Warning: Contains spoilers for season 1 of “The Umbrella Academy.”
“The Umbrella Academy” is back for a second season, an enjoyable if uneven and overly long superhero tale. Just like season one, the show follows the superpowered Hargreeves siblings attempting to stop a mysterious upcoming apocalypse, only this time, rather than 2019 in the fictional American town called The City, they’ve been transported back to Dallas, Texas, in the 1960s.
The show is at its best when the family is all together, interacting with each other. They compliment each other beautifully for both drama and comedy, making the group scenes a treat to watch due to the natural dynamic. The characters are written in a way that allows their differences and personality quirks to complement in an entertaining way, an important feature for superhero teams and ensemble pieces.
Unfortunately, this season keeps the family separated for the majority of the runtime, and when they’re together, it’s only in the same duos or trios. Only at the season’s end do they all come together to save the world. However, the protagonists are not nearly as interesting apart as they are together, with two notable exceptions.
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Further, many of the important supporting characters are not as engaging as the protagonists, making the immense focus on them feel dragged out. With the time jump, their relationships are likewise ephemeral, removing many of the stakes in several scenes intended to be emotionally important.
Part of the fun with TV shows is watching the characters grow and develop both within and between seasons. While it’s not the case across the board, some members of “The Umbrella Academy” had engaging character development, allowing audiences to watch characters we’ve grown to love develop into more fully realized people.
Much of the action in “Umbrella Academy” centers on the characters, with external stakes and plot coming in a distant second. Likewise, the central family and their unusual situation is what sets the show apart from the crowd of super teams. Therefore, it makes the most sense to explore what works and doesn’t predominately though the lens of the characters.
The Excellences of ‘Umbrella Academy’
In season one, Diego was interesting but overly self-serious, playing directly into the superhero trope of the aggressive and brooding man. Words cannot express how much wonderful the change is for Diego in season two. His intensity and edgy attempts at renegade heroism are taken far less seriously, making him easily one of the best parts of the season. Diego is imbued with heretofore underused humor, and became a standout due to excellent writing and a charmingly unhinged performance by David Castañeda.
As excellent as Diego has been, the real standouts are Klaus and Ben. The show should really give Klaus and Ben their own spin-off, with regular appearances from Diego. Klaus has deservedly been a fan-favorite since the series began, and he’s only gotten funnier and more sympathetic in season 2.
His manic and exaggerated antics are still a major part of his character, what with him creating a cult in the 1960s using soon-to-be-written pop song lyrics as messages, but his experiences in both the 2019 apocalypse and his previous time travel to the Vietnam War have indelibly changed him.
Moreover, his relationship with his dead brother, Ben, is dramatically expanded upon and increased, much to the delight of viewers. Klaus’s superpower is to communicate with the dead, so he is the only link Ben has to their family, forcing the two to spend much of the series together. Their pairing is the best part of the season.
Ben acts as a straight man to Klaus’s hijinks, but avoids the usual traps of the character type, by actually being funny and having his own identity and goals outside of rolling his eyes or acting as a moral compass. The chemistry between Justin H. Min and Robert Sheehan is fantastic; they are impeccably believable as long-lasting best friends and close but bickering brothers.
Aside from his dynamic with Ben, Klaus likewise has one of the most emotionally and ethically complicated subplots. Last season, when he was accidentally sent back to 1968, he fights in the Vietnam War and falls in love with a fellow soldier, Dave, who dies in his arms in battle, an experience that was important for his character arc in the latter half of last season.
When transported to the early 1960s, he uses some of his time to search for Dave in an effort to save his life. The time traveler seeing the younger version of a significant other is not exactly an original idea, especially in the realm of comic books and superhero media, but the subtlety and nuance in “Umbrella Academy” elevates the story above the cliché. Only a few scenes across several episodes are dedicated to Dave, but the understated nature prevents the story from overstaying its welcome or adding increased wrinkles in the timeline.
Interplay with the First Season
While some aspects of the continuity were handled brilliantly, many scenes felt like weak imitations of the first season, recycling plot points with little new added. The overarching plot focusing on stopping the apocalypse — again — worked nicely to give the story stakes, but several episodes felt like the characters were merely going through the motions.
They reunite, fight amongst themselves, work to discover the cause of the apocalypse, and come together to stop both it and the commission. Luckily, the third season appears to finally be taking the story in a new direction, courtesy of a stellar twist in the shows’ final moments. It will be fun to watch the characters fight something new.
The soundtrack is once again excellent, a benefit of having a musician (Gerard Way, frontman of “My Chemical Romance”) as the comics’ co-creator. The show makes great use of pop, standards, grunge, and covers of classic rock. I especially appreciated the inclusion of “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers.
The songs are typically used either to set the mood or to wholly contradict the scene, such as a fight scene set to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys. Nothing quite reaches the ironic heights of the “Istanbul” set fight, either in choreography or song choice, but the music is once again a high point.
Five and Luther have changed very little. Five is still an angry man trapped in a child’s body, with the same smug sense of superiority and the same goal of convincing his siblings to help him stop the apocalypse. Luther, the eldest, is likewise motivated by the exact same issues again — love of his sort-of sister Allison and inferiority about their father.
In the first season, the random dance sequence was an odd and enjoyable moment of levity, highlighting both the show’s off-kilter nature and the family’s bond despite their strife, and calming the audience so the ensuing battle will be more of a surprise. This season, Vanya, Klaus, and Allison twist because… they danced in the first season.
From Knockoffs to Additions Out of Nowhere
While some scenes and plot lines are boring knock-offs of the exciting original, other aspects feel wholly divorced from the previous entry, particularly with Vanya and Allison.
Last season, Vanya was a fantastic character, meek and beaten down from a lifetime of verbal abuse, with a vengeful anger festering just beneath the surface. Her transformation from quiet and insecure violinist to absurdly dangerous, highly powered, unstable would-be villain was a high point of the show, organized around an excellent performance by Ellen Page.
This season, Vanya has amnesia for nearly the entire 10 episodes. Along with her memory, the condition took all personality from her. Page is likewise checked out, with a low-energy performance matching her character’s startling new blandness.
Allison is likewise wholly misused this season, going from a compelling and unique character to a vessel for the writer’s desire to fit social commentary into their series. In season one, Allison was grappling with the very real problems caused by using her ability to force anyone to do anything. Instead of continuing these unique and messy ethical questions, the writers decided to use Allison’s subplot to discuss 1960s racism.
In a show that predominately relies on the proper use of superpowers, the moral implications of having unnatural abilities, and their associated problems, it felt out of place for so much of the season to focus on a heavy, real-world issue.
Likewise, an inordinate amount of time was spent on Allison’s story, compared to the other personal subplots, and it had the weakest tie-in to the main narrative. A few scenes to explore Allison as a black woman from 2019 living in 1960s Texas would have been both necessary to include for some semblance of realism and incredibly interesting.
The overwhelming focus, though, took the steam out of an otherwise fairly tight and carefully constructed narrative, without a real connection to the main plot or an overarching theme. A superhero story about civil rights activists would be fascinating, and I’d be the first in line to buy a ticket. The “X-Men” have already shown how using superheroes as allegories for oppressed groups can be powerful. It just didn’t fit with either Allison’s character or the broader story.
Stop Giving Allison Placeholder Boyfriends
It is abundantly clear that Luther and Allison are intended to eventually be together. This obvious knowledge makes every other relationship she has feel pointless, like a narrative detour on the way to her ultimate destination. While signaling a couple’s meant-to-be nature and still having them date other people can function perfectly well, an outsized degree of focus was put on Allison’s marriage this season.
The show is asking viewers to emotionally engage with something that is obviously not going to last, regardless of time travel-related problems. Throughout every extended scene intent on making the audience buy into Allison and Ray’s love, I was wondering in the back of my head what would inevitably end their marriage to keep her free. The stakes are somewhat removed.
Luther and Allison’s mutual attraction and romantic love is a controversial aspect of the show, as the pair were raised as brother and sister alongside the other academy members. While they are both ready to remind everyone that they’re not biologically related, the close proximity and the liberal use of “brother,” “sister,” and “family” complicates the matter. While this may be slightly less shocking in the post-“Game of Thrones” pop culture landscape, their romantic connection is a little too close to home.
Not as Good Villains
The villains this season pale in comparison to the ones from the former season. A trio of mostly mute Swedish brothers make for a credible threat in battle sequences, but offer little in the way of emotional stakes that would make them interesting. Likewise, when it is abundantly obvious that none of the main characters will be killed in early episodes, the fight sequences hold less power, cool as they look.
The Swedes are allowed to be banally underdeveloped because they’re not the true antagonists. Instead, they brought back The Handler, the stylish but dull head of the Commission, and easily the least interesting of the three villains last season.
While it would make no narrative sense to bring back Hazel and ChaCha, the other primary villains, they were desperately missed. Their humor and likability balanced with genuine proficiency at torture and murder made them both chilling and fun in equal measure. Their presence, either as return villains or unlikely allies, would have been remarkably welcome.
The series has a fascinating take on the afterlife, which is explored at the end of the season through the dead Ben and medium Klaus. While season 1 gave the knowledge of life after death, and some connection between the world of the dead and that of the living, not much else was known. Near the end of season two, there is an intense and beautiful moment that expands the show’s idea of what comes next in a manner I hope to be explored more in the future.
While season two did not quite reach the heights of season one, with dragging subplots and some uninspired characters, there is definitely a lot to enjoy as well. The good parts are absolutely excellent, melding action, humor, and heart with characters of whom you just want more and more.
Hopefully season three will iron out some of the kinks, keeping the characters together, tightening the subplots, and allowing the academy to face something other than the end of the world. If so, the series could grow into an iconic and lasting superhero offering.