In the words of Lemony Snicket: I’m sorry to say that this article you are reading is extremely unpleasant. It is my sad duty to write this unpleasant article, but there is nothing stopping you from closing this tab at once and reading something happy if you prefer that sort of thing.
In Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) tells the dreadful tale of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith), who recently lost their parents in a terrible fire and are being pursued by a treacherous villain named Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who is dying to get his greedy hands on their fortune. Visually stunning, delightfully whimsical, and perfectly cast, the series is an adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s (an alias for author Daniel Handler) 13-book children’s series — a much more successful adaptation than the failed 2004 film (sorry, Jim Carrey).
For the average viewer, especially an older viewer, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fun, if repetitive, ride that roughly follows the same formula: The highly intelligent Baudelaires are placed in the care of a completely incapable guardian, Count Olaf finds them and fools the completely incapable guardian with a terrible disguise, chaos ensues, and then the Baudelaires are shipped off to another incapable guardian. It is, quite literally, a series of unfortunate events. But underneath the theatricality, satire, and brilliant original songs, A Series of Unfortunate Events offers something a little deeper than that.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a children’s story, but if you look closer, it is also a surprisingly sophisticated musing on the nature of morality. As a child reading the book series, I saw a trio of kids outsmarting the adults time and time again — the classic “adults are clueless, kids are smart” trope that is so common in children’s literature. I laughed at the complete incompetence of Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) and all the other foolish adults who were, without fail, astounded when it was revealed that (gasp!): it was Count Olaf in a disguise all along!
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a faithful adaptation of the book series. It’s tremendously gloomy. It’s hilariously absurd. It’s wildly theatrical. It’s a faithful portrait of everything I envisioned in my head when I was a child. As an adult watching the series come to life on screen, I still laugh just as heartily as I did then because there’s no question that A Series of Unfortunate Events is rich with an absurd, sardonic wit. But unlike when I was just a child with my nose stuck in a book, cracking up over Count Olaf’s latest disguise, I now also find myself struck by how surprisingly, beautifully introspective the series is as the narrative unfolds.
The final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events in particular explores difficult, complex questions about morality. In “Grim Grotto,” the Baudelaire orphans meet Fiona (Kassius Nelson), the daughter of the missing Captain Widdershins and interim captain of his submarine, the Queequeg. They are horrified to learn that Fiona’s mysterious brother is none other than Fernald, (Usman Ally) Count Olaf’s hook-handed henchman. While the Baudelaires have started to question the nature of nobleness and treachery after they were forced to make some questionable decisions of their own, their confrontation with Fernald is perhaps their greatest moral conflict yet.
Up until this point, the Baudelaires have based all their decisions and their beliefs on the black and white ideology that there are noble people (their parents, the Snickets), and there are villainous people (Count Olaf, Esme). But Fernald forces them to face the reality that there is always more than one side to the story. Fernald, a former V.F.D. apprentice of Anwhistle Aquatics, burnt down the Anwhistle Aquatics headquarters when he learned that Gregor Anwhistle was doing dangerous research on Medusoid Mycelium, a poisonous mushroom he planned to use on their enemies.
The Baudelaires have trouble reconciling the fact that Fernald did a wicked thing, even if it was for a noble reason. Fernald then says what captures the heart of what A Series of Unfortunate Events is really about: Can a person be both noble and villainous? And if so, then where do you draw the line? When does doing something wicked for a noble reason just not cut it? He says, in a classic Snicket fashion, “People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped up and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
The Baudelaires have also done wicked things for noble reasons, which is something they have to confront during the trial in “Penultimate Peril.” It seems like perhaps the Baudelaires have finally found a safe place where they can tell their side of the story after being unfairly persecuted at every turn by foolish adults who fall for Count Olaf’s schemes. But as Lemony Snicket tells us, there is no happiness in this story. When the Baudelaires call Count Olaf to the stand, he flippantly admits to all of his crimes. (Of course, we know later that he’s not worried because the man with a beard but no hair and the woman with hair but no beard are the two mysterious members of the court.) But unlike the Baudelaires, he says, he doesn’t pretend to be noble.
Suddenly, the tables are turned when Olaf reminds them of the wicked things they’ve done, like burning down Caligari Carnival or stealing Hal’s (David Alan Grier) key and breaking into the hospital’s Library of Records. Any viewer with a conscience knows the Baudelaires are victims, and they were forced to make difficult decisions in order to survive. But the Baudelaires are suddenly not so sure. They plead innocent “enough.” Now they have to face the very thing they accused Fernald of: When is it okay to do a wicked thing for a noble reason?
The Baudelaires learn a horrible lesson during the trial that is painfully applicable nowadays: the justice system will often let you down. Victims are painted as villains; villains are painted as heroes. Good people let you down, and safe places aren’t always safe. It’s a harsh, terrible truth for anyone watching, adults and children alike.
At the end of “Penultimate Peril,” the Baudelaires choose to set fire to the Hotel Dénouement so that the occupants (who are, again, completely useless) evacuate before Count Olaf can release the Medusoid Mycelium. Setting a fire in A Series of Unfortunate Events is the most unforgivable offense, but the Baudelaires are doing it for the noblest of reasons: to save innocents. Of course, every adult they try to warn about the fire acts like a complete fool, as expected. We can safely assume that everyone in that hotel perished in that fire that the Baudelaires themselves set in motion. Now that is dark for a kids’ series.
As the Baudelaires escape with Count Olaf, they are plagued by guilt, wondering if it was right to fight fire with fire, literally and figuratively. Their moral compass says what they’ve done is wicked; but is it really that simple?
Count Olaf, for example, is one of the most wicked villains in any children’s series. He tries to marry Violet, a 14-year-old girl, so he can obtain her fortune; he threw Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard) to the leeches; he threw a very brave and noble librarian into a pit of lions. But even Count Olaf has brief moments of moral clarity. In “Penultimate Peril,” the Baudelaires step in front of Dewey Denouement (Max Greenfield) before Count Olaf can shoot him with his harpoon gun. As Olaf tentatively gives them to the count of ten to get out of his way, he wavers. The Baudelaires slowly walk toward him and remind him that he doesn’t have to do this. And then, in perhaps the first time in the whole series, Count Olaf appears conflicted, and maybe even a little defeated. He lowers his harpoon gun and with a regretful slump of his shoulders, says, “It’s all I know how to do.”
Later, we learn that it isn’t in fact all he knows how to do since Olaf was originally on the “good” side of the schism — but after Beatrice (Morena Baccarin) accidentally kills his father with a poison dart, making him an orphan, he does what any person facing a tragic loss would do and decides to turn his back on the people who inflicted that loss. As he says to Ish (Peter MacNicol), the founder of V.F.D, “You took a plucky schoolboy and made him think that books and poetry and learning would keep him safe. Well, they didn’t. Every parent figure I’ve ever had has either let me down or died.”
Having lost someone obviously doesn’t excuse any of Olaf’s treacherous deeds, but it does bring the concept of good and evil into focus in a way that many kids’ shows do not. In the final episode of the series, appropriately titled “The End,” Count Olaf performs one act of kindness before his demise and carries a pregnant Kit (Allison Williams), his lost love, to shore so that her baby will live. Before he dies, he does something shocking. Count Olaf, a proud anti-intellectual, starts to recite a poem to Kit, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” They recite the poem together, and it’s a bittersweet reminder of the life Olaf used to have before the schism, a man who lived in a world that valued literature and art, who then felt betrayed by that world.
His final words — an excerpt from “This Be the Verse” by poet Philip Larkin — are, “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.” It seems like strange parting words, but it makes perfect sense for Olaf, who was yet another person caught up in the cycle of violence, heartbreak, and death that comes with V.F.D. In the end, the Baudelaires are the ones who have the chance to finally break that cycle with Kit’s child, Beatrice the II.
Lemony Snicket told us that this story has no happy endings, and it does seem that way in some respects. In the end, the Baudelaires are essentially alone, no guardian, no adults because they’ve all let them down. But the Baudelaires do get a happy ending with Beatrice. They will be her guardians, and they will break the cycle by teaching her that the world is not as simple as heroes and villains, nobility and treachery. The truth is somewhere in between.