Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Only the best.
Audience Assumptions: Read the first review to get the most out of it.
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Nine: Changes – *****
Part One: TELEPORTING. MARGARITA. BOI.
Finally, we reach the thing that started this whole endeavor. The very first part of The Umbrella Academy that I watched, and the part that made me want to start the show.
And you know what?
I’m completely floored at how good this scene is, with or without its context. Like, I could easily argue that it’s the best thirty seconds of the show. The boys find Leonard dead in his own house, unaware that Vanya’s the one who put him there. With him gone, it would appear that the world is saved. Woohoo. This sets the stakes low, the characters only left with their personal vices to worry about. Five in particular is having a rough time of things, having abruptly and unceremoniously lost the motivation that has been driving him for most of his life at this point. His solution? Margaritas, naturally.
Hazel drops by the house and Five invites him in to join him and Dolores, despite, you know, all the reasons. As it turns out, Hazel is here to announce his retirement and apologize for trying to murder him and his family. Points for effort, I suppose? They have a brief exchange where Hazel fanboys for a bit, and then Diego appears from off screen and kicks him to the ground.
Thus begins a short but beautiful fight sequence in which Diego pulls all of his fancy combat training to take down his mortal enemy, a confused little man who wants to be in this fight not at all. Five and Dolores spectate, margaritas in hand, while upbeat French music (again with the random French music…) plays over the fight. It’s actually really well-shot and edited, and perfectly timed for comedy. Diego remains blissfully unaware of the non-stakes in the fight, and Five gloriously does not care. We get several sardonic reaction shots of him, holding his drink, playing with the sippy straw. At one point, Hazel gestures to Five in a brief lull with the perfect expression of utter bewilderment at these two idiots plastered across his face. It’s a short fight, but it feels like this pattern of action shot and reaction shot from Five continues for some time. Eventually, though Five does intervene to smash a vase over his brother’s head when he tries to bite Hazel’s ear off.
Then they continue their earlier conversation.
I’m not sure how effectively I’m expressing how much I love this scene, but it’s not in the same way that I love the goofy parts of this series like awkward lines and strange aesthetic choices. This scene is genuinely impressive in its execution, reading clearly as a fight scene and getting several creative angles and other little visual quirks in. Had all of the fights in this series been filmed like this, I would have make a special note of them. But the writing is what brings it all together, which is a weird thing for me to say for this series considering its poor track record. The comedic beats land, the tone is consistent and utterly charming, and it portrays everything that works about these characters to a T. Hazel is an inept dunderhead who is somehow the sanest person in the room, Diego is a rage-fueled action figure whose weaknesses include flower pots and an chronic inability to read the room, and Five is just the littlest shit.
Seriously, though, this is a great character moment for Five. It’s one of about four times in the series he seems to be having fun screwing with people for no reason, and we need more of this. Like I’ve said, Five works really well as comic relief, and this is a good way to merge that with the show’s desire to show him as a bit of a badass. Just make him lazy. That’s it. It’s highly effective.
Part Two: Leonard is a Dumb Dumb
There’s so much good stuff in this episode like that, but of course, the real focus of this episode is Vanya. And rightfully so.
I’ve long maintained that the key to writing a good villain, especially in a more fantasy-driven series like this, is depth. Unless a series is opting to show the face of real monsters, its villain is most likely going to some sort of figurehead or marketable symbol. Few franchises that opt for action-packed fantasy elements like this one want their characters to face down, say, corrupt CEOs who undermine unions or politicians who pull strings to strengthen existing power dynamics that feed on vulnerable members of society. Even when characters like these are the main antagonist, it’s usually not the reason the heroes are fighting them. The villain from Iron Man isn’t evil because he’s a war profiteer who uses his wealth and influence to circumvent international trade laws and destabilize the Middle East, at least not according to the film. Maybe that’s in the subtext and it’s what canny audiences will hone in on, but for the sake of the plot, he’s the bad guy because he steals from, lies to, and tries to kill Tony. Remove the overt “bad guy” aesthetic, and the villain from Iron Man is just another oily businessman. You know, the sort who runs Disney or Marvel.
I’m not saying that The Umbrella Academy resolves this issue and completely diverts from the typical supervillain formula, but it gets much closer than a lot of series in this genre manage. Vanya does eventually turn into the White Violin from the comics, but it’s not just because she snaps when she discovers her powers and turns evil from them. The focus of this series is far more on interpersonal relations and childhood abuse, and this, more than Vanya’s powers or Leonard or any traditional villainous force, is the ultimate antagonist of the series. Vanya’s tragic backstory isn’t just flavortext to make her transition into a full antagonist more believable; the White Violin itself is a manifestation of all of the characters’ inabilities to empathize with each other. Vanya’s very powers involve absorbing specific information from her surroundings and shoving them back out with potentially destructive force. Her siblings berating her, isolating her, or even just failing to help when she needs it, is what fuels her destructive tendencies. And Vanya’s willingness to throw things back without a filter is very much wrapped up in this. She can be a better person, and she can choose to control her powers, but why would she want to do that when those around her make no effort?
In most superhero stories, the villain has a tragic backstory that is meant to have turned them into a bad guy. The loving wife dies and the formerly normal human being snaps, becoming Evil. Sometimes they can turn back or have a change of heart, but simplistic stories treat morality like a switch, rather than a facet of a person’s daily life. I’m painting in broad strokes here, but there’s a subtle thing about how this story handles morality that makes it feel more real. Ultimately, if you trace the characters’ actions (outside of the final episode), none of the protagonists is really the source of the strife they inflict. They’re still responsible for their shitty behavior, but none of it is self-generated; rather, they’re falling in line with an established way of thinking because it’s too much effort to break away from convention, even if being complicit means that other people get hurt as a result. Hargreeves is the one who’s most responsible for the mindset that keeps the children picking on Vanya, and he’s even the one who set up the precedent for Leonard to treat Vanya like a toy. However, he’s also dead by the time the story starts, and even without little contrivances like his secret notebook or his conversation with Klaus, the cutthroat mindset he’s instilled in the children persist long after he’s gone. No one’s there to enforce his way of thinking, but the characters have lived under it for so long, they seldom question the ways they help it persist.
Small things like Luther and Diego’s dick wagging, Luther and Allison’s romantic tension, Vanya’s exclusion, the limited connections the characters have to one another, the emptiness of the house, the roles assigned to Pogo and Grace, and even the way the characters plan how to stop the end of the world all originate with their rigid upbringing. The characters stray from their original roles as established by Hargreeves, but they can only go so far until they wander into unfamiliar territory and fall back on what they know, even when it conflicts with the people they want to be. Throughout the story, we’ve seen how their childhoods have left them with lasting trauma, and this trauma not only hurts them, but also the people around them. They’re complicit in passing it on, like when the various children berate and isolate Vanya, but they’re also not doing this simply because they’re assholes. They do so without thinking, maybe gaining something small like validation, but mainly they do it because it’s how they were taught and they don’t care to exert the effort to change. Even Leonard fits into this mold.
The antagonist of The Umbrella Academy isn’t a human, but a cycle of abuse and an established culture in which cruelty is normalized. It’s effectively isolated to this one family and their fans, so it’s not like the characters are facing a major relevant systemic issue, but I think there’s something to be gained from a story where there really isn’t any main human villain. It wouldn’t be difficult to expand this idea to explore how those who benefit from larger, similarly cruel cycles contribute to their persistence.
I started on this line of thinking after this episode for one simple reason: it’s not Leonard who turns Vanya into the White Violin, but her family.
At the start of this episode, we get more associations between the twee childhood flashbacks and the grim reality of the present story with, of all things, an origin story for Grace. Allison is apparently not the first person Vanya tried to kill, as the family had several nannies that a four-year-old Vanya sequentially offed in progressively more gruesome ways. Over oatmeal. Rather than, for instance, teach his daughter about the consequences of morality, Hargreeves’ solution to this problem was to build a terrifying robot nanny that could not be killed. Technically, I think this scene is merely meant to establish Vanya’s raw power and early violent streak, but given that she was a child, I think it’s more indicative of how her upbringing failed her. Hargreeves consistently fails to actually teach Vanya how or when to use her powers, opting to lock her up, sedate her, and wipe her memory when she starts to become dangerous. Hargreeves’ go-to solution for dealing with problems is to avoid them, and he passes this on to all of his children.
Back in the present, Vanya is in shock after accidentally slitting Allison’s throat. She believes she’s killed her sister, and while Leonard tries to comfort her, he also creeps into classic supervillain territory telling her she belongs to him now and he made her and yada yada. I’m not entirely sure what his game plan is, because he starts to goad her into using her power, but then seems surprised when she does exactly that and murders him. Like, come on, man. What exactly did you think was going to happen?
Suffice to say, this does not help Vanya’s situation. However, she does not turn into an evil villain right then and there. Actually, she goes back to the Umbrella Academy willingly. Desperately, even. She knows what she’s done and she doesn’t want to be like that. She returns to her siblings because she needs help and doesn’t know who else to turn to.
And they fail her. When Luther greets her, ominously using his apparent forgiveness to lure her closer, he seems apt to crush her in retaliation for harming Allison. This is one of the few genuinely chilling scenes in this series, and I love the foreboding atmosphere it sets up. Debris even starts to fall from the house as foreshadowing for the next episode. Allison isn’t dead, as the audience now knows, and Luther doesn’t kill Vanya, but he does shut her in the underground soundproof room. He doesn’t know how to deal with her, nor do any of the other siblings, and while Allison tries to comfort her, Luther becomes possessive and keeps the women from seeing each other. He opts for the same solution as his father, and none of the others puts up much protest about it.
Vanya snaps, of course, as is typical of the genre. The end of this episode becomes very Spider-Man in its execution, opting for melodrama leading into the finale. However, I still think that my assessment of the rest of the series and its general antagonist-less-ness stands. It’s also poignant that in the end, it’s not a random insult or a lack of control or a sudden disaster that turns Vanya into a classic supervillain; it’s her siblings leaving her when she’s begging them for help.
Part Three: Patty-Cake Patty-Cake Patty-Cake Patty-Cake Patty-Cake!
I think this series works best when it has one solid throughline around which other scenes and subplots can intertwine. This episode has Vanya’s culmination as that core, and it provides a solid foundation for everything else. None of the scenes quite live up to the spectacle of Teleporting Margarita Boi, but damn if they don’t try.
The most obvious is the other fight sequence, which plot-wise has no reason to be here, but it’s similarly perfect. Cha-Cha catches up with Hazel and Agnes at their bird resort (which, for the none of you wondering, is absolutely the motel from Schitt’s Creek), and sets up a Rube Goldberg-style death trap involving the heart-shaped hot tub. Why being dunked in a hot tub would kill Agnes, I’m really not sure, especially considering it doesn’t seem to be filled with unusually hot water or acid or anything, but the cinematography and editing tell me to fear for Agnes’ life, so I’m ready to comply. As with the Teleporting Margarita Boi fight, this one is short but sweet. It gets a few creative shots, clear and tense choreography, and even some impressive stunts. The show has also finally figured out how to use soundtracks, opting for an upbeat poppy score set to an appropriate tempo that isn’t distracting and blends well with the action onscreen.
Outside of pervasive points of interest like the cinematography and score (both of which are captivating on their own), I continue to enjoy how well this series knows its characters. You could easily watch without the sound on and recognize the relationships and personalities to a fairly fine degree. It’s especially curious here, given so few of the characters spend a lot of time interacting, but the show makes use of few moments. Many of these involve physical comedy, like when everyone sans Vanya and Five is gathered around Allison and trying to figure out who they’re going to use as a blood donor. It’s a silly scene already given that if Allison has survived up to this point, she’s going to be fine no matter what they do, but when they settle on Diego as the unlucky blood bag, and he faints the instant he sees the needle… I mean, that’s just perfection right there.
On a side note, I want to give some appreciation to Diego, because he’s lowkey become one of my favorite characters and his actor’s comedic timing is probably the best of all of the main characters. Like, I still love Klaus, but Diego can hold his own against him easily, which is part of what makes their interactions so damn fun. It’s especially impressive when you take into account how bland and tedious he starts out before the series bothers to explore his personal history. I wish more shows with over-serious characters like that were willing to open them up to shine a light on their affect, rather than just assuming that the audience is fine with Action McManly-Man staying the way he is. Meanwhile, Diego’s got, like, this rabbit’s foot that I’m pretty sure we saw earlier but which also looks uncannily like a small potato, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why, in a montage of all of the siblings, Diego was fondling a small potato in the kitchen. I also take back all of the mean things I said about Diego earlier. He’s a fucking cinnamon roll.
Oh, speaking of Klaus again, he gets a few good moments here too. Again, the show really wants to present him as Speaker of Drug Addiction Truths, and I really remain to be convinced based on the dialogue choices the script presents. That said, the bulk of his contribution is actually quite enjoyable. Klaus is having yet another existential crisis when he discovers that maybe he has more powers than he thought, like, for instance, bringing Ben back to life kind of. While I applaud the series for only starting to set the groundwork for this seemingly important subplot in, uh, Episode Seven, Klaus’ very on-the-nose hints to his family that he’s discovered a new power are radiant. Not in the least because they ignore him entirely, as you do. This leads to trans-dimensional Patty-Cake, and I am always up for that. Also it gives Ben something to do, maybe, so props.
Before I forget, though, Klaus gets one other brief line in this same vain that I quite like and what to emphasize in hope that it’ll spur more varied character interactions come Season Two. Klaus reacts poorly when Luther locks Vanya up in her little holding cell, and I love how the series manages to frame the concerned but fairly trivial responses of Diego and Luther alongside Klaus’ much more loaded response without placing too much emphasis on any of them. Klaus is empathetic and expresses his concern with one of those overt hints about Vanya “discovering powers she never knew she had,” which is of course meant to be a joke for the audience, but Klaus also has a basis for being upset when someone gets locked alone in a dark room. It’s a small scene, but you can read it with more depth based on the character’s history, and I hope that as the series continues, it builds upon that unspoken subtext for other ambient moments.
This is a solid Five episode, even after the TMB fight. One other scene of note involving him and his development follows his realization that he’s got a fresh start on life and can continue more or less where he left off. As his first step fully abandoning fifty years of his life, he returns Dolores to the department store from whence she came, her outfit partly burned and covered in bullet holes. It’s a touching little scene, and his insistence that the store clerk take care of her and give her a new outfit is exactly what I needed it to finish with. Now I need bonkers Five to take over the character entirely.
Allison spends much of the episode lying on an operating table, but she gets a poignant bit or two toward the end of the episode. Vanya’s attack has left her mute, so now she communicates through gesture and a yellow notebook (a holdover from the comics), and has difficulty impressing her will on others even when she can communicate. Admittedly, the notebook varies in its effectiveness, particularly when Allison only scrawls out two words and points to them as though she doesn’t have plenty of room to elaborate. However, her going down to see Vanya is an intense and touching scene, with Allison fully ready to forgive Vanya despite everything. Luther (who’s mainly just a bit of a possessive dick throughout the episode) stops her, and that lack of closure is kind of brilliant. I suppose Luther has reason for it — not a good or justifiable reason, it’s just in-character for him — but for the sisters, it’s an interruption of what should be a close, empathetic moment. You can see the pain it causes both of them, Vanya for being unable to apologize and Allison for being unable to comfort her sister. Allison is the only person in the room who knows what Vanya’s really going through and has any chance at giving her what she needs. Denying both of them that interaction severs the characters’ chance at resolving the story peacefully.
I suppose if we really want, we can blame Luther for the end of the world, then. Those final shots with Vanya using her own heartbeat to break out of her prison are pretty badass, though. Unquestionably silly and very bad news, but badass nonetheless.