I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (2024)

I Saw the TV Glow has the kind of ending that sends people running to the internet looking for explainers and conversation — not because they didn’t understand it, exactly, but because they don’t necessarily believe what they just saw. Jane Schoenbrun’s follow-up to 2022’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a dark movie: dark in the visuals, since so much of it takes place in queasy late-night spaces and dim, muddy interiors, and dark in the narrative specifics, which are not designed to comfort or coddle the viewers. This is not a feel-good film with a pat, heartwarming ending.

But it is a film that seems designed to get under viewers’ skins, and leave them examining their lives and their choices. Schoenbrun invites people to take any lingering discomfort that comes out of the end of the movie, and go do something with it. It’s a call to action, though what exactly “action” means is left wide open. Schoenbrun has a specific intention in mind, but the metaphor here is also broad enough that anyone watching this movie can wrap it tightly around their own lives and their own bodies until it fits for them.

[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for I Saw the TV Glow.]

I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (1) Image: A24/Everett Collection

The movie follows many years in the life of Owen (Ian Foreman in his younger years, Justice Smith thereafter), a hesitant, socially awkward kid who clearly struggles to relate to other people, at school and at home. When he meets hostile, disconnected Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), he manages a tentative connection with her by sharing her fandom for a late-night TV show about teenagers Isabel and Tara, who fight the world’s darkest, most evil forces with their powerful psychic connection. (The show, The Pink Opaque, was inspired in part by Schoenbrun’s childhood obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Eventually, Maddy runs away from home and disappears without a trace, while Owen trudges from high school to early adulthood without shedding any of his adolescent awkwardness. Maddy returns eight years later to tell him she’s been inside the show — from her perspective, Owen and Maddy are Isabel and Tara in The Pink Opaque, but they were captured by their enemies and buried alive, their hearts cut out and stuffed in a refrigerator.

Maddy says she escaped and rediscovered her true identity as Tara, but back in the real world, where time runs differently, Isabel is still buried, and the vision she’s been forced into — the false identity as Owen — will soon end when they both die. Maddy wants Owen to accept this, and go through the dangerous, deadly-sounding ritual she endured to wake herself up.

I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (2) Image: A24/Everett Collection

For viewers, Maddy’s version of reality is likely to sound much more compelling than Owen’s. It’s a classic escapist fantasy: “This boring life we’re living isn’t real. We’re actually heroes from another world, with superpowers, and a mission to save the world.” But the route to get there is so dark and frightening — Maddy literally wants Owen to let her seal him in a coffin and bury him alive — that he rejects it and resists her. And that’s understandable, too. Maddy’s story could also be interpreted as a dangerous, paranoid delusion, and her solution sounds potentially fatal. Schoenbrun doesn’t pull punches about this particular call to adventure: There’s no clear evidence that Maddy isn’t unintentionally luring Owen into joint suicide. There’s no overt evidence that anything she’s saying is true.

Schoenbrun has been clear about seeing all of this as a trans coming-out story. Within the Pink Opaque narrative, Owen’s authentic self is female. He has periodic visions or dreams, quick flashes where he’s in the Pink Opaque setting as himself, but wearing Isabel’s dress. Maddy wants to take him on a journey to find his real body and his true identity as Isabel, but the path to get there will be painful and take real commitment.

Owen recoils from it, refuses to accept Maddy’s revelations, and chooses to stay in his old life. Even though the Pink Opaque narrative haunts him, he takes the passive route, muddling through his existing life and claiming that it’s gratifying, that he’s found peace, family, and contentment there.

Ahead of the movie’s wide release, Schoenbrun talked to Polygon about that kind of passivity, and about feeling it’s a familiar part of the trans experience:

I think that kind of “passivity” feels inherently tied to an experience that I — and I think many other trans folks — can relate to on a deeply visceral level. It indicates exactly how our ideas about what proper narrative or progress is is not only woefully limited in the experiences it’s showing, but also like maybe by definition, masculine and cis. [It’s] reflective of an idea of agency and individual agency that doesn’t resonate with other experiences, like my own. And so I am trying to rewrite or call into question or challenge or simply just like, exist within alternative ideas of narrative structure, to express something that feels emotionally truthful to my experience in the world.

Schoenbrun clearly feels sympathy for Owen’s dilemma, and for his uncertainty about redefining himself as someone else. At the same time, though, the director repeatedly suggests that Owen is lying to himself. While he defends himself to the audience by saying he built a family of his own and that he loves them, we never see them or hear any details about them. They never seem real, and even their existence might be a hallucination or an outright lie. As Owen continues to reject Maddy’s version of the truth, years blur by for him, with no sense of grounding or connection in the reality he’s chosen.

I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (3) Image: A24/Everett Collection

Toward the end of the movie, he’s clearly stuck in an unsatisfying place in life, surrounded by unpleasant people and working at an unfulfilling job. In two of the movie’s most vividly painful moments, he screams that he’s dying and he pleads for help, but no one around him hears him or sees his distress. Then he cuts his own chest open, and sees the staticky glow of the TV screen inside. As Schoenbrun explained it to Entertainment Weekly:

After half a lifetime of resistance, when Owen finally sees that glow inside himself — and to do so, he literally has to open himself up and see the heart that’s been taken from him, and see that it’s been replaced by this signal that could be something beautiful, but also carries the ambivalence and sinister nature of the emptiness of glow; the thing that it is representing what isn’t there inside him. This was my attempt to capture the ambivalence and overwhelming joy and possibility, but also things that feel sinister and terrifying about an egg crack — the moment when, as a queer or trans person, you understand that you aren’t yourself and that you need to become something else to conjure that magic that was maybe there in childhood and maybe there in these other moments in life.

Even faced with this visible, obvious sign that his chosen mundane reality has cracks in it, though, Owen still doesn’t take that next step. He closes up his chest and goes back to his work in a shrill, dark, oppressive arcade — and he humbly apologizes to everyone he encounters, embarrassed about that outburst that no one else saw, remembers, or cares about.

It’s a horrifying sequence: He’s living out a series of intense private agonies and doubts, and instead of giving those doubts space, he’s muffling them for the sake of all the utterly indifferent people around him. Instead of examining the source of his terror and trying to find a solution, he begs for forgiveness from absolute strangers, out of anxiety that his impending death might have impinged on their fun. It’s hard to say which is more horrifying: his humility and humiliation, or everyone else’s apathy and inability to even see his pain.

I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (4) Image: Spencer Pazer/Everett Collection

It’s a dark, sad ending — there is no rescue coming for Owen, no sudden breakthrough where Maddy saves him in spite of himself, or where the world of The Pink Opaque sends him even clearer proof that he’s on the wrong track and needs to reverse course. The message is clear enough: No one can force Owen to find his own identity or his own satisfaction in life. No one can make his choices for him, or tell him who he really is.

But while the ending is heavy and painful for Owen — and, if we accept Maddy’s version of events, for Isabel — it has a clear purpose beyond scaring, startling, and saddening viewers. It’s a reminder that not making choices is a form of choice — one we have to live with, one that has consequences. It’s a vibrant call to action, and a warning about how passivity and fear can be their own kind of living death. Watching Owen “decay,” as Schoenbrun puts it, is tragic and alarming — and seemingly meant to show viewers the repercussions of holding still in their lives, of refusing to confront or examine their own questions about themselves. Owen isn’t a classic hero, he’s a cautionary tale about self-repression.

Does that mean The Pink Opaque is real, Isabel is real, Owen is trans, and there’s only one possible way forward for him that doesn’t lead to suffocation and death? Not necessarily. Schoenbrun doesn’t leave him another obvious way out of his oppressive life, but given that he never seems to seek one, or to discuss his feelings of unreality and emptiness with anyone but Maddy, it seems that his inertia and willingness to live in apologetic misery are the problems, not just his refusal to be buried alive. He’s afraid to even explore his feelings with Maddy herself, both as a young man and an old one. He finds it safer to be stuck — and to be baffled, sad, and lonely — than to take action. And Schoenbrun shows us all the consequences of that decision.

That metaphor certainly isn’t limited to coming out as queer, or trans. Schoenbrun is reflecting a personal experience and a personal feeling, one that some trans viewers certainly identify with. But Owen’s withering, shrinking life is a memorable image for anyone facing similar questions about who they are, who they want to be, and whether they can find a way to that future by exploring their options and choosing change. His story doesn’t ever find a happy ending. But it’s an emotional, heartfelt plea to anyone watching I Saw the TV Glow to go do the frightening work of seeking out one for themselves.

I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful call to action — any action (2024)
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