Previously on ASOUE: The Wide Window
Readers of the book series will be happy that the show has caught up with the “big” revelation of the season so far; namely that Mother and Father are not, in fact, the Baudelaire orphans’ parents. The twist: Mr. and Mrs. Quagmire are parents to children who appear, at the outset, to have distinct similarities to Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. They too have had their home burned to the ground, seemingly at the hands of their parents. By chapter’s (and season’s) end, the children of both families are united at Prufrock Preparatory School, yet another depressing environment for our traumatized youngsters. We also learn, via an old photograph, that Lemony Snicket and Count Olaf were past pupils. Where this important information will lead the children to, we’ll have to wait until season two to find out.
The Miserable Mill starts with the children hiding out in the back of a truck destined for Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Going from their only clue, a photograph rescued from Aunt Josephine’s house at Lachrymose Lake, the orphans hope that the mill will provide them with credible information about how and why their parents died. And because Mr. Poe is more concerned about chowder than anything else, Count Olaf has already made his escape and is hot on their trail. But instead of finding immediate answers, the Baudelaires are penalized for trespassing onto private property by way of forced labour. The mill is owned and managed by Sir (a delightful Don Johnson), who himself has a special arrangement with the mill’s optometrist, Dr. Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara, who played Justice Strauss in the Jim Carrey movie version). Orwell keeps the mill open because she needs subjects for her hypnotism experiments. In return, Sir gets a cheap labour force. Violet and Klaus are horrified to discover that their parents were to blame for a fire that destroyed the town and original mill. Violet takes it upon herself to clear their name, while all Klaus wants to do is leave. This is the first time in the show that the children disagree with each other, and it nearly ends in tears and death, thanks to the evil optometrist-cum-hypnotist.
Dr. Orwell is exactly the kind of character ASOUE needed. Okay, the main villain is definitely Count Olaf, but we’re getting to know his schtick now. He turns up wherever the children are; he comes up with a hair-brained scheme to trick and sometimes murder his way into getting his hands on the Baudelaire fortune; he fails but manages to escape. The Miserable Mill breaks with this template by giving him a partner who’s somehow more dastardly than he is. Olaf, who once had a thing going on with Orwell, finagles his way back into her affections, dons women’s clothes and becomes Shirley St Ives. Together they usurp Sir’s authority by hypnotizing Klaus, having him cause a near-fatal accident to Poor Optimistic Phil, before some clever thinking from Violet saves the day and rescues Sir’s put-upon assistant Charles from a fate worse than death. She does the rest of the workforce a solid, too, when Hook-Handed Man (the only member of Olaf’s hench-people to make an appearance in this chapter) inadvertently lets slip the control word Orwell uses to keep the men and women at the mill under her influence. Orwell falls into a roaring furnace. Baby Sunny is saved from joining her. And Olaf lives to scheme another day.
At the end of the chapter, Mr. Poe brings them to Prufrock Preparatory School because he can’t find a guardian willing enough to take the children into their care. Clad in newly acquired school uniform, the children are told to sit down and wait for further instructions. On the other side of the bench, the Quagmire children are in a similar predicament. Hopelessness doesn’t even come close to describing their collective plights. A musical montage at the climax reminded me of a similar scene on Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderfully provocative movie Magnolia, with most of the main characters singing along to a song that reflects the theme of the show. It’s a lovely, darkly comedic moment that nails the show’s tone and humour.
The Miserable Mill completes season one’s quota of episodes, and while it isn’t as strong as the opening chapter, it’s a definite improvement on The Wide Window. A strong supporting villain in Dr Orwell is a plus, as is the supporting cast. I loved Optimistic Phil, a guy who sees the positive in any situation, including one where his left leg at completely flattened by Klaus while he was under Orwell’s hypnotic influence. (Half-price pedicures, anyone?) Rhys Darby is characteristically excellent as Charles, Sir’s assistant. Neil Patrick Harris is better as Shirley than he was as Captain Sham. But as has been the case since the premiere, the star of the show for me is Patrick Walburton’s Lemony Snicket. The more we learn about him and Beatrice, the more we find out the truth about the Baudelaires and the Secret Society. He’s a man still on the run from his enemies, but he still takes the time to tell us the story. Without him, the show would lose much if not all of its focus.
Season two will begin with The Austere Academy. See you next time, if you can stand the despair.