The movie reviews here aren’t your typical “how good was the movie” fare. Instead, we review movies to see where they give us pictures of God’s greater story and our place in it.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (hereafter SUE, which just strikes me as funny for some reason) has recently completed its run on Netflix. It’s the tale of the three Baudelaire orphans and their many devastating life events that occur at the hands of Count Olaf and many other inept-to-wicked adults. From its opening song telling you to “look away” and the deadpanned narrator telling you not to listen to his tale, SUE is both a dark and a vibrant look into humanity.
(I know, I know—it’s not technically a movie; that’s what I called it a “movie” review. But it is an interconnected saga that has a definite start and end, so it’s kinda like a really long movie.)
I know the books were super popular and the series on Netflix has been as well. But in addition to stellar performances and several laugh-out-loud, wink moments with the audience, the saga of the Baudelaire orphans helps expose the darkness of humanity, the uncertainty of life, the hopelessness of loss, and the desire for a place to call home. Not just that, but the children go through a transformation as the tale unfolds—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Plus there’s a pretty strong dose of distrust for authority as well, which is an interesting little undercurrent at work.
In short, we loved it. Let’s dig in a bit.
Facing Loss Head-On
SUE, right out of the gates, tackles topics that few movies want to deal with in a sustained manner: loss. While lots of shows and movies have a sad death somewhere in the first fifteen minutes, the rest of the movie is usually about recovering and moving on. SUE sets itself apart because the Baudelaires rarely get the chance to either recover or move on. Their tale is one of ongoing loss, as the children move from one unsuccessful caregiver to another.
Not only that, but the title of “orphans” chases them everywhere they go. As if they didn’t have enough pain to remember, the people around them are constantly reminding them that their parents died in a horrible fire. Even if they wanted to move on, on one will let them.
But that’s not the end of the losses for the children. Throughout the story, they come into contact with new characters that they come to love and care about, only to have them taken away or to be taken away from or to see them die. The Baudelaires’ tale is one of incredible loss and grief as every single comfort they could know is fleeting and passes quickly. It’s certainly not your typical “and they lived happily ever after” story.
What I appreciate is that there are many people who face these kinds of circumstances. Generational poverty and discrimination and failure and sin all put many of us into our own personal series of unfortunate events. Sometimes we just can’t catch a break. Shoot, the Baudelaires should be filthy rich, but they can never get their hands on it. Hope is always right around the corner, but grief is always right there with them. It’s an incredibly relatable perspective for so many.
While there are a great number of heavy topics and themes in SUE, they are interspersed with many wonderful moments of levity. These usually come out in various levels of absurdity. Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is masterful with turning a phrase and wonderfully colors the narrative with language quips. It honestly makes me wonder how well this translates into other languages.
But it’s not just language that’s at play. There’s also the incredibly absurd situations the children find themselves in. There’s the ludicrousness of the fact that Olaf keeps successfully disguising himself by covering his unibrow and ankle tattoo. It’s ridiculous that the children are as capable as they are and the adults so horribly inept.
Here’s where I think the ridiculousness works so well: you can’t decide sometimes whether to laugh or cry. Life’s absurdities seem to work that way sometimes, don’t they? Sometimes I think the choice isn’t between whether you should laugh or cry, but whether you will laugh or cry. That choice can define who you are and how you face life.
The Darkness of Humanity
There’s so much to say here that it’s hard to know where to start. There are several villains throughout the story, usually led by Count Olaf (though not always) who are ruthless and vicious. They kill people, they mistreat children, they neglect, they abuse. There’s really no end to what they’re willing to do. The villains, while occasionally comical, are certainly not very restrained in the evil they’ll perpetrate.
But that’s not all. The various adults around the Baudelaires who are supposedly good also fail. Some fail simply by being outwitted and dying. Others are downright inept. Others are too overcome with their own struggles to care for the struggling kids. In short, no one really seems to be the good guys. In fact, one of the villainous characters says that there really aren’t good and bad people; everyone is just like a salad with bits of each.
And to this I say: right on! “There is no one righteous, not even one.” It is indeed true that ever since that fruit-biting day, there has never been a true hero. All of us are flawed, even on our best days, and geared toward specialized wickedness on the rest. I appreciate that SUE is willing to give us a view of this and not shy away from it. Especially since…
Our Heroes Aren’t Always Heroic
One of the things that starts to happen is a progression of change for the Baudelaire children. They start off as good and innocent, practically the only good and wise and “holy” characters around. But as the story progresses, their plight worsens as does their outlook on life. They begin to feel that being good and righteous isn’t working. In fact, they start to realize that the only way they can think of to achieve certain goals is to act villainous.
Courtney (who read all the books) says this is far more emphasized in the books than on Netflix, but it comes out on the show as well. The siblings struggle to overcome. They start to make compromises. They begin to think they might need to “fight fire with fire.” After a while, they struggle to see themselves as being good.
This is certainly interesting moral territory to walk into. And I think the series suffers from not really having answers to it. There’s no moral core or guide to appeal to. They have a list of what’s okay and what’s not, and they wonder if the ends justify the means, but can never really answer whether they do or not. It’s a question they all have to face, but the Baudelaires have no help to come to a conclusion. It’s heart-breaking, because they’re not only facing the situation, they face it alone.
The Failing Nature of Authority
The final thing I want to note is how authority never does what it should. The law can never properly mete out justice. The caregivers never give adequate care. The executor of the kids’ will (Mr. Poe) is so laughably inept, it comes into question whether he’s not really a bad guy based solely on his well-intentioned inability to do a single thing right for the Baudelaires. Essentially, the only ones adept and capable at all in the end are the three children themselves. They find themselves unable to count on anyone and end up living alone, making their own family unit.
While this ineptitude of adults plays into the absurdity I talked about earlier, I think it feeds something more profound: a deep-rooted feeling that no one can be trusted. Everyone will let you down given the right circumstances and enough time. The theme that crops up over and over again is that the people who should be taking care of children never do and the children who should be taken care of have to take care of themselves.
I wonder (and I truly don’t know) if there’s a moral and cultural statement being made here. We certainly live in a time where anti-authoritarian sentiment is on the rise. You can’t trust politicians because they’re all crooked. You can’t trust businesses because they only care about the almighty dollar. You can’t trust the police because they might shoot you. You can’t trust the courts because they’re corrupt and justice isn’t blind. Every kind of authority lets you down.
Here’s where I would both agree and disagree. On the one hand, this is so incredibly true. That’s why trying to decide if being Republican or Democrat is more Christian misses the point: both are corrupted by the corrupted human nature contained inside them. Because of sin, all authority is tainted and ruined. Truly, no one can be trusted. But we also live after Jesus came, bringing the kingdom with him. The Spirit has been poured out. The realm of heaven is breaking through into our world and there are places of redeemed authority. And that’s because the One True Authority can be trusted and will never let us down.
Bringing It All Together
While I know this has been lengthy, I found SUE to be incredibly thought-provoking. It had depth and levity and absurdity and fun and danger and suspense and mystery. It was a great story and you have so many people you root for (many of whom die along the way!).
But there’s also no true hope. These series of unfortunate events never truly finds fortune, because there never is someone outside of wicked humanity fixing it. The books highlight the deep depravity of mankind, but offer no solution to it. Not that I expected them to, but it’s why there’s no “happily ever after”—there can’t be.
And so we highly recommend Netflix’s Series of Unfortunate Events, but as much for what it does well for what it misses. It’s like a story that asks: what if there were no Jesus? Watch and see. It’s a sad and dark tale indeed. Thank God it’s not real.
Questions for Family Discussion
- What do you think it would be like to find out your parents had died? What do you think would happen to you (and your siblings) in that case?
- Which of the adults around the Baudelaires helped them most? How?
- Which of the adults around the Baudelaires failed them most? How?
- What do you think you would do if someone kept trying to hurt you (like Count Olaf), but no adults believed you? How would you respond? Who would you turn to?
- What were the saddest moments in the Baudelaires’ story? Why did you think those were sad?
- What led to the schism in VFD? How did that schism affect other people?
- Do you think the Baudelaires were right to start taking on disguises, lying, etc.., to protect themselves and get answers? Why or why not?
- What do you think about the phrase “fight fire with fire”? What does that mean? Is it a good idea or a bad one?
- How do the Baudelaires decide what is right and what is wrong? What guided their moral decisions?
- Do you think the Baudelaire parents were good parents? Why or why not?
- How did you hope the story would end? Were you disappointed?
- What would you think if you found out your parents were part of VFD? Would you be glad?
- How did all the secrecy of their parents and the secret societies help the Baudelaires? How did it hurt them?