Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Two: Run Boy Run – ***
Part One: PLOT!
What we have here is a solid, middle-of-the-road episode. There are things to love and things that don’t work, but mostly it’s just characters being themselves and getting into Situations. It’s the classic three-star episode, at least by my rating system.
First, I need to talk about Hazel and Cha-Cha. At the end of the diner fight in the last episode, one of the men (presumably other time-travelers) who attacked Five called in Hazel and Cha-Cha as backup. We meet them as a pair of assassins sent from a strange organization to deal with Five, who, despite revealing the first few minutes of his exile in the future, is apparently not telling all of his story.
Hazel and Cha-Cha are fun characters, Hazel especially as he’s apt to complain about petty inconveniences and get distracted. Cha-Cha is the more focused member of the duo, but she’s enjoyable as well, as she has to deal with Hazel’s tangents. They exchange witty banter like seasoned co-workers, which contrasts with their brutality in their work. Hazel and Cha-Cha are readily willing to torture, kidnap, maim, and murder to get the job done. There’s something darkly delightful in time-travelling bounty-hunter assassins treating their job like an underwhelming nine-to-five. Whatever gets the bills paid, I suppose.
We get to know them better as the series goes on, and they become a nice foil team to the main family. While unquestionably antagonistic, their distinct personalities and continued failures to catch or kill Five make them endearing. They’re very much the hapless hired villains who are in no way prepared for what they’re set up against. They become even more enjoyable when you realize that little but their character designs are taken from the books; the expansion on their characters and the comic dialogue exchanges is something unique to the show. I respect that. It works out pretty well for the series, too.
The bulk of the episode is centered around Five, somewhat unsurprisingly. After arriving at the end of the last episode, everyone has questions for him, including the audience. The episode opens with a flashback to when Five first disappeared. Playing around with time-travel, he finds himself suddenly trapped in a desolate wasteland, unable to go back. He finds his house destroyed, as well as the rest of the neighborhood, and the bodies of his siblings. He also finds a glass eye, which in the present day initiates his attempt to stop the end of the world. Believing it to belong to the person responsible for the disaster, Five tracks down the manufacturer (with some entertaining help from Klaus) and reaches a dead end. He also rescues the love of his life and runs into Hazel and Cha-Cha, whom he recognizes, and who, based on their dialogue, he apparently worked with at some point.
The other characters have relatively less to do, but we still get some nice moments with them. Allison is in trouble with her child support payments and lashes out at Vanya over it. Diego tries to use his sway with a police detective to investigate the murders at the diner, unaware that Five was involved, and Luther investigates him while he’s away. Klaus gets in hot water for stealing a box, then goes on a merry adventure to extort a prosthetics manufacturer with Five (in exchange for twenty dollars, which I really don’t think is enough money to buy any sort of drug stronger than aspirin). Vanya also gets a boyfriend who is in no way suspicious.
All of these plots are minor compared to the developments with Five, save the other major plot thread running since the previous episode: the mystery of how their father died. And here we run into an immediate problem in that the show has tipped its hand for too early. The house has two other characters — Grace, the kids’ robot mom, and Pogo, the chimpanzee butler. Aside from indicating that this series is based on comic books, these figures maintain the house and link the adult siblings to their pasts. In the previous episode, we saw Pogo suspiciously dismiss Vanya and then sneak back into the house in a type of shot I like to call “guess who the secret villain is?” The show isn’t that careless, as Pogo’s machinations turn out to be a little bit more nuanced eventually, but after seeing The Flash, I’ve found that series like this tend to overestimate their ability to hide mystery plot developments, particularly when it comes to surprise villains. In this episode, Pogo indicates the box Klaus stole contained important documents, and also points Allison to surveillance tapes. She quickly stumbles upon the one that seems to show how their father died. I’m sure it’s not doctored at all.
Part Two: Bonkers Five is Best Five
The plot overwhelms this episode a bit, veering away from the character focus of the previous episode, although somewhat necessarily, in favor of mystery thickening. Second episodes tend to do this a lot. The first episode needs to get a lot of things out of the way, like character introductions, so it tends to be far denser than most of the rest of the season. The second episode establishes the pace and tone of the series as a whole, either course-correcting the first episode or demonstrating how the show aims to maintain that level of intensity. In this case, it shows that the A plot is very much the main driver of this series, with the B plot character development moments circling around it.
I think the delivery of the A plot is far weaker than the character-driven moments, but it has some appeal on its own. Focusing on Five is a good move because he’s the most directly tied to the A plot. His personal arc is actually pretty compelling, too, as least in concept.
In the flashback, we see him as a sharp but impudent child, skilled in his own abilities, but lacking many of the necessary social skills to be a fully-functioning human being. He’s impatient, arrogant, and detached from his family. When he defies his father’s orders not to play around with time-travel and does so just to spite him, he quickly finds himself trapped in the future where he discovers he can’t go back. The future he’s landed in is also not so great, with everything in sight destroyed, including his former house. He describes to Vanya how he wandered the wastes surviving on what he could, quickly realizing that he was alone, aside from a woman he travelled with named Dolores.
On-the-nose music choices and fairly weak dialogue aside, this opening is decent. It establishes flaws for Five, which are sorely needed, and also builds on his closer bond to Vanya than the others. We also know by this point that his story is incomplete, as at some point he clearly came across and got involved with the time-travel assassins. And Five’s situation gets more complicated still by the end of the episode.
First, with him recovering Dolores. After learning that the glass eye hasn’t been manufactured yet, Five sneaks into a department store and steals the love of his life, a mannequin he has named Dolores. This introduces what easily the best part of the character in either the books or show: Five has completely lost his marbles.
The show doesn’t play it up as much as I would like, but I sincerely hope it eventually reaches the level of the second book, because it’s what makes Five my favorite character in the book series. While he’s lived out most of his life and should be the most mature of the characters, and certainly acts like it, Five is stunted in more ways than appearance. He effectively stopped learning as a child, and being stuck in isolation for decades doesn’t exactly do wonders for your social skills or mental health (by most accounts, it’s actually kind of impossible for humans to survive on our own like this). With the introduction of Dolores and Five’s absolute devotion to her, we now have reason to be more suspicious of his murderous tendencies. What the series framed in the previous episode as him being cool by taking out so many assailants now seems more like it might just be blood rage. It presents Five as a potentially dangerous asset and calls into question his obsession with stopping the end of the world. Why is he so desperate to save humanity when he seems to have a condescending view of it as a whole and doesn’t show much connection to his family, even Vanya?
On a more sympathetic note, we kind of see the reason why at the end of the episode. As seems to be aesthetic choice for this series, the delivery of the scene is goofy to a point that undermines the content, but that content is actually pretty decent taken on its own. This is the sort of show that does slightly clever things that really don’t look clever at first. The end of this episode returns to the flashback and reveals how Five got the glass eye — he ripped it out of the hand of a corpse. Specifically, Luther’s corpse. After seeing Luther, Five runs around and conveniently discovers the rest of his siblings (sans Ben and Vanya) dead in a very small radius around the house. When he finds Klaus’ body, the camera pans down to show us the umbrella tattoo they all have, as though within the span of an episode, we have forgotten that they all have tattoos or need to know the tattoos are important.
Of course, with Five played by the same actor in the present day and flashbacks, it’s easy to forget that he wouldn’t recognize the adult versions of the characters. The umbrella tattoo is merely confirmation for Five that these are his siblings and they are very dead. It’s also just a framing device that uses the umbrella motif. Backing away a bit, though, this revelation seems like it would further mess Five up for life. Not only has he trapped himself in the apocalypse out of hubris and doomed himself to a life of isolation, he’s now stuck in a reality where his family — who he was eating dinner with literally just minutes before — has suddenly lived out a good chunk of their own lives and died horribly. And there’s nothing he can do about that. His entire life has been ripped away almost instantaneously. He can’t even hope to find someone he knows wandering the wastes, because they’re all dead. How’s that for a punch in the gut? So, from that point, Five’s only possible drive is going back in time and stopping all of this. And he obsesses over that, according to what he tells the others, for decades. Even if he did join a crew of time-travelling assassins, who can clearly go back in time if they’re around in the present day, Five is still motivated by stopping the apocalypse more than anything else. That obsession seems the best indicator that he cares a lot more about his family than he lets on, or at the very least, that losing them has defined his entire adult life. There’s some juicy narrative fuel in there. I really wish the show had a better means of addressing it.
Part Three: Klaus is Gay. In Other News, Water is Wet.
I’m not sure whether Netflix uses pilots, but either way, this episode shows that the aesthetic trends of the first episode are here to stay, for better or worse. Mostly worse, if you ask me, though I won’t pretend I don’t love them just a little bit. The episode is even named after the comically appropriate song it uses for the opening flashback. The editing is a bit better, still too quick for a lot of scenes and fond of strange cuts that draw attention to the stylization in a way I don’t especially care for.
I should elaborate on my previous statements about the cinematography, though. It uses a lot of interesting angles, particularly for its establishing shots, incorporating the rare birds-eye view rather effectively. The grandeur of the main house also makes for a lot of elegant wide shots, often with characters framed by high-contrast light spilling out of the windows, or dark corridors that open into the cavernous space. The cinematography is good at establishing space, and makes the house seem oppressive and isolating even when all of the characters are present. The bedrooms are small nooks, too small for characters like Luther who have physically outgrown them. A lot of the detailing of the house is extravagant, but also old, and it makes the characters look like guests, despite this being their home. I like that effect; it plays into the bad memories and dysfunctional upbringing the characters all faced in their youth.
Outside of establishing shots, the cinematography is simpler, trending toward functional over flashy, though it varies a bit. It will sometimes try to show off, matching irregular shots to the cheesy music selection, but I honestly don’t mind it much. It has its weak moments, certainly, often those coupled with visibly flawed editing or pacing, but it goes unnoticed most of the time. The lighting is clear and the colors are bright, which is all I really need.
The thing that holds up this episode, as with the series as a whole, are the simple moments of characters being themselves and interacting. That is, after all, what the core of this series is about. All of the siblings get at least a little time devoted to them, and now that their introductions are out of the way, we have a baseline for what their normal lives are like. Some of them are more stand-out than others, but I kind of like how boring they all are. Most of their concerns are extremely petty — infighting, bickering, work concerns, money. It’s always nice to see superpowered characters worrying about things like whether they said something too mean to their siblings or how they’re going to pay the mortgage. Its the sort of thing most superhero movies cut because it’s the furthest thing from action you could imagine, but I much prefer these moments. They make fantastic characters relatable.
It can also lead to deeper moments quite effectively and with little effort. For instance, Allison doesn’t get much to do in this episode — she’s upset about not being able to see her daughter, as she was in the previous episode, and when Vanya tries to comfort her, she hits back with some poorly-constructed comments about how she doesn’t belong to the family. Nice. But that sort of silly dialogue kind of fits the situation — family members talk awkwardly to each other, especially if they haven’t spoken in a while. Pogo comforting Allison later when she feels bad is also sweet. While him leading her to surveillance tapes under the guise of making her feel better is a fabricated move that someone would only think to do if they wanted someone to discover a suspicious tape, Allison’s reaction is genuine. I mean, her dialogue is strangely thematic, but the point where she notices and mentions Ben, brief as it is, kind of gets to me. I like it when a story can convey so much history and emotion in small moments like that.
Oh, and speaking of Ben, he gets dialogue! And it’s funny! Again, don’t expect too much from this character because Klaus has his own arc only tangentially related to Ben, but the points where Ben does appear (mostly to argue with Klaus) are wonderful. I’m also quite partial to scenarios where a character arguing with a ghost or other invisible entity ends up looking even more unhinged than they really are.
Klaus remains the best part of the show, surprise surprise, and we get small bits of buildup in his personal arc. He gets nightmares from the ghosts he can see, and actively seeks out drugs to quiet them (well, that and because they’re drugs). We also get confirmation that he’s been in a relationship with a man before, which isn’t a big moment or particularly surprising given the character’s affect, but it’s comforting all the same. I appreciate it when a show establishes diversity in the sexual orientations of its characters unambiguously and early on, rather than teasing the audience by withholding information. I do wish the show had less of a focus on relationships in general, especially given that it sets one up for Vanya and doesn’t appear to have any LGBT+ characters other than Klaus, but hey, if my favorite character turns out to be gay, I can’t really complain.
Klaus’ interactions with Five are also quite enjoyable, as the two characters show how effectively they can work off each other. Their conflicting personalities make Five’s dependence on Klaus and subsequent desperation to not be dependent on Klaus priceless, especially when we learn that Klaus is basically just along for the ride. However, neither of them is above baseless extortion to get what they want, and I quite like that Five starts to have fun with the situation once Klaus starts to go off the rails. There’s something ironic in that these two characters have a lot of potential in both the books and the show, but each only shines in one of the media. Their interactions give me hope that at some point the series will find a good balance between these two characters. Even if they don’t, I’m crossing my fingers for more team-ups like this.
The rest of the characters play more subdued roles in this episode. Diego still struggles to be compelling, though I like that his machinations get in the way of the police. Luther gets little moments like his apology to Allison about being suspicious about their father’s death, right before Allison announces she’s now suspicious of it. Vanya also doesn’t get a lot to do, though her interactions with her new student lead to a nice atmospheric conversation. With such a large cast, the series has to take turns with its characters, so some of them get the spotlight in a given episode while others are set on the sidelines. The show will continue to do this, with the next episode more focused on Diego, the one after that about Luther, and so on. All of them get moments, but the intricacy of their character arcs factor into how much time they get to themselves in an episode. Characters like Vanya, Five, and Klaus are built up over the entirety of the series because they have multi-tiered arcs that can take them in many directions. Allison, Diego, and Luther are much simpler.
Still, one of the show’s secret talents is tied to the acting. These are all solid actors, even if what they’re working with is of variable quality. Many of them can communicate a lot of personality and inner conflict through gestures, stance, and expression. Voiceless acting is often impressive, but it’s especially satisfying when a filmed medium is willing to devote time to silent character moments without additional stimuli and has a rich basis of character interactions. While it’s often difficult to tell characters apart from their silhouettes in filmed media (compared to, say, cartoons), I have no doubt you could not only determine the identity of these characters from their animated silhouettes, but you could probably get an insight into their moods and mindsets too. You know you have solid characters when something as small as their gait is recognizable.