Jane Schoenbrun explains “I Saw the TV Glow'”s mind-bending ending —“ ”and why the key is in the title

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Owen ends the film with a better idea of who he is, but all alone. Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun breaks down the ending of their psychological thriller.

Warning: The following article contains spoilers about I Saw the TV Glow, now in theaters.

When Jane Schoenbrun's mind-bending trans allegory I Saw the TV Glow ends, we’re left with one big question: Can Owen (Justice Smith) ever embrace his true self?

The surreal, decades-spanning meditation on identity, repression, and self-discovery follows the awkward and insecure teen as he navigates suburban adolescence in the '90s. When he befriends a moody older student named Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), she introduces him to a strange, paranormal late-night TV show called The Pink Opaque. Finding a much-needed escape in the adventures of the Opaque's heroines, Maddy and Owen develop a deep bond, opening up to each other about their daily struggles and desires. The show feels so real to them that, over time, they begin to suspect they might have a supernatural connection to its characters and each other. Maddy's sudden disappearance after the show's finale only fuels Owen's paranoia, but ultimately, he abandons his journey of self-discovery and settles for a life of self-repression.

Years later, a much older Owen is still wallowing in suburban purgatory, working a sad, lifeless job at a Dave & Buster's knockoff. When he revisits his old VHS tapes of The Pink Opaque, the show is nothing like he remembers. It feels stale and corny, and Owen admits to feeling embarrassed by his previous fandom. As the years slip by, he becomes increasingly sickly and miserable until finally, seemingly on the verge of death, Owen gets the courage to look within himself — literally cutting a hole in his chest. When he looks inside, he sees the static glow of the TV emanating from where his heart should be. He seems relieved, though, knowing it was in him all along.

"The film is called I Saw the TV Glow, and, of course, there are a lot of applications of that throughout the film," Schoenbrun tells Entertainment Weekly. The filmmaker wrote the movie at the early stages of their transition, and much of the film serves as an allegory to that experience.

<p>A24</p> Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow'


Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow'

"We're watching a film where characters are watching television many, many times, so they are literally seeing the TV glow," they explain. "And what they see in childhood when the TV glows is like a portal to a place and a reality and an identity. Perhaps even one that feels, as Maddie says, more real than real life and feels more important and vital, and magical. I think, most importantly, this is the place where they're slowly approaching adolescence and adulthood."

They continue, "What we then see happen, though, is repression really sets in; the show is canceled, Maddie disappears, Owens' mother passes away. These three maternal signals that are nurturing him are stripped away. And he begins this deterioration that, of course, tracks him over a long period of time, where he doesn't have the courage to conjure that glow again anywhere except the screen. And now the glow that's coming from the screen feels sinister and limiting. And he feels perhaps trapped. It's almost become this prison, a coping mechanism that's no longer doing the job."

By the end of the movie, Schoenbrun says, "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."

<p>VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty</p> Justice Smith, Jane Schoenbrun, and Brigette Lundy-Paine


Justice Smith, Jane Schoenbrun, and Brigette Lundy-Paine

As Schoenbrun discovered, "conjuring [that magic] inside yourself is going to require a lot of fundamentally intense, unpleasant, terrifying, but hopefully, also liberatory action that is impossible to do externally through a screen. It can only come from inside oneself. So, it was there from the beginning. The film is called I Saw the TV Glow, which is my way of saying, I saw the TV glow inside myself, and it took me almost as long as it took Owen to finally see it. And when I wrote this film, I had only just seen it not that long before."

While writing the script in the early stages of their transition, Schoenbrun says, "I was trying to make a work that could feel incredibly authentic to how that really feels, rather than the kind of Hallmark card, Disney versions of transition that we see in Hollywood films written by cis people who are trying to capture something authentic but are trying to create a shallow version of representation on screen. For me, I was like, even just getting to the beginning [of transitioning], which is where maybe we leave Owen in this film, even if the beginning is writhing and unsure and rife with all of the trauma accumulated from repression and dysphoria and half of a life half lived, that this is still an achievement."

For Schoenbrun, the film's ending was their way of staying true to their "own experience of transitioning, in that to be trans is to be told — and I think to a certain degree, in my case, convinced — that you are an imposter from birth, that the person you know you are and should be is off limits to you, and that you need to protect yourself, and your true identity from all of the people around you. That you essentially have to be apologizing for existing in your authentic self from the beginning of your life."

Just as it takes years for Owen to work up the courage to look inside himself, Schoenbrun knows they have a long road to self-acceptance ahead of them. "This isn't something that happens the moment you see that glow inside you," they add. "In fact, I think it takes years, if not a lifetime, to undo that damage. And to undo it in our case in 2024, in a world where, at best, cis people want to be PC and nice and use the right pronouns but don't see me the way that I want them to, and, at worst, want me dead — it's kind of psychotic, and for the movie to end in any way beyond this, like, fledgling, furtive, maybe a first step that's still rife with trauma and all of the consequences of it, would have felt to me like I wasn't doing my job as an artist."

Owen ends the film closer to becoming his authentic self, but it’s just the beginning. Whether he'll be able to do the work to get there remains unclear, but, as the movie suggests, it's never too late to start looking within.

I Saw the TV Glow is in theaters now.

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