“Anyone still watching has clearly lost all reason,” intones the opening credits song of Season 3 of a Series of Unfortunate Events. As covered in our previous review, the Netflix Original (based on the popular series of books written by Daniel Handler / Lemony Snicket) is a delightfully depressing tale of questionable morality, endlessly amusing wordplay, and quite literally a series of unfortunate events.
As the forth wall breaking narrator Lemony himself stated right back in Season 1, Episode 1: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else. In this story is there not only no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.”
The central narrative has expanded from the wicked Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris with superb breathless abandon) trying to keep at least one of the Baudelaire orphans in his clutches so that he can obtain their ‘massive fortune’. That may have been how things began, but as layer upon layer of conspiracy has been added the plot thickens considerably to the point where it is difficult to keep up.
We’ve learned that the recurring initials ‘V.F.D.’ actually stand for ‘Volunteer Fire Department’. But what was the purpose of this secret organisation? What was the ‘schism’ that tore the organisation into fire starters and fire stoppers? Why are both sides desperately chasing down the sugar bowl (the mysterious MacGuffin plot device of the books)? Even for fans of the book, keeping on track with what is going on requires some focus.
The thirteen books that make up the series have been split among the seasons with the final four – The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and The End – making up season 3. Series opening, The Slippery Slope, shows both figuratively and literally how one small decision can be the start of a slippery slope of justifications down darker paths.
Whilst Olaf has been constantly portrayed as maniacal and self-centred, the Baudelaires themselves consider mimicking his techniques such as arguing about whether or not to hold his beau, Esmé Squalor, hostage. “What choice do we have?” is often the dialogue accompanying these moments. Later, one of Olaf’s henchpeople sums it up with a throwaway line: “People aren’t wicked or noble, they’re like chef salads. Good things and bad things mixed together.”
I could deep dive into the themes, morals, and messages of A Series Of Unfortunate Events endlessly. But even taken on a surface level, season 3 continues the very high standard of the series. The settings are always larger than life and screen-filling riots of colour and overblown gothic wonderment.
Our cast veer from an ever eclectic range of locations: the snow capped peaks of Mount Fraught (where they meet the villainous Man with Beard but No Hair, and Woman with Hair but No Beard); the ‘most terrifying’ submarine available to rent (pursued by a sea monster shaped like a question mark and dubbed ‘The Great Unknown’); a deadly cave where poisonous fungus appear and disappear before your eyes; a huge hotel with the rooms arranged like the Dewey Decimal System, and a cult like island where no-one ever argues (or remembers why). Each episode has eye popping visuals that will leave a lasting impression of larger than life hyper-reality.
The cast remain outstanding. Violet and Klaus (Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes) are sympathetic in their plights even when questioning the actions they are forced to take. Most of the clever and funny dialogue is rattled off quickly so keeping up with the jokes can be a bit tricky. But this means that on the occasions the action and speech do slow down both Malina and Louis imbue their performances with a tired sadness that still gives way to glimmers of hope.
Side plots such as the oft-maligned Hook Handed Man is one of the series few moments of sweetness as he bonds with no-longer-a-baby, Sunny Baudelaire during a shared Stockholm Syndrome experience. Esme (Lucy Punch) and adopted daughter Carmelita Spats (Kitana Turnbull – last seen in season 1) are both pantomime levels of slappable. Turnbull’s super adorable spoiled brat performance as Camelita will make you want to lunge into the TV and scream in her face!
The series ends much as it starts – with a whole host of questions. However, you may be satisfied with more answers here than a completely faithful adaptation would have given you.
Throughout the season, flashbacks fill in many gaps about Olaf, the ‘schism’, and Beatrice (to whom each episode proffers an opening dedication). And people disappointed by the actual ending of last book ‘The End’ may be pleased to see a coda lifted from side-novel, ‘The Beatrice Letters’ which means that we end on a (slightly) more upbeat note.
Talking directly to the audience, series narrator and occasional plot participant Lemony Snickett (portrayed with deadpan comic genius mixed with undercurrents of weary sadness by the sublime Patrick Warburton) is one of the last faces we see. “What choice do we have?” is the question asked throughout A Series Of Unfortunate Events and season 3 answers that with, “your own.”
Good people may die and wicked people may prevail, but as Lemony sits in a diner to share a well earned root beer float we see that the path taken is just as important as any destination. “Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it,” he says. The cataloguing of this tale by Netflix is, quite simply, how to do perfect justice to a source material that must have been tempting to dumb down.
Yes, some bits are moved around or fleshed out from other books, but season three rounds off A Series Of Unfortunate Events dark gothic comedy with as much energy and vigour as it started. Please, do not look away.
Words by Michael Record