WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, streaming now on Netflix.
Eagle-eyed viewers will no doubt spy an addition to the opening titles of A Series of Unfortunate Events: a sugar bowl, which, at first glance may seem no more noteworthy than the typewriter or the familiar photos on Lemony Snicket’s bulletin board connected by strings of yarn. But as the second season of the Netflix comedy-drama unfolds, the pretty piece of pottery becomes part of the plot, as a curious object of intense desire. But why?
The question has plagued readers of the children’s novels by Daniel Handler — pardon us, Lemony Snicket — since 2001’s The Hostile Hospital, generating numerous theories. There are clues in the original books, and in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, but we can also find some hints scattered throughout the latter half of Season 2.
Esme Squalor (Lucy Punch), the status-conscious love interest and ally of Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), angrily insists that Beatrice Baudelaire stole it from her, which might suggest a motive for the fatal fire that left Violet, Klaus and Sunny as orphans. (Indeed, the Baudelaire children discover a network of tunnels that stretches from beneath Esme’s high-rise to their former home.) Reclaiming the sugar bowl is so important that Esme, masquerading as Police Officer Luciana in the Village of Fowl Devotees, agrees to free V.F.D. Volunteers Jacques Snicket (Nathan Fillion) and the Librarian (aka Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue) from jail in exchange for information about its whereabouts.
But there’s also serious question as to whether Beatrice actually stole the sugar bowl, or, if she did, whether she acted alone. The facts, such as they are, conflict.
For instance, narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) confesses to the audience in Episode 7 that he’s still troubled by something he did many years earlier. “It was a necessary thing but it was not a nice thing,” he says. “Even now I get a pang of guilt when I think about it. Even now I ask myself, Was it necessary, was it really necessary? Was it absolutely necessary to steal that sugar bowl from Esme Squalor?”
That would seem pretty cut and dried, except that Lemony is not always a reliable narrator. “A crystal ball cannot predict how a dragonfly might set off an avalanche by flapping its wings,” he later laments, “or that woman dressed in a dragonfly costume will set off a series of unfortunate events by stealing a sugar bowl.”
We know from a flashback in Season 2’s penultimate episode that the woman dressed in a dragonfly costume is Beatrice.
Lest we think this is merely a petty squabble about stolen porcelain, Olivia suggests that “a certain sugar bowl” played a role in the schism that split the V.F.D. into those who set fires and those who extinguish them. Its larger importance to the secret society is underscored by the determination by the previous Madame Lulu — a fortune-teller identity that rotates among V.F.D. members — to move the sugar bowl from its hiding place in Heimlich Hospital before Esme can find it.
The books have indicated the sugar bowl may hold anything from evidence that might prove Lemony Snicket’s innocence to horseradish, the only cure for the deadly mushroom Medusoid Mycelium. Ultimately, though, it’s a MacGuffin, like the Maltese Falcon, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It probably doesn’t matter what’s inside the sugar bowl, just that characters want it; therefore, it propels the story forward.
That said, there apparently is an answer to what the object contains (or contained). “The mystery of the Sugar Bowl is clear enough that one that about reader a year writes me and has figured it out, and that fills me with pleasure,” Handler revealed last year. “That makes me think it’s not too obscure. If no one ever wrote me about it I would think, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it enough.’ But because one person a year who will write me and say, ‘I figured it out.’ The whole answer of the Sugar Bowl is solvable.”
However, whether Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events solves that particular mystery in its third, and final, season remains to be seen.
Available now on Netflix, the second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events stars Neil Patrick Harris, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith, Patrick Warburton and K. Todd Freeman, with Lucy Punch, Nathan Fillion, Tony Hale, Sara Rue and Roger Bart, among others.
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