“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.