I Saw the TV Glow Plot Explained - The True Meaning of the Movie

By Tom Drew Posted:
Justice Smith as Owen, I Saw the TV Glow, Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy

I Saw the TV Glow stunned critics and general audiences alike, but there are still aspects of its heady plot that require some explaining.

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun, the A24 film stars Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine as two teenagers who connect over a mysterious series called The Pink Opaque

After one of them goes missing and the show is abruptly canceled, questions arise as to whether there is something more to The Pink Opaque than meets the eye.

With I Saw the TV Glow now available on digital platforms, many are left wondering just what the meaning behind the movie's themes is and whether The Pink Opaque is in fact real.

What Happens in I Saw the TV Glow? Plot Explained

Owen and Maddy Bond Over The Pink Opaque

Helena Howard as Isabel in I Saw the TV Glow

I Saw the TV Glow commences in 1996, where Justice Smith's Owen meets Brigette Lundy-Paine's Maddy during an election night at their high school. Owen notices the book that she is reading: an episode guide for the show The Pink Opaque.

The young adult horror series revolves around teenagers Isabel and Tara, who share a psychic bond and battle monsters every week as the mischievous Mr. Melancholy lurks behind the scenes as the overarching villain. For those familiar, it gives major Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibes. 

As the show airs past his bedtime, Owen sneaks out to Maddy's place to watch it live and falls in love with the story that unfolds before him. 

In 1998, Maddy is now sneaking tapes with reruns of The Pink Opaque to Owen, due to him still being prevented from watching the show late at night and the shame he feels over his father's opinion of it, who writes it off as being "for girls." 

Justice Smith as Owen in I Saw the TV Glow

Eventually, Owen asks Maddy if he can come over to watch the show as it airs again. 

Weirded out, Maddy insists that she's into girls, but Owen insists that he wasn't making the suggestion in a romantic context. When pressed on whether he's into girls or guys, he simply settles on the fact that he likes TV shows.

He then opens up to her about a feeling he gets: a feeling that someone has removed his insides and the inability to look within himself and recognize that there's nothing there. Maddy offers an explanation, saying that Owen is like Isabel in that he is afraid of what's inside of him.

After an emotional viewing of the latest Pink Opaque installment, Maddy decides that she's going to skip town out of fear that if she remains, she will die. She asks Owen to join her and draws a pink ghost symbol on the back of Owen's neck; the same one that connects Isabel and Tara in The Pink Opaque

Owen is too anxious to leave with Maddy, who leaves. That same week, The Pink Opaque is mysteriously canceled after Season 5, and a month later, Owen's mother succumbs to her illness.

I Saw the TV’s Glow’s initial moments set up two of its driving themes: people’s attachment to media and fear of acceptance.

Owen is presented as saying that he simply likes television series, though this obsession seems to prevent him from confronting the inner struggles that he admits to be facing. It’s much safer and easier for him to lose himself in a TV show; to escape reality by surrounding oneself within a world with easily defeated monsters and hokey B-plots about character relations.

And while Owen is fearful of accepting whatever is within himself, Maddy is fearful of gaining acceptance from those around her. Her worry of being killed isn’t just out of nowhere; it’s a real fear that many LGBTQ+ individuals face just for being themselves and Maddy reflects this reality through her desire to leave her old life behind.

The Pink Opaque's Season 5 Finale Explained

Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy in I Saw the TV Glow

Eight years later in 2006, Owen now works at a movie theater. During one of his shifts, he walks in on one of his co-workers, Dave, having sex with a woman and quickly leaves. On one of their breaks, Dave suggests that Owen should have sex with the woman, saying that she is interested in him.

Afterward, Owen heads to a grocery store, where he is reunited with Maddy, who is sporting a new look that makes her look much more androgynous. She brings him to a bar that she deems safe: Double Lunch, a location that also happens to be in The Pink Opaque (and hey, Phoebe Bridgers is there!).

Maddy asks Owen how he remembers the show that they watched together. The scene briefly cuts to a flashback of Owen trying on a bright pink dress and showing it to Maddy. She simply smiles. 

Owen grins too, happy with how he feels while wearing the gown. In the present, Maddy tells Owen that she's been inside The Pink Opaque; she's been part of the show itself. She then urges him to remember the last episode and to meet her at their old high school the following evening.

Helena Howard as Isabel in I Saw the TV Glow

Previously on The Pink Opaque, the Season 5 finale shows Isabel and Tara being captured by Mr. Melancholy and his lackeys Marco and Polo. 

The moon-headed villain indicates that Isabel will be trapped in his Midnight Realm, showing her a snow globe with shots of Owen as a child. Isabel is fed Luna Juice to slowly kill her, has her heart removed, and is buried alive.

In real life, Owen is mortified by what he has watched, prompting him to smash his head into the television screen. His father pulls him away and washes himself off, while Owen screams in dismay over his dad not being his real father and the world around not being his home.

So what do Maddy's revelations and The Pink Opaque actually mean? I Saw the TV Glow acts as an allegory for the trans experience, specifically the "egg crack" where a trans person realizes that their gender identity does not match their assigned gender.

Up to this point, the movie has slowly hinted at Owen's transness in subtle ways, such as his interest in media conventionally aimed at girls, Maddy's indication that he is similar to Isabel about his fears of his inner self (essentially, fear of accepting his own gender identity), and the scenes of him comfortably wearing a dress.

The Pink Opaque takes this metaphor further, presenting Isabel as Owen's true self, a confident and beautiful woman who goes on kickass adventures with her best pal. Isabel/Owen is denied this by Mr. Melancholy, however, as they are forced to live a life under an identity that they do not belong in.

The Tragedy of I Saw The TV Glow's Ending

Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy/Tara in I Saw the TV Glow, Star constellations and respective Greek figures

After meeting at the school, Maddy finally explains where she's been for the past near-decade. After moving to Phoenix, Arizona, and getting a job at Build-A-Bear, her life fell into monotony and the years started reeling in oddly quickly.

She eventually asked someone to bury her alive, which led to her waking up in The Pink Opaque as Tara. 

She tried to find where Isabel was buried too but was unable to locate her, leading her to return to Mr. Melancholy's Midnight Realm to save Isabel and return her to her true self. This would require Owen burying himself just as Maddy did to escape the villain's clutches and commence Season 6 together. 

Owen is terrified by the prospect and runs back home, never to see Maddy again. Despite his decision to stay, he can't help but think whether there was truth to Maddy's words and if there was someone "beautiful and powerful" that he was meant to be.

The years start coming and they don't stop coming for Owen as he quickly ages. His father dies, and he finds that The Pink Opaque is now conveniently streaming online. 

Watching the show back, he comes to realize that it is much different to how he remembered it as a kid, with completely different actors in the roles and a much more childish tone. He gets a new job at an indoor amusement park, which he remains at for the next 20 years.

He finds it harder to breathe due to his asthma, echoing the haunting imagery of Isabel being buried alive. After a breakdown during a child's birthday party, he escapes to a bathroom and finally decides to open himself up to look inside -- something he was so afraid to do 30 years ago. 

Inside themself is a glowing TV screen, which Owen chuckles at in glee. Following their discovery, they hastily walk back through the arcade, apologizing to guests and co-workers for their earlier outburst and blaming it on new medication.

Justice Smith as Owen in I Saw the TV Glow

I Saw the TV Glow's plot ends on a bittersweet note, reflecting a reality that many trans people go through. Maddy's plea to take Owen to The Pink Opaque to become his true self as Isabel is representative of a person who has come out or transitioned imploring a trans person to do the same for the betterment of their life. Maddy/Tara has found her true self and wants Owen/Isabel to feel the same joy as she does.

Ultimately though, Owen is unable to accept their transness until much later in life, which is further signified by their breathlessness that evokes them feeling trapped -- the same entrapment that Isabel is experiencing being literally pushed down beneath mounds and mounds of earth.

Owen finally deciding to look inward and literally seeing the light is beautiful in that they are finally taking steps to accept themself but tragic in that they were so fearful of this self-acceptance until all these years later.

The way in which Owen is still wheezing at the end of the movie could convey how they are still not ready to come out to the rest of the world. This leaves the ending relatively vague and open-ended, unclear as to whether Owen will actually act upon their realizations at the end of the movie. 

Director Jane Schoenbrun spoke on the ending herself, offering that it was more hopeful than the final moments let on and that "at least he's closer to who he truly is."

Whichever way viewers interpret the closing scene, I Saw the TV Glow presents a beautiful portrayal of grappling with one's sense of self and acts as a call to those who may be experiencing something similar to recognize that they deserve to feel safe in their gender identity.

I Saw the TV Glow is now available on digital.  

- About The Author: Tom Drew
Tom Drew is the Executive Editor at The Direct. Tom writes for The Direct's Marvel, Star Wars, and DC branches while specializing in all things movies, from blockbuster to indie darlings.