There’s a moment in the second season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events that puts to bed any lingering notion you may have had that what you’re watching is light and uncomplicated children’s entertainment. In a maxim that serves as an unofficial mission statement for the allegorical series’ tragic, righteous final season, librarian Olivia Caliban (Sarah Rue) says, “In a world too often governed by corruption and arrogance, it can be difficult to stay true to one’s philosophical and literary principles.”
A few episodes later that same librarian, now a heroic ally who is “dedicated to putting out fires, literal and figurative,” is fed alive to hungry lions. “Don’t worry little Trixie,” says an audience member in a winking aside, “this was advertised as family entertainment. I’m sure whoever’s eaten by lions is someone who deserves it.” She does not.
That’s the level of moral complexity and high-wire social commentary A Series of Unfortunate Events is balancing heading into its final batch of episodes. Aside from NBC’s The Good Place, no other Trump era show has married timely ethics lessons, meta-humor, and abundant heart like ASOUE, which has the slight advantage of a tight agenda thanks to its two-episodes-per-book strategy of adapting its source material.
The series follows three young orphans — innovative Violet (Malina Weissman), bookish Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Renaissance baby Sunny (Presley Smith) — as they attempt to make their way through a strange and rather timeless world that takes pages from both Tim Burton’s goth-lite aesthetic and Pushing Daisies’ candy-colored set design. The orphans spend much of the series trying to dodge the grubby clutches of failed actor-turned-villain Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris, rarely better) and uncover the truth about secret society VFD, all while being observed by the watchful eye of mysterious narrator Lemony Snicket (an excellent Patrick Warburton).
All of this is expected for fans of the book series, but the show, also written in part by series author Daniel Handler, goes considerably deeper than its source material. By focusing on the ideologically divided adults of VFD, playing up Olaf and his fellow villains’ incompetent tyranny, and taking its PG story to increasingly dark places, Netflix’s version of ASOUE emerges in the end as not only an excellent cinematic series, but also an unofficial guidebook to facing down the all-too-real insidious spread of corruption.
As learned the hard way by the Baudelaire orphans, there are plenty of people in this messed up world who can’t save you and will probably harm you. Many adults in the ASOUE universe are outright useless, with authority figures including doctors, bankers, judges, guardians, medical professionals, newspaper reporters, and teachers all falling on a spectrum between naively trusting and greedily murderous. Corruption is everywhere, but it’s worth noting that for the Baudelaires, ignorance and oversimplification — as when a trio of court justices, in a literal interpretation of the phrase “justice is blind,” force everyone to wear blindfolds — are almost always just as dangerous as purposeful maliciousness.
The series’ final season makes its allegorical devices clearer than ever, as in a scene in “Slippery Slope” when Olaf demands his henchpeople throw a baby off a cliff. The demagogue’s request is made in an attempt to prove himself to two smarter, more capable evil leaders who have traveled a great distance to influence him. Logical onlookers plead for the baby’s life, and his crew of henchmen quit one by one, each fed up with his unprecedented requests and bullying attitude. Only one henchman is left, and he merely pretends to throw the baby off the cliff after all attempts to talk Olaf down have failed. If this doesn’t sound exactly like a leaked report from inside the Trump White House, I don’t know what does.
So if Olaf, popularity-obsessed Esme Squalor (Lucy Punch), pint-sized tyrant Carmelita Spats (Kitana Turnbull), and the rest of the fire-starting side of VFD are stand-ins for various selfish and unqualified powerful figures threatening freedom, what do Handler and co. propose is the solution? That’s a tricky question, the answer to which, despite all the warnings given frequently by the series’ narrator, the theme song, and the title itself, is at times almost unbearably upsetting.
The series finale is glaringly different than the rest of the show, taking place on a seemingly utopic desert island where fires (a source of danger throughout the show) aren’t allowed, resources are shared, and there is technically no single leader. Even in this communistic society, secrets fester and death — and Olaf — still manage to come chasing after the Baudelaires. No matter its intentions, no organization can save this generation of abandoned children, but they can save themselves. If we’re keeping track of the allegory here, these kids call to mind the tireless young activists who have made headlines in America and across the world in recent years, doing the work their elders refuse to do, often in the face of tragedy, in order to make their corners of the world more fair and safe.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is filled with rich and funny literary allusions, so it’s only fitting that knowledge is its answer. Aside from literacy of every sort, collaboration, curiosity, perseverance, and a team of all-in allies are what keep the Baudelaires hopeful in the face of constant disappointment. Whenever all seems lost, the three are aided by noble librarians, taxi drivers, waiters, secretaries, and all manner of overlooked and underappreciated people who are secretly keeping the world together. ASOUE is casually inclusive in its battle for good, continuously reaffirming the importance of anyone who wants to contribute despite their abilities or differences. In a pill that may be hard to swallow, its final episodes also make it clear that the series ultimately believes in redemption, in changes of heart, and in situations which offer no right answer.
The series isn’t afraid to let its heroes lose, as with Olivia’s gruesome fate and the deaths of several other good people before and after. Yet its central trio trudges on, doing the hard work of acknowledging the world’s suffering, repeatedly sharing the truth about injustice (often to adults who aren’t even listening), and looking for complex solutions that make the world incrementally but definitely better.
A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn’t offer an easy solution to a world corrupted by greed and ignorance, but it does offer a well-made balm to soothe our tired spirits. It’s a journey that — like all great hero’s journeys — reminds us that human goodness is a still-burning flame that will always be worth keeping alight.