“Welcome to the Unknown, boys. You’re more lost than you realize!”
There’s a strange land somewhere out there, a land of folktales and myths come to life under the veil of imagination. Where frogs play ancient ballads on pianos, lost souls fill the roots of trees, and placid pumpkin people greet you at the harvest festival. There’s a land, somewhere out there, where smart storytelling, without a hint of condescension, coexists peacefully with spooky, naturalistic imagery, and where pathos can be wrung from the briefest moments like stream water from a soaked rag. This land is called the Unknown.
To reach the Unknown, you must simply hop Over the Garden Wall.
This Cartoon Network miniseries, which I reviewed in full over here, boasts one of the richest fictional universes to be explored this decade in the Unknown. This universe is also one of the strangest, a qualifier earned by its incredibly bold pilot, a dark and obscure chapter that holds all its cards close to the chest, soaring on the strengths of mood and character while boldy delaying the plot. It’s conceptually daring, an in medias res opening that barely introduces the central characters, offers the smallest taste of a mythology, and obscures the tapestry of its autumnal setting in a heart of darkness.
It’s a neat analogy to the plight of our heroes: like Wirt and young Greg (bearing no resemblance to Old Gregg), we are lost in the Unknown. By structuring the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill, like a puzzle box that can only be fully understood by viewers who completed the whole series, creators Pat McHale, Tom Herpich (an Adventure Time storyboarding stalwart with some hilarious deadpan chops), and Amalia Levari are forced to lay the groundwork of the show’s universe by showing, not telling. We are without a compass, but we are encouraged to soak in our surroundings rather than fuss over the details.
As a hook into the show, “The Old Grist Mill” succeeds with flying colors—though those colors are grey, black, darker grey, and blood-red like the bark of an edelwood tree. Cartoon Network carefully managed the air date of Over the Garden Wall to align with the peak of autumn, and it’s a perfect fit. From the opening theme, the series embodies the forlorn muteness of the season. Veteran jazz vocalist Jack Jones’s husky voice is welcoming, but his lyrics are abstract, vaguely dark; the seemingly random images accompanying the song provide no context but remain evocative, wistful, and in the realm of the fantastic (a cat driving a turkey cart! Now I’ve seen everything!).
If that slideshow gently imposes an otherworldly quality on The Unknown, our first walk with Wirt and Greg codifies this mysterious charm by abruptly casting a shroud. Shadows, fog, and looming specters create a palpable sense of dread as Wirt and Greg wander aimlessly, struck by an uncertain amnesia, knowing only that they need to keep moving forward to find their way home. Their outfits are likewise unsettling: Wirt’s gnome getup seems vaguely old-fashoined, but Greg’s teapot makes no sense at all. Two minutes in, “The Old Grist Mill” spins the threads of suggestion to create a universe just mysterious enough to invite the curious, just dark enough to build suspense, and just specific enough in its imagery to nail a timeless tone.
As a chapter in a serialized plot, however, very little actually happens in “The Old Grist Mill” at first blush. The centerpiece encounter, a frenetic and fantastically staged wrassle with a devil dog, turns out to just be a diversion, dismissed in a single sentence by the world-weary Woodsman. That character, hoarse and hobbled with edelwood branches burdening his back, is our primary font of mythology and plot momentum, but Wirt’s mistrust of him (and Greg’s blind obedience) cuts his expository monologues short.
By the end of the episode, we still cannot see the trees from the forest. Who are Wirt and Greg, why are they lost, and why are they dressed so ridiculously? Why is Wirt so resentful of his younger brother? Why can that bird talk but the rest of the animals we meet cannot? Where do the Woodsman’s allegiances lie, and why does he care so much about that lantern? Who can answer all these questions, anyway?
We can only trust our wayward protagonists, though we discover in “The Old Grist Mill” that their perspectives are not exactly… helpful. Wirt, voiced by Elijah Wood, is not quite an everyman (a future episode will dispute what archetype he truly is), being a little too off-center to function as a looking-glass. Despite being the “straight man” of the two kids, he drops effortlessly into overwrought, goofy poetry (Wood does some excellent work with these trances, putting on an affected lilt one part earnestness, one part trying-too-hard); despite being lost in an unfamiliar environment, he displays unusual self-awareness (“doyouthinkit’ssomekindofderangedlunaticwithanaxe…[etc]” he asks Greg in the pilot’s weakest spot, a postmodern moment that breaks starkly from the premodern tableau). Most damningly, despite being the older brother, he proves to be craven and casually cruel by blaming the episode’s mishaps on Greg.
On the surface, Wirt would appear to be the leader of the two-boy wolf pack, though his brother—probably half his age—makes all of the decisions in “The Old Grist Mill.” And how about that magnificent candypantsed boy! Greg, voiced by young voice acting treasure Collin Deen, is more than just comic relief. His matter-of-fact optimism does a great job of grounding the pilot’s more fantastic elements. When a giant plagued dogbeast shoves its toothy jaws in his face, he stumbles away with little more than a quick “Holy moly! Hot dog!” By absorbing the Unknown through his casually unquestioning eyes, we are allowed a firm handle on Over the Garden Wall’s strange logic without getting keen to any of its mysteries.
By episode’s end, the Woodsman sets both characters straight with a dramatic monologue: Wirt, the smart yet unwise, needs to shape up and become a true leader; his advice to Greg—“Give that frog a proper name,” is a roundabout instruction to focus, make a decision that prioritizes thought above instinct. It may take nine more episodes to finally give that pesky frog its one true name, but the path until that final moment has been vaguely illuminated. Its mysteries established, two of its central characters (and one recurring character, who I’ll sing the praises of in the ensuing spoiler-filled section below) excellently rounded out, and a horror-tinged ethereal tone enveloping all, Over the Garden Wall marches onward into the darkness.
We may not have a map, but we’re getting a feel for what we’ve gotten into. The way may be beautiful, but it isn’t going to be pretty.
HERE BE BLUEBIRDS: Bullet Points Safe for New Viewers
- I decided to take this new favorite show of mine to the little red schoolhouse by picking apart each episode one-by-one, with new reviews every Friday. It’s my first time doing episodic reviews and I’m busting like a gusher with feelings about this show so I’ll try to keep it as coherent as possible. A lot of other blog posts and thinkpieces out there have been talking about all of the historical/literary/animation-related references, which I touched upon in my broader review, so I’ll try to limit talk of that stuff too.
- Oh my stars, isn’t Christopher Lloyd something else as The Woodsman? He injects so much weariness, so much irritation and heart into each utterance that he breathes new life into the hoary Grimm trope.
- I shall hereon out address Gregory’s frog as Gregory’s Frog in accordance with IMDB law, and also because Antelope Guggenheim Albert Salami Giggly Jumpy Tom Thomas Tambourine Legface McCullen Artichoke Penguin Pete Steve is a mouthful.
- “Well, you’re slapping yourself and I’m answering your question and—“ I presume this will be the first of many Oh Greg, Never Change bullet points.
- It’s a Rock Fact!: Because I’m nowhere near as talented as Greg at coming up with nonsensical rock facts, I’ll just drop this bomb about superhunk and low-key actually really good actor Dwayne Johnson: he is one of only twenty-five heavily jacked individuals to have won the coveted WWE/F Triple Crown. It’s a The Rock fact!
- I’m The Bard: The song this week is the melancholy “Into The Unknown (Over the Garden Wall Theme).” There’s a whole heaping, molasses-drenched potatofull of foreshadowing in this forlorn melody’s couplets, which I would love to discuss in this next section.
HERE BE BEASTS: Spoiler-Filled Bullet Points for Returning Viewers
- Remember when I called this episode a puzzle box? I did not expect each episode to be so radically different upon rewatching. The level of subtle serialization and hidden callforwards in Over the Garden Wall is seriously impressive, with some Arrested Development-worthy callbacks/forwards to be discovered later on. I’ll be pointing out the few interesting ones I find down here, alongside other spoilery observations.
- For starters, I noticed how sinister Beatrice comes across in her brief introduction here. I don’t want to get ahead of myself with the Melanie Lynskey praise, but she uses just the right mix of sweetness and brusqueness on her few lines in “The Old Grist Mill,” and of course her silhouettes that bookend the episode are creepy foreshadowing gold. You can tell from the start there’s a poison to her altruism, even without knowing what happens, but her good heart just cannot be denied. I look forward to spending another 2000 words talking about Beatrice in the future)
- They really establish early on how Greg is the “brawn” and Wirt is the “brains” of the duo, though they definitely denote the former with a subtler touch. When the crazed devil dog strikes, Greg is a man of action while Wirt runs and cowers and blames his brother while he is busy saving both their goddamn asses. Get it together, Wirt!
- Speaking of crazed devil dog (who is, of course, Beatrice’s dog from the theme song), his crazed eyes have the same rainbow glint as The Beast’s.
- They flit by ever so quickly, but what’s the deal with those floating shades during Jim Jones’s post-song voiceover at the start of the episode? They look an awful lot like some things floating in the water. Insert frysquint.jpg here.
- From the theme song, the lines “But where have we come, and where shall we end? / If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?” have been sticking like a thorn. Not only are they lovely, but they hint so strongly at the true-yet-false nature of the Unknown, between imagination and reality, or as another has described it, a kind of purgatory. A certain episode about pumpkins might reinforce this theory.
- Our first sighting of the black turtles, which appear to cause a polluted delirium when ingested. They figure later on in a genuinely surprising bait-and-switch in one of my favorite episodes (I feel like I’ll be throwing that signifier around a lot, and for multiple entries). Plus, I just noticed on this rewatch that the turtle coughed up by the dog was the same one Greg stuck his candy to. So it was Greg’s fault that they were in that mess, after all! (Just kidding, stop being a jerk Wirt)
- Thanks for reading this far, or at least skipping ahead this far! Next stop, we’re shippin’ off to Pottsfield for early highlight “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee!”