There’s a lot of good in the second part of “The Penultimate Peril.” We finally find out what happened that night at the opera, the horrible event that caused the schism which would ultimately bring down V.F.D. The Baudelaires decide to once and for all reject any hope of a safe home life, and Olaf is almost, but not quite, brought to justice. It’s a big episode, with much of the running time given over to a court hearing called by Justice Strauss to save the orphans and punish the count. But there are are no happy endings here, and I doubt anyone watching is all that surprised when the whole thing goes up in flames.
Unfortunately, the episode isn’t as strong as it should’ve been, due once again to the series’ ultimate failing: it has too much time and no idea what to do with it. To be fair, this was a problem with the book series as well. The original novels were more a success of design than anything particularly substantial; the grade school style writing combined with the grim subject matter, occasional adult literary nods, and beautiful artwork, made them feel special in a way that the actual content never quite lived up to. They aren’t terrible, but they’re never truly great either, and as the series wore on, Handler traded the already tired structure of the early books for some increasingly convoluted backstory which was ultimately little more than a parlor trick. It worked because there was just enough to keep you guessing, but it never actually delivered on what it promised.
The show has never managed to transcend the limits of its source, although its failings tend to come from other areas. The book series could’ve stood to be shorter (just because 13 is a cute number to end on doesn’t mean there was 13 books’ worth of plot) but while individual entries could repetitive, they didn’t have that same limp, padded feeling that the television adaptation’s worst entries suffered from. All too often, ASOUE felt like something designed to be half-watched, the sort of show where you could ignore three or four minutes at a stretch and have a good chance of not missing anything more important than Neil Patrick Harris doing Neil Patrick Harris shtick.
Thankfully the worst of the padding here doesn’t happen until the end, in a weirdly interminable montage that brings us back through the events of the series after we’ve already had multiple opportunities to go back through the events of the series. But it’s annoying because this whole thing should’ve played out in a rush, but instead moves in fits and starts. Individual elements work well but still can’t quite cohere into something meaningful, apart from generalities. Good and evil are complicated, people make mistakes, nothing is ever as simple as you want it to be, and so on. Oh, and you can’t trust society to protect you, because everyone is either trying to use you for their own ends or else is too stupid to know when to leave a burning building.
It’s a relief to finally find out what happened at the opera. We still don’t know why the sugar bowl is so important, but we do learn that it inadvertently led to the death of Olaf’s father, the chief of the official fire department. (Olaf’s mother died in a fire, because that’s just what parents do in this show.) Beatrice convinces Lemony they need to steal the bowl because it’s too important; Esme throws a poison dart at them while they’re trying to leave; Beatrice and Lemony get ready to throw darts back at her; and at that moment, Olaf’s dad steps between them just as Olaf himself comes out to see what’s going on. Dad gets a dart in the neck, Olaf blames Lemony, and chaos ensues.
Actually Beatrice is responsible for the man’s death, but I’m not sure that really matters much. As a payoff, this isn’t bad. It doesn’t justify Olaf’s descent into villainy, but it does at least explain how he could’ve turned so sharply and completely on people who used to be his friends. With both his parents dead, and the V.F.D. having betrayed him for reasons he didn’t understand, he was a prime target for the Man With a Beard But No Hair and the Woman With Hair But No Beard. The rest is history. Horrible, horrible history.
Speaking of MWBBNH and WWHBNB, they turn out to be the secret judges sitting high over the “court” for most of the episode, which ruins Justice Strauss’s efforts to help anyone. The trial itself isn’t bad—the blindfold comedy isn’t as funny as the show seems to think it is (although it has its moments), and watching the Baudelaires testify, then question Count Olaf, and then seeing Olaf turn on Esme… it’s pretty good. And the finale, which has the Baudelaires helping Olaf in order to stop him from doing something even worse, is great, especially as the kids try and fail to convince people to flee a burning hotel. It’s maybe the clearest expression yet of the show’s fundamental pessimism: even when you have your facts straight and only want to help, you’ll still be ignored and ridiculed and possibly make everything worse.
“Part Two” ends with the Baudelaires and Olaf adrift on the Carmelita II, sailing off into the ocean while the Hotel Denouement burns behind them. All the extraneous elements have been stripped away—Mr. Poe is gone (perhaps literally, although he struck me as the survivor type), Olaf no longer has any help at all, and V.F.D. is in ruins. In some ways, this could’ve served as a gloomy but fitting capstone to the whole series. But we’re not done yet. One episode left to go… and this one could change everything*.
*okay I’ve already watched it and it doesn’t do that, but it’s quite good.
- Beatrice is played by Morena Baccarin, which works.
- Olaf and Kit were a couple. That’s unexpected.
- Carmelita uses the scratched stone to knock down the bird with the sugar bowl. Callback!
- The sugar bowl, by the way, ends up in the hidden library, not the laundry room.
- Does Olaf actually know why the sugar bowl matters? He works hard to hunt it down at the end of the episode (although not that hard), but the whole time Esme was obsessed with it, he didn’t seem to care.
- “But here is the real truth no one is willing to tell you. There are no noble people in the world.” -Olaf
- “We’re innocent… enough.” -the Baudelaires