Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: Yes.
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Eight: I Heard a Rumor – ****
Part One: Please Let Them Get Pulled Over
All right, I give; I love this series.
I maintain that it’s not an exceptionally good show, at least not by standard criteria. It’s satisfying and generally competent as far as superhero stories go, but it’s the little details that I adore. Things like the score, character beats, subtle references to the comics, and just the general charm of it. Once you accept the show for what it is, it’s a great deal of fun.
This episode is, for the most part, minor, right up until the very end. But that’s also what makes it. The aesthetics feed into the story, but aren’t overt. The imagery in this episode is more subdued than in previous ones, though it maintains that bright dreamlike quality. And the cinematography continues to be way too good for a show of this caliber (not that I’m complaining, mind you). A new feature added here is a little animation sequence set to a bedtime story Allison is telling her daughter. This is delightful in every way, from the cartoonish style to the lighting to the way it feeds into the plot. The intent is to call back to the comics, which likewise divert to show the child versions of the characters on their superhero adventures periodically (though the style here is just different enough to be its own thing — another good move). Because of the way Allison tells it, it sounds like a children’s story introducing all of the characters and how they use their powers, much like the similar bank heist in the first episode. However, the sanitization has new meaning now that we know what becomes of these characters, and what becomes of aspiring to be like them. Five is missing from the animation, a major change from the earlier bank mission. Knowing Ben’s reluctance to use his powers and eventual death also makes this seemingly innocent story more grim.
(And I know I’m going off on a lot of tangents in this one, but can I please just take another moment to express my bewilderment that Ben’s power is just tentacles? I mean… tentacles? That’s it? Not even magic tentacles or telekinetic tentacles or anything, he just has tentacles. And Diego’s power is that he can throw knives good. And as I suspected, Klaus as a person seems to be completely useless on the actual missions. I realize that there are other reasons Hargreeves didn’t want Vanya to tag along, but I have to wonder if he ever really wanted to throw her into the missions knowing that a full half of the team was completely ridiculous. I do love how the strange mishmash of their powers plays into the idea that they’re all very different, very dysfunctional people, though. And admittedly, I do love that Ben’s powers are just tentacles.)
The character interactions continue to be solid, the tone of the piece settled in a comfortable spot that plays to the strengths of the team behind it. Because this episode focuses almost exclusively on Allison and Vanya (and may I say, about damn time Allison gets more attention), the other characters are almost background piece, but to their benefit. The show has laid the groundwork, so now even minor conversations are bursting with personality, at least where the main characters are concerned. The boys running around doing absolutely nothing of import is punctuated by little acting ticks that accentuate their characters, like Luther stumbling with the phrase “get my buzz on,” or Diego’s constant incredulous expressions, or Five being the designated driver for some reason, or Klaus. Just all of Klaus. I really like these characters, all of them. Even Five. The boys are especially effective when used as side characters like this.
Part Two: Oh Come On, AGAIN? Quit Killing These Characters, We Know They Can’t Die.
Vanya and Allison are the ones who get most — well, all — of the character development in this episode. I don’t mean to make light of the other characters, what with Luther dealing with losing his virginity in consentually dubious circumstances and all of them learning that their father committed suicide. These are obviously points that invite further analysis, but I’m going to take a risk and set them aside for now. As the show seems to toss these points aside without considering their broader context, and given the series’ history of doing the same with other topics, I think there’s a high likelihood I’ll be able to address Luther’s possible assault and Hargreeves’ suicide when the second season rolls around. Both merit a note at least, so I’m noting them.
However, this is the rare episode that focuses largely on the female characters, and specifically on their relationship with one another, and I think that deserves attention right now. Allison spends much of the episode looking for Vanya on her own, her brothers being precious little help with Diego in jail and Five at home recovering from injuries. Her investigation takes her to the scene where Vanya used her powers to push a bunch of hoodlums away from her and Leonard in the previous episode. Vanya spends time with Leonard discovering her powers and slowly growing into them as Allison builds up reason to become suspicious of Leonard and continues to come in right on Vanya’s heels.
It’s a convoluted setup, and the coincidences involved in this sort of plot device often bother me, but I think it’s fine here. As Allison talks to more people and grows more suspicious of Leonard, Vanya comes to trust him more. The events that happen over the course of the episode feed directly into its conclusion. The pace and tension it creates, while not exceptional, are still adequate for this series, and combined with unusually sharp dialogue (for the most part — the elocution of this series still fluctuates quite a bit), they make the trope bearable. I don’t find myself groaning at characters just barely missing each other, at the very least.
Scenes where Allison is, broadly speaking, investigating, also allow crucial time for the audience to get to know her. I would have preferred the show space out her characterization over the seven previous episodes more, but it’s done a half-decent job and it steps up its game here. Allison is a much more interesting character than she seems on the surface, like all of the Umbrella Academy siblings. From the start, we can tell that she puts on the appearance of being glamorous and confident, but is smarter than people give her credit for and doesn’t really enjoy being treated like a commodity. Her admission in a previous episode that everything came naturally to her as a child is one of the most humanizing moments in her arc, but now we see that it’s an incomplete truth.
Allison never really gives the impression of being a heartless snob outside of brief moments in the flashbacks. Even those moments when her younger self snaps at Vanya seem more like the artificial boundaries put up by a sibling trying to maintain a facade more than what young Allison was actually like. She uses her powers frequently, but she’s not as entitled as she seems to think she was. Her flashback interactions with Luther, for instance, seem genuine, and even in the passively heartbreaking scene where she uses her powers on her daughter, the framing doesn’t make her out to be an unreasonable person.
It’s not necessarily that Allison’s powers have a monkey’s paw-like effect; rather, it’s that she fears that they do. The show implies that something horrible happened in the past, probably involving the falling out between her and her husband, and this is what keeps her from using her powers in the present. It makes her a bit paranoid; Allison has little she really trusts, and holds onto it desperately, often seeming not to realize that she’s doing this. She’s disciplined, able to control herself and make careful decisions, but she struggles to relate this to her interactions with other characters. Prioritizing her daughter over her family or trying to maintain a reasonable distance with Luther can make Allison come across as cold from certain perspectives, and this is where her underdeveloped social skills come into play. Allison’s personality doesn’t seem to be as affected by her powers as she fears, but her patience certainly is. She doesn’t deal well with rejection or stress, and she’s used to solving social problems by magicking them away with her powers. This is why she so effortlessly resorts to commanding her daughter asleep when she starts to get testy.
It’s noteworthy, then, that throughout much of this episode, Allison’s resolve to not use her powers brushes up against her need to find her sister. Throughout the episode, Allison has to use her wits and charm (built up through a life as an actor) to navigate situations where it’s tempting to use her powers. You can see her working through every line, but it’s just effortless enough that it doesn’t seem obvious or bog down the pacing. Her manipulation of a fanboy cop is especially delightful; Allison’s conversations with him walk the line of being genuine, amateurish, and clever, ensuring that even as they progress the plot in a strictly linear manner, they also stay true to her character.
But of course, it’s the ending that brings Allison’s character together — and Vanya’s, to a lesser extent.
Vanya’s arc throughout the episode is simpler, though she does get a few impactful moments. Of particular note is her brief breakdown when she can’t find Leonard and thinks he’s abandoned her. Her emotional dependence on him, and how he abuses it, makes Vanya that much more tragic without hitting the audience over the head. It’s also necessary to show how deep that connection is, for Vanya at least, building ominously toward the climax of the episode.
When Allison does find Vanya, it naturally has to go awry. I don’t know that the show handles this as deftly as it could, but it comes close. The concept is solid, with Allison stumbling across Vanya practicing her powers. And she’s genuinely happy that her sister has powers too. None of the usual “that’s impossible” or “no, you don’t, Vanya.” The dialogue falters elsewhere in the conversation, especially toward the end when Vanya starts shouting about Allison “not wanting her to be special” (please give these actors better lines, show, I know you can do it), but the surrounding material more than makes up for it.
From subtle cues like the intonation and body language, you can tell that Vanya is excited and nervous to come out about her powers to Allison. The conversation starts out beautifully positive, with Allison supporting her and Vanya happy to accept that support. However, as has happened elsewhere, the relationship between these two characters shows its holes. A few days of forgiveness can only do so much to repair the tenuous relationship these characters have had throughout their lives, and when Vanya slips into berating her father for hiding this from her, the exchange turns dark quickly. Allison offers what little insight she has into Vanya’s hidden powers in an effort to contribute, but both of them misread the other’s intent. Allison thinks she’s helping by rationalizing the situation, but she’s also gloating just a little bit. Vanya thinks that she’s continuing the family’s regular dismissal of Hargreeves as a negligent father, and perhaps asking for comfort, but she’s also extending feelers for anyone else she can heap blame onto. She harbors resentment for her family that even she might not be fully aware of, and when Allison slips up, Vanya is primed to heap that resentment onto her.
The music is what gets me. The scene where a young Allison wipes young Vanya’s memory is appropriately dour, touching upon the humanity of the situation, with no parties really benefiting or even comfortable with what’s happening. This is also one of the rare emotive moments for Hargreeves as, for selfish or empathetic reasons, he seems uncertain about his decision. Allison is working through her memories of the event as though wholly removed from them, which she assumes Vanya to be as well. Vanya sees it as Allison willfully contributing to her miserable childhood. Allison was complicit in Vanya’s torment, knowingly or not, which differs from how all of the others were damaged by Hargreeves in isolation. This is the final excuse Vanya needs to go off on her sister and blame her, unjustly, for everything that’s ever gone wrong in her life. With her newfound powers barely under control, you can imagine what happens after that.
Despite the flurry of jabs and irrational accusations tossed between these two characters, they maintain their reliability. It’s so easy to throw magical characters into a verbal fight and use the fantastical elements of their world as a justification for weak dynamics. Series like this often have to maneuver characters into a position where they’ll be at each other’s throats willingly, but if the story hasn’t put in the work for them to have a reason to attach each other, their fighting will seem a complete contrivance for the sake of plot. I’m sure perspectives on this scene will vary, but compared to the nonsense in the last season of Game of Thrones, this is outright Shakespearean.
At the very least, Vanya and Allison have a reason to get into this situation beyond coincidence. Without active effort on both of their parts, this conversation, or something similar to it, seems like it would have been inevitable. Both characters are acting true to form, and neither is completely off-base given the circumstances. Vanya lashing out doesn’t reveal her to be a cruel, insane person; she realizes her mistake when she attacks Allison and apologizes immediately, trying to staunch the flow of blood and weeping over her sister when she realizes she may have killed her. Vanya’s actions are not justified, but they’re understandable, and more importantly, they’re human. The tragedy of these characters is that they’re flawed, and not just in outlandish murdery ways. As sisters, Allison and Vanya love each other on a deep level, and they also go through the superficial pleasantries expected of people connected that way. However, it’s the connective tissue between the surface and subterranean levels of their relationship that has grown threadbare over the years, and this is where their problems arise. They’re not friends. They pretend to be, but they don’t know each other well enough for that. They love each other, but not on a regular basis — certainly not well enough to read between the lines and understand what the other really means when they say something.
This is what leads to so much strife between the sisters, and this is what nearly gets both of them killed.
Part Three: Birds and Toys and Little Things
I don’t think I’ve made it any secret that Allison makes it through an injury that should definitely kill her. Spoilers, I guess. I think it’s worth me saying, though, because for all of the good will the episode has built up, the cliffhanger ending sours it a bit for me. I like the dynamic between Allison and Vanya near the end of the episode, and I don’t take issue with Vanya attacking Allison, even fatally, as a plot point on its own. However, had the show actually killed Allison as it feigns it would, I’m not sure I could have let that slide.
This isn’t an especially, uh, woke show, but it isn’t consciously problematic most of the time, and it makes efforts here and there to be better. Klaus being gay and Allison, Diego, and Ben being played by non-white actors are all positive changes to the otherwise uniform lineup in the comics. The show also puts more time into exploring the relationship between Allison and Vanya, where the similar relationship in the comics is a romantic one between Vanya and Diego. All of these changes are for the better, as they allow the series to feel more expansive and keep the audience invested in the characters’ personal histories and relationships with one another. The non-white characters aren’t ever addressed as such, but even just the normalization of a diverse cast, especially when the source material is distinctly uniform, at least sets a positive trend for other shows. The show also has the opportunity to address the individual experiences of these characters being raised in the same household but appearing outwardly different from one another if it so chooses.
However, there’s a big difference between making small background changes that provide opportunity to make the story more dramatic, and reigning in the urge to push for harmful tropes that do the same. This is where the show more often falters, especially where its female characters are concerned. The show has a fairly restricted cast outside of the main household, so considering that, it has quite a few recurring female characters, actually, occupying a number of roles — Vanya and Allison, obviously, but also Grace, Cha-Cha, the Handler, Agnes, Patch, and in the realm of minor characters with speaking roles, Helen Cho. This isn’t too far off from the number of recurring male characters (ten that I can remember offhand — Five, Klaus, Luther, Diego, Ben, Hargreeves, Leonard, Pogo, Hazel, and Dave). However, the story function of the female characters differs quite a bit, notably in those characters being largely one-note and oddly antagonistic. Grace is an enslaved housemaid, Cha-Cha goes on a rampage after a boy rejects her, the Handler is a minor villain who gets blown up at one point, Agnes is a fuddy-duddy in need of rescuing, and Patch and Helen Cho mainly exist in the story to die tragically. Even Vanya and Allison, easily the most complex of the female characters, are still bound by their relationships to the men in their lives, particularly their love interests.
While many of the male characters have love interests as well, they’re apt to forget about them when more pressing needs arise — unless they have to go save their beloveds. Luther can spin his depression as something directed at Hargreeves just as easily as something related to Allison. Five just straight up leaves his love interest at home, and even Klaus seems to conveniently forget about his quest to find Dave when other subplots distract him. More importantly, the male characters are consistently framed to be more sympathetic, complex, and relatable than the female characters in the show; even including Allison and Vanya, many of the female characters are viewed from the lens of the male characters, often as love interests or antagonists.
This isn’t a consistent one-to-one thing, and it’s not unusual for a show like this, either. We’re a sexist society, and that leaks into all aspects of our media in some way or another. The Umbrella Academy isn’t the worst offender by any means, but I’m more willing to put pressure on this show than, say, The Office, because I know it can do better. When the restricted roles of female characters are examined within the story, they work. Vanya’s relationship to Leonard is creepy and parasitic on his part, but the unhealthy aspects of their relationship are what cement him as a scumbag who fucks things up for selfish reasons. He treats her like a toy and becomes irritated when she shows her own autonomy, and when Allison reveals this to Vanya, she doesn’t take it well. The show illustrates how the men in Vanya’s life have screwed her up, and that speaks more to her internal complexity than to theirs. Vanya’s guilt at hurting Allison shows that she’s more nuanced than the over-emotional woman or femme fatale sterotypes. Allison too, which is why I think it’s essential that her arc doesn’t come to an end with her trying and failing to rescue Vanya. Surviving and trying to work out her relationship to her sister after Vanya’s hurt her so horribly is an important part of both of their narratives.