The heartbreaking end of ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ explained

The heartbreaking end of ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ explained

I Saw the TV Glow doesn’t have the blood and guts typical of the horror genre. No, what it does have is far more terrifying than any machete or chainsaw-wielding maniac.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, the genre film is an unrepentant and harrowing allegory for the trans experience. I Saw the TV Glow follows two teens, Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who bond over a cult television series in the ‘90s. The series within the movie is called “The Pink Opaque,” and is heavily coded to reflect shows of the era, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The television show centers around two girls, Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan) who, after meeting at a sleepaway camp, develop a psychic link and battle the forces of darkness together.

The film delves into how two people can become trauma-bonded when it seems that only a television series can understand you. That in itself would be a moving film, but I Saw the TV Glow then goes on to question the nature of Owen and Maddy’s reality. After Maddy disappears without a trace, “The Pink Opaque” mysteriously gets canceled, and Owen spirals into the darkness of mundane society. When Maddy returns 8 years later, she posits that “The Pink Opaque” wasn’t just a television series but perhaps could have been their true reality. Lundy-Paine spoke to CBR about the inherent themes present in the story.

“I think it’s always been a trans story. For me, I think from the beginning, when I first met Jane, we talked about what the story meant. And I think it’s cool because the root of it is what it means to be trans and what it means to blow up your life and choose to transition or choose to not.” 

These themes are integral to understanding the devastating and abrupt ending of I Saw the TV Glow.

What happens at the end of I Saw the TV Glow?

I Saw the TV Glow doesn’t contain dramatic calls to action or a rising climax. In true A24 fashion, the film is thought-provoking and culminates in a startling and heartbreaking end. When Maddy returns after almost a decade gone, Owen is desperate to know where she’s been. But once he learns the truth, he prefers that he hasn’t. Maddy posits that “The Pink Opaque” felt so real to them, particularly because it was. She instructs Owen to watch the series finale in hopes that he will understand. Owen watches in despair as Tara and Isabel have a tragic ending.

In the final episode, they lose the battle against the series-long Big Bad, Mr. Melancholy. He traps both the girls and removes their hearts before burying them alive. For the entirety of the film, Owen has been grappling with the sense that something is wrong with him. He tells Maddy that he feels empty and that if he opened himself up, he would be empty inside. This fact, along with his life-long asthma, makes him understand that he is Isabel. After drugging Isabel with Luna Juice and burying them, Mr. Melancholy sends Isabel and Tara into the Midnight Realm, a reality of unending torment where they live other people’s lives. 

Maddy came to this realization and buried herself alive in this reality, which allowed her to travel back to her true self as Tara in “The Pink Opaque.” But even when confronted with all this evidemce, Owen refuses to return to the television world with her. He doubles down on his life of torment, no matter how terrible it is.

For the next 20 years, he continues to work in an arcade where he gets a family and endures his breathing problems — a clear sign that Isabel is still suffocating in “The Pink Opaque.” Only later in life does he snap. In the middle of a child’s birthday party, he screams that he’s dying, finally coming to terms with the understanding he is in the wrong body and living the wrong life. 

He excuses himself to the bathroom, where he uses a box cutter to slice open his chest. He pulls apart the skin to reveal exactly what we all knew was true. Inside, he doesn’t have a heart but a glowing television, revealing the reality he is supposed to be in. The final shot of the film ends as Owen walks through the arcade, all sewn back up, apologizing to everyone for his outburst.

What does it all mean — I Saw the TV Glow’s stars weigh in

While the ending of I Saw the TV Glow may inspire many interpretations, one thing is certain. Schoenbrun wrote a personal film reflecting the pain and specific experiences of the trans experience. Lundy-Paine spoke to CBR about their take on the film.

“It’s like, finally people, trans people specifically feel like they’re not being lied to, or like corralled into saying, ‘But it’s all going to be okay.’ This is a movie that lets you feel like it’s not okay, and that’s really meaningful.”

Owen spends his life struggling with his identity, literally because he is not in his correct body. He is forced to live a false experience, not given the option of anything else. The Midnight Realm is an allegory for how struggles with gender identity can manifest and how many are forced into silence. Owen endures hateful rhetoric from his Midnight Realm father (Fred Durst), who does not allow him to return to his true form. Smith added to Lundy-Paine’s comments, adding his experience in how he related to the film.

“I feel like there is this like congruency between the way marginalized identities experience the world, you know, being a Black person and a queer person. I know the constant choice that I have to make in between, you know, suffering in silence or suffering in the open. What I mean by that is that when you hide bits of yourself, because you spend time you spend so much time assimilating, it causes you pain. It causes you emotional pain, but sometimes physical pain.”

Smith concluded even when people try to live as authentically as possible, there is not always a victory in that either. Society is an unaccepting place, and trans people who try to live as their true selves are not always accepted. This fact is represented most significantly when Owen walks back into the arcade and apologizes to every single person he sees for his outburst. The film posits that the trans community must apologize for simply existing in a cruel world. While some interpretations may point to the look of relief on Owen’s face when he finally opens himself up to see the truth, the ending seems to point in a dour direction. Owen still has breathing issues and does not appear to be taking steps to reunite himself with his real body. 

Maddy tells Owen earlier that Isabel has time before she dies, but not infinite time. The film doesn’t make it clear exactly how long the realities will allow her to live, and it creates an impression that Owen could die sooner rather than later. But as Smith points out, it is not easy to accept your true self and present that person to the world. Acceptance is not always a straight line, because, tragically, the world is not accepting of trans people. This reality makes the ending even more heartbreaking. Even if Owen decides to return to “The Pink Opaque,” it will never be an easy journey.  I Saw the TV Glow is thought-provoking, but more important, representative of many experiences that have not been portrayed on screen before. Schoenbrun’s film is, without a doubt, the most significant piece of art so far in 2024.

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