A Series of Unfortunate Events does what most adaptations fail to do: The Netflix series stays true to the story originally printed, but keeps things interesting for those familiar with the 13-book saga (and its multiple companion books), without massively retracting or redoing what’s been established.
In many ways, aspects of the adaptation strengthen the story told by the books. The framing allows Lemony Snicket the narrator to play a more active role, and from the beginning, the show cohesively weaved in the series’ overarching plot; it even elaborated the backstories of characters only briefly mentioned in the books.
The book series ended 12 years ago with many lingering, unanswered questions (which various related works published concurrently and after continued to hint at and play with), but the final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events gives weight to what were once fan theories typed on forums and wiki pages.
For those only coming to the story of the Baudelaire orphans through Netflix, it is still a satisfying finale, employing the same sort of fourth wall-breaking humor while deepening the overarching themes in a way that never panders. For those who grew up with the books, A Series of Unfortunate Events offers answers to decade-long questions and a satisfying conclusion, but not one that comes out of the blue or without precedent.
[Ed. note: This review contains light spoilers for the final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events.]
Just as author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) made full use of his medium when penning the books (recall the blacked-out pages to describe a darkened elevator shaft, and a full page of the word “ever” to caution readers), the show delights in the fact that it is, well, a television show. There are numerous cheeky jokes about the fact that medium allows you to view simultaneous events, and references to previous seasons and episodes, among other things.
This last season, while still reveling in self-aware humor and delightfully absurd moments, is darker than the other seasons, as the Baudelaire orphans come to terms with the secrets their parents never told them and the actions they’ve taken to survive. The children track down the scattered bits of information left to them and travel to the titular locale of each episode. Eventually, they piece together the story behind the enigmatic VFD and must figure out whether trying to save people in the face of so much defeat and devastation is really worth it.
Questions of morality pervade the show, but with this final chapter, the children slowly realize that no one is wholly noble or wholly wicked: noble people sometimes resort to wicked actions, wicked people sometimes show moments of nobility. It’s reminiscent of the ethical discussions in The Good Place, as morality is dissected by the characters and the plot of the show. In a show like Unfortunate Events, where vocabulary words and obscure literary terms are regularly defined in-show by the characters, it’s never out of place.
The final season gives some of the bad guys deeper motives and moments of true empathy, but the children never forget that the bad guys are still the bad guys for a reason. And while the bad guys are shown to have those moments of nobility, the heavier lesson is that the good guys can sometimes be wicked too.
This season’s unvarnished take on human truth is that the people whom we hold in highest esteem are not perfect — but though they are flawed, it is still important to use the good they’ve taught us and the knowledge they’ve left behind.
This final season is not without its own flaws. Though it manages to answer questions lingering from the books, the show leaves some loose ends of its own hanging. Most notably, Jacquelyn Scieszka (Sara Canning), a character original to the show who was so prominently featured in the first two seasons, is mentioned repeatedly without ever actually making an appearance. Considering she was always right on the tail of the Baudelaire siblings (and Patrick Breen’s Larry Your-Waiter, the VFD member usually at her side, does make a solo appearance), her absence from the series without so much as a nod as her absence is a bit jarring.
This season does juggle a whole menagerie of characters — including almost everyone the Baudelaires have met over the course of the past two seasons and more — and some with more finesse than others, especially when the episodes dip back and forth from the present to the past to the more-recent present. Lucy Punch’s Esme Squalor continues to shine (dare I say, sometimes more than Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf) with unapologetic gaudiness and pettiness, and the Baudelaire siblings remain the heart and soul of the show.
But all the characters, flashbacks and flash-forwards pay off in the end, as the big mysteries of the show finally start to fall into place and receive answers for the first time. And those mysteries haven’t changed from when they were first penned in order to be more explicitly spelled out — they’re just finally solved for everyone, and not just eagle-eyed fans.
“The mystery of the Sugar Bowl is clear enough that one that about reader a year writes me and has figured it out, and that fills me with pleasure,” Handler said in an interview when the show first aired. “That makes me think it’s not too obscure.”
Indeed, one of the theories listed on the Sugar Bowl’s entry in the Snicket wiki is the answer. Those who have been itching for it will finally be sated.
In addition to the ever-lingering question of “What’s in the Sugar Bowl?” some characters get more hopeful and solidified endings than the particularly devastating ones hinted at in the last book. Perhaps for some purists, this might be an unwanted change, but it gives more finality than the books did and also balances the darker events of this season with a bit of hope. Besides, the exact details of “what happened next” are still vague. None of the elements left in the air are ones that particularly need to be answered — in fact, they’re better left untouched.
The final scene calls back to the beginning of the series, but instead of gray-tinged despair, there is hope. But then again, the Baudelaire orphans have always been resilient and hopeful, so perhaps the end is not so much a contrast to the beginning as it is a fateful echo.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on Netflix.