Content to be Slightly Forlorn: Young Loneliness in Over the Garden Wall

As far as I can tell, there are three types of truly deep loneliness. The Loneliness of Love (I’m on the top floor of a double-decker bus, watching as a girl gets smaller and smaller in the pre-sunrise dark), The Loneliness of Loss (my mother smiles and also aches, remembering an anecdote about her late brother), and the Loneliness of Being A Kid. The first two may seem more severe and that’s because they’re rooted in a real, adult understanding of the world. Rationalising your sadness is an adult trait that both helps and hurts. It’s a big part of growing up, realising that not every sad thing that happens in your life is the end of the world. The perspective you gain through time helps you see the difference between things that do and don’t matter, which eliminates some of the hopelessness of childhood. (On the flip side, it makes true adult sadness much deeper. Once you know fully that there’s no rationalising your way out of something, you’re victim to the tightest grasp of depression). For now, let’s talk about the perspective-less world-is-ending no-point-in-trying sadness that sometimes takes hold of kids.

There’s a long history of good movies and television shows that evoke childhood loneliness. An obvious go-to is Home Alone, in which Kevin’s initial celebration of his freedom eventually turns to begrudging sadness, even missing his most hated sibling. Pixar’s Inside Out has the heartbreaking vignette of Riley crying alone after losing a hockey game. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful exercise in the crushing weight of loneliness and how crucial a child’s imagination can be in both creating and alleviating that loneliness. And in Over the Garden Wall, when two brothers run from a policeman in the giddy, innocent panic of youth, they climb over a stone wall and find themselves lost in a strange forest.

Over the Garden Wall is a critically lauded but criminally under-watched miniseries that aired on Cartoon Network in 2014. It was created by Patrick McHale and it consists of ten episodes, which are only about 11 minutes long each. So just to get this out of the way: if you haven’t seen it, please go watch it. It’s on Hulu at the moment and you can watch the entire thing in the time it takes to watch a movie. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2015, and last month the lush, autumnal soundtrack got a release from Mondo. It also stars a wonderful array of voice acting talent including Elijah Wood, Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, Tim Curry, and Tom Lennon.

The series tells the story of Wirt (a nerdy mid-teenaged boy, played by Elijah Wood) and his younger brother Greg (an energetic, curious boy most likely between 6-9 years old, played by Collin Dean), wandering lost in a strange forest called The Unknown.

The forest is a place outside of time, where settings and clothing styles range from the 18th century to early 20th century. Wirt and Greg encounter a full roster of sentient creatures: talking pumpkins, talking birds and talking horses. Always looming in the darkness of the woods, though, is the Beast- an opera-singing silhouette, all glowing eyes and twisted antlers. In their journey, they make friends with a frog (whose many names include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Cucumber, Jason Funderberker, etc.) and a bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey).

The show’s sense of loneliness primarily affects Wirt, who feels it from all sorts of angles. One very basic aspect is the literal size difference. When a kid is lost in a crowd, every stranger is a towering horror. Alone, the landscape swallows them whole, tall buildings, tall trees. The Unknown in Over the Garden Wall is full of dark, frightening trees (clearly drawing inspiration from the Haunted Forest in The Wizard of Oz) and many menacing strangers (a Witch of the Woods, The Beast, The Woodsman with his axe, the giant pumpkin Enoch).

As an early-high school aged boy, Wirt is also subject to typical hormonal angst and anxiety. In one of the final episodes, we learn that before the brothers were lost in these strange, timeless woods, Wirt was a modern high school student whose school experience was laced with loneliness too. He pines, from a distance, for the school mascot Sara, in her giant, unwieldy bumblebee costume. Wirt has made her a cassette tape of his clarinet playing and poetry but when the time comes he is too shy to share it with her, which forces his little brother Greg to do it for him. Teenage angst creates archetypical characters of us all and Wirt falls squarely on the Poetic-Angsty part of the Angst Spectrum. His artsy, self-reflective moodiness only serves to amplify his loneliness.

Another key aspect of Wirt’s story is revealed when we learn that he and Greg are half-brothers. I have two older half-brothers myself, which means I was the Greg in my family’s situation. I grew up with my brothers always there so I never thought of them as anything less than full brothers and I imagine that this is how Greg thinks too. But Wirt is the older brother who has seen divorce, probably a move, the entry of a new father figure and the birth of a new brother who represents the division in his life. The story doesn’t get too deeply into these dynamics, only barely hinting at them, but it is a tale of two brothers becoming closer through hardship. By the end of the series, Wirt has grown to love and appreciate Greg in a way he didn’t before.

What’s the reason for all this loneliness, though? Apart from being relatable, what does the show accomplish by evoking all this? It all has to do with Wirt and with Wirt’s relationships. His self-esteem is normally pretty low and it affects the way he interacts with everyone. With the bluebird Beatrice, it causes their relationship to start off tense and standoffish. Wirt slowly starts to open up to her until the perceived betrayal at Adelaide’s house, which causes all of Wirt’s worries to rush back in. It’s hard for him to trust. And with Greg, Wirt’s older brother syndrome causes him to not really want to have anything to do with Greg’s juvenile misadventures. It’s another self-imposed isolation that’s amplified by the show’s setting, music and general tone, and it isn’t until the end that Wirt understands just how much Greg means to him.

While Wirt’s personal story deals in many ways with loneliness and separation, a sense of wistful longing also filters through the whole show aesthetically. This is due in part to the heartbreakingly gorgeous soundtrack by The Blasting Company. The title track of the series is sung once, in a genuinely moving moment, by Greg’s otherwise mute frog companion. It begins like this:

At night, when the lake is a mirror /
And the moon rides the waves to the shore /
A single soul sets his voice singing /
Content to be slightly forlorn.

Additionally, the show’s many side characters are often lost and lonely themselves. The schoolteacher Mrs. Langtree sings a jaunty alphabet tune about her abandonment by her lover. Young Lorna, cursed by an (extremely terrifying) evil spirit, wishes she could leave the Unknown. The moody Woodsman’s tragic back-story reveals him to be forever wandering the woods alone, determined to save his lost daughter.

The series is full of dark corners and falling leaves. It’s the perfect show for autumn: the beauty of nature, the creeping cold, the soft loneliness. The show’s true ray of light is the little brother Greg, who never seems to lose hope. His impenetrable positivity is the perfect and only counterpoint to the heavy layer of sadness and hopelessness that the show excels so much in portraying. At one point, Greg is trapped inside of a tree by The Beast and, to Beatrice’s horror, he coughs up a leaf. “The leaves are even growing inside him!” she says, but Greg replies, “No, I was just eating leaves.” The terror is replaced, at least for the moment, with humour. Because after all, being a kid is lonely, but it can also be silly, innocent, and fun.

Over the Garden Wall does a whole lot of different things really well. It’s visually rich, musically gorgeous, narratively compelling, and also very funny. The way it deftly evokes the inner life of its young protagonist is just another accomplishment to add to the list. While in some ways, I’m a Greg at heart, I still feel for Wirt. Being a kid can be tough. And that’s a rock fact.

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One response to “Content to be Slightly Forlorn: Young Loneliness in Over the Garden Wall”

  1. Kirstin says:

    Nice! 🙂 I loved the show. It made me think about what my counsellor said to me. He said “optimistic people aren’t necessarily the most REALISTIC, but they tend to have happier lives.” This is because they see the good in front of them, and they expect more good ahead which gives them the fortitude to hurdle over hardship.

    I’m a natural Wirt, but am practicing being a Greg.