Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Yes. Also minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Game of Thrones, and Sky High. I swear that will make more sense when you get to it.
Audience Assumptions: None
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Five: Number Five – ****
Part One: “Let Me Get Your Ape Hands Off of Me!”
We’ve found it: the best line in this series. Or indeed any series.
After the home run of the previous episode, it would be difficult for the series to maintain that level of cohesion. Unsurprisingly, this episode has some flaws, and isn’t quite as tight as the previous episode — or at least the last part of it. Thankfully, it’s not as loopy as the start of the previous episode either. This is a middle-of-the-road episode. That said, I think this is the point in the series where it fully figured out what it wanted to be.
The opening demonstrates the identity of the series well. We return to Five as he wanders the wastes, Dolores in tow, then skip forward to him as an adult decades later. He runs into an odd woman, who waves at him, despite the apparent desolation of the Apocalypse, and we return to the present. The poppy soundtrack is there, but it fits the tone of the scene. Beats are played to the cuts and motion of the characters, making the music seem almost subdued because it doesn’t clash with the scene. The music, along with the editing and cinematography, is outlandish enough to present a distinct style — one that is fun and weird and a bit corny — but not so outlandish that it overpowers the story. The elements blend together, meaning that opinion of the opening is a matter of personal taste.
Not all of the episode is like this, but enough of it manages to convey the same sense of stylization that I’m willing to let things that would otherwise bother me slide. The style works for this show, and I can respect that. It even extends to the naming of the episode — objectively, this is a silly name considering how on-the-nose it is and how we’ve already had an episode focused on Five, but it’s simultaneously fitting. I can’t deny that I would do exactly the same thing if given the opportunity, good idea or not.
Plot-wise, this is a decent middle chapter. It has a few cohesive main storylines, which I’ll get into, but most of it features plotlines ambling along as they do. Luther is more or less witless and spends the entirety of the episode looking confused and concerned, but that’s somehow fitting. He gets some development eventually, don’t you worry.
Grace is back, which just verifies to me that she was never really broken in the first place, which I would say undermines the emotional weight of Diego’s moments surrounding her in the last two episodes. I’ll explore this a bit later. Pogo is also acting suspicious again, which is kind of funny because by this point, it’s obvious he was a red herring to keep us off the scent of Leonard — something the show did poorly because it dropped Pogo acting suspicious almost as soon as Leonard came onto the scene. This will never make sense.
I’m starting to love a lot of the unnecessary bunny trails and side plots, in this series, to be honest. Hazel and Cha-Cha try to remain important within the story as they negotiate the return of their time-travel briefcase. However, they remain utterly delightful despite, you know, the murdering. I especially love Hazel’s fascination with Agnes the donut lady (who is from the books, actually — has the pink hat and everything). I love how he starts to pick up birding from her, and I love even more that this is completely unrelated to anything else in the story. It’s very odd, and something I would normally criticize, but it’s too cute for me to dislike. A random donut baker teaching a time-traveling assassin how to identify birds? What not to love?
Cha-Cha going to the library for research is similarly quaint, as is Allison using a microfiche (I have literally never seen one of these in person and I refuse to believe the internet doesn’t have the newspaper clippings she wants, but it makes for a charming shot of them sitting across from one another).
The ice cream truck playing Ride of the Valkyries is one of the best images I’ve seen in a long time. Is is silly? Oh absolutely. It’s one of the silliest things in this show, and that’s saying something. It is also perfect in every way. What really makes it, I think, is Ben sitting on the dashboard going, “Weeeeeee!!!!!”
More of that, please, Season Two?
The reason for the ice cream truck is — well actually it doesn’t have much reason other than the show creators saw the opportunity and took it. But it’s tangentially related to Five’s subplot in this episode, which mainly concerns him negotiating a deal with Hazel and Cha-Cha to talk to their (and by extension, his) boss. Back at home, Five has figured out through “equations” a list of people, one of whom will be somehow responsible for the apocalypse. He aims to murder all of them, just in case. When Luther finds out that none of these people are directly responsible for anything sinister, he opts to stop Five by holding Dolores hostage. This is a wonderful little exchange, and eventually results in them teaming up to negotiate with Five’s former boss. In doing so, Five is re-hired by the time agency and ensures that his family won’t die in the oncoming storm. Or does he?
Yeah, I get the sense that this plot thread was designed to extend the series a bit. It’s actually something taken from the comics to a small degree, but as it manifests here, Five’s foray into the time agency feels like a detour. Especially given that it separates him from all of the other characters and only advances the uninteresting end of the world plotline.
In retrospect, the ice cream truck has very little to do with any of this. It’s very inconvenient to Five’s subplot, actually. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that the ice cream truck is the brainchild of Klaus (and also Diego, presumably). Speaking of which.
Part Two: Klaus DOES NOT Like the Box
Time for the obligatory Klaus section.
Full disclosure, after about the halfway point, I think the series starts getting a bit weird with Klaus. In the first half of the season, he’s a minor character who’s interesting more for his fun personality than his contribution to the plot. He gets a nice payoff to his arc in the fourth episode, but even then, that’s a personal subplot, not something tied to the broader narrative.
While technically speaking Klaus almost never actually contributes to the main story in any substantial way, starting with this episode, the series just decides to pile all of the character development onto him. Seriously, Klaus gets about five more complete subplots specific to him shoved between now and the end of the season. The other main characters get at most three.
And, I mean, it’s Klaus, so I’m not complaining, but that’s a delicate line to walk. I said at the beginning of the series that I suspected the creators of the show liked the character as much as I did, and this is partly why I said that. In the comics, Klaus is the Maryest of the Sues, and is appropriately insufferable for much of run to date. Elements of the character’s potential depth are there, but the comics spend so much time trussing up how tragic and important he, while downplaying his legitimate flaws, that he becomes bereft of subtlety and his wins delegitimized.
The show makes the smart move to disempower him and keep him as an interesting side character, cutting out most of the his useful abilities from the comics and heavily restricting the one he keeps. These constraints mean the character is starting at a much lower level, so even small victories feel substantial for him. This is what made the previous episode so satisfying. However, the more the series shoves on Klaus, the closer he gets to his book counterpart, and the fewer constraints the character has that require creative workarounds. Highly flawed characters struggle more to get what they want; characters who have a lot of narrative mobility have an easier time of things and tend to gravitate toward obvious resolutions to conflicts. The show still has a lot of things it can do with Klaus because his character traits offer different foci that can conflict with one another. However, I’ll start to worry if the second season focuses on him as much as it does here. Best to keep us wanting more of the fun characters instead of giving us more than we want.
But all that’s in the future. This particular episode merely continues to layer the drama on Klaus. More specifically, it jumps from Klaus’ big character development moment in Episode Four right into another one, as he experiences trauma in the past and returns to the present. The funny thing is, the show demonstrates an unusual amount of restraint and finesse with this new development.
Okay, well I mean he pops back into existence on the bus with dog tags and blood on his hands, so take a wild guess where he went, but unlike with Luther’s tragic experience, the show takes its time in revealing what exactly happened. To some extent, I think that’s kind of the point; Klaus disappearing is a comedy beat (and a brilliant one at that), so him reappearing is done in a similar ilk. The overt Vietnam war getup is similarly amusing at first, to the point where I wouldn’t have put it past the series to reveal that Klaus just ended up in the middle of a firefight and endured shenanigans. Instead, the series opts to make Klaus’ experience emotionally resonant, developing it as a major part of his character from this point on.
This choice is curious, but ultimately a very good move. Over the course of the episode, we get glimpses at what happened, but most significantly, a stark change in Klaus’ character. He’s depressed, for one, shaken from his experience and equally shake to be back. He never mentions his time-travelling to anyone, even though Five figures it out, and in fact, he never mentions this to anyone else explicitly for the rest of the season. While he retains his baseline wit, he delivers it in an exhausted manner, which isn’t out of character (he speaks in the same way at the end of the first episode when talking to Ben), but is unusual for him. Diego, who spends much of the episode ferrying Klaus around and has several nice bonding moments with him, even mentions this.
Of course, the delivery sometimes leaves something to be desired. I don’t mean to make light of combat trauma, and PTSD is often addressed or implied in characters who have fought in the Vietnam War specifically because that war was especially horrifying. Still, turning Klaus into a veteran so abruptly in the middle of the story is an odd way to promote character development. His arc is about becoming a mature adult, broadly speaking, but there are a lot of ways to go about telling that story. Sending him off to see the horrors of war is not only a bit cliched, it also doesn’t work well for this specific character if the point is to show him the hard things Real Men have to face. Oh no, dead people, however will Klaus cope.
As his experience unfolds, we get new information that re-contextualizes our understanding of what he’s going through, and that’s what makes this subplot work for me. It’s not just that Klaus has gone through war, it’s that he’s gone off for ten months of having an adult relationship with another human being and we’re catching him shortly after that relationship has ended in tragedy. The revelation that Klaus was romantically involved with a fellow soldier, Dave, is rather substantial, considering his stated lack of long-term relationships and generally weak ties to his family members. Gaining a long-term romantic partner is something I would expect to change Klaus’ behavior far more than merely stumbling into the Vietnam War, regardless of how that relationship ended. It’s fitting that it would take a toll on him to go back to normal life after all of that, and not showing his experience to the audience lends it that much more weight. I’m not even really upset that the show opts for the “kill your gays” trope with Dave; yes, it would be nice for the gay characters to have a happy ending, but we’re nowhere near the ending and no one has gotten a happy anything yet. Plus, in this series, Dave being dead seems more like a minor inconvenience than anything. I know he doesn’t become a recurring dead character in this season, but it’s a possibility is all I’m saying.
Oh, also, shout out to the showrunners for making Klaus’ gayness a visible thing and not just lip service. That’s always nice to see. Now go give Vanya a girlfriend.
Part Three: Always Label Your Murder Victims
Again, speaking of which.
So despite being emphasized as the most important character in the first episode — and arguably the point-of-view character — Vanya has played a surprisingly insubstantial role in the series so far. To recap, she has learned of her father’s death, gone to his funeral (or I suppose ash-scattering would be more accurate), reconnected with her family, briefly housed Five, met and started a relationship with some man, disconnected with her family, and now she’s auditioning for a new job. This sounds reasonably impressive given the time span of about about four days, until you realize that her siblings have been off time-travelling and fighting masked assassins and solving murder mysteries and getting kidnapped and otherwise having life-altering experiences at a breakneck speed. Meanwhile, Vanya’s fretting over whether she’s going to have coffee with her boyfriend or her sister.
Then again, that’s Vanya’s story, isn’t it? She’s the insubstantial one. Her narrative is meant to ground the absurdity of the rest of the plot because she’s the normal one of the group. She doesn’t have powers, nor does she have a particularly interesting life. She’s not a movie star or an addict or an astronaut or anything else. She plays and teaches violin. And I love that. I do wish she had more people outside of her family to interact with so that she wasn’t so tied to Leonard, but the mundanity of her day-to-day activities is sweet. Her interactions with Leonard and Allison continue to be charming, even when the story tries to shove superhero plot shenanigans into them.
The contrast between Vanya’s life and those of her siblings is compelling because it offers much-needed narrative space for the overall story to grow. Often, stories with supernatural characters or epic plots or magic will lose touch with the humanity of their characters in small ways because eventually their motives all surround some contrived action plot. This is what makes Five occasionally insufferable — when he’s too focused on stopping the end of the world, he’s little more than an action figure. Superhero stories in particular fall into this problem a lot because they feel the need to elevate the stakes through scale, rather than intimacy.
The Umbrella Academy is somewhat unique, then, in that much of its stakes surround character interrelationships and personal growth. Yes, there’s the end of the world to contend with, but for much of the show, only a handful of characters actually seem to care about this. Allison’s concerns are chiefly getting her daughter back. Klaus’ concerns are getting drugs and dealing with trauma. Diego’s concerns are coping with grief. Even Five and Luther, who are the most plot-focused of the group, have personal interests only tangentially related to stopping the end of the world — Luther wants to live up to his father’s expectations, and Five cares more deeply about his family than he lets on. Most superheroes have personal motivations, but these are usually just background details on their character sheets. In the Marvel films, for instance, characters rarely have much time to just be themselves and focus on their interests, because bad guys need getting. In a show, though, much more time can be spent on small plot threads that would be difficult to justify in a blockbuster, but ultimately come across as more fulfilling than any action setpiece.
Vanya is a particularly interesting addition to the series, because while all of the other characters participate in both personal stories and the main plot, Vanya is restricted to the former. Being powerless, she offers the unique perspective of a bystander in a superhero narrative, and not just any bystander, but a perpetual one. Characters like Vanya rarely get much volition in superhero stories, usually acting as props for the heroes to keep safe or as obstacles for the heroes, forcing them to hide their powers in an effort to look normal. Bottom line, normal characters exist to make powered characters more special, ergo the story is rarely interested in their lives.
However, unpowered characters surrounded by heroes can have highly compelling narratives themselves. Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only unpowered character in the main group, and he occasionally points out how inadequate he feels when everyone else is off shooting magic at one another. Sokka contributes to the main group as the idea and comic relief guy, but he’s a dynamic character on his own and has complex relationships with the rest of the core team.
An even more pertinent example comes from a stranger source. One of exactly two good additions to the Wizarding World franchise via the Fantastic Beats films is the muggle character Jacob. He’s the audience vector, experiencing the magic of the Wizarding World for the first time, but his inability to use magic and his status as a muggle in a world not designed for him puts him at a constant disadvantage when participating in the adventure. He comes up with original solutions to problems and points out larger failings in the Wizarding World’s systems when he finally comes to understand them. While I won’t say the series does Jacob justice as a character, he objectively makes the films less terrible. Marginally.
Vanya’s lack of interaction with her siblings frustrates me a bit because it’s exactly these interactions that could bring her to be a more integral part of the story. It works with Allison — her relationship with Allison is easily the strongest part of either character’s arc, and the hints about her childhood connection to Five are likewise intriguing. I like seeing all of these characters interact with one another, but I’m curious to know how Vanya would act if left to make small talk with Luther or Klaus, or even Diego. I understand that the series wants to present her as isolated from the others in the flashbacks, but there’s a lot of untapped potential in her trying to forge bonds with her siblings now that they’re older, no longer superheroes, and their father isn’t standing in their way.
Of course, by this episode, it’s clear what Vanya’s actual role in the story is. Leonard has gone from being a bit suspicious to murdering one of Vanya’s coworkers and leaving the corpse in the attic next her… name tag? Yeah, I’m not actually sure this ever comes back into the story. The point of it is to clear up the first violin chair so that Vanya can audition, which is actually a gorgeous scene — the use of space in the auditorium is especially effective, and I haven’t touched upon it yet, but the use of violin music throughout this series is beautiful. The purpose of the scene, though, as with Leonard dumping out Vanya’s pills, is to create a dramatic reveal. Surprise, surprise, Vanya actually had powers all along, and her pills were suppressing them. She doesn’t realize it as she plays, but whatever her music is doing, it’s creating an ominous force that seems to have an influence over people. But if she was superpowered like her siblings, why has her father been lying to her all these years and trying to suppress it? What nefarious plot is Leonard concocting with that book? And what does Pogo know about it?!?!
Yeah, considering my excitement at Vanya initially not having powers, you can imagine I’m not thrilled with this development. You can see it coming from a mile away, but given how many stories with a similar premise (Sky High, My Hero Academia, heck, even Game of Thrones if you want to include birth titles) eventually give the disempowered characters more powerful abilities than those around them, some more variety wouldn’t be unwarranted. It’s not that stories about weak characters proving everyone wrong by becoming stronger are necessarily bad, it’s just that we don’t have many stories about weak characters being valid while staying the way they are.
I have more thoughts on this, so expect me to talk more about it more in a few episodes.