Ladies and gents, it’s time once again for…
Since I was on a roll with this topic for a while, let us once again explore themes of depression in media aimed at kids and young adults!
…Okay, Over the Garden Wall isn’t necessarily about depression; the show is interpretable, and this is just one of the many way it can be interpreted.
If you’ve never heard of this miniseries before, haven’t watched any cartoons in the last 5< years, or in cases like mine, don’t have cable television, watch these show intros for me real quick:
I’m not posting these to pass judgment on these shows (although the first two are pretty heinous. Say what you want about Pokemon, but at least it’s theme was catchy and memorable), but look at the intro to Over the Garden Wall and tell me if you see a contrast:
Wasn’t that different? Surreal, sure (the creator of the miniseries was also a creative director on Adventure Time), but not what you typically see your kids watching?
That is the show in a nut shell. It has its bizarre moments (usually as a reference or homage. Betty Boop and other Fleischer Brothers’ cartoons in at least one episode, for example) that make it feel very much like Alice in Wonderland, but everything has a purpose when you uncover the greater story.
Over the Garden Wall is a dark-fantasy adventure-comedy ten years in the making (originally envisioned in 2004 and pitched to the network in 2006); it is also the first ever miniseries that Cartoon Network has put out. It debuted last year in November, and followed two lost children, Wirt and Greg, wandering in a seemingly endless forest known as The Unknown in search of home. They are assisted by Beatrice, a grumpy but well-meaning bluebird, and the somber and cryptic Woodsman, who warns them of the Beast, the dark, shadowy being who haunts the woods and claims any soul who wanders lost and purposeless.
Anything more would be a spoiler, but some are necessary to get into what I’m talking about. So beware. Spoilers Below.
First, let me say what I love about this miniseries.
The music is gorgeous and old-timey (I particularly love whatever Jack Jones sings). The art really shines, particularly when it depicts the fall scenery, and even though I wasn’t crazy about the character designs at first, they have really grown on me. Really, the whole show might be an acquired taste for some people, with the aforementioned styles of animation and music. The voice cast is chock-full of celebrities (Elijah Wood and Christopher Lloyd, to name two), and they all do an excellent job, even if part of me wants to be distracted.
The story is delightfully dark and creepy, but also has plenty of light-heartedness and comedy mixed in. No longer being a child myself, I can’t really accurately say how kids will relate to it. Seeing it as an adult, I am both horrified and in love with the story, so it’s definitely something parents will want to watch first and decide if their children can handle it.
The Beast is awesome. Creepy, but awesome. I award extra points for his design, which, while kept mostly in shadow, is reminiscent of a wendigo. He is one of the most serious and sinister villains in all of Cartoon Network history, and he sings opera. How many kid shows have opera?!
…Scratch that. How many kids know what opera even is?
But I digress. Let’s get into the depression interpretation.
Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice come across different characters in The Unknown, some of which are friendlier and funnier than others. There is a town called Pottsfield that is filled with “living” skeletons, a school “teaching animals to count and spell,” an inn patronized by craftsmen and other professionals, wealthy tea merchants, and several others.
In the fourth episode, it is said that, “once your will begins to spoil, (the Beast)’ll turn you to a tree of oil.” The Beast uses the oil from the ground up trees to keep his lantern lit, and in the eighth episode, one of the characters begins to grow branches and leaves as he withdraws both socially and physically from those around him.
The Beast is the terror of The Unknown. He is referred to as “The Death of Hope” and “The Voice of the Night,” and proclaims to be the owner of the woods:
“There is only me, there is only my way; there is only the forest, and there is only surrender.”
The character who begins slowly turning into a tree in episode eight begins his descent after the betrayal of a friend, and the constant feelings he has been fighting that tell him he will never get to leave the forest. In the tenth and final episode, another character, despite expressing that he will never give up, eventually succumbs to the cold loneliness and impossible tasks set upon him by the Beast and he too begins to turn into a tree.
I also draw my interpretation from the other characters met along the journey. The skeletons of Pottsfield are already dead, so they are at peace and have no great cause to fear the Beast. The school teacher and the animals are devoted to learning and making the school a success.
The episode at the inn probably tells us the most about the Beast, and we can also take note of how fervent and pushy the patrons are, both talking about their own jobs and questioning the main characters about who they are and what they do. Their trades and passions keep them from falling victim to the Beast, and they are keenly aware of this, warning travelers like Wirt and Greg, who don’t readily avow any traits of their own. Every time Wirt is ascribed with a new identity by someone at the inn, he denies it, but is typically ignored by the crowd.
You could read this particular episode a few different ways, but however you look at it, the need to have a motivating force (ultimately, the patrons decide that Wirt is a pilgrim) is definitely crucial to survival in The Unknown, whether one is lost or not. The Beast himself only physically fights one character, but that is towards the end of the series, so the possibility of direct physical harm was not necessarily implied. And when his lantern is threatened out of his reach, he seems almost powerless to stop it. Most often, he appear as a seductive Faustian demon, bargaining to protect his lantern and gain more souls to feed it.
The Beast could be representative of depression itself; frightening, unclear, not necessarily physically hurting you, but giving you feelings of fear, hopelessness, and loss of direction and motivation. He pulls you apart from friends and loved ones, causing you to withdraw inward and feel trapped and lonely. Both characters who fall victim to the Beast lose their purpose, or at least the drive towards it, are rendered wooden and immobile, hollow if not for the black, sludge-like oil that can be harvested from them.
The Unknown, just by its title alone, is pretty on the nose, but by itself, it does not cause depression. It and its inhabitants only provide obstacles for the main characters to overcome, helping depression along when the challenges prove too difficult or frustrating.
Someone on the creative team must have had or known someone with anxiety or depression. Whatever the miniseries could ultimately be saying about the subject (that it, and not the person possessed by it, is initially feared, but overcome in the end), it gets it.
Of course, there are also themes of death, growth, and loss of innocence as well. As I said, there are many ways you could interpret it. I just find it interesting how mature subjects are not just taught to children, but made relatable to them.
The ending is happy for just about everyone, and the subject, tone, and setting of the story makes it a perfect, relatively short Halloween binge-watch, for multiple reasons.
It’s much deeper than it may appear, and I really hope more people will see it. If you’re not interested…well, you’re still welcome to help yourself to some good old potatoes and molasses.
*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners, most notably Patrick McHale and Cartoon Network. None of the above belong to me.