A Series of Unfortunate Events recap: 'The Bad Beginning'
You know what they say about misery loving company, so welcome to EW’s coverage of the delightfully downcast A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Whether you’ve been hunting for hidden VFD symbols for years or you’re brand new to the Baudelaire story, Netflix’s TV adaptation of Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s bestselling book series is — fortunately — a delight. The woeful tale of the Baudelaire orphans made it to the big screen before in the 2004 Jim Carrey-starring film, but that condensed Snicket’s first three books into a single, 108-minute film. The brand new Netflix series stretches the first four novels — The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill — over eight separate episodes, allowing a full deep dive into all of the delightful quirks and gloomy events from Snicket’s tale.
Because the TV series divides each novel into two separate episodes, we’ll be tackling each two-part story in one recap, for a total of four — and there’s no place to start like the beginning. “The Bad Beginning” sets the stage by opening with a distinctly creepy theme song, sung with Olaf-appropriate theatrical gusto from Neil Patrick Harris, before leading into a cryptic dedication that fans of the book series will find very familiar: “To Beatrice — darling, dearest, dead.”
It’s here that we meet our narrator: Patrick Warburton as the impeccably dressed and dreadfully depressed Lemony Snicket. The Snicket of the novels is shrouded in mystery, a biased narrator with some top-secret ties to the Baudelaire family, but the series puts him front and center. Warburton brings a sort of tragic charisma to the role — think Don Draper aesthetically, Tim Burton thematically — and it’s a delightful narrative decision to put him on screen instead of reducing him to just off-screen narration. All of A Series of Unfortunate Events has a certain theatrical quality about it (and I’m not just talking about Count Olaf’s “theater” troupe). The actors often deliver lines like they’re on stage in a play, and Snicket speaks directly to the viewer as if he were monologuing.
But let’s meet the Baudelaires. Like the original novel, first published in 1999, “The Bad Beginning” kicks off with an unimaginable tragedy: the apparent death of the Baudelaire parents. Their three kind and brilliant children are Violet, a gifted 14-year-old inventor; Klaus, a keen 12-year-old with a love of books; and Sunny, a tiny toddler with very sharp teeth (and a passion for chewing). Their story begins with an impromptu trip to Briny Beach, organized by their parents, and despite the cloudy conditions, the Baudelaire orphans experience what might be their last happy memory: skipping rocks along the shore. Their happiness is interrupted, however, by the arrival of the perpetually coughing Mr. Poe, a no-nonsense banker who informs them that their parents have died in a fire — a fire that has destroyed the entire Baudelaire mansion.
The Baudelaire children are now the Baudelaire orphans, and they have absolutely nowhere to go. Mr. Poe lets them stay at his house until he can locate their designated guardian, and that proves to be a less-than-ideal situation. (“I’ve never been through anything like this myself, but I can imagine just how you feel,” he tells them.) Finally, however, he reveals that their parents’ will indicates they should live with their “closest living relative,” and he takes them to meet their new legal guardian.
At first, it looks like things might not be as unfortunate as the series title suggests, and they meet the kindly Justice Strauss, a single, middle-aged woman who would love nothing more than to welcome the Baudelaires into her home. (She even has a massive library in her house, so you know she’s cool.) Their real guardian, however, is a man who is both dastardly and deviant, as narcissistic as he is untalented. His name? Count Olaf, and he’s as terrifying as the eye tattoo on his ankle.
Jim Carrey played the role of the orphans’ devious foe in the film, and here, it’s Neil Patrick Harris who takes on the count. At first, I found Harris slightly too humorous and not quite matching up to the legendary villain I remembered reading about as a kid, but as the episode stretched on, Harris’ off-the-wall portrayal won me over. Harris perfectly taps into Olaf’s penchant for theatricality, and he presents a man who is both stupid and cruel, but just cunning enough to make for a real threat.
Olaf lives in a dilapidated mansion straight out of a particularly bleak Ivan Albright painting, and this is the home that he welcomes the Baudelaires into. (Notably, it’s also decked out in eye symbolism.) Before long, however, Mr. Poe informs Olaf that he has no right to the Baudelaire fortune, and that it is entirely untouchable until Violet comes of age. As soon as Poe leaves, Olaf’s true villainy begins to shine through, forcing the orphans to do unimaginable chores and hurling verbal abuse their way. He even launches into an absurd and over-the-top theatrical performance dedicated to himself, while introducing his henchmen: The Bald Man, The Hook-Handed Man, The Henchperson of Indetermined Gender, and the White-Faced Women.
The Baudelaires try to make the best of a bad situation, even cooking an elaborate meal of pasta puttanesca for the Count and his troupe, but in his obstinacy, Olaf berates them for not reading his mind and serving roast beef, before threatening Sunny’s life and slapping Klaus across the face. It’s a harrowing moment, especially when Olaf has been presented up to this point as primarily a boorish, comedic character. The chores and the narcissism are one thing, but watching an adult man slap a child across the face emphasizes just how evil Olaf truly is.
NEXT: The not-so-marvelous marriage
Part two of “The Bad Beginning” opens not with the current state of the Baudelaires but with a flashback, detailing Olaf’s trip to Mulctuary Money Management immediately following the Baudelaire fire. It’s there that Olaf goes undercover as a man named Yessica Haircut — which is now my favorite fake name from any pop culture medium ever — posing as a so-called consultant who’s there to convince Mr. Poe that in the Baudelaire will, “closest living relative” actually refers to the relative who lives closest to the Baudelaire home. In this case, that’s Count Olaf. Insanely, this plan actually works, making it just the first instance of the adults in A Series of Unfortunate Events being remarkably gullible and dense. Poe’s secretary, however, is a woman named Jacqueline, who is immediately suspicious of Count Olaf and has a familiar-looking spyglass. (Noticeably, the map Olaf pulls out of his pocket also reveals that the town they live in looks remarkably like an eye. Hmmmm.)
With the Baudelaires now legally in Olaf’s clutches, he reveals his plan to sidestep the restrictions on the Baudelaire fortune and seize it immediately. He recruits the children as the newest actors in his performance of the play “The Marvelous Marriage” by Al Funcoot, with Olaf to play the handsome leading man and Violet to play his blushing bride. (“Al Funcoot” is one of my favorite goofy jokes from the original novels.) It doesn’t take Klaus very long to do a little research in Justice Strauss’ law library and learn that even though Violet is underage, she can marry with the permission of her legal guardian; in this case, Count Olaf. As long as she signs a legal document in her own hand and the wedding is presided over by a justice — and an oblivious Justice Strauss is more than thrilled to make her acting debut — the marriage is completely valid, giving Olaf every right to the Baudelaire fortune.
I mentioned before that Olaf’s truly horrifying moment in the first episode is when he slaps Klaus across the face, and here, he ups the ante by behaving in a completely predatory way toward Violet. Not only is his child bride scheme despicable, but he makes a number of chilling comments about Violet’s looks and gropes at her in a way that emphasizes just how evil he really is. Olaf may be a comedic villain, but he is a terrifying one, too.
The Baudelaires confront Olaf and refuse to go through with his marriage plot, but he soon reveals that he has locked Sunny in a birdcage dangling from the highest tower of his mansion, and unless Violet agrees to marry him on stage in front of dozens of witnesses, he will drop her. Klaus desperately pages through law books while Violet attempts to rescue Sunny with a grappling hook of her own invention, but when the performance arrives, they have no choice but to go through with it. As soon as Justice Strauss pronounces them man and wife and Violet signs the paper, Count Olaf can’t resist the chance to do a little villain monologuing, and he proudly announces his dastardly plan to the shocked audience. Even the perpetually dense Mr. Poe is horrified, and it looks like Olaf has won — until Sunny escapes on her own and Violet reveals that she signed the paper with her left hand, not her natural right. This bit of trickery invalidates the marriage, and although the Baudelaire orphans have many, well, unfortunate events ahead of them, at least Violet doesn’t have to face the prospect of marrying Count Olaf. That might be too unfortunate even for this series.
But wait! The Netflix series has one little trick up its sleeve. The end of these first two episodes reveals a jailed Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett, who are only identified as “Mother” and “Father.” Given their interest in Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, they appear to be playing the Baudelaire parents (who are apparently alive?). But given the secretive nature of this show, nothing is quite as it seems… We’ll have to wait and see.
Odds and ends:
- Count Olaf: “The management regrets to inform you that the shampoo is not tear free. If anything, it encourages tears.”
- Count Olaf: “Do you know what the question I am asked most is?”
The Hook-Handed Man: “Will you please leave the premises?”
- Count Olaf: “I would stake my fortune on it. Or else my name is not whatever it is I told you it was.”
- Count Olaf :”Aren’t raspberries delicious? They were my favorite berry when I was your age.”
Violet: “But we’re all different ages.”
- Justice Strauss: “It seems that all the men I meet are intimidated by my law degree or obsessed with model trains.”
- Perhaps the most subtle but important aside is Olaf’s mention of a certain sugar bowl, which longtime Snicket fans will find particularly important.