All things considered, Mount Fraught wasn’t a particularly interesting place. Much of the pleasure of A Series Of Unfortunate Events comes from each new utterly awful location, and the combination of whimsically grim production design and Kafkaesque world-building helps to hold my attention even when the story and characters are floundering. “The Slippery Slope” just didn’t really make the cut. It was a mountain, and there was ice, and that was about it. Even the Snow Gnats didn’t amount to much.
“The Grim Grotto: Part One” makes up for this, however. Not only do we get the titular grotto, which very much lives up to its name; we also get two submarines and a submarine rental shop, a lot of ocean, and the Great Unknown. The submarine the Baudelaires find themselves in continues the show’s Wes-Anderson-on-a-tighter-budget design aesthetic, colorful and twee and almost comfortable enough to be habitable, while Olaf and his crew rent something considerably gloomier that looks like a mechanical octopus. The grotto itself isn’t all that memorable, but then, it’s not really supposed to be. Like the burnt remains of V.F.D. headquarters in the previous episodes, it’s a place where things used to happen.
“Part One” also builds off the increased momentum of the season opener, doubling down on the sense that things are moving towards some final, unknowable conclusion. I haven’t complained about episode running times this season, because I haven’t had to; of the three episodes I’ve watched so far, all of them have been under 45 minutes. It’s a relief that cuts down on some of the empty tangents and bad improv that plagued earlier seasons, helping the pace considerably. That’s even more evident here than it was in “Slippery Slope.” Lots of stuff happens in “Part One,” and, perhaps more importantly, most of it seems to matter.
First, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny make a new friend: Fiona Widdershins (Kassius Nelson), the current captain of the Queequeg. Actually “friend” might be stretching it. Klaus takes to her at once, but Violet doesn’t trust her; and there’s just enough that’s off about Fiona to suggest that Violet might be right. It’s a dynamic that works better as an idea than it does in actual practice. Introducing a morally ambiguous character—someone who seems like they’re on the right side but for whatever reason you can’t entirely trust—makes sense in a story like this, where the Baudelaires can rarely depend on the people they meet to help them even if their intentions are good.
Olaf is in reduced circumstances; having lost most of his troupe in the previous episode, he’s stuck working with the Hook-Handed Man, Esme, and Carmelita. Worse, his former mentors continue to undermine him, renting out a sub in Esme’s name and leaving her a captain’s hat to subtly indicate their displeasure in Olaf’s continued failures. While neither MWBNH nor WWHNB make an appearance, but their impact on the series continues to be felt, punishing Olaf in an unexpected way—albeit not one that keeps him on the sidelines for long.
“Part One” also features the return of Phil, the absurd optimist from “The Miserable Mill.” He’s lost a leg (shark attack), and is the only other crew member on board the Queequeg, but that doesn’t get him down; not even the fact that he’s a cook who doesn’t know how to cook and keeps serving gum seems to bother him. To state the obvious, it’s a one-note joke, but Chris Gauthier’s perpetual half-crazed enthusiasm helps keep it funny.
In terms of story, when the Baudelaires meet Fiona (after Sunny guess that “Baudelaires” is the correct password to get them on the sub; for once, they’re meeting someone who’s heard of them and doesn’t immediately think they’re a murderer, which might be another reason to be suspicious of Fiona), she’s on the hunt for the Sugar Bowl, and in spite of Violet’s increasingly panicked demands that they make their way to the Last Safe Place for the meeting with V.F.D., she refuses to budge. Klaus figures out where the bowl came to rest after falling into Stricken Stream, and the Queequeg heads to the Grotto, located under an old V.F.D. research site. Mid-journey, they get captured by Olaf, who finds the Baudelaires but not Fiona; she manages to get an S.O.S. to Kit while Olaf forces the orphans to do his dirty work.
See what I mean about a lot happening? And that’s not even all of it. Where “Slippery Slope” often played like a collection of scenes abutting one another till the climax, this first half of “Grim Grotto” moves in more or less a straight line. For once, there’s no playing around with Olaf pretending to be someone else that the Baudelaires immediately see through; they meet each other face to face, as Olaf and Esme simply overpower the children and force them to do their bidding. It’s a different sort of suspense, and things only get more intense when a brief reunion with Quigley (who now has the Sugar Bowl) is interrupted by the terrible and deadly Medusoid Mycelium. The kids escape back to the submarine, only to find that Sunny has brought some of the fungus back with her in her diving suit.
That’s one of the best cliffhangers the show has ever done, and for the first time in what seems like ages, whatever happens next feels like it could be dangerous. At the very least, it makes it easy to push play for “Part Two.”
- “For Beatrice- Dead women tell no tales. Sad men write them down.”
- “Sometimes it is a relief to be bored, because when is bored, one is also safe.” -Lemony Snicket
- The Hook-Handed Man is very apologetic about not killing Sunny, but Olaf refuses to accept his apology or let him say his real name.
- Both sides of the schism are searching for the Sugar Bowl, but we still have no idea what’s inside it. (Quigley does; he gets a brief glimpse before the end of the episode.)
- Both ships have an encounter with The Great Unknown, a vaguely Lovecraftian beastie haunting the depths. It’s not surprising that Fiona knows about it, but the fact that Olaf does is interesting.
- Fiona’s stepfather, Captain Widdershins, is nowhere to be seen.
- Violet finds a telegram in the Grotto: something about a man named Fernald sending a message to a man named Gregor about a project called “Playing With Fire.”
- “I get to see a brig!” -Phil