The events of “The Miserable Mill” signal this season’s close. The Baudelaires find themselves not in a home, but in Lucky Smells Lumber Mill where–despite child labor laws–they are put to work by Charles and “Sir,” the owners of the lumber mill. Work at the lumber mill is arduous,tedious, and morally objectionable. Instead of salaries, they are paid in coupons; and instead of lunch they are fed chewing gum. The children try to comfort themselves by thinking surely, Count Olaf would not show up here, but alas, he does–and this time, he is joined by an ex-girlfriend, Dr. Georgina Orwell. He and Georgina join forces against the Baudelaires in an attempt to once again snag their fortune. Aided by Dr. Orwell’s talent for hypnosis, she and Olaf come very close to snagging custody of the Baudelaires once again. However, viewers may gain some satisfaction in knowing this time Olaf is run off by an angry mob, and not the witless Mr. Poe.
Of all the conclusions to this chapter of the lives of the Baudelaire orphans, of all the terrible, horrible, painful things I thought would be inflicted upon them, I never once suspected this twist. The reveal that Mother and Father were not, in fact, that Mother and Father was heartbreaking and perfectly executed. From their initial introduction in the first episodes, to the introduction of the second set of children during this arc, the show-runners of A Series of Unfortunate Events, show their complete mastery of dramatic convention and knowledge of where exactly to press the audience’s heartstrings to keep them watching. It was an incredibly bold choice, spending the whole series dragging out this plot line only to rip it out from under us, and then under the characters. It is entirely fitting within the themes of the show: that there is no happy ending. Not for us, not for the Baudelaires, and not for Mother and Father.
While the audience mourns the loss of the false hope that the Baudelaires might ever be rescued, the Baudelaires struggled at Lucky Smells Lumbermill. Caught up in the dastardly schemes of a dastardly businessman, his weak-willed husband, and an even more dangerous foe in the personage of Dr. Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), the actually competent ex-lover of Count Olaf. Faced with a competent opponent for the first time, without any means of escape we see watch as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny learn that even without the shackles of societal expectation upon them, sometimes they just aren’t clever enough to overcome everything. As the three pontificate on whether or not there’s any lesson learned during their misadventures, they conclude that their mission is and should remain:survive. Survive Count Olaf’s schemes, survive the incompetence of their guardians, survive the malice of their future enemies.
Unfortunately the Mill plotline itself, and their struggles to clear their parents name, lacked the dramatic weight of their time at Lake Lacrymose. While I found Sir and his partner Charles very funny, and I enjoyed the ever increasing scope of the conspiracy surrounding Count Olaf and the secret organization, I couldn’t help but feel, following the dramatic reveal about Mother and Father, that whatever information the kids got wouldn’t be meaty. And it really wasn’t, at least not in terms of plot relevance. Instead, as I sit here thinking about it, what the kids really gained was a peace of mind. Despite all that their parents kept from them, they were ultimately good people. They were still heroes and that is so important for the children and the audience. It lets the kids know that no matter what happens, they can be rest assured that their parents loved them, that they were not in any way “like” Count Olaf, and that the kids’ conception of their parents is still valid. For the first time in the series, the absolutely worst possible thing which could happen to the kids doesn’t happen, instead they find some small amount of validation.
It’s an refreshingly hopeful lesson for our group of depressed young orphans to learn. Yet at the same time the audience is not left without hope during the melancholic musical number which ties up in a dour, dark bow this season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Buadelaires are not alone, they are not the only orphans without parents. They are not the only victims of Count Olaf’s schemes. Lemony Snicket is not dead. The Baudelaires are not as alone as they might feel, and the next season promises to bring together three plotlines at play in what will almost certainly be a tragedy of unimaginable scale. A Series of Unfortunate Events never compromises on the dark material it portrays, it makes no excuses, nor does it try to blunt the blows, yet at know point does the tragedy overwhelm the audience. It’s a masterly-crafted tragedy from start to finish and it get’s a hearty recommendation from me. I can’t wait for next season.
From the end of “The Wide Window” now throughout “The Miserable Mill” the show has made a number of important changes that do not effect the story of the Baudelaires so much as the interpretation of events.
After Aunt Josephine’s death, rather than wait for Poe to once again fail to capture Count Olaf and find themselves back in either of their care, the Baudelaires make a decision to go “off book” and seek out the Lucky Smells Lumbermill, where they have been led to believe they will find more information on their parents, the mysterious fire that killed them, and why all these supposed family friends were kept a secret from them. This is a significant departure from the books, in which the Baudelaires accept having to travel with Mr. Poe once again and having him assign a new guardian. The show’s choice thus tells us they have developed a different interpretation of the Baudelaire children than the books did. These Baudelaires have become emboldened by their experiences, and they have also become rightly distrustful of the adults occupying their world. They no longer trust Mr. Poe to look out for their interests. In fact I am recalling the end of The Reptile Room when they demanded to go live with their Aunt Josephine that they were already showing a desire to exert control over their lives that finally came to fruition here.
This gift of the Baudelaire’s agency also happens to soften, to a degree, the nature of how the Baudelaires end up at Lucky Smells Lumbermill. In the book, there have been no clues linking the mill to their parents or any dealing with them that the Baudelaires wish to follow; rather, “Sir,” the owner of the mill, has simply put in to have some children work for him. His mill is something I would liken to the poorhouse of Oliver Twist–practically a prison. He does not pay his workers, barely feeds them, and employs children. Consciously. Sought them out. It is much easier to watch children offer to work and have a mostly-despicable, somewhat-idiotic person accept their offer than to fathom for a brief moment we’ve entered a world where child labor laws no longer apply and a banker would hand over a teen, a preteen, and a baby to be put to work in a mill.
Speaking of notable changes, the not-so-subtle change to the text surrounding Sir and Charles’ relationship was rather refreshing. The language of the book never excluded the possibility of a gay relationship, and I have read that the nature of Charles preparing Sir’s omelettes and ironing his clothes, all details present in the book, had suggested to readers of the series that Sir and Charles might be in some sort of romantic partnership. Nonetheless, an explicit and humorous confirmation was much appreciated on my part.
The major thing I want to talk about regarding The Miserable Mill would be the “non-twist” regarding the parents we’ve been following since episode one. As someone who had read the books, I was incredibly perplexed by the introduction of those characters. Zach turned to me at the beginning of the series and said, “Wait. The Baudelaires’ parents are dead, right?” to which I replied, “Well. Maybe. They are definitely dead in the books but it might be different here.”
Because I’d noticed this trend for the series to try and alleviate some of the more painful events of the story, I thought perhaps this would just become a running thing–a light, witty background to give readers hope that the Baudelaires might not be as alone as they feel–that their parents were always just around the corner.
Well, I am happy to say that I was wrong and did not have enough faith in the writing of this series. In fact, their decision to con the audience into believing the Baudelaires and their parents were about to open a door and be reunited was executed brilliantly. But I think something that should not be overlooked in regards to this scene is what that scene so clearly establishes for the world of the Baudelaires–tragedy is not localized to the Baudelaires.
In an earlier scene, the Quagmire children–who begin to play a role in the series beginning in The Austere Academy onwards– are introduced early to contrast the Baudelaire’s current situation. Snicket mentions if you wake up to a butler bringing you fresh orange juice and blueberry pancakes, you’ll probably have a good day. If, however, you wake up in a mill to someone banging pots and pans together, you’re probably going to have a bad day. The Quagmires are the children that wake up to blueberry pancakes and orange juice; they still have it all. And the Baudelaires are the children stuck in a mill. However, it is that same night (or a very short time later) from a day filled with blueberry pancakes and reunions with their parents where the Quagmires’ house burns down in much the same fashion as the Baudelaires’.
These events signal to viewers the tragedy is not just limited to the Baudelaires. Though their tragedy is central to the narrative, it is not exclusive. We will be meeting more children, like the Quagmires, spending more time with those like Snicket who have experienced misfortune, and there will be no end to the number of evil people we encounter–like the person we catch a brief glimpse of responsible for the fire at the Quagmire mansion.
Ending the season on a somewhat cliched sing-song note reminding viewers happiness is “not how the story goes” was a little bit excessive in my opinion and really the only negative thing I have to say about it. The song lasted a little too long, was a little too repetitive, and did not seem to contribute to the story more than wrapping up where each of our characters are ending this season. It’s a callback to the opening of each episode, “Look Away,” sung by Neil Patrick Harris in an Olafian fashion–but I really did not feel like the whole cast needed to be brought in on it. I’m a fan of musicals, but considering there’d been no other occurrence of singing within the show that wasn’t one of Olaf’s performances, it felt very out of place, despite all the show’s best efforts to make it work.
That said, overall the show was exceedingly well done, and I eagerly await the next season, which has already been green-lit by Netflix.
Thanks for reading!