Shall we talk about secret organizations then? Mythologies and rituals and coded messages passed through telescope? Or maybe we shouldn’t talk about them—maybe that would be missing the point. “The Reptile Room: Part One” has the Baudelaires adjacent to intrigue, but they remain trapped outside of it, their lives dictated by the best intentions of people who can’t ever seem to give straight answers. In most storytelling, this is what’s known as a stall, a word which here means “withholding important information for no better reason than to cultivate an air of mystery and waste everyone’s time.” But at least there’s a certain thematic resonance to the Baudelaires being left in the dark. This isn’t just a story about how evil people can be; it’s a story about how good people can’t always protect you. Sometimes they’re too caught up in their own games to see what’s happening right in front of them.
Such is the fate of Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (Aasif Mandvi at his most cheerfully doomed), the Baudelaire orphans’ newest guardian. Dr. Monty (or “Uncle Monty,” as he prefers) is a change of pace: he’s friendly, smart, and when he says he wants only what’s best for the children, he actually seems to mean it. For a little while, at least, anyone with poor reading skills and an inability to grasp foreshadowing might actually be fooled into thinking that Monty will be with us for the duration. Maybe this isn’t a story about three plucky orphans left to their own devices. Maybe this is a story about three plucky orphans and their delightful surrogate uncle traveling the globe to search for and study new varieties of herpetological life!
Sadly, it is not. Handling the death of a likable character in what is, ostensibly, children’s entertainment can be tricky. “The Reptile House: Part One” looks to manage any upset or excessive sadness by letting us know what’s about to happen substantially before it actually does. Our erstwhile narrator pops in to let us know relatively early in the proceedings that Monty is not long for this world; that, no matter how desperately we might wish otherwise, the herpetologist’s enthusiasm and kindness will not save him or the Baudelaires.
On one level, this simple but effective foreshadowing. But it also serves to make Monty’s eventual exit less painful. If fictional death happens suddenly and without warning, the shock makes the grief more difficult to process, because it reminds us that mortality isn’t something that happens just to made-up people in books and movies and utterly wretched television programs—it’s lurking out there for everyone, whether we like them or not. But warn us that a death is coming and it becomes less personal and more just history that hasn’t happened yet.
About that foreshadowing: most everything in “The Reptile Room: Part One” is designed to lay the groundwork for what happens in “Part Two” and the episodes to follow. Apart from introducing us to Monty and his precious collection of unusual and surprisingly charming scaled friends (Sunny’s instant rapport with the Incredibly Deadly Viper, who is not at all deadly, is a highlight), the information we get here is divided between building suspense about the sudden reappearance of Count Olaf, and giving us a further glimpse at the machinations of the secret organization that’s trying (with surprisingly limited success) to protect the Baudelaires. Both of these focuses are important to the series as a whole, but only the former offers any immediate appeal, relying less on hints and innuendo and more on a scary man in a patently false costume trying (and failing) to get his way.
The secret messages stuff… well, I suspect it’s partly a matter of taste. In the books, the slow reveal of a cabal (or whatever you want to call it) working behind the scenes helped to expand and enrich the story while breaking it out of an initially repetitive pattern. There was an impression that Handler was making it all up as he want along, but that sense brought with it an intoxicating sense of discovery and possibility, like finding weird notes scribbled on the margins of an otherwise straightforward children’s fable. Introducing those elements earlier on should make for a more cohesive narrative, but it also means a lot of hints and innuendo that won’t actually mean anything for hours yet, if ever.
And sometimes that’s fine. Clues and conundrums are a time-honored element of serialized television, and it’s fun to be intrigued. But the Monty who is oblivious to Stephano’s true identity stands directly at odds with the Monty who decodes secret messages in English language films with English subtitles. It’s hard to pick out a consistent characterization, because the only thing that bridges the two sides of his personality is his enthusiasm. While there are certainly plot ways to justify his missing the point, the emotional effect is to make his fate less tragic and less interesting. He’s too diffuse to really be anyone we might miss.
Take the reveal near the end of the episode that Monty believes Stephano is a spy sent to gather information on his private studies. This is an important moment, because up until this point, we’d been led to believe that Monty had seen through Olaf’s disguise completely. The greatest danger the Baudelaires face is when the adults who are supposed to be protecting them are taken in by the Count’s scheming, and to have a guardian be ahead of the game was a huge comfort. The fact that Monty’s actually too fixated on his own interests to see what’s right in front of him should be a shock, as well as setting him up for his death—he only recognized part of the danger, which left him vulnerable.
As it is, though, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, not even by the show’s own internal logic. Monty is clearly connected to the grand conspiracy, to the point where he even has one of those decoder telescopes used to read secret messages; he takes the children to the movies not for the movie itself, but so he can get a message from the subtitles that will tell him what to do next. He’s aware that there are events outside of his reptiles, and he knows about Count Olaf. He also knows the children are in danger. The fact that he still doesn’t realize Stephano’s true identity threatens the fragile reality the series needs to maintain to make the Baudelaires’ plight something we can invest in.
When Mr. Poe doesn’t see through the Count’s disguises, that’s entirely fitting for the kind of man he is, and the nightmare rules the series operates under. But the whole point of the secret organization so far has been that they do actually know what’s going on, even if their knowledge hasn’t helped the Baudelaires out all that much. It would be in keeping for Monty to be a part of the “good guys” but still fall prey to Olaf; the problem is that he doesn’t realize it’s Olaf. It confuses a situation which is already moderately complicated—the idea that Monty knows Stephano is a phony but doesn’t know what kind of phony is tricky enough on its own. Making his blindspot even more convoluted turns a dreadful situation into a muddled one, and robs things of a lot of their tension.
As with “A Bad Beginning: Part Two,” there are plenty of individual scenes here to enjoy. Mandvi is fun, and it’s a treat to see the children feeling welcome even as doom creeps up behind them. The Stephano routine is a funny one, and the running gag of Olaf’s inability to stay in character for more than thirty seconds at a time hasn’t lost its charm. Monty’s house is gorgeous, and the grounds (including a hedge maze with a suspiciously familiar design at its center) is a nice change of pace from the city. Even the sequence at the movies works well in individual beats.
What’s missing is something to hold it all together with a sense of rising action. The secret organization hints and clues are clever enough on their own, but, at least in this entry, there’s little holding them together in a way that would suggest some cohesive behind the scenes whole. That doesn’t make this a chore to watch, but does render the first half of a two part story frustratingly shapeless, leaving us without much more than the now-expected (and still enjoyable) dark whimsy, and a conclusion that’s conceptually upsetting but neither unexpected or particularly exciting. And the Baudelaires themselves, once again left largely on the sidelines to gape at the madness around them.
- I forgot to mention in the first review, but so far at least, the beginning of each new adaptation starts with a dedication from the source material. Here, it’s “For Beatrice—My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.”
- “Here’s a picture of us.” “There’s no one in that picture.” “We’re locked inside the piano.” (Later, we find out that Olaf is the one who took the picture, which, again, makes it a bit odd that Monty doesn’t recognize him.)
- “I circle the globe in search of a creature who can circle the globe!” -Dr. Montgomery Montgomery
- “It is afternoon and you are Count Olaf.” The kids don’t get many funny lines, but that’s a good one.
- The White Faced Women fail to recognize Olaf when he has his Stephano glasses on. Maybe that’s an attempt subtly justify Monty’s mistake? Or maybe it’s just a decent gag. Who’s to say.
- “All the best movies have subtitles.” -Uncle Monty
- “Mother” and “Father” (quotation marks here added as we have no real proof of their identity at this point beyond what the credits say, and who knows who type those up) have escaped captivity and are currently in Peru. The message Monty gets from the movie subtitles tells him to take the children to Peru. Hmmm.
- My review of “The Reptile House: Part Two” will go up this Thursday. See you then!