TV Rewind: Over the Garden Wall Endures as a Captivating Halloween Folktale

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TV Rewind: <i>Over the Garden Wall</i> Endures as a Captivating Halloween Folktale

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Growing up in central Texas, I only ever knew two seasons: summer and not-summer. Summer stews from March to October. Not-summer encompasses everything else. If I’m lucky, I experience a couple forlorn weeks of fall in November, but the concept of four delineated seasons feels fantastical in a delightfully pedestrian sort of way. Yet I can’t help myself from yearning for an idyllic fall made up of apple orchards and When Harry Met Sally sweaters. I pine for an autumnal wind rustling the trees in a pumpkin patch. The mere thought of leaves crunching under boots makes me feral.

Enter Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network’s seasonal cult classic (now on HBO Max and Hulu) best served with a warm mug of apple cider.

Good folktales rely on mood-setting, and Over the Garden Wall fashions itself as a new folktale told in an old way. Created by Patrick McHale (two-time creative director for Adventure Time, now slated for Netflix’s Redwall adaptation), the 2D-animated miniseries balances the autumnal creepy/cozy dichotomy to become the perfect Halloween watch. The 10 episodes first aired over five nights in November 2014; since its release, online searches for the show have annually peaked in late October, without fail.

The premise feels as familiar as “once upon a time.” Two half-brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) find themselves lost in a seemingly timeless forest called the Unknown. We happen upon the pair mid-journey, unsure of when or where they come from. Fairy tales love the power of three, and Greg’s occasionally musical frog (Jack Jones), rounds out the trio. (His constantly changing name is one of the show’s running gags.) The wayfarers soon find a guide in Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), a sardonic enchanted bluebird. In the backdrop, a malevolent presence known as the Beast (Samuel Ramey) lurks in wait, headed off by the lantern-bearing Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd).

At its heart, Over the Garden Wall is a coming-of-age story about two brothers learning how to better care for one another. Wirt exists in a perpetual state of anxiety, fretting over making decisions and taking responsibility. He’s prone to melodramatic outbursts of poetry and loves the clarinet, two pastimes that he worries brand him a weirdo. (“Those are just character traits,” Beatrice groans at one point.) Greg serves as his singing foil, endlessly optimistic and innocent, sometimes to the point of recklessness. Their interactions, complete with Beatrice’s wry observations, bring humor and warmth to the show.

Wirt and Greg’s quest for home gives the series its backbone, but the 11-minute episodes have largely self-contained plots about their interactions with the Unknown’s inhabitants. Central to the show’s success, the rich setting feels like an anachronistic New England populated by pumpkin-wearing skeletons, reclusive oddballs, and ominous specters. Dream-logic makes distance and time feel foggy. The brothers navigate from Puritan times to a 19th century schoolhouse to an old-fashioned riverboat ferrying frogs in three-piece suits and feathered hats.

Each episode opens with a scripted chapter title, conjuring a dusty old storybook pulled from the shelf. Fairy tale concepts make frequent appearances: candy trails, impossible tasks, wishes on stars. Nothing is ever what it seems in the Unknown though, and Over the Garden Wall plays with nostalgia by subverting childhood story tropes. Compared to recent Disneyfied fairy tales, the show celebrates a Hayao Miyazaki-esque sensibility, especially when it comes to seeming antagonists. In one episode, Wirt and Greg scope out a British tea peddler for cash and soon investigate a possible haunting as their target frets over his sanity. The reveal of a ghost-white peacock would be the mystery’s answer in a different show, but here, it hardly registers before Over the Garden Wall pivots to a stranger, yet more satisfying conclusion. Creatures, witches, even the omnipresent Beast—grand denouements are sidestepped for perspective shifts that disrupt a binary worldview.

McHale has commented that the series’ elaborate animation could not have been sustained for a full TV show, and what a treat that animation is! Partially inspired by a collegiate journey to Concord, Massachusetts, the show blends the sensibilities of Brothers Grimm fairy tales with northeast Americana. Luscious backgrounds give the show a painterly disposition. In The Art of Over the Garden Wall, the show’s accompanying art book, McHale details his many visual touchpoints: Victorian chromolithography, vintage Halloween postcards, magic lantern slides, photographs of New England foliage.

The miniseries also progresses seasonally, starting with lighter fare fit for the first crisp breeze of the season. Warm earth tones and natural lighting set the scene for early autumn minutiae: wild turkeys foraging, a cricket chirping on a golden leaf, plump ochre clouds shining over landscapes out of a Hudson River School painting. In the paradigm-shifting penultimate episode, which takes place on Halloween, cool tones become dominant. Fall gives way to winter, and a bitter storm backdrops the finale.

Over the Garden Wall also pays homage to classic animation, right from the very first shot of Greg and Wirt’s dark silhouettes in the wood, evoking the medium’s earliest form. A tavern maid resembles Betty Boop; a highwayman’s dance feels reminiscent of rotoscoping. The aptly named eighth episode “Babes in the Woods” reels off 1930s cartoon iconography, its title a wink at a 1932 Silly Symphonies animated short (which is itself based on a centuries-old folktale).

These references are more than Easter eggs rewarding animation aficionados though. Even if they slip by unnoticed, such inspirations add to Over the Garden Wall’s vintage quality. Similarly, the soundtrack cobbles together different pre-1950s American music traditions. These elements work with the show’s fairy tale shorthand to stitch together something timeless—or rather, something out-of-time, just like the Unknown itself.

As such, two hours go by fast. Wirt and Greg’s journey comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it’s a testament to McHale’s worldbuilding that it feels like we’ve hardly scratched the surface of the Unknown. Deeply entrenched in an autumnal mood, Over the Garden Wall suggests that the stories we want to linger are, as Greg’s frog sings, “the loveliest lies of all.”

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Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.

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