On this edition of He Says, She Says: A Series of Unfortunate Events, “The Reptile Room.” One of the most heartbreaking stories in the habitually horrible tales of the Baudelaire orphans, “The Reptile Room” is another two-part episode detailing the events of the second book of the series by the same name. The Baudelaire children are taken to live with Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, the guardian they would’ve been living with if not for the incompetence of Mr. Poe, the stupid-but-well-meaning banker and executor of their parents’ will. Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, or Uncle Monty for short, is an eccentric herpetologist that was a friend of the Baudelaires’ parents in life. But, alas, Count Olaf has not given up on attaining the Baudelaire’s fortune yet, and disguises himself as a new assistant of Uncle Monty’s named Stephano.
There’s a lot I appreciated about this arc, but a lot that indicates there may be future frustration on the horizon for A Series of Unfortunate Events. Aasif Mandvi was a delight as Doctor Montgomery Montgomery, and his particular brand of guardianship was a welcome change of pace from the benign neglect we saw in the previous arc by Judge Strauss. Uncle Monty is well portrayed as a well-meaning, if a little eccentric, guardian for the Baudelaires, who is honestly intent on showing them how to navigate this strange and tragic world they now inhabit. In particular it was nice for another adult to acknowledge immediately how awful Count Olaf’s acting is, which means Monty acts as a nice reprieve from the tragedy which always inevitably follows.
My only complaint about Uncle Monty is that he is only with us for a such a short time before dramatic irony intervenes and threatens to reset the status quo once again. It’s a harsh lesson, but an important one as it firmly establishes to the orphans and the audience that the only ones they can rely on are one another. The other focus of this arc involves Mother and Father escaping from whatever dastardly trap Count Olaf set for them and setting off to find and rescue their children, with the other members of their organization attempting to alert Monty and enlist his aid. As someone who was worried that the show would get repetitive in regards to the children’s frustrated attempts at working their way out of this situation, I am happy to see that there is a larger plot at play here beyond Olaf’s greed.
It is only frustrating that, halfway through the series, the Baudelaire orphans still know as little about the secret organizations and conspiracies as they do. I worry that the payoff for these sequences might be something Sonnenfield and co. are holding off for next season, which would be supremely frustrating. It is disheartening to watch the children be continually frustrated by their age and continually be put in danger because of the idiocy of the adult community. I understand that this is done so purposefully, both because unfortunate things ought to happen in a show called A Series of Unfortunate Events, and also because its a key part of the series critique on the ways in which “polite society” is complicit in the horror and abuse inflicted upon the most neglected members of our communities.
Men like Mr. Poe are not evil, in fact they likely see themselves as good men. Yet his refusal to take the children seriously, to always believe the adult in the room, is repeatedly a tacit acceptance of the abuse and violence inflicted on the children. Mr. Poe stands in for every adult who has ever turned a blind eye to injustice and violence because it’s “none of their business.” It’s an excellently written criticism, and the audience feels the anger and frustration the Baudelaire’s feel at their own lack of agency in a world that is willing to look the other way to Count Olaf’s schemes if it gets them back before banking hours. It is because of that frustration that I hope this does not become a recurring a scenario. We have seen Poe fail before, in this exact same way. While the appeal of the show lies in the unfortunate events, I hope that the latter half of the season has a little more variety in how these events transpire.
Before we began watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, I told Zach one thing that I thought he needed to know about the story of the Baudelaires. Though our dear narrator Lemony Snicket often warns his viewers to “Look away” and stop watching the series–something which I might call a clever bit of reverse psychology if I believed in it–Mr. Snicket directs our attention towards the wrong cause of the sadness and misfortune that the Baudelaire children experience and that we, as viewers, react to.
The true tragedy in this series is not the despicable Count Olaf. He does terrible things; you cringe and curse whenever his ugly mug shows up in proximity to the Baudelaires. But the true sadness, the heartbreak, always derives from the fact that the people in the Baudelaires lives–those who could, those who should protect them–do not. It should not be the Baudelaires always figuring their way out of their terrible situations with inventions, research, and the occasional bite from Sunny. It should not fall on the Baudelaires to protect their guardian from the murderous plans of Count Olaf. But it always is, because the one rule of the universe the Baudelaires occupy is that adults never listen to children, even if they’re right, because of the simple fact that they are children.
Mr. Poe is the worst perpetrator of this pattern, because he and Olaf are the only constants in the children’s lives. I recall that by the end of reading the series as a child I had lost all respect or sympathy for Mr. Poe. Despite the fact the children were always right about Count Olaf’s disguises, his actions, his plans, Mr. Poe always ignored them because of the simple fact they were children. And his stubborn adherence to these ideals put the children’s lives in danger countless times. One of the saddest things I believe we have to watch in this series is not the children’s interactions with a murderer, but watching them plead and beg Mr. Poe to listen, only to be dismissed in the most nonchalant and callous manner imaginable–with a smile, a cough, a ridiculously scathing “Now Baudelaires you’re being rude little children. You’re obviously just hysterical,” and being sent up to their room. As if they are not terrified, nearly crying, begging, pleading. Go to your room.
Uncle Monty, though he is kind and well-meaning to a fault, is also guilty of this crime. Not nearly to the extreme degree that Mr. Poe is, but he believes that his own assumptions of Stephano’s true identity as a “spy” from the Herpetological Society, and not Count Olaf. It’s pure vanity, in fact. Instead of believing for one second this man was after his new wards, Monty believes it’s all about him. His reputation, his genius. I think his conceit even shows in the naming of The Incredibly Deadly Viper. It is a misnomer, he says, meant to pull a prank on those at the herpetological society who made fun of his double name Montgomery Montgomery. But Monty shows an awareness of the stigma against snakes; in attempting to seek a small bit of revenge for a largely harmless amount of teasing, he puts the life of The Incredibly Deadly Viper in danger because the adults are so willing to believe his misnomer, believe that it was The Incredibly Deadly Viper that killed him, not Count Olaf. It is Monty’s disbelief of the Baudelaire’s that costs Monty his life, and the viewers are left not just cursing Olaf, but cursing Monty for his vanity, his stupidity, his refusal to believe the Baudelaires just like Poe.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the relief of temporarily thwarting Count Olaf’s schemes never quite matches the cost. And I think something that this show has proved particularly adept at is explaining how in very few words. With Uncle Monty’s death, not only are the orphans once again homeless, but so are all the reptiles that Monty loved and cared for in The Reptile Room. One by one they are all carried out of the house and loaded into a van. And when Snicket comes on screen at the end of the episode to give one of his final monologues, the once-sunny and lively reptile room is empty. The cages gone, the bookshelves empty, and the dim light of the moon show