3P Reviews

3P Reviews: The Umbrella Academy, Season One, Episode Three

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Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Creativity: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Subplots: 7
Sum: 32/50

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

 

The Umbrella Academy

Season One

Episode Three: Extra Ordinary – **

 

Part One: This Week on Klaus and Some Other Umbrella People

The Umbrella Academy S1E3 D

THEY RUINED HIM! THEY RUINED MY PRECIOUS GAY CINNAMON ROLL! I AM OUTRAGED!

I exaggerate, but this episode starts to toe that delicate line between amusing and annoying with Klaus, giving him a few lines and actions that are exceptionally silly. Of course, that only accounts for a few moments spent with the character. As in the first two episodes, he gets a somewhat unusual amount of screen time, and the rest of it is what we’ve come to expect, so the episode isn’t a total loss. We get a little more of him having a bad reaction to hearing dead people, and again, his banter with Ben is delightful. I quite like that he constantly looks like he’s shouting at the air to shut up, and that at no point do any of the other characters ask him who he’s talking to. It’s looking more and more like none of them would trust him to relay messages from Ben even if he wanted to. Which is perhaps fair.

Five also plays a more minor role in this episode, only sneaking out and then getting retrieved almost immediately to have a family discussion. This is actually one of his better episodes in some ways. Him putting a cartoon-covered bandaid over his gunshot wound is a nice little touch, and his arguments with Dolores are amazing. I like that Klaus keeps finding ways to get under his skin simply by existing, and as I’ve said before, Five placed in comedic circumstances works well. He also gets a small but effective moment (aside from the screaming at the end, which is goofy) where he has a dissociative flashback to the desolate future. Again, that sincerity and emotional release works well.

Allison continues to be less involved in the major plot lines than the other characters, her driving motivation still seeing her daughter. As almost every conversation involving Allison seems to revolve around her daughter, this can make her feel very one-note at times. Just as I was growing a bit frustrated with the show’s aversion to giving Allison more complex motivations, though, this episode decided to elaborate on her history with her daughter and ex-husband. Apparently she used her ability on her daughter whenever she was acting out, and not only did this upset her husband — understandably, given that Allison’s power to control people is frightening and can easily get out of hand — but it also forced Allison to confront her over-reliance on it. As she puts it, she always got her way as a child because she could just demand anything she wanted of the people around her. She never faced adversity, and so never learned how to deal with it. As an adult, she’s increasingly aware of the complications that come with her power and the problems it can’t solve. Her choice to not use her power, despite her physical and social vulnerability when she refrains, is a direct consequence of her losing her daughter. I find that viscerally affecting; Allison not only misses her daughter, but feels guilty about using her powers on her. In order to make amends, she has to effectively learn all of the social skills she missed out on as a child, and that’s a long, painful process.

It’s also something that all of the Umbrella Academy characters are going through in some way or another. The show likes to point out how being childhood superheroes messed them up, but what makes that part of their narrative relatable, I think, is how it manifests as them all being kind of stunted. Each of them lacked at least one crucial part of their social development — for some, like Vanya, it was encouragement; for others, like Allison, it was restraint. Some of them were abused, some were neglected, and some were pushed too hard. The result is the same for each of them, even the more stable ones: resentment, fixation, and an inability to adjust to normal life.

In some ways, there’s only so far the series can go in exploring the main characters being damaged without expanding upon how that’s impacted them. This episode aims in that direction, which I think is admirable, but it does run into the problem of trying to convey the complex idea of dysfunctional childhood through superheroes. Sometimes you need just a touch more distance between the fantastical elements and the bitter reality you’re comparing them to.

 

Part Two: The Vanya Episode… Or, No, Never Mind, This is the Diego Episode

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Luther gets a prominent moment that I’ll discuss in the next section, but he doesn’t feature much in the story otherwise. The characters of focus for this episode are Vanya and Diego, and why those two I have no idea.

The episode opens with a flashback to Vanya writing and publishing her autobiography, a book that all of the family members despise and which had a brief moment in the sun before falling into obscurity. It’s one of the many things that has isolated Vanya from her family and reflects her ongoing efforts to prove herself. By this point, she’s more or less resigned to sit in the back seat (rather literally in her musical career as a second chair violinist), but that doesn’t mean she likes it there. Vanya is somewhat impulsive, although her placid demeanor doesn’t show it much. Her decision to write an autobiography comes about almost spontaneously when she sees comics of her siblings’ adventures in a storefront window. She also takes up a suggestive offer by her new violin student, a woodshop owner named Leonard, after snide remarks by Allison and a coworker about her not doing anything with her life.

Speaking of Leonard, I should elaborate on my previous mention of him. Leonard is actually a decent bit player for a series like this. He came to Vanya to learn violin in the previous episode, claiming his late father liked the instrument and he’d like a way to connect with him. Leonard’s frankness about his disconnection with his father is relatable to Vanya, and he’s amiable besides. While Vanya seems to have a limited social life and likely suffers from a poor ability to connect with people much like her siblings, it doesn’t take much of a push to get her to respond to Leonard’s flirting.

Leonard, of course, is far too deeply written to be a passing character. Yes, he’s an unnecessary heterosexual love interest for Vanya (give her a girlfriend, you cowards), but the particular nature of his introduction, and to a lesser extent his framing, points in some familiar directions. Rarely in a series about famous people with superpowers does a seemingly oblivious charmer who takes an interest in one of the more mundane members of the group turn out to have no ulterior motives. It’s a weirdly specific but common trope for a character like Leonard to be the main antagonist, or at least a secret scumbag.

The show tries to kind of give Vanya an arc in the episode by having her go back to her family, become a liability in a fight, get yelled at, and then return to Leonard, but this does not work nearly as well as the episode wants it to. Not only is she barely involved in the fight sequence at the end, but what seems like it’s supposed to be a big character moment that leaves Vanya estranged from her family is so insignificant as to be almost comical. Diego yells at her for getting in the way, which is hilarious because she really wasn’t in the way at any point, and her response of wanting to help is similarly ridiculous because she didn’t even try to help. She walked into the house in the middle of a fight, oblivious to what was going on, and got out of there immediately once she realized what was going down. That’s a weird situation to try to make the character feel guilty about.

I think it’s an attempt to cross Vanya’s story in the episode with Diego’s, but as they’ve had all of one conversation together, it’s hard to set up a dynamic between the two in such a short time. It might have worked earlier in the episode, where they could have provided a cleaner switch from Vanya’s perspective to Diego’s, but the episode opts not to do that, so I’m at a loss.

To be honest, the episode is far more entrenched in Diego’s narrative than Vanya’s, even though she opens it. Vanya is arguably the main character of the series, and she has the whole rest of the season to show character growth. Diego, as a more minor protagonist, needs his own episode, so this is what we get.

I actually quite like what the episode does for Diego. It gives him something to genuinely care about — namely his mother — and decent history and conflict to go with it. Diego had a stutter as a child, apparently making him more nervous and dependent on his mother than his siblings as a result. He has a stronger bond with her than the others and is deeply upset when Allison shows video footage that seems to implicate their mother in their father’s death (how the footage shows this is very much up to interpretation). Diego defends her when Luther implies that, intentional or not, she let their father die, and therefore must have something wrong with her circuits.

Their mother, Grace, is not much of a character. She’s a robot nanny, programmed to be content serving the family and their every need. Hypothetically, she has autonomy, and seems to like one particular painting of a woman in her gallery, but otherwise only has personality in the way a children’s television host might. What makes her interesting in this episode is how her lack of personality and external interests affects Diego. He’s distressed by her rote defense of their father and inability to express complex emotions. In response to his frustration, we find that Diego’s claims that Grace is a complex entity are at least partially supported; she loves her paintings and finds a unique comfort in the worlds they present. However, Diego soon learns that Grace is malfunctioning, and without telling anyone else, he decides to power her down.

Considering Diego is one of the least developed of the main characters, I like this approach. It can be clunky at times, of course. The stuttering in particular never comes up again, and while I realize it can appear in this form, there’s something that always feels off when an actor portrays stuttering by repeating a sound. Maybe it’s just me. The only people I’ve ever known to stutter had blocks where they would kind of choke up while speaking, so that’s what sounds like stuttering to me. The unintentionally goofy moments in the episode also drag down serious moments like Grace’s death. However, the arc gives Diego some much-needed context and it’s the best he ever gets, so I’ll take it.

 

Part Three: Do… Do None of Them Understand How Power Buttons Work?

The Umbrella Academy S1E3 I

Okay, silly things now.

I kind of love this episode, but not for good reasons. I stand by my rating in that this is a sub-par episode compared to what we’ve seen so far; the plot isn’t especially strong and the characters get a few moments, but there are more lulls than essential scenes. The dialogue and delivery is also on the weaker end of things, and that dampens the few significant moments of the episode.

But I will readily take all of that if it gives me a scene as weird as the childhood flashback in this one.

Okay, so this scene. Diego has just learned that his family wants to shut down their mother and he’s remembering one time when his mother checked in on everyone and helped Diego work through his stutter before a mission. The idea behind the scene is charming, and the cinematography is actually quite nice (again, those dynamic long-takes…). But then we run into a problem — how will we ever tell which child character corresponds to which adult character? I mean, the show could be subtle about it and use a combination of acting and set design to convey that information. It does not do that.

We follow a girl as she runs around, looking for her mask while alarms are blaring. Luther runs past her and she tells him to get out of the way. Okay, that’s Luther and Allison. Got it.

One of the kids runs past them in the background, screaming, “Where are my knives?” I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s Diego.

Their father barges down the hall, telling them they should already be heading out to their mission. As all of the superpowered kids are in costumes, we might imagine they’re scrambling to get last-minute things, as Allison and Diego are.

Grace follows Allison into her room and gives her the mask. We know it’s Allison’s room because there are posters with her name on them. Bit weird, but kids have their names on their walls as decoration sometimes.

In the same shot, Grace goes back into the hall and checks in the other rooms. We see Luther doing push-ups. Because, you know, his power is super-strength? I guess that’s what he was running to go get? Some extra… push-ups?

Vanya is in the next room practicing violin. She doesn’t have anywhere to go, so that’s fine.

Then we have a kid jumping up and down on the bed with his desk on fire. Now look. While I’m not saying that’s out of character for Klaus, I’m not entirely sure the writer thought through the implications of that part of the scene thoroughly. What is he burning? How did he get the fire started if they’re supposed to be going on a mission? Why did he get his outfit on if he’s clearly not even trying to get ready for the mission? Did he start the fire before or after he put his outfit on? If this is a regular occurrence, why does he seem so excited about it? Boys will not be boys, Grace! They will not!

And then Ben doesn’t get anything special, he just gets his name dropped like all the rest of them (as though that’s fucking necessary) when he needs help with his buttons. I’m legitimately surprised he doesn’t walk down the hall carrying things in his tentacles. (Ben’s superpower is tentacles, by the way. I don’t think I mentioned that in the previous reviews. If anyone’s reading these without watching the show, that may be an important thing to know moving forward.)

Five doesn’t even show up, though I’m not sure if that’s because he had disappeared by this time or what.

And then Grace comes to Diego and helps him with his stutter. I guess he found his knives?

This is such a weird scene and I love it to bits. I think it’s Luther doing push-ups that pushes me over the edge. That, or “Where are my knifes?” And I don’t mean that as a slight to the writer or director — the strange parts of the scene are highly stylized and kind of work within the aesthetic of the series. They’re just made more amusing than intended by the clash between the comic nature of the scene and the more serious thread behind it.

It’s not the only scene, either. Grace dies saying “Diego, remember” in slow motion, and I refuse to believe they got that in one shot without anyone breaking character. The entire impetus for the drama of the episode — having to turn off Grace — is bizarre in a similar way. They talk about it like unplugging someone in a coma, with all the morbid implications that go along with that. Diego is of course resistant because he feels that the others don’t care about her as an actual person, and he recognizes that she’s fully functioning and thinking. To some extent, he’s right; the others have difficulty seeing her humanity and consider her a broken machine that has to be discarded. She was important in their youth, but now she poses a potential threat to everyone.

Except… they are just talking about turning her off, right? Like, an on-off switch sort of situation, not a disassembling sort of situation? As it turns out, spoiler alert, that is exactly what they’re talking about. And none of them bring up the idea that they could turn her back on at any point. They continue to talk about her like she’s died until Pogo turns her back on and I just… what? Did they not know they could do that? Diego clearly knows where her off switch is, so what the honest fuck? It kind of undermines the drama of him shutting her down when you realize that it isn’t a permanent thing in any way. Diego does berate the others for treating her like a vacuum cleaner, but that still doesn’t address the underlying issue that Grace is going to be fine either way. Yes, it’s a bit demeaning and perhaps a disruption of her autonomy to effectively put her in a coma, but I would imagine it would work like surgery for her, given the circumstances.

I kind of want to see these characters assemble some furniture or get a television set up together, because I imagine they would be terrible at it.

Then we have the fight scene and the Luther reveal. The fight scene itself isn’t actually that silly, though perhaps it should have been. I’m kind of split on the fight scene, because on the one hand, this is the first time we’ve seen the adult team fighting together, and the choreography is decent. I like that they keep it fairly short, and most of the character interactions are readable, which is a must for a fight involving several characters in often dark spaces. That all of the characters involved are unique and use slightly different fighting styles also makes it more engaging than the previous fight scenes. The music is again a bit cheesy, the fight taking up a full two pop songs, but they give a semi-diagetic reason for it that fits the tone of the scene.

However, I can also find plenty of faults with the scene, mainly in its lack of tension and haphazard editing. This episode really flounders on its cuts, incorporating jump cuts that seem either misguided attempts to shave off milliseconds of runtime or accidental. That means that while the choreography and cinematography allow for clear looks at the actions in the fight, rapid editing leads to disorienting actions. Some hits are played out from multiple angles, apparently for style more than blocking necessity. I strongly think that the show would have done better to keep longer shots, but that problem only compounds onto others.

Luther and Diego are both heavily involved in the fights, and neither of them has very clearly-defined abilities. Luther’s power just seems to be that he’s strong, though how strong is yet to be shown. Though mortal, Luther seems capable of taking a beating and giving as good as he gets. However, that doesn’t necessarily tell us much as far as combat is concerned; how would he hold up to an especially strong fighter? Presumably he would do well, because Allison, Five, Klaus, and Ben all have proper magical superpowers, but aside from surviving a chandelier falling on him, the fight gives us very little indication of Luther’s actual abilities.

Diego has a slightly more defined power, but his is also surprisingly mundane. He can throw knives. It’s hard to tell because the camera opts to follow the knife trajectory like the remote-control batarangs in Arkham games, but it seems like he can curve his knives to hit targets around corners like his book counterpart. This is an oddly specific power, and as with Luther, it’s hard to tell what part of the combat is Diego’s ability and what part is the combat training that presumably all of the Umbrella Academy characters have.

The upshot of all of this is that it’s hard to tell when Diego and Luther specifically are at a disadvantage in the combat. What would it take to kill Luther? Is he bullet-resistant? Wouldn’t Diego getting his hands on any sort of knife end this fight really quickly? As much as I love that Hazel is becoming obsessed with donuts and home decor shows, and annoying Cha-Cha in the process, making them enjoyable characters also weakens this particular scene a little as well. We know they can do awful things, but because they don’t have Five and seem to be at a disadvantage in a fight with the rest of the main family, we have a good idea that they’re not going to do much damage. Instead of being killed or killing any of the protagonists, Hazel and Cha-Cha will either be captured or chased off, the latter more likely given we’re still early into the season. And that’s exactly what happens.

Tension doesn’t just arise from characters getting killed, of course; Vanya is a good addition halfway through the fight, since she doesn’t have the combat training of the others and could easily get hurt or kidnapped. However, she keeps her head low for most of the fight and goes largely unused. Cha-Cha and Hazel don’t damage anything sentimental (not that the show has established anything sentimental to the characters) or otherwise do anything that would emotionally hurt the characters, aside from accidentally revealing that Luther is a bit hairy (a plot point with its own issues). They do kidnap Klaus, which is hilarious and a crucial setup for a nice arc in the next episode, but it’s played as a surprise reveal and none of the other characters are affected by it, so as far as the fight itself is concerned, Klaus getting kidnapped doesn’t add to the tension. There are a few moments that tease him being oblivious, but these are comedic moments, and as much as I enjoy these scenes, they relieve tension rather than building it.

So about that Luther reveal. The chandelier falls on Luther, tearing off his coat and revealing that he has a hairy, ape-like body. This is a direct reference to the books, where the character has a literal gorilla body thanks to a childhood accident. It plays better visually in the comics, but it’s still a pretty wild creative choice. I like the idea of Luther hiding a secret, and the characters remarking on how his large size is unusual builds it nicely. I tend to be receptive to narrative threads like that, and as Luther is an otherwise fairly bland character, it gives him some depth.

However, there’s a mismatch between the idea of Luther’s mutated body being slowly revealed and the actual revelation. The makeup is impressive, of course, but even the most talented makeup artist would have difficulty making Luther look like an actual gorilla. The hair sells it, but the show made the mistake of showing the audience that Luther has hairy arms in the first episode, so that’s not especially impressive. Since the show wants to make it a surprise reveal, Luther has to still look mostly human, so the artists are limited in how animalistic they can make him. While I think they did their best and you eventually get used to the look, it doesn’t quite seem like it would merit the response the other character give. “Did you know?” Vanya asks Allison. Know what? That he doesn’t shave? That his arm hair is getting out of control? They already know that Luther is big and burly. I can buy him feeling self-conscious and running up to his room, but the others staring in shock? I’m not so sure about that.

It’s just one of the many things that comes across as unduly goofy in this episode. The entire show is kind of like that, and I’m not entirely complaining about it. This is a genuinely funny episode, and the next one has moments of the same ilk. However, I think this show works best when it strikes a balance between its serious character development and its more outlandish comic influences. Luther’s subplot actually kind of works on its own. It’s just doesn’t quite fit as the conclusion to a kind of chaotic fight sequence. At least not for me.

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