(yes this photo is from an earlier episode)
Photo: Joseph Lederer (Netflix)

We’ve talked about stakes, right? Of course we have. It’s one of my favorite go-to boring critical terms. But it’s relevant to A Series Of Unfortunate Events because it’s something the show has been struggling with more and more with in its second season. The introduction of the Quagmires at least allowed a new sort of danger; now, instead of just trying save themselves, the Baudelaires were also worried about protecting their friends, which helps to make them seem more like active agents in their own lives and a little less like hostages to fate, a term which here means, “orphans sent to the clutches of a wicked guardian who is determined to steal their fortune.”

The problem is that Olaf has lost a considerable amount of bite at this point. It’s been a while since he offed poor Uncle Monty in the Reptile Room, and while he hasn’t stopped chasing the children since then, he hasn’t managed to be all that competent in the mayhem department. Snatching the Quagmires is a step in the right direction, but given how much time we’ve spent watching him be goofy and overmatched, it’s getting harder and harder to take him seriously as a threat. And while an important theme of the show is that the world is already so tipped in the favor of villainy that even a buffoon can be a master criminal if he wants to be, it’s still makes for weird stories in which a trio of incredibly competent protagonists are menaced by a live action Wile E. Coyote.

All that changes in “The Vile Village, Part Two,” and if you think I’m being melodramatic, well, probably. Still, this episode confirms what “Part One” only implied: Jacques Snicket is dead, murdered by his former coworker. This is a bit of a shift in tone, one I’m not entirely sure the show succeeds at. Poor Uncle Monty was the last truly sympathetic character to fall afoul of Olaf’s schemes, but this death seems oddly worse, in part because Jacques was so convincingly good at being a hero. Sure, he and Oliva failed to save the Baudelaires or the Quagmires, but it’s strange to have him taken off the board so abruptly, and in such a creepy, off-kilter way. Last episode, he got bonked on the head and Olaf menaced him with a crowbar; this episode, we get a brief glimpse of his corpse with no visible damage apart from a bite on the neck, before he’s whisked away for good and the plot moves on.

Plotwise, “Part Two” is strong, leaving the Baudelaires to their own devices (quite literally) and dispensing with the usual Olaf ankle reveal in favor of a resolution that serves as the show’s most effective cliffhanger to date. To make all of that happen, Jacques death is necessary. It brings those stakes back into focus, reminding us of just how far Olaf is willing to go to get what he wants, and making the orphans’ woes more than simply a litany of substantial inconveniences. The murder is carried over from the source material, and I’d say it was the right call on the whole, because it gives this episode (and every episode to come) something a bit like actual urgency and suspense.

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The thing is, though, that in the book series, we barely knew Jacques. It’s that problem of perspective again; the books are told from the Baudelaires’ point of view, which means that Jacques sudden appearance, and just as sudden exit, is shocking but not particularly upsetting. He pops up, offers to give them all the answers they want, and then dies. It’s creepy, sure, but its obvious value as a way to shift the plot dynamics and threaten the heroes outweighs any lingering unpleasantness. And hey, this series is built on lingering unpleasantness. Isn’t it?

Well, sort of. But the fact that Jacques has been a major supporting figure for most of the season means that his death matters as more than just context. Nathan Fillion is charming, and the character’s heroism, plus his developing relationship with Olivia, means his loss should actually have more than just structural consequences. And yet it doesn’t. The corpse is presented for just long enough to make sure we understand the death is real, and then it disappears forever. We don’t even see Olivia reacting to the news; last episode made a point of giving them a potentially ironic farewell, but she’s completely absent here, possibly because her grief would throw off the barely acceptable balance.

If you can get past the oddness, the complication of Olaf framing the Baudelaires for “his” murder is sharp. It serves the double purpose of putting the children in a new sort, adult sort of danger and also getting Olaf himself off the hook; if the world believes he’s dead, then no one needs to hunt for him. (He’s not dropping the disguises any time soon, though.) The finale has the Baudelaires and the Quagmires (who’d been stashed away in the town’s fowl fountain) racing to catch up with Hector’s floating mobile home with the township, Olaf, Esme, and Mr. Poe in hot pursuit. The locals want to burn the kids alive for their “crime,” which feels like the logical endpoint of the show’s increasingly hostile take on the outside world.

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It all leads to a new kind of bittersweet victory, with the Quagmires sailing away with Hector as Violet and Klaus elect to stay behind (with Sunny) to stop Esme from destroying Hector’s ship. Again we see the Baudelaires taking direct action in their lives, sacrificing their own chance at happiness to protect their friends. (That’s what friends are for, after all.) While it may be hard to see behind all the nonsense, there’s a strong story here about kids coming of age when forced to fend for themselves. One of the main jokes of the series has always been the implication that pretty much all kid lit is made up of stories of children suffering miserably; this one just has the honesty to be upfront about it. But those stories wouldn’t work without the uplift, and while I wouldn’t call this an uncomplicated win, it’s still more proof that the Baudelaires can hold their own against Olaf, even if no one else can.

Stray observations

  • Mrs. Poe is insufferable. At least Mr. Poe is trying to do right by the Baudelaires, even if he is really not good at it.
  • It’s not just the fact that Olaf apparently beat Jacques to death with a crowbar. The fact that someone bit him to frame Sunny is just really creepy in live action. (The tone of the books managed to make this a lot less immediately unsettling.)
  • “You won’t become rich. Your scheme will fail like they always fail.” It’s nice how Klaus and Violet are getting increasingly annoyed at Olaf—it’s a sensible reaction, and it helps to make them both seem a bit more real.
  • Klaus remembering it’s his birthday is a nice, human little moment in the middle of everything else.
  • “You can’t stop us! We’re the deus ex machina!” I’m starting to think that Larry and Jacquelyn are not very good at whatever the hell it is they’re trying to do.
  • The Quagmires try to drop all their research about V.F.D. to the Baudelaires but wouldn’t you know it, Esme shoots a harpoon right through the notebooks. The orphans end up with a few scattered pages, including lines of a poem which might sound familiar: “When you drive away in secret/ You’ll be a volunteer/ So don’t scream when we take you/ The world is quiet here.” (It’s worth noting that the end of the episode has the Baudelaires driving away in secret. In a fire engine, although that’s probably not relevant.)

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