Over the Garden Wall revisited: “Songs of the Dark Lantern”

As all of us in the northern hemisphere know, it’s time once again for another dry and spooky autumn, which of course means more Over the Garden Wall recaps. Writing about such a solemnly autumnal show in any other season or mood never felt right, and on the heels of its recent DVD release, now is the best possible time to dig back into the Unknown. So, then, let’s dig:

“Songs of the Dark Lantern” – Act One Ends with Three Songs and a Dance

darklantern2

What is Over the Garden Wall? Despite coming out of the gate with a fully-formed aesthetic and writing to fill it out, we really know very little about the Unknown and its denizens by the time “Songs of the Dark Lantern” rolls around. Our characters are effectively amnesiacs, hounded by a mysterious force, driven by hearsay, traveling a land where nothing can be taken at face value.

A lesser show would stoop to exposition dumps to flesh out this swiss-cheese-mythology, but Over the Garden Wall has other plans. “Songs of the Dark Lantern” calls upon the power of one of the simplest, most old fashioned storytelling forms in the modern western canon to convey its tales of beasts and burdens: the musical revue.

This isn’t the first episode to mention The Beast (with a capital The), or make good use of the Unknown’s darkswept underbelly, but it marks the first time the monster makes the leap from vague threat to tactile antagonist. It makes its reintroduction offscreen, as a Dracula-style terrified villager speeds through the night shouting “The beast is upon me!” Storyboarders Amalia Levari, Tom Herpich and Pat McHale follow up with a neat bit of misdirection, revealing only Beatrice, Wirt, Greg, and the trusty nameless toad to literally be upon the truck of his haycart.

This subtle cue is the first case of mistaken identity in an episode filled with ‘em, from the blurring delineation between Woodsman and Beast, to Fred the Horse hiding his true, talkative nature from Beatrice. Identity issues have been present since the first lines of episode one, when Greg struggles to name the toad, but “Songs of the Dark Lantern” splices the theme into the show’s DNA, digging a well that future episodes will continue to deepen.

At the core of this identity crisis is, of course, our hero Wirt. Just who the hell is he, anyway? Four episodes in, we still know very little about the origins, motivations, and desires of Wirt and Greg. Gradually parceling out this information is a crucial turn by McHale & Co., as it allows their relationships and actions to fill out their personalities, while cultivating a mystery for their backstory. In “Songs,” we get some minor curatives to this customer-side amnesia through the power of song and dance: Wirt and Greg are half-brothers! Wirt has some sort of a lost love! That’s about it, really.

The true revelations arrive when the good folks at Wench-Edition Betty Boop’s Creepy Tavern assume the roles of theorist, psychologist, and obsessive fan theorist in an attempt to puzzle out just who, really, this Wirt guy is. It’s only natural, since Wirt, like most teenagers, also has no idea who he is, or who he is supposed to be: “I’m, uh, Wirt,” he says, when prompted, “I’m just a guy, I guess.” Though this reveals a meekness of character, mere character moments won’t suffice for an identity in the Unknown, where folks like the Butcher, Midwife, and even Highwayman are defined by their roles in (or on the fringes of) society.

darklantern3

The bildungsroman elements of Over the Garden Wall are in full-force in “Songs,” where the tavernfolk’s investigations into Wirt’s being slot a developing youth into an adult world. Nonconformity (“I’m just myself, you know?”) gets him labeled as a simpleton, someone who cannot figure out where he is going in life, or is not capable of expressing himself well enough to get there. Whether or not Wirt is ready for this world remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the roles of Lover and Pilgrim fit him like mittens, not gloves. They go over his hand well enough, sure, but there is still something missing between the lines.

Wirt seems more satisfied with being the Pilgrim for exactly the reason why he can’t just be the Pilgrim: it doesn’t challenge his character. It turns his destination into a MacGuffin while essentializing his past exploits. Wirt, who came into the tavern looking for directions, fits the bill perfectly for a job that prides aimless wandering. Staying on the road would become him, and any room for development would be lost in the long run.

Luckily, “Songs of the Dark Lantern” takes place in the short run, and Wirt’s pilgrim label acts as a brief pick-me-up in a time of need. Any depressed person can tell you that merely leaving the bed one day can be a great act of valor, and so Wirt’s blind charge on horseback into the woods is one as well. Though he had no purpose before, post-diagnosis Wirt at least has the motivation to run like hell, a motivation that merges well with his natural inclinations to be courageous and generous. It’s a slow boil, but “Songs of the Dark Lantern” gives us the first peek of Wirt’s evolution from Pilgrim to Hero, a protagonist well worth watching.

“Songs of the Dark Lantern” plumbs new depths in the character department, but also climbs a steep escalator to take advantage of great deals in the visual and comedy departments on the 12th floor of the Macy’s Good Television Superstore. Character design in the tavern is fantastic, each body singular enough to work as its own sight gag and split-second personality. Tonally, the character archetypes fit like perfect jigsaw pieces, united by a darker edge lent by the light and colors. The palette pulls off a miracle, balancing a medieval air with assertive coloring, avoiding dreariness while conveying scuzziness.

darklantern4

The black cloud that lingered over the first episode has come back to reclaim the series’ tone; sort of a “thought you forgot about LITTLE OL’ ME, huh??” gesture. The overall effect is a uniting of the cosmos that contained the previous episodes and locales, a hint at the Common Folk of the Unknown that filled in the cracks between the localized communities we’ve seen in previous episodes. A hint that the first, true chapter of Over the Garden Wall just came to a close, filling Wirt with new purpose, confirming The Beast’s hideous rule of the Unknown, raising the stakes considerably. In all respects, “Songs of the Dark Lantern” feels like a statement of purpose for both its universe and main characters. But we have only just cleared its first verse.

 

HERE BE BLUEBIRDS

  • “FINE I’LL DO EVERYTHING.” My Beatrice worship doesn’t need any spoiler tags this time around. Once again, this episode proves that a mad Beatrice is a hilarious Beatrice.
  • Oh, and “You’ll die someday, and I’ll LAUGH! HAHAHA!”
  • Why doesn’t the Boop-ish innkeeper say “boid” instead of “bird?” If this episode has a weak point, that one missed opportunity is literally all there is.
  • The Week in Frog Naming: No nickname this time, but the frog winks! It winks!
  • I’m the Bard: Songs upon songs to choose from in this installation, particularly the creepy ditty this recurring feature is named after, or the chilling refrain sung by the Beast in the woods. But “A Courting Song” is an old-fashioned masterpiece of outmoded dating tips, and that cannot be topped.
  • It’s a rock fact!: In honor of those space rocks on Steven Universe, this rock fact is particularly precious: pearls, one of the only organic gemstones, can dissolve in a high enough concentration of vinegar.
  • Oh, Greg, Never Change: “Banana nut duck bread” sounds pretty delicious.

HERE BE BEASTS

  • Finally, our first look (sort of) at The Beast. Permanently engulfing him in shadow is a simple, but effective design choice. Not just because the darkness builds a mystery, or represents the darkness in its “soul,” but because of the inevitable payoff when the darkness finally lifts.
  • We also get the first indication that Wirt’s wanderings are a romantic quest, in the kissy kiss sense of the word. The suggestion is subtle, allowing the payload in later episodes to drop as a poignant surprise.
  • My memory is hazy, but do we ever learn the real reason why Beatrice got knocked out, or is she telling the truth and is just a klutz?
  • Fred the horse! Fred the horse! “Nice to horse your acquaintance” is possibly my favorite non-Greg non-sequitur from the series. More about Fred in the next review, but I should also mention that the recent Over the Garden Wall comic book tetralogy (illustrated by Jim Campbell and written by show creator Pat McHale) reveals Fred’s origins in a dependably amusing, chilling fashion.