A Series of Unfortunate Events in the Trump Era

So, I’ve just started watching Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events because I’m always six months behind the conversation. Earlier this year, the second season dropped and I’ve been enjoying it more than the first. Now, I did read the series when I was younger. My memory of the books is hazy but from my memories, the show is rather faithful. The area in which it probably differs the most is in expanding the role of the adults in the series. Now, as I made my way through the series I had a thought. A Series of Unfortunate Events reflects the Trump era in an interesting way. Now for me to explain why I am going to spoil both series to a point. The discussion of the series will probably spoil The Vile Village and all preceding episodes. With that out of the way, let’s begin.

The moment that made me realise the connection the Trump era came in the first part of the Vile Village. The Baudelaires hear that Count Olaf has just been captured by a tall and handsome stranger. Having seen Count Olaf last captured by Jacques Snicket, the audience assumes a certain inertia, although it is hinted that Olaf will be rescued by Esme masquerading as the Police Chief. Enter Olaf, dressed a ‘Detective Dupin’. In his clutches is Jacques Snicket who has been dressed to resemble Count Olaf. Count Olaf is identified by two characteristics when he is described. His one long eyebrow and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle. Olaf’s various disguises hid this fact. Jacques, dressed as Olaf, possesses a genuine eye tattoo which he confides is more than it seems. Now, in this scene, the identification of Olaf is entrusted to Mr Poe.

Mr Poe is a banker who is charged with Orphan Affairs at the banks and acts like child services for the purpose of the story. When asked to identify Olaf, a man he has encountered numerous times, he misidentifies Jacques as Olaf. When I read these sections on the page, there was always doubt in my mind because I could only rely on the character’s descriptions. Watching this story unfold, Poe is unable to tell the difference between Neil Patrick Harris who portrays Olaf and Nathan Fillion who portrays Jacques. Herein I found an interesting parallel to the President of the United States.

Throughout the series, Count Olaf adopts simple disguises to fool those around him and get close to the Baudelaire orphans. In each story, the orphans recognise the disguised Olaf as soon as he appears to them and insist that this individual is Count Olaf. At which point, the adults in the room laugh off their concerns and note that he has neither of Olaf’s identifying features so the children must be mistaken or lying. Olaf is able to masquerade in plain sight because people fail to examine things on a deeper level. Now, think about Trump. Trump often makes outrageous statements that are provably false. Much of the discussion around these statements, particularly in the early days, was an incredulity at Trump’s bold face lies. For a deep dive into Trump’s campaign of lies, Vox has a really good breakdown.

Bringing this back to ASoUE, Olaf has a new disguise in every location. The Baudelaires have to constantly argue ‘This person is Count Olaf’ everywhere they go. The disguised Olaf simply has to argue ‘I’m not Count Olaf,’ and while they are debating this argument, Olaf is free to scheme. Olaf gets to frame the debate simply by dressing up in a costume. The adults in the room debate the merits of each side. Their argument is usually ‘This person doesn’t have the two things that we use to identify Count Olaf so they can’t be Count Olaf’. It’s reminiscent of when people note that Trump often has fascistic tendencies and the counter argument is ‘Trump can’t be a fascist because he’s not doing [x, y, z] Nazi thing’ because Nazis are the most recognisable fascists. When people make that argument there has to be an argument about if Trump is Hitler. The terms of the debate are very narrow and don’t allow a better conversation to take place.

So, how do you deal with a figure who barely hides their criminality behind a paper-thin disguise? Well, I won’t spoil how the Baudelaires deal with Count Olaf in the books but at some point, they do stop fighting over whether the new person in their lives is Count Olaf. It does get worse before it gets better for them though. However, the way they have so far managed to stay ahead of Count Olaf’s schemes has been to be well-read and resourceful so that might help against the Count Olaf’s in the White House.


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