3P Reviews, The Umbrella Academy

The Milkman Cometh – The Umbrella Academy, Season Two, Episode One

A

Dallas? The Kennedy assassination? 1960s faux-idyllic pastels and warm colors? Secret societies? A bizarre cult? Psychics? Conspiracies? The end of the world as we know it?

Milk?

Why yes, that please. All of it. I want.

(Look, you can’t fault me for having a type.)

As it turns out, the milkman is less important than one might hope, but on a positive note, I finished my vector drawings for this episode! Only… nine more episodes to go. This may have been a mistake. Well, too late to back down now!

At long last, The Umbrella Academy has returned, and this time, they’re stuck in the sixties. I suppose I probably should have guessed, given that’s one of the few things in the second book they haven’t already used. If you’ve read my first set of reviews, you know that this is a series I had a lot of fun with in its first go around, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it, uh… good, per se. It’s a silly misfit superhero show with occasional moments of uncanny brilliance that it juggles like a hot potato it has no idea what to do with. It also has Teleporting Margarita Boi.

Coming into the second season, we know that the heroes have jumped back in time after they failed to stop the apocalypse, and very little else. The second season is quite the blank slate, and my expectations for it were equally unclear. Cautious anticipation. That’s most of what I felt going into this. For some reason, I had thought the series was going to hit in April, but when no announcement came, I started to doubt the series would even get its second season out at all. COVID’s been eating up productions left and right, and it can take a while for a fairly big-budget series like this to actually start filming. My understanding is that at this point, you really have be fully at the post-production stage, finishing up sound and editing and effects but done with all filming, in order to even have a shot at releasing anything close to a finished film or television season for the foreseeable future. Some productions are trying to continue shooting in less affected places, but that’s a fairly recent development and its efficacy still tenuous, so expect any live action series you were looking forward to that hasn’t been announced yet to be delayed indefinitely. It sucks, I know.

Through some goddamn miracle, though, The Umbrella Academy is apparently one of the few series that got in just under the wire, and its second season is finally here for us to greet with open arms, and also maybe cutlery. Let’s dig in.

3P Reviews Series: The Umbrella Academy

Season Two

Episode One: Right Back Where We Started – ****

Spoilers: Ya.

Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the series and/or my review series for the first season.

Content Warnings: Mention of racism, segregation, COVID-19, the apocalypse, nuclear weapons, murder, violence, cults.

Part One: Yup, It’s the Sixties

D

The first season ended with a bang, quite literally, but on a structural level, it is fairly complete. This isn’t unusual for shows that haven’t been greenlit for a second season before the first has aired, though my understanding is that the second season of The Umbrella Academy was greenlit fairly quickly after its release. The rule of thumb seems to be to leave the audience eager for more, but not to leave them wanting. Leave things open-ended, but not on a cliffhanger; conclude the major character arcs, and bring it to a resolution. That way, if you aren’t picked up again, the audience will lament the second season that never was, but won’t hold it against the first season for telling an incomplete story. Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Preacher, The End of the Fucking World, Mr. Robot, Bojack Horseman, Tuca & Bertie, GLOW, Ozark, Stranger Things, Westworld, The Walking Dead, Barry — it’s really common. Netflix in particular seems fond of it.

Ending with a false cliffhanger is effective when you’re crafting the first season, but once the sequel does come around, then you have the problem of figuring out what to actually do with it. Most series aren’t written with multiple seasons in mind ahead of time, beyond basic drafts of ideas, and a lot can change between writing the scripts of different seasons. If you have a story that ends with a sudden shift in the plot, like a reveal or cataclysm, you essentially have two options for your second season: either respect the shift and use it as your new groundwork to build the second season’s arc, or resolve the shift quickly so you can continue to build upon the arc established in the first season. Essentially, with the second season, you’re defining whether the seasons of the show will be segmented as unique episodes of their own within the larger series, or whether they’re just practical breaks in an otherwise continuous story. Boardwalk Empire makes its seasons continuous, where Stranger Things chooses an episodic approach.

The Umbrella Academy makes it very clear that it too is opting for the seasonal arcs to be largely self-contained, which I personally prefer. Episodic seasons can be easily given a unique look, style, theme, and location, but the continuity of character arcs keeps them from feeling like anthologies. Done well, seasons split up into their own clear arcs within the broader arc of the series can add greater complexity and depth to a show. However, this only works if the writers have enough ideas to keep the seasons from repeating themselves, and character subplots that allow for lengthy tangents. The Umbrella Academy has at least one of these, anyway.

So, we begin the season where we left off, with Five taking his siblings into the past in an attempt at a do-over on the whole apocalypse business. Something goes wrong, and he both goes back way too far, and also drops them off at slightly different times. The first to land is Klaus, because of course he fucking is. If you had any doubts about whether the series has shifted its priorities over the last year or so, Klaus is here to assure you that it absolutely has not. He is still very much the darling of the creators, and is still stuck in that unfortunate role of simultaneously being a genuinely charming character, and also annoying as fuck. I love him dearly.

Ben is with him, of course, and they quickly learn that they’re stuck in 1960. While the dialogue is not much improved from the first season, we get an early hint that the show is growing when Klaus and Ben’s response to being stuck in the sixties is, “Oh no, not again.” They and Five, of course, are the only characters who have time-traveled before, and while Klaus’ first foray into the sixties was to 1968, he is still well-acquainted with the time period. That’s a fun way to kick off the new season.

From there, we see the other characters drop out of the sky into the same alley in Dallas, separated by months or years. Allison appears in 1961 and runs head-first into the segregationist South; Luther appears in 1962 and immediately begins looking for Allison; Diego appears in 1963 and realizes Kennedy is still alive; Vanya arrives a month after Diego and immediately gets hit by a car and knocked unconscious; and Five arrives yet another month later, a few days after the Kennedy assassination, when the Soviets invade the U.S. and start World War III.

Clearly somebody has fucked something up. Five watches his siblings, some of them apparently with greater control over their powers, all assembled and fighting either the Russians, or the Americans, or both (things are a bit chaotic, to say the least), until some one sets off a nuclear bomb and wipes out all life on the planet. Again. Hazel, retired but in possession of one of those time-travel briefcases, rescues Five and transports him to a few days earlier so he can avert disaster once more. Hazel gets shot by some mysterious Malfoy-looking mofos, but Five escapes and sets out to find his wayward siblings.

So what have they all been up to in the intervening months and years?

Quite a bit, it seems. Diego, precious jelly bean that he is, has made it his life goal to stop the JFK assassination. He has opted to go about doing this by trying to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Perhaps unsurprisingly, trying to stop someone from doing something they’ve not yet done isn’t a particularly good legal defense for attempted murder, nor is the explanation that you’re a superhero from the future who doesn’t exist yet and this is your self-appointed job. It’s landed him in a mental asylum, but he’s doing well for himself, all things considered — making friendship bracelets, dealing with his daddy issues, occasionally shouting at the orderlies about the impending assassination he must stop.

Vanya is faring somewhat better. She has amnesia! Upon landing in 1963, she was almost immediately hit by a car, and the well-meaning driver has since let Vanya live at her farm while she tries to figure out who she was. Vanya knows her name, but everything about being raised as the outcast of a team of child superheroes and learning she has always had powers and accidentally destroying the moon that one time has all gone all the way out the window. I’m sure it’ll never come back.

Klaus and Ben have had plenty of time to get into trouble everywhere, and appear to have recently escaped some sort of hippie commune. Klaus appears to have done fairly well for himself if his outfit is anything to go by, but then again, he is introduced wearing what appears to be a starfish, so perhaps “well” is a relative term. The two of them are headed back to Dallas after getting involved in some sort of major event in San Francisco, and despite having a few years to figure out Klaus’ new powers from the first season, their dynamic remains quarrelsome.

Allison is the only one who is properly adjusted, having found a welcoming community in the Black neighborhood near where she landed. She’s involved in the Civil Rights Movement and has even re-married to a smoking hot civil rights organizer named Ray. She’s been married for a year and is finally happy; her voice box has healed, but she has held off on using her powers and feels rightfully accomplished for it. Everything she’s earned for herself since landing in the past she has earned as an ordinary person, and she’s proud of that.

And, finally, Luther has also made a name for himself, but is far less cheery about it than some of his siblings are about themselves. Isolated from his long-lost sister love (which is still very weird), Luther has embraced his massiveness to become a champion boxer and bouncer for gangster Jack Ruby. Mostly, he just seems depressed, and when Five locates him, he decides not to participate in the little bugger’s latest hairbrained scheme.

Plot-wise, the first episode is mainly concerned with setting the stage for the season moving forward, resetting some of the characters so they come into play much as they did at the start of the first season — indeed, the title of the first episode references this sort of repetition. Aside from the setting, the main differences are that the characters still have their development from the previous season, and the show frames Five as its primary protagonist, so we’re generally re-introduced to the main characters as Five runs into them. The menacing milkman team are the initial antagonists of the season, but the story is, as before, primarily concerned with the Hargreeves family and their various personal problems.

Part Two: Big Mood

BSo we now know whats in the episode, but is it any good?

Tentatively, I would say yes. I’ll admit, I was rather worried when one of the first lines in the episodes was, “They’re gone, like a fart in the wind,” and another was, “I think the question is, ‘When are we?'” so, uh, the dialogue hasn’t exactly improved over the last year and a half. It doesn’t take long for things to pick up, though; the charm of the first season is still there, with its Disney movie-style narration and lovably goofy characters. And there are a few good lines here and there. “You’re my ghost bitch, remember?” works surprisingly well in-context, I think because the concept that anybody is Klaus’ bitch is itself ludicrous.

Oh, uh, if you were wondering whether Klaus was going to steal the spotlight in this season’s reviews like he did last time, yes, yes probably he is. I suppose we can start with him and Ben because they’re separated from the other characters through this whole first episode and don’t connect as well to the other plots yet. The series has not grown tired of piling subplots onto Klaus, but at least it seems to be aware that it’s doing that now. In fact, the second season kind of makes it one of his character traits that he has a habit of accidentally stumbling into new scenarios, any one of which could be another character’s entire arc. We’ll see more of what he’s been up to in the coming episodes, but if his outfit is anything to go on, in the past few years, he seems to have somehow become some kind of gay-hippie-movie-star-magician-guru. No explanation. I do love the idea that the nonsense of the previous season, what with getting kidnapped by time-traveling assassins, and having a tragic fling during the Vietnam war, and dying and meeting God, are not life-altering events for Klaus, but instead are the sort of thing that just happens to him, constantly.

Also, Ben is more involved in this season! He remains mostly invisible to everyone, but Klaus can now summon him at will to help fight his battles for him, like at the end of the last season… if Ben wants him too. Apparently it’s a two-way street, meaning Ben can opt to stay invisible if he likes, to great comic effect. Ben can interact with things more, which is also wonderful, and now that he can participate in the outside world, at least to some extent, he has life goals (death goals?) that are not directly connected to Klaus. And, of course, his interactions with Klaus remain delightful. I love me some banter and bickering.

The other characters who particularly stand out from the start are Allison and Diego, whom I’m cautiously optimistic the season will do well with (you might be able to tell that I’ve seen all of the episodes already, but I’m trying to give my honest opinion of the season as it goes along, so humor me). Allison’s subplot revolving around the Civil Rights Movement is a risky choice, because while it’s a pivotal historical event that I’m glad the series is willing to address directly as a prominent part of the 1960s, I always get a bit nervous when I see a series like The Umbrella Academy decide to tackle a serious subject like that. While race is a part of the series, with several of the main characters cast to create a more diverse leading ensemble than the books they’re based on, in-universe, the show hasn’t ever even addressed that Allison, Diego, and Ben are not White. They are raised by a White father in an affluent environment that reflects a colonial mindset (even down to the big game animal heads), which one might expect to have an impact on their relationship to race and how they fit into it, as is often the case for adopted children of color. Even setting aside the supernatural and dramatic elements for a moment, the series seems uncomfortable talking about race in the first season, keen to present the characters and let the audience draw their own conclusions.

Not so in this season. Starting very early on, the show indicates that Allison’s subplot is largely going to be about race. Part of this is of course a conscious reflection of the time period; while the bulk of the Civil Rights Movement as it’s taught in schools began in the 1950s, the movement of course spanned several decades, and demonstrations like sit-ins were very much a thing in 1963. Segregation was still legal and common in places like Texas, and even after the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, various social pressures, many of them arising in the preceding years and decades, continued to enforce boundaries on the lives of Black Americans everywhere. Many of these issues continue to this day, even if they look somewhat different than they did in the 1960s, and I think it’s admirable for a pop culture series to remind people of that, because a lot of series prefer to avoid it. However, I am a bit apprehensive, as Netflix has a bit of a spotty record when it comes to series that can bridge serious topics and fantasy entertainment without turning it into a farce. It’s a delicate line to walk, and a lot depends on the later episodes.

On a similar note, I’m not overly fond of how the episode portrays the mental institution Diego ends up in, but I am eager to see what it decides to do with him. Diego is presented as a tough bad boy at the start of the first season, exactly the sort of gritty, unpleasant character I ordinarily despise. By the end of the season, though, we learn that the emo vigilante gimmick is mostly just a guise to get people to treat him seriously, and he’s actually a precious baby cinnamon roll. In fact, by framing him as grown-ass man who really, really wants to be Batman, and clearly models his appearance and behavior after films and comic books, he ends up working surprisingly well as a sympathetic comedic character, and functionally has a lot more in common with Klaus than he does Luther or Five. The second season seems to be leaning into this more, and looks like it will be focusing on Diego’s insecurities. Which is excellent. I’m 100% here for that. I have high hopes for him, because as a character who’s sometimes a bit of a prick, it’s less mean-spirited if the series picks on him than, say, Vanya, but it also has opportunity to treat Diego’s actual problems with a delicate touch. And deciding that Diego’s immediate and exclusive goal for the season is to save JFK… god, that’s perfect. He’s so fucking adorable, I love ‘im.

Five, Vanya, and Luther, on the other hand, are not as well defined in this first episode as the others, and I think we’ll see in the coming episodes whether the show will give them anything interesting to do.

Five is the only character who has not been stuck in the 1960s for very long, which itself is fine given he mainly benefits from interacting with his siblings, but do kind of long for some point where Five is not always on, so to speak. The guy needs a break every once in a while, and I feel like by tying his scenes to the A Plot so heavily, the series limits his personal development. Some of my favorite parts in both Season One and the books concern Five trying to adjust to normal life after the apocalypse has been averted. He seems, as a geriatric pre-teen who has lived the majority of his life either wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland or jumping through time on assassination missions, he would probably not do well with a day job. And I want to see that. Badly. Considering Five’s entire life goal is to get back to his family and normal life, I really hope that the series will give him time to breathe, rather than keeping him on his toes all the time and then just killing him off or something once the crisis has been averted.

Vanya’s interactions with her new farm family are fine — she’s been taken in as the sort of lodger of a family consisting of a sleazy ad salesman, a child who appears to be on the autism spectrum, and Sissy, whom one might describe as a retro MILF. Vanya gets along with the latter two and less so the former. Aside from her interactions with the family members, her main priority in this episode is resolving her amnesia, which as amnesia always seems to do, has wiped out the crucial thing this character probably ought to know — namely, that she’s the villain. I think my feelings toward the amnesia trope are similar to most people’s — it has utility if used creatively (Memento and The Bourne Identity are good examples), but it’s often presented as a shortcut to a more interesting moment. You can imagine, for instance, that when Vanya finally gets her memory back (because that’s often what happens if the story isn’t interested in the amnesia itself), that her powers might burst out, or she might have some sort of mental breakdown, and I don’t like the series stringing the audience along indefinitely just so it can bring Vanya back as a point-of-view character. I like having her as a point-of-view character, but I want them to resolve the amnesia subplot as soon as possible so we can get around the obligatory bullshit and actually see what the series intends to do with Vanya in the long run.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy about Five and Vanya. I’m less convinced about Luther. That he seems to be depressed and has either accepted his appearance or given up on caring about it might be a compelling subplot for him, but I feel very much like I did in the first season with regard to Luther. He doesn’t have a lot going on. Some of this is a holdover from the books, where Luther is more clearly the main protagonist and many of the other characters are not as well-defined as they are in the show. With the show less interested in the A Plot and Luther less involved in it, the things that allow the other characters to flourish have an unfortunate habit of highlighting Luther’s pointlessness in the story. I want him to be interesting, and his actor’s portrayal of the character is lovely, but I’m not entirely sure where the show can go with Luther. He has become the Diego of the group. Oh dear.

Part Three: Give. Vanya. A. Girlfriend.

C

Moving forward, there are a few things to pay close attention to in this season. For one, the setup of the first episode struggles to lay out a predictable seasonal arc, but it clearly has one in mind. Season One starts with a pretty clear premise — seven child superheroes all grown up and dysfunctional, coming together for the first time in years for their father’s funeral — and also sets a trajectory for the overall story — the world is ending in a few days, and they have to figure out how to work together by then in order to stop it. While the A Plot for the first season is probably my least favorite part of the season, it definitely has its utility in providing a framework to push the story along. While I would personally love to watch these nincompoops go about their daily lives for five seasons straight, some amount of structure is useful in getting the audience invested in the story sufficiently that they can start caring about the characters as well.

The second season seems to recognize that the A Plot is its weakest element, so it puts a lot less emphasis on the A Plot this time around. The idea that the world is ending again almost seems more like the setup for a joke and an excuse to show off the effects budget than something the show wants the characters to actually care about.  Indeed, while it’s tied to Five’s personal plot, the show and characters seem largely uninterested in actually solving the mystery of what causes the apocalypse this time around, and it acts here as more of a deadline to force the characters together. Hypothetically, they’ll need to avert disaster by the end of the season, because it’s a superhero show and that’s how they work, but for the mean time, the real unifying plot for the season seems to be more about the characters coming back together and leaving the 1960s after many of them have spent a good chunk of time stuck there. Of course, we’ll see by the end of the season whether the show can figure out how to manage a typical superhero story ending when its emotional core is less conducive to that sort of plot. The last episode of Season One faltered pretty badly for me, so I’m not sure if distancing the B Plots from the A plot will improve the structure of the season or just make it worse.

Speaking of effects, I have to set aside time to talk about the goofiest part of the episode. So there’s this long take of the battlefield Five teleports into that is completely ridiculous, and I’m not sure if I love it or hate it, but either way, it definitely does not fit in this season. What they’re kind of trying to do is mimic that one shot from The Avengers where we see all of the superheroes fighting and using their special powers. The camera jumps around, and we see Vanya levitating and sending out shockwaves, Luther smashing stuff, Allison mind-controlling people to attack each other, Klaus summoning an army of ghosts to fight for him, Ben flinging things around with his tentacles, and Diego throwing knives at things, etc. There are obviously a lot of computer effects and CGI models in play, both to create the simulation of a long take and also to show the magical powers. Admittedly, it definitely looks a lot better detail-wise than the end of the last season, which suffered from oversimplified meshes and particle effects that made the CGI discontinuous with the environment. Ben’s tentacles, for instance, actually look like tentacles instead of Season One Doctor Who “energy beams.” The visuals are easily comparable to any mid-tier superhero movie out these days. Or you know, out in the before times.

That said… as anyone who’s played video games knows, there’s a big a difference between graphics and aesthetics. If graphics are knowledge, aesthetics are wisdom; just because you can make characters fly or turn into alien monsters doesn’t mean you automatically know how to use those tools for narrative effect. When you have a lot of toys at your disposal and a big budget to do whatever you want with them, it can be tempting to go all out for the sake of spectacle, but as the first season showed, The Umbrella Academy‘s strengths are often in its basic character interactions. I love that it can have fun with things like Diego’s throwing knives and Five’s teleportation, but I’d much rather see the series pull back on its use of spectacle to save it for moments when it can be used for maximum effect. I have some hope for this season in that regard — Klaus manifesting Ben to start a fight, only for Ben to say, “Nah, I’m good,” and cancel the effect is a clever tease. Hopefully that’s the direction the season will head in more than the other.

It’s not a bad start, and there are certainly things to hope for in the coming episodes. I’m cautiously curious to see how the show’s portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement goes, because it could either be really clever or really awkward depending on whether the show can be nuanced enough to give the subject the respect it deserves. Either way, I am looking forward to the series giving Allison more agency, and Ray seems like a pleasant side character I’d like to see more of.

On a similar note, while of course I’m eager to hear more about what Klaus has been up to, the show has a lot of room to explore his more serious subplots as well. Vietnam and the draft were in full effect, and while this was the start of the countercultural movement associated with drug use and hippies (which one would imagine Klaus would fit in well with), it also wasn’t a particularly friendly time period to queer people. Klaus still coping with PTSD from his time in Vietnam, and the knowledge that his partner, Dave, would still be alive in 1963, are both compelling drives for the character that I would like to see continued from the previous season. We also don’t know much about Ben’s experience while Klaus was in Vietnam, so maybe the series will explore that a bit as well.

Also, more of a wish than anything else, but Vanya’s dynamic with the housewife who hit her with her car is adorable and I ship them so hard. Back in the review for the episode Extra Ordinary, I made an offhanded comment that instead of setting her up with Leonard, the show should have given Vanya a girlfriend, and while there’s nothing set in this episode to indicate that’s the direction they’re going here, the wine is enough for me. Like, actually, pretty damn near the first time Sissy is introduced, when she’s coming home and Vanya gets up to greet her, my small, lesbian-deprived brain immediately jumped to, “Oh, they’re married, how lovely.” I realize Sissy’s husband is framed like a character from Mad Men and we’re supposed to be unimpressed by him, but the fact that he’s very prominently getting in the way of my ship doesn’t help his cause.

Overall, the repetition of key elements from the first season is a bit annoying, and the tone is a bit off-kilter still, but I think the series has a better grasp on itself and knows what it wants to be better than it did previously. The characters have settled in and I, as a viewer, have more reasonable expectations for what this show will provide. I’m not expecting high art of any sort, but I think this series has hidden depths and I anticipate it continuing to work in emotionally complex moments alongside its chaotic humor. Either way, we’re in for a fun ride.

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Creativity: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Subplots: 7
Sum: 32/50

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