If you like snakes and depressing stories, episodes 3 and 4 of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events are bound to bring you joy. In a masochistic way, evidently. In “The Reptile Room”, after spending a rather life-threatening season under Count Olaf’s care, the Baudelaire orphans move in with Dr. Montgomery. The old family friend, whom the Baudelaires know nothing of, has long been regarded as everyone’s favorite ASoUE guardian. He studies and collects snakes and other reptiles, loves taking the children to the movies, and is kind and attentive. Yet, given that there are eleven other books to get to, we all know this isn’t going to end well.
[Spoiler-infested waters. Swim at your own risk.]
The Reptile Room I-II
Sequels are often the pitfalls of YA/Children’s Lit series. If your second installment doesn’t convince me that you can keep delivering as an author, I’ll probably not read the next eleven books. J.K. Rowling did it with Chamber of Secrets, Suzanne Collins did it with Catching Fire, and Daniel Handler? He delivered The Reptile Room, one of the most beloved volumes in the series. What is not to love about Herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery, Uncle Monty for those closest to him? The Baudelaire orphans finally find a home, and we get to enjoy it with them for a short while. Until Stephano (aka Count Olaf) shows up to ruin everything for everybody again.
Stephano and His Henchmen
Stephano is one of my favorite Count Olaf disguises. Maybe it’s the bald head and the long beard. Maybe it’s his ridiculous accent. But most of all, I think it’s the fact that this is the first time Olaf tries to hide his identity after his true intentions come to light. Children are supposed to fall for costumes and masks, yet they are the only ones who see through Count Olaf’s performances. It creates a rift between the reality the Baudelaires share with their guardians and the one they are forced into when left alone with Olaf.
The only other people who see past the performance are those involved with it: the henchmen. In the books, the henchmen are Olaf’s extra eyes and hands, but in the show they help populate this alternate reality of dramatic irony. In “The Reptile Room,” the henchman of indeterminate gender gets to dazzle us with his performance as the unassuming nurse. The jokes work perfectly between Olaf and his traveling actors, the gags acquiring even more momentum in this second part.
Uncle Monty and the VFD
Montgomery Montgomery is by all means an oddball. At first, you’re not too sure if to trust him. The fact that he keeps reptiles (especially snakes???) in his home is a cause for concern for any newcomer. But, this is also a dude who knows the reptiles aren’t dangerous, is well learned and traveled, and bakes cakes. The biggest tragedy, aside from his death, is the fact that the Baudelaire parents never told their children about him. Imagine all the fun birthday gifts and vacations they missed. Of course, this is all inconsequential next to Monty’s murder at the hands of Count Olaf.
This time around, we are privy to Uncle Monty’s links to the VFD almost from the get-go. The behind-the-scenes at the movie theater allows for Monty to show his secret organization skills before his demise. Some worry about how these early reveals might affect the more VFD-filled books in the future. Truth is: we aren’t being told that much, and Daniel Handler is adding more meat to the whole organization anyways.
For the moment, we get to enjoy Monty’s dexterity before feeling completely dumbfounded by his inability to see past Count Olaf’s disguise. It’s not difficult to see why someone as clueless as Mr. Poe wouldn’t be able to recognize Count Olaf, but it’s heartbreaking to see a supposedly smart and trained VFD member not be able to crack the case. Even more so because Monty had known Olaf for years. Are the disguises actually that good and the children that perceptive? Or has the VFD’s morale declined so much with every tragedy that they’re losing their spunk?
The More Experienced Baudelaires
During the first two episodes, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire wait for the adults to save them. They respect the system, identifying adults as protectors. When Justice Strauss, the Poes, and Count Olaf and his henchmen fail them, the orphans learn that they are all alone in the world. With Uncle Monty, they let their guard down momentarily. Relieved by their new guardian’s kindness and care, the Baudelaires are hopeful that he will be able to shield them from Stephano. When Uncle Monty fails to discover Stephano’s real identity and is found murdered the next morning, the Baudelaires understand that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It’s safe to say that by the end of “The Reptile Room” the Baudelaire orphans become the most reliable (albeit unofficial) members of the VFD. Jacquelyne being the only exception here (although she also seems to never arrive on time). Each child is quick on their feet when developing a plan: Sunny distracting Count Olaf and his men, Violet retrieving and putting together the murder weapon, and Klaus finding the evidence to disprove Olaf’s theory. Being able to watch the Baudelaires physically take action is a definite perk of the medium, and I’m 100% here for it.
Jacquelyne and the Maze
One of my favorite additions to the Baudelaire story is Jacquelyne’s relationship with Klaus. It’s short, it’s sweet, but the fact that she promises to retrieve the telescope for him warmed my heart to bits. Even more so when she actually returns it. Jacquelyne isn’t the center of the maze, as one would think, but rather the watcher of the maze. She’s the personification of that which watches over the Baudelaires. While it might be true that her help or that of the VFD isn’t ever quite enough, the mere presence of a friendly face is enough to keep the Baudelaires fighting.
The VFD’s involvement in the Baudelaires’ life so early on, as well as the face of Lemony Snicket popping up time and again gives The Reptile Room a whole new dimension. The audience can feel the multiple gears turning, the story climbing successfully to its climax. This odd collaboration between the adults that are worth the while and the children empowered by tragedy is bound to lead us into The End armed and ready.
To read Part I of this review click here. Stay tuned, links will be available here once the other two parts go live.