With the final season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events released, the misfortune of the Baudelaire orphans is at last at an end. While it is good for them, it may be more bittersweet for you, since it means that the wonderful adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s children’s novels is behind us. But at the same time, you can still enjoy the final few episodes.
The situation is a bit of a mixed bag, a phrase which here means “a combination of circumstances of various qualities.” And the same could be said for the season itself. While none of the episodes this season are bad, there is a greater disparity between them than in either of the previous seasons. One could also argue that this season mixes things up more than the previous ones. The first season saw the Baudelaire orphans going from guardian to guardian, and the second saw them investigating the mysterious organization their parents were a part of. This time around the Baudelaires are actively trying to save said organization while battling Count Olaf and his nefarious schemes to destroy it. This journey takes them from snow-covered mountains, to a submarine, a hotel, and finally a small, tropical island. Certainly a variety of locales.
Fans of the novels will note that the later books that this season adapts, ten through thirteen, are a bit obtuse. At the time, Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, decided to end the series with a lot of unanswered questions and mysteries. This adaptation doesn’t provide answers to every burning question, but it does clear up a lot of elements that left many readers perplexed. It’s a tough line to tread, but it finds a good balance between clearing up certain plot points and leaving others up to the imagination.
Reader Beware: Mild spoilers to follow.
The Slippery Slope (Parts 1 and 2)
Viewers may remember that season 2 ended on a quite literal cliffhanger. Following the burning of Caligari Carnival, the Baudelaires were taken up the Mourtmain Mountains in a caravan, which Count Olaf and his henchpeople sent careening towards the edge of a cliff. Season 3 begins by recapping the story up until this point, and then shows how Violet and Klaus, the two eldest Baudelaire children, escape their predicament and set off to rescue their sister Sunny from the clutches of Count Olaf. Meanwhile, Kit Snicket (Allison Williams), who briefly appeared at the end of last season, evades the clutches of two mysterious new villains played by Richard E. Grant and Beth Grant (no relation). Snicket has the sugarbowl in her possession, at least for a time, which everyone wants to get their hands on. Aside from rescuing their sister, Violet and Klaus want to find the headquarters of the mysterious organization of VFD and see if one of their parents survived the fire at their mansion.
Both the first and second seasons of A Series of Unfortunate Events suffered from relatively dull and slow opening episodes, and season 3 is arguably the worst offender. Perhaps this is because the show has so much lore and moving pieces that each time a new season begins it has to put them into place, but one would have hoped this problem would be mitigated this late in the story. Additionally, the production value of “The Slippery Slope” seems lower, with the sets seeming extra small compared to the grandeur of the mountain range they’re supposed to represent. While the show’s comedy often delves into the absurd, the writing in these episodes seems a bit too goofy. A lot of “The Slippery Slope” is spent with Olaf and his troupe lounging around, so without any goals driving the plot stagnates and relies too much on their silly banter.
A Series of Unfortunate Events works best when it’s, well, unfortunate, and the stakes of these episodes are low. While the elder Baudelaires ostensibly need to rescue their sister, she’s not in any immediate danger since Olaf needs to keep her alive to get their fortune. Despite being a low point for the show, “The Slippery Slope” is still a quality watch. It’s a testament to everyone involved that even the worst episode of the show still works at a relatively high standard. The actors, especially Olaf’s henchpeople, put in their best work. Richard E. Grant and Beth Grant are great as the Man With a Beard But No Hair and the Woman With Hair But No Beard, respectively. They add a certain gravitas to the show that contrasts well with the more manic villains of Olaf and Esme. The real star of these episodes is Usman Ally as the Hookhanded Man, who proves that his running frienemy relationship with Sunny is more than a gag and actually speaks to his character arc, which we see play a large role in this season.
The Grim Grotto (Parts 1 and 2)
Escaping the clutches of various villains while sledding down the Mourtmain Mountains, the reunited Baudelaire children discover the Queequeg, a VFD submarine captained by Fiona Widdershins. Her mission is to find the sugar bowl which got washed out to sea after Kit Snicket lost it. Klaus determines that is must be in the Gorgonian Grotto. Of course, Olaf and Esme are also searching for the sugar bowl along with Carmelita Spats and their only remaining henchperson, the Hookhanded Man. The four of them begin to resemble a strange sort of family. Comedy and tension ensues when the villains are stricken by the squabbling that often befalls dysfunctional families.
The plot picks up in “The Grim Grotto” as the Baudelaires and their allies actively pursue the sugar bowl while evading Count Olaf. Chris Gauthier returns as Phil from the lumbermill, now working as the Queequeg’s cook. While exploring the grotto, the Baudelaires come into contact with a poisonous fungus which infects Sunny. Unlike the previous episodes where Sunny was imprisoned by Count Olaf, Sunny’s peril here feels much more urgent and genuinely upsetting as we see the toddler affected by the spores.
The best part of these episodes are the interesting moral dilemmas that arise. Up to this point, we’ve been led to believe that VFD split into two sides, one “noble” and the other “villainous.” In reality, both sides are more nuanced than that. Usman Ally shines again as the Hookhanded Man, who is elevated from a stock henchperson to a tragic character with a full backstory. Kassius Nelson also holds her own as the headstrong captain of the Queequeg who offers various sides to her character as she wants to help the Baudelaires but also butts heads with Violet and puts her own needs above all else. She has chemistry with Klaus, but the romantic subplot between the two isn’t given nearly as much time as it needs, and comes off as kind of hokey. The second part of “The Grim Grotto” is strangely short for some reason, and feels rushed compared to the first.
The Penultimate Peril (Parts 1 and 2)
In their travels, the Baudelaires find that VFD is planning a meeting at “The Last Safe Place,” since their former headquarters burned down. Arriving back on Briny Beach, they’re greeted by Mr. Poe and Kit Snicket, who they’ve never officially met. While Mr. Poe is familiar, Kit offers a chance for them to learn the secrets they’ve sought for so long, so they go with her. This kicks off what will be the main theme of the remaining episodes, as the Baudelaire’s grapple with the choice of safety and tedium versus risk and adventure. Kit takes them to the Hotel Denouement, the site of VFD’s upcoming meeting. Several returning characters from their past are present, such as Roger Bart’s narcissistic Vice-Principal Nero and Tony Hale’s henpecked Jerome Squalor.
These episodes prove to be the highpoint of the season and the series in general. They encapsulate everything that’s great about A Series of Unfortunate Events. They’re funny, sad, thoughtful, hopeful, and utterly fantastic. It’s fitting that the plot of these episodes act as a sort of microcosm of the entire story up to this point, as the many returning characters offer throwbacks to previous events and a couple of key flashbacks offer the much craved answers to some of the series’ biggest secrets. Everything feels like it’s put into perspective, as the Baudelaire’s are given opportunities they’ve sought for so long just to have them cruelly removed, sometimes of their own volition.
Despite some of the most heart-rending moments in the series, “The Penultimate Peril” lightens the load with some genuinely funny moments and glimmers of hope. One of the funniest moments is when Esme decides to finally leave Olaf with Carmelita, bringing their weird family dynamic built up in this season to an end. A Series of Unfortunate Events shines when it pokes fun at social norms and institutions, and “The Penultimate Peril” has this in spades as it sends up the absurdities of hotel etiquette and exposes the failings of justice systems and the nature of laws. As an ensemble piece in a wonderfully realized setting, these episodes offer a nice change of pace from the more isolated ones that came before. The many characters in the show are given brief yet well-realized moments to shine as the Baudelaire’s say goodbye to the eccentric folks that have populated their lives. Even Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket feels more realized than ever in his effective moments onscreen.
The finale of A Series of Unfortunate Events breaks with tradition in that it consists of only one episode as opposed to two. Perhaps this is because “The End: Part 1” would sound strange. It also shakes things up in that compared to the previous two episodes which answered many questions and gave send offs to many characters, it’s quieter and more narrowly focused. After escaping the fire at the Hotel Denouement and setting out to sea, the Baudelaires wash up on an eye-shaped island along with Count Olaf. The “facilitator” of the island is a man named Ishmael, who unsurprisingly proves to be more enigmatic than the benevolent wise old sage type he initially appears to be.
Another possible reason this adaptation consists of one episode rather than two is that it’s more of an epilogue coming off the climax of the last two episodes. Now that the Baudelaires know the secrets of VFD and have mostly escaped the systems and people that have pursued them, it’s up to them to decided what to do with their lives. They could live out their existence on this tranquil island, which seems to be preferable to all the misery they’ve endured up till now. Yet they now know more about the world around them than they have before, and have people to help and experiences to live. The full themes of choosing between what’s familiar and what’s unknown come into play here, and help drive the season, and the series, home.
“The End” feels much different from the rest of the series, and that’s showcased wonderfully in the production design. While the last several episodes of the show have featured dark and dreary palettes, the tropical island set features a bright sky and popping pastel colors. One familiar character, if you could call it that, from back in the beginning of the series makes an appearance that I was afraid would be cut from the adaptation. While it may seem out of place to some, it drives home the notion that despite their misfortunes the Baudelaires have met many interesting people and creatures in their journeys. The book ends somewhat abruptly, yet here there’s a tacked on ending that surprisingly feels like the right way to end things. Even as this series of unfortunate events comes to an end, those who lived through them still have places to go and people to see.
Manages to wrap up the many mystifying threads of the story in a satisfying way
A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 3 may not be as consistent as earlier seasons, but is more than worth the watch by the end. It’s not easy to tie up the many plot points the show has going on, nor give each character a fitting resolution, but the third and final season manages to do it. Not even the book series provided that much closure, so it’s a testament to the fine writing, directing and acting that so much gets conveyed in a format that values brevity.