Over the Garden Wall, for everyone who has not yet watched it, is an undiscovered gem. This 10-episode miniseries ran on Cartoon Network in 2014, and tells the story of two brothers wandering through a deep and dark forest called The Unknown, and all of the whimsical, creepy, and odd encounters they have along the way. The series has developed a cult following, has become annual viewing material for many around the autumn season.
Personally, I’ve started pairing this with my other favorite Autumn watch: What We Do in the Shadows. Usually, around this time of year, I write a post about that movie, but I find I’m running out of things to say about it.
All ten of the episodes are only slightly longer than ten minutes, and in that tike they pack an incredible amount of character. Each of the episodes are quite unique, and I was intrigued by the idea of trying to rank all of them. The best episodes of OtGW blend fear, humor, and whimsy, while still forwarding the story of Greg and Wirt trying to find their way home.
So, to start with my tenth favorite…
10. “Mad Love,” Episode 5
And I do mean tenth favorite; there isn’t a single bad episode here. And this is certainly still excellent. When I first watched the series, “Mad Love” was one of my favorites, but this time it fell in my estimation. It lacks a little bit of stakes; Wirt and Greg ostensibly help Quincy Endicott, an old man, investigate his impossibly large mansion to find a feminine specter which haunts the halls; Beatrice, meanwhile, is trying to find two pennies to steal from Quicy to pay Adelaide, who will supposedly help the boys get home. That’s all there are for stakes related to the main story.
But there are a few spooky elements that make this episode worthwhile. The idea of a spectral woman haunting Quicy’s mansion is scary enough to be exciting, and the resolution of it being another rich person who lives in the preposterously large mansion is an amusing enough resolution. And there’s a fair amount of tension between Quicy and the boys – they are trying to steal from him, and he seems unbalanced.
Also, this is the episode where one of my favorite minor characters – Fred, the Horse – has most of his screentime. He has one of the funniest comedic beats of the series. I think he could have become a bigger part of the series, so his presence endears me to this episode.
9. “Songs of the Dark Lantern,” Episode 4
This was my least favorite episode on my last watch through, and this time only narrowly beat “Mad Love.” As far as relevance to the main plot goes, this episode just has a conversation between the Woodsman and the Beast – which is always compelling – and the boys asking for directions – which is not particularly compelling. Altogether, this episode is fine enough.
What bumped this episode up slightly was the appearance of the Highwayman, who interrupts Wirt’s request for directions with a song. I love this short scene. The Highwayman is just one of many characters to inhabit the world of the Unknown that really adds a lot of personality. I’m fascinated by the way he dances; it’s an imitation of an older animation style referred to as “rubber hose” animation. Employing this style of animation for this one particular character shows how topsy-turvy things get here – things are off-kilter and weird in this tavern, and the way this guy moves really shows that.
8. “Schooltown Follies” Episode 3
This episode is cute and fun, and funny. It’s not exactly high-stakes, but it certainly is funny. I love the schoolteacher’s fixation on her significant other, Jimmy. I love the way she assumes that Greg and Wirt should be in the same class as all of the anthropomorphic animals she is teaching (for some reason). I love the fact that the person in the gorilla suit is Jimmy. I love Greg’s iconic song, “Potatoes and Molasses!”
It’s not a crucial episode in the mythos of Over the Garden Wall, so all of these charming elements can only land it in the 8th spot in this ranking.
7. “Babes in the Wood,” Epiosde 8
This episode might be lower on the list in normal circumstances, but on my most recent viewing of the series, this episode really clicked for me. The story that Greg dreams up about being among the clouds and the way this story is juxtaposed with the beginning of the story’s darkest chapter really works in an excellent way. The cloud story is cute, and amusing, but the fact that it might just be a product of the Beast’s influence on the situation gives this dream a subtle, unsettling quality.
Switching from the dream that Greg has in this episode to (ostensibly) real life, where Wirt is being absorbed into the Edelwood Tree and Greg being lured away by the Beast is a heartbreaking way to end an otherwise upbeat episode. It feels like leaving a warm, toasty house in the dead of winter, and exiting into a bitter, cold evening.
6. “Lullaby in Frogland,” Episode 6
I will be honest, the Frogland part of this episode doesn’t do that much for me – the frog passengers on the ship is amusing enough, but for whatever reason, I can never find myself being worried that the boys and Beatrice (and the frog!) will be asked to leave the boat. That makes the episode lack a little bit of tension, at least from my perspective. But what redeems this episode in the first half is Greg’s waffling over what to name his frog, and Beatrice doing her best to convince the boys to actually change course and not seek out Adelaide. Beatrice realizing she’s come to like the boys and suddenly wanting to change course adds a perfect amount of tension to this episode.
But the standout moment from “Lullaby in Frogland” comes towards the end, when we finally encounter Adelaide, who we have heard much about.. This episode has what I would call the second act turning point, in reaching Adelaide and revealing Beatrice’s deceit. While this story doesn’t get truly dark and upsetting until the end of “Babes in the Wood,” this episode puts the show on that trajectory. This encounter lays out the details of Beatrice’s situation; Adelaide has the scissors to lift the curse which made her a bluebird, and in exchange for those scissors, Beatrice promised to bring two children. It’s a cruel betrayal, and an absolute gut punch for those of us who have watched a friendship develop between Wirt and Beatrice over these first six episodes; the fact that she felt guilty enough to try to break her arrangement with Adelaide makes it just a bit more tragic.
Also, geez, the way Adelaide dies after being exposed to the air feels just a bit too graphic for a children’s cartoon.
5. “The Ringing of the Bell,” Episode 7
This series is bolstered by a few terrific guest voices, and one of the most memorable is Tim Curry as Auntie Whispers. One might be inclined to overlook it, because the soothing, lacksadasical quality of Auntie Whispers’ voice doesn’t exactly feel high-energy. But at the same time, the voice Tim Curry does is somber and matronly in a super fascinating way. The final product of Auntie Whispers gives off an energy that is in equal measures kindly and threatening. That energy is what makes the twist in this episode work so terrifically.
The axis that this episode turns on is the audience thinking that Auntie Whispers – who tells Lorna that she cannot receive any visitors or stop working at the risk of becoming “wicked” – is some kind of tyrannical creep. So the objective for Greg and Wirt is to take away the object she has that keeps Lorna under her control. The revelation that Lorna is actually possessed by some ghostly demon, and that Auntie Whispers actually is looking out for her (while admittedly not being parent of the year) manages to be sudden and horrifying. Obviously, that’s the narrative climax and things are resolved fairly quickly after that, but that’s about as involved things can get in a ten-minute episode. But I could hardly ask for anything more! This is such a perfectly structured episode.
4. “The Old Grist Mill,” Episode 1
Pilot episodes always have a tough job, but “The Old Grist Mill” really does a solid enough job of establishing all of the typical things a pilot episode needs. The episode’s story is complete in and of itself, while still leaving room for the story to continue. It introduces the main two characters, characterizes them, and establishes the goal of the series. The looming threat of the Beast is mentioned, providing tension for the story going forward, and an important secondary character is present in the Woodsman. Given the space of 10-minute episodes, Over the Garden Wall‘s storytelling is always efficient; it’s no surprise that their pilot episode is the same way.
In hindsight, this episode doesn’t introduce Beatrice, which feels wrong – she should be here. She’s a significant enough character to the point that on subsequent rewatches her absence in this first episode. The story of this pilot episode doesn’t necessarily feel incomplete without her, but one thinks that if she’s such an important part of the series, they’d find a way to introduce her early on.
And one thing I love about this episode is that after the boys save the dog, they excitedly tell the Woodsman that they’ve defeated the Beast, who ominously informs them that the creature they found was not actually the Beast. This sets an expectation for the rest of the series; there’s a dangerous threat out there in the woods that these boys will likely eventually encounter, something magnitudes more dangerous than the monster they have just defeated.
3. “Into the Unknown,” Episode 9
I might have ranked this episode lower, but I think the placement to it is crucial. If this were placed as it appears chronologically, at the beginning of the series, it would bring the series down. Having it be revealed in the penultimate episode that these wondering kids trying to get home were just from a world ostensibly just like ours, and aren’t accustomed to witches or anthropomorphic frogs or the Beast. Having this flashback episode at the end of the adventure actually
Among stories which float the idea that the whole thing was a dream, there are so few of them that end up pulling it off well. By revealing the context that this might be a dream and that the boys might be dead at this point in the series makes it more impactful than if it had just been given at the beginning. Most of all, as the boys get closer and closer to returning home, I think getting this final glimpse of what they’ll return to is important to grounding the story.
Other than being set in a rather different location, “Into the Unknown” feels consistent with the rest of the series. The story beats that lead us from Wirt trying to express his feelings to Sara up to the boys falling into the Unknown feels incredibly organic. And watching the story unfold between Wirt and Sara, it feels relatively simple and lower stakes compared to any of the haunted encounters in the first eight episodes, but it somehow feels tonally similar, and equally important.
Also, after Wirt hypes up Jason Funderberker in previous conversations, getting to meet him here is one of the great comedic beats of this series.
2. “The Unknown,” Episode 10
If you’ve seen this series, I likely don’t have to outline what makes this such a strong episode. It’s a fitting emotional conclusion to the journey we’ve been on; Wirt and Greg work together, they reconcile with Beatrice, they confront the Beast, they return home, and Wirt expresses his feelings to Sara. The secondary characters also get fitting ends to their story; Beatrice is able to lift the curse on her family and return home, and the Woodsman realizes he’s been duped by the Beast.
This episode has the most screentime for the Beast, who is an incredibly imposing villain. He’s clearly written in the same way as a horror movie monster, with us getting to know fairly little about him, and only getting to see his true form for a fraction of a second. But that’s for the best; he manages to be scary just being a shadowy outline, and he manages to be scary when he is only defined as a dark, malevolent force that feeds off of the ill-fortune of the people in the Unknown. I had mentioned how this series is bolstered by some high-profile voice actors, like Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd, but casting someone who is relatively lesser-known was clearly a good choice. The Beast was voiced by Samuel Ramsey, who I wasn’t familiar with – looking him up, it becomes apparent that he’s better known as an opera singer. It feels fitting to cast an opera singer for a creature with such a hypnotic voice.
This episode is a fitting ending to the broader story. The affection these brothers show for each other, and the genuine horror of the boys confronting the Beast, and the catharsis of the boys returning home – this episode has all the emotional highs and lows the rest of the episodes manage to have. All of the loose ends are tied up, everything that is planted gets a payoff.
To conclude the series, I really love this sequence in which we get to check-in with all of the characters. “Into the Unknown” (by the Blasting Company) is a perfect song for this series – it’s eerie, and sweet – and feels like the perfect soundtrack to bring this series to a close.
1. “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee,” Episode 2
Okay, I know, I know – to this point, I have emphasized the importance of forwarding the main story, and this second episode doesn’t do much of that. But “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” reaches the top of this ranking on the strength of its atmosphere alone. The balance this episode strikes between fear and harmless whimsy, as well as further characterizing our lead protagonists – among other things, Wirt is fretful, Greg is happy and innocent, and Beatrice is focused. I could talk about the fact that this episode has a climactic moment of terror similar to what we see in “The Ringing of the Bell”, when Greg and Wirt dig up the skeletons, but I think that the main appeal of this episode isn’t the character or the plot, but in the aesthetic.
Most of all, this episode delivers on the promise of the series: it’s peak Autumn. It’s got so many things we might associate with the season, either in a cultural sense or a natural sense. Things both good and bad; autumn harvests, bucolic villages, deep forests, pumpkins, festivals, skeletons, fear, death. Autumn is a time for fun celebrations, and a variety of seasonal food or drinks, and harvests, but in nature, Autumn is a time of approaching hardship. Trees die, animals burrow, and landscapes become vibrant in one last flush of color before everything becomes barren. This is the aesthetic background on which this story plays out. The themes of death and the autumn season make it feel so appropriate to have the protagonists encounter these undead Pumpkin skeletons who seem like they want to kill the boys, but really just want to enjoy their festival.
I’m struggling to find the words to express why this episode really works, but I think it’s as simple as this: Over the Garden Wall tells a story in which death is a major theme, and it also uses a lot of Fall aesthetics; Autumn and death go hand-in-hand, so the combination of these two themes feels incredibly natural and incredibly symbiotic. So much of Over the Garden Wall‘s legacy is its strength as a seasonal piece of entertainment, and this is the episode that does it best.
With the amount that I waffled over how to rank these episodes, I could absolutely understand anyone picking literally any other episode as the best or picking it as their favorite. To me, Fall without Over the Garden Wall or “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” feels wrong.
I’d love to hear from you – what’s your favorite episode of Over the Garden Wall?