A Series Of Unfortunate Events season 3 review: the best of the bunch

Netflix's A Series Of Unfortunate Events wraps up its strange, singular, excellent Lemony Snicket adaptation with season 3...

Warning: contains spoilers.

There were a lot of things that made the original A Series of Unfortunate Events books beloved, but a universally satisfying ending was not one of them. While The End is the strongest book from a theme and character perspective, it also frustrated due to a refusal to tie up any of the overarching mysteries that characterised the back half of the series. In retrospect this choice made sense; the VFD conspiracy plot was always more of a metaphor for the incomprehensible and complex strangeness of adulthood than a mystery with tangible answers, but after all the expert teasing in the earlier books there was no way that confirmation of the fact couldn’t be a bit of a letdown. 

Ironically, the most contentious thing about this concluding chapter of the Baudelaire’s televised adventures may well be its willingness to answer the big questions, in the process putting an end to years of online debate. Just about everything that Daniel Handler kept under wraps in 2006 is exposed here. What’s in the Sugar Bowl? What happened to Olaf’s family at the opera? Who was Lemony Snicket falsely accused of killing? Did the Quagmires reunite? What is the Great Unknown? Did young Beatrice Baudelaire ever track down her uncle? Every single one of those questions is given a definitive answer. As a long-time fan of the series, it’s almost astounding how quickly and easily the solutions come. 

For casual viewers, the big revelations are likely par for the course of any final season. For those who grew up with the books, they’re answers either waited for or debated for over a decade. With Daniel Handler himself having overseen the writers room, the biggest twist in this final run is that we are given closure not just for the TV series but for the books. And while it’s not without its flaws, this approach made for a deeply satisfying conclusion to an at times frustrating story.  

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Picking up precisely where season two ended, we move swiftly through the events of The Slippery SlopeThe Grim GrottoThe Penultimate Peril and The End. The adaptations are a little looser this time around, and while they all hit the major beats from the books some aspects are fleshed out or condensed. The Slippery Slope episodes are probably the weakest of the bunch, suffering from some of the bloat and directionlessness that made season two occasionally tedious, but the two-parter makes up for it with the spectacular final scene that sends the stakes skyrocketing, an evil act that, for once, is allowed to be impactful rather than swiftly undercut by a joke. 

Sadly, that annoying habit does remain elsewhere, especially when it comes to Count Olaf. His murder of Larry, for example, is treated more like a quirky punchline than the death of a character who’s been part of the show from the first season. In terms of menace, it doesn’t help that Olaf is essentially turned into a petulant child during the Slippery Slope episodes, where the introduction of the Man With A Beard But No Hair and the Woman With Hair But No Beard swiftly takes away any authority he had. 

That said, both The Penultimate Peril and The End episodes really allow Neil Patrick Harris to shine. The ship has long since sailed on this version of Olaf ever seeming legitimately dangerous, but the show doesn’t shy away from allowing him some depth and pathos in his final moments. While last season hinted at it, this season shows just how damaged and deeply hurt Olaf really is, how one bad choice and the corrupting influences of the wrong mentors put him on a path to villainy brought about by the blind pursuit of vengeance. Even the most tragic backstory couldn’t redeem Olaf, but it does serve to humanise him and just as the Baudelaires are forced to contend with the fact that even their beloved parents were a lot more complex than they could have realised, this serves to illuminate one of the themes that still gives Unfortunate Events so much power, the simple truth that morality isn’t simple, that the world isn’t just divided down the line of a schism between good and evil. Just as Olaf can do something noble in his last moments, the Baudelaires can do something terrible for what they perceive to be the right reasons. 

Nowhere is this better emphasised than in The Grim Grotto episodes, which see the Baudelaires confronted with not only the deadly Medusoid Mycelium fungus and a giant, genuinely scary sea monster, but with moral ambiguity, especially pertaining to Usman Aly’s Fernald, Olaf’s hook handed associate. Aly rises to the occasion of fleshing out his previously one note character, and his delivery of the famous ‘chef’s salad’ speech from the books was a highlight. By wisely moving the rest of Olaf’s troupe offstage in The Slippery Slope, the Grim Grotto episodes give Aly a wonderful showcase and a surprisingly moving backstory. The Baudelaires may well hate Fernald for what he’s done, but they were never put in the position he was. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer, and that theme becomes more and more apparent over the course of the season. 

The Penultimate Peril episodes, meanwhile, don’t quite achieve the same sense of everything coming together that the novel did. While the book featured just about every surviving character, in the series many familiar faces are conspicuous by their absence. This, however, is largely alleviated by the flashbacks detailing exactly what happened between Lemony, Beatrice, Olaf and Esme all those years ago, the full reveal drawing power from just how well it contextualises everything we’ve seen. It underscores the melancholy of Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket and gives weight to his concern with the Baudelaires – the entire series of unfortunate events, in the end, stemmed from that one decision and ultimately it was the innocent children who had to suffer for the choices of the previous generation. For the first time, Lemony himself had an active role to play in proceedings, as his mistake was followed by another failure years later to help the orphans when they really needed it. Of all the loose ends tied up by the show, this one most felt like something that the source material would have benefitted from. The entire cast, including Morena Baccarin as Beatrice, play it magnificently, but the MVP is Patrick Warburton, who manages to convey the sadness and regret of Lemony Snicket in a way that feels more real and powerful than the dour joke his demeanour often was in the books. 

On the note of performances, everybody brought their A-game this year. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes have always walked a fine line in making the somewhat too-perfect Baudelaires likeable, and both are giving fun new notes to play, especially in their respective interactions with newcomer Fiona. Lucy Punch is a delight from start to finish as Esme Squalor, while Kitana Turnbull steals literally every scene she’s in. The child actors are across the board excellent, but Turnbull is a pretty astonishing talent and I’d be surprised if this show wasn’t the springboard to a meteoric rise to fame. Meanwhile, Presley Smith might be the most expressive baby on the planet. 

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The producers had an especially unique challenge in adapting the final book. On paper, The End works more as a thesis for the themes of the entire series, an exploration of whether it’s better to try and protect children from the misfortunes of the world or prepare them. And while these themes are certainly present, they’re perhaps inevitably not explored with the same depth or beauty as in the book. With The End relegated to a single episode, the pace suddenly speeds up and at times it feels a little rushed, especially as it incorporates material from the supplementary volume The Beatrice Letters as well. Where The End succeeds however is in its sense of closure. The production team had suggested recently that The End would be treated more as an epilogue than a finale, and this is very evident, especially with The Penultimate Peril not only wrapping up many loose ends but featuring a welcome and touching reprise of ‘That’s Not How The Story Goes’ over images of many of the characters and places we got to know over the course of this series. By including the young Beatrice Baudelaire’s search for Lemony and through her finally allowing the narrator a moment of genuine happiness, The End gave not only the story of the Baudelaires but that of their chronicler a moving coda.  

This leads into something else that might be contentious for viewers; the fact that the ending, despite all promises to the contrary, is largely a happy one. Yes, there is ambiguity over the fate of many characters (including the Baudelaires), but the conclusion is a far cry from the deliberate uncertainty of the books. Your mileage may vary on how much of a problem this is for you, but the warmth, conclusiveness and relative sentimentality of this goodbye feels right for an adaptation that, while clearly respectful of its source material, was always a little brighter.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, then, provides an excellent companion piece to the books it’s based on. It’s that rare adaptation that complements, respects, and gently reconfigures its source material. That it managed to pull all that off while also being funny and clever in its own right almost counts as a minor miracle. If this is the last we see of the Snicketverse then it’s a stellar farewell, but a few Easter Eggs to prequel series All The Wrong Questions (Bombinating Beast Statue, anyone?) suggest a clear avenue for Netflix to go down if they want more out of this world. 

Season three of A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the best season of a fantastic, if flawed adaptation. In its final run this strange and singular show pulled off a strange and singular feat; wrapping up its source material as well as itself.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events season 3 is available now on Netflix.