Episode 5 = 3/4 stars

Episode 6 = 3.5/4 stars

Episode 7 = 3/4 stars

Now that’s more like it.

In my past reviews, I expressed concern over lazy writing in “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” However, I’m happy to report that Episodes 5-7 of “The Mysterious Benedict Society” are surprisingly focused affairs with emotional heft. Sure, there are some problems here and there, but the last few episodes mark a significant improvement over the first half of the season (which was already pretty good). I’ve got three episodes to cover — a recent trip to L.A. led to a delay in coverage — so let’s get started.

Episode 5: “The Art of Conveyance and Round-Trippery”

The fifth episode starts with a fantastic cold open. Having impressed Dr. Curtain with their academic success, Reynie and Sticky are made “Messengers” by Dr. Curtain, favored students who reportedly receive “special privileges.” While Sticky may not appear to be an ideal candidate at first glance (having been caught cheating in class in Episode 4), Curtain assures Sticky that refusing to name Kate as his accomplice convinced him of Sticky’s worthiness to be granted Messenger status. It’s a neat resolution that fits with the high premium Curtain places on loyalty, given his past with Mr. Benedict.

As Messengers, Reynie and Sticky are compelled to spend time with other Messengers, leaving Kate and Constance to decipher a recent message from Mr. Benedict by themselves. As might be expected, Kate’s can-do attitude clashes with Constance’s stubbornness and caustic sense of humor to wonderful effect.

Their bickering is interrupted by Martina Crowe, who orders Kate to tetherball practice — a plot point that I criticized heavily in my last review for being contrived and frankly, moronic. But to my surprise, it’s not as intolerable as one might expect. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” seems to recognize that tetherball is inconsequential and out of place in the show and uses this to its advantage; Kate quickly becomes frustrated that she’s forced to play a game instead of helping to crack Mr. Benedict’s message. Somewhat symbolically, Kate’s feelings of uselessness are demonstrated by relinquishing her trusty bucket to Constance during practice. (Side note: Marta Kessler’s deliciously smug smiles to Kate as she holds her bucket are brilliant.)

Eventually, Constance leaves Kate at tetherball practice to conduct her own investigation. As she’s demonstrated before, Constance is quite competent when she sets her mind to something, and soon Constance cracks Mr. Benedict’s message. This leads her to the boulder with the hidden entrance that Mr. Benedict and Milligan discovered in the previous episode. Once Kate’s practice lets out, she joins Constance and the two enter the secret passage. (Is it a risky move? Yes, but their options are quite limited.) There, they find several brain-sweeping machines. They also eavesdrop on a conversation between Dr. Curtain and his head scientist, who mention that the “Forest” is ready for the impending Improvement.

Around this time, Reynie and Sticky are treated to their new special privileges. They’re escorted by several older students to one of Dr. Curtain’s inventions: the Whisperer. Although it doesn’t look like much — two chairs and two headsets housed in an all-white, futuristic, oblong room – Sticky and Reynie experience just what the Whisperer can do.

When one Messengers sits with a headset while Dr. Curtain is wearing the other, the Whisperer assuages doubts and provides an immense sense of peace for the wearer. However, the Whisperer is also used to create the Emergency. In addition to telepathically comforting Sticky and Reynie, the Whisperer also implants thoughts and suggests into the mind. In fact, the Messengers themselves implant thoughts that cause anxiety into the public by repeating subliminal phrases during sessions in the Whisperer… phrases practiced and perfected in Institute classes. (Unlike the rest of the public, Constance can hear the words that the Messengers say. Everyone else can only feel the effects of the messages – the feeling that everything is hopelessly out of control.)

Between Reynie and Sticky, the latter finds a friend in Dr. Curtain’s Whisperer. Relieved of his anxieties by the machine, Sticky bares his soul to the Whisperer when he’s asked to state his greatest fear.

“Not being wanted. Not being wanted at all,” admits Sticky, in a quote taken verbatim from the novel. His reply doesn’t go unnoticed by Dr. Curtain, who shares a similar past. Hopefully, we’ll see more between Dr. Curtain and Sticky in the coming episodes.

While the kids have a lot to do, the adults aren’t quite as interesting. Their main plot revolves around Ms. Perumal, who comes knocking at their cabin door in her search for Reynie. Even though she also possesses an unusual love of truth, Ms. Perumal is naturally skeptical when Mr. Benedict fills her in on the Emergency and his brother’s nefarious machinations. Her skepticism quickly transforms into anger when Mr. Benedict confesses that Reynie and three other children are his secret agents.

After laying into Mr. Benedict and company for their choice to place children in harm’s way, Ms. Perumal leaves to report them to the authorities. Even though Mr. Benedict and his crew aren’t concerned about the threat of Ms. Perumal’s investigation (they know that everybody’s minds are too muddled by the Emergency to do anything useful), her words leave an indelible effect on Mr. Benedict. As is the custom in most of his scenes, Mr. Benedict questions his choices and beats himself up unnecessarily. To be honest, his neurotic nature is getting a little old; I’d like to see more of the hopeful, competent self that he exhibited in the first two episodes. At any rate, Benedict convinces himself that they need to abort the plan and asks Milligan to take a submarine and retrieve the children.

Thankfully, the adults also get a quick B-plot that’s fairly entertaining. With Morse code compromised, Number Two proposes a new way to communicate: Peregrine Falcon! It’s a fantastic easter egg for fans of the series, as Kate had her own Peregrine Falcon first introduced in the second book. (In the series, Kate’s falcon’s name was “Her Majesty the Queen,” or “Madge” for short; in the show, Schaal calls the bird “royalty” and “majestic.”) Unfortunately, Madge is too ferocious to carry messages and the adults are ultimately back at square one.

Such moments lifted from the books make me nostalgic and give me more faith in the series. Overall, Episode 5 is an improvement over the uneven Episode 4.

 

Episode 6: “Run Silent, Run Deep”

Unlike the other episodes, “Run Silent, Run Deep” begins with a flashback to the childhood of Mr. Benedict and Dr. Curtain, 30 years ago. When we first meet them, the twins are stuck in an orphanage. At first glance, they appear identical to their adult selves; Curtain is immaculately fashioned, and Benedict is frazzled and not as well-groomed. But their personalities have changed. Unlike the cold, calculating Dr. Curtain that we know, young Dr. Curtain (then Nathaniel Benedict) is both happy and close to his sibling. Yes, he’s a tad controlling (especially of his twin), but it’s all for a good cause: adoption. He dresses well and urges his brother to do the same; he performs in orphanage productions for the local community in the hopes of gaining a family.

Unfortunately, young Dr. Curtain’s repeated attempts to impress potential parents do more to alienate than endear. Mr. Benedict, on the other hand, is quiet and studious, and eventually draws the attention of a young couple. But they only have room for one child, so Nicholas Benedict is adopted, and a dismayed Dr. Curtain is left behind.

These flashbacks, as sad and well-acted as they are (Luke Roessler plays both twins, and he does an exceptional job), struck me as unnecessary at first. Why retread exposition from the first few episodes? I soon found out, as the reveal comes that young Mr. Benedict enjoyed being out of his brother’s shadow and waited too long to come back for Curtain. By the time he got up the courage to ask his parents if his brother could be adopted, Dr. Curtain had already run away — convinced that his brother forgot about him.

Yes, once the flashback ends, we see Tony Hale as the sad-sack Mr. Benedict, but at least now we understand why. I’m still a bit unconvinced that the show can reconcile the family betrayal with an effective statement on the nature of misinformation/the importance of empathy in society today, but the emotional moments work well enough to make me forgive the show if it cannot achieve both of those objectives. (Honestly, I’ve noticed that most Disney shows – especially their Marvel ones — tend to introduce interesting themes but never explore them completely. My forgiving nature might be due to these low expectations for “The Mysterious Benedict Society” to do the same.)

Back on the island, Kate and Constance tell the boys of the underground bunker and consider an assault on the server room to disable to Whisperer. While Kate and Constance believe that the four members of the Society can overpower the lone scientist in the server room (Constance argues that the scientist “will be weak from lack of sunlight” and thus easy to neutralize), Reynie and Sticky shoot down the girls’ gung-ho plans. Reynie and Sticky each have their own reasons for doing so, though. Reynie rightfully reasons that a full-force assault on the server room is unnecessarily risky, Sticky enjoys the Whisperer’s comforts too much to want to destroy it. Dr. Curtain encourages Sticky’s love for the Whisperer, who tells Sticky that he’ll be spending much more time in the Whisperer over a private dinner.

The dinner scene is one of the most interesting scenes in the episode, as the parallels between Sticky and Reynie and Benedict and Curtain are very, very effective. Curtain’s empathy with Sticky’s need to be wanted speaks to Curtain’s similar desire, despite Curtain’s controlled exterior. But Sticky is also more like a young Nicolas Benedict – studious, quiet, and unconfident – and Dr. Curtain’s desire to control and nurture him evokes the controlling-caring dynamic between the twins when they were young. Hale and Carr do very well in bringing this juicy material to life on the screen.

As Sticky fraternizes with the enemy, each member of the Society goes off to do their own thing. Reynie tries to learn about the “Forest” through Dr. Curtain’s son, S.Q., by befriending him and manipulating him into revealing his father’s endeavors. Unbeknownst to Reynie, S.Q.’s request to his father to take Reynie to the forest tips off Dr. Curtain to Reynie’s ulterior motives. Suspicious of Reynie, Curtain engages in his own manipulation and bluntly tells S.Q. that Reynie is getting close to S.Q. to gain favor with Dr. Curtain. It’s one of the cruelest scenes thus far, and Hale and Ricardo Ortiz (S.Q.’s actor) sell the scene. Eventually, S.Q. rebels against Curtain and takes Reynie to the “Forest” – fake trees that are really antennas in disguise, which will no doubt be used in the Improvement.

Meanwhile, Kate tries to get to know Martina Crowe, who has a keycard to the server room that Kate looks to steal. And while she eventually does create a copy of Martina’s keycard, Martina remains blissfully unaware of Kate’s deception. In an affecting character beat, Martina believes Kate to be her first real friend. Unlike most people at the competitive Institute, Martina admires the fact that Kate doesn’t resent Martina for being one of the Institute’s top students.

Finally, Constance straight up leaves the Island and heads into Stonetown when she hears Sticky’s voice in her head telling her to buy a blue beret. When Constance arrives in Stonetown, she’s alarmed to see everyone rushing to buy blue berets. Blue berets may be harmless enough, but Constance knows that blue berets are merely a test run for the Improvement. Evidently, the Improvement will involve mass mind control of some sort.

Armed with their new developments of the Forest, Martina’s keycard, and the blue berets, the Society meets to brainstorms plans. Sticky doesn’t contribute anything, responding to Constance’s news with the asinine suggestion that “if the Whisperer is that powerful, then maybe we can put good thoughts in people’s heads. Make them feel happy!” The Society responds accordingly to the notion advanced by Sticky: Kate looks disgusted, Reynie asks Sticky if he knows what he’s saying, and the ever-diplomatic Constance replies with a derisive “I pity you.”

Offended, Sticky pushes back and the Society devolves into arguing. This episode has been a gold mine for acting, and this scene is no exception; Mystic Inscho shines as Reynie loses patience with Sticky, and Seth Carr responds with his own anger at the Society’s opposition. Eventually, Kate leaves in a huff to brazenly break into the server room herself and destroy the Whisperer once and for all.

In a C-plot, Milligan travels to the Island to retrieve the children in an old submarine. However, he crashes into underwater turbines (undoubtedly the power source for the Improvement). The last shot of the episode is an ominous one: Milligan’s destroyed sub, next to several massive turbines. Paired with Kate’s half-baked plan (really, half-baked might be too generous), things aren’t looking too good for the Society.

 

Episode 7: “The Dance of the Celestial Orb”

Episode 7 picks up right where “Run Silent, Run Deep” left off, with Kate rushing off on an ill-fated mission to the server room. Immediately, she encounters several older students tasked with cleaning the server room, forcing Kate to hide in an air duct. The older students then discover that an intruder attempted to gain access to the server room, and dozens of Dr. Curtain’s trained muscle are dispatched to look for this spy.

In order to evade capture, Kate must hang precariously on the face of a cliff. Despite her best efforts to cling to the cliffside, Kate falls but is caught by a waiting Milligan, who swam to the island after his sub capsized. Once Kate thanks him for saving her life, Milligan orders her to round up the Society and meet him at nightfall on the beach.

With Kate missing, the rest of the Society worries about her safety and deals with the fallout from their argument. In particular, Sticky experiences the most regret, and the sight of so many of Dr. Curtain’s men mobilized to search for Kate finally makes him admit his mistake. His confession – that he “abandoned” the Society — is affecting in its subtlety, since his own aunt and uncle essentially abandoned their duties as Sticky’s guardians. But Constance and Reynie don’t abandon Sticky. Instead, they forgive him, and Kate makes her way back to the gang. There, she reluctantly admits that her plan to storm the bunker alone wasn’t well-thought out.

Just as they’re newly reunited, the Society has their number whittled to three when Reynie is called in by Dr. Curtain for questioning. Right off the bat, Curtain makes it clear that he doesn’t trust Reynie and thinks he’s behind the attempted break-in. However, Dr. Curtain’s men eventually come back with the name of the student whose keycard was used by the spy: Martina Crowe. Released from questioning, Reynie reconvenes with the Society, who spy Madge in the sky circling the island.

What the Society doesn’t know is that the adults never meant to send Madge’s message in the first place. After they saw Milligan off to the Institute, Mr. Benedict and his two compatriots are visited by Ms. Perumal. Failing to find success in alerting the authorities to Mr. Benedict’s exploits – and watching with horror as the public flocked to Stonetown’s stores for blue berets – Ms. Perumal returns to Ms. Perumal with an encouraging letter for Reynie.

Although Mr. Benedict apologetically informs her that they have no means of communication with the kids (moreover, Ms. Perumal’s letter is far too open about the specifics of Reynie’s covert operation), the wayward Madge snags Ms. Perumal’s letter and ferries it to the island.  The bad luck doesn’t stop with Madge’s unwanted mail delivery either, as Madge happens to land right by S.Q. when she arrives. Reading the letter and realizing that Reynie is the spy, S.Q. rushes off to show his father what he discovered.

Before S.Q. can relay these revelations to Dr. Curtain, however, Reynie interrupts him and tells him the truth about his father and the Emergency. Understandably, S.Q. dismisses Reynie’s confession as fiction but pauses when Reynie tells him that the Helpers are so empty and lonely because they’ve been brainwashed. At this revelation, S.Q. looks surprisingly stricken, and he gives Reynie the letter. Judging from S.Q.’s reaction to the topic of brainwashing, it seems as though he may have some unpleasant history with it himself. It’s left unexplored, though; all we’re treated to is the heartwarming scene of Reynie reading his tutor’s letter and being encouraged by his surrogate mother’s words.

The other major plot involving the Society centers around Kate. As she searches for Madge, Martina Crowe finds Kate and begs her for help. The two possess a wonderful dynamic, and in a painful twist of the knife, Martina hugs when Kate finds her a good hiding spot. However, Martina’s faith in Kate is shattered. Upon checking out the cliffside for clues about the real spy, Martina stumbles across one of Kate’s belongings.

Around the time that Martina uncovers Kate’s subterfuge, Madge proves herself to be a massive liability once again when she’s spotted flying back to Mr. Benedict’s cabin by several of Dr. Curtain’s trusted students. Using a telescope, they spot Mr. Benedict outside and do a double take. The news that Dr. Curtain’s doppelganger (only, as the students say, in “worse shape and with worse fashion sense”) is hiding on the shore is relayed to Dr. Curtain, who orders his enforcers to raid Mr. Benedict’s hideout.

Fortunately, Mr. Benedict, Number Two, and Rhonda have already made their escape in the secret invention – a giant, makeshift blimp that they fly to the Island with. It’s not very inconspicuous (or practical), and one wonders how they plan to make it to the Institute without being spotted, but no matter. The climactic encounter approaches, and I’m excited to see how it all ends.

 

Assorted Quotes I Enjoyed, Observations, and Thoughts:

  • We’re often treated to the Society talking over meals and the Institute’s food looks AMAZING. I need to see characters in movies and TV actually eating the great food that they have in front of them.
  • The show plays the incompetence of Dr. Curtain’s lead goon for comedy. Perhaps he’ll eventually be fired and replaced with someone more intimidating… McCracken, for example?
  • Kate’s face when she thinks she’s falling to her death was fleeting but powerful.
  • For some reason, the actor that plays S.Q. reminds me of a cross between Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”, “Old”) and David Dastmalchian (“The Suicide Squad”)
  • Curtain, channeling his inner Emily Post during his dinner with Sticky: “Don’t oversauce. It’s clumsy and dishonors the animal.”
  • Reynie: “No paralytics! No weapons!” Constance: “You lack spine.”
  • “Fastest bird *when diving*!”
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