Over the Garden Wall is a lovely little gem that I’d completely forgotten about until I recently rewatched the first two chapters with friends. It’s a surreal autumny story about two brothers lost, wandering through woods filled with strange, spooky creatures, bizarre and ominous people, and perhaps darker things as well. Everything’s quite a bit gloomy, a bit dark, and yet strangely compelling.
It’s a ten-chapter miniseries, spread out over five episodes. (The chapters are 11 minutes long, and there’s always two chapters per episode, as per the original airing of the show.) It’s a little creepy, a bit playful, and wonderful Halloween fare. (What? Halloween’s coming right up? What a coincidence!)
Round the shimmering pond, all are joining in song
As it carries their reverie on
Over the treetops and mountains
Over the blackened ravines
Then softly it falls by a house near a stream
And over the garden wall
What’s the Low-Down?
Over the Garden Wall opens with foreboding images, a crooning tune, and two boys who are wandering through the woods: Wirt and Gregory, also accompanied by an as-yet-unnamed frog. Wirt is lofty, melancholy, and generally irritated having to keep his younger brother in line, while Gregory is eager to wander off, get in trouble, and discover new wonders and new depths of naivete. The frog just hangs around. And that’s the premise: they’re a pair of lost souls wandering the woods in search of home.
As they journey forward, they get into all sorts of strange situations, whether it’s a cruise of frogs, an abandoned harvest-time town, or a creepy old grist mill. The atmosphere takes full center-stage, presenting us with a quasi-19th Century Americana sort of setting known simply as “The Unknown”. There’s hints of a shadowy evil lurking in the woods, but the brothers are determined to find a way home.
Why It’s Good
That atmosphere is what makes Over the Garden Wall so incredible, and not just because it’s a really strong spooky sort of atmosphere. The series takes that tone and develops it with powerful depth, too. There’s situations the brothers run into that seem dangerous and perilous, as the show plays up the spooky elements in an ominous way (like the abandoned town in Chapter 2), but you discover that there’s a lot more character to the places of The Unknown than just “dark and spooky”. There’s whimsy, weirdness, and maturity tucked away in the corners of the world, and the revelation of those extra layers is the core of each of the show’s episodes.
Each new episode shows the main characters in an encounter with another denizen of The Unknown, revealing a bit more about them and about the Unknown itself. We get to see characters whose life states are in very different places, and that’s the point where you start to realize that Over the Garden Wall is itself a reflection on life. There’s a lot of macabre imagery around, which I found was actually rather Catholic in its approach: death is a presence all throughout the series, but not necessarily as a sensationalized morbid force. Rather, it’s there as a reality of life, and some of the denizens of The Unknown are very much trying to find a way to deal with it. Grief, suffering, and hope are the thematic undertones of this show, and it handles them in a way that few other shows have.
Catholic, You Say?
While I wouldn’t claim that it’s overtly or even intentionally Catholic, Over the Garden Wall fits perfectly into Catholic traditions and mindsets. It reminds me most heavily of All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls’ Day, because many of the characters in the series are wandering pilgrims searching for answers or solutions to the problems of their lives, and they traverse the eerie gloaming scenery of The Unknown in search of these. We see depictions of events that move into the surreal, whether it’s a literal danse macabre or an anthropomorphic troupe of frogs.
I mean, considering that a secondary guide-type character is named Beatrice, it’s hard not to see the general flow of the series as a sort of allegory for the journeys of a soul after death. It’s a subtle sort of theme, and it’s the sort of allegory I really don’t mind, because it’s light-handed and works hard to be emotionally-engaging in its own right. There’s a lot to reflect and ponder on, and I feel like it’s actually very appropriate Halloween viewing, and not just because it seems to be autumn during the series (and the second chapter heavily involves pumpkins).
Should You Watch It?
Yes, without hesitation. Fire it up for a Halloween movie night (it clocks in at around 2 hours, all-told) or grab a blanket and mug and watch it on your computer. It’s one of those one-of-a-time shows that everyone should watch at least once. The visuals are great, the atmosphere is incredible, the themes are powerful, the music is just right, and there’s also a bevy of enjoyable guest appearances. (See if you can figure out why Wirt, the older brother, sounds a little familiar. Then check the credits. I can almost guarantee you’ve heard him before.)
You can watch Over the Garden Wall for free on Cartoon Network’s website.