**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 analyze each episode. This article contains spoilers for the fifth 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)
Now past the halfway mark of The Mysterious Benedict Society’s inaugural season, events are starting to move into higher gear. Reynie and Sticky have been promoted to become Messengers in Dr. Curtain’s L.I.V.E. institute, granting them the access they have been seeking but also further estranging them from the girls, Kate and Constance, who are still struggling, not only with their classes but with each other. The adults are struggling too, as they desperately seek out ways to contact their young protégés, now that their Morse Code messages have been identified. With Curtain accelerating his timetable for The Improvement, matters will soon come to a head.
In theory, we all want unity. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll probably admit that most of the time we want “unity” on our terms . . .Episode five, “The Art of Conveyance and Round-Trippery,” highlights in even greater detail than we have seen to this point the rival visions of Nicholas Benedict and his brother, Dr. Curtain. We see the distinction in Benedict’s self-effacing care for others, in contradistinction to Curtain’s utilitarian manipulation of the kids and his employees. But more than anything, in this episode, the gulf between the siblings’ worldview becomes manifest in two very different approaches to achieving unity.
Dr. Curtain proclaims himself as an apostle of unity. In his own slickly cynical way, he lures the people in his orbit toward his vision of what he thinks that unity is. It is appealing to many of the students at L.I.V.E., who can win a feeling of accomplishment by unthinkingly following his rules. They are rewarded by being given power—or at least apparent power—within the labyrinth of structures in Curtain’s organization.
Even Reynie and Sticky are not immune to the draw of this unity, this power. They are given tailored uniforms to signify their promotion to Messenger status. Superficially, these uniforms seem distinctive, with customized details that they ostensibly can select. Yet in the end, they are uniforms nonetheless, which is appropriate because they mark students’ entrance deeper into the world of Curtain’s “unity,” which is in fact nothing more than uniformity.
The dark side of Curtain’s plans becomes evident in his conversation with Dr. Garrison, the head of his technology department. She wishes to preserve some autonomy for her department, insisting that she cannot accommodate his desire to accelerate the timetable for his plans. As in his earlier encounters with her, Curtain speaks smoothly and praises her performance but makes it clear that there are no options other than to concede to his will. Notwithstanding her insistence that she is a tech person and not an ethicist, Garrison attempts to lodge a complaint against his haste—a futile gesture, since Curtain’s unity means that there is no check against his authority and thus no one to complain to.
We see this play out in our glimpses of the outside world. Fear of the Emergency has become so universal that people are willing to be controlled. They parrot the messages being fed to them. And, as Miss Perumal learns at the episode’s end, even the agencies that ought to serve accountability functions are under the control of Mr. Curtain.
Once into their uniforms and in position as Messengers, Reynie and Sicky insist that they must carry on in their designated roles. This involves their connection to the device Curtain calls Whisperer. Like the illusory feeling of power derived from their wardrobe change, the boys experience the connection to the Whisperer as soothing. Having expected pressure or torture, they find the Whisperer’s soft faux-female computer voice surprisingly comforting. It gives the appearance of taking interest in them, asking them personal questions and responding with words of seeming empathy. They are tempted by the ease of having “someone” to listen to them, and also the relief of not having to make hard decisions. All they need to do is sit back and repeat.
Their primary job in the Whisperer is to deliver Curtain’s subliminal messages. This is what the boys now realize: they themselves have collaborated with the enemy in helping generate the very Emergency they have come to stop. Their voices are the voices that millions of people hear without knowing it, but which the sensitive Constance can detect right away.
The draw of Reynie and Sticky toward the false promises of Curtain and his Whisperer threatens to alienate the boys from the girls. The episode dramatizes this well in their early conversations, with the informed boys on one side of the table standing in marked contrast to the girls on the other side. Kate and Constance are anything but uniform, different in age and height, each quite distinct from the other in personality, yet both joined in their respective unconventional approaches. Both Reynie and Sticky long to fit in, to be wanted or needed; cursorily, at least, neither girl feels such a draw.
As I have suggested earlier, however, the strength of The Mysterious Benedict Society lies precisely in its members’ differences. While Reynie and Sticky learn some aspects of the plot through their conformity to Curtain’s rules and wishes, Kate and Constance learn a great deal through their refusal to be easily assimilated. It is Constance—whose presence so often seems extraneous to the mission or downright adverse to it—who discovers the secret door to Curtain’s lab; and it is Kate who possess the audacity and dexterity to help them get in and not get caught. The girls, moreover, can serve as the cold water to douse the boys’ tendency to accede to their surroundings.
The Mysterious Benedict Society thus insists that true unity proceeds through difference, not in spite or in opposition to difference. If this is true of the children, episode five makes it even clearer in the case of the adults. In the midst of their desperate attempts to reestablish contact with the kids, Benedict and his associates encounter an unexpected visitor—Reynie’s guardian, Miss Perumal. Fiercely, even maternally, protective of Reynie, Miss Perumal tracks down Benedict’s hideout and initially shows little patience for his explanations. Number Two, with her desire for orderliness, demonstrates little patience for Miss Perumal. But Mr. Benedict, in his own fumbling, absent-minded way, attempts to show grace and hospitality to her.
The episode ends with Benedict making the call to extract the children from the island—precisely because of their encounter with Miss Perumal. Like the others, Rhonda is baffled, objecting, “So you’re just going to let a random person walk in here and end the mission?” Benedict replies simply, “Yes. Sometimes it takes an outsider to let you see yourself.”
This decision displays the key difference between Mr. Benedict’s right understanding of unity and his brother’s faulty one. Mr. Curtain desires everything to be “just perfect,” by which he means that all the world to accord to his own understanding of what is best. As much as he may claim to value others, they are only instrumental to him. He cannot learn from them, because he already has a vision in his mind for the right and “perfect” way things should be—hence the need for an “Improvement.”
In his search for truth, Benedict, on the other hand, recognizes that he, like everyone else, is limited. He needs the perspectives of others to achieve a better understanding. That is why he selected a team of kids so diverse, and it is why he has chosen a team of adults who likewise represent radically different personalities, even as they are moving toward a single goal. Yet even here, their commitment to the mission, to stopping the Emergency, has become so overriding that they have come close to taking on the kind of uniformity that Curtain embodies. That is why an “outsider” is required to challenge their mind-set. It is a measure of his maturity, and his commitment to a unity within diversity, that Mr. Benedict is willing to change his mind—something his sibling is unable to do.
Discord and hostility are hardly virtues. In theory, we all want unity. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll probably admit that most of the time we want “unity” on our terms—people getting along because they feel exactly the way that we do! And indeed, that would be ideal, if any one of us could be right all the time. But since none of us can, we all need checks—we all need friends, like the Society, who can challenge us and speak honestly to us without fear of reprisal or ill will; sometimes, we may even need a Miss Perumal, an outsider who can speak prophetically to us. That’s the only unity worth having in our fallen sphere; if we settle for anything less, we risk become the very villains we seek to oppose.