Over the Garden Wall – “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”: Darkness after the dawn

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whaddya lookin at (screencaps, Cartoon Network)

“Folks don’t tend to pass through Pottsville. It’s nice here.”

-Pumpkin Lady, being creepy as shit

In an offhand parenthetical in my last review, I dismissed a particular moment of “The Old Grist Mill” for being a little too self-conscious. I feel like I should clarify that my criticism of the moment is rooted in its uncharacteristic sloppiness, since on the whole Over the Garden Wall is actually a very postmodern show. A pastiche by nature, the miniseries combines the DNA of two dozen genres, classics, fables, and bits and pieces of tall tales here and there, to create a singular timeless vision—neither original nor replication. The final product is offbeat and warped, but polished enough to cover up its Frankenstein’s monster scars.

Two of the most prominent elements in this pastiche chowder (for such an autumnal show, it must be a chowder, or maybe a bisque) are the  clashing genres of children’s television and psychological horror. Scaring the bejesus out of kids while teaching them important life lessons is hardly a new idea—as for who did it first there’s no earthly way of knowing—but Over the Garden Wall’s particular blend distinguishes itself with the masterful “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.”

The horrorshow horror starts exactly as you wouldn’t expect: It was a calm and sunny morning. Wirt discovers signs of civilization, while Greg is busy freeing a bluebird from the bush. While the premiere taught us not to take the Unknown at face value, things are still looking pretty damn hopey for our lost boys (and Beatrice the bluebird, their salty new companion). These first few minutes are rich with (mostly) friendly banter and gentle sunrays; Greg accidentally lodging his foot in a tiny pumpkin is the scariest occurrence, a moment that relies on rapid-fire comic timing to mask its ominous portent.

The placid façade doesn’t quite shatter into the shitter, rather, “Hard Times” is a slow descent into Hell. Its positioning as the second installment of the series allows it a unique benefit; while “The Old Grist Mill” had to bare its fangs to rope viewers into the darkness, “Hard Times” has the privilege of patience—it is Over the Garden Wall’s first opportunity to stretch its legs. Out of the forest and into the corn fields, the dawning day promises to shed some light on the series’ central mysteries, geography, logic, denizens, whathaveyou.

But, like the leaf spinning through fickle currents, we are no less lost than before. Pottsville is empty. The sun is a big toasty red herring, a thin blanket that coats the mattress of menace established in the pilot. Even though nothing has gone wrong yet, the still air in a seeming ghost town is enough to tell us something bad lurks around the corner.

But before I get to the bad stuff, I’d like to talk about The Wicker Man.

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Frightening Spaghetti Squash is the one true god.

Horrible Dad, in what is revealing itself to be a bit of a pattern, introduced me to this 1973 horror classic at a very unripe age, around the time DVDs were overtaking the VHS market (Wikipedia cannot specify a year and neither can I). For nine-tenths of the film, I thought it was really quite a silly movie with lots of dancing and silly songs and naked women, which I liked but didn’t think were particularly scary. Then, something in the plot clicked and I became immersed but not scared, engaged in the mystery as Sergeant Howle inched closer to the final clues. Then, he found the little girl. Then, she runs back to Christopher Lee. Then, I finally understood why they called the movie The Wicker Man. Then, for the first and certainly not last time in my life, I had a very difficult time sleeping.

“Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” resembles The Wicker Man from its beautifully lit, muted and moody surface to the flammable bones beneath. Both take place at a harvest festival, where outlandish locals engage in strange rituals seen through the eyes of unwelcome interlopers. The Wicker Man is a horror film with no dark corners, no hiding faces besides the monsters in plain sight—its use of sunlight to mask its terrors is mocking, pungent. “Hard Times” follows its example down to the macabre ending.

As soon as “Hard Times” establishes a threat, McHale and Co diffuse it and raise a bigger one in its place. The town isn’t abandoned, it’s “some kind of weird cult” where they “dance around a big thing.” The pumpkin people aren’t actually pumpkin people (“Oh, you’re wearing costumes!” Wirt says with relief, to which the resident responds “Well sure, pumpkins can’t move on their own, can they?” in a typically unsettling exchange), but they trap our Lost Boys and Bird when they try to escape. Their leader Enoch (who baritone Chris Isaak voices with just the right mix of creepy and soothing) offers the first truly nightmare-worthy image in his betentacled form, but his harsh punishment for our heroes amounts to just a few hours of manual labor.

The episode throws our heroes into the Frogurt Gauntlet, playing hot and cold with our expectations up to the very end, raising the stakes at a steady pace until the tension peaks. By the time Wirt and Greg realize they have been literally digging their own graves, the terror strikes. The funereal sting of horns. Enoch gliding on the horizon clutching two white flags, a procession of pumpkins in his ghastly trail. We finally see the Wicker Man.

Or do we? In a brilliant final twist, Wirt and Greg escape peril because everybody was dead all along: Pottsvillians are skeletons, and the boys were just digging up “the life of the party.” Though the threat of danger is extinguished and the plot cleanly resolves, the implications are no less chilling. “Oh well, you’ll join us some day…” Enoch says as Wirt flees with his life. Now that’s a line for the nightmare bank.

Two episodes in, Over the Garden Wall dips two legs and an arm into the darkness. By breaching the night and finding equal fear in the sunrise, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” doubles the scope of the series. It’s a necessary digression into the beats of horror and a reminder that The Beast isn’t the only thing to be frightened of in the Unknown. Even though no one gets buried alive or roasted in a giant pumpkin, death is forever on the margins of the Unknown. Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice’s ultimate punishment is to wait. Pottsville is a nice place to stay, and patient is the night that comes.

HERE BE BLUEBIRDS

  • I spent so much time on the fears that I’ve hardly mentioned the laughs. “Hard Times” is a fantastic showcase for Elijah Wood’s awkward comedy chops, whether shaking pumpkins off his feet, pleading for his life with a shaggy rock story, or trying to decide whether or not pumpkins can move on their own. “Oh, no! Yes! I mean, no?”
  • Sorry this is a day late. Just started a new job and getting used to a new writing schedule. Come to think of it, Sundays might be better days after all, since I’ll be working Saturdays. Sundays it is! Pfffbbttt.
  • It really puts a new spin on the phrase “harvest festival” when you have to harvest the participants.
  • The leaf getting stuck in the gate has got to be one of the most beautiful, subtle, metaphorical, lovely, beautiful, beautiful endings to anything to ever air on Cartoon Network (not counting the coarse beauty of early Aqua Teen Hunger Force)

    DAMN.

    DAMN.

  • Okay, just a little bit more on the leaves. Beginning the episode with that brief nature montage, from the breathtakingly animated trembling leaves to the turkeys walking up the hill, demonstrates how relaxed and confident McHale and Co are with their world-building. It’s amazing how they devote precious time of their 11-minute window to such tiny environmental minutia like these.
  • Speaking of kiddie horror, I’d be remiss not to talk a little bit about Gravity Falls’s “Into the Bunker,” which, as a partial riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing, makes a fantastic companion piece to the more brooding horrors on display here. It’s the stuff kids nightmares are made of: hearing a demonic voice inhabits the body of your sister, then she transforms into a grotesque arachnid beast and, of course, at the end you are frozen and screaming forever.
  • The Week in Frog Naming: Gregory’s Frog takes on the pseudonym of Wirt Jr. Slightly less confusing than “also Wirt.” One day, he shall get better at playing the guitar.
  • Oh Greg, Never Change: “Have you been listening to anything I’ve been saying? For the last couple hours I’ve been saying: pffffft pffbbbbtt bpbbbltfffft.”
  • Did you know that there is a pop culture conspiracy theory that claims Sean Connery in The Rock is actually an aged version of his James Bond character? It’s a Michael Bay Fact!
  • I’m the Bard: “Hard Times” has one of my favorite songs from the series in “Patient is the Night,” an all-too-brief piano ballad sung by Chris Isaak, your friendly neighborhood pumpkin patriarch. McHale and Co were trying to do “a Hoagy Carmichael thing,” and it works pretty damn well.

HERE BE BEASTS (Spoilers!)

  • “What are you gonna do? Just wander around? This way and that way? Through the woods? Forever more?” At the onset of the write-up, I intended to spend a very long time talking about Beatrice and here I am relegating her once again to the spoiler section. Beatrice may very well be the best character on the show and each rewatch opens up new layers of Melanie Lynskey’s phenomenal voice work. She’s like the girl with connections to the Russian mob who lives in the basement of your building but is friends with your big sister and always makes you a turkey sandwich whenever she comes up. You get the feeling that she’s up to no good and hey if he got the chance maybe she would sell you into slavery, but she’s so snappy and delightful that you don’t even care. Greg embraces her right off the bat, and Wirt is more annoyed than cautious, so it’s plain to see how she embedded herself within their group so easily in this episode. The real fun starts when we get to unravel her motives in the next handful of episodes.
  • Adelaide of the Pasture is mentioned for the first time—though we’ve already seen a snippet of her in the prior episode. She is less of a character than a MacGuffin and vehicle for Beatrice’s character development, but her design is still unique and awesome. I’m getting ahead of myself.
  • The relationship between Wirt and Greg isn’t really on trial here yet, but there is some subtextual resentments brewing around in Wirt’s belly when he immediately assumes that Greg and Beatrice skedattled without him. Plus, why would he lie about seeing a sleeping turkey? That seems like it would be an awesome thing to share.
  • This episode adds some serious fuel to the “Unknown is Purgatory” fire, between Enoch’s ominous parting words, and pumpkin lady’s “Aren’t you a little early?” Given the context of the episode, I don’t think it’s then too much of a stretch to assume the “she” and “night” from “Patient is the Night” could refer to the big long sleep, too.
  • Next episode, it’s recess at Busytown Elementary in “Schooltown Follies,” a light number that pays homage to the adorable clothed creatures of Richard Scarry.