Fall is my favorite season. I could write a whole other article about why, but for the sake of this one I’ll keep it concise: Fall has this feeling attached to it like no other season does. As the heavy summer air crystallizes into brisk winds, every falling leaf is a reminder that all things end. That might sound morbid, and it certainly doesn’t sound enjoyable, but hear me out. Fall is the place between things: summer and winter, warmth and cold, life and death, beginnings and endings. In being between these things, it manages to become all of them. Fall is the soft pang of nostalgia for something you’re sad is over but happy to have experienced — at once mournful and joyous. It’s trick-or-treating as a 10-year-old when the world was huge and full of adventure. It’s the silhouettes of trees standing watch in the night. It’s the chill of morning fog and the flicker of a candle and the quiet beauty of falling leaves.
“Dancing in a swirl of golden memories, the loveliest lies of all.”
That line is a lyric from the theme song of “Over the Garden Wall” (Nate Cash, “Adventure Time”), a Cartoon Network miniseries that features 10 episodes, each just over 10 minutes in length. The series is a favorite of mine, and I always make a point to re-watch it each fall because I have yet to find a piece of media that better embodies everything that this season is to me. The series follows Wirt (Elijah Wood, “The Trust”) and Greg (Collin Dean, “Krampus”), two brothers who are lost in the woods. As they try to find their way home, they learn that they’ve entered an anachronistic other-world called The Unknown, and that getting home will be no easy task.
While made with a younger audience in mind, the series places enormous faith in its audience to handle a deep and complex storyline and surprisingly dark thematic material. The series is meticulously detailed, filled with a remarkably clever, “blink and you’ll miss it” style of mise-en-scène that rewards repeat viewers. This trust in its audience is a welcome breath of fresh air, and also a part of what makes the show enjoyable for all ages. But what specifically is it about this series that allows it to so acutely embody such specific and deeply felt emotional qualities?
In short, it’s the world that the show’s creator, Patrick McHale (“Adventure Time”), has painstakingly crafted. The Unknown was inspired heavily by American folklore, lending the series a vaguely colonial aesthetic that incorporates numerous folk legends, from the man-eating Wendigo to dancing scarecrows. The series doesn’t use these oft-obscure references as its cornerstone for emotional resonance, but rather as a background of vague familiarity for anyone who grew up in the American Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. The Unknown feels like a place that we grew up learning about and is inextricably ingrained in our culture; the idea of children lost in the woods is the basis of countless Germanic fairytales, and it’s these narrative traditions — witches living in the woods, people turned into animals and the malevolent “king of darkness” lurking in the shadows — that give rise to the quaint Americana that has shaped our culture, and are recited to children in bedrooms across the country.
But it’s not just the world of the series that makes it so effective. Greg and Wirt are outsiders in The Unknown in both a spatial and a temporal sense (it’s implied the boys are living in the 1970s). This far more recent time period, not brought into the series until the penultimate episode, is the emotional anchor of the show because it carries the audience into this world alongside the two brothers. The problems that preoccupy Wirt throughout the series — an unrequited crush, a step-dad who doesn’t seem to get him and an annoying younger brother — call back to a bygone time in many of our lives, a time of creeping into graveyards with our friends on Halloween, of stadium lights over a high school football field, of nervously trying to figure out who you are. The series asks us to simultaneously step into this adolescent world (one we have left behind) and this historical world (one we never actually knew). This poignant combination evokes the ambiguous in-between feeling of fall, and the series is appropriately set in the brisk days leading to wintertime.
From its soundtrack to its art style, everything about “Over the Garden Wall” seems to reflect wistfully on the inevitability of change and transition. In the opening moments of the first episode, the narrator informs the viewer: “Somewhere, lost in the clouded annals of history lies a place that few have seen. A mysterious place called The Unknown.” By its conclusion, the series seems to suggest that The Unknown is not so much a place, but a state within each of us; one of metamorphosis, where we exist as we cease to be one thing and begin to become another. It’s the place where we push ourselves out of the stasis and familiarity of the world we know, where we discover the promise and opportunity that change brings to those brave enough to climb over the garden wall.