At its heart, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the story of three children discovering their resourcefulness and strength in the face of almost unimaginable adversity, a phrase which here means “an evil man who likes to put on silly costumes and murder people.” Yes there is a secret organization; yes, there is a history to discover, and riddles to solve, and all sorts of clever bits of business that should keep people who love fan theories up until long into the night. And that can all be delightful, in a miserable, terrifying way. But what holds everything together is Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and their struggles to stay alive and protect one another in a world that appears determined to break them in a variety of painfully quirky ways.
The reason “The Reptile Room: Part Two” works as well as it does (and I think it’s the best episode since the first) is that it spends most of its running time with a relatively simple premise. Uncle Monty is dead, and Count Olaf, in the guise of Stephano, intends to take the children on the trip to Peru Monty had been planning (under the orders of the secret organization) before his untimely demise. Mr. Poe’s fortuitous arrival temporarily blocks Olaf’s way, but, because he is Mr. Poe, he doesn’t recognize Olaf’s scheme. Or Olaf himself. It’s up to the children to find a way to prove that Monty’s death wasn’t a horrible accident but actual murder, and stop Olaf from spiriting them away.
What follows is a series of problem solving adventures as both the Baudelaires and Olaf struggle to retain the upper hand. It makes for a more limited focus and also ensures that we alway know what’s at stake. Having a clear conflict, one that doesn’t get bogged down by unrelated distractions, helps to keep a sense of tension and excitement throughout. This isn’t a hugely suspenseful show—no matter how many times Lemony Snicket bemoans the miserable Baudelaires, we know they’re going to win out in the end, and Olaf and his henchpeople will fail. But it’s more engaging when we don’t know how the children will win, and when we can enjoy the pleasure of watching them succeed, even if that success is short-lived.
Another reason the second part of “The Reptile Room” is so effective is that it puts the Baudelaires back in the center of things where they belong. They spent so much of “Part One” as confused observers that having them take a hand in deciding their own fates is a relief. The strength of active heroes over passive ones is a time worn cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Without Uncle Monty around to take charge, Klaus and Violet are forced to take matters into their own hands, which makes them far more compelling as main characters.
“Part Two” also brings back Olaf’s full complement of henchpeople, with the Henchperson Of Indeterminate Gender taking the most focus as the perpetually confused Nurse Lucafont. The whole gaggle of goons offers a great chance for what is probably the show’s main go-to gag: adults trying to do something and being utterly inept at it but still mostly getting away with it because they are adults. Watching them struggle to keep Mr. Poe busy has a real blind-leading-blind vibe, and it also helps to take the edge off of Monty’s death.
Ah yes, poor Monty. Honestly, it’s surprisingly gruesome: Count Olaf used a creepy looking injector gun to stab Montgomery Montgomery in the face and poison him with some deadly snake venom from the Reptile Room (all off-screen). The Baudelaires discover Monty’s corpse sitting at his desk at the start of the episode, and though we only see the body for a few seconds, we get a clear view and it’s not a pleasant sight. “Part Two” does a decent job of finding a way to mourn for a nice (if muddled) man without slowing down the rest of the story; Lemony’s running commentary about the misery of the children’s lives is both a joke and a way to set the tone by keeping us constantly prepared for unhappiness. Like the gray, blank faces in an Edward Gorey drawing, everything on the show is designed to warn us what kind of show it is. The fact that this works, but still allows a few moments for sincere grief over Monty’s death, is a nifty trick.
There’s also the clever way deployment of Violet and Klaus’s skills. Klaus’s knack for research exposes the lie about the Incredibly Deadly Viper, and Violet’s gift for invention leads to her create a lock pick so she can break into Olaf’s luggage, and also helps her to identify and reconstruct the device Olaf used to murder Monty. (Sunny’s biting comes in handy with the lockpick.) This is basic stuff, and there are a few more complicated developments—Klaus finally realizes what the object he found in the ruins of the Baudelaire mansion really is right before Olaf steals it, and Jacquelyn returns, this time playing statue in Monty’s hedge maze—but the basic stuff matters.
As for Jacquelyn, she represents a bit of a conundrum. The show still hasn’t offered up a reasonable explanation as to why she hasn’t been more of a help to the Baudelaires. Here, she shows up after the crisis has been resolved, and her main contribution is promising Klaus she’ll get the decoder back before she confronts Olaf as he tries to set sail for Peru. There ought to be some justification for what kept her from warning Monty or trying to save his life, especially given how competent she seems otherwise. Is it just a question of numbers? There’s also the fact that she doesn’t act overly upset about Gustav’s apparent death; when she faces off against Olaf (who manages to escape, again), she’s tough but not, like, furious or anything.
It’s all very odd, and while a certain detachment is inherent in the tone I was talking about so positively only a few paragraphs before, I’m also not sure how much of this will make sense in the long run. That’s the trick about withholding information—tell too much and you spoil the surprise, but tell too little, and it becomes random information. Which, again, is why it’s so satisfying to see the Baudelaires get to kick some butt on their own. Even Mr. Poe turns out to be marginally more useful than usual, forcing Olaf to reveal the eye tattoo on his left ankle and ruining his Stephano disguise.
The show’s format is both inspired and a challenge for its creative team, as it forces Daniel Handler to adapt his work in ways that don’t entirely fit the original shape. But “The Reptile Room: Part Two” is the strongest sign we’ve had yet that this is possible, and it has made me even more excited for more, a phrase which here means “foolishly optimistic against all available evidence.”
- Another appearance from Mother and Father, this time making a too-late phone call to Uncle Monty’s house from a dive bar in (presumably) Peru.
- The nurse drives a van marked “CORNER.”
- At times, the Olaf/Baudelaire struggle is like a logic puzzle made flesh. I’m thinking of the argument about who should go into the Reptile Room to look at Monty’s corpse; Olaf wants to be alone with the children, and they have to keep coming up with arrangements of people that stop this from happening. (Come to think, this would feel out if place in Wonderland.)
- “I heard there were reptiles. They might be contagious.”
- “Oh children, it’s rude to question authority.” I think maybe my favorite part of this series is the moral that, rude or not, questioning authority is essential and could very well save your life. Something about being reminded that just because someone says something’s true doesn’t mean it is feels important right now.
- “The Virginian wolfsnake can bludgeon you to death with a typewriter!”
- “My sister is a nice girl… and she knows how to do all sorts of things.” Klaus and Violet vs. the Patriarchy
- Up next: the children are sent to live with their Aunt Josephine in “The Wide Window: Part One.” See you on Saturday, unless you have anything better to do, which you almost certainly do.