It was a little hard for me to get excited about the final installment of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I confess. I’m not sure why. Was it time? Was it how the seasons were structured and spaced? Had I just moved on? Had I fallen under the impression that it would fall flat? Lemony Snicket’s real-world avatar is a sometime-drinking buddy of mine, and he was characteristically opaque on the matter, when it came up; perhaps I had come to the conclusion that it somehow wasn’t going to be his anymore.
But the first of the year rolled around, and my 11-year-old, who is generally impervious to any TV characters whose name isn’t Simpson, was on fire to binge the whole of the last season of ASOUE, which was to start with the events of “The Slippery Slope” and conclude in the barren emotional desert that is “The End.” And, within a few minutes, I had to admit that I still loved the series. It had once again survived translation to the screen, which for this property didn’t just mean the right cast and a very specific esthetic (roughly Surrealist-Neogoth-Steampunk-Absurdist-High-Romantic-Nihilist): It meant the vocabulary.
I don’t think you can be a writer or a lover of languages or books and not feel pangs of mingled joy and envy reading Daniel Handler’s meta-paean to basic research skills, catholic curiosity and being well-read.
It started with the Carnival Freaks—Hugo, Colette, and the horrifyingly ambidextrous Kevin. My daughter (coincidentally also known as “Colette” in these pages, and for similar reasons) noticed it before I did—she’d read the books more recently. “Wait, did they just get killed off?” She seemed a bit activated as the Freaks were dispatched by the Man with a Beard and No Hair and the Woman with Hair but No Beard. “What?”
“It’s TV, dude,” I yawned. “You have to make some choices differently.”
“Why did that choice have be made differently?” she shot back in a surprisingly feisty voice. Colette had elected to take the show rather personally, which is a thing that happens with adaptations of books we especially love. As an older and more cynical creature, I was unfazed.
But it kept happening. The Snow Scouts not only had a different leader; it was also heavily implied that the Fire Starters had all their parents killed. There were things that happened in the last episodes that didn’t happen at all or were only implied in the books. Some of it worked, I thought: Actually putting Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) in that taxi was a good move, as far as I was concerned. The Freaks meeting an untimely end on the slope of Mount Fraught was ambiguous; with my purist leanings, I could go on for a paragraph about how it’s more thematically appropriate for them to follow the Baudelaires, as they do in the books, all the way to the tragedy at Hotel Denouement, but honestly, it’s not that big of a deal. Spending a little extra time with Kit Snicket (Allison Williams) didn’t really bug me. The backstory hat-tip at the opera with the calamitous death of Count Olaf’s loving father was unorthodox, but it had its merits. The truncating of Book 13’s foray into an old volume on the island in which the Baudelaires learn a lot about their parents is unfortunate, but in this medium it’s a predictable enough sacrifice.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is basically a library of literary devices, including a denouement that both is and takes place at a library-hotel, so it’s really only surprising that there isn’t a major character named MacGuffin—a term which here means “the thing the heroes want but the bad guys are after it, too.” But there is a sugar bowl.
Let me explain.
For some reason, the writers on Season Three decided it was important to spell out what was actually inside the mysterious, coveted hot-potato Beatrice Baudelaire famously stole from Esme Squalor around the time of the Schism: sugar. Which would actually have been funny if they’d left it at that. But they didn’t. They made it into sugar infused with the extract of a strange apple-horseradish hybrid that had been cultivated as an antidote to the lethal and alliterative Medusoid Mycelium. So, like, there was a specific and plot-relevant reason why everyone was after it. (Yes, my therapist is aware I have been cogitating for three weeks over whether it’s OK that they clarify what’s in the sugar bowl.)
Ahem. The sugar bowl is a small matter—arguably nothing compared to fleshing out a backstory that’s only implied in the books, and certainly compared to the end of “The End,” which had my family yelling, “Awwww, come on!” at the TV as young Beatrice Baudelaire (II) sits down at a soda fountain with poor old bone-weary Lemony Snicket to tell him of her adventures, tying a big old full-circle bow around the narrative and prefiguring a sadder-but-wiser and, well, optimistic ending, if not a happy one. As in, a new family; relationships rising from the ashes of old ones. It’s a reasonable trope for a series about burning houses down, really. Not an epic betrayal, just a slightly irritating dilution of tone. A bit sentimental, a deviation from the source material that wasn’t required of anyone. (Apparently Barry Sonnenfeld felt it was more emotional and “the way Daniel should have ended the book; Wow!) Look, “closure” doesn’t happen in the books. I feel like there’s a reason for that; perhaps it’s that there isn’t any in real life. Closure is a construct for children’s stories.
The sugar bowl, though. That got my attention. Why did they reveal its contents, and why did in it have to be in the service of a super-literal plot point? That’s not the purview of a proper MacGuffin. A MacGuffin isn’t about what it is or why everyone is looking for it. It’s about how the characters are molded and changed and driven onward by the search, about how it affects their decisions and illuminates their values. MacGuffins are not plot devices. They’re character-development rubrics.
And no, I don’t think I’ve gone down a freaky-deaky rabbit hole of petty minutiae that even a confirmed OCPD case would scoff at, thank you for asking. A Series of Unfortunate Events is an incredibly nimble and skillful next-leveling of literary tropes, managing to remain genuinely affecting—due respect to Sonnenfeld, but the way the author ends his book is entirely appropriate and deeply emotional—despite being almost obnoxiously clever. I suspect it pulls this off with its pure allegorical moxie; it’s kind of like a steampunk Pilgrim’s Progress for young people, only literary instead of spiritual (and for many of us those are the same thing). So, tinkering with those devices is fraught and tricky. In this particular adaptation, it is also unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a brilliant series. Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman are terrific as Klaus and Violet Baudelaire, Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Warburton (as the ignoble-ignorant Count Olaf and the woebegone Lemony Snicket, respectively) are an absolute kick from end to end, and the supporting cast is full of treasures. The esthetic is spot-on. The structure feels right, and amazingly, they managed to preserve the books’ pure, nerdy reveling in words and their ebullient adoration of books—throughout the third season, there were tons of moments when I paused to admire a turn of phrase or laugh at one of Warburton’s dourly-delivered etymological transits. It’s a sincerely well-rendered adaptation of a fabulous literary work about the importance of being literate. I guess I should note that they didn’t choose to have Sunny Baudelaire capture the sugar bowl and save the Hotel Denouement from the flames and stroll into the sunset arm-in-arm with Justice Strauss, and let that be that.
But if they had to disclose the contents of the sugar bowl, I wish they could’ve just left it at “sugar.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.