**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 eighth episode of The Mysterious Benedict Society (and the corresponding novel).**
For those keeping track, we’ve reached the end of The Mysterious Benedict Society’s first season. Nicholas Benedict and his crew arrive on the island to assist the children, who at last truly band together and successfully disable Dr. Curtain’s Whisperer device before it can be used to implant subliminal orders to the global population. Curtain escapes with his chief scientist, Dr. Garrison, and his adoptive son, S. Q. (with hints of a second-season plot), while the members of the Society are reunited with their respective adults and the promise of greater stability in their lives.
As I feared, the series couldn’t quite hold on to Stewart’s original vision enough to make a seamless transition from page to screen.As has been the case throughout the eight-episode run, the series holds to the broad outline of the first book while changing many details. It seems to me that those changes become more significant (and a bit more off-putting) in the finale, however. In a variety of ways, the end product is more emotive and less disciplined than its print counterpart, though some of the original appeal remains.
I discussed at the outset that despite its imaginary and vaguely anachronistic setting, the TV version of The Mysterious Benedict Society retains its source’s skepticism of technology. There is no internet in either world, but the reframing of the villain, Dr. Curtain, casts him as a tech mogul who speaks (and perhaps thinks) almost entirely in terms of efficiency manuals or motivational videos. Though much is lost in this very different iteration of Curtain, it has helped imply the dangers of our current technological moment even without a true web presence, which seems quite in keeping with Trenton Lee Stewart’s text.
To a certain extent, however, the nature of the climax in episode eight, “Big Day Today,” somewhat downplays this cautionary element. In its first form, the Whisperer sent subliminal messages via the agency of media like television. This connected the false Emergency in the series (and the books) to screen consumption. But the evil plot—Curtain’s “Improvement”—involves sending messages directly, without the medium of electronic media. This makes it more expansively dastardly, of course, but also puts the threat at some remove from the digital form and thus somewhat dampens its critique of our specific cultural moment. Of course, one might note that the threat to us from the internet and our phones is similar, beginning through screen contact but eventually becoming internalized. It’s a valid point, though I’m not sure the series really explores it in the kind of depth it might deserve.
The show did nicely work with another technological hazard: artificial intelligence. The voice the Whisperer uses to pacify its child subjects is a nice amplification of current digital assistant programs. It is a soothing female voice, only vaguely electronic sounding, and its answers don’t sound canned. Rather, they simulate empathy, expressing validation of the kids’ fears and concerns. It is programmed to sound like it is listening, perhaps even feeling the same emotions. This explains its appeal to Sticky, who is on the one hand highly drawn to the kind of raw data that computers process while at the same time desperately seeking understanding from those around him. The intuitive Reynie, on the other hand, offers some mental resistance to the machine, perhaps because his natural ability to intuit allows him to perceive the artificiality of the system.
But in both the book and the series, it is the intransigent Constance who truly provides the Whisperer’s downfall. Wired to the machine, her intractability dominates the machine, ultimately shorting it out—as Mr. Benedict had always suspected it might. The Constance of the show is a bit more eloquent and self-aware, so the book’s portrayal of the scene gives her stubbornness a visceral quality the TV show lacks. Indeed, one of the great twists of the novel is that Constance is only three years old, meaning that she is far more extraordinarily articulate than audiences first expect, while also somewhat explaining the source of her obstreperousness. This twist is absent from the series, and the entire scene is a bit less intense. Screen Constance is cleverer and therefore less annoying than book Constance, for good or for ill. Even so, the TV version of the scene does work as a satisfying moment.
I wish that more of the finale were that satisfying. In my first review, I noted that the series overtly identified empathy alongside the search for truth as among Mr. Benedict’s values. And there is nothing wrong with that per se, as empathy can lead to a greater understanding of truth, when properly deployed. It is not, however, a virtue in itself. But the emphasis in “Big Day Today” on identifying with other people takes a potentially positive element and leans so heavily on it that it both interferes with the narrative and shifts the thematic content toward an obtrusive emotionalism.
This manifests in dialogue through the repeated use of seeing language. Characters frequently tell one another that they “are seen” (in this passive phrasing)—that is recognized for their value over and against the fear that they might be ignored. If the previous episode set the stage for the climax with its stress on “going,” the final hour of The Mysterious Benedict Society is marked by its use of “seen.” The children, who are orphans, are truly “seen” by Mr. Benedict; Benedict’s assistants, Number Two and Rhonda Kazembe, “see” each other as they prepare for battle. Reynie even defeats Curtain by “seeing” him, empathizing with him in the difficulties of being an orphan and thereby triggering his narcolepsy. Prior to his collapse, Curtain insists to Reynie, “You don’t see me”; afterward, Reynie asserts that his narcoleptic trigger is “being vulnerable.”
Trenton Lee Stewart released the first Mysterious Benedict Society book in 2007, and it is in this regard that the gap between these fifteen years yawns widest. Stewart’s Curtain is a surly, misanthropic control-freak, and like Benedict himself, his narcolepsy results from any strong emotion. Unlike the screen Curtain, the book Curtain never knew his twin brother and certainly wasn’t betrayed by him. The show depicts him as being ever-so-close to redemption through Reynie’s act of empathy, and that empathy is more or less what defeats him.
This all takes a thematic strand and pulls on it harder than it can bear. “Big Day Today” all feels rather close to sentimentality, with its emotionally broken Curtain (“Another backstory!” my thirteen-year-old groans) and everybody going around “seeing” everybody else. The novel doesn’t shirk the legitimacy of emotion but also suggests that it could stand to be harnessed properly. Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy keeps him level-headed (and the same is true for Curtain, who is cruelly calculating). Greater emphasis is placed on the extent to which the child members of the Society must sacrifice personal desires for the mission and must fight their own natural emotional impulses.
This may also be why “Big Day Today” is, quite frankly, a bit boring. Time and again, possible action sequences are either shown off-stage or actually averted. The climax includes long stretches of time in which characters mill around or stare. Stewart’s first book in the series was definitely a slow-burning fuse, but its ending still packed a punch. The series, by contrast, has its characters solve the problems mostly through appeals to emotions, which sounds very nice from a conflict resolution perspective but makes ultimately for a surprisingly dull finale.
As I feared, the series couldn’t quite hold on to Stewart’s original vision enough to make a seamless transition from page to screen. At its best, it remains an engaging cautionary tale for our information age with some enjoyable child actors who grow into their roles as the episodes progress. If there’s a second season, it could follow the track of Book Two, which would be promising, yet it’s hard to see the series abandoning the overly sentimental streak it lapsed into in the end. But since the pieces are in place, anything is possible, and I’ll follow along with the members of the Mysterious Benedict Society if their perilous journey continues.