3P Reviews

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

The Umbrella Academy S1E4 A.png

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: Fam

The Umbrella Academy

Season One

Episode Four: Man on the Moon – *****

Part One: No, Really, Who Put the Monkey There? Was it Pogo? His Mother? His Father? Those Are the Only Other People in the House…

Welcome to the Luther episode.

The first half of this one is among the oddest parts of the entire series. The previous episode revealed that Luther has a monstrous hairy body, to the shock and surprise of his family, so this one naturally backtracks to show us how that happened. And it is goofy in the way only comic books can be (curious, considering the actual comics are arguably more subtle about it).

Luther was the last to leave the house, being the most devoted to his father, and continued to take up superheroing for him. A few years ago, he came back from an assignment half-alive and in need of a miracle, which apparently Hargreeves just had on hand in the form of… a gorilla serum, I guess? This comes, unsurprisingly, from the comics, which sport an ape motif. In the comics, Hargreeves made his fortune on primate research, so talking chimpanzees populate the background and Luther gets a gorilla body. This is almost exclusively a stylistic choice, only really impacting the story when Luther talks about being unable to have an ordinary life because of his body. I kind of love that the show copies details like this, because they’re so unnecessary yet simply charming. (And also show off how much the series wants to emulate key parts of the comics and graphic novels — it didn’t have to put so much energy into making Pogo look as awesome as he does. Have I mentioned that the CG work on Pogo to make him a realistic emotive character is quite spectacular, especially for a television series?)

The plot point works in the sort of comic reality of the flashbacks, which I’ll talk more about in later reviews. It is, nonetheless, silly in it’s execution, which plays oddly given Luther is an adult in these particular flashbacks and him having a mutant body is framed as tragic throughout the rest of the episode. He’s just trying to get by with his second puberty, you guys. The jack-in-the-box monkey is a bit rude.

The opening is cheesy, but we’ve seen that in this series before. What’s odder to me is how this development is worked into Luther’s broader arc.

See, the thing is, Luther isn’t a very interesting character. At this point in the story, he’s kind of the least well-defined (aside from Ben, but come on). He’s loyal to his father who messed up his siblings, he has an issue with sharing authority (though that’s kind of more tied into Diego’s character than Luther’s), he has a weird little incest thing with Allison, and he’s a bit clumsy with his strength. Very few of these points have been explored in much detail, and most of Luther’s appeal comes from how his character subverts the typical strong man archetype. Luther is more than willing to throw around his strength when angered, but he’s otherwise awkward, passive, and a bit clumsy. The costuming does half of the work — an enormous man stuffed into an overcoat that is clearly too small for him to the point where he looks like he’s wearing a muscle suit captures the essence of Luther’s personality beautifully.

You might imagine, then, that Luther’s secret body shame coming out would be significant to him. It is, but the series takes a bit of time with it. In playing to his father’s fantasies, Luther has been permanently mutilated, making him a victim alongside his siblings. Luther has yet to come to terms with what all of this means and how his father factors into it, but he’s still clearly hurt by it in small ways, mainly emotionally. However, this episode is keen to show Luther not connecting his body to his father, leaving the other penny to drop further down the line. The upshot is that Luther doesn’t really have much to do in his own episode other than argue with Diego some more and recount his ape body origin story to Allison. Given that we’ve just seen it, Luther’s story provides essentially no new information for the audience. Funny thing, that.

Aside from Luther, we have some truly perplexing dialogue worded as though single-handedly trying to make scenes awkward. Characters spout exposition that they already know or blurt out things seeming for the purpose of reiterating their archetypes. Klaus’ interactions with Hazel and Cha-Cha are funnier in concept, bridging into the territory of tedium as the show plays up his nonchalance and breaks it when his kidnappers eat his weed chocolate. This could have been an effective scene — all of the elements are there. And it picks up considerably after the halfway point, so I’m not sure why the delivery is so off for the first half of the episode. I think the series ends up trying to hard and overworks elements that need just a touch of finesse.

The editing doesn’t help.

This episode emphasizes the issues I have with the editing, as the cinematography is actually quite good and the establishing shots continue to impress. The camera angles are varied and the lighting creates nice contrast. This show doesn’t have as strong of a color palate as more stylized series, but it still looks nice and can tell its story effectively — or it could if the other elements of the series meshed better. The narrative weaknesses of this individual episode are not enough to override the broader arcs for the characters, and the visuals can communicate complex ideas, as they do for Vanya and Allison’s relationship. However, the plot threads for this episode are limp in their contribution to the overall story, so the implied context of the camerawork and acting trends toward repetition. We don’t see anything new from Hazel and Cha-Cha that we couldn’t infer from previous episodes, and few enough of the main characters interact with each other that their scenes could fall almost anywhere in the rest of the story.

But back to the editing. I’ve mentioned the rapid cutting before, which again isn’t an outright bad element, it’s just out of place when it’s used to break up long takes of mundane activities. There’s plenty of that in the episode, but it’s now combined with regular breaking of the 180-degree rule, which means that scenes become unnecessarily disorienting. Characters will appear to teleport around the room as the camera cuts away to a new perspective and back again. Eyelines are also off in some scenes, which is normally something I’m terrible at noticing, so that’s a problem.

There are also a few shots that aren’t strictly bad, but draw attention to flaws in the cinematography, acting, dialogue, or story. For instance, there’s a panning long take of a library that is trying to communicate Luther and Diego searching for Five. The characters climb up the stairs and run into each other floor by floor, always visible when they exit the stairwells. This is a creative use of the environment, but to little purpose, and the editing, which cuts out all of the stair traversal without breaking the illusion of the long take, calls attention to the pointlessness of the shot. The editing breaks the reality, showing the characters appear on a floor, exchange dialogue or look at each other, leave, and then immediately appear on the next floor. The scene is trying to be cute, but it’s relying heavily on the gimmick of how the shot is framed. The dialogue and acting are therefore cliched, the purpose of the scene is limp, and the editing becomes bizarrely vaudevillian. Some editing would of course be necessary for the shot to work, as the stair traversal is uninteresting and would likely take a long time, but by cutting it to emphasize the artificiality of the shot, the show points out how this shot is only here to look fancy.

This happens in a later scene where Hazel and Cha-Cha burn down a prosthetics office. To provide some context, in an earlier scene, they opt to confiscate Klaus’ belongings in an effort to get to him, and he cracks as soon as they find his (poorly hidden) drugs. While an amusing concept, this interrogation scene falls apart a bit when Hazel finds Klaus’ weed chocolate and starts to eat it in front of him. Why Hazel and Cha-Cha fail to notice the cannabis leaves on the cover of the chocolate despite apparent familiarity with drugs is a mystery. This is of course setup for later when they’re trying to burn down the prosthetics office. Clearly they won’t do so well with that when they’re high, right? In fact, contrary to his apparent anguish, Klaus confides in Ben that he intends for them to get stoned, so that he might have a better chance at escaping. Not only does he never even try to trick them, but being high doesn’t cause Hazel and Cha-Cha any problems. They burn down the office, destroying all evidence, and Detective Patch finds an ear from Cha-Cha’s mask, but this never comes up again. The weed chocolate is only there to give the characters an excuse to party, leading to an overly-long scene where they’re dancing as they throw gasoline around. The filmmaking isn’t awful, but as with the library shot, it’s overt and overdone. The scene doesn’t have the underlying weight necessary to give it any meaning, so it just looks silly.

You may notice that I gave this episode five stars. At just about the halfway point, the prosthetics office blows up. After that moment, the episode undergoes such a stark change in quality that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around it. I won’t say that everything in it is brilliant, but there are sequences in the latter half of this episode that are worth watching the entire season for. They are markedly more intense, balanced, and impactful than almost anything else in this series. And they more than make up for the lackluster start.

Part Two: Surprise! This is the Klaus Episode, and It’s Actually Amazing.

Okay, so obviously I have to talk about Klaus again. He features prominently in this episode, perhaps more than any other. While he continues to receive a lot of attention and development throughout the series, the first and arguably most important of several culminating moments for him comes here.

The episode actually uses its clumsy first half to its advantage with Klaus, presenting all facets of the character and setting audience expectations low to make the payoff more intense. This is a risky move, but it’s effective.

In the previous episode, we learned that Klaus was kidnapped, an amusing development as the series has set him up as actively inept and unimportant. We’re then unsurprised to learn at the start of this episode that, whiny baby that he is, Klaus makes for a poor interrogation victim. He doesn’t have any information of value, and as he says himself, he’s not much of a bargaining chip to hold for ransom. He’s upset when Hazel and Cha-Cha take his drugs, but this mainly seems to make him more frantic, not necessarily more useful. The agents taking what Klaus loves most in the world forces him to dig deep for something to give them, but even then, he doesn’t have much to offer.

On its surface, this simply reiterates what we know of the character. He’s incompetent, he likes drugs, he’s a bit annoying, and he is well-aware of all of this. When the show starts to bring up the idea that he’s traumatized by ghosts, that’s when things start to get interesting.

In previous episodes, the show has gone a bit hamfisted in showing that Klaus is (quite literally) haunted and turns to drugs to alleviate his ghosts. In this episode, we finally see his childhood and how Klaus’ power merges with its natural metaphorical meaning. The ghost aren’t actually all that bad — they can be overwhelming, given that there are a lot of them and they come with appropriately gruesome effects makeup, but they’re harmless. The most they can threaten Klaus with is social interaction, which I know I wouldn’t like, but that doesn’t seem like it would bother him too much.

The actual reason Klaus tries to drown them out with drugs is because he associates them with a time when his father, irritated at his fear of ghosts, locked him in a mausoleum for several hours. That’s the equivalent of throwing someone who’s afraid of spiders, mildly or otherwise, into a pit filled with them — pretty gruesome, especially if you’re, what, ten? Exposure might eventually reveal the fear to be unwarranted, but the memory of traumatic exposure is likely to stick around as a much worse experience than the fear ever was. So it is for Klaus; like many people, he turns to drugs to ward off metaphorical ghosts, not just literal ones.

So Klaus’ backstory provides some valuable context and unsettling imagery. As much as the other children were messed up by their father, none of them seems to have been outright tortured. That’s far from the only contribution in the episode.

See, Klaus being tied up without drugs means he starts to go into withdrawal. That means that while he’s starting to feel sick and panicked, he’s also now able to properly use his powers for the first time in the show. After some encouragement from Ben, he does just that, and it is the best damn thing. Seeing ghosts is a curious ability to give any of these characters, because without the ability to physically manifest the ghosts, they’re really just there to provide information. Pairing this ability with Klaus produces nice conflict, as it doesn’t jibe well with his personality, meaning he doesn’t like being the one with this ability and nobody else likes that he’s the one with this ability either. While that creates a fun character scenario, it begs a legitimate question of what Klaus contributes to the Umbrella Academy. How, exactly, is talking to ghosts supposed to help in an action scenario? The show visibly struggles with this issue on multiple occasions, going out of its way in the first episode to demonstrate how each of the superpowered characters helps stop a bank robbery — except for Klaus, who’s contribution it leaves out entirely.

The comics resolve this issue by upping his abilities and making him telekinetic as well, but the show opts (I think wisely) to temper Klaus’ abilities and play up his general helplessness. Klaus has a nuance-based ability that requires him to gather information and figure out how to best use it. This class of ability — telepathy, clairvoyance, psychic whatever — is common for side characters and those involved in more dramatic fantasy plots because it’s a magical means of conveying exposition or progressing a mystery. However, it’s harder to work into combat, and while Klaus being tied up isn’t a combat-based scenario, it’s similarly high-stakes and time-sensitive. So how does he use his ability here?

By scaring people. The scene where Klaus tries to talk to one of the ghosts is a tremendous demonstration of his merits, and incorporates my favorite shots in the entire show. Talking to thin air while his captors are in the room is hilarious, and it takes a while for Klaus to actually figure out what he wants to say. When he does, though, there’s this lovely little glimmer of mischief on his face as he decides to mess with Hazel and Cha-Cha. Out of the blue, he comes up with a name of a person they’ve killed, then starts to recount stories, in detail, of who they have and have not killed. This is a much-needed win for Klaus, because up until this point, his only genuinely good quality has been his humor, and that not only varies in its delivery, but it’s also almost exclusively for the audience. Finally Klaus looks competent at something to the other characters — frighteningly so, in fact. From Hazel and Cha-Cha’s perspective, this doof that they’ve been torturing who has no information of import suddenly knows intimate details of their own lives and is using that information to toy with them. Klaus knows how to play it up to make himself even more uncanny, which works delightfully well when juxtaposed with the character’s comedic aspects.

However, as much of a power move as it is, creeping the assassins out doesn’t solve Klaus’ immediate problem. As mentioned, it’s a nuance-based ability, so Klaus has to use his two remaining synapses to figure out how to use his advantage to devise an escape plan. The way he goes about doing so is very much in-character; he gets Hazel and Cha-Cha unnerved, then reveals that Hazel let one of their targets go, getting them into a serious discussion of their work ethic. Klaus continues to spout the names of the people they’ve killed and vague opinions those people have of the assassins, wearing off the novelty of his power for the sake of irritating them. If there’s one thing Klaus knows how to do, it’s irritate people. All of this is mainly to get Hazel and Cha-Cha to lock themselves away as they figure out how to handle the situation, leaving Klaus out in the main room of the motel so that he can try to attract attention from passersby. Which he does.

The scene is surprisingly tense, but never out of character. Klaus feels like he visibly struggles to both formulate and execute his plan, and it’s far from foolproof. In fact, Klaus escaping gets Detective Patch killed when she tries to help him, and him stealing Hazel and Cha-Cha’s time-travel briefcase is a brilliant setup that sends him immediately into a different frying pan.

Part Three: CHEEKY BEHATTED BUS LADY! I LOVE CHEEKY BEHATTED BUS LADY!

The Umbrella Academy S1E4 C.png

There are a lot of nice little details in the latter half of this episode, through the dialogue, acting, and general interactions between characters. Ben’s contribution to the episode seems mainly to be a walking pep talk for Klaus, but given that he’s along for the ride as well, it’s fitting that he gets a good moment or two. He helps Klaus through the process of using his powers after going without them for so long, but not before he lays it on his brother for acting so helpless. And I mean, yeah, fair point — Klaus doesn’t have much to complain about when Ben is stuck there going through most of the same things as him while also dead. Ben isn’t judgemental, exactly, he’s just irritated that Klaus doesn’t even make an effort to escape at first.

There are plenty of other things to love, like the bus scene. Dear god, the bus scene. “Please be money.” Incredible.

Outside of Klaus’ misadventures, though, we also get some fantastic scenes with the other characters. Five spends most of the episode as a drunk MacGuffin, which is honestly where he belongs. I don’t mean that with any shade, either; he’s delightful when given high intelligence and low wisdom. Five’s main issue is that his character conflict is mostly external, tied to this end-of-the-world plotline and physical combat, but he has legitimate character struggles that are highly compelling, as he’s reluctant to address them. When Five is appropriately disempowered, his skills and knowledge are better balanced.

Vanya gets some good moments with Allison and Leonard, as she connects readily with both of them despite them being in conflict with one another. Leonard is also a surprisingly charming character. By this episode, it’s obvious that he’s a secret villain, disposing of Vanya’s pills and lying to her. However, he is also the supportive boyfriend Vanya needs in her life right now, and they work well off of one another. I kind of wish Leonard wasn’t a villain, honestly. Like, imagine if everyone suspected him of being the bad guy, he was doing things that looked shady, and him playing the fool just made him look even more suspicious, but then in a plot twist, no, actually he really was nice all along. Just very oblivious and a bit unlucky. I kind of wish they’d gone that route and made it a genuine misunderstanding on everyone’s part. There would be a moral about how you should be suspicious when someone’s acting weird, but you shouldn’t let your preconceived notions overrule evidence to the contrary, or something. It wouldn’t fit the theme of the rest of the series, but that feels like the perfect role for Leonard. He could pull it off in a heartbeat.

The interactions between Allison and Vanya are likewise affectionate. I like their conversation in the restaurant and how Allison is trying to make up with Vanya after yelling at her. Elliot Page has this wonderful awkwardness about him that fits the character really well, giving the impression of someone who wants to connect but is reluctant to open themself up like that. As with many of these characters, you get a strong sense of history between Vanya and Allison. We don’t see them interact as kids, but the story implies that they were close, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. This works for both Allison and Vanya’s characters, Allison trying to make up for being a bitchy sister and Vanya trying to forgive her for it. They’re adults now, and their relationship is more mature. Admittedly, the incest thing between Luther and Allison is still weird, but the show almost acknowledges it as such. Allison seems kind of embarrassed, but Vanya’s not judgemental about it. She talks about it like it’s part of their messed up childhood, instead of a healthy thing, and I think that’s a good direction for the series to go moving forward. The children had such insulated lives that they didn’t have the chance to connect to anyone other than each other, which is part of why they all seem to struggle to hold down relationships of any sort outside of the family.

This is a good Diego episode, too, actually. Previous episodes have established him as a former romantic partner to Detective Patch, making his haphazard involvement with the police more complicated. Normally, this just means that Patch is willing to look the other way when Diego acts the vigilante and interferes with police investigations, giving him a slap on the wrist but letting him go because of their continued friendship. This episode takes that further, with Diego talking to Patch about how his mother died and his brother (Five — no one has yet realized that Klaus has been kidnapped) is missing. At this point, it seems like their mother is legitimately gone, too. For a character who doesn’t seem especially in-touch with his emotions, that’s a lot to lay out, especially since Patch dies at the end of the episode.

Speaking of which, one of the things I appreciate about this episode is that it builds right up to the very end. The scenes start to oscillate between humor and seriousness, which isn’t something this show has done much before, but you know what? It fucking nails it. Right on the head, dead center, nails it. Patch goes looking for Diego’s brother and finds that Hazel and Cha-Cha have left cryptic clues that they’ve kidnapped Klaus. Patch follows these clues to the motel, freeing Klaus and facing down the assassins without backup. She’s following Diego’s book out of sympathy for him, believing Klaus to be the missing brother he was talking about. Klaus’ sequence is obviously intense and comedic, but immediately after he escapes, Cha-Cha shoots Patch. In the next scene, after recovering a very drunk Five from the library, Luther and Diego receive the news that Patch has found their missing brother, a message she left half an hour previously, after arriving at the motel. The confusion over two of their brothers going missing simultaneously hits a comedic beat, then blends into a tragic one when they realize Patch has made the same mistake. Upon arriving at the scene, Diego finds her dead. He’s now lost his mother and only close friend in the span of twenty-four hours. What starts out as a funny little misunderstanding suddenly gives the episode some real stakes, and it plays out with more pathos than I thought this show was capable of.

Oh hey, look at that. All of the main characters get a complete arc and some surprisingly poignant moments. Why can’t the rest of the show be like this?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s