Robert Turnbull reviews the third and final season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events comes to an end with its seven-episode third season and it doesn’t disappoint. The final four books in the series are split here across seven episodes, two episodes for each book, with the exception of the final book which is presented in just one.
In bringing the story of the Baudelaires to an end, the show makers have done a solid job of providing something of a happy ending without diverting from the spirit of the books or the themes of the show at large.
In The Slippery Slope we pick up directly at the end of the previous series and Klaus and Violet are hurtling down a mountainside, while Sunny Baudelaire has been kidnapped by Count Olaf. The sequence of the siblings fashioning an escape is exciting and, as always with this show, stylish and beautiful.
This first story back introduces us to several new faces – most notable the Man with Beard But No Hair, his partner the Woman with Hair But No Beard and Kit Snicket. The introduction of these three characters allows for deeper insight into Olaf’s past; the Man and Woman, it would seem, being his evil parental figures. Richard E Grant is especially sinister as The Man.
Kit Snicket, played with touching strength by Allison Williams, is our adult hero this season, much like Jacques Snicket last season and The Quagmires in season one. She has a nice moment when she bumps into the (not very freaky) freaks from the circus, now hench people in training for Olaf and tells them they’re good people who deserve better and suggests they examine their life choices. They don’t take her advice and get dispatched soon after by The Man and The Woman but this story is the starting point for a lot of characters to start reflecting on the choices they’ve made. We also bump into Carmelita Spats, played superbly by Kitana Turnbull, who, by the story’s end, has been adopted by Olaf and Esmé Squalor.
With the introduction of Duncan the previously presumed dead third Quagmire triplet, Violet is afforded a little bit of romance. What’s nice with this show, is that this never feels cheesy or embarrassing and is quite sweet.
The culmination of the story involved the Baudelaires doing “a bad thing for a noble reason” which is the underlying theme of the whole season. Much of this episode is given across to the idea of questioning your life choices, with Olaf’s hench people questioning the nature of morality before leaving Olaf for good (the final straw being his determination to kill Sunny).
This was another strong and entertaining entry in this series and while the location and setting was less interesting than some stories, and takes a while to shake off the vestiges of the previous story, it’s funny, dark and really starts to poke at the concepts of morality in the modern world (or at least the world of the Baudelaires)
Grim Grotto is a much bigger switch up of location and a refreshing new world to inhabit; under the sea. After skating out to a frozen sea in the last episode, the Baudelaires are rescued by a VFD submarine. This is a fantastic mix of 50’s steam-punk/Jules Verne design, along with Olaf’s submarine – an impressive robot octopus with flailing mechanical arms!
The stories and performances are great in this series but it’s all backed up and supported by the stunning set design and world Building. This bizarre, illogical, weird and dark looking world is beautiful and decayed, huge and tiny. It really conjures up a sense of how the world must feel at times to children; insurmountable and illogical. The design and feel of this series has drawn plenty of comparisons with Wes Anderson but this is almost doing the show a disservice (after all, Barry Sonnenfeld and Bo Welch were creating these odd, disjointed modern fairytale worlds long before Anderson first put his visual stamp on the subject of affluent white men feeling a bit sad). The series has created a fantastic world of larger than life characters who still feel very real, existing in a setting that is both familiar and strange; a kind of storybook noir.
In this second story the Baudelaires are stuck on a submarine with a young captain, part of the VFD, searching for her missing father. While it’s always clear that their new captain is ultimately on the side of good, she has her own mission and motivations which for her, outrank those of the Baudelaires. This story continues the theme of doing bad things for good reasons as well as the ideas of having to compromise. The major reveals in this story are that Olaf’s only remaining hench person, Hook-Handed Man, was once a good scientist working with the VFD. We see how he lost his hands and why he ended up with Olaf. It also gives deeper explanation as to why he’d had such a soft spot for Sunny all these years – chiefly that he wasn’t all bad and has a strong streak of brotherly-like duty.
We’re also introduced to the Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly airborne fungal virus that kills quickly. The children find this fungus, inadvertently bring a sample back with them and also discover a basic cure in the process (in order to save Sunny, who gets infected. However, through a series of unfortunate events (sorry) Olaf ends up with the specimen and the children with one less ally.
After the slow drip fed of information and plot elements over the past two seasons, this season is really coming thick and fast with PLOT. This story perhaps marks a turning point in terms of what the VFD were most concerned about while also leaving Olaf totally alone by the end of the story. His interest in fortunes seems to be waning, as straight up revenge looms larger on the horizon.
Penultimate Peril presents us with perhaps the strongest of the four stories this season and not surprisingly, Barry Sonnenfeld directs this offering himself. The setting of the Hotel Denouement, feels like a cross between the Overlook and the Grand Budapest hotels. Things are complicated for the Baudelaires, who are requested by Kit to disguise themselves as bell hops and infiltrate the hotel, after being told the hotel is managed by two twin brothers, Frank and Ernest – one of whom is evil one of whom is good.
This leads to some wonderful second guessing for the children and the audience as to what possible double meanings may be hidden in what the various managers say as well as a very foreboding lobby clock! The show does a wonderful job of keeping things vague and slightly confusing, offering just enough hints and clues that the audience can spot the secret of the brothers just before it’s revealed.
The second half of this story is focused on a horrendous trial that take place in the hotel. The hotel itself is a huge, brick metaphor and the confusing insistence that all adults have to be blind folded during the key parts of the court case to ensure justice is blind is a wonderful pushing and warping of metaphor and logic, that this show does so well.
This was by far my favourite story this season. It utilises the characters, world and story building style of the series to maximum effect, with a tragic end to the first part and frustrating continuation in the second. A lot of old characters from through the series are brought back, all arriving at the hotel, they assume, at the bequest of Jacque Snicket (not knowing he’s dead).
The first episode of the story has the most tragic ending of the season. The Baudelaires are offered salvation by Justice Strauss (a fantastic Joan Cusack back from the first season, racked with guilt for failing the children) who offers them a safe home AND the secret manager of the hotel, who offers them the opportunity to run the hotel and secret VFD library. And then the manager is accidentally killed by Olaf and the children blamed. The double tragedy is that Olaf was almost on the brink of changing, of showing compassion but you feel like he’s lost forever now. During the court case the Baudelaires are forced to admit that they did bad things for good reasons in their attempt to uncover Olaf, further pushing the concept of shades of moral grey.
This story also gives us the deepest look at the VFD back-story and what caused the divide. This is suitably tragic and we find out (as if we didn’t already know) who Beatrice is. As wacky and silly as the show is at times its undercut by such a strong sense of melancholy and the gentle performance of Patrick Warburton has proven to be the perfect backbone for the show.
In a wise move, the final book of the series is adapted here as just one episode. The Penultimate Peril is very much the jewel of the crown in this season both artistically and narratively and another two hours on top of it might have watered down the impact of that and this chapter. As it stands, The End caps the series off very nicely, almost working as an epilogue to who show. The End, by its nature, is a far simpler story with fewer twists and it basically acts to tie together the loose ends of this series of unfortunate events.
The Baudelaires, along with Olaf and the Medusoid Mycelium, have washed up on an odd island. Here they meet Ishmael (“Call me Ish”) Peter Peter MacNicol having fun, without over doing it, as the leader of a community of shipwreck survivors.
Things move pretty fast in this final episode; the Children realise Ish is drugging the island inhabitants to keep them from leaving (the island can only be left once a year at low tide), Olaf gets shot in the stomach by Ish and releases the killer spores, Kit washes up on the island about to give birth and children discover their parents secret old secret hide away and a permanent cure for fro the virus.
The mystery of the sugar bowl is finally explained and Ish, it turns out, is the original founder of the VFD. Most of the big narrative threads were dealt with in the previous story but this episode provides a fairly gentle but slightly tragic cap to proceedings. Olaf, almost has a moment of redemption before dying from his injuries and Kit, after giving birth, dies from the virus. I like a lot that the ending is so very bitter sweet; after the Baudelaires raise Kit’s baby on the island for a year, we see them leave to re-enter the world. This is the final shot of them, sailing off into the sunset and where the show provides us with our sort of happy ending.
Young Beatrice Baudelaire the second tracks down her uncle in hiding and sits down with him to share a milkshake and tell him about her wonderful guardians, Klaus, Violet and Sunny. The series ends on these two characters talking and leaves us with the sense that maybe things work out for the Baudelaires, at least for a while.
This has been a wonderful series, creepy, funny, weird and beautifully made. The performances and scripts have been sharp and witty and everyone involved has brought their A game. I’m sad to see it go but part of its charm is the show’s restraint and attention to details in telling its stories. A less disciplined production might have stretched the stories out, spending twice as many episodes on each story or padding things out. While there are other books in the Unfortunate world, I feel that we’ve been given a satisfying and touching ending that leaves just enough hope on the table. This has been a highlight of my viewing schedule over the past three years and I’m both sad and happy that’s its finished.