “Schooltown Follies” the monstrous gorilla turns out to be a man trapped in a gorilla costume. “Lullaby in Frogland” sees Wirt and Greg disguised as a frog to get passage on the ferry. Even Wirt and Greg’s attire, what we believe to be period outfits initially, are revealed to be Halloween costumes, disguising their true identity to the audience.

Wirt (left) and Greg (right) © Cartoon Network

On the topic of disguises, Jung said: “We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life”. This statement could just as easily be a description of The Unknown, which, as a shared hallucination is effectively an extensive cognitive disguise for the internal tensions Wirt and Greg are experiencing over their shared fear of an uncertain future. However, every disguise is ultimately an uncanny self-portrait, a false attempt at expression. Functionally, it is like the historical dissonance of The Unknown, the unnatural played as natural. A disguise is always telling of the person who created it— Wirt’s Halloween outfit, a human-gnome hybrid, reflects his diminutive self-worth and uncertainty.  Meanwhile, Greg wears a teapot on his head and says he’s an elephant, which is telling of his determination to remain detached from reality. Only when disguises are removed do conflicts get resolved in Over the Garden Wall. In some cases, such as “Schooltown Follies” and “Lullaby in Frogland” this means the literal removal of disguises. In other cases, such as Wirt and Greg’s inner conflicts, this means the rejection of a self-propagated fantasy.

While this might make the final message of Over the Garden Wall seem clear-cut, that it does not do to pretend. However, the truth is more complicated. Wirt and Greg’s pilgrimage comes to an end when they dispense with their disguises (their fictions), accept the future as the uncontrollable entity that it is, and find confidence in their ability to weather it. At the end of the series, Wirt admits he never had any confidence; he was just pretending. However, that admission removes the tension of being found out as a liar, the source of his debilitating anxiety. Without that tension he is able to become more confident, he was always the person he wanted to be, he just had to get out of his own way. Equally, Greg admits he stole the rock via a rock fact (“I’m a stealer”, he says. “And that’s a rock fact”), using the mechanism once designed to hide from the truth to illuminate it. No external factors change, only their perception of themselves; the uncanny becomes canny not through tangible changes but through a greater understanding of what was already present.

“I’m a stealer. And that’s a rock fact” © Cartoon Network

That Wirt and Greg discover it during their pilgrimage in The Unknown is revealing then of Over the Garden Wall’s true intentions. The Unknown is a smaller fiction housed inside the greater fiction that is the miniseries holistically. McHale did not create the miniseries as an escape from reality but rather as a means to face it. Over the Garden Wall is short, ten-episodes long with a total running time of an hour and fifty minutes; it feels designed to end as quickly as it begins. By the time Over the Garden Wall comes to a conclusion there is little in the way of true closure, Wirt asks out Sara but what happens next is uncertain, Greg is growing up and will return the rock but what that means for him, and whether he will get punished, is a mystery. Their time in The Unknown has granted them an assuredness of self that they could not have found otherwise, from the fiction was birth a reality, from the uncanny, comes canny.

And in much the same way as Wirt and Greg find acceptance of the uncontrollable in The Unknown, millennial audiences find a feeling of peace in the un-reality of Over the Garden Wall. We gravitate towards it, many of us watching it annually, because of the fact that it does end, and that ending is messy. There’s a comfort in seeing your own lack of control is reflected in fiction. Because, ultimately, that is its purpose, not to be an escape but an answer.

Beatrice the cursed Bird (left) and Wirt (right) © Cartoon Network

The series concludes with a reprise ‘Into the Unknown’. As it plays, we are treated to a montage of locations, the same locations from the series’ beginning. However, the places are no longer mysterious or uncanny, because each location was somewhere visited during the miniseries. Our knowledge of them strips them of the fear they may have once inspired, it makes them canny. The journey through them may have not been real, but the emotions and the things we took away from them are. Over the Garden Wall begins by positioning dreaming and reality are oppositional forces when really, they are one and the same. The former is just a tool to help massage our fear of the latter. Or, as they are characterized in ‘Into the Unknown’: “The loveliest lies of all”.

Joshua Sorensen

Josh is an editor at Flip Screen. Films starring Holly Hunter are to him what lamps are to David Byrne.

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