Lemony Snicket has been despondently narrating the unfortunate events of the Baudelaire orphans for 20 years now, since “The Bad Beginning”—the first installment in the YA series—was published in 1999. Netflix’s recent adaptation has taken its source material seriously, translating the gallows humor and gothic aesthetic into a thoroughly entertaining series (with no small help from Neil Patrick Harris as the vile impresario Count Olaf).
The first and second seasons (like the book series) displayed a marked difference in tone from normal children’s fare, while still uplifting the innocence and ingenuity of kids when faced with horrible circumstances. By the third season, however, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are beginning to grow up into the complexities of the world they live in. After a young life of being pursued by Count Olaf, who seeks to steal their inheritance, they have been considerably shaped by their misfortune, and it has not left them spotless.
At its core, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a coming-of-age story set against the harsh (albeit caricatured) realities of a cruel world, where the only hope delivered comes in the form of ironic wit and the limited comforts of knowledge. The children encounter danger after danger, as recounted by narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), never truly managing to escape the clutches of Count Olaf or even convince others of his evil intentions.
Along the way, the series has spent many episodes setting up outrageous caricatures of adults and institutions, only to gleefully knock them down. The lesson to children is simple: grown-ups may think certain things will lead to a happy life, but those things aren’t always reliable. Besides the immediate removal of the Baudelaires’ parents at the start of the series, we also see the ultimate futility of caution (“The Wide Window”); fashion (“The Ersatz Elevator”); the educational system (“The Austere Academy”); and rules and community standards (“The Vile Village”). One can almost hear the Teacher of Ecclesiastes delivering his most well-known phrase in Lemony Snicket’s dry monotone: “Everything is meaningless.”
In this way, A Series of Unfortunate Events offers a dreary honesty that’s rare in children’s literature, making its points razor sharp through skillful use of contrast and absurdity. The garish nature of its characters set against a dismal gothic backdrop balloons their flaws large enough that we can see them clearly. In nods to German expressionism, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, we get an outsized picture of our own world. We see the ridiculous nature of following the latest trends when the characters drink parsley soda because it is “in,” or the illogical nature of blind justice when a court literally hands out blindfolds to its participants.
If the final season promises anything, it’s that A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t finished poking at things that are supposed to provide happiness. In “The Penultimate Peril,” the children travel to The Last Safe Place, the headquarters of a secret organization dedicated to putting out the world’s fires. There they finally participate in the trial of Count Olaf, which goes south faster than you can say “red herring.” Every character the children have encountered thus far gathers to bring Olaf to justice. With all of the adults finally admitting that the person in front of them is Count Olaf and that he needs to be stopped, it seems as though justice will be served.
Instead, Olaf puts the children themselves on trial: “You're not the innocent orphans you've let these people think you are. You've lied. You've stolen. You've abandoned people. You've set fires. Time after time, you have relied on treachery for survival, just like everybody else, because here is the real truth that no one is willing to tell you—there are no noble people in the world."
The problem is that Olaf is not lying, And so the flawed court turns on the children instead, removing two key structures in the process: justice and innocence. Even children do wicked things for noble reasons. Even children make mistakes. And in the words of the musical number in the episode, “You dream that justice and peace win the day / but that’s not how the story goes.”
The Baudelaires have been considerably shaped by their misfortune, and it has not left them spotless.
The final episode (“The End”) finds the children stranded on a tropical island, where they encounter the founder of the secret organization (Peter MacNicol). This character is a white-bearded individual with a cult of followers, whom he keeps docile with fermented coconut water (an opiate, if you will). The critique of organized religion is clear when the children discover he has been withholding all of the interesting tools and ideas away from his followers, hiding them in a treehouse where he alone goes to enjoy them. In a telling symbol, the children are saved from the final, life-threatening situation by none other than a snake carrying an apple.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events, knowledge used for noble reasons is the closest thing to a “happy” ending. The problem is that if one were to follow this out to its logical conclusion, there is no difference between Count Olaf and the children. They are both seeking happiness in a world where lasting happiness does not exist. The children’s pursuit of knowledge and beauty is a desperate grasping at something higher than themselves, and it may seem to be more admirable than Olaf’s pursuit of wealth and revenge. But in a universe devoid of divine standards for morality, who can claim that to be true? If there is nothing beyond the troubles of this world, if our very natures are wicked even when we know what we should be, and if our lives are merely long and full of struggle, then Count Olaf says it best: “Everybody runs around with their secrets and their schemes trying to outwit one another, and then they die.”
Through its systematic rejection of everything humanity relies on to find hope and avoid pain—including our supposed inherent “goodness”—Unfortunate Events paints a vivid, biblical picture of life without God. The outrageous caricature is correct. We humans are truly ridiculous and blind (like the adults scattered throughout the series) if we search for meaning in the things of this world.
But what if we find meaning in Christ? As the one who has covered our failings and forgiven our faults, Jesus imbues all things in our lives with meaning. Family and fashion, to name two of the things Unfortunate Events deflates, are not keys to a happy life, but gifts that can be redeemed through him. Faith in Christ means relying on the one true constant in the universe that actually delivers on his promise of both meaning in this life and the next. Faith in Christ opens our eyes to look beyond our fallen world and see the true happy ending he promises. That happy ending then informs how we live now—as those who recognize the despair of the world and choose to speak hope into the void.
With its conclusion, A Series of Unfortunate Events suggests that the best we can do is take joy in secret libraries, witty invention, and culinary ingenuity. But that weary Teacher of Ecclesiastes eventually offers more solid hope:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.