Tragedy strikes again in the Netflix drama's season finale, because there are no happy endings here.
Finally, something new!
After moving through adaptations of the first three books — which were already adapted in the actually unfortunate 2004 movie starring Jim Carrey – the Netflix series finally enters uncharted territory in the first season finale, which takes on “The Miserable Mill.” And, does a good job at it, too. The titular mill, with its pale and depressing colors, is appropriately dreary and the script makes some thoughtful changes to the source material that elevates the story.
“The Miserable Mill” opens with the Baudelaires arriving at the front gate of Lucky Smells Lumbermill, located in the burnt-to-the-ground town of Paltryville, where they meet the well-meaning Charles and his
boss business partner Sir, who hires the orphans right on the spot because he sees them as free labor. As presented in the episode, Sir isn’t any better than Count Olaf. Sure, he isn’t trying to steal their fortune, but when he looks at them he only sees dollar signs as opposed to helpless children. It’s another time in which the orphans fall victim to the greediness of the world. That’s what makes the fact that they’re still compassionate children (which we’ll see later on in the episode) even more surprising and inspiring.
In their first meeting with Sir, the Baudelaires also learn some unfortunate news: everyone in the town knows and hates the name Baudelaire because it is widely believed that their parents were the ones responsible for the fire that destroyed the town. Violet wants to stay to find out more about the story, but Klaus is eager to leave. And, this disagreement brings some welcomed, but not gratuitous conflict, to the siblings’ relationship.
The mill is a very depressing place to work: The dorms are claustrophobic, the workers are only allowed to eat gum for lunch, and coupons are the only form of compensation. However, despite these poor conditions, the workers are disturbingly complacent, especially the annoyingly optimistic Phil. Despite Violet’s attempts to heed her father’s advice to never trust an optimist or optometrist (more on that later), it seems as though some of that optimism starts rubbing off on her. She thinks they’ve finally found a home where Count Olaf won’t be able to find them. (I’m sorry to say she’s very wrong.)
The orphans’ first day as workers at the mill gets off to a dreadful start because the new foreman shoves Klaus and steps on his glasses. (Un)luckily, there’s an optometrist — Dr. Georgina Orwell — in town who works in the menacing eye-shaped building that resembles Olaf’s haunting ankle tattoo. Oh, and here’s a very un-fun fact: Dr. Orwell is Count Olaf’s ex-girlfriend, and when Olaf arrives in town, she jumps at the opportunity to team up with him and destroy the orphan’s lives. Orwell and Olaf have a weird, twisted, and somewhat antagonist relationship that’s pretty amusing. Under the pretense of taking care of Klaus, Orwell straps him to a chair and hypnotizes him.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Violet and Sunny visit the mill’s library, which only contains copies of a history of the mill, to find information about the fire. Unfortunately, the chapter is redacted in every book except for one, but Sir rips the page out of the book before Violet has a chance to read it. Sir plans on burning it because he made deals that require him to lie about the fire to keep the mill open — a lie agreed upon, to borrow from Deadwood. “The mill is all I have, Charles,” says Sir in a rare moment where he drops his “I’m in the boss” bravado.
When Klaus returns to the mill later that night, he’s clearly not himself. He’s unresponsive and in some kind of a daze, which worries Violet because she feels as though she broke the promise she made to their parents. And, it’s clearly not something Klaus needed to sleep off because the next day, he’s in the same state and doesn’t object when the foreman (clearly, one of Olaf’s henchmen in disguise) orders him to use to the wood chipper while holding Sunny. Luckily, something Violet says wakes him up before any harm comes to Sunny.
The workday is interrupted when the Baudelaires receive a visitor at the gates. The show fools you into thinking Mother and Father are waiting on the other side of the gates as it jumps in between both parties approaching a yellow door. Sadly, that is not the case, because Dr. Orwell and Olaf in disguise as her receptionist Shirley show up to see the Baudelaires at the mill, and Mother and Father enter a home and greet their triplets, Duncan, Quigley and Isadora Quagmire. No, Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett are not the Baudelaire parents. They are the Quagmires, which is an interesting twist.
NEXT: There are no happy endings
“Part Two” opens by reminding us that Sir is just like almost every other adult we’ve met in the series. The children desperately try to convince him that Orwell is in cahoots with Shirley, who is Count Olaf. But, as always, their protests fall on deaf ears — Sir can only see the money, i.e. Orwell giving his workers free eye exams, which is a code for hypnotizing them into complacency. So, the children are forced to return to work, and the foreman uses the magic word and orders Klaus to operate the stamping machine, which leads to a terrible accident: Klaus accidentally crushes Phil’s leg (it’s a brilliant piece of visual humor, too). It turns out that Orwell and Shirley’s plan are trying to convince Sir that the orphans are an economic burden by having Klaus cause multiple accidents.
The Baudelaires sneak into Orwell’s office and discover that she’s also been hypnotizing all of the workers. Now, they’re determined to break the spell Orwell has over both Klaus and the workers. I really liked this change to the story because it effectively conveys the Baudelaire’s compassion and heroism. Unlike the adults we’ve encountered in the show, the orphans aren’t just out for themselves. Unfortunately for them, Orwell hypnotizes Charles, which turns him against the children.
That night, the foreman puts Klaus into a trance using the magic word (lucky) and orders him to saw Charles, who is tied to a log, in half. The ensuing scene is delightfully suspenseful as Violet desperately tries to break Klaus and the workers out of their respective trances in time. She cunningly figures out that “fire” will break Orwell’s spell over the workers and that “inordinate” will do the same for Klaus.
To be fair, the hypnosis concept is fairly ridiculous, but it works because the show is very self-aware (“I was better alone where my plots were simple and straightforward and didn’t involve any high concept science-fiction gimmicks,” says Olaf to Orwell before breaking up with her yet again). It helps that it’s tied to one of the series’ absurdist concerns: the use, or misuse, of language. Lemony Snicket and the children are constantly defining words because they encounter so many adults who abuse words and warp their meaning to support their dastardly deeds. In this scenario, language is used as a weapon to create tragedy; a simple word like “lucky” almost caused the death of someone innocent. It’s a fairly clever concept.
The awakened and very discontent workers force their way into the mill, startling Orwell and causing her to trip and fall into the incinerator. Count Olaf and the Hook-handed man use this opportunity to escape the scene. Although fire ironically saved the Baudelaire’s lives in this case, it brought pain and suffering to the Quagmires, whose mansion burned down, killing Mother and Father. Thus, we have a new set of orphans.
The tragedy at the mill spreads, which allows Mr. Poe to find the orphans. He promises to take them far away from this place, but before they leave, Charles hands them the page Sir ripped out of the book, which explains that their parents were actually responsible for putting out the Paltryville fire. Mr. Poe drives the Baudelaires to their new home, Prufrock Academy. The production team remains incredibly faithful to the description in the books and the austere academy’s buildings do indeed resemble graves. As Mr. Poe drives away, Snicket and the rest of the cast remind us that this story doesn’t contain any happy endings with a charming musical number that reinforces the theatrical nature of the show. However, there is one glimmer of hope because the Baudelaires are about to meet and befriend the Quagmires orphans, who have also been left here. “The Miserable Mill” ends by teasing one of the antagonists from The Austere Academy and the fact that both Lemony Snicket and Count Olaf attended this school.
Overall, A Series of Unfortunate Events has been quite the treat that, despite Snicket’s frequent warnings, was quite charming. There was artificiality to the show’s world, which was immediately engrossing, and the performances were fantastic throughout, especially, Patrick Warburton, who, for me, was the series’ highlight (he made those many asides come alive).
Odds and Ends:
- The writers made a couple of nods to the common fan theory that Sir and Charles are actually romantic partners. It would’ve been great if they had explicitly declared that instead of playing coy, though.
- It’s revealed that Lemony Snicket is also on the run from people.
- There were multiple references to the VFD throughout the episode and the season. I’m looking forward to the show unraveling that mystery.