Netflix recently announced that it would be producing a series based on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the acclaimed 13+ volume children’s series. 1%JIHAD staffers gallons and s.s. decided to take this opportunity to read the series over and figure out why it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye. See our assessments of books 1-3 here, 4-7 here, and 8-10 here.
s.s. – Well gallons, here we are, the end of a long, long, series of unfortunate events. Surprisingly, perhaps, the last three books of the series don’t reveal much. Many supposedly important plot points – I’m looking at you, sugar bowl – remain unexplained. Much like in the previous ten books, Handler seems content to delve deeper into the themes he has already established – moral ambiguity, the pursuit and general usefulness of knowledge, and the story within the story. All three of these themes become thoroughly entangled by the end of the series, so much so that Handler moves the last book to a biblical island in the middle of the ocean. Beginning with book the 11th (“The Grim Grotto”) the orphan’s previous conclusions become immediately challenged. For example, in “The Slippery Slope,” Klaus and Violet correctly trust Quigley Quagmire largely because he is “well-read.” In “GG,” the orphans similarly trust Fiona because of her intelligence and are betrayed – and then un-betrayed – and then betrayed again. By the end of the series, we still can’t be confident in identifying Fiona as a “good” or “bad” person – even relatively speaking. It seems fitting, then, that the Hotel Denouement is literally a library of people and the orphans are charged with parsing “volunteers” from “villains.”
gallons – Yes, s.s. Snicket/Handler’s major themes come to a weird, twisty head somewhere around book twelve, “The Penultimate Peril,” which, instead of being the denouement Snicket touts it as, ends up a Gordian Knot of insane proportions. After the relatively straight-forward “Grotto,” which like “Miserable Mill” and “Hostile Hospital” before it feels largely like a filler piece meant to move our heroes from one point to another, “Peril” puts the orphans in the most twistedly ambiguous situation they’ve had yet to face. This is the book in which all is supposed to unravel and become clear, and sure, we’re given quite a bit of information – the connection between the Snicket and Baudelaire families is illuminated, the nature of the schism is elaborated upon, the secret of “J.S.” is revealed – but the number of questions raised by the massive tangle of volunteers, villains, and people who lie somewhere in between at the Hotel Denouement far outstrips the scraps of answers we’re tossed. By the end of the book, the orphans sever the knot by burning the hotel down and jumping ship in a tiny boat with Count Olaf himself, the man they’ve been running from this entire time. It’s a pretty bizarre and unsatisfying way to “unknot” the story we’ve been spooling up for twelve books.
To come back to your point about the library of people, it seems libraries – and the knowledge contained therein – are an important theme we’ve yet to touch on in this series. What are your thoughts?
s.s. – “PP” begins with Kit Snicket giving the orphans the more or less impossible mission of “observing” if the mysterious J.S. is a “noble person” or a “villainous person.” Kit immediately complicates this already vague mission by telling the orphans that “you may…recognize some volunteers [noble persons]…but you also may recognize some of your enemies, as they will be posing as noble people by showing up early as well [showing up early being a trait of noble people]. While you try to observe the impostor, various impostors will undoubtedly be observing you.” Great. Thanks, Kit. When the orphans ask Kit for more advice she basically trots out the “I know it when I see it” bullshit that’s about as useful as when baseball scouts say a player has “intangibles” or talk about quarterbacks that have “the it factor.” Kit more or less admits that no one really knows how to identify someone as being noble or villainous – which makes sense because, as the previous eleven books have pointed out, the line between the two is always moving and isn’t so much a line but some kind of spectrum with no absolute value on either side. Which means that the schism that split V.F.D. traces its boundaries in unknown territory. No one – even the people involved – really know where most “volunteers” have landed.
To combat this problem the orphans (and most of V.F.D. for that matter) have been assembling information and using it as a means to decipher one’s “nobility.” The Hotel Denouement is an information overload. It is literally a Dewey Decimal-coded library of basically every major character in the books who are all descending upon it as the “last safe place.” The orphans are trying to dig their way out of another problem using “information” and “research.” Except this time there’s just too much to take in and none of it is organized. The Hotel is chaos and in the end – as you already mentioned, gallons – nothing is solved. “PP” pushes most of the ridiculous things in the series to their breaking point. The supreme justices, for example, have taken the phrase “justice is blind” literally, and blindfold everyone at the trial near the end of the book. Items we thought to be of great importance are alluded to and then trivialized and forgotten. And then, worst of all, the orphans actually leave the place burning (with a fire they started using a BOOK) and set out to sea with Count Olaf.
All of which is to say that the information the orphans have been gathering has more or less amounted to nothing. Even the Snicket File is forgotten. We don’t see head or tail of it by the time the orphans end up a coastal shelf in the middle of the sea containing an entirely different kind of library.
gallons – The insane library of “The End” is nowhere even near the craziest thing about that book, which, just to recap for a second, is set on an *island* “facilitated” by a man who sits with his *feet buried in clay* while *sheep* cart him around everywhere, mandating rules over his subjects who are *drunk all the time,* and forbidding them from visiting the far side of the island, where there is a *gargantuan tree* with a house in its roots that grows *horseradish-laced apples* and is surrounded by *literally endless junk.* That is what we’re dealing with. So the library, which in this book takes the shape of an enormous pile of stuff that has washed up on the island’s shores over the years (just as, we are constantly reminded, everything does), while weird, has noting on the bizarre Eden-like scene we’ve been dropped into.
The biblical allegories – with the tree of knowledge, the serpent, etc. – completely replace the entire plot of the twelve preceding books. V.F.D. is no longer relevant. The various MacGuffins you mention, s.s., are no longer relevant. The only thing that still matters is the moral ambiguity that has become the heart of the series, and which takes its most concrete shape in a surprising place – the heart of Count Olaf.
Having washed up on the shore with the Baudelaires, Olaf is immediately perceived by the Nausicaa-esque girl Friday and the rest the islanders as what he is – a villain and a phony. They refuse to let him join the colony, and eventually throw him in a giant birdcage. We, and the Baudelaires, actually end up feeling sorry for him, which is a super surprising emotional twist initially, but which makes sense if you look at is as the head to which all this moral relativism has been building. Olaf ends up redeeming himself by dying while helping to save Kit Snicket so she can give birth before dying herself. In the process, he and Kit exchange quotes from supposed early volunteers Francis William Bourdillon and Philip Larkin.
This quote-off represents the end of a growing historicization of the series, that’s been ramping up ever since that Nietzsche line back in “The Slippery Slope.” Increasingly over these three books, various characters drop lines from various historical figures, citing them as V.F.D. members of old. The implication is that, as you pointed out above, the history of the schism and the line that divides its two sides is older and weirder than we could ever imagine. If Olaf is well-read enough (and has enough taste) to quote a weirdly profane poem by Philip Larkin, then maybe the Baudelaire parents really are “evil” enough to have killed Olaf’s parents with poison darts at the opera.
s.s. The potential for the Baudelaire parents to be murderers is perhaps the most disturbing turn of the series as it upends the only moral “safe ground” we have had the whole series. The Baudelaire parents have always been presented as imperviously noble and to discover the potential for their own moral relativity is disturbing to say the least.
Of equal disturbance, I think, is Olaf’s eventual nihilism. For most of the series he is seen as evil, but evil for classic and obvious reasons – money and power. By the end of “The End” Olaf has basically gone insane. He willfully releases a deadly fungus on himself and on the entire island without any care for the repercussions or even the benefits. More than anything, he wants to destroy the “safety” of the island. He hates that any group of people can try to weather the maelstrom of the world – which the Hotel Denouement has shown to be both prodigious and confusing – and wants desperately to destroy that bubble for no other reason than to simply expose the island to the disease of the outside world. The outside world has washed ashore on the island in the past, but Ishmael has always relegated its contents to the far side of the island. Olaf is a threat he is unable to contain and it literally forces the entire island to uproot itself and enter the world again. So, I guess Olaf wins even though he dies?
To make things more confusing, the Baudelaires also want to penetrate the bubble of the island. Their reasons are less sinister – but come to basically the same conclusion. Right before Olaf’s scheme succeeds, the orphans are returning from the vast “library” on the other side of the island to help stage a mutiny. It’s the closest the Baudelaires have been, morally, to Olaf and it forces the reader, yet again, to reconsider their moral standing. We shouldn’t be particularly surprised by any of this, but I could not help but feel as though the ground we had been standing on the whole series suddenly shifted.
gallons – While I wasn’t too surprised by the orphans’s attempted mutiny – they did burn down a hotel and a carnival, after all – Olaf’s pyrrhic victory is certainly a weird element of the series. I think it has a dramatic effect on the orphans themselves, which is why we end up with “Chapter Fourteen,” the epilogue to the series. The Baudelaires essentially decide to take their newly adopted baby and hide inside the tree-house for a year. No past trauma throughout the books has been enough to stop them on their quest for justice and truth, or at least to stop them from moving where the winds take them. But now, in the wake of Olaf’s bizarre quasi-suicide, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny take an entire year off, essentially recuperating psychologically, and reading their parents’s records of their own time on the island, stored in a black-bound book meta-titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” That they decide to leave the island once high tide comes around again at the very end of the end of “The End” is sort of an afterthought, really – they seem to just wake up that day and feel as though they can deal again. And so the series comes to an end, the Baudelaire orphans and their new companion – Beatrice Snicket, named for their mother – heading off arbitrarily into the great unknown.
And now, we bring you –
THE 1%JIHAD “A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS” DRINKING GAME
Read the books as a round-table with a group of friends. Make it a weekly event for 13 weeks. All rules apply to everyone present.
– Take a shot a the start of each book. You’re going to need it.
– Take a shot every time Olaf is unmasked.
– Drink each time Sunny speaks in real words (English or otherwise.)
– Drink a bottle of wine along with Olaf and his comrades.
– Chug a beer whenever the orphans verbally appreciate each other.
– Drink each time Snicket writes, “a phrase which here means – ”
– Drink every time Olaf successfully fools an adult who is supposed to look after the orphans.
– Take a shot every time you recognize a literary reference without looking it up.
– Drink a real martini every time Esmé has an aqueous one.
– Take three shots each time the Baudelaires do something “villainous.”
– Go and buy more alcohol of any type any time someone dies a gruesome death in a “children’s series.” (Pour one out for the deceased.)
– Finish said alcohol whenever someone escapes said gruesome fate.
– Pour one out for every reference to Beatrice (dedications included).
– Make your own coconut cordial to sip on at your leisure throughout “The End.”
– Take a shot at the end of each book. You’re going to need it.