**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.**
For those unfamiliar with the book and who hadn’t already seen the trailer, episode 2 ended with the shocking reveal that mysterious Mr. Curtain, founder of the state-of-the-art academy L.I.V.E., is an apparent double of the very Mr. Benedict who first brought the show’s child heroes together. However, even for the few audience members left to experience this twist, its impact may have been a bit muted: though Benedict and Curtain are in fact both played by Tony Hale, they are styled so differently that some kids might have missed the doubling effect. While the four members of the Society are suitably shocked, episode 3—called “Depends on the Wagon”—wastes little time in establishing the basic solution to this mystery: Mr. Curtain is Mr. Benedict’s long-lost twin brother.
Curtain and his fellow instructors at L.I.V.E. look as though they’ve stepped right off the TED-talk stage, and this satire gives the show some bite.This highlights one of the show’s problems, which I briefly suggested earlier: its impatience. At least one reviewer has noted that the show “needs more mysteries and fewer answers,” and this point is well-taken. At times it seems the writers can’t wait to reveal their big moments. That same reviewer, however, also castigates the series for “feel[ing] too slow for both adolescent and adult viewers alike,” but while it certainly might be gradual by contemporary television standards, it still moves too quickly and shows too many cards too soon relative to the book. Written in 2007, Trenton Lee Stewart’s novel feels like a throwback to a much earlier era of writing, demanding patience of its readers with some sizable chapters, lengthy descriptions, and verbose dialogue. The series clearly keeps some of that, and episode three is slow-paced for a kids’ show, but it cannot match the incremental quality of the first novel.
Even more than the earlier episodes, “Depends on the Wagon” takes some of the book’s character nuances and throws them into stark relief. The most obvious is the dichotomy between the brothers, Benedict and Curtain. Benedict serves as a surrogate father figure to the members of the Society, all orphans, though the series has rushed this process some. Readers of the novel will recognize S. Q. at once, but in what little screen time we’ve gotten of him thus far, he seems rather different from the good-natured, clumsy, befuddled figure Stewart wrote. By making him Curtain’s son, the show is very hurriedly making explicit an aspect of their relationship that was much more subtly drawn out in the written series—once again, perhaps losing patience or drawing out its contrasts too sharply.
The depiction of Curtain himself is yet another radical departure from the book.
The literary version deliberately plays on the ambivalence the four kids now feel at having trusted him. Curtain, meanwhile, is given an adopted son in a high-tech, super-fast motorized wheelchair, and Stewart describes him this way:
Mr. Curtain was snugged into the padded chair with a seat belt across his chest and lap, and the chair rolled so quickly that his thick white hair flew back from his head. He wore large round glasses with silver reflective lenses, so that his eyes couldn’t be seen; his cheeks and chin were reddened by a recent shave; and his nose was large and lumpy, like a vegetable.
This could scarcely be more different from the smooth-talking but vacuous Curtain villain that Hale portrays.
A key aspect of Curtain’s villainy in the original text is the evident disdain he displays for the children at his own academy. Stewart’s Curtain hates kids and doesn’t understand them; this makes his villainy all the more evident, as it is such a contrast to the affable Mr. Benedict.
The Society members in the book do at first evince some skepticism about Mr. Benedict’s trustworthiness, a skepticism that is enhanced by the fact that Stewart never shows us Benedict’s own perspective on the events. Yet he also provides the Society members (and readers) with more obvious reasons to contrast the two. In the books, Benedict is learning about his twin at the same time as his young acolytes are—the brothers were separated near birth, so long ago that Curtain doesn’t even appear in the prequel novel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict. In the TV series, the two boys grew up together at the orphanage before their separation, so that Curtain now lives with the sense that Benedict has betrayed him. When Hale’s Benedict learns about his brother, he vents his frustration wildly in the woods. This kind of wild emotional outburst, while visually cathartic, is at odds with the original even-keeled iteration of Mr. Benedict, especially given the fact that his narcolepsy would have caused him to pass out long before he could have experienced such an outburst.
Though this episode marks the greatest departure from its source material thus far, that doesn’t mean I’m wholly opposed. The show’s smarmy, tautological version of Curtain (“Work the system. The system works… if you work it.”) resembles the quintessential twenty-first-century tech baron, congenially spouting absurd platitudes while reveling in a pursuit of power that has long since abandoned both the science and the ethics that may once have bounded that pursuit. Taken from this angle, Disney’s version gives viewers something concrete to latch onto. In the kids’ home of Stonetown, the series’ aesthetics lean so heavily into a whimsically colorful version of mid-century Americana that its technological warnings (mediated through newspapers, television screens, even microfiche) may appear quaint. But Curtain and his fellow instructors at L.I.V.E. look as though they’ve stepped right off the TED-talk stage, and this satire gives the show some bite.
The vile academy that is L.I.V.E. may be hyper-competitive and praise “outstanding” students, but its pursuit of excellence is a flat one—rewarding primarily those who accept without question its contradictory maxims or, at best, who display cleverness. The Mysterious Benedict Society is composed of four kids, each with a different skill-set, but only the boys’ skills fit smoothly into L.I.V.E.’s ethos. Reynie’s critical thinking can see through the contradictions but also solve them, while Sticky’s impeccable memory allows him to learn material rapidly. The quirky, energetic Kate and the blunt, stubborn Constance are poor fits for the Institute’s “academics.”
The episode’s title, “Depends on the Wagon,” derives from a conversation between Kate and Constance on the nature of how well people can coexist together. This is the challenge for the Society’s members. Mr. Benedict selected them precisely for their unique sets of talents, believing each one would be needed. He also attempted to instill in them a sense of camaraderie, that they must function as a team. This would be simple enough for Reynie, Sticky, and Kate—though very different, they bond readily as orphans who are used to being misunderstood and who welcome companionship. But Constance’s purpose in the group—aside from being a perennial wet blanket—remains unclear even to Reynie, whose empathic nature makes him fight to keep her on the team.
This dynamic is true to Stewart’s books and represents, I believe, a huge aspect of their appeal. It ought to remind Christians of their own status within the body of Christ, each member gifted uniquely; and like the members of the Society, we are called together to love all those in our midst, even if some are more obviously “loveable” than others. It is a timely reminder for an age in which both our national society and our church seems poised at times to fracture into affinity groups rather than local congregations of truly different people with different roles.