In Which We Tell An Exciting Half-Lie

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to


I made some mistakes in my friendship with a co-worker who I will call Jane. Although I am in committed relationship and I told her that, we both have not really brought it up too much since then. It is nice to have someone to talk to at work and if I am beginning honest, things in my relationship have been a bit stale — my girlfriend works long hours as well.

I have been sort of toeing the line with Jane and although I really do like her, I don’t want to break up with my girlfriend. Is there anyway to reestablish boundaries? (Nothing physical has happening, although we have come close.)

Theo A.

Dear Theo,

Jane does not sound much like an innocent party either. She knew you were in a relationship and that was probably part of the reason the two of you became so close. There are so many different ways two people can derive sustenance with each other. The kind you have chosen is essentially unhealthy, since it lacks real intimacy with either party, but maybe that is just the sort of arrangement you prefer.

The real problem is in your primary relationship. Maybe you don’t want to be with someone who works such long hours. Normally I would advocate a fresh lie, but telling everyone involved the truth is most likely going to lead to your best result. Half relationships can sometimes become full relationships, and it is possible either of these situations might be repaired to your satisfaction.



It is always disgusting or skeezy to ask someone who you met while they are working? I have built up rapport with an administrator who is employed at a hotel I often visit for work. I don’t want to make her uncomfortable by hitting on her, but there must be some way of letting her know I am really interested.


Daniel S.

Dear Daniel,

She has to deal with this a lot in her job. Building “rapport” as you call it is really just an aspect of service jobs. You’re a client and thus you receive this treatment because you have paid to receive it. It is really no indication of romantic interest on her part.

It is OK to drop hints, but never intrude on her private space or well-being. If she really picks up on what you are broadcasting, maybe it is then OK to straightforwardly ask if something more is going on. Without that green-light, you are just being a dick.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which We Always Desired A Normal Relationship


Mr. Grey’s Beads


Fifty Shades Darker
dir. James Foley
118 minutes

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-9-29-43-amIn a Seattle cafe, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) explains in the most half-hearted manner imaginable that he wants Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) back in his life. He is willing to change, he admonishes her, why would you ever believe otherwise? A moment before, the waiter struggles with a bottle of wine. Both diners appear flummoxed. You see, when two people are together, one of them always feels the slightest bit awkward.

Later, during the first sex scene in Fifty Shades Darker, Jamie Dornan pants like maybe he is going to be out of breath. Regular sex is much more taxing than torture, and it is part of the reason he used to have a contractual agreement that allowed him to take powders for water and gumballs. Next to his stash of various whips, chains and chokers is a glorious room of gumball machines that he only shows to Matthew Fox, and on more serious outings, former child stars. It reminds them all of what they lost.


Grey tells much of his backstory while trying on this normal relash for size. His mother was a crack-addicted so-and-so. It is quite disturbing and boring to realize someone’s past explains their present, and even more so when it does not fully take into account the considerable weight Jamie Dornan has put on his slender frame for this important sequel. Comparing him to the original Christian Grey, it might be said that there are now two of them. If you did not know any better, you might conclude that Dornan does not give a fuck.


Ms. Johnson on the other hand, really gives her all in this role. She clearly does not want to seem ungrateful: the money from being “fucked” by this man will keep her on easy street for the rest of her life, and she does not actually even need to wintercourse with the blubbery mess like Chloe Sevigny. When Grey gives her an iPhone and a Macbook as a gesture after they reconcile, he texts her to dream of him. She responds, “Maybe. Laters Baby,” and Dornan gets this little smile on his face, like how is this woman wanting to work in publishing when she sounds like Demi Lovato after four drinks?

Ana is not really liking her new job, because why would she be an assistant for some guy who looks remarkably similar to her boyfriend, when she could just serve her boyfriend? Eventually, Grey purchases the publishing company. She is not only unsurprised by the fact that she is suddenly working for him, she does not complain. Later, she accepts the position her boss had filled at the top of the editorial chain. Her first memo naturally ends with Laters Baby.


No it does not. She never sends out a memo, or knows what one is, since she has only been an assistant whose main job is to book hotel rooms and relay messages. Despite having nearly unlimited economic resources, Grey keeps having strange women approach him with vague accusations. Normally this would be a red flag for his girlfriend, but it’s not like he did anything else weird recently. Bored with their sex life after a single week, he introduces anal beads and a new haircut into their lovemaking. She raises her right eyebrow like The Rock.

Involving Kim Basinger in these proceedings, at an Eyes Wide Shut style masquerade charity event no less, is a bit of a low blow. Director James Foley makes her look like Chelsea Handler a decade-hence. Basinger still gets my blood moving, and it is hard to realize why she is wearing a headscarf like a cancer patient. It turns out that she introduced Christian to this whole psychosexual lifestyle. “Without me, he would be in jail or dead,” she tells Ana. “If you really want to make him happy, you’ll let him go. Nothing lasts.”


Afterwards, Ms. Johnson washes Mr. Dornan with a loofa. During each subsequent sex scene, Mr. Dornan’s body is more and more burnt and abused, whereas in some scenes they don’t bother applying the makeup since it distracts from his penetration. Everyone who has ever loved anybody knows that Kim Basinger is right and this relationship is going nowhere fast, but she really enjoys the high points: his cabin in Aspen, his massive yacht. I think the subtle moral code here is that having a lot of money is more important than good sex, and maybe a lot more important.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Start On Proust At Some Point


He Hated The City


In order for me to find myself worthwhile, I have got to be pretty brilliant, and understand everything.

Paul Bowles arrived in Paris in 1931. When he rode up to the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, they could not believe they had been corresponding with a college student. “I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman, at least seventy-five,” Stein told him. He was twenty-one years old.

Bowles started fast. He had been insulated from the world until the age of six, when he was sent to school. “I developed a superiority complex the first day,” he wrote in one of his many, many letters. His advancement continued apace:

When I was eight I wrote an opera. We had no piano, but we had two or three pieces of sheet-music which I studied and I had a zither which I tuned in various scales and modes. My first sexual thrills were obtained from reading newspaper account of electrocutions. At the time I was quite unconscious of the facts, except that I had the New England guilt about it.


Bowles’ first literary idol was Poe, and crossing the Atlantic aboard the S.S. McKeesport he contemplated setting some of the man’s poems to music. As a self-described modernist snob, Bowles’ perspective on other artists resembled his shaky feelings about being turned on by torture –  a mix of wonder, awe and pain. Upon his arrival in Paris, the first person he went out of his way to meet was Jean Cocteau. At the beginning of April 1931 he writes that Cocteau

rushed about the room with great speed for two hours and never sat down once. Now he pretended he was an orangoutang, next an usher at Paramount Theatre, and finally he held a dialogue between an aged grandfather and his young grandson which was side-splitting. I think never have I seen anyone like him in my life. He still smokes opium every day and claims it does him a great deal of good. I daresay it does. By definition, the fact that it is considered harmful for most mere mortals would convince me of its efficaciousness for him.

Reading Bowles’ private letters is like watching the precise movements of a guided laser. He writes completely differently depending on the level of intimacy with his correspondent. He penned almost stream-of-consciousness Joyce imitations to his friend Bruce Morissette, adopting a more formal tone for those whose friendship he coveted and had yet to earn. With his closest ones he even vacillated between styles with a severity of purpose nearly bipolar in its enthusiasm.


By June of 1931 he was in Berlin. He hated the city, all rain and mosquitos, but it was mostly that the place suffered in comparison to Paris. It is obvious how much his surroundings affected Bowles’ personality. In his letter to the Paris-born Jew Edouard Roditi, Bowles accurately described his view of the German metropolis:

if only the world were stronger! if only there were more dimensions! if only we thought in terms of perfumes! if only there were a third world where we could hide from the other two. then the other one would not be always grinning in feeling so perfectly well that we could do nothing when it intended to enter. there would be two of them there, and the two would be easier to fight than the one. but now it is always either one or the other, and neither one stays away long enough. in full noon sleep falls upon one for one tiny second without measurement and one knows there is no escape. berlin is not a beautiful city

Later he would tell Roditi, and in a sense himself as well, that “I have the feeling you are primarily two people, one of which should be killed.”

Among so many potent writers and artists, it was natural for young Bowles to feel a bit discouraged in his own writing. Yes, he could write or speak to Gertrude Stein anytime he liked, but reading further and further into her work, he despaired of his own.

All my theories on her I discover to be utterly vagrant. She has set me right, by much labor on her part, and now the fact emerges that there is nothing in her works save the sense. The sound, the sight, the soporific repetitions to which I had attached such great importance, are accidental, she insists, and the one aim of her writing is the superlative sense. “What is the use of writing,” she will shout, “unless every word makes the utmost sense?” Naturally all that renders her ‘opera’ far more difficult, and after many hours of patient reading, I discover she is telling the truth, and that she is wholly correct about the entire matter. And what is even more painful is that all my poems are worth a large zero. That is the end of that. And unless I undergo a great metamorphosis, there will never be any more poems.


In August he boarded another ship, the S.S. Imerethie II, with a destination of Tangier. His reaction to this lush place was the polar opposite to his experience of Berlin. In a postcard to John Widdicombe he wrote, “here I shall live until the eucalyptus leaves all fall and it starts to rain across the strait.” He took up residence in a villa with Aaron Copland. The villa featured a permanently out of tune piano, and while Copland found he could not do his work, Bowles’ mood improved immediately. After a sojourn in Marrakech, Bowles returned to Paris before stopping in London at the beginning of December.

London did not offend him as a city, but as a way of life. In a letter to Charles Henri-Ford, he writes,

I have crossed the little water that is mightier in its human gap than an ocean, and fallen again into the great pit of London. The chalk cliffs at Newhaven were all greyer through the dawn rain than any human eyes could be, and white gulls fluttered out of the black wind into the vague lights of the boat, and seemed to cry when their flight crossed the boat, but to be silent when they went back into the darkness again. There is little change, save that Piccadilly grows more and more like a sprawling Times Square, running down Haymarket and Coventry and Regent, all garish and burning with neon. It doesn’t fit. In New York, the great planes of the lifting buildings can carry it off, in London it stays right there, on the ground, on your mind, on your hands, and you can’t lift it. I am sad for this.

Paris left me empty. I look only, everywhere, all hours, for that new way of looking at the human thing, the heart, I suppose, of the world, and I found it not there. I was childish to look for it. Only the echo of the beat, not the strong pulse.

At any rate, it was good of you to lead me about by my nose, and to let me meet so many people. As you know, I like to meet everyone in the world at least once.


He had met many of the most important artists of his generation; from Klee to Gide to Stein to Copland to Pound. For a short time, it raised all boats to be amidst such individuals, but eventually Bowles’ surroundings discouraged him: 

Literature has never lived on literary talk, and literary acquaintances. I want to take every poet and shove him down into the dung-heap, kick all his literary friends in the ass, and try to make him see that writing is not word-bandying, like Stein, and the thousand legions of her followers, but an emotion seen through the mind, or an intellectual concept emotionalized, and shaping its own expression. You can’t write from a literary vacuum, and all of Paris, I felt, was trying to. They get all tangled up in trying to write cleverly and as no one else has, and get lost in the timber hills of their effort. I can’t help thinking Shakespeare never worried about writing a new kind of blank verse, just went ahead instinctively and did it.

The artists and writers Bowles once idolized had begun to let him down, as they had to. (He called Gertrude Stein, who told him, “Why don’t you go to Mexico? You’d last two days there.”) Friends he depended on for money were no longer as forgiving; after all, he had been in Europe for almost a year. A traveler is always welcome, a wayward resident finds himself more swiftly resented.

Even Copland became slow in answering his letters, and Bowles stopped visiting the Stein home. He developed syphilis and then acute tonsilitis, medical expressions of how little Europe had left for him. How he loathed these ancient cities! By the same token, he did not want to go home at all. In Algiers he began, for the first time in his life, to read the work of Marcel Proust.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.


In Which There Remain Very Many Matthew Crawleys


A Series of Profiles That Never Took Place


creator Noah Hawley

15590692_10154747020132488_2201604669235057392_oDan Stevens knew the moment he leapt out of his wheelchair on Downtown Abbey that he was destined for a better show. “The first thing I thought to myself,” he says, “was that I needed to find out where Julian Fellowes was, and find a flight of stairs to thrown him down.” (Dan Stevens is the toughest man in show business, possibly the world. When he smokes a cigarette it is like the cigarette is smoking him. When he plays baseball he is the shortshop, and when he has sex he has it twice, once for you and once for him.) Dan Stevens is a walking Esquire profile In Search Of a Role which has eluded him for some time. That of a man who is as good at something as he is at acting.

Enter Noah Hawley. Hawley wrote a novel or two, a screenplay (The Alibi) or two, nothing really that great. Then suddenly he made Fargo, season two of which was probably the best thing ever produced on television to that point. Now that he is in Fox’s talons, they are never letting him go. For some reason they have given him the worse possible project, the one that no one in their right mind could ever really do justice to, a property that has resulted in about eight terrible movies that no one ever wants to see again, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the slow decline of Hugh Jackman’s career, and he has made that art, too.

Sitting on a veranda at a Los Angeles hotspot, Hawley discusses how losing his virginity changed him as a working writer. “Before that moment,” he says with a crab leg dangling from his lower lip, reeking somewhat of chamomile and bourbon, “I thought that intercourse was the great barrier. One had to depict it truly and all else would follow. After I had sex, I realized that not touching was far more erotic and would be the basis of Legion.”


Confined to a mental institution with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, “There are no small parts, only the same schtick I do in every single role,” Plaza says, half a steak tartare dangling from her lower lip”), Dan Stevens has only his sister Amy (Katie Aselton) to visit him. One day Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) walks in. Dan asks her to be his girlfriend, and she agrees as long as they never have to touch.

Or does she? Or is she even there? That is what kind of show Legion is, except for one key aspect of the series’ milieu — it does not really truly matter whether something is occurring in the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens, who describes his friendship with Rebecca Hall in the most concrete terms: “She’s the most wonderful godmother to my daughter Willow,” he says, tossing a macaroon in the air and catching it with his teeth.) It only matters whether something feels like it happening at the moment it happens to be happening. Looking back, it may not have actually happened, it may be a memory of something happening, only the memory is not quite as exact as the actual experience. It could be in the head of Dan Stevens, who.


Hawley shoots Legion on a series of endlessly wonderful sets and places, stretching the budget he has been given for the show in every direction. Ultimately it looks like we are dealing with a single campus, but this is warped and circled around so many times it feels like a true variety of different places and perspectives. Often shooting above, below and across his subjects, Hawley is the most preternaturally talented director in his medium despite training mostly as a writer. As with Fargo, Hawley is at his best when he is diverging from concepts that have already been established. He seems to most enjoy modifying an existing aesthetic and playing off our expectations of that genre.

Legion‘s sprawling, ninety-minute pilot winds our way through much of David Haller’s life. Of course, we never learn any really salient facts about him; for example, who his parents are, or when he lost his virginity, or where the disturbing devil with yellow eyes that haunts his mental fabric originates. Hawley loves to slowly peel back the onion of the characters he brings to the screen, and it is relief to know so little and be drip fed the rest.


The key aspect of a shared psychotic disorder, or folie a deux, is the fantasy that develops in a sane person who has a close relationship with an inducer, sometimes called “the primary case”, who already has a psychotic ailment with more developed fantasies, and who is usually the dominant figure pushing his or her own worldview over their weaker, less-ill submissive. Sometimes I feel like that properly represents every person who has ever dealt with Bryan Singer, who gets an executive producer credit on Legion. Certainly what he did to the X-Men, and a lot of other people, should never be forgiven.


Possibly the only present action of Legion is the room where a government operative (Hamish Linklater) decides whether or would be more prudent to murder David Haller where he sits, later in a pool so they can electrocute him if necessary, or use him as a kind of weapon. This familiar dilemma feels a bit forced, so Hawley resolves it completely in the first episode. Haller’s escape into the company of Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) sets up a more interesting dynamic: even after Dan Stevens has found someone to trust, can he trust himself to know it is real?

Jean Smart worked with Hawley on Fargo, and you can see why she is exactly his type of actress — she even looks like Stevens, which means she is probably his mother or at least an important aunt. Like her potential son, she is great at delivering lines in humorous but also sinister manners, and shuffling back and forth between comedy and drama, which is where Hawley’s tonality always lies. He is constantly testing our boundaries, to see if we are capable of laughing at how absurd something is and then forcing us to imagine it could be happening to us as well. As he does this, he eats a banana split.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Began Reading As Soon As We Could Write

This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.


Durable Green

The human being as a social animal would like to achieve distinction from the others, and be praised by them. This is the basis for the preference for virtue.

In middle age the Austrian writer Robert Musil did not last long at any one occupation. Even a short stint as a librarian only unnecessarily served, in his mind, to distract from his duties as a working writer. His relationship with his wife Martha sustained him intellectually and emotionally through the ill health of his father. The following excerpts take place during the early part of the twentieth century, and were translated by Philip Payne.


It was about a woman who runs an inn in Carinthia and is well known for her intimate relationship with her mastiff. In the angry arousal of such an animal there is something that may well stimulate a woman. It is also possible that one feels loathing for men and prefers dogs — such a feeling is possible, precisely with women who love their integrity.


I have just come from Martha’s; on the street the air and the light are like those of early spring. I had the idea that all expression depends on the light — I had seen a coalman in profile. The cheeks dissolving, their colors as if ravaged by the light and then abandoned; forehead, bridge of nose, hair lit from the front (but a diffuse light coming only from over the rooftops) —

I can find no word for the expression of this man’s face.

I enjoy the work that is going quite easily but sometimes, it seems, too easily; I don’t know if it will turn out to be substandard.

I am very irritable, and a single unreflected remark of Martha’s can make me unhappy.


What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum — here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation.


Yet again this dreadful lack of energy and unwillingness to work. (Yesterday afternoon… Take note: a little too quick. You mount me as if I were an animal, how could you. Outside, a Sunday like those in spring.) I am afraid that I shall not have enough time for a vacation, a yearning for that surge of energy that massages away self-reproach. Unpleasant letter from home;  I’m supposed to be in Vienna in mid-September, “on the way home”; when am I to take that break?


Type: very muscular, athletically trained men who are timid.


For three days now in a state of deep depression. I am tired, I sometimes feel dizzy. Above all, I’ve little confidence in the work.

Half-past midnight. Have just come from Martha’s. Have discussed the first half of the work with her and now it’s all right up to that point. Martha promised to come to me around 11 tomorrow. Cholera in Spandau.

Wrote home explaining my opinion about Vienna, telling them I’m going but that I don’t want to go. Emphasized once again that I will not have anything to do with anyone on a social level when I’m there.


Literary people who speak scornfully of the work of their spirit. Kerr: “Literature takes up only a corner of my life.” Set against that: literature is a bold life arranged in a more logical way. It involves the creation or distillation of possibilities. It is fervor that pares a human being down to the very bone for the sake of a goal in which emotion is in an intellectual mode. The rest is propaganda. Or it is a light that originates in a room, a feeling in one’s skin when one looks back at experiences that at other times remain muddled and indifferent.

I have to remind myself how I invariably found all existing literature unsatisfactory from an intellectual perspective. But then all the more subtle and more powerful thinking about what is represented in the work must not take place within the work itself but before the work is written.


Here only the facts are given, the appearance of the street, the station building, the conversation, etc. It is not stated that these things had such and such a mood, but they do have one. The attitude within me was one of soot and strangled sadness, or something of the sort, and then I saw things in that particular way.

The last is a room in an Alpine inn. Whitewashed walls with wretched paintings. Clothes stand, a broad cross with a curving transverse beam, and four hooks beneath. The little bedside cabinet next to the cupboard is in an impossible state of disrepair. Such things invent people. And he becomes sensual; but there is nothing in the whole world with which to satisfy this errant corporeality.


Wherever possible, one ought to let facts speak rather than feelings. This gives rise to a fine dryness of tone: i.e., things that have claim to objective, not just subjective, validity. Perhaps as a way of regulating this, statements that one can prefix with the pronoun “we.”

I was unwell — angina — spent two days in bed and had a temperature for probably a week before that. Perhaps it was precisely this condition that made me more impetuous.

2b8b7cbd5a13fff156bc83e23d1bf17aFrom time to time the little (round) birds let themselves drop down between the branches, and then, behind the glass of the windows and the thin lace curtains, they seem to be made up of cross-stitching. When they sit still one sees, through the small gaps in the curtains, extensive areas of their plumage. One sees their natural colors, bright, quite bright light that sometimes shines on beak or wings, but is somehow subdued, modified in some way for which there is no description.

I don’t want here to attempt once more to keep a diary, but simply to record things that I don’t want to forget.


Walk along the Hauptallee. Martha was in a bad frame of mind and reproached me quite unnecessarily, which left me cold. “You will leave me,” she said. “Then I’ll have no one. I shall kill myself. I shall leave you.” In a momentary state of weakness, Martha slipped far beneath herself to the level of a jealous or neglected woman with a fierce temper. In personal terms, of course, this has no significance for our relationship. But I switched off this reservation, so to speak, and gave myself over to the impressions that would arise if this were a time of disappointment.


Before the storm, the houses are brighter than the sky.

Between the forked legs of the telegraph poles children have set up their swings.

The great plain was overcast with gloomy light.

In the trees, the leaves glitter, or are quite dark. This makes the masses of foliage look rather like a lake when the wind just stirs its surface and tiny waves flash.

The trees are in winter green, a durable green.


In Which We Consider A Different Proximate Cause

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to


My boyfriend Dallas is a great guy with a short fuse. If something makes him angry he usually blows his top. For example, we were at Wal-Mart one day and a woman cut him in line. He immediately went off on her and told her to get back in line. It seemed a bit excessive, but then again it was somewhat annoying. What I’m saying is that it’s not like he never has a poor reason for becoming angry.

If I ever piss him off, he is very nice about it and calmly explains what the problem is. He has yelled at me a handful of times but he always apologizes and it’s not like I haven’t done the same, it’s just that he does it to people he does not know. In addition, he does not abuse drugs or alcohol.

Am I just rationalizing or is this a red flag?

Maria B.

Dear Maria,

Some people never become angry at all. Others save their venom for the ones they love. Dallas has found an appropriate outlet for his rage: people who he will never interact with or speak to again. As long as he isn’t bringing physical violence to bear on randoms, individuals who cut lines should face loud voices and approbation for what they do.

Showing that you are upset when you are upset is actually rather healthy. Hanging onto these emotions or repressing them is far more dangerous to yourself and those you love.

Recently one basketball player raised the hackles of commentators for profanely excoriating a teammate, his friend. A lot of people aren’t used to others displaying their emotions and it makes them feel uncomfortable even when that display is actually controlled. This would be something to watch for with your boyfriend. How quickly does he calm down? Is his behavior an appropriate response or could it get him shot in an open-carry state?


My stepson Dave is eleven, and like a lot of children of divorce, he wants to see his parents get back together. He doesn’t seem to harbor much ill will towards me for marrying his mother, but he spends an intense portion of his existence trying to reunite his mother with her her ex-husband, Antonio.

When Valentine’s Day comes around he makes an effort to remind them of their failed marriage and it typically ruins my wife and my time that day since he needs attention. Is there any way to disabuse him of this notion without seeming like a total asshole?

Jerry S.

Dear Jerry,

Sure. Give him a different memory than the one he already has for that specific day. For example, I never forgot the day I broke my arm when I suddenly fell down the stairs. Just kidding, although let us not rule a tragic accident as nuclear option here.

Probably your stepson simply needs more attention in the days coming up to this event. He clearly has too much time on his hands. Include him in your Valentine’s Day activities for a few years and maybe he’ll forget all about this Antonio, who may not even be his real father.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which Another Unfortunate Event Has Yet To Occur


Children Lie


A Series of Unfortunate of Events
creator Mark Hudis & Barry Sonnenfeld

bda23df3da9bc201c53802a714c7722d.jpgThe children at the center of the eight episode Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events are assholes. The first thing they demand after their parents die in a fire is access to a lavish library owned by a local attorney, Ms. Strauss. The three Baudelaire kids — Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) — can’t stop marveling at this new enclosure, which approximates the tony furnishings provided by their parents from an unknown and probably illicit income. They are so used to being rich that they are constantly clawing to return there in the years before Violett will inherit the family’s money.

It turns out at the end of the very first episode that the Baudelaire’s parents have escaped and were not murdered in a fire at all. Worse, they are portrayed by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders. Perhaps nauseated by their kids’ constant, insubstantial quoting from the books they have read, the senior Baudelaires escape to Peru, where various laws about miscegenation are relaxed. The two never show the slightest bit of affection for one another, and behave more as siblings than a married couple.


The aesthetic that surrounds the story of the Baudelaires being passed from guardian to guardian by Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the family’s banker, can best be described as if Roald Dahl fell asleep. The episodes that take place around the area of Lake Lachrymose are layered in a gloomy mist; the orphans’ custodian Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard) lives on an imposing cliff over the water. She is afraid of absolutely everything except her surroundings, while the kids themselves are only afraid of their surroundings. Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) explains the concept of dramatic irony in a lengthy sequence — these frequent breakings of the fourth wall are the only humor not provided by the antagonist Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).


Mr. Harris has the advantage of portraying the only fulled fleshed-out character in this entire show. The role of Olaf is perfectly suited to his many talents, even if the singing bits are a bit forced. The extensive disguises he takes on are generally fun to simply look at, and every second that he is off the screen forces us to various dark conclusions about the actual meaning behind A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The thematic point of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that adults are children barely grown themselves, and can be relied upon for no more wisdom that any other potential source of information. Despite the fact that they meet many sinister such people, Klaus and Violet continue to look for adults to provide them with financial and emotional security. They never learn anything more about themselves during this process, and indeed have no actual flaws or recognizable character traits beyond caretaking for a baby.


This aspect itself is most disturbing. Violett and Klaus never change their younger sister’s diapers. The baby never cries or seems displeased, and is most happy chewing on hard things, like a puppy. Author Daniel Handler’s basic perception of young people is that they are blank slates upon which various things are imposed or arranged; he is just as guilty as Mr. Poe for being ignorant and Count Olaf for being greedy. His is the sin of pretending to know it all.

Barry Sonnenfeld is intent on casting many actors of color to replace the mostly white retinue that surrounded the Baudelaire children in the 2004 adaptation of Handler’s books. These substitutions are well-meant I am sure, and putting Alfre Woodard in the role of a grammarian who is frightened of everything does play against her usual type. Race is completely obscured by a flattening that never permits any of the adults in the Baudelaires’ lives to be altered by circumstance.


Without much in the way of character or plot, A Series of Unfortunate Events succeeds on a much more basic level. The show is an astonishing feast for the eyes. Sonnenfeld backed out of the feature film project in 1993 because he was concerned that the $100 million he was offered as a budget would not be enough to do justice to the many effects and costumes required. With Netflix as the major backer, no expense has been spared. The reptile collection of Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (a hilarious Aasif Mandvi) actually gives the kids some of tangible world with which they can interact. Disappointingly, Dr. Montgomery only gets a single evening to engage the children. He wins their trust but never gives his own, leaving them as bereft of answers about their parents as when they arrived on his property.

The sheer amount of time spent going on and on about how awful the circumstances are for the Baudelaires is exhausting after the first couple episodes. Once Klaus is smacked across the face — the rest of the time the kids never suffer violence, never hunger and are frequently housed in massive estates with considerable resources. They complain about going to the movies, about the size of their bedroom, about having to do any kind of household work. Klaus, Sunny and Violet are merely victims of a pervasive mediocrity with which they never quite come to terms.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.