Previously on A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning.
Everyone should have an Uncle Monty. Like, seriously. That one uncle who’s so eccentric and endearing it’s impossible to not like and want to spend quality time with. Herpetologist extraordinaire; what this man doesn’t know about snakes and other reptiles isn’t worth knowing. It also helps, if you’re a Baudelaire orphan, that Montgomery Montgomery (no giggling at the back) is a much kinder and more cheerful potential guardian than the dastardly Count Olaf. Aasif Mandvi (The Brink, The Daily Show, Jericho) plays Monty as a charming buffoon, and his inevitable demise in The Reptile Room lay heavy on the children’s hearts – if not the adults.
Following on from events in The Bad Beginning, the young Baudelaires – Violet, Klaus, and Olympic Gold Medalist Biter Sunny – are brought to meet the next closest living relative on Mr Poe’s list of guardians. If it weren’t for Olaf’s manipulations the first time around, they would have been brought to Monty right from the off. Olaf, meanwhile, is on the run, and Poe assures the children he’s hundreds of miles away and no longer a threat to their safety. Yeah, right.
Uncle Monty introduces himself to the children with a slice of coconut pie, much like Olaf did in the first episode. Cake is important; don’t let anyone tell you differently. After quickly shooing Poe away, Monty gives the children a tour of The Reptile Room, passing by a picture of their parents – hidden (literally) inside a piano. Once inside the room, the children are treated to the delights of all things reptile, including the intentionally misnamed Incredibly Deadly Viper, a friendly snake who takes an immediate liking to Sunny. But Monty’s cheerful demeanour hides a deeper secret. Entrusted by the secret society to spirit the children away from the country, Uncle Monty is a man on a mission.
Then Olaf appears at the door. Only he maintains he’s not Olaf, of course, but Monty’s new assistant Stephano, complete with bald head, long beard, and thick glasses. It’s a disguise that fools no one, except the adults in charge of the children’s security. He threatens physical harm to Sunny if Violet and Klaus blow his cover, but you know these kids are resourceful and will find some way to escape his clutches and alert the authorities. In the meantime, Monty treats the group to a night at the cinema – Zombies In The Snow, to be exact. Using a modified eyeglass, Monty deciphers the movie’s subtitles which tell him to take the children aboard the SS Prospero and hightail it to Peru. Olaf smells a rat and proceeds to hijack Monty’s place on the ship for himself.
As Lemony Snicket warns us throughout the episode, things do not end up well for poor Uncle Monty. He ends up dead, apparently bitten by the Incredibly Deadly Viper. The children don’t get much time to mourn their uncle, though, because Olaf’s plan continues at a breakneck pace. His troupe is waiting outside to help with the charade. Masquerading as a nurse (Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender), a cop (Hook-Handed Man), and morticians (White-Faced Women): together with Olaf they try to pull the wool over Poe’s eyes and take off with the kids to Peru. But Violet, Klaus, and Sunny use their special skills, and with the help of some clever scenes and story-telling, they expose Olaf for the murderer he is. Poe’s assistant Jacqueline is on site to help the children, too. Covered in gold paint and disguised as a statue in Monty’s labyrinth of a garden, she aides in their escape and then sets off to find Olaf, who’s on board the SS Prospero making good his retreat. But she’s unable to keep hold of him as he jumps out of the porthole and into the sea.
By the end, the children are safe but none the wiser as to what’s really going on. Their presumed-dead parents are desperately trying to contact them from Peru, but the children don’t know this. The secret society, whatever its intentions, are keeping mum on the whole thing.
The Reptile Room moves at a much quicker pace than the opening installment. The stakes are well set, and the children prove themselves well up to the task. Patrick Warburton’s Snicket continues to entertain in his monotonic and melodramatic interludes, and he provides a vital link to Handler’s source material. None of this would work, in my opinion, if it were not for his ironic contributions. The young actors excel, too. Both Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are brilliant in their portrayal of children who know more than the adults, and the scene in which they escape from The Reptile Room is ingenious and frequently hilarious. There is literally very little room to breathe until the next zinger comes along. For a show that’s upfront about the bleakness and misery in the material, such humour is indeed welcome. As always, Neil Patrick Harris’ Count Olaf is a delight. He inhabits the role in such a way that you can’t wait to see what he comes up with next time.
Speaking of which, the next time is Aunt Josephine and The Wide Window. Unless you’ve got something better to do…
ASOUE - Book Two
"The Reptile Room"
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, K. Todd Freeman, Joan Cusack, Cobie Smulders, Will Arnett, Usman Ally, and Aasif Mandvi.
Available through Netflix, streaming now.