The Umbrella Academy, a streaming event that many hope will be a repeated success.
The following article might contain spoilers.
On the same day of 1989, forty-three children are born from random women who weren’t showing any signs of pregnancy the previous day. Seven of them are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist who founds The Umbrella Academy to prepare his “children” to save the world. But things don’t go quite as expected. During their adolescence, the siblings start to grow apart and ultimately, the team breaks up. The six remaining members, now over thirty, get back together when they find out about Reginald’s death. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya, and Five will have to work together to solve the mystery of their father’s death, but the family will have to come to terms with old grudges caused by their conflicting personalities and abilities, and the threat of an apocalypse.
Like many others, after the announcement of the second season, I decided to rewatch the first part of The Umbrella Academy to prepare for the new episodes.
I was met, once again, with the rich cast of superheroes who managed, around a year and a half ago, to steal the hearts of a big and ferocious section of TV shows fans also thanks to the origin of the story, adapted from The Umbrella Academy comics by Gerard Way and published under the Dark Horse label.
Those who have read the original work weren’t surprised by the content of the TV show; it is, however, reductive for both the graphic novel and the Netflix adaptation to say that the two stories are identical. Sure, they share the title and the characters, but the way the story is presented in the two mediums is, in my opinion, fundamentally different.
I have no doubt that you clicked on this article expecting a review of the TV show, so I won’t lose myself in the details of the graphic novel, but it’s worth to mention that if the original story is especially focused on the events of the narration, the TV show tends to be driven by the characters instead.
The character ensemble
There are very few TV shows that can boast such a variety of characters as to include: a talking monkey butler, a main character (among the others) who has been implanted with animal DNA to save his life, a sarcastic ghost who sprouts tentacles from his abdomen, a 58-year-old in the body of a child who is also an assassin for hire, and a robot nanny with dark secrets… and that’s not even the end of the list!
The cast is not only full of rich personalities, but the success of The Umbrella Academy must also be attributed to the relationships between said personalities.
As mentioned before, the story focuses on seven adopted siblings: Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Five, Ben, and Vanya.
When we first meet them, only five of them get together after the death of their father. Number Five and Ben are, in fact, both missing. The former has disappeared after a family argument when he was still a child, while the latter died under suspicious circumstances.
The remaining members of the team will find themselves having to deal with old resentments and the less than happy circumstances that marked their childhood and adolescence. We find out very early in the story that none of them, aside from Luther (played by Tom Hopper), had much love for their father.
Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), the mysterious benefactor that tracked down and adopted all the children he could of those born on that fateful day of 1989, brought them up treating them like a means to the end that was preventing the end of the world and nothing else, going so far as to call them by numbers (based on the usefulness of their powers) and taking away a normal childhood in favour of a harsh superhero training since they were very small.
All of them, except Vanya (Ellen Page).
The unlucky Vanya (Number Seven) is instead confined to the role of extra in her own family as the only one without any powers.
She’s the one to pull the audience into the dynamics of this weird family. As the only ordinary person in a family of extraordinary children, from an early age, Vanya is subjected to a lesser treatment than even her siblings, not only by her father but by the siblings themselves, who are influenced by the hierarchical nature of their environment where the only way to survive and win the fatherly affection is to prove that they are better than their peers.
That is the reason why all the children will look for the affection that Reginald so lacks for them in other places and that will ultimately be the cause of their estrangement.
We’ve already mentioned how Luther (Number One) remains, at least for the first part of the season, loyal to his father, still believing that Reginald really was trying to protect the world and that was enough to justify his treatment of the siblings during their formative years. But while Luther remains a loyal soldier, Diego (Number Two, played by David Castañeda) will look for comfort in the motherly figure of Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), a nanny robot built for all the needs of the children that Reginald has no intention to deal with.
Allison (Number Three, Emmy Raver-Lampman), the only daughter aside from Vanya, will look for the attention she can’t get from her family in a world of fame, helped by her ability to speak anything she desires into existence, but not sure which parts of her success are real and which aren’t for this very same reason.
And then there’s Klaus (Number Four, Robert Sheehan), who’ll find solace in his drug addiction rather than face the ghosts that quite literally chase him around because of his ability.
We know very little about Ben (Number Six, Justin H. Min) aside from the fact that he died, most likely during one of the Academy’s missions, and that his death was the start of the family’s estrangement. Together with Five, he appears slightly later in the story, but we find out that he is stuck to Klaus, the only one who can still feel his presence.
When it comes to Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), things get interesting. If the event that starts the TV show is Reginald’s death, what really gets the main conflict going is definitely Five’s sudden reappearance, who joins the rest of the family through a space-time portal to warn them about the upcoming end of the world that only they seem to be able to stop.
Conflicts and relationships
It wouldn’t be too incorrect of an assumption to expect that such a huge event as the end of the world would take precedence over the relationships between the characters but The Umbrella Academy would beg to differ.
The impending apocalypse, in fact, only brings more fire to the changing relationships between the characters, forcing them in closer contact than they’d like and giving them a chance for growth.
When Luther and Allison are reunited, they will have to deal with old feelings resurfacing that go far beyond brotherly affection. Whether the audience likes it or not – and believe me, this specific plot point definitely drove a rift between factions of the argument – it’s undeniable that the two have chemistry and are determined to let us know.
But aside from the one with Luther, Allison’s relationships with the rest of the family are probably the most interesting, especially the one with Vanya. The two will have a huge impact on each another, to the point where Allison will become one of the reasons for the explosion of Vanya’s dormant powers, who will find out she’s been living a life of lies because of her father, who hid her dangerous abilities from her for her entire life.
Two more relationships that develop during the story – luckily in very different ways than the one between Luther and Allison – both involve Klaus. The fact that he’s the only one who can see Ben already makes him an interesting character, but if that wasn’t enough, an unexpected trip through time will give him the chance to related to Diego, through the loss of a loved one to be specific, who will change the way the two brothers see each other.
Lastly, if upon Five’s arrival we can immediately see how isolated he is from the rest of the siblings, at the end of the season, Five will find himself in a very different position, having realised that none of his brothers is the same person he left behind and that he only has a chance to save the world by asking for their help.
Family is definitely one of the main subjects of the show, but not the only one that gets to shine through the extravagant aesthetic and a branching plot that still manages not to lose itself.
Another prominent subject, shown in a surprisingly tactful way, is that of abuse. There are several examples of it in the story, but it’s worth to concentrate on three.
Reginald Hargreeves is the most obvious demonstration of the shapes family abuse can take and, specifically, of one of its shades: neglect.
From the little we see of the superheroes’ childhoods, it’s evident that Reginald’s interest for them doesn’t go beyond their usefulness. They’re just means to an end, to the point that he doesn’t much care if he has to pay their birth mothers to get them, as if they weren’t but mere goods.
Reginald Hargreeves, however, is not the only one doing damage to the siblings. He gets help in his endeavours – albeit in a more insidious manner – by the butler Pogo (Adam Godley), a kind-mannered talking monkey that might seem like a source of support for the children that they don’t receive from the absent Reginald. In reality, Pogo justifies the billionaire’s action, even when he has to face the consequences that said actions had on the superheroes’ mental health, and even still after Reginald’s death, continuing to lie and manipulate the siblings for the so-called higher good.
Together with Pogo, Grace – the robot nanny – takes on the role of a substitute parent, but as opposed to Pogo, she has very little freedom when it comes to disagreeing with Reginald, but still tries to help the siblings in any way she can, fully aware of the damage she could not save them from during their childhood.
Another interesting display of domestic abuse is Leonard (John Magaro). Born on the same day as the Hargreeves children but under very normal circumstances, Leonard has the misfortune of being the victim of a violent father and, as a child, tries to find a reason for that by believing that he was really supposed to be part of the Academy. Leonard, however, does not have any special abilities, but he ends up finding out by accident of Vanya’s hidden powers and tries to use them to enact a sort of revenge on the family he thought he had a right to be part of, making Vanya believe that he is the only one who will ever find any worth in and love her through a complicated web of lies and manipulation.
There are a lot, in fact too many things in this TV show to list all of its virtues, and this article barely scratches the surface of its contents and complexities.
We have so far established, however, that The Umbrella Academy is a TV show with a rich array of aspects: a big and varied cast, a collection of complex but balanced subjects, an extraordinary and – quite literally – stellar plot. But if all that we mentioned was already in the first season of the show, what could possibly be left for the second one?
From the trailer, we can gather that our favourite family will be travelling through time, each by themselves, ending up in new lives and situations that are completely different from where they started.
The sneak peeks hint to Klaus becoming the leader of a religious cult, to Allison being a prominent part of a plot involving civil rights in the 60s, to Vanya possibly finding new love in a woman, to Diego ending up in a mental institution, and to Five realising that all his attempts to save the world were for nothing. We see very little of Luther and Ben, but we’re sure that they will certainly have their own chance to shine.
It’s impossible, though, not to wonder about something else. What will time travel mean for some of the secondary characters that we’ve come to love during the first season and whose lives ended in less than ideal circumstances? Will Klaus be able to save his beloved Dave (Cody Ray Thompson) before he dies in the war? Will Diego manage to prevent Eudora’s (Ashley Madekwe) death at the hands of Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige)? Will Grace still die during the destruction of the Hargreeves house? And will Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Agnes (Sheila McCarthy) succeed in finding the happy ending they were looking for?
In conclusion, there are enough unanswered questions to fill three more seasons of this show, but in the meantime, we’ll see what’s in store for the next one and hope that it will live up to the first and even exceed it.