**Starting on June 25, Disney Plus began airing the first season of The Mysterious Benedict Society, based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s book series. This column recaps and analyzes each episode. This article contains spoilers for the sixth episode of The Mysterious Benedict Society (and the corresponding novel).**
Truth, Empathy (and Virtue?) (Episodes 1 and 2)
Oh Brother! (Episode 3)
It’s the Little Things (Episode 4)
Unity, Not Uniformity (Episode 5)
The plot has been thickening so much on The Mysterious Benedict Society that my kids are wondering how there could still be two episodes remaining. Mr. Curtain made his first successful test of the Whisperer’s power, using Sticky to broadcast a subliminal message without the use of media, a test which led hundred of people (including Constance and Miss Perumal’s mother) to buy pretentious blue berets. Elsewhere in the adult world, Milligan has taken a substandard sub in an effort to extract the kids from the island, while Number Two and Rhonda must talk Mr. Benedict back into believing in the mission.
[L]ongstanding distortions of truth, one way or another, produce consequences.But the most emotionally intriguing aspects of episode six, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” come in the interactions of Kate and Reynie. Those two in particular are forced to embrace their roles as spies and exploit relationships with their peers in order to gather information about Curtain’s Improvement. Kate plays on the surly Martina Crowe’s newfound appreciation for her tetherball skills, while Reynie leans into his nascent friendship with Curtain’s adoptive son, S. Q. These and other actions in the episode pose deep, perhaps insoluble, questions related to the subject of truthfulness.
Martina and S. Q. are both characters from the books, though the series presents them somewhat differently. In the case of Martina Crowe, she seldom emerges from Trenton Lee Stewart’s depiction of her as vain and ill-tempered. As a character in the show, she retains these qualities but is developed in some more detail and given a curious not-quite-friendship with Kate. The screen version of Martina has gradually become an almost tragic figure. Seemingly plagued by fears of her own inadequacy—fears that are on display in early episodes when she is outshone by Reynie and Sticky—she responds by attempting to elevate her own status and denigrate others.
This approach to life will naturally leave anyone quite discontented. Deep down, Martina’s competitiveness has made her miserable. So in her own unreflective, truculent way, she has begun reaching out to Kate. And Kate seems to have some awareness that Martina is doing this, and perhaps some guilt over what inevitably comes next.
After all, Kate has cultivated this relationship for her own ends, first to keep her from getting expelled from the school, then to gather information, and now to gain access to her key card. She’s had, in essence, to lie about wanting to be Martina’s friend. And even if Kate is now feeling some true care for her, it’s irrelevant. Kate’s position requires her to betray Martina’s trust, a trust so unfamiliar to the surprisingly vulnerable Martina she will surely turn even more hostile when the sudden but inevitable betrayal does at last come. It’s hard to see a path at this point whereby Martina Crowe doesn’t become even more of a villain.
The same tensions animate Reynie relationship with S. Q. In the books, S. Q. Pedalian is an Executive, like Martina, though he holds the position mostly from loyalty rather than any innate talent; indeed, he is physically clumsy and often confused (this latter quality perhaps the result of brainsweeping). In the books, the four members of the Society all have some interactions with him, and he in turn tries to look out for them; no one specifically courts his friendship, though they frequently profit from his mental lapses.
The TV series puts this burden almost entirely on Reynie. It isn’t too hard for the intuitive Reynie to make friends with S. Q., a lonely boy who longs for companionship but has never known it; but that very intuitiveness means that Reynie is acutely and painfully aware that he is using S. Q. Ironically, Curtain warns S. Q. of precisely this. Curtain admonishes his adoptive son never to trust anyone because they could be seeking to use S. Q. to get to his powerful father. This approach to human relationships is hopeless cynical—and yet, ironically, it is largely accurate in this case. Reynie doesn’t desire Mr. Curtain’s power, prestige, or influence, of course; but he is using S. Q. to get to him.
Of course, all of this is necessary precisely because Mr. Curtain’s own deceptions have made it so. The episode flashes back to give more of Benedict and Curtain’s backstory, their time growing up at the orphanage together. Curtain (here just known as Nathaniel) is the most social and outgoing of the two, insisting that they will only get adopted if prospective parents are made to love them. Taking matters into his own hands, Nathaniel sabotages his own desires. His preening at a public event alienates him from the audience of potential parents, while one couple favors his quiet, unassuming brother Nicholas. As a result, Benedict gets an intelligent and loving family, while the future Mr. Curtain is left feeling betrayed when his brother doesn’t return for him.
This character history, quite different from the books’, doesn’t fully ring true. It’s hard to imagine a genuinely loving family deliberately splitting up twins the way Benedict’s does. It is one of several moves that narrow the moral gap between Benedict and Curtain, a gap that Stewart keeps quite wide. One of the refreshing aspects of the novels (at least to me) is their commitment to portraying people who, if not wholly perfect are truly admirable. In the series, Mr. Benedict’s own virtues seem to be told to us more often than they’re shown. He indulges in a fair amount of immoderate self-flagellation, only to be talked down by Rhonda and Number Two, who (with Milligan) really to most of the work. I miss the slightly goofy and imperfect but confident, capable, and good Mr. Benedict from the texts
However Curtain got to be the way he is, however, the series portrays him as always enamored of deception. The child Curtain, Nathaniel, has no real substance; he is only interested in appearance, because he thinks that through superficial acts he can manipulate others to fall under his control. He remains baffled when his attempts fail at ingratiating himself and resentful that his unassuming brother won people over.
And so he carries this bafflement and resentment with him into adulthood. Unable to control those around him with homemade hair gel and bad singing, he has moved on to doing it with technology. His test shows that the Whisperer can force people to do his bidding without their even knowing it.
Deception and lying are thus his stock in trade; since control and power are his primary, perhaps only, ends, truth is irrelevant. Curtain may have been prescient when he noted that Reynie was manipulating S. Q., but what he’ll never admit is that he is consistently doing the same thing to everyone around him. Maybe Curtain has some real affection for S. Q., but it is certainly mediated through his immense ego. He has no interest in Sticky except to use him as a test subject in the Whisperer. He doesn’t care about Dr. Garrison except insofar as she produces the tech that makes his power possible. He doesn’t care about any of the other children (or adults) at his own facility, except for the ways in which they fit into his quest for worldwide order on his terms.
The members of the Mysterious Benedict Society, with Kate and Reynie in particular, must practice deception to achieve their goal and stop Curtain’s plot. They care enough about truth to feel bad about doing so, as does Mr. Benedict. Does that really mitigate being dishonest—at least we feel bad about it? Not really, though it suggests their consciences pricking a moral dimension to their persons that Curtain seems to lack. And we can legitimately pose the question about whether the obvious biblical proscription against lying is applicable in their situation. The interactions of Rahab and the Hebrew spies in Jericho, for instance, appears to suggest that some form of deceptive espionage may not be an intrinsic violation of Scripture’s exhortations to truth-telling.
These are thorny ethical questions, and rightly so. Truth is important. Perhaps there is moral space for certain distortions of literal truth—telling fictional stories, bluffing in poker, even creating a false identity as a spy. But longstanding distortions of truth, one way or another, produce consequences. As the final episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society draw near, the ripple effects of everyone’s lies will become more and more apparent.