The philosophy of… A Series of Unfortunate Events

Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events has something to teach all of us, regardless of whether we are adults or children. The show explores issues such as morality, the importance of education and family, and the oft-forgotten trials that children face. The story centres around the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) whose lives take an unfortunate turn after their parents perish in a fire. They are relentlessly pursued by Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) who is determined to steal their fortune.

One of the show’s central questions is what it means to be a good person. Count Olaf and his accomplices are overtly villainous, attempting to obtain their desires through treachery; but the Baudelaires are not perfect either. The show conveys a message of moral relativism as the children desperately attempt to survive a world with Count Olaf in it, but their actions slowly begin to mirror the man they condemn as they lie, deceive, and set fires. The fundamental difference is their reasoning for doing so; they do the wrong thing for the right reason. However Olaf, in his final moments, is noble and saves a woman he once loved so that she could give birth in a safe place. The show proves that people are neither inherently good nor wicked; in its own words, ‘they’re like chef’s salads with good things and bad things all mixed together.’

The show also addresses the importance of education; Violet and Klaus are well-educated children who value knowledge and learning whereas Count Olaf was expelled from school and prefers transitory things. In his book on Utilitarianism, J.S. Mill distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures. He argues that those who are familiar with the pleasures of higher faculties, such as morality, intellect, and imagination are most likely to favour them, even though they are sometimes accompanied by discontent. This applies to the Baudelaire children who have experienced the feelings associated with activities such as reading and inventing. Count Olaf has little education and never understood the emotions that can come from higher pleasures, and consequently prefers lower pleasures that bring immediate satisfaction. This is ultimately what creates the conflict between Olaf and the Baudelaires; he desires their fortune, and the children, due to their preference for higher pleasures and their moral compass, are unable to stop him.

Children are not blind to the horrors that the world can bring, and this is especially true for the Baudelaires who suffer through many mental and physical trials. They begin to forget the simple joys of life; both Klaus and Violet forget their birthdays, and by placing children in these situations, the show highlights the incompetence of the adults who should be protecting them. Mr Poe (K. Todd Freeman) in unable to recognise Count Olaf, and their various guardians fall prey to Olaf’s schemes. The Baudelaires are often overlooked and ignored, even when informing people of the danger they’re in. Despite this, the adults do not fail the children because of innate evil, they fail because they are the ones who turn a blind eye to the horror of the world.

At the centre of this show are the Baudelaires, and the theme of family is prominent throughout. The story begins with great loss, but Violet, Klaus and Sunny learn to rely on and protect each other and they never lose the belief that one day they would find a home. The show subverts the typical ideas surrounding family identity, and when the children are told they have lost theirs, Violet replies ‘We didn’t lose our family, only our parents’. The series ends with a glimmer of hope for the children to finally find a safe place to call home.

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Nerisse Appleby

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December 2021
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