A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books, and today I’m talking about the second-to-last one: The Penultimate Peril. This post will contain spoilers for book 12 and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “allow me to recommend that you put this next-to-last [review] down first, and find something else to read next at last.”
The Penultimate Peril is the penultimate book in Unfortunate Events, and it finds the Baudelaires at the Hotel Denouement, a hotel organized by the Dewey decimal system (for example, there are teachers staying in room number 371, the number for schools and school activities in Dewey Decimal Classification.) The Hotel Denouement is the last safe place for VFD, and the secret organization will be meeting there in just two days. The Baudelaires, disguised as concierges, spy on the hotel guests, hoping to discover whether or not the safety of the hotel has been compromised, and whether or not they should give a signal to call off the meeting.
I Won’t Tell You When You’re Older
The Penultimate Peril is full of cameos from characters introduced and exited earlier in the series and one of the characters to return is Sir—known as Sir because his actual name is unpronounceable. Other than his callous attitude toward the workers in his lumber mill, Sir’s defining characteristic is the cloud of cigar smoke that is forever swirling around his head, completely obscuring his face. When I first discussed Sir, I wrote about how he’s a model for what’s to come later in the series—these mysteries that are never solved, secrets that only exist as secrets. Since I’ve finished rereading Unfortunate Events, I’ve been poking around looking at reviews of the series. I’ve seen complaints that not all of the big mysteries were resolved, which makes the last few books kind of disappointing. To those people I would say:
You are less discerning readers than an eight-year-old.
I can’t take away anyone’s reading experience—I don’t think anyone is wrong to say that they were disappointed. I would, however, defend Daniel Handler vigorously from anyone who thinks he dropped the ball. Handler does a lot to signal that these big secrets will never be clarified a hundred percent, and rereading Penultimate Peril, I remember that the sequence with Sir was when I, as an eight-year-old, realized that there were certain things that the thirteenth book still would not divulge. The scene is farcical in the way it conceals Sir’s face. Klaus is spying on Sir and his partner Charles, and he escorts the two to a sauna. Sir orders Klaus to hold his cigar while he goes into the sauna. Francis of 2005 was so excited about this—finally, we get to see Sir’s face! What if he’s actually another character under that smoke? What if he’s a relative of another character? But then, “Sir handed Klaus the cigar and strode into the sauna before the cloud of smoke around his head could clear.” (109) And it was at that moment that I realized that we would never find out what the Sugar Bowl is.
Maybe some readers just need to get in touch with their inner child—and not in a cheerful, imaginative way. Remember the time when you were young, and people constantly withheld information. People will “tell you when you’re older.” Adults speak as mysteriously about sex as Snicket writes about VFD. And then there are matters where adults aren’t hiding anything, but the answers are still unsatisfactorily vague to children: What happens after you die? What came before the big bang? Why is it “feet” not “foots”? How does Santa Klaus visit everyone all in one night? There were even mundane things that I remember my parents being vague about, like workplace drama. I remember piecing together that my mom, an ESE teacher, was discomfited by a certain parent who showed more enthusiasm for their daughter in gifted than their son in ESE (technically gifted is also ESE, but whatever.) I figured out who it was by overhearing conversations—though if I’d ever asked my mom about it flat out, I know she wouldn’t have told me anything. And I never got total confirmation, just as the Baudelaires piece together hints and clues, but can never know for sure.
So I don’t think Handler dropped the ball, I think he executed this perfectly, and gave the reader plenty of vaccines of small secrets to inoculate them against the influenza of big unresolved mysteries. Sir is the epitome of these small secrets, where the reader is denied an answer to a question. The appeal of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that it rings true to the frustrating, confusing, imperfect nature of life, and it rang true to me a decade ago and it rings true to me now.
Countless Things Happened
The end of The Penultimate Peril echoes the end of The Vile Village. In the Vile Village, the Baudelaires are accused of murder, and face a crowd of angry villagers who are convinced that the Baudelaires are guilty. The Baudelaires attempt to escape on an enormous hot air mobile home, but when they realize they’ll never be able to make it in time, they give up, and face the crowd. They manage to escape again, but not by completely abandoning civilization and living in the sky—they’re simply on the run, and eventually join VFD, and in this way they are able to coexist with society. Until The Penultimate Peril.
The end of book 12 hits these same beats, with a few added twists, and a completely different outcome. The Baudelaires are once again accused of murder (though this time their culpability is fuzzier) and once again face a crowd of people who are convinced of their guilt. This time the Baudelaires do leave civilization entirely—even boarding a strange, fantastic vehicle, a boat with a parachute that lets it sail down from the top of the hotel to land safely in the sea.
There’s also a difference in the way Handler presents what they’re leaving. In Vile Village, the village was a stand-in for society, with a litany of ridiculous rules and an arbitrary fanaticism over crows comparable to patriotism or religion or anything you like. In Penultimate Peril, the hotel is a stand-in for civilization, though Handler mainly emphasizes the confusing, muddled nature of the world. The hotel, being organized by the Dewey Decimal System, is home to every type of person under the sun, and they’ve all been pulled into close, confusing proximity. There’s a passage in the middle of the book that I adore, in which Snicket relays to the reader a series of vignettes occurring throughout the hotel, such as, “On the ninth story, a woman was suddenly recognized by a chemist, and they had a fit of giggles,” (151) or “In room 174, a banker picked up the phone only to find no one on the line” (152). This digression, which goes on for two pages, touches on the perplexing, multitudinous nature of the Hotel Denouement and of the world, and Handler picks up the motif again when the Baudelaires are leaving.
Instead of the hive-mind mob of The Vile Village, the angry mob in The Penultimate Peril is much more fragmented. On the page, it’s rendered as a series of exclamations, as in:
“We should call the manager!”
“We should call the concierge!”
“We should call my mother!”
“We should look for clues!”
“We should look for weapons!” (241)
The lack of dialogue tags makes these outcries anonymous, inscrutable, untraceable, and it’s difficult to make connections between any of them, or make any sense out of the desires of the crowd as a whole.
Then, the Baudelaires realize that Count Olaf is going to get away with some scheme, and “the crowd was going to do nothing that would stop Count Olaf … and that the people in the lobby would fail them, as so many noble people had failed them before” (299). They escape the crowd, and following Count Olaf, they realize that he too is escaping. In an exaggerated echo of the Baudelaires feeling that many noble people had failed them, Count Olaf declares, “I’ll unleash the Medusoid Mycelium, and volunteers and villains alike will perish in agony. My comrades have failed me as often as my enemies, and I’m eager to be rid of them.” (313) I’ll talk more about the escape itself in a moment, but I need to wrap up this whole civilization-hotel thing first.
The escape vehicle is on the roof, and to slow Olaf down so he doesn’t have time to release the Medusoid Mycelium, the siblings push every button on the elevator ride up. As the elevator stops and opens its doors at each floor, the Baudelaires catch glimpses of all the guests, so many of whom are figures from their pasts. And with each stop, the elevator doors close, and the elevator moves further up, shutting out that person forever. But Handler doesn’t just use this elevator ride to accent all of the personal connections the Baudelaires are severing. As this final build up continues for pages of glimpsed interactions, artifacts of the orphan’s history surfacing and disappearing, eventually Handler returns to those vignettes of unknown people, who become iconic in their faceless universality:
“… they heard a man call for Bruce and a woman call for her mother and dozens of people whisper to and shout at, argue with and agree upon, angrily accuse and meekly defend, furiously compliment and kindly insult dozens of other people, both inside and outside the Hotel Denouement, whose names the Baudelaires recognized, forgot, and had never head before. Each story had its story, and each story’s story was unfathomable in the Baudelaire orphan’s short journey …” (337)
When the Baudelaires finally reach the rooftop, they feel “as if they were balancing delicately on a mysterious and perplexing heap of unfathomable mysteries.” (339) Literarily, the Baudelaires are leaving behind (or trying to) all this conflict and perplexity, embodied by this enormous library of a hotel that holds people from teachers to bankers to chemists to rabbis to volunteers to villains. Now, to analyze what the Baudelaires are leaving behind literally.
The escape that the Baudelaires make in The Vile Village is fairly simple—they are escaping an oppressive, bureaucratic, incompetent society. In The Penultimate Peril, the orphans are also escaping VFD (the secret organization I mean, not the village.) From working on the fringes of society, in the shadows of secret organizations, the Baudelaires have found even more to run away from—and just like Mr. Poe, the executor of their parents’ estate, failed to protect them from Count Olaf, VFD has failed to clarify the confusion of this world, or protect them, or even protect itself.
It’s a fantastic sequence, and it stands out to me as an iconic moment in Unfortunate Events. Of course, seeing heroes decide to abandon the system to better pursue their goals is always exciting (“you’re off the case, Baudelaires!”) but what’s so exciting about this moment is that it doesn’t feel like the Baudelaires ever want to go back again. They literally burn the last safe place for VFD to the ground. They’re just done with all of it, and they’re betting on themselves instead of VFD or Mulctuary Money Management or the High Court or anyone not in the boat. Hunger Games, and any number of dystopian YA series, of course have this kind of stuff too—the difference is, the Baudelaires are abandoning the good guys, because the good guys are just so incompetent. They feel just as disappointed and disillusioned with VFD as Count Olaf does with his villainous colleagues.
As a kid who constantly chafed at teachers who didn’t teach fast enough and tests that seemed counter-productive, and wished I could leave it all, I ate this stuff up when I first read the books. Ten years later, it turns out I’m still frustrated by well-intentioned incompetence, and I was blown away with the visceral power of this ending.
I should take a moment to just talk about how Penultimate Peril functions as a book. It’s an interesting departure from the usual style of the series, with the first half of the book mostly spent with the Baudelaires passively spying on people. The reader is right there with them, just watching these interactions play out. I felt this part wasn’t as engaging as typical ASOUE, and most of the cameos of old characters weren’t used to great effect—they didn’t re-contextualize that character in the series, or bring anything interesting to the current plot developments, with the exception of Sir. But the second half of the book is some of the most riveting, high-stakes Unfortunate Events plotting in the whole series. The Penultimate Peril doesn’t pull its punches in the second half, and it ratchets up the tension perfectly to transition into the final book.
“‘You can’t push that boat off the roof,’ Violet said. ‘It would never survive the fall, due to the force of gravity.’
“‘I suppose I’ll have to add the force of gravity to my list of enemies,’ Olaf muttered.” (313)
—The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket
If you’ve been enjoying these posts, consider purchasing The Only Series that Matters to support posts like these, and the blog in general! The collection holds all the posts that have appeared on this site so far, plus the final post that will appear on this site next week, polished up and consolidated for the book. It also contains “Chapter Fourteen,” an essay that won’t be published on this blog, discussing my relationship with the series through different parts of my life, and The Appalling Appendix—an index of selected notes, quotes, and observations from the file I kept while rereading the series. The collection is available on Smashwords and Amazon.