And here we find ourselves at the thrilling conclusion to another pretty good if obviously (and frustratingly) flawed season of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Olaf has built lion pit and plans to throw in a “freak” to draw a crowd; Esme has convinced the “freaks” to sacrifice Madame Lulu so they can all get jobs in Olaf’s troop; and the Baudelaires and Olivia are planning to flee in a roller coaster car to the nearby Mortmain Mountains. Very little goes according to plan, and it all ends in tragedy. Multiple tragedies, actually. The season ends with our heroes at the lowest they’ve ever been, with Violet and Klaus trapped in a runaway wagon as Olaf and the others speed away with Sunny in their clutches. It’s a literal and figurative cliffhanger, and really well put together.
Not all of “The Carnivorous Carnival, Part Two” is as effective, unfortunately. It’s a by and large strong finale, with one glaring exception: the fate of Olivia Caliban, aka Madame Lulu. Even more than Jacques’ demise earlier in the season, it creates a tonal imbalance that distracts from the tension and comedy rather than adding to it. The death doesn’t ruin the season, or even the episode, but it’s disappointing to see the show making the same mistake twice; doubling down on it, in fact. And it all comes from an adaptation choice that almost certainly has to do with the episodic structure.
See, in the books, Olivia Caliban isn’t introduced until The Carnivorous Carnival. She’s not the sweet, optimistic, and determined librarian we’ve come to know and mildly care for—she’s just another mysterious figure, nominally on the side of good but more than willing to play things to her own advantage. Her death, while unpleasant, doesn’t really register as more than just another reminder of how unpleasant the world is. We even later learn that she betrayed the Baudelaires to Olaf; she’s not a monster, exactly, but there’s at least some sense that she got what was coming to her.
This Olivia, however, has been with us from the start of the season. We’ve had plenty of time to get to know her, and nothing that we’ve learned has ever given us cause to dislike or distrust her. With Jacques, you could maybe make the case that he was overconfident, or that his past history with Olaf left him somehow vulnerable. Olivia, though, is a new recruit, and when she ends up getting literally thrown to the lions—a horrible, agonizing death, the show makes sure to remind us—it’s disturbing in a way that’s hard to accept. The Baudelaires lives are full of misery and death, but it’s important for things to stay entertainingly horrid and not just horrid, because otherwise the tension that drives the comedy and the story collapses.
There’s some effort made to mitigate this. Olivia is put into a position of danger when Violet and Klaus try and trick Olaf so they can murder him, which adds to the growing sense of their own moral culpability. Plus, Olivia saves the kids before she dies, pushing them to safety and leaving herself at risk, which at least allows her some sense of choice in the matter. There’s also an extended scene of people reacting in horror to her death, although I’m not sure this works quite as intended. Intentionally or not, it encourages you to imagine what it would be like to see someone getting eaten alive by starving lions, and that’s really unsettling
From a narrative standpoint, Olivia needed to be taken out in some way or another. Maybe not quite this brutally, but it’s important for the Baudelaires to be once again left to fend for themselves. (This explains why Larry and Jacquelyn, while so keen and determined to be helpful, can’t ever manage to accomplish anything; it’s also why their plotlines, while funny enough, never really work. Unlike the other adults, they aren’t misguided or outright hostile, so there’s no concrete reason why they couldn’t just contact the Baudelaires directly. They just don’t.) Her death does make Olaf that much more dangerous. As with Jacques, it’s just the actual event itself that doesn’t work—everything that follows is quite effective.
And that about wraps things up for the second season. It would’ve been nice to leave the Baudelaires in a slightly less precarious position, but nice has never really been a concern here. I suppose we can take some comfort in knowing that the orphans are a little closer to their goal, and that it’s possible next season might find them triumphant and reunited with a surviving, slightly scorched, parent. It’s possible that Olaf might change his mind and save them; that he might turn himself over to the police and admit his misdeeds; and that the Baudelaires could spend the rest of their lives contented, loved, and regularly fed. It’s even possible that everything might work out exactly as you’d hoped, and that you yourself might get that happy ending you’ve always dreamed of.
Probably not, though.
- Lemony explains at the beginning of the episode that “the belly of the beast” would be said three times in the story to come. It’s an okay gag, but it doesn’t really pay off that well.
- We finally get Olivia’s reaction to Jacques death, which is nice. We also find out that she was just playing for time when she told Olaf that one of the Baudelaire parents had survived. Still, she assures the children that they should trust Jacques’ word. (The fact that it still hasn’t occurred to anyone to ask which fire Jacques was talking about is telling.)
- There was a schism in the V.F.D., and one side (presumably the side led by Olaf) decided it was better to start fires than it was to put them out. That leads to a great scene near the end where Olaf more or less forces Klaus and Violet to set fire to Lulu’s wagon, and all the information inside it. “My first time was hard too.” (The show has a fair bit of prurient humor, but I don’t think this line was played for laughs.)
- Mr. Poe, who shows up for the mane event (ha) along with the teachers from Prufrock Prep and some villagers from V.F.D., likes sad clowns.
- We finally learn who took the sugar bowl from Heimlich Hospital: Allison Williams! (To be named later.)(Although readers of the books can probably already guess.)