Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Yes, obvs.
Audience Assumptions: Many.
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Six: The Day That Wasn’t – ****
Part One: There Are No Bad Tools, Only Bad Ways to Use Them
I swear I’m not doing this on purpose.
So Klaus. Continuing the gradual unfolding of what happened to Klaus in Vietnam, this episode opens with a tight little montage that gets better every time I watch it. Its focus is on how Klaus, thrust into a military barracks immediately after opening the briefcase, came to meet and eventually fall in love with Dave during their off-time before shipping out. The scene is brief, but shows them having fun and growing close in a dance club in a Vietnamese city. At the emotional peak of the scene and the proper start of their relationship (a back room makeout session), we’re snapped back to the present with Klaus flushing his pills down the toilet.
This scene is a taste of what this series is capable of. It is exactly as long as it needs to be to communicate its main idea, but it peppers deeper subtext in through minor details. Klaus shoving the briefcase under his seat once he hits it off with Dave implies that Klaus chose to stay in the past, rather than being trapped there, completely re-framing our understanding of his experience. The sound of shells cuing the abrupt transition to the present and how Klaus seems to simultaneously jerk awake implies a connection between Klaus’ memories of Dave and his PTS from the war. We already know that Dave died, so the new information this scene communicates is that Klaus is only able to dwell on happy memories for a short while before Dave’s violent death comes creeping in to disrupt them. Klaus tossing his drugs immediately after the montage of Dave communicates his thoughts to the audience in a similar way; as per Diego’s earlier suggestion, he can see Dave again by using his powers, but this means getting clean and he needs to psych himself up for it. Aside from the apt and mostly silent storytelling, the scene is also aesthetically pleasing. The choice of music is appropriate, the rapid cutting works because it’s a montage and trying to communicate a long sequence of emotions developing over a short span of time, and the filmmaking corresponds appropriately with the narrative, cuts even falling on narrative beats. It’s one of the most well-put-together sequences in the series, and I long for more.
While the rest of the episode doesn’t live up to the standard set by a stellar opening, it cements the tone of the series and through this, gains a clear identity. The overall impression of the episode is similar to that of the first half of the series, and in some cases not as good, but where earlier episodes fluctuated in focus and organization, jumping from character to characters, aesthetic to aesthetic, this one has taken common elements and polished them. It comes up with three elements core to what this series is: dynamic characters with surprising depth, cartoon logic, and impressive spaces which help to blend the two other elements so that they can fit within the same series.
The visuals are lovely here, with the show increasing its reliance on big, dynamic establishing shots. These have always been a hallmark of the series, but they work especially well in this episode because they’re more connected to character motivations than in many of the previous episodes. The main house continues to be domineering, making the characters look small even when all of them are in the same room, but other locations now have a narrative personality to them as well. Different locations and rooms in the house have new connotations, particularly the less-used rooms that are bound up in their own histories. Hargreeves’ belongings litter his office, but they look unused and faded, even though the man has only recently died. The spaces are cramped and dark, often only lit by one or two windows, though made to look more abandoned than frightening. The nooks of the house, including the protagonists’ bedrooms, are lonely places, tacked onto the impressive entrance hall almost like afterthoughts. Even warmer places in the building, like the greenhouse, have apparently sat abandoned for decades, despite the sizable population of the house. Similar effects are evident at the Time Agency, which is something out of an early-2000s children’s film in its styling. Even single-use locations, like a random street, and places we’ve seen before, like Leonard’s house, are shot in a way that gives them more heft than usual — for instance, making Leonard’s house look calmly sinister.
Seriously, though, the main house is almost a character itself. The crew has done a fantastic job of using it to express both the story and the protagonists’ internal dilemmas.
The second of what I consider to be the core facets of this show is a bit pejorative in the way I’ve described it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the absurdity of the series is part of its identity. It’s easily the weakest element in the series, leading to mawkish lines and nonsensical plot threads that detract from the rest of the series, but when it works, you can see what the showrunners are trying to capture. As a series based on a comic book property, and one that calls explicit attention to its own artifice, The Umbrella Academy uses some amount of farce to convey its humor, presenting absurd characters in absurd scenarios and framing them in absurd ways. At times, it can go overboard in its attempts at comedy, but when the cartoonish tone is sufficiently distinguished from more sincere moments — or, better yet, deftly blended with them — the show presents a sort of fantasy that is unique and frequently charming.
Five’s misadventures at the Time Agency do a decent job of showing this second facet.
Part Two: Coworkers Who Talk to You on the Toilet Are Weird
One of the things that made me interested in the series was its opening. The start of the series, the prologue in a sense, is bright and quirky and far more artificial than the bulk of the series, and this tone holds for many of the other flashbacks as well. One of the core themes of the series is the dismantling of the idyllic childhood myth, with the early twee flashbacks taking on an increasingly disturbing subtext the more we see of them. Hargreeves is initially presented as a character almost out of a children’s book, very much like the professor from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Dumbledore, or Ms. Peregrine, or any number of similar archetypes. The show resembles the properties these archetypes come from as well, at least from the outset; I think anyone could be forgiven for thinking the show was mostly about these characters’ childhoods, sort of like X-Men with a younger cast.
The show quickly establishes its real objective when it introduces the characters as adults, and as it goes on, it gradually fills in the gaps, showing the darker reality of these characters’ childhoods. This transition is necessary for the story, but the quirky elements aren’t restricted to the flashback sequences, they’re just most prominent there. Thematically, cartoonish plot developments exist throughout the world as extensions of the characters’ externally artificial childhoods. Deep personal arcs are interrupted by typical comic book fodder — masked villains, hidden superpowers, evil plots, the end of the world, vast conspiracies — and these are a constant source of frustration for the characters. Pain, even. The protagonists are all trying to grow up and learn to deal with the real world, but their lives continue to be governed by the path their father set up for them. By the end of the first season, we learn that this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, their being raised as superheroes directly feeding into some of the things they come up against. For most of the season, though, these more childish plot points are here for levity.
Five remains separated from the other characters in this episode following his agreement to return to the Time Agency. We learn that this is a place, perhaps unsurprisingly, outside of time and space that functions much like an ordinary office. Its styling is similarly out of place, more like something from Doctor Who than anything that seems likely to exist in the universe set up by this show. Five goes along complacently, following the guidance of a mysterious woman called the Handler, the woman who hired him originally and used to be his boss.
This is a somewhat bizarre plotline, not only because it is so visually and conceptually detached from the rest of the story, but also because it seems like it would have no bearing on it for similar reasons. Time-travel is notoriously tricky to use believably in science fiction and fantasy series, and even more so when it exists as a side piece to the other fantastical elements in a narrative. It’s easy to overextend because it can reverse normally binding dramatic events, like character deaths and plot twists. However, it’s similarly easy to conveniently forget about pre-established time-travel for the sake of drama or come up with limp excuses for why it suddenly doesn’t work. Time-travel as used for narrative doesn’t particularly appeal to much of any logic, yet many series exert considerable effort to try to make it logical enough to fit the rest of their world so time-travel doesn’t completely break it. This is difficult because unlike most supernatural elements in a fantasy story, time-travel can directly affect the very structure of the tale.
Often, the ability to move around the structure of a story is the main appeal of time-travel, as it is for this particular episode and the one that follows. Time-travel allows characters to learn information before they ought to, repeat events that they’ve been through already, and sometimes substantially change the direction of their story. It has more in common with a video game mechanic than a narrative tool, which is part of why it can get so squirrelly so quickly; in a video game, what a player can do is limited by the physics of the game and invisible boundaries set up by the game designers. Those boundaries work in a game because they’re smoothed over to feel familiar, and finding them is often part of the core appeal. In story-driven experiences, though, boundaries are immersion-breaking if they’re not set up as part of the internal narrative, hence why many games with a story focus tend to reduce menus, fail states, and temporal freedom of the player. Films, books, and television have a similar problem in that that the characters are virtually unlimited in what they can do and therefore need credible motivation to restrict their actions to an interesting story. Again, boundaries are necessary, but unsatisfying when they break immersion, and time-travel requires a lot of boundaries.
The common solution is to just use time-travel as an excuse for characters to go to a new location. “Oops, my time machine broke” stories are abundant, and cliched as they may be, they work if the intent is to put the characters in an interesting setting. Stories that want to incorporate a good butterfly effect or grandfather paradox will establish tension by forcing the characters to avoid their own relatives or major historical events in the period they’ve landed in. Longer-running series about time-travel often just stop caring entirely about continuity and use it for whatever purpose is needed in a given episode.
The Umbrella Academy kind of takes the latter approach, which is curious considering the majority of the story isn’t about time-travel at all. The show’s use of time-travel has always been an aside, something tied more to Five’s character than any of the others. Initially, it’s just an excuse to set the main plot in motion, providing an end goal outside of the characters’ personal arcs and establishing minor antagonists. These are consistently the most absurd elements in the series outside of the characters’ childhoods, but at the same time, it’s kind of fitting that the more comic plot points are all linked together and only really affect the main plot through Five.
Five is the least mature of the main characters, which is saying something. Despite his elevated speech patterns and technical age, Five is a child in more than just appearance. The show has established that he never properly grew up, remaining emotionally stunted and stuck in the mindset of the Umbrella Academy because of his foray into the dystopian future. The other characters have faced more mundane reality and learned that the world is more than just superhero adventures. Even Diego and Luther, who continue the superhero ruse, do so as a coping mechanism to avoid reality. Five, meanwhile, hasn’t ever really experienced mundanity; his reality has been a constant stream of fantastical adventure for fifty years. It’s not necessarily a pleasant fantasy, but it’s distinctly closer to the group’s superhero childhoods than the reality in which most of them now live.
While the Time Agency and Five’s exploits there feel logically disconnected from the rest of the world experienced by the protagonists, they still work within the series. The absurdist elements are part of the show’s overall aesthetic, sure, but by largely restricting the modern-set cartoon elements to Five, and making Five the child of the group, the show manages to convey a thematic association between its use of literal time-travel and metaphorical time-travel in the form of flashbacks. Five is played by the same actor in each, furthering this connection. The protagonists are all trying to get away from their past, so it’s fitting that the character who comes almost directly from that same past drags it along with him by way of time-travel.
This show can actually be quite clever when it wants.
Part Three: Unfortunately, I Don’t Think That’s How Airplanes Work
But of course, the most important part of this series is the characters. By this point, they’ve all come into their own at least a bit, proving their depth beyond the archetypes they fulfill. I continue to be impressed by the unique body language each of them uses and how much characterization goes into minor actions like how they pick things up. While comic characters are designed to stand out in their own properties, they tend to rely on their archetypes to do a lot of the heavy lifting. One Iron Man is unique, but toss in a handful of superheroes with similar personalities, backstories, and appearances, and the Avengers start to look like they have a clone problem. The protagonists in The Umbrella Academy have numerous quirks and tics that readily differentiate them even among the glut of superhero characters with similar qualities. This is due to a lot of things, from the costuming to the cinematography to the direction, but the majority of it is down to the actors themselves, so props.
This episode gives each of the main characters (not including Ben, if you count him as a main character) quite a few moments to express themselves, especially as they interact with each other. After Luther holds a brief moot about the end of the world with his powered siblings, which Vanya stumbles upon and quickly learns she wasn’t invited to join, the characters disband into various groups.
Five is still off on his own at the Time Agency, of course, and concerned that the Handler was lying, uses his new job to narrow down the search for the person responsible for the Apocalypse. His subplot is less character-driven, as usual, though it’s worth noting that he returns to his family in the present timeline with the admitted intent to save their lives. We could have guessed as much based on previous episodes, but it’s nice that Five’s motivations have a selfless bent. He also fucks things up when he returns to the present, reversing everyone else’s important character development for the day. Good going, Five.
Klaus of course is opting to go clean, intentionally this time, and recruits Diego’s help to tie him up so he can detox. (On a side note, forcing yourself into sudden sobriety after heavy drug use can fairly easily kill you. So, you know, disclaimers.) This is something of a surprise to Diego, even though he’s the one who gave Klaus the idea, mainly because, to Diego, this seems to come completely out of nowhere. He agrees, talking things over to try to figure out what’s going on with his brother, which leads to some sweet little bonding moments. This is very much a continuation of their interactions in the previous episode, inferring they were never really close enough as children, but both seem to kind of regret it. Diego is patient with Klaus’ antics, and Klaus opens up to him. While Klaus has never presented himself as particularly tight-lipped, the audience knows this to be a coping mechanism. Klaus talks all the time about arbitrary personal things and hints about the things that deeply concern him, but over the course of the series, he’s never really discussed his insecurities or deeper emotions.
There’s a moment in his conversation with Diego that I quite like where he corrects Diego’s assumption that he was involved with a woman, revealing to Diego that he’s gay. This is somewhat odd because that it seems like Klaus is about as out as one can be, but given how estranged the family is, and how Klaus tends to avoid deeply personal conversations, the show suggests that there’s a difference between being told some things and actually understanding them. The comparison between Klaus coming out to Five and Klaus coming out to Diego indicates this difference; this conversation is two-way, with Klaus both responding to and eliciting a response from his brother. Diego’s response, which is to accept it immediately and support him, melts your damn heart. Why can’t we see this kind of interaction between men more often?
By the end of the episode, Klaus gets sober enough to conjure Dave. Right before Five returns to reverse things back to the start of the day. Ow.
After Diego leaves Klaus to fend for himself upstairs, he runs into his mother, now repaired by Pogo and wandering the house as usual. Ignoring the metatextual questions about why Diego should be surprised about this given that he of all people should know she has an on/off switch, it is a genuinely touching moment. He seems a little bit disturbed, even, concerned that Grace isn’t working properly at first, and then that she’ll remember he was the one who shut her down. I love this; it’s a small comfort for Diego after days of failure and strife, but he doesn’t seem to know quite how to handle it. He’s relieved to hear her denounce Hargreeves, though of course this seems to be an intentional addition to her programming after Pogo’s repairs rather than an organic development of her character. Again, this will never make sense because we know by this point Pogo is a red herring, but it works for Diego’s character. In any event, it lets him go for a walk with his mother in the park, and that’s nice.
Allison isn’t given much to do on her own, but she does get some nice bonding moments with Luther. In some ways, this is Luther’s episode more than anyone else’s. The scales finally fall from his eyes when he learns that his father never opened his reports from the moon base he lived on for four years, confirming that his mission was merely an excuse to keep him occupied — and, more importantly, out of sight. Given Luther’s unflinching trust in his father, this sort of betrayal is exceptionally cruel, the sort of thing Luther alone out of all of his siblings seems to have avoided in childhood. Allison is there to help him through it, though.
She takes him up to a hideout they made when they were kids, which Luther is surprised to see still exists. In the flashback detailing their burgeoning romance, their father cuts them off, but now that he’s dead, there’s nothing to stop them from growing closer. They spend the evening walking in the park (presumably with Diego and their mother on the other side of the trees, or something), and have a little fantasy dance before Allison has to leave to see her daughter.
At this point, I should probably address the incest thing because while the previous episodes have indicated that these two are romantically involved, this is the first one that has gone all-out to endorse it with no holds barred. And it’s kind of weird. I get the sense that the show sees these characters as a sort of found family of random individuals brought together through circumstance, and because they’re (hopefully?) not related, it can pull off treating them like siblings while also throwing in romantic connections if it wants. Personally, I think this fails on multiple accounts, but the biggest one is that perhaps the strongest connection these characters do have is as siblings. They were raised together from birth, meaning their lack of genetic relationship is meaningless.
I’m not so much of a prude that I’m horrified by the mere idea of incest — yeah, I find it weird and a bit creepy, but I also realize those feelings aren’t especially rational when both parties are consenting adults with an equal power dynamic. Mostly, it’s just a cultural taboo where I come from, seen as a backwoods, old-fashioned thing that can result in blue babies. My problem with the way the show frames Allison and Luther is not that they’re siblings and that’s gross. Okay, maybe it is a little, but that’s not the biggest issue. These characters had a resoundingly abnormal childhood, and with seemingly no interactions with people outside of their household, so it’s not unreasonable that come puberty, they’re like to turn to each other to figure out concepts like attraction. With precious little parenting, it’s not unreasonable that they would sneak off to experiment even if they knew it to be taboo — especially if, as is the case with Allison and Luther, they don’t have close connections to anyone else in the family anyway.
No, see, the problem is that the show treats it as a given that this is fine. This isn’t the result of a messed up childhood or intentionally stepping out of line, and neither they nor any of the other characters ever thinks this is even a little bit weird. That implies to me one of two things: either the show endorses the normalization of incest (which… yeah, I’m not going dig deeper into that), or it deems it entirely excusable because they’re not genetically related. This latter line of thinking troubles me, because it actively ignores the entire lives of the characters under the premise that “if they had babies, they would be normal.” When that’s not really the point. Yeah, it’s part of why incest is taboo in some cultures, but the impact is overstated and largely irrelevant if the story isn’t about the characters having kids. Sibling incest is unsettling because it breaks established boundaries set up between platonic and non-platonic relationships, and indicates a person’s preference to seek sexual and romantic partners within their family when seeking those partners in a wider pool is encouraged. It indicates clinginess, an unhealthy upbringing that restricts the ability to forge meaningful relationships with other people, and a lack of awareness of social norms. You know, the sort of thing that might happen if two people grew up with a negligent father and an emotionally detached mother and weren’t allowed to interact with other human beings outside of their family. But they’re not related, so I guess it’s fine.
All that said, the interactions between Allison and Luther are well-done. Their dialogue is decently charming and their relationship is believable if taken as two adults who knew each other as kids. The dance sequence goes on for an absurd amount of time, but it’s okay. I just can’t get over the incest thing. Maybe they’ll have a sit-down about it in the next season or something.
I’ll go into Vanya more in the coming episodes, but I don’t have much more to say about her subplot in this episode that wasn’t applicable earlier. Her dialogue is highly cliched, mainly involving her telling Leonard that it’s impossible, she’s not special, he’s seeing things or something. This is about as compelling as it sounds, and it doesn’t amount to much. She finds the book Leonard stole from Hargreeves at the end of the episode, but as with everything else, this ending gets erased when Five reappears.
On the topic of the ending and the time reversal, I find this a risky move to throw in the middle of the series. As I’ve mentioned, the time-travel aspect of the story is a side piece, mainly tied to Five’s subplot. Yes, Klaus goes back in time, but again, that’s only really relevant to his character. This and the following episode detail the same day with only one thing changed — Five’s now in the room when the family is talking about the Apocalypse. This is one of only three points in the season where time-travel is important to the structure of the overall series (at the beginning to set off the main plot, at the end of the season, and here). This is by far the most unnecessary use of time-travel for big plot structure reasons, and it seems on its surface to mainly be an excuse to present major character beats, then retcon them abruptly so they can happen later. The move is kind of cheap and sets up the next episode to be a Groundhog Day-like repeat of events. Thankfully, the next episode isn’t as redundant as it could have been, but the manipulation remains.