Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Created by Patrick McHale
“Led through the mist, By the milk-light of moon, All that was lost, is revealed”
What have we lost, and how is it going to be revealed? If it’s something we once had, then it must be something we’re familiar with, surely? What will it mean when we find it again? Nostalgia in politics speaks to something being lost, and appeals to our desire to return to some home that never was. It is tempting to shut it out given the obvious nationalistic and white supremacist forms that it takes, but it is clear that there has been some major disruption, something lost, that has lead to these misguided and destructive conclusions. It is frightening that this pain is being channeled into a toxic nostalgia, and that the horrors of the past seem to be returning with it. Over the Garden Wall is one of the first noteworthy nostalgic major cartoons released since Ren & Stimpy revolutionised the format decades earlier through making the past strange. Its rhythms and moods could be mistaken for a one-off gag in a contemporary show like Adventure Time, but the punchline never comes. Two minutes in and it’s obviously sincere. Is Over the Garden Wall rejecting contemporary cartoons in order to fetishise the past we ‘lost’?
“Dancing in a swirl, Of golden memories, The loveliest lies of all”
Of course not, but it’s interesting to see how it indulges ‘golden memories’ and underscores the idea of moving on. Over the Garden Wall has a rare generosity of spirit that makes it feel longer than one hundred minutes, in part because of each episodes’ richness, and in part because it is all so dense with familiarity. The narrator tells us that we are journeying into The Unknown which is a misnomer given that the show draws on things written, drawn, sung hundreds of years ago but which we call forth to enjoy in our own time. It is not Unknown but hyper-familiar. There is a sense here that the past does not go away and that we need it in the future, and that art is the trigger and the process of both remembering and reimagining.
This is not paradoxical- modernism’s ‘most important’ work Ulysses contains prose that still seems revolutionary to the present day reader, through in large part drawing on the entire history of literature and setting its words and figures in its own ‘present’. Exclusive rather than inclusive, the Pre-Raphaelites got British art out of stasis by forcing themselves to forget the three hundred years of painting that came before them. Over the Garden Wall does not reject its contemporaries (although sometimes it seems to), and rather than taking on the form of liquid as does Ulysses, it clearly delineates past from future in the form of the garden wall. For Over the Garden Wall, remembering is a creative possibility rather than a passive one- we change and our memories change with us.
“We can’t stay here forever”
Over the Garden Wall‘s hyper-familiar Unknown makes our hearts sing and stretch for ‘the loveliest lies’, those ‘golden memories’ of when the sun was warm and the days were long and everything was an adventure until we wanted safety and then danger fell away and there’d be home right there. It openly achieves this through evoking many sights and sounds that we associate with history, or the past that was. History alone is data, like a book waiting to be read or in BioShock Infinite, a theme park ride with nobody there to ride it. Locating a rememberer to inhabit this mechanism and make it exist means creating a present that is (here Wirt and Greg). Like BioShock Infinite‘s theme park we understand that this is artificial- ‘the loveliest lies of all’ are presented as just that, lies. The past is not preserved but reinterpreted, and its past-ness contains hallmarks of the now. Its digital look is pronounced in the character models which again seem like an Adventure Timegag, but it takes on an uncanny feeling with the backgrounds which are almost painterly but not quite.
Why can’t we just stay here? Because we change, and ‘here’ changes with us. Over the Garden Wall begins and ends with the same vignettes set to music which might lead us to believe that its time is circular- endless repetitions with different subjects to bare witness. The key is change within the cycle.
“You sound uncharacteristically wistful”
The miniseries contains and evokes nostalgia, but it is not a strictly nostalgic work. Nostalgia is understood and experienced in any number of different ways, but in its simplest form it is the longing for a home that never existed. One of its toxic forms is predicated on the belief that the future can’t and won’t be as good as the (imagined) past. On an individual level we fabricate our memories as our bodies fade away, and on a social and political level we resort to barbarism as a way of expressing dismay over what has been lost. On the one hand the past is less scary than an uncertain future because we’ve already seen it, but on the other hand the past is actually horrifying.
Over the Garden Wall lives and breathes melancholy, which makes sense because ‘melancholy’ comes loaded into ‘wistful’. Nothing in the world is fixed, and the rememberer changes as she rewrites her memories. Try as we might to document and preserve the past (we can even build museums, theme parks, and simulation villages), the thinking/remembering subject will always take something new from what she sees. It goes both ways- Wirt attempts to pass through histories that he thinks are dead and fixed, but the figures of the past call out You can’t do that!
BioShock Infinite dramatises toxic political nostalgia when the player encounters theme park monuments to national excellence in the museum (the holder of national identity and grand narratives). The player is distressed by them, and ends up peering behind the curtains to see the human cost of maintaining the illusion. These nationalistic appeals to nostalgia either forget past atrocities or view them as a necessary condition of a return to ‘greatness’. ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ We can’t just pass through and ignore the barbarism- our responsibility to the future lies in remembering the past. The cycle repeats itself, but differently- we need to ensure that it gets better and not worse.
“Where have we come, and where shall we end?”
In this hopeful image we have the past being critically reexamined by a present that is always coming into being. The preserved past is an impossibility but acknowledging this does not mean to confirm the fears of the chronically nostalgic. In their estimation if the past is not preserved then it is rundown and abandoned, not just dead and buried but left out and mocked by time itself, the wasteland pushing up against its borders and taking over. We can understand how frightening this must be, but the mistake is in considering the future as a wasteland.
Over the Garden Wall‘s picture of time can never atrophy- it is reflexive and ever-shifting. When Wirt and Greg wake up there is no question that it all happened, had happened before, and will happen again, differently. The books and paintings and songs that Over the Garden Wall draws on contain recent and ancient histories, all of which we recognise, and all of which change as we revisit and remember them. And like these works, it is made to be rewatched and remembered over and over again, never existing in some fixed state, and never meaning the same thing twice. Like Wirt and Greg we check in when we feel we need to, wanting to learn something that will matter, and the frog starts singing and we find exactly that.