Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Nope. None at all. Seven episodes in and I’m not going to spoil anything from this or any of the previous episodes somehow. Yes, of course I’ll be giving spoilers.
Audience Assumptions: Yes. You should know by now.
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Seven: The Day That Was – ***
Part One: Take Two
Again, this is a solid episode, exceptional in its visuals and only weakened by its theming. And the writing; as usual, the delivery of a few of the more abstract scenes leaves something to be desired. The larger issues with this episode, particularly in what seem to be unconscious implications in narrative intent, blow back onto the series as a whole and undermine what were solid ideas in previous episodes. It’s not a total loss by any means, though.
On the practical side of things, the main concern a viewer might have going into this episode is how the show plans to pull off repeating events. While plenty of series involving time-travel or Groundhog Day-like phenomena have used this element to good effect, it has a lot of limitations. Even Groundhog Day can become grating in its repetition. Conflict might arise from the characters’ frustration about re-living the same day over and over again, but it’s rarely enjoyable to the audience. Because the characters in The Umbrella Academy remain unaware that they’re going through the same day again, this poses additional problems for audience engagement. But despite everything working against it, I think the show pulls off this gimmick remarkably well.
The series resolves potential issues with its repeated day by retaining important plot points from the previous episode, skipping through events we’ve already seen, and shuffling the characters around so their interactions are different. Klaus is stuck comforting Luther, and Diego, Five, and Allison are off searching for Vanya. These sets are fun because not only have these characters rarely interacted with each other, but they also have conflicting personalities. While Diego and Klaus, and Allison and Luther have shared histories with one another, the groups in this episode have rarely exchanged words over the course of the season. None of them seems especially pleased with their new pairings either, so awkwardness and banter abound. This also means that the characters work through their problems in starkly different ways; instead of reminiscing about a childhood love that was never meant to be, Luther instead deals with his deep-seated resentment of his father by going clubbing. I’m quite pleased. The show saw what little opportunity existed in the repeated day trope and they ran with it.
That’s not to say the episode’s execution of repeated events is flawless. Pieces are going to fall through the cracks, and in this case, it’s Hazel and Cha-Cha. Much as I like the dynamic assassin duo as characters, Hazel and Cha-Cha have no real reason to remain in the series. Their subplot ended when Five agreed to go back to the Time Agency. I like their later interactions with the main characters, and I love Agnes just in general, but if something could be cut from this episode without affecting anything, it’s these two characters.
In the previous episode, Cha-Cha discovered an order that she was to kill Hazel, then found out about his tryst with the lady from the donut shop. The framing here implies the start of a love triangle, which the rest of the series mercifully drops, but it still weakens Cha-Cha’s character. She gets Hazel out into a forest to kill him when his back is turned, but fails. The implication is that Cha-Cha cares too much about her partner to do anything to him, but resents him for caring more about the donut lady than their work. At the end, she discovers Hazel had the same orders to kill her, both of them orchestrated by Five as a means of tying up loose ends.
In this episode, we see Hazel’s point of view of the same events, with him having the same revelation as Cha-Cha about killing his partner, and likewise discovering that she had orders to assassinate him. He continues to connect with Agnes, even taking up bird watching (which… okay, I love that actually), and decides to run off with her while they still have a little bit of time before the apocalypse. These aren’t terrible character beats, but Cha-Cha comes across as the far less reasonable one because of her ambiguous motivations for going after Hazel. These are also easily the most repetitive moments of the two episodes, and the time spent on these minor characters underlines how unnecessary they have become.
In general, though, the story in this episode works. The character moments, corny though they may be at times, fit the tone of the series and even provide some surprisingly compelling moments. Luther coming to terms with his body and letting loose is nice, and I love how Diego looks like a complete dweeb in his GI Joe outfit. Five makes it all the way to Leonard’s house before collapsing on the floor from a gunshot wound he forgot to tell anyone about, meaning he has to be returned home almost immediately to get bandaged up. Five being a perpetual inconvenience works well for his character, building upon his much-needed character flaws. Klaus trying to get Luther to tie him up before almost immediately abandoning the idea is a cute demonstration of the episode’s divergence. There are also one or two quite clever things the episode does with the redo, like Leonard overhearing Five talking to his siblings about how they need to find Harold Jenkis (Leonard’s actual name), which is what prompts him to take Vanya out of town. On a nerd level, I’m delighted by how this changes the timeline while not resolving the problem at hand; Five is there to help stop the apocalypse, but by being there, he also helps to further it along, albeit in a different way.
Part Two: Um. One of the Main Characters Just Died. Are We Not Going to Address…? I Guess Not.
Poor me, I have to talk about Klaus again. To those who are thinking, “Hat has gone off about this one character for, like, a third of these reviews,” if it’s any consolation, this time I’m mostly here to complain.
First, we need to talk about drugs. Now, my personal experience with drugs is limited, but I’m something of an aficionado of drug-related subplots in films and television. Kind of. I find drug addiction to be an interesting subject because it crosses paths with a lot of other deep subjects: socioeconomics, law enforcement, medical practices, capitalism, general life experiences, stigmatization of medical disorders, near-death experiences, crime and criminal enterprises, and a variety of cultural practices. Drugs make compelling narratives, regardless of the angle they’re approached from, and they’re common enough that most people have at least some familiarity with the effects of drugs or their consequences. Like, maybe you’ve never been on a cocaine bender yourself, but you know people who smoke, drink, are addicted to opioids, or have some sort of more personal association with these materials. Drugs are relevant, and because of their unique properties (mainly their allure combined with the potential dangers they pose), they slot nicely into a lot of stories. Even those that aren’t specifically about drugs.
However, the ubiquity of drug use within fiction creates a specific subgenre of “Hollywood-style” drug use portrayals. This tends to involve making the plot element look as sexy as possible, or at least as dramatic as possible: addicts sleeping in the corners of crack houses, surrounded by broken pipes and needles to signify how low their life choices have brought them; billionaires in business suits snorting cocaine with hundred dollar bills off prostitutes, showing the complete lack of accountability that comes with wealth; the sad sheriff drinking a beer alone in a bar near closing time, because he’s isolated himself from everyone he loves. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of cliches of drug use popularized by all sorts of fictional media. Sometimes these portrayals have a realistic bent, the people who create films being, for instance, the sort who can afford cocaine benders or who have the means to recover from severe addiction. A lot of the time, though, drug use is dramatized in some way for the sake of the story, at least when drugs are more than a side prop. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; drug use and addiction is a worthwhile subject to explore through fiction, but as with other medical conditions like anxiety or trauma, sometimes a facsimile is preferable to a more realistic potential trigger.
Bringing the discussion back around to The Umbrella Academy, the reason I wanted to talk about drug use is that this particular episode emphasizes some of the problems with how the series covers the subject. For one, this is pretty much the last point in the season where Klaus being an addict comes up as a plot point. He does mention being sober in a later episode, and almost relapses near the end of the season, so I’d imagine the next season would want to explore how long-term sobriety affects him. The show is definitely opting for more cliche with this subplot, using it as a character trait for Klaus rather than intending to say anything particularly significant about addiction itself, so I have to take that into account. Still, something seems off when a character who turns to drugs for trauma relief and visibly struggles with withdrawal symptoms opts to go sober, and then after resisting temptation, just seems to be better. Like, give it a few days of no drugs and you’re good. Addiction cured!
I can live with that, though, given the story is not about Klaus’ drug habit nor even really about Klaus at all. I even think the show would do well to make the drug addiction subplot even more casual, only bringing it in as a problem when necessary for Klaus’ character development, and otherwise using it as a prop. This is what the show does in the first few episodes anyway. I would like to see some actual indication of, for instance, what sort of drugs Klaus actually does, but for the time being, it works to just have him be an addict character archetype.
But after about the halfway point, it gets to be a bit much, culminating in this episode and the what-the-fuckery that is the club scene.
Okay, so to paint a picture for those who have somehow made it this far without watching the show, early in the episode, Klaus goes to Luther for help getting sober, then ends up trying to comfort him. Luther asks for drugs, Klaus tells him he doesn’t want that, trust him, and a little while later, Luther goes off to party at a dance club. Ben gives Klaus multiple pep talks that demonstrate why the advice “show don’t tell” is still necessary (though according to my headcannon, this is actually a reflection of Ben snapping from being stuck with Klaus for so long, and he just gives Klaus pep talks on a loop. Has for years). Eventually, the two of them find Luther dancing shirtless at the club, high on some sort of party drug that he then offers Klaus. Drama. Klaus takes the pill and throws it across the room, then, remembering that it’s a drug and he’s an addict, proceeds to scramble across the room to retrieve the unidentified drug.
Honest to god, it’s framed like that scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo loses the ring. The entire dance club sequence is filmed in a strange way, with a lot of slow motion and exaggerated effects. Like, the drug has a little halo around it at one point. The scene also cuts several times to a group of random people in the room, making them seem important, and I’m still not entirely sure why it does this. I think there’s a girl who eventually sleeps with Luther among the group and a bouncer who goes after Klaus, but the girl gets maybe one line and the bouncer’s entire contribution to the plot is to try to pick up Klaus and then knock him over. Neither of them needs any attention directed at them.
To make things even better, Klaus, in his attempt to get the drug, ends up on the floor and has to army-crawl through feet and over other club-goers who have fallen, which of course means that he start to have ‘nam flashbacks. We start to hear the sound of artillery fire synced up to Klaus crawling through the crowd, and then it goes all slow-motion on us, and oh my god, it’s the silliest scene in the fucking series. I kind of love it, though? Whatever they’re going for, it really doesn’t work, but it’s enjoyable for that same reason.
The entire reason for this scene, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that Klaus hits his head on the concrete floor and dies. Like, dead dead. God, in the form of a small French child (which is a phrase that cements this series as one of my absolute favorites) tells him so. The show will proceed to breeze right over the fact that Klaus gets better, which I suppose is an improvement over the books in which, during a similar scene, we learn that the main characters are all immortal or something. You know, except for the dead one. The books also never mention this again.
It does make a certain amount of sense that the character who can talk to dead people has a window into some sort of afterlife, though he seems rather surprised about this. It’s a very Preacher sort of scene, so I obviously love it, though I have to remark on how both shows end up with oddly similar scenes seemingly out of sheer coincidence. Both series’ source materials have a “minor character converses with intimidating God figure when they temporarily die” scene that in their respective shows is adapted to “minor character converses with God in a less intimidating outfit in lush walkway covered by a tree canopy when they temporarily die.” It’s a small thing, but considering the go-to for God conversations is usually a big empty white room, it’s a wonderfully strange coincidence. On it’s own, it’s a nice scene, though. I like the grayscale color palate that is only excepted for Klaus’ bright shirt, which is a nice callback to the same scene in the book. I really like that the small girl talks in a Texas accent, despite the seemingly French countryside and music (in the books, she’s a cowboy, as though that explains anything). I also like that while the series opts for some sort of supernatural afterlife thing, it’s not specifically religious in any particular way. Like, yeah the child is supposed to be a representation of a monotheistic god, but at the same time, her response to Klaus asking why she doesn’t seem to know much about him is, “I dunno, I didn’t make you.” It’s weird, but it somehow fits the series.
The much more important part of the scene is unique to the show, and that’s Klaus arriving at an afterlife barber shop and finally coming across his father.
By this point in the series, we have a much better foundation for what to expect of the protagonists’ father than we would have in the first episode. Through flashbacks and, more prominently, through the battered shells of the adult characters, we’ve had a picture painted of Reginald (his first name’s Reginald) Hargreeves: a cartoonish but strict, uncaring figure who sees his children as tools to prop up some unknown ideal — he’s an eccentric billionaire who seems on the surface to be charming, but is either inept, an asshole, or both, if you scratch the surface.
That’s not quite what we get.
There are a few things going on with this scene. First, we have the shaving thing. When Klaus enters the room, Hargreeves sits him down to shave him. Vulnerable characters shaving characters in other positions of power over them, like mobsters, is a common cliche, but that’s not what’s going on here. Klaus is getting shaved by his father, which could be seen as a power move on the father’s part, demonstrating that he is controlling (trying to clean Klaus up to make him more presentable by his own standards) and threatening (Klaus’ life is in his hands — sort of). You could also read it as a subtly tender moment, with Klaus’ father actually doing a marginally parental thing for him and helping him in his personal growth toward proper adulthood. Given that Klaus doesn’t seem to have a choice in the matter, though, it seems to be more of an effort to reinforce Klaus’ inability to stand up to his father. Even when they’re both dead, his father treats him like a child.
As the scene goes on, we learn that Hargreeves knew about the apocalypse and killed himself to bring the Umbrella Academy back together. He also mentions the characters, especially Klaus, not living up to their full potentials, indicating threads for future narratives and also alluding to the books, in which Klaus has more abilities. All of this is a bit silly and the dialogue surrounding it is similarly goofy. It also has the unfortunate implication of setting Hargreeves up as a misunderstood person who was hard on the children because he had to be. As he comes across, Hargreeves is portrayed as an old man and nothing more. Whatever the consequences of his actions, his tone of voice implies at least an attempt at kindness, that he thought he was doing the right thing. He doesn’t seem terribly remorseful, but the show frames him to look less imposing and more sympathetic than he does in the flashbacks. The veneer of artifice is stripped away, and what we’re left with is a typical uncertain father character.
One of the pitfalls of merging a more grounded story about the relationship between dysfunctional family members with the simplistic fantasy of, for instance, a superhero narrative, is that at some point, you have to choose which one is the core of the story. If it’s the deeper character-driven story, then the culmination has to be a quiet one where the fantasy elements are rendered as little more than background material. If it’s the fantasy, then the drama of the characters has to be resolved in order to conclude the plot to the satisfaction of the genre. This exchange seems to come down favoring Hargreeves, implying that his heart was in the right place and that he had no choice but to ruin the lives of a few children in order to save the world. I generally dislike those sorts of narratives, and find them slimy.
That said, the character dynamic between Hargreeves and Klaus continues the more complex story that I consider to be more integral to this series, and viewed within the context of the season as a whole, it’s something you can really dig into if you want. Klaus rejects all of it — his father, his excuses, the setup of the barbershop. He doesn’t buy Hargreeves’ attempts at affection, but you can tell that he wants to. It would be so easy to take Hargreeves at his word and accept that he was a flawed individual who made the right choices the wrong way. Luther would accept it. Maybe some of the others, too. Even if they didn’t like the explanation, the most they would likely do is yell absently at him or sit and glower.
However, of all of the children, with perhaps the exception of Vanya, Klaus has the most complex relationship with their father. Hargreeves is directly responsible for Klaus’ apprehension about his own ability, which causes him constant strife and dictates most of his life, from his unwillingness to use it to his drug addiction. Ben hangs around as a constant reminder for Klaus specifically of what Hargreeves has done to all of them. And Hargreeves traumatized him directly as a child, which would foster resentment even if it didn’t have such a prominent lasting effect. Because of all of this, Klaus has more reason to hate his father than any character other than Vanya, and he’s the only one who’s afraid of him. As a more expressive and emotional character, this history with Hargreeves comes together to make Klaus’ interaction with him fraught. Klaus nearly breaks down from his father’s half-assed explanation; Hargreeves easily excuses himself for years of emotional abuse and Klaus just has to sit there and watch him do it. He interjects at various points, but always in a small way, questioning Hargreeves because it’s his nature to do so and he has plenty of reason to want to, but readily dropping subjects rather than fighting them. This leaves a lot up to the audience as to what they think of Hargreeves, and where they think Klaus lands on the conversation.
In that sense, the shaving metaphor is pretty apt, actually.
Part Three: Umbrellove
This episode more than most struggles to reconcile the dueling natures of the show — the fun, lighthearted superhero adventure and the deeper retrospective on the pain those seemingly innocent narratives can wring. And yet, this is also the episode that comes closest to finding that perfect balance.
Vanya is at the core of this problem, as she is at the core of the series. I’ve mentioned before my unease at the show giving her secret powers, effectively undoing the main thing that made her perspective unique. In this episode, she becomes aware of her powers and goes off with Leonard to test them out. It’s an overwrought, predictable, meaningless series of scenes that are nonetheless oddly charming. Leonard and Vanya have good chemistry, even when the lines are weak, and Elliot Page is an absolute treasure as this character. This whole sequence isn’t especially bad, but it’s less than I know this show can accomplish, and regular hints in the visuals and acting clue into the potential of a more complex narrative. We learn that Leonard is the man with the glass eye and that Vanya is likely the one to end the world by accident, but this is all peanuts compared to the metanarative that the show forgoes in order to hit these character beats. It drives me a little bit nuts.
Vanya having powers is a problem, and a big one, but Leonard being a vicious murderer is worse having seen this episode. It’s not an issue because we don’t want Leonard to be a bad character or because murder is at odds with the tone of the series; it’s a problem because it weakens the core theme of the story. The Umbrella Academy is ostensibly about how the whimsy of childhood stories about heroes and monsters belie a darker reality that follows some people into adulthood. One of the core themes of the show is trauma and neglect, and how a shitty childhood can stunt someone’s emotional development into adulthood. All of the main characters suffer from this, and as we learn in this episode, so does the villain.
The episode opens with a look at Harold/Leonard’s upbringing. It’s well-done, framed for the first time around an outsider to the main family, a truly normal person whose life isn’t that of a superhero or a child celebrity, but a boy who looks up to both. This is our transition from the past to the present, the first real time we see a child in this series grow up, and pretty much the first time the show merges its whimsical flashbacks with the harsh reality of a tragic childhood.
Core to Leonard’s story is that he was born on the same day as the Umbrella Academy kids, but by normal means. He grew up as a fan, reading the comics, watching their escapades from afar, viewing their lives as Hargreeves intended — as entertainment. Leonard played with their action figures, imprinting an idea of what these people must be like, dreaming that he would discover his own powers one day and be able to join them. Like Hargreeves, he doesn’t view the members of the Academy as anything more than play things, but it’s not because he’s cruel; it’s because he’s a child, and that’s what Hargreeves made them out to be.
The moment when a young Leonard, dressed in a homemade Umbrella Academy uniform, intercepts Hargreeves and begs to be let in is gut-wrenching. For Leonard, it’s not just that these are his idols, or that he doesn’t quite understand the fiction of celebrity. Those facts may be true, but Leonard holds onto them stronger than most children might because, like the members of the Academy, he comes from an abusive household and needs some sort of fantasy to escape to. The Umbrella Academy characters being unambiguously real in a way no television character or toy ever could be only intensifies that draw. This is a world where Hogwarts is real, muggles know about it, and a muggle child has just been told, rather cruelly, that he wasn’t born with powers, so he can’t join. Hard lessons are a big part of childhood; every kid who believes in Santa has to realize one day that Santa isn’t real. And for a kid who really needs a Santa in their life, a bit of magic to hold onto when the rest of the world is far too harsh, that lesson hurts more than it would for anyone else.
It also provides credible reason for Leonard to act the way he does as an adult. He murders his abusive father in a surprisingly gruesome way, which is a bit melodramatic for my liking, but it indicates that Leonard is both deeply disturbed and never developed the emotional response to deal with morally complex situations. Superheroes destroy bad guys with violence, ergo he’s inclined to do the same to his father since no one else will rescue him. His heroes have turned out to be less than he imagined them to be, but the idea of them as pieces of fiction remains. Leonard holds onto his comics and figurines, even as an adult. He manipulates Vanya, not because he sees himself as a villain or a hero, but because he sees her as his plaything. He wants to explore her powers because she’s like an enormous toy through which he can live out all of his fantasies.
I like this. It makes for a compelling character backstory, and it complicates Leonard in just the right way. You can see throughout the series his tendency to do things simply for the sake of playing out some twisted fantasy, like he lacks any sense of finality or guilt for his actions because he never grew past the idea that Santa doesn’t exist. Leonard’s grip on the nostalgia of his own childhood goes beyond a coping mechanism; now that his abusive father is gone, he can grow up, but he distinctly chooses not to. And while Leonard is undeniably a scummy person because of his violent actions, his circumstances aren’t free of fault either. Leonard grew up in an abusive household and then prison, tossed back onto the street as a child in the shape of an adult. Whether he would have continued to cling to his messed up childhood is a legitimate question; he has his own woodshop and seems to be doing fine until he comes across Hargreeves’ book, which sets him back on the path of living up a fantasy with no regard for others.
Leonard makes for an interesting antagonist once the show reaches this point, very much like Syndrome from The Incredibles and not without his sympathetic moments. How the show uses him after this, though, is where the problems begin. Leonard understandably invites a lot of comparison to characters like Vanya and the members of the Umbrella Academy, but the crucial difference is that he A) has no powers, and B) has no siblings. He’s more violent, sure, but the progression of events in the show seems to indicate the former two traits are somehow responsible. At the very least, we have no other non-powered side characters to compare Leonard to.
So… we’re to draw the conclusion that Leonard was destined to become evil because of his birth situation? Because he was born without powers? That if he had powers and was able to join the Umbrella Academy, he would have been just as fucked up as the rest of them, but hopefully not a murderer? That’s a weird moral, especially considering the premise of the show is set on the idea that being born with everything doesn’t necessarily make a person well-adjusted.
“Ah,” you say, “but Vanya was raised without powers. Even if she discovered her powers later, the affect of being treated like a normal person remains. She grew up under the same circumstances as Leonard, with an abusive parent, and she turned out all right until Leonard started to manipulate her.” And that is perhaps fair. However, she also has the rest of her family, who support her. They’re not close, but they have a sense of familial obligation. Leonard has nothing. And given that family coming together is another big theme in this series, it feels strange that the show never even entertains the idea that Leonard could have been a better person if his circumstances had been different. The way they present it, he had a shitty childhood, then turned evil. He’s portrayed as pitiful and sad, but after he opts for violence, the show takes the stance that Leonard is a dirtbag deserving no pity. There’s no interest in exploring the tragedy of the situation that led him to be violent, or any non-powered comparison character who endured similar hardships but turned out better because they didn’t cling so much to the past. Nope, if you’re stuck in an abusive household with no friends or close family members, you’re doomed to become a whiny mass murderer. Tough break.