And here we find ourselves at the end—not “The End,” that’s still a couple episodes away, but the climax, the acme of the Baudelaires’ journey. Although, as usual, it’s not that simple. As Lemony Snicket has repeatedly told us, he has no idea where the Baudelaires actually are, so a happy ending with them living with a supportive and thoughtful guardian seems unlikely. “The Penultimate Peril” (both parts, although I won’t spoil the second) feels like where a more conventional narrative would’ve come to its conclusion. The two-parter has all the hallmarks of a finale: big stakes, lots of reappearing guest stars, and some actual answers to the questions that have been plaguing us for three seasons now.
The answers will have to wait, though, because most of “Part One” is given over to setting up the scenario and building to a tragic climax. After the surprisingly brisk pace of the previous four episodes, things slow down here, and while there’s an enough incident in this episode to justify the running time, it’s also not as tight as it could’ve been, especially when taking the events of “Part Two” into account (which, again, I will not spoil, and I’m going to stop bringing it up at all because it’s making me nervous).
The arc of the hour leads to a confrontation in front of the hotel where the Baudelaires face down Count Olaf, manage to defeat him, and then, in their moment of triumph, make a horrible mistake. It’s an intense gear-shift moment. After fifty minutes of watching the kids scramble to figure out what’s going on in the hotel and who they can trust, they finally uncover the mystery, and then accidentally murder it with a harpoon gun. It’s also more than a little contrived.
The staging of that final scene, with the three kids standing in front of Dewey Denouement (the secret third brother of Frank and Ernest, all of whom are played by Max Greenfield) and holding the gun, then dropping it when Mr. Poe startles them—well, I get the general idea. The show is leaning into the increasingly-complex-view-of-morality-and-responsibility that it’s been hedging on for a while now. There’s no such thing as a clean victory, and for all their good intentions and decency, the Baudelaires can’t escape the vagaries of fate. Or happenstance.
But potential thematic resonance aside, the reversal is sloppy and forced, in ways that would’ve been fairly easy to fix. (At the very least, just having someone mention that the harpoon gun had a loose trigger would’ve helped.) Pure accident is the sort of thing that starts stories; it’s a silly, and lazy, thing to introduce this late in the game. What’s especially frustrating is that the emotions of the scene work fairly well, and serve as a microcosm of the whole episode. The kids finally get to be heroes, finally get to save someone from Olaf—and then they’re responsible for that someone’s death. But that’s the sort of tricky, heartbreaking moment you have to generate with some really sharp plotting. Otherwise it’s so evidently reverse engineered to make a point that it loses a lot of its value.
Still, “Part One” does a great job up until that point, using a convoluted, logic-puzzle premise (there are two brothers: one always tells the truth, one always lies, and oh yeah, they’re identical) and having lots of fun keeping everyone confused until the big reveal. There are some delightful little touches, like the clock that tolls “wrong,” and the design of the hotel itself; in a lot of ways it’s just a wider version of the high-rise from “The Ersatz Elevator,” but the immensity of it helps to make the kids seem that much smaller. It leads to some gorgeous visuals as well, including the all-time great shot of dead Dewey floating in a pool over his magnificent underground library.
Character-wise, while the Baudelaires are still operating on someone else’s orders (this time it’s Kit Snicket, who wants them to find the identity of the mysterious “J.S.”), they’re still left to their own devices. Their joy when they discover that Justice Strauss is behind all of the mysterious telegrams inviting everyone to the hotel is a relief from all the misery they’ve endured, and theie courage when facing Count Olaf feels earned at this point. Olaf himself is coming to a bit of a crisis point. He breaks up with Esme and ditches Carmelita, leaving him even more isolated than the orphans. He also can’t quite pull the trigger on the kids, which is a moment Neil Patrick Harris makes work (“You don’t have to do this.” “It’s all I know how to do.”) even if I’m not convinced it makes sense in terms of the character’s larger history.
After all, this is a guy who earlier boiled Larry Your Waiter alive in a pot full of curry. He’s not known for an inability to follow through on murderous plots. But maybe even he can’t kill kids face to face. Whatever the reason, the episode ends with a dead Denouement, the kids taking some of the blame for it, and Lemony Snicket himself, arriving in Jacques’ taxi.
- “For Beatrice- No one could extinguish my love, or your house.”
- Larry’s death is a bit much. There’s a difference between “light-hearted black comedy that only gets disturbing if you really think about” and “black comedy that really rubs it in your face,” and I feel like that scene crosses the line. It’s indicative, I think, of the show’s general inability to settle on a proper tone.
- Have I praised Allison Williams’ performance yet? She’s quite good.
- So is Lucy Punch—the fact that she manages to avoid being upstaged by her own outfits is pretty impressive.
- Nero, Jerome Squalor, and Babs are all back. It’s a somewhat random mix of guest turns, but it’s fun to see everyone.
- The difference between young and “present day” Lemony Snicket is striking; makes you notice all the lines on Patrick Warburton’s face.