Tumbling into the Unknown

by Morgan Noll

When I was a kid, my favourite word was “Why?’. So much so that my parents bought me The Big Book of 150 Questions. Each passage was about the big mysteries of the world which I had little knowledge of: “What is gravity?” “Why is the sky blue?” “How does light work in our retinas?” “Why do we sleep?” … I think what’s so precious about childhood for a lot of us is that sense of discovery. That sense that with each and every day that passed, we were getting closer and closer to unravelling the great unknown. Now I’m all grown up (more or less) for better or for worse I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp on this reality-as-we-know-it thing. There are fewer and fewer discoveries to be made and when I am met with uncertainty, especially lately, it has now become something to fear. ‘When will I be employed again?’ ‘Will my industry return?’ ‘Will we have a vaccine?’ The unknown for me now means anxiety, paranoia, depression, and resignation. I long for the days of my greatest question being ‘is my red the same as your red?’ 

Perhaps that’s what makes Over the Garden Wall so special to me. What makes it something I look forward to watching again and again every year when the leaves start to turn. Through its focus on the uncanny, the between, and the unknown, I get that sense of profound discovery back. However, this miniseries also acknowledges my adult sense of fear and trepidation around uncertainty and what results is a 10-episode production that manages to bring back that sense of smallness in the face of a vast universe but through a soberness rarely seen in animation. 

Over the Garden Wall through its gorgeous visuals, music, anachronistic Americana, and timeless narrative creates a realm between life and death that brings back some of the excitement in the grey areas of life and through that appreciation crafts a profound message for children and adults alike: embrace the hapless times and the chasms between. In the end, the times when we are most open to the possibilities are the times were the veils in our lives are thinnest. 

OTGW was created by animator and writer Patrick McHale and follows Wirt and Gregory, two half-brothers lost in an autumnal 19th century world literally called “The Unknown”. We are dropped into the series without an explanation for why they are there or how they got to this place. They are simply lost in it and must find a way back home. The series is careful to misdirect you, the clothes the boys wear are so nondescript and the places we visit with them so old fashioned, the viewer assumes for most of the run that this is a fairy tale of sorts with Greg and Wirt as a Hansel and Gretel archetype and the culmination of this affair will simply be their return to a familial cottage. However, in the last 2 episodes of the series it’s revealed that Wirt and Greg are instead living in the 1990s and have tumbled into “The Unknown” after plunging into a river in their attempt to escape an oncoming train. (The ominous whistle of which can be heard ever so briefly each episode in the opening credits).

The world we have been carried along with them seems to actually be a sort of purgatory?….afterlife? or wait no, a shared hallucination?…or, well, actually maybe it was real…? The events of the series are never quite explained. Elements of “The Unknown” such as a bell, return home with them in the end however, a river boat in the series has the words “McCaughlin bros” which is Wirt and Greg’s last name and characters from the real world discuss a game called “Two Old Cat” which is then played in “The Unknown”. The series never gives a definitive answer as to what “The Unknown” actually is. Are all of the residents within it merely dreams? Are they fake? Dead people, as an Easter egg headstone suggests? The contradictory evidence is everywhere if you start to look for it and to OTGW’s credit, it just makes its world that much more compelling allowing the series to practice what it preaches metatextuality. “The Unknown” is as unknowable as death itself, a major thematic focus in the series. These choices I think are what sets OTGW apart, especially in a 21st century age of media criticism. 

Go to your YouTube homepage. If you’re anything like me, some of your recs will be “X Ending Explained”, :Top 20 things you missed in X”, “X an analysis”, “10 unanswered questions in X”, “Fan Theories and speculations in X!”. In our modern renaissance of prestige TV, cinematic gaming, ad revenues connected to watch times, and individual subreddits for every show, book, film, or series we consume, a sense of deeper lore seems to be vital in keeping property communities alive. Children’s animation is no stranger to this. Modern cartoon series are increasingly ditching episodic self-contained formats for more overarching narrative structures with hidden messages, scattered Easter eggs, more complex story structures, and darker elements. These components create a sense of discovery for viewers (and free promotion doesn’t hurt either). A bigger mystery that can be puzzled out is a big prize for fans and often heightens viewer investment into the show as a whole. 

I feel I rely on these videos a little too often, jumping straight to them or the subreddit after I finish something I maybe didn’t quite get right away. There’s nothing wrong with community discussion, however, this can present somewhat of a double-edged sword for creators. If a series is on-going, popular fan theories that predict different outcomes than intended by production staff can often lead to community backlash and disappointment if proven wrong. The ability to see engagement on these posts and videos also always makes me feel like there are definitive right and wrong interpretations, predictions, and explanations and more often than not, that all of a production’s mysteries can be ‘solved’ and neatly closed. OTGW, with its contradictory “Unknown” is one of the few productions I have seen to escape this finality. Media critics and Youtubers alike have vastly different interpretations of the series. OTGW’s own subreddit is littered with posts like: “but what did it all mean?” “My interpretation of the series…”, “Why OTGW is Dante’s Inferno”, “Why OTGW is actually a storybook” etc. Discussion of the miniseries, even now, is very splintered and no real consensus seems to have ever been reached on either its message or its overarching narrative. Try as hard as I might to understand it, to break it down, to uncover all of its influences and lore, I still cannot seem to wrestle with what the show actually is or what its mysteries mean. As a child this might have excited me but as an adult it infuriates me. I keep googling, searching, scrolling, its kept me up at night, thinking, guessing and backtracking. It’s in this way that I think OTGW does something that I haven’t quite seen any other children’s animated series do. Through its refusal to give us answers, It directly captures what it feels like to experience our mortality and the mysteries of death. 

We will never be able to definitively say what “The Unknown” is, how it works, and what the series means just as we will never be able to answer if there is an afterlife, when it’s our time, how death will feel or if we will ever see our friends and family again. It’s a hard pill to swallow, to say the least, but it’s why I keep coming back to the series. I will never understand it. No one will. Weirdly enough, that’s what makes me remember it in the small hours, when I feel closer to the veils in my life than ever. During one episode of OTGW, Wirt and Greg happen upon a town of living skeletons who rise from the dead once a year to have a harvest celebration. One remarks to Wirt,”‘say aren’t you a little too early to be joining us yet?” and at the end of the episode the patriarch of this township, Enoch, asks the brothers to stay and celebrate the rest of the day with them. When the brothers refuse, he simply shrugs and says, “oh well, you’ll join us someday”. As unsettling as that exchange may be, it perfectly captures the crux of the series. I don’t look at it as a mystery to crack or as a piece of media to parse out but as an experience and a beautiful, silly, and somber journey through the inbetweens of life. When I think back to all of the things that were out there to discover as a child, I feel a little wistful. I erroneously now feel like I’ve got it all sorted. However, OTGW reminds me that there will always be things beyond me. After all, once all of the unknowns are known, really the only unknown left is death and the series almost seems careful to keep me from it and familiar to it all at once.