Episode 5 kicks off with probably one of the most humorous openings of the series: at Lachrymose News, “where things keep happening and happening, until they stop.” Daniel Handler, show runner and writer of five out of the eight episodes of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, gets huge props for this script, as it’s probably the funniest episode of the entire series.
In this Wes Anderson-esque universe, it’s important to have humor that’s aware of its own ridiculousness; Handler hits the nail on the head with incredibly dry wit that inspires more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. I think one of my favorite jokes is when Count Olaf and his troupe of bad actors are sailing across Lake Lachrymose:
Powder-faced Woman: “Land ho!”
Powder-faced Woman #2: “I told you not to call me that!”
In this universe that holds innocent ideals and adult humor side by side, it’s a difficult task to get the balance right. But Handler manages it, and it’s ultimately what makes this series so great to watch.
The Baudelaire orphans have arrived at Lake Lachrymose, where they are put in the charge of their newest guardian: Aunt Josephine.
Give Alfre Woodard an award, she is absolutely perfect in this role. Formerly known as a “fierce and formidable woman,” Aunt Josephine is now afraid of everything, and screams at the drop of a hat, or the close of a door, or the ring of a telephone. With a lesser actress I could see this role getting annoying; however, Woodard is nothing but hilarious as she switches at a moment’s notice from a calm, caring, doting auntie to a shrieking hysteric who’s afraid of everything from electricity to real estate agents.
It’s comedy gold when Woodard and Neil Patrick Harris share the screen together. Even Harris can’t out-mug Woodard as they banter back and forth, Aunt Josephine becoming infatuated with Count Olaf’s latest disguise, the Captain-Ahab-meets-Sean-Connery amalgamation that is Captain Sham. (There are actually a lot of Moby Dick references in both parts of “The Wide Window,” from Hurricane Herman to the cab driver saying, “Call me Ishmael” – another testament to this show’s respect for kids’ intelligence.)
Their absurd flirting has to come to an end, though, when Aunt Josephine supposedly commits suicide by jumping out a window (again, dark stuff for a kids’ show!).
Of course, things are not as they appear, as the Baudelaires begin their investigations into what truly happened to Aunt Josephine, including a visit to the Anxious Clown Restaurant, “where everyone has a good time whether they like it or not.” I think it’s here we truly start to understand why Count Olaf despises the Baudelaire children so much: because they aren’t following his script.
Throughout the show, Count Olaf is called many insults – despicable, manipulative, evil, etc. He flinches at none of them, except one – “bad actor.” Count Olaf has taken pursuit of his craft to a whole new level – it’s the only way he defines himself. He can be as horrible as he wants, and it doesn’t matter to him, as long as he is able to carry on performing – whether that’s on stage, or in real life to manipulate the people around him.
It’s an interesting situation when your main villain has no sense of a line between reality and performance (well, except when he’s making Netflix references while looking into the camera). We could say, in essence, that Count Olaf is nothing without an audience. In contrast to the Baudelaires, who are perfectly happy to occupy themselves with independent pursuits such as inventing or reading, Count Olaf craves affirmation from others; even his troupe of actors following him around like a bizarre Greek chorus is a substitute until he can find a real audience. The Baudelaires crave neither fame nor fortune, yet they get both; perhaps Count Olaf sees it as some great injustice being righted by obtaining their fortune, and every effort of theirs to obstruct him is only another affront to claiming his own rightful reward.
Whatever the case, it certainly pushes him to artistic limits we had yet to see!
Up to this point, Count Olaf has had a number of disguises: Yessica Haircut, Stephano, and Captain Sham. All odd in their own way, they’ve been conventional in the sense of, well, gender. Here, though, Harris gets to pull on his experience as the eponymous character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and don Count Olaf’s newest disguise for “The Miserable Mill”: Shirley St. Ives.
Both parts of “The Miserable Mill” have a strange and entertaining story about an optometrist who hypnotizes mill workers into working for nothing but gum and coupons, but what I find most interesting is the narrative occurring in the background: the two spies, played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders, trying to get home to their children.
It turns out they are not, in fact, Mr. and Mrs. Baudelaire; they are Mr. and Mrs. Quagmire, with three children Duncan, Quigley, and Isadora. This was a well executed fake-out by the writers, and, while I’m disappointed that the Baudelaires’ parents are not, in fact, that awesome, I’m intrigued as to how they factor into the Baudelaires’ story. After all, at the end we see the Baudelaires left at the same boarding school as the Quagmires, with both sets of children owning the same spyglass. What is the key to that spyglass? What is the secret organization that Aunt Josephine, the Baudelaire parents, the Quagmire parents, and apparently Lemony Snicket and Count Olaf were all a part of?
All questions that are hopefully answered in the next season, which, if they follow the pattern of this season, will cover The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, and The Hostile Hospital. This series was incredibly well done – I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Season 2!
Season 1, Episodes 5-8 (S01E05-08)
A Series of Unfortunate Events airs on Netflix
Cailin is a screenwriter and an aspiring TV writer. When not writing, she’s busy convincing random passersby that Firefly was the best show ever, converting her co-workers into Whovians, and waiting for the next season of Sherlock.
Follow Cailin on Twitter: @sherlocked1058
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Cailin Coane | Contributor