This ain’t your childhood’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Author Daniel Handler‘s wildly popular children’s novels have made their way to Netflix in a surprisingly grown-up new series. The show stars Neil Patrick Harris as the evil Count Olaf, who seeks to steal a fortune from the newly orphaned Baudelaire children. And unlike the 2004 film adaptation, the series is taking its time. The first season contains eight hour-long episodes, which cover the first four novels in the series. All your favorite characters are there, but one truly steals the show: Violet Baudelaire. Actress Malina Weissman (Supergirl) plays the eldest Baudelaire orphan as the brilliant 14-year-old inventor you’ll remember from the books. But there’s just one problem — Violet is a Mary Sue.
What’s a Mary Sue?
If you paid close attention to the reactions surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you might’ve seen the term before. Max Landis, the screenwriter of Chronicle and Victor Frankenstein, was among the first to claim that The Force Awakens protagonist, Rey, was a Mary Sue. And if you’ve been active in the fanfiction sphere for several years, then maybe you know why. A “Mary Sue” is an excessively competent and unflawed character (regardless of gender). They display wisdom and skill beyond their years and excel at nearly everything. Author and super-nerd Paula Smith invented the term back in the ’70s when she was co-writing a Star Trek fanzine. And I think Paula would agree that Violet Baudelaire is a classic Mary Sue.
Is That Bad?
Violet’s Mary Sue status is a complicated thing. At her core, Violet is an innocent child genius who consistently outwits the adults around her. The only problem is that the adults don’t take her seriously because she’s a kid. That’s not Violet’s flaw, however — that one belongs to the grown-ups. And because Violet doesn’t have any character flaws to work through, there’s a significant lack of internal conflict. It means Violet never really has to argue with herself over anything. Thanks to Count Olaf and his crew of blundering henchpersons, Violet is beset with conflict all the time. But she is never conflicted about a single thing.
Doesn’t That Make Violet a Good Role Model?
It’s abundantly clear that series author Daniel Handler set out to inspire kids with A Series of Unfortunate Events. The books go out of their way to teach vocabulary and extol the virtues of intellectualism. That means he wants young people to feel that they, too, should be smart and capable even when their age makes them feel constantly inadequate. That’s very admirable, and it comes across perfectly in the Netflix series (Handler wrote five of the eight episodes). But the kind of problem-solving at which Violet Baudelaire excels isn’t at all like solving internal conflicts. Because Violet always has the moral high ground, she lacks the complexity needed to be a realistic human role model.
And yet, despite being such a Mary Sue, Violet Baudelaire performs a vital role. No one can — or should — aspire to Violet’s perfection. But if just one of Violet’s many positive traits can light a spark of inspiration in a young person, maybe it’s all worth it. Mary Sue or not.