Episodes 5 and 6 of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events detail the events of the third book in the series by the same name in which the Baudelaires go to live with their kind but extremely paranoid and omni-phobic Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine is described as having once been a “fierce and formidable” woman who lost her edge when her husband, Ike, died. Now she lives at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Lachrymose in constant fear that she will catch a splinter in the door, her phone will electrocute her, or worse–real estate agents. Before the Baudelaires can get settled, Count Olaf and his terrible acting return once again, this time as “Captain Sham.”
At long last both the audience and the Baudelaire orphans get what they’ve wanted for so long. Some answers. A whole lot happens in this arc, but I am particularly drawn to the the growing abilities of the Baudelaire orphans and the continued mystery surrounding the secret organization which is responsible for much of the upsetting scenario which the children find themselves in.
As the series has progressed,the Baudelaires have grown less and less confident that anyone around them will be able to help them. Even the “fierce and formidable” Aunt Josephine proves to be less than capable of helping them or seeing through Olaf’s disguise. Rather than waiting for Count Olaf to kill their aunt as he did their uncle, the Baudelaires immediately set about attempting to both stop him and learn more about the mysterious, vaguely secret organization which appears to tie together their bizarre guardians with their parents and Count Olaf. Though their attempts are frustrated again by a literal force of nature, that the kids are finally taking their fate into their own hands is a delightful development. Violet in particular takes firm control of the situation as the eldest, working to keep her siblings safe, standing up to her Aunt Josephine, and being their biggest advocate against Count Olaf as he fools Poe for the third time.
I have to admit, Poe’s shtick is getting tired this far in. I was so relieved when the kids ditched him to head off to the mill. I doubt they will find the answers they seek there, but at least they’re taking the initiative and refusing to allow themselves to submit to his “care.” The mill itself was a discovery on Klaus’ part, who spent this arc sifting through Aunt Josephine’s library in an attempt to find information on this vaguely secret organization that they’re just beginning to realize exists– and that just about everyone they’ve been involved with so far was in it. The kids at last have some purpose, a goal to work towards outside of survival, though they may not like what they find out.
Speaking of learning: Lemony Snicket. Apparently he’s maybe dead? And also a part of the mysterious, vaguely secret organization? Our delightfully dreary narrator’s integration into the story raises a whole host of questions, and his relationship with Mother and Father, as well as the apparent scope of Count Olaf’s machinations. There is more going on here than just a series of unfortunate events, but will the Baudelaire children figure it out before they lose the rest of their allies? With Mother and Father swiftly converging on the children’s location, next episode is sure to be full of revelations both happy and distressing.
Thus far we’ve seen a very faithful adaptation of the source material from this TV series (excluding the references to VFD, which I will cover with “The Miserable Mill” post). However, with “The Wide Window” comes a very significant departure from the books. I am not someone who insists on complete and blind faithfulness to source text–especially when aspects of the source text can stand to be improved. That said, usually I would prefer a more strict adherence to text. In this case, I am old enough now to accept that the original Series of Unfortunate Events can be repetitive in nature and thus become monotonous for adults to read. As a child, the repetition was somewhat comforting; as an adult, trying to read through the same plot arc 13 times (as there are 13 books in the whole series), I quickly grow tired of: Baudelaires meet new guardian, Count Olaf shows up, no one believes them, Baudelaires foil Olaf’s plans, Mr. Poe takes them away, rinse and repeat. If the show had decided to follow the source text completely, no amount of witticisms from Patrick Warburton would’ve saved it.
So while I was expecting and–dare I say–hoping for some departures from the source text, I was not expecting to have a character like Aunt Josephine evolved like she was. I suspect part of the motivation for this evolution was an attempt to make the story a little easier to watch, and honestly I completely understand the writers’ motivation. I’ve noted to Zach on several occasions that they seem to be cushioning some blows in the show, like warning the viewer almost immediately that Uncle Monty would die so the audience had time to prepare. The books as they were could be incredibly heartbreaking; it was always one of my theories as a child that Snicket stopped writing sympathetic guardians for the Baudelaires after The Wide Window because watching so many good people die at the hands of Olaf would’ve become unbearable.
That said, Netflix’s series completely rewrote Josephine’s death scene to the point of rewriting Josephine herself, allowing her to die somewhat nobly–really, all anyone in this series can ask for. I’m going to let my English major show a little bit here now and quote the conversation leading up to Josephine’s death from the book so you can see how different it was in the show for yourself.
“Oh no,” she said. Her eyes were wide with fear. “Don’t throw me overboard,” she pleaded. “Please!…I promise not to say anything to Mr. Poe!” Aunt Josephine said desperately. “I’ll go someplace and hide away, and never show my face! You can tell him I’m dead! You can have the fortune! You can have the children! Just don’t throw me to the leeches!”
The Baudelaires looked at their guardian in horror. “You’re supposed to be caring for us,” Violet told Aunt Josephine in astonishment, “not putting us up for grabs!”
Captain Sham paused, and seemed to consider Aunt Josephine’s offer. “You have a point,” he said. “I don’t have to kill you. People just have to think you’re dead.”
“I’ll change my name!” Aunt Josephine said. “I’ll dye my hair! I’ll wear colored contact lenses! And I’ll go very, very far away! Nobody will ever hear from me!”
“But what about us, Aunt Josephine?” Klaus asked in horror. “What about us?”
–Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window p 187-189
Now to contrast this scene with Netflix’s show, Josephine’s life ends not only standing up and defending her newly-adopted children, but standing up for herself to Count Olaf, and saying she was ready to be fierce and formidable again. She manages to reclaim herself, and instead of sniveling and begging, becomes someone the Baudelaires can be proud to have called their guardian. But in rewriting Josephine, Netflix fundamentally rewrites the kind of adults we should expect from this world.
In the books, Josephine was the last “good” guardian–however, as you can tell, she is not even that. She is much too quick to give them up to save herself when, as their guardian, she should be the one protecting them from Olaf, not the other way around. (In the book Sunny, the baby, has positioned herself between Olaf and Josephine in order to protect Josephine. If that ain’t messed up I don’t know what is.) The books thus set the standard for the kind of adults the Baudelaires can encounter and clearly establish that the only ones looking out for them and their safety is themselves, and as such, they develop a very strong bond among themselves as they struggle to survive in a world of adults actively trying to take advantage of them, hurt them, or at best, ignoring them. The show has attempted to alter this worldview by rewriting characters like Josephine and by inserting characters like Mr. Poe’s secretary who assure the children (and more so the audience) that she will actively be seeking to help them from behind the scenes. The children, despite everything, do not feel quite as alone and helpless as they do in the books, and I think this subtle alleviation of bleakness has ultimately made the show more watchable. My only hope is that they do not go overboard and start to write too optimistically. This is a literal series of unfortunate events. Snicket’s warnings of tragedy and sorrow will become cheap if the show tries too hard to comfort its audience.