Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Ya. A few for the comics, too, so fair warning.
Audience Assumptions: None, probably.
The Umbrella Academy
Episode Ten: The White Violin – ***
Part One: KLAUS’ MAGIC BOWLING BALL OF TRUTH!
All right, here we are at the end of the line, with another episodic series finished, at least until the next season comes out. I have a lot of things to unpack with this one, but first things first, what the fuck is with their mother getting squished again?
Like, okay, I realize she wasn’t really squished the first time, but seriously, Grace just seems to exist to make Diego sad when she dies. Did we not just have an episode that established how Grace’s very function is that she can’t be killed? What were they even going for? And it’s so absurd, she’s just like, looking at them through a window while the house is collapsing. Dusting, or something like that. Come on, Grace. The best part is, she’s not dead at this point in the comics, and actually gets something resembling character development, so I kind of hope it becomes a running thing that she pops back to life every time it seems like she’s surely dead, and Diego just never catches on.
That said, I really like the little stutter they give him when he’s yelling at Klaus over it. Simplistic as parts of these characters’ arcs may be, when the show owns its decisions, it finds good ways to use them later. I like a series that can improve upon seemingly flimsy plot points rather than retconning them. It takes skill.
Backing up a little bit, I think it’s worth considering what this episode is for the series as a whole. It’s the conclusion, but it falls at a strange point because, at least for this season, there’s not much left for the characters to do. Typically, this sort of episode pulls on threads that need resolving, but aside from the end of the world, what threads haven’t at least been acknowledged? Luther needs to apologize to Allison, I suppose, and it would be nice if Allison got a touching moment with Vanya, but neither of those are so pressing they couldn’t really be addressed in the next season or worked into a longer running arc for these characters, right? Five had his farewell with Dolores, and even Hazel and Cha-Cha had their stories worked out. I suppose Diego still needs to face Cha-Cha, bust he has the evidence to clear his name in the form of her gun (let’s just ignore the fingerprint issues there), and did he really ever build up much animosity for her personally? Has he ever actually faced her personally since Patch died? Oh, I guess Klaus needs to reveal his new special power to the world. But, I mean, let’s be honest, Klaus has had plenty of arcs already, and this is really the only one that’s left.
What I’m trying to say is that there are some plot points this episode can draw upon, but the show’s kind of written itself into a corner with its A plot. It promised the end of the world, so it has to deliver, but most of the series is completely uninterested in that sort of typical superhero plot, so it’s hard to make an action-packed finale feel organic. As a result, we have a generic Evil bad guy that gels ineffectively with the rest of the story and characters acting really goofy. Some of the imagery in this episode is… I don’t even know how to deal with it, to be honest.
The end climax is especially dissonant, but we’ll get to that in detail in a moment.
The first thirty minutes or so are reasonably engaging, more mellow than one would expect outside of a few setpieces. The opening… okay, so if you’re wondering about the one shot with the rockets and the magic dust and what appear to be dead Tripods in a cornfield, yeah I’m not sure that’s ever going to make sense. It’s an allusion to all of one panel in the first book that implies — or “states” might be a better phrase — that Hargreeves is an alien. This never comes up again, or at least hasn’t, but the books kind of imply that Hargreeves, as an alien, has magical powers and technology that has helped him build the Umbrella Academy and that he’s personally responsible for all of the random surprise babies. That they’re not just superpowered babies, they’re alien superpowered babies. Or something. If any of this is important, the books definitely don’t give that impression, but then again, the books rarely bother to explain anything, so who knows what the show intends to do with this idea, if anything. I seriously doubt that any sort of explanation will help this scene make sense.
Oh, also, Vanya’s violin came from Hargreeves’ wife, kind of. Her foster mother/possible birth mother via magic alien glow beans. I actually like that bit. It’s sweet.
Moving right along, we continue from the cliffhanger of the previous episode with Vanya, having escaped her confines, understandably pissed off. She wanders through the house, rocking an inexplicable but somehow fitting goth look, complete with which white contact lenses, as she lays waste to the building that has been so overbearing throughout the series. The sequence has its odd moments, particularly in how the show handles Vanya’s turn to the dark side, but given how many times I’ve brought up the physical space of the house, you might understand why I like this scene so much. It’s rare that any narrative manages to give so much weight to a location, but shows are especially good at it. Subtextually, Vanya is the only one of the children who has finally managed to break free of the confines set by their father, bringing down this behemoth that seemed like it would be an everlasting reminder of him and the shitty lives he gave them. Of course, Vanya is also destroying the few good things wrapped up in the house; it is their home, after all, and Grace and Pogo are victims of Hargreeves as much as the children are. Ignoring Vanya’s murderous bent, the demolition of the house is a bittersweet event, but something that kind of needs to happen for all of the main characters to move on with their lives. They’re not children anymore, and sooner or later, they need to reach a point where they can’t just fall back into their childhood patterns. With the house gone, they’re forced to figure things out on their own now.
At least, that’s the idea. Vanya leaves to prepare for her symphony, because she’s not about to let something little like turning into a cartoon supervillain ruin her big performance as first chair. This leaves the rest of the Academy in need of a new base where they can regroup. Their choice? A bowling alley.
From a story standpoint, the bowling alley offers very little, but as a comedic setup? Yes. All the yes. Unsurprisingly, the bowling alley is not a great place for superhero plotting. They nearly get kicked out for not bowling enough, an overenthusiastic mom tries to invite Five to her son’s birthday party, and the whole vibe of the place does not exactly speak to the urgency of the situation. Naturally, Klaus decides completely unprompted that this is a great time to explain that he can materialize Ben.
Now, I’ve brought it up a couple of times before, but this is arguably the scene that’s meant to convey how the main family members other than Klaus think of Ben. The running implication seems to be that they all miss Ben, but don’t interact with him through Klaus on a regular basis, and maybe haven’t ever. Even though they know Klaus could summon Ben, they all seem skeptical about his ability and don’t seem to notice that he’s constantly talking to him. Based on a few stray comments and a dose of conjecture, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show eventually reveals that shortly after Ben’s death, the family did try to get Klaus to summon him and he couldn’t. If Ben hanging out around him started later, that might explain their genuinely surprised and kind of sour attitudes in this scene. However, the show never so much as hints about any of this explicitly, so for all I know, even the showrunners don’t know where they’re going yet.
As a result, it is never clear at any point if the incredulous stares as Klaus goes on saying Ben saved the day are directed at the idea that Klaus has a new power, that Ben is present, that Ben chose to be useful, that Klaus is even mentioning Ben, or that Klaus’ powers work at all. Of course, very little of that matters; the real takeaway is that Klaus is a dunderhead in any circumstance and Diego needs to choose his supportive moments more carefully. How does Klaus go about proving that Ben is there and he can touch things now? By throwing a heavy-ass bowling ball at him, of course!
The thing I think I like most about this scene is that Diego, Klaus, and Ben all recognize immediately how much they’ve missed the mark, and just have to sit down to recover from it for a while.
The other half of the sextuple also get individual moments, though none quite as effective as the bowling ball mishap. Allison recruits Luther to call her daughter for her, which is technically a sweet, emotional scene. Until Luther tries to use it to apologize to Allison. I’m a bit bummed because I like the concept here; Allison just wants to comfort her daughter knowing that they’re all going into a dangerous situation, and she doesn’t really want to rely on Luther, but she needs someone and he’s the only one she trusts to get it done. Luther tells Claire, Allison’s daughter, that her mother loves her, as per Allison’s instructions, then when Allison breaks down and drops her pen pad, he has to improvise without making the kid worried. There’s nothing insidious or even problematic with the language used, it’s just the framing. They were so close. There’s a way to make this scene work. But the unavoidable problem is that the script is calling direct comparison between Allison’s love for her daughter and Luther’s love for Allison — two very different types of love. That Luther is effectively hijacking Allison’s conversation with her daughter to make the conversation about him is also not great. Seriously, just let him demonstrate that he cares about Allison by doing this one thing properly! It’s not hard! What are you doing, show?
The Time Agency is also back with their machinations, as we saw in the last episode. Five discovers that his candies have tracking devices in them, which raises some questions about whether he has eaten one, in which case destroying the other is useless, or if the Handler just decided to take a gamble and hope that he happened to pick up a candy with a tracker in it. Either way, this prompts Five to meet with the Handler at the bird motel (with Agnes tied up the entire time, listening in). The Handler reinforces Five’s perpetual dilemma of staying to die with his family or abandoning them and starting over. Five, of course, chooses his family.
On the topic of the Time Agency, they’re kind of pointless here? The Handler’s discussion with Five is ultimately just a distraction so that they can attack the bowling alley and later the theatre, but both times they feel completely tacked on. The bowling alley fight is so absurd and short that I honestly forgot it was there. It involves Klaus throwing a cake and then everyone running down the lanes to escape. Of course, the fight, if you can call it that, is a good encapsulation of the show. This is what 90% of this series is, so I shouldn’t be surprised any more. However, moments like these remind me to applaud who or whatever is wrangling the cohesive 10% of this circus.
Hazel and Cha-Cha have almost nothing to do in this episode, but they’re still here for some reason. Cha-Cha gets the short end of the stick when Hazel runs into a wall and tries to murder her so he can rescue Agnes and escape via the Handler’s briefcase. They do so, leaving their participation in the next season open-ended. Cha-Cha isn’t dead, exactly, but the show certainly seems to want her out of the picture, having her die along with all of the other minor characters in the world-ending explosion.
Oh yeah, did I mention they failed and the world ended? Probably should have led with that.
Part Two: TENTACLES!!!!
I’ve danced around it long enough. The action-packed final showdown between Vanya and her siblings is actually much shorter than it feels, only about ten minutes long. It’s on par with the scene where Hazel and Cha-Cha attacked the main house, in that sense. It really wants to be big, and it fails on so many levels while still being reasonably entertaining. There are a few stand-out character moments within it, but the key word here is “absurd.”
Do you remember the ending of X-Men: Apocalypse? Of course you don’t. But it’s relevant here, because The Umbrella Academy is going for a strikingly similar vibe. Vanya is the Big Bad and she’s playing her violin, threatening to destroy the planet in the process with her powers. No one of the main characters is powerful enough to stop her, so they have to team up. Well, not Klaus because he’s useless and sent off as a lookout. For something, I’m sure.
Except, oh boy, our friend confusing editing is back! Where are the characters situated in respect to Vanya? Well, at first they seem to be in the lobby, then backstage, and then somehow in the seats, cowering as the symphony-goers flee. I think she telekinesises them back, so many that’s how they get pushed around, but it doesn’t do much to explain how the various characters keep hopping around the room. Five I can accept, but not the other ones.
To help out, the Time Agency folks are… here now, I guess. I think the show means to imply that they’re here to protect Vanya, but boy is that never made evident even a little bit in the filmmaking. The masked Time Agency guys show up out of absolutely nowhere for the second time in the episode, having sneaked past Klaus’ hawklike gaze while he was buying a taco.
Don’t worry, he returns to rescue everyone. Well, technically he runs back into the theatre, amidst the sounds of gunfire, to let his siblings know that he spotted Cha-Cha. Good job, buddy.
This is of course the actual moment of truth for Klaus’ new power, and also Ben, for some reason. I struggle to fully understand why, but of all of the strange and cartoonish scenes in this series, including the several in this very episode, the execution of this one is the one that breaks me. This is one of those scenes that requires me to pause every ten seconds while watching it to question the decisions I have made in my life, before collecting myself and continuing.
First, the effects. There are many parts of this sequence that got the care and attention they needed to look interesting or realistic, or at least cool. The world being engulfed in flames. The building collapsing. The moon. Ben appearing as a blue ghost and tentacling motherfuckers willy-nilly is not really one of them. Fun? Oh absolutely. Believable? Not even close.
Granted, I’m not familiar enough with graphic effects to tell if they’re using a particular sort of technology that makes parts of Ben and his many tentacles look impressive, but I can explain why the visuals don’t work. It’s mainly how they’re used. Part of the problem is definitely Ben’s tentacle-laden character design, which is confusing. Ben doesn’t appear much in the books (because, you know, dead) but it’s a lot easier to make belly tentacles work in a comic format. The show has purposefully avoided showing Ben using his tentacles, posing the idea that Ben’s tentacles are a violent overkill sort of power that none of the other characters has. I would imagine making them look good is a big part of the reason for this creative choice, but the problem is that the show somewhat accidentally builds up to Ben using his tentacles, and it really just doesn’t know quite how to overcome the design problem.
The plot and pacing don’t help much. Ben hasn’t been given, well, any characterization, so the show has to come up with a compelling reason for Ben to suddenly appear as an Eldritch horror (I regret nothing) and whack the time agents around. The show’s solution is that Ben hears gunfire and grows concerned. That does not feel like enough for Ben to just suddenly hulk out. I actually think tying Ben’s one awesome moment to Klaus works for both characters, because they clearly rely on each other on a regular basis. I’ve said from the start, Ben and Klaus as a team is an awesome idea. Klaus has had plenty of his own characterization and now we’re seeing Ben get the same. I love the idea of Ben pushing Klaus to help him fight, finally making use of those pep talks for his own good. Ben needs a win of his own.
But for whatever reason, there’s no discussion or even a moment of, “Hey, Klaus, do the thing!” Klaus just gets blue hands, and then Ben’s there. Like, okay. That’s abrupt. And we don’t really get any reactions from either character throughout the scene, almost all of it’s shot at a middle- to long-distance. This is probably so that we can be impressed by Ben grabbing people in his tentacles (one of whom he rips in half! WTF, murderous much, Ben?!?!), but I also imagine it’s a technique to keep the cgi from looking too Ghost Busters. I don’t blame them, because based on the silly poses the actors strike for the duration of the scene, I really don’t think face shots would have done it many favors. But before, or afterward? Klaus and Ben exchange all of maybe a glance. I’ve come to expect more from this series, is all.
I also like how the Time Agency people are mainly just there to get hurled around by Ben. If you thought they felt unnecessary before, by this point it’s evident that their only reason for being here is so that Ben can look like a badass without diminishing Vanya’s presence. However, given that Vanya also kind of has tentacles at one point (the decisions for this scene, I swear), I can’t help but feel like they missed an opportunity on that one.
The rest of the family’s reaction to all of this is priceless, though. Again, the show has never actually established how much the other protagonists know about Klaus’ regular interactions with Ben. They haven’t even mentioned the guy since the first episode, really, so the audience has no foundation for what their expected response might be upon seeing their dead brother again. So when Ben shows up and several beats pass in which he’s taking out minions left and right, then Luther belatedly blurts out, “It’s him! Ben!” I just can’t help but love that. Like, yeah, Luther. I get that you’re surprised, I mean I would be too under the circumstances, but how many other tentacled people do you know, exactly?
Meanwhile, Diego ducks off to what I assume is backstage (it might also be the catwalks) to fight Cha-Cha, who I assume is there to help? This whole fucking scene requires a lot of leaps on the part of the audience to figure out what the hell is going on. As best I can figure out, Klaus spots Cha-Cha and informs his siblings that she’s coming, which prompts Diego to go after her for revenge and fight her one-on-one. Whether these things happen in that order is anyone’s guess, because they’re cut between Klaus’ blue hands moment and Ben tossing minions around and theatre-goers finishing their fleeing, and Vanya playing violin, and I think a few other things as well. The editing is choppy, is what I’m saying.
Which is a pity, because Diego’s fight is actually one of two really spectacular moments that work in this scene. The choreography is impressive, and while their animosity has not been built up to my satisfaction, they do have a precedent for it. Diego has fought her before, injuring her, and she was the one who killed his ex-girlfriend. Cha-Cha is very pissed off and really doesn’t want to have to deal with this clown while her job is on the line. We have a good setup for a fight, where both participants are giving their all, but one of them has a personal stake in it that could make or break it. More importantly, when Diego has the chance to kill her, he has to make the important decision of whether to do it. The flashbacks are a bit much considering they only reference the previous episode, but the scene passes by so quickly, I’ll let them slide.
Diego is established as the badass action hero of the group, and arguably the most violent among them. In the books, this is most of his character, really. He gets a few moments of emotional vulnerability, and those are highlights of his arc, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. In the show, though, it’s all an act. Diego is awkward, self-conscious, and a fucking nerd. He wants to be seen as the strong man and picks fights with Luther to prove how macho he is, but on a personal level, he’s empathetic and caring. There’s a reason he gets along with Klaus so well. He chooses to let Cha-Cha go, which is a powerful little moment. This is kind of the culmination of Diego’s arc, with him dropping the grim superhero act and playing to the person he actually is rather than the one he pretends to be.
If nothing else, it’s ten times better than Cleganebowl.
Unfortunately, Diego’s rather significant moment comes and goes with relatively little fanfare because Vanya’s still going to town on her fiddle and also glowing now. So that’s not good. The boys come up with a brilliant plan that involves mainly running at her, and, I just, I don’t know what this whole glowing tentacle soul-sucking thing is, but it looks ridiculous. However, Allison avoids being grabbed by Vanya’s not-tentacles, and here we have something quite special. Like Diego, Allison has to choose between killing Vanya and not killing her. Given that she has more sympathy toward Vanya than Diego does toward Cha-Cha, her decision is a no-brainer. However, it may not be apparent, but the show’s actually doing something quite clever here. In the books, it’s Diego who makes this decision because something something incest lovers, Diego has to pull the trigger on the one person in the family he cares about. Or knife, more specifically. He doesn’t, but Five does. There’s a thing with Klaus and an asteroid which the show cheekily alludes to, and Vanya survives because of comic book logic, but the world is effectively saved when Vanya gets shot.
No so here. The change to Allison is a good one because it circumvents the pretty gross connotations of a man murdering his “crazy” girlfriend. That trope just does not wear well, fantasy trappings or no, when real women have an alarming likelihood of being seriously hurt or killed by their male significant others. Even if Diego doesn’t go through with it, the scenario is fraught. From a storytelling standpoint, Allison just has much more at stake in the show, given what she and Vanya have been through. She has reason to be mad, but she’s also clearly the last one who wants to be holding that gun. She even tries to reason with Vanya before this whole fight starts. The show also changes the means of incapacitation. It’s a small change, but a significant one; instead of shooting Vanya in the head, Allison shoots next to her ear, deafening her (at least temporarily), and cutting off her powers. This isn’t really a dig at the books for being tactless, as the situation is almost identical, but it plays to the strengths of the show and how the series has set up these characters, their relationships, and the internal lore.
And it doesn’t work.
This happens in the books too, but Klaus saves the day through some utter nonsense, and the apocalypse is averted. Not so here. Klaus has already gotten his special power moment, and even this show realizes giving him another one at the final hour would be too much. Instead, Vanya’s laser thing destroys the moon, and a chunk of it comes roaring (literally, thank you sound department) toward earth. No, see, in this one, it’s Five who discovers he has another special ability, and that’s what saves them. He decides to jump through time with everyone else, including Vanya. (This is also kind of something that happens in the books, and for some reason, again, it is also Klaus who does this. I really need to review those at some point, because I have feelings about them.)
The world ends, but the heroes escape into the future, or possibly the past, setting up the next season to be a romp through time. As evidenced by the rock cover of Hazy Shade of Winter. It starts with the lyrics, “Time, time, time.” Do you get it? Because they’re time-travelling…
This fucking show. It knows what it is, and it isn’t nearly as ashamed as it should be. It might be my new favorite thing.
Part Three: To Recap
Looking back on the series, I’m actually kind of impressed despite its bizarre ending. This is very much my sort of series, though more along the lines of a perfect guilty pleasure than something I deeply respect. It has plenty of moments that are worth seeing and elevate it beyond an ironic watch. The characters are a big part of that.
Even within a single ten-episode season, the show has done more to balance its mid-sized cast than most series of this sort. Some characters get more development than others, clearly, but all of them have multiple poignant moments that I could see endearing each of them to a fan. I’m curious to hear about which characters resonate with people, because I don’t think any one of them stands out so far above the rest that they’re a clear show-stealer by the end of it. No, not even Klaus.
I started this by talking about each of their introductions, so I might as well end it the same way by talking about their conclusions for the season.
Oh Luther. Poor, poor Luther. You don’t get an overabundance of depth by the end of the season, do you? For a character who starts out so well-defined and still has delightfully awkward lines up through the end, Luther has the least of an arc and doesn’t really change much over the course of the season. His main moments of development are when his siblings learn that he has an ape body and when he discovers his father never read his moon correspondence. More prominent than either of these, though, is his attempts to pursue a relationship with Allison, which I’m noticing more and more are driven almost exclusively by him. I think this plotline could have potential if the show at least acknowledged the strangeness of the dynamic, and maybe it will do so in later seasons. The first season isn’t eager to help viewers past that initial block, though, and even if it did, the romance is pretty weak. It feels like it’s in there because superhero stories have romance subplots, and for no other reason. When a weak subplot is the bulk of a character’s focus, it’s going to weaken the character by proxy.
Diego also doesn’t get a huge amount of development outside of a few scenes. Much of his interactions are focused on showing up Luther, and they never really come to an impasse, much less resolve their rivalry. I suppose we need to save something for later seasons. However, the few moments Diego does get are pretty damn awesome. I feel like the delivery of his arc is frontloaded a bit, and almost all of it is isolated from the subplots of the other characters, so that might be why he doesn’t seem to get as much time to breathe. We learn early on that Diego’s actually a big softie with mommy issues, and that he’s surprisingly sensitive to the few people he cares about. The conclusion of his arc in this episode has him embracing or at least acknowledging that he’s not a murderer, which is one of the stronger character moments in the series. Diego works well off of Klaus, and can be surprisingly funny when the show lets him, so I have hope that he’ll continue to make use of his potential in the next season.
Allison’s arc is the only one that is backloaded, but it’s also one of the more cohesive. For a character who mainly just exists to dote on her daughter and Luther in the first part of the season, she comes around in the second part as a fully three-dimensional person with conflicting wants and deep character flaws. Her arc is about being torn between spending time with her two families, one consisting of a person who loves her unconditionally but whom she feels guilty about, and the other consisting of a bunch of assholes, a few of whom she wants a deeper connection with but isn’t sure how to achieve it. She initially thinks her choice is obvious and tries to leave her siblings as soon as possible, but after spending time with them free of the domineering hand of their father, Allison starts to connect with them on a deeper level, making her decision harder.
Her sisterhood with Vanya is especially important to her arc, as she starts to act the older sister and tries to keep Vanya from making the same romantic mistakes she did. Allison is the first to learn of Vanya’s powers and the only one paying attention to Leonard. However, she also makes numerous mistakes, endangering herself and upsetting her sister all in a misguided attempt to help that at its core seems at least slightly selfish. Allison was raised with no limitations, so her problems are often self-generated. Her powers give her everything she could ever want, but this has wrecked her sense of patience and often gives her a slight if unintentional arrogance. She’s a superhero who’s faced down antagonists before, so she knows what’s best for Vanya. In the end, though, her self-confidence and brash behavior is what saves Vanya when she opts not to kill her and instead takes her with them. Is this a good idea? Probably not. The next season will stand to show it, but either way, it’s an important culmination for Allison’s arc. She’s learned to work within her own limitations without sacrificing the empathy that makes her who she is.
And then we have Klaus. All of the characters’ arcs are about them growing up in one way or another, but if we can summarize Klaus’ many subplots over the course of the first season into a single arc, his is the most relevant to maturity. Klaus’ subplots include his drug habit and attempt to get clean, his reluctance to use his power, his apparent uselessness within the family, his trauma from being in a war and losing his boyfriend, his relationships with his brothers, his fear of his father and inability to talk to him, and the discovery that he has more powers than he realized. Yeah, that’s a lot of subplots, few of which have anything to do with one another. Broadly speaking, you can link them together by saying that Klaus seems like an inept buffoon at the start of the series, clearly there as the comic relief, but as we see more of his underlying personal struggles, we also start to see his narrative utility. His uselessness is a coping mechanism; he takes drugs to quell his ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, and this makes his family look down on him. Klaus can in fact be a contributing member of the team on occasion, but these occasions are few and far between, often blocked by his internal problems that make it difficult to come about when people actually need him. However, when push comes to shove, Klaus will eventually come through.
That’s not bad, considering the sort of series this is. How useful he is in this particular episode is up for debate, as he’s doing maybe ten percent of the work and the time agents aren’t that much of a threat. Klaus gets his moment to shine, though, and what’s more, he proves himself to his family. They finally acknowledge his ability to talk to Ben and include him in the decision-making, so that’s a step in the right direction at least.
Five’s arc is tenuous because it’s the most wrapped-up in fantasy trappings completely unrelated to the emotional core of the series. However, he does get a few strong points as well. Most of these come at the beginning of the series. He comes across as an arrogant little asshole who’s been off on his own travelling through time and has only returned to stop the apocalypse, but we quickly realize that there’s a bit more to him. He’s been trapped by his own overconfidence, stuck in a desolate wasteland after finding his family grown and dead, with no one for company but himself for fifty years. Five is a bit off his rocker, a child who never grew up but who has the experience of an old man and shows it. In some ways, he comes from a very different lifestyle than his siblings and isn’t entirely sure how to cope with his change of setting. He tends to be flighty and unreliable, but doesn’t recognize this or indeed any of his faults, which makes him a drain for the audience and the other characters in the show. However, at his core, Five still loves his family more than anything else, and when given the option to stay with them or save himself, he consistently chooses the former. That’s kind of cute, actually.
Ben doesn’t have an arc through about 98% of this series, maybe more, but he gets to do a fun tentacle monster thing at the end, so that’s something. The problem is that Ben can’t interact with anyone other than Klaus, and Klaus has way too many subplots to be the arbiter of Ben’s arc on top of that. The show does actually imply something resembling an arc for Ben, with his first appearance being reluctance to use his powers as a child in a flashback and his culmination in the final episode being him returning from beyond the grave to save his family. Throughout the season, Ben is relegated to cheerleader, exclusively for Klaus, and seems to have accepted that this is his existence now, just sitting around and watching Klaus waste his life. Ben isn’t completely useless, but his ability to interact with things isn’t set up until very late into the season, so his contribution to the story as a whole is limited. However, now that everyone knows Ben is there and he can do things, I’d imagine the next season will give him a more complete arc.
Vanya ‘s arc is about her being screwed over by the people around her until she blows up the world. It’s more complicated than that, but as far as this episode is concerned, yeah, that’s her arc.
For the ostensible protagonist in the first episode, the show certainly chooses to spend little time with Vanya. Her most compelling points are at the very beginning of the series and just before the finale, when her contribution to the family is questioned and her isolation is most prominent. The thing that makes Vanya a compelling character is that even among this group of clowns, she’s an outsider. This is true regardless of where she goes because she’s suspended between worlds — raised in the confines of the Umbrella Academy but not a participant, and therefore stuck in the unique lifestyle of her siblings while purposefully kept apart from them. All of this is down to their father and his terrible parenting decisions, but the continued animosity of her siblings toward her is what pushes Vanya throughout the season. The protagonists all have complex relationships to one another, but their pity and disinterest toward Vanya in particular serves as a fertile ground for conflict. It leads them to treat her like the perpetual younger sibling, there to be protected, but annoying when she resists their condescension. Many of them treat her like Pogo or Grace, assuming that she’s just there to fill the house and irritated when she makes herself known, as when she writes her memoir. Much of Vanya’s narrative throughout the series concerns her trying to adopt an identity independent of her siblings and find a balance between being a part of her family and not needing to concern herself with the exploits of the Umbrella Academy any more.
The series struggles with managing Vanya’s plot among the others, which is why points like Leonard being a dingus and Vanya having secret powers fall flat. The show recovers what it can from these elements, using them to highlight Vanya’s isolation and how her circumstance is a fabrication by her father. Because she spends so little time with any family member other than Allison, though, the ending can only do so much to bring Vanya’s story around. As she spends most of it incapacitated and speaks all of zero words to anyone, Vanya isn’t really a character in the end so much as an obstacle for the other characters to overcome. I think it’s a good move to keep her alive, as everyone dealing with the fallout could prove interesting in coming seasons. I can’t deny that Vanya’s lack of agency at the end of the season bothers me, though.
Based on all of this, we have several robust arcs and common themes of family, forgiveness, and hidden depths — simple elements for a fantasy action series, but good ones. All seven of the protagonists have good setup for their character growth but highly asymmetrical roles within the story. Of all of the ones tied directly to the A plot, Allison is probably the most emotionally complex, being the one to both stop and save Vanya. Vanya has potential for the later seasons, but mainly serves as a prop in the end, and Five, while given considerable weight in the A plot, spends a lot of the series spinning in circles. Honestly, the character who gets the most depth and cohesive story after Allison is Klaus, which is absurd because he’s off doing his own thing for almost the entire season. His arc is compelling, but it’s so isolated from the rest of the plot that the show doesn’t have much excuse to spend as much time on Klaus as it does aside from him being a fun character. Diego has a good arc, but it’s similarly cut off from the other characters, and the show seems a lot less interested in spending time with him than it does with Klaus. Luther has a similar problem, but with a less compelling arc.
Moving forward, I have reservations about subsequent seasons, but I’m looking forward to them. The show is in a good position to more effectively link the characters’ arcs to each other and provide more means of them interacting, which should prove interesting if the series takes the opportunity. It’s in a difficult position because it’s based on relatively lean source material, with only three books of what looks like an intended longer series out to date. However, the second and third books still offer inspiration for new plots including more development for Five, and the show has handled its own wholly fabricated subplots fairly well. I’m not worried for Season Two, but I do question the potential longevity of this series, especially given how iffy Netflix has been about renewing series past a second or third season. It’s probably the best platform this show could have landed, but as is common for Netflix series, I’ve all but stopped hearing about it since its initial buzz.
As long as it eventually explores how Ben died and what the consequences of that were to the characters, I think I’ll be happy.