For three seasons, Lemony Snicket, Count Olaf, and virtually all the characters within Barry Sonnenfeld and Daniel Handler’s Netflix series “A Series of Unfortunate Events” have been striving to deliver one single message: Stop watching. Why? The show argues it’s too tragic, too morose, too grim for any audience, let alone a young one. The opening credits repeat the gloomy sentiment “look away”; Snicket (Patrick Warburton), speaking directly to camera, often begs the audience to seek entertainment anywhere else; marketing materials, press releases, and even the series’ social media accounts stick to the same script, dissuading anyone from watching or continuing to do so.
And for all three seasons, including this triumphant final go ’round, the combined efforts of everyone from Handler and Sonnenfeld to production designer Bo Welch and costume designer Cynthia Ann Summers to an ever-expanding cast has made watching an absolute must. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” quickly proved itself a timely adaptation, speaking to the reasonable fears of children facing a chilling world, and it doesn’t shy away from offering a meaningful moral to close out Season 3. This beautiful children’s program makes a strong case to be Netflix’s live-action crown jewel — a fortune of delights no audience could rebuff.
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That’s not to say “Unfortunate Events” is deceptively cheerful. Season 3 opens with the two lead orphans — Violet (Malina Weissman) and Klaus Baudelaire (Louis Hynes) — hurtling off a cliff in a runaway caravan. They’ve already been separated from their baby sister, Sunny, and all hope seems lost. But, as the resourceful trio is prone to do, they apply their intellect to save them from a perilous situation. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” repeatedly forces the kids to fend for themselves, often escaping the clutches of overtly evil adults and sometimes correcting the mistakes of careless older caretakers.
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But Season 3 shifts the dynamic a bit. Instead of seeing the children as innocent, well-educated, and respectful antidotes to a corrupted, stupid, and insolent world, the Baudelaires are incited to rebel. They’re asked to see life’s issues in shades of gray and apply moral relativism to various would-be villains and heroes. Handler’s scripts (closely adapted from his books) introduce characters who don’t fit neatly into boxes, and preexisting friends and foes are twisted into more complex individuals — including the Baudelaires’ ultimate opponent and the Baudelaires themselves.
In the new season’s best pair of episodes, “The Penultimate Peril Parts 1 and 2,” the children’s nemesis Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris, as exquisitely sinister as ever) is put on trial, and the oft-unheard youths get the chance to tell their story. Wise beyond their years and thorough in their accusations against the fortune-stealing Count, Klaus and Violet craft a case as damning as any.
And yet… [Editor’s Note: The following section contains slight spoilers for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 3.] The lesson here isn’t to obey the law or abide by its rulings. Violet says, flat-out, “The law isn’t always just — it isn’t always good!” She’s not merely reacting to a bad ruling, but applying rational thinking to a system she’s seen fail her time and time again. Not everything intended to provide justice does — not in the colorful world of “Unfortunate Events” or in the real world it’s watched in — and the Baudelaires learn as much the only way they know how: the hard way.
The episode itself feels a bit like the “Seinfeld” finale. Not only do many of the surviving characters from past seasons return for the trial — all hail Tony Hale (as the timid former guardian Jerome Squalor), but don’t sleep on Max Greenfield’s delightful hotel manager(s) either — but the series’ protagonists are held accountable, too. Just when it seems like Olaf will get what’s coming to him, the tables are turned and suddenly the Baudelaires have to justify their own actions. What they’ve done to survive, by some, could be considered wrong, even malicious, and in the eyes of a less-than-distinguished court, such arguments can hold more water than they should. Whether older viewers go so far as to see recent judicial malfeasances in the trials’ ridiculous proceedings is up to each individual, but the message is clear: Justice is often blind to itself.
This is exactly why children and adults alike need to watch “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It may be hard to watch at times, but that’s only because it’s as honest about life’s trials as it is its attributes. “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a tragic story of loss, grief, and how life grows more and more unfair with each passing year lived, but the truths told in these three excellent seasons are pushed into the realm of entertainment by the enthusiasm and talent of its storytellers. You can’t look away from life’s hardships, but “A Series of Unfortunate Events” should help them all go down a little bit easier.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.