**Disney Plus is airing the first season of The Mysterious Benedict Society, based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s book series. This column will recap and analyze each episode, and it will contain spoilers for the show and the corresponding novel.**
In one sense, the fourth episode of The Mysterious Benedict Society is about big things. Some visits back to Stonetown remind us of the apparently ubiquitous fear of The Emergency. The children, in gaining access to Mr. Curtain’s journal, learn about some new plan called The Improvement, which seems sure to have major implications. Mr. Benedict and Milligan scale a mountain to look down on the L.I.V.E. institute from on high. Yet in other ways, the episode shares with its source material an emphasis on the importance of small, seemingly insignificant acts.
Character is not formed from a single moment of conscious resolve. It is formed by habits, by a thousand tiny little actions, thoughts, and attitudes performed day by day.Beginning with the previous episode, like Stewart’s novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society series presented its child protagonists with an ethical quandary: they were selected for their mission because of their love of truth, yet now their adult mentor has enjoined them to “Become what you are not”: to cheat. As spies, they have been in a sense deceiving those around them from the start—just the espionage “tradecraft,” as Kate calls it—but with the exception of the free-spirited Constance, the kids are troubled by the prospect of cheating, both for its moral implications and also the practical considerations if they get caught. Still, the combination of Mr. Benedict’s direction and the threat of losing Kate and Constance due to their plummeting scores leads them to make the attempt.
It is a colossal failure. Sticky tries to signal test answers to Kate using the Morse Code they have learned, but he is caught almost immediately and sent to the dreaded Waiting Room. The cheating itself seems like such a small act—literally just Sticky tapping lightly with his pencil. At first, Mr. Curtain claims that the sheer annoyance of the apparent fidgeting was the cause for Sticky’s removal, but he eventually reveals that he was aware of the plot.
As depicted in the TV series version, the Waiting Room itself is a place of torment through small things. It is designed to be just slightly off, with an odd architectural geometry, an erratically (non-)functioning clock, and a slightly unstable chair. This represents something of a departure from the book, in which the Waiting Room is more actively malicious: far from the clean, if off-kilter, environment of the show, in Stewart’s version, Sticky emerges from the room “covered in slimy, black stinking mud” filled with crawling vermin. While one shouldn’t underestimate the cruelty of subjecting children to subtle psychological torture, surely the literary version of the Waiting Room is a far more terrifying experience. Still, the show’s rendition does in its own way draw attention back to the importance of small things, for the awry minutiae are what make the room maddening, particularly to a precise and detail-oriented boy like Sticky.
Seemingly minor sins and malicious little details highlight the deleterious role that small things can play, but the broader message of the episode is the positive side of the same principle. The episode’s title, “A Whisper, Not a Shout,” derives from Milligan’s commentary on the subtle delights of a meal, but in addition to foreshadowing (more on this in future installments!), its relevance extends well beyond a single reference to provender. It’s one of my favorite elements of Stewart’s book, and one that finds reinforcement throughout the most recent hour.
We see it in an added subplot, part of the show’s expanded exploration of Benedict’s adult allies. Realizing that Rhonda has been sneaking out at night, Number Two follows her and discovers that she has been vandalizing signs in Stonetown, spray painting them to deconstruct their paranoid Emergency messaging. Number Two castigates Rhonda for her recklessness—their assignment at the harbor, monitoring and communicating with the children, is the big mission, one that seems too important to be jeopardized by Rhonda’s minor and apparently futile acts of civil disobedience. In the end, though, Number Two comes around to Rhonda’s way of thinking: small acts can have significance too. They represent ways in which the characters remain grounded in their love of truth and pursuit of justice.
And the same is true of the children. Confronted by Curtain and confined twice to the Waiting Room, Sticky refuses to divulge the identities of his coconspirators: “I think I might be tough. At least when it comes to protecting something I care about.” His surprising coolness under pressure allows him to escape further interrogation, remain at L.I.V.E., and even get promoted. Kate’s fate appears sealed, her scores having led to her being booted from the island. But in a twist that is original to the TV show, a last-minute display of her athletic abilities earns her a spot on fellow student Martina Crowe’s tetherball team, and she is permitted to stay.
None of these acts is itself grand; taken in isolation, each is decidedly minor. Rhonda’s defiant graffiti, Sticky’s surprising resolve, Kate’s competitive verve—separately, none of these mean much in the characters’ struggle against a great evil. Each one is just a whisper. But whispers joined together may form a stronger chorus.
I have already discussed the role virtue cultivation plays in the book and streaming series. Taken as abstract principles, virtues may seem both abstractly philosophical and impossibly out of our reach. What, for instance, does it mean to be courageous? Courage sounds like the kind of quality that heroes have—whether fictional comic-book characters or real-life heroes like first responders. Courage is not something most kids think of themselves as possessing. I know I didn’t think of myself that way, and the members of the Mysterious Benedict Society don’t naturally think of themselves as “virtuous” people either.
But virtues spring from character, and character is not formed from a single moment of conscious resolve. It is formed by habits, by a thousand tiny little actions, thoughts, and attitudes performed day by day. The same is true of vices as well; few people think of themselves as villainous, because in the worst of us, our villainy is a slow slide of half-conscious poor choices. In the twins Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain, we see two people terribly similar in certain ways, and shaped by circumstance, but who have also allowed their cumulative choices to form them into men with very different orientations toward virtue and vice.
Trenton Lee Stewart’s gradual, patient prose allows plenty of time to watch the ways in which the superficially quotidian moments of the Society’s days transform them, from misfit kids to true heroes in their own right. Notwithstanding its changes from the book, “A Whisper, Not a Shout” effectively returns to this theme, setting our protagonists on a course toward further virtue formation—not primarily through grand gestures but through the little things that make up most of our lives.