Warning: Major SPOILERS for A Series of Unfortunate Events ahead
One of the strongest elements of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events is just how faithful it is to the source material. Daniel Hadler, who authored the book series under the in-universe guise of Lemony Snicket, returned to write the teleplay, infusing the show with all of the sober eccentricity that made the books so relentlessly readable and perfectly translating the world to the screen. The show isn’t above taking some liberties with the story if it strengthens the whole – narrative flourishes explain away plot holes, and the massive V.F.D. mystery that only become prominent in the books later on is strongly threaded through the eight episodes – but it’s overall an on-point adaptation of the novels.
The one apparent exception to that was the parents. At the end of the first episode, just as Count Olaf is beginning to get his hooks into the Baudelaires, we cut away to a couple chained up in a van. Played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders and credited simply as "Father" and "Mother" respectively, they calmly assess their predicament and resolve to get home to their kids. As the show presents it, there's only one conclusion: the Baudelaire parents are alive.
In the books, the parents are resolutely dead, with nary a single scrap of narrative or thematic evidence to hint at their survival from the tragic fire that starts the series, yet here they appeared to be living, breathing, and fighting to get back to their kids. Throughout the rest of the series we got more of Father and Mother, with each episode showing them in an action vignette that ties into whatever depressing horror has most recently befallen the Baudelaires. In The Wide Window Part 2, they inadvertently help the kids escape the Lachrymose leeches. The duo were even seemingly recognized by the children as their parents in a photo of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. How this altered the wider story didn't really matter - the glimmer of hope was worth any deviations.
Things came to a typically morose head at the of The Miserable Mill Part 1, the season's penultimate episode. Here the parent's screen time was increased and it seemed to be building up to a book-diverging reunion. Of course, this is the Snicket-verse, so no such happy endings exist. In a heart-breaking case of cross-editing, it's revealed that Mother and Father aren't the Baudelaires at all, but the parents of the three well-cared for kids used as a joking aside earlier in the episode. As the fact that their parents really have been dead all along sinks in, narrator Snicket pulls the camera away from the Baudelaires' side of the action (they are, of course, about to run into Count Olaf once again) and implores you to stop watching. And this time you're crashed so unexpectedly low you almost feel like you could.
It's a masterful twist that rivals what we've seen recently in the likes of Game of Thrones and Westworld. At a point when repetition may have made the theme song's pleas to "look away" begin to fall flat, this reaffirms that for all the quirk, this is a story of emotional trials and tribulations. For book readers it's particularly upsetting; you know all along that things won't be tied up in a cheery bow, yet the series makes you put all prior knowledge aside and you uncynically buy into the possibility. In many ways it works to put the viewer in the same headspace as the children, forcing you to go through the stages of grief with them.
It's not just in-the-moment dourness that makes the twist so great though, but how it expands the story going forward; the reveal isn't just that Father and Mother aren't the Baudelaires, it's that they're the Quagmires.
In the books, the Quagmires were another family with links to V.F.D. - the secret organization dedicated to putting out fires alluded to throughout the first season - although the parents were scarcely mentioned. In a disturbing parallel, they too died in a fire started as part of a plot to get the family fortune - a collection of valuable sapphires - that left their triplet children orphans. This tragic event was seen on screen (perpetrated by an unknown arsonist, but possibly upcoming Olaf partner Esmé Squalor) in The Miserable Mill Part 2.
Their children, who were introduced in the show as a part of the twist, went on to have an indelible impact on the books, forming firm friendships with the Baudelaires and helping them learn a little more about their mysterious past. We see two of the triplets - Duncan and Isadora - again at the very end of the season at Prufrock Preparatory School, setting up their traditional appearance in The Austere Academy (Book 5), but the third child, Quigly, won't be seen again until much later (he winds up lost and on the trail of his siblings' friends - events which, based on the books, won’t be told until season 3).
The Quagmires were a highlight of the novels. Their introduction coincides with the expansion of the mystery and they were a constant glimmer of optimism in the Baudelaires' cycle of misfortune. Having the family elusively but memorably set up in the first season will allow for them to make an even stronger impact in the show; their ongoing importance will be evident from the start, coming with the weight of having followed their parents for eight episodes previously.
This also opens up the possibility for a new narrative device in season 2. In the books, the Quagmires are intermittently captured by Olaf, or are on the run and spend most of the rest of the story in a series of near-misses with the Baudelaires. The crazy adventures of their own all happen off-page, but it’s hopeful that later episodes in season 2 will actually show some of these in short scenes similar to those that showed their parents' journey.
All this still leaves one dangling thread: the real Baudelaire parents. They are, simply put, dead. Later in the books there was a suggestion that one person escaped the fire, although that turned out to be a red herring. Interestingly, the false optimism of their survival hides that the fact they've not really been explored in season 1. We get odd mentions of them and an exposition of their role in the burning of Paltryville in The Miserable Mill, but - as with the wider V.F.D. mystery - things are rather obscure. In retrospect, having the Baudelaire/Quagmire fake-out greatly helps the show, allowing the makers to hint at the bigger picture without the audience actually focusing too much on it.
The parents are still seen in the series though - they're the couple at the center of the photo of Lucky Smells. From left to right, that photo contains Georgina Orwell, Uncle Monty, the Quagmires, the Baudelaires, Josephine and Ike, the waiter from The Anxious Clown, and Snicket, giving us all the core members of V.F.D. (the good side anyway). At this point, all but two of the people in the image - the waiter and Snicket - are dead, but the group's legacy still has a big part to play going forward; there's a lot more for the Baudelaires to discover.
A Series of Unfortunate Events Season 1 is available on Netflix now.