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Betrayal, moral confusion, and a dance recital on A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Photo: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
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A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ two-part episode structure has been with the show from the start. It’s an artistic choice I’m not sure entirely works; a strict adaptation of the original novels would probably take more than a single 45 minute episode apiece, and yet none of them have enough content to justify an hour and a half (or more) running time. More aggressive adaptation choices might have saved the series from some of its worst indulgences, but at the very least, it’s nice to see the final season trying to tighten things up. Whatever the reason—creative sanity or budgetary concerns or maybe just boredom—the first four episodes of season three have all been shorter than their predecessors. In many ways, “The Grim Grotto: Part Two” feels less like a distinct entry and more like an immediate continuation of the previous episode. It would probably play better if the whole thing was just one lump.

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Thankfully it still plays pretty well as is, building off the momentum of the previous episode and keeping the conflicts front and center without getting bogged down by—well, anything, really. At 35 minutes, “Part Two” is, I think, the shortest entry yet, and that’s generally for the good. The cliffhanger that ended “Part One”—Sunny’s infection—is resolved relatively quickly, but that sense of impending catastrophe never goes away, building to a climax where the Baudelaire’s have a chance to decide their own fates, for good or for ill. There’s moral ambiguity, surprising twists, and deadly danger. Worse, there’s a dance recital. Not a moment is wasted

That does mean a few key points get short shrift. While in Olaf’s clutches, the Baudelaires discover that the villain has a bundle of Snow Scouts in the belly of his horrible submarine, rowing because, hey, if you’ve got a bunch of captives on a ship, what else is there for them to do. But the last we saw of the Scouts, they were being kidnapped by Olaf’s evil mentors, and there was no mention of them in the previous episode when they rented the sub. It’s a discovery that would’ve made sense if we were sticking strictly to the Baudelaire’s perspective; there would’ve been enough time away from Olaf that he and the others could’ve gotten up to just about anything. As is, since the show splits its time between its protagonists and its antagonist, it feels like we missed a scene where Esme finds the Scouts locked away somewhere.

But then, it’s not like ASOUE was ever distinguished by its razor sharp plotting. It’s a bit of sloppy storytelling, but it’s not so sloppy that it can’t be overlooked or even explained out right if you’re willing to put in the effort. And the episode doesn’t shortchange the events that really count, like the reveal that the Hook-Handed Man’s real name is Fernald; that he’s Fiona’s brother; and that he’s responsible for burning down Anwhistle Aquatics because he was trying to stop another member of V.F.D. from using the Medusoid Mycelium against the groups enemies.

This is a reveal the show has been heading towards for a while; not the details of Fernald’s specific story, but the fact that V.F.D. might not be quite as noble as the Baudelaires would like to think. Fernald works with a villain, and he’s done some terrible things. But when he destroyed Anwhistle, he wasn’t acting selfishly. It’s complicated, in other words, and as the Baudelaires move away from being the victims of Fate and work to take a more active role in the course of their lives, they’re going to need to deal with the idea that the choices aren’t going to be as easy as “defeat the villainous Count Olaf or die.”

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It’s fascinating idea, albeit one the episode doesn’t really have a lot of time to unpack. The Baudelaires have supposedly made questionable choices already, although given the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like they had a lot of moral agency when they were making those choices. This is a direction the book series took as well (although I think it was built up better there), and it’s one that I’m never quite sure what to make of. It was necessary to keep the story from completely stagnating, but it also never quite sits well in the nightmare world that the Baudelaires live in. Minor ethical lapses in the face of doom and destruction never seem to be that big of a deal, which makes it harder to get worked up over the possibility that the Baudelaires might sink to Olaf’s level.

Still, it remains to be seen how that will play out in the final three episodes of the series. Here, it mostly serves to explain why Fiona was acting so strangely, and why Fernald isn’t quite as evil as he appeared. Fernald helps the Baudelaires find a cure for Sonny’s infection, but he still works for Olaf; and Fiona gives Olaf the Medusoid Mycelium to save her brother, but still helps the Baudelaires escape even after agreeing to work for the Count. It’s all interesting, and, as Fernald himself points out, it suggest that the “schism” in V.F.D. that’s caused so many problems for everyone is a lot more complicated than any of us realized.

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Which makes it all the more dramatic when the Baudelaires decide to go with Kit Snicket to the Hotel Denouement (the Last Safe Place, it turns out) for the big V.F.D. meeting, instead of sticking with Mr. Poe. They’re finally given a chance to break the cycle that’s defined their lives ever since their parents died at the start of the series—but who knows what waits for them around the next corner?

Stray observations

  • It feels like the Great Unknown was just sort of dropped, wasn’t it? The kids use the threat of it to distract Esme and Carmelita, and it pops back up again near the end of the episode, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t eat anyone, which is a shame.
  • “I think that suffering is like a family dinner. It should be shared.” -Fernald
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