With Over the Garden Wall, Patrick McHale (Adventure Time, Misadventures of Flapjack) gave us an American fantasy that you can love no matter your political background, and one that expands on what ‘America-ness’ is by connecting it to older traditions to give a wholly epic, lush world.
So you’ve probably seen those recent Facebook charts showing what books/music/stuff Democrats and Republicans like, and in the wake of this news, Taylor Swift has bizarrely become some sort of shared olive branch between them. And if you’re anything like me, you asked yourself: so goddamn what? Are we going to lock Democrats and Republicans in a gym overnight, braid some of those grey hairs, bond over an intimate T-Swizzle set?
If anything, that news made me even sadder about the country’s divisions, it just felt like a grasping-at-straws; but at the same time it shows that we’re looking for a common ground now, that’s a narrative and a headline that people are interested in. And if Taylor Swift can’t be that common ground, maybe Over the Garden Wall can.
The Cartoon Network miniseries is quickly becoming a sleeper hit; it centers on brothers Wirt and Greg lost in a fantastic world of 19th-century Americana, of mysterious woodsmen, roadside taverns, and the dread mystery of the deep wood. Upon airing, Over the Garden Wall was overshadowed somewhat by the release of Bee and Puppycat the same week, but the blogosphere seemed to catch on this week, and found so much to love: the crooning musical numbers devoid of all contemporary glitz, delivered with a stately, classic grace; the gorgeous, 1800s Fall aesthetic; the Grimm brothers, fairy-tale feel, both in terms of whimsy and abject horror.
But what surprised me most was that it felt like the kind of American Holiday cartoon special that should no longer be possible, cynical and divided as we are—it celebrates the American holiday season while keeping the corniness in the fields and out of the delivery. It made me feel connected to a narrative that is distinctly American, and at this particular political juncture, that’s a groundbreaking achievement.
Think ‘America’ and what comes to mind? Most likely flags, eagles, maybe a salute, maybe a drone, you know, the usual political rhetoric crap. But what about mansion-sized riverboats? What about frogs lowing amongst the evening cattails, Appalachian forests spreading overhead like a cathedral of branches in embrace? If we can’t agree on the racial (in)sensitivity of the Redskins’ mascot, I think we can all at least agree that going downriver towards the ocean on a raft of lights to the sound of easygoing big-band music, is a pleasant dream. Where most of ‘American’ imagery feels colonized by one political/social sect or another, Over the Garden Wall is a reminder that there is an American beauty that we can share in.
But as my astute girlfriend pointed out, Over the Garden Wall still isn’t as inclusive as it seems—it’s still a depiction of white America in the 19th century, which took the wind out of my sails quite a bit, but then I began to see aspects in which the series did expand on conservative conceptions of what America is.
For example, there’s the pagan element: the series’ debuting episode was your run-of-the-mill ‘children lost in the woods’ story, but the second episode was what convinced that Over the Garden Wall is something to be reckoned with: Wirt and Greg seek help in a countryside village, and stumble across the community fall festival, with the townsfolk dressed in pumpkin costumes and circling a maypole, which turned out to be the village patriarch, Enoch, a pumpkin-man the height of a church steeple.
It’s an impressively eerie sight, the carved, eye-less features and slanted mouths, but what’s more, it highlights the ties between America and its pagan roots, as the practitioners don the pumpkin, the symbol of the American pastime that is Halloween, while they celebrate their Wickerman-style harvest festival. A line is drawn that connects ‘American’ traditions to European ones, so that both the story and American history are buttressed by these traditions underlying our own culture, whether they’re called Halloween, Allhallowtide, or the Gaelic Samhain. Critics have agreed that this is a world worth inhabiting, and the reason is in these connections that make the world feel so old, yet so familiar.
Hence, where many political talking heads would love for you to believe that American culture began with the era of the founding fathers, Over the Garden Wall extends the American imaginative tradition back to the Old World, from which we borrowed folklore populated by old crones, the wintry North Wind, the mysterious woodsman, and the archetype of the beast-in-the-woods, all of which are present in a big way in the series. If America in contemporary politics is marked by division from the rest of the modern world, then the series seeks to reconnect it through these ties, and the story is stronger, more epic-feeling by virtue of that reconnection.
If the American Christian tradition is the one you identify with the most, Over the Garden Wall has you covered there too, but again, in an inclusive sense of the word ‘Christian.’ The Christ element is present in Greg, the relentlessly carefree younger brother who seems snipped out of 50s black and white picaresque cartoons of children jaunting about the countryside, getting into scrapes yet never surrendering a basic innocence, a basic trust in the inherent goodness of their cartoon world.
Far from hell and brimstone sermons, Greg represents the ‘lest ye become as a little child,’ ‘suffer the children and forbid them not’ aspects of Christianity, in which grace is obtained by innocence and trust in the wondrous divine, as immanent in the world. Unlike his brother, Greg is impervious to hardship, never once loses his way (well, alright, he stole a rock once), never closes himself off to the daunting new world he found himself in.
The connection to Christianity is solidified in Greg’s dream reverie, in which he wishes upon a star for the way home and receives the blessing of the Queen of the Clouds, in a parallel with Jesus born under the star of Bethlehem. He is the miracle child who needs only to ask in order to receive, and his innocence tragically [semispoiler alert] makes him a viable sacrificial figure as well, when he offers himself to the Beast in exchange for his hopeless brother’s safety.
Effectively, Christianity becomes a metaphor for adolescence, in which Christ the child dies to give birth to the adult, who must then resurrect that inner child to become spiritually complete, as Wirt does when he ventures back into the woods to rescue the selfless Greg. Even if you can’t buy into Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you can still appreciate the image of purity as represented by Greg’s impossibly charming character. He’s wearing an elephant costume, by the way. The spout is the trunk.
Aside from Christianity, the concept of the ‘pilgrim’ also gets a modern update in the series. There’s an episode in which Wirt asks directions from a local tavern, in which all of the patrons fill the typical roles in childrens’ stories: the baker, the aristocrat, the Highwayman (who has a completely ASTOUNDING 30-second music sequence, by the way), and the barmaid. In response, Wirt finds himself at a loss for what he is in society, and also to himself, as much of Over the Garden Wall involves Wirt’s personal journey as an insecure teen. But his very indeterminacy tells the townspeople what this child is: a pilgrim, a wanderer on a holy journey who isn’t complete in the same way that the rest of them are, but is a valid member of society nonetheless, and who deserves a celebratory song just like the rest of them.
Hence, a parallel is drawn between adolescence and the intrepidity of those first few Americans, the Pilgrims from across the sea, willing to brave the ocean and the uncharted wilds in order to find a place for themselves. Like Wirt, they ventured into the unknown and risked losing their way, and by virtue of their faith (whether it be in Christ or a dorky little brother named Greg), they survived their bitterest winter.
Ultimately, Over the Garden Wall is, among so many things, a celebration of Halloween in the old sense of the word—a time of honoring and communing with the past (notice the tombstones in Episode 9, especially one bearing the name ‘Endicott’…), of rediscovering aspects of American cultural history, especially the multicultural contributions we’ve truncated in an effort to set our country apart. And maybe most of all, it’s an imagining of America itself as a lost child, which historically, it very much is—we’re scarcely going on three centuries, a mere blink compared to other societies, and we’re still very much in the midst of navigating the Unknown, maybe now more than ever. On that level, Patrick McHale’s series is a message of hope to children and country alike, if they only trust to goodness, and remember the primeval stories we all share.