This review contains mild spoilers.
As Netflix’s adaption of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events ends with its third season, it’s time to reflect on the series as a whole. Like many others, I was excited but nervous when it was initially announced. Who would be cast? How would the spirit of the books be retained? I am glad to say I was not disappointed.
Those who are unfamiliar with the books—or a refresher for those who are well-verse—ASOUE follows an alter ego of Snicket who works for an organization known as V.F.D. as he tracks the Baudelaire orphans to discover what has become of them. Retracing the children’s steps as they flee from guardian to guardian pursued by Count Olaf, Snicket provides comic relief by pausing to define words, which is quite helpful for language acquisition in children’s literature. This dark humor from a seemingly impassive narrator, mixed with outlandish characters (such as a baby who can only babble, yet is perfectly understood) became what the series is known for.
In the original novelization of the series, Lemony Snicket acts as a mysterious narrator who is at first unseen. However, in the Netflix series, Snicket is played Patrick Warburton, and the details of his background are compiled from all the ASOUE books to create a fully autonomous character. Snicket is no longer typing out his story to a reader—he is actually addressing the viewer as he goes on the run.
Each of the books are divided up into “chapters” that form every episode. During each chapter of the Baudelaire tale, Snicket is present in the background, to remind the viewer that we are not seeing events as they occur, but as they occurred. He and other characters often break the fourth wall, insisting that we look away because the story is too terrible and full of misfortune. This is one of the most delightful developments of the show, in that giving Lemony’s character full autonomy allows for simultaneous stories to be told— that of the Baudelaires, Snicket’s involvement with V.F.D., and the true reason behind Count Olaf’s plots.
Readers will remember that the children each encounter adults with odd personality traits and interests—most of whom don’t listen to the children when Count Olaf show up. The cast of strange guardians is impressive, such as Neil Patrick Harris who portrays Olaf as an egotistical, failed actor. Together with his troupe of henchman he puts on humorous numbers that detail his wicked plans—although these song and dance numbers are neither humorous nor entertaining to other characters watching. He’s menacing but not scary, like an annoyance that you wish would just go away. This portrayal is effective, because that’s what the children want: for the unfortunate events to simply end.
In Season 3, it finally does all end.
Like the other seasons, I continued to be intrigued by how they would portray the scenery in the next chapter, or what the next character would look like. I won’t spoil her character, but I was stunned to see Morena Baccarin in her role. It’s one of the most enjoyable things about ASOUE, not being sure of what’s going to happen next whether you’ve read the books or not (I only managed half of the book series as a kid, so I experienced both). It was interesting that while Esmé Squalor’s (Lucy Punch) wardrobe becomes more outrageous, Count Olaf’s disguises become weaker. His disguise near the end of the series portrays the lack of creativity and motivation the character experiences as he gets closer to his goal. Olaf becomes less and less interested in pretending… which creates unique consequences for the Baudelaires and everyone else involved.
V.F.D. completes its expansion beyond Seasons 1 and 2, with the mystery behind the Sugar Bowl finally revealed. This doesn’t solve the children’s problems, as they’ve spent the entire series in search of the answers to what it means to live without their parents. What makes a bad or good person? What is wrong and what is right? The children learn that there are no black-and-white answers to any of these questions. It’s a relief that ASOUE didn’t simply fall apart at the seams in an effort to ‘wrap everything up,’ a common pitfall among the ending seasons of countless other shows. Instead, it forces the children to look at the worst person in their lives and ask why he is still following them, and what can they do about it, rather than waiting for another guardian to save them.
As someone who’s lost a parent, I can’t express enough how grateful I am that the show stays close to what it means to live with grief and the confusion that often accompanies death; not knowing what to do next is so familiar to many of us living with loss, and ASOUE traces the Baudelaire’s final steps so carefully.
The ending is amended from the books, but the orphans are still missing at the end of the series. Lemony Snicket mourns his Beatrice alone as he remains on the run. There remains an awful lot of death and ambiguity in what happens to many of the characters (again, I’m not naming names!) but neither are characters harmed just because of what happens in the books. My favorite character, The Person of Indeterminate Gender, is part of a lovely surprise along with others; watch until the very, very end!
A Series of Unfortunate Events continues to be a timeless joy and source of comfort to those who may be themselves entangled in a series of unfortunate events.