The Umbrella Academy is back. Is it better than ever?
The first season of The Umbrella Academy followed a barely functional family of superheroes as they tried (in vain) to prevent an apocalyptic event caused by their sister. This time round they’re trying to prevent another apocalyptic event which looks suspiciously like it may, once again, be linked to their sister. With infighting and conflicting agendas our heroes certainly don’t like to make things easy on themselves. Luckily for us what follows is a highly enjoyable adventure, set mainly in the 1960’s, full of the idiosyncrasies and bizarre events that made the first season such a joy.
Based on the comic book by My Chemical Romance front man Gerard Way and illustrator extraordinaire Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy was a big hit for Netflix. With its quirky yet lovable characters, Wes Anderson style visuals and an eclectic soundtrack the show was pretty unique. Audiences and critics alike were quick to praise the adaptation and with its cliffhanger ending a lot of people, myself included, have been eagerly waiting to see what happens next. We last saw the Hargreeves siblings as they used Five’s powers of time travel to escape just as a large chunk of the moon breaks off and destroys all life on Earth. Unfortunately time travel never seems to be an exact science in these situations and although they all escape destruction they don’t all reach their destination together. Technically they do all arrive in the same place, an alley behind a television showroom in Dallas, they just don’t all arrive there at the same time. All arriving separately between the years of 1960 and 1963 everyone finds themselves alone and having to deal with the reality of living in the past.
Having the various members of the Academy split up and living different amounts of time in the ’60’s is an excellent idea and the first few episodes sees the displaced siblings gradually locating each other while flashbacks provide all the information of what they’ve been getting up to since we last saw them fleeing the end of the world. It’s probably no surprise that Klaus, the effervescent junkie, has started his own cult. More surprising is that it is called Destiny’s Children and his mantras are basically just R&B song lyrics that he spouts randomly. Gentle giant Luther is now a bare knuckle prize fighter, while Vanya has been hit by a car and has no memory of who she is. Diego, the only member of the Academy who actually trains and takes his responsibilities seriously has unfortunately been committed to a mental asylum for his raving antics proclaiming that JFK is going to be assassinated in only a few days. Five turns up at the most recent date and is just in time to see his family, and presumably most of the world, get wiped out by a nuclear attack. Luckily rogue time operative Hazel manages to send him back a further week to give him time to stop the impending destruction. This just leaves Allison who gets the most interesting and socially relevant story line of all.
Being a woman of colour and finding herself in Dallas in the early ’60’s forces Allison to confront a lot of very ugly truths from that period. From the instant she arrives she is subjugated to extreme prejudice, from the men who immediately set upon her, to the diner she seeks help from. The owner merely points to a sign that reads “whites only”. With her throat still injured from Vanya’s attack Allison is unable to speak and thus her power to rumour people to do whatever she commands is useless. This is an important decision made by the writers as it would be too easy to use Allison’s power to dispel the racism surrounding her, almost turning it into the punchline of a running gag. Instead she must endure through the abuse which ultimately leads her to join the growing civil rights movement where she meets the man she will marry.
An even better decision is to continue Allison’s reticence to use her power even when she does regain her voice. Again, it would have been far too easy to have made Allison some sort of superhero beacon that magically eradicates racism from all around her. This would have changed the tone of the show completely and, I suspect, made for quite uncomfortable viewing. This approach also makes it a much more significant event when she is forced to use her power. After a sit in protest at the diner Allison’s husband Raymond is set upon by a police officer who brutally beats him with no sign of stopping until he is dead. Faced with no other option Allison quietly speaks to the cop, “I heard a rumour you just walked away”. It’s a powerful moment made more so for the reasons I’ve explained. It is also significant that Allison could have made the police officer do whatever she wanted and extracted whatever revenge she wanted on him. Instead she allows him to just leave, taking a moral stand and not sinking to his level; the whole ethos of the non-violent protests that were a part of the movement and sadly still an essential part of life today. I cannot heap enough praise on Emmy Raver-Lampman for her portrayal of Allison, and also on show newcomer Yusuf Gatewood as her husband, Raymond. Their performances are powerful when needed but also tender in the depiction of their relationship, especially when Luther turns up with his complicated feelings for his adopted sister. In a show full of top notch performances it’s not easy to stand out, Raver-Lampman and her whole story line manage just that.
The Umbrella Academy features such a strong ensemble cast with each character bringing a different facet to the, somewhat dysfunctional, family dynamic. One of the best performances for me is by the shows youngest sibling, number Five. It is incredible to think that Aidan Gallagher is only sixteen years old. His performance as Five, who is technically about sixty years old in a child’s body, is fantastic. He convincingly makes you believe he is far older than he looks and carries quite a significant amount of the show’s plot on his young shoulders. His gruff no-nonsense demeanor and utter ruthlessness make him one of the shows most valuable players, especially when trying to wrangle his less focused brothers and sisters together to return to their original timeline. Faced with such a disparate group of individuals he is forced to resort to making a bargain with the enemy, the Commission. That’s when things start to get even weirder.
It’s often been said that a hero is only as good as the villains they have to fight. The second season of The Umbrella Academy brings some absolute heavy hitters to bear on the Hargreeves family. Psychotic, power crazed and just damn right bizarre, the various members of the Commission doggedly attack our heroes at every opportunity. Returning from the previous season is Kate Walsh as The Handler who steals virtually every scene she is in, and who’s flamboyant dress sense alone deserves every award going for the costume design team. Replacing Hazel and Cha Cha are The Swedes, 3 almost silent brothers with a penchant for death and destruction. Whilst not as charismatic as the 2 agents from the first season they are entertaining to watch in a baffling what are they going to do next sort of way. I was very excited to see the head of the commission ripped straight from the pages of the comic. AJ Carmichael is a goldfish who swims around in a bowl atop someones shoulders. He doesn’t get a massive amount to do in the show but I just love the visual and the lunacy of it. It is one of the more comic book-y aspects that has made it into the show. For me this is one of the best aspects of The Umbrella Academy; it has taken a comic book that is at its heart a pure distillation of the essence of comic books and reconstituted it for a different medium. For me it joins a growing list of current TV adaptations that take the source material and do such interesting things with it. I would happily recommend Legion, Doom Patrol, Happy!, Mr Mercedes, The Outsider and Castle Rock as more examples of great adaptations that use the source material as a jumping off point rather than just regurgitate the same stories. Personally I love this approach as I get to watch a series and enjoy familiar story beats without knowing exactly where the plot is going.
It is fitting that a show based on a comic written by a rock star features such a diverse and compelling soundtrack. Whilst, for me, not quite on the level of the first season it still features such classics as Frank Sinatra’s My Way, Golden Brown by The Stranglers, I’m a Man by the The Spencer Davis Group and quite a few modern covers. It even throws in a bit of Backstreet Boys for good measure as well as some era appropriate Sam and Dave, and Sam Cooke. The use of the songs is just as important as the choices themselves and The Umbrella Academy has really got this down to an art. Just like the first season, fight scenes are usually scored by music you would not necessarily think of using to underscore the violence taking place on screen. Whilst we don’t get the whole family grooving away like they did in season one there is a lovely scene of a reunited Vanya, Klaus and Allison as they twist the night away. As a show the producers are never afraid to take a moment out from the action and have a musical montage do some of the heavy lifting, or even just provide an interlude strictly for fun.
Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy does what a good sequel should do. It is more densely plotted than its predecessor and provides character growth for its myriad of characters. Diego gets a love interest in Lila, played with aplomb by Ritu Arya, who may or may not be all she says and is linked far closer to the family than initially thought. Ben, the dead member of the group, is given far more screen time this season as he spends his years in the ’60’s tethered to Klaus and his cult. It must be difficult to provide growth to a character who died years ago but to their credit the writers provide Ben with some of the most touching scenes in the whole season. They also provide him with some of the funniest scenes are he interacts with the quite unstable Klaus. Robert Sheehan cemented Klaus as a fan favourite in season one and he once again provides a mesmerising turn as the junkie who can commune with the dead. He gets the majority of the laughs with his acidic barbs and general drink and drugs fueled kookiness. Again though, the writers bring a far more seriousness to the role. Just as Allison discovers the ’60’s were certainly not easy times for people of colour, so to does Klaus run foul of bigotry and homophobia. Nowhere does this come more to the fore than when he tries to rekindle his relationship with the soldier he meet in Vietnam on his previous jaunt through time. In the time period he finds himself in now his former love is still coming to terms with his sexuality and certainly not prepared to out himself at this point. In a parallel story Vanya is also getting to grips with her loss of identity and burgeoning feelings for a married woman. It is a subject handled with sensitivity and shows that once again a genre series such as The Umbrella Academy is the perfect place to address social issues as all good science-fiction has done.
There is so much going on in this show which makes it stand up to repeated viewings. I’ve hardly mentioned the plot to kill JFK or a younger Reginald Hargreeves who may or may not be involved, and also reveals himself to be of a very alien origin. There is also the matter of Grace who is yet to become a robot and seems to be Reginald’s romantic partner. It would be very remiss of me to leave out the appearance of baby Pogo, the monkey who will gain human intelligence and become a father figure to the Hargreeves siblings.
Like all good shows featuring time travel The Umbrella Academy throws in paradoxes and surprises galore. There are important choices to be made and touching goodbyes as people must return to their own times. Loved ones and relationships are left behind. I’m not going to give away the ending of the season, suffice to say when everyone returns to their correct time things aren’t exactly as they left them. Cliffhangers are par for the course with The Umbrella Academy and the stage is set for another adventure full of action, intrigue, rumours, goldfish, explosions, monkey men, knife fights, drugs, dancing and general super powered lunacy! Bring it on.
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