3P Reviews, Graphic Novels and Comics, The Umbrella Academy

This Fish, I Like Him – The Umbrella Academy, Season Two, Episode Two

Guess who figured out how to auto-trace bitmap images? I definitely didn’t work that out after completing 75% of the drawings for this review, that’s for sure…

We continue our reviews of season two of The Umbrella Academy, hopefully with greater velocity from now on, as things start to escalate. The kids are moving closer to reuniting, but not all of them are ready to leave their lives in the 60s. Furthermore, even if they did, there’s still that pesky matter of the end of the world to worry about — both ends, technically, but the one in eight days seems to take priority. While Diego and Five head off a potential new lead, the others meander about in their own subplots.

The episode is lean, and not in a good way. It lacks focus, and does little but further the plot in a linear direction. It sees few major developments or turns, and as such, is largely unmemorable. However, that’s doesn’t mean it’s lacking in charm, and indeed, as seems to be increasingly the case with this show, the characters are what pull it through.

 

3P Reviews Series: The Umbrella Academy

Season Two

Episode Two:  The Frankel Footage – ***

 

Spoilers: Yup.

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

Content Warnings: Mention of trauma, cults, racism, violence.

 

Part One: “All the Children of the Prophet Have Them”

As we move forward, you’ll notice that this season feels a bit differently structured than the last. Chaotic as it was, Season One was still rather episodic; it had the “Klaus has been kidnapped” episode, the “Hey guys, Vanya is a supervillain” episode, the two Groundhog Day episodes, etc. It’s harder to pin down Season Two episodes based on a single focus, with one or two exceptions. There are advantages to having a more continuous plot, but they come with their own disadvantages as well. In general, an episodic series’ low points don’t affect its high points as much and vice-versa. In a continuous series, the final grade is kind of an all or nothing deal; more minor episodes can ride on the success of previous ones, but similarly, one dud can have an effect on everything else.

This isn’t actually a bad episode, and I like a lot of small moments in it, but certainly doesn’t leave a lot of impact overall. It’s there to flesh out subplots established in the previous episode and set up a few things for the future. It doesn’t do a lot more than that.

Luther has rejected Five’s request for assistance, so the little guy runs back to Diego as the next best option. (Let’s be fair, even if he had found any of the others, Diego would still probably be the next best option.) Diego has already freed himself and a fellow inmate, Lila, during a milkman-based raid on his compound, and he agrees to help under threat of Five turning him in again. Five finds a video that Hazel dropped in his pocket and gets it developed, only to find that it’s a record of the Kennedy assassination from another angle that shows a familiar figure in a top hat and an umbrella. Whatever caused the apocalypse, it seems their father, Reginald Hargreeves, may have had something to do with it.

On the farm, Vanya continues to come extremely close to flirting with Sissy, and also tries to figure out where she came from. Sissy’s husband, Carl, starts to show the side of him we all expected, when he lies about staying late at the office and instead heads to the bar. Luther’s bar, actually; Luther spots Vanya when she comes to pick Carl up, and follows them to the farm to confront her. Luther retains animosity toward Vanya for killing Pogo and, you know, destroying humanity, but when he sees that Vanya can’t remember any of it, he doesn’t know how to respond. While he came prepared to kill her, he apologizes to her instead and heads back to the bar without explaining anything to her.

There isn’t a lot else happening in Vanya’s subplot, but I should note that Sissy’s son, Harlan, whom Vanya cares for like a nanny, appears to be autistic. I don’t know if the actor portraying him is on the spectrum, but the character is mute, avoids eye contact, stims, appears to have coordination difficulty, has a favored toy, and later in the season, suffers from stimulus-derived meltdowns — all classic characteristics of some forms of autism. I was actually diagnosed as on the spectrum earlier this year, and while I’m still trying to figure out what that fully means and don’t share the same experience as every other person with autism, I do share some of the common experiences, and I find it interesting to note how fiction portrays the condition. For some people, it can be a prominent learning disability which requires a long-term carer. Harlan is only ten, but because he’s non-verbal, the show tends to portray him as more severely affected by his condition. Stories that have non-autistic protagonists often prefer to include characters like this so they can use them as McGuffins; a child with a disability is readily sympathetic, and you can immediately show whether another character is nice or mean based on how they interact with the disabled child. I’m not overly fond of that sort of pejorative portrayal of learning disabilities, especially when the story is written by well-meaning but uninformed neurotypical writers. I won’t deny that The Umbrella Academy runs into that same issue with Harlan, particularly in how it seems to care little for his own interests and Vanya and Sissy often talk down to him. Similarly, the show never actually calls him autistic, which is a general problem for series that depict medical conditions and learning disorders of any sort. (Characters are also always touching Harlan, which makes me squirm in my seat a bit — different people have different levels of comfort with touch, but a lot of autistic people don’t like being squeezed or caressed. Parents often do with their children without thinking, especially when they’re very young, because it’s a common human bonding behavior.)

That said, I will commend the series for not feeling the need to present Harlan’s disability as something to overcome. He’s happy, his parents are happy, and conflict within the family comes from forces unrelated to Harlan. Sissy and Vanya spend a lot of time taking care of Harlan, but they like him, and they don’t see him as a burden at all. That may seem like faint praise, but when the overwhelming majority of stories about autistic kids (or a lot of people with learning disabilities, really) focus on how hard it is for their parents to manage them, and how someone who sticks around for an autistic kid must be angelic, it’s nice to see a series more grounded in its expectations. You’re not a saint for taking care of your kid, that’s just what being a good parent is. Even Carl gets that.

Moving on, Allison’s husband has been arrested without charge at the local jail in a move by white suburbanites to intimidate the sit-in organizers. Allison goes to see him and tries, unsuccessfully, to get him released. She’s temporarily distracted by her frustration at the racist system by two strange encounters: first, her husband asks her why she said, “I heard a rumor,” when the cops were arresting him; and second, while leaving the jail, she runs into a random person who has “Hello” and “Goodbye” tattooed on his palms.

“Hello” and “Goodbye” are printed on Ouija boards. I can’t tell you how long it took me to realize that.

So of course those are Klaus’ silly hand tattoos, but the person Allison runs into is not Klaus, but a former lawyer named Keechie. It seems that Klaus has become some sort of prophet to a group of highly dedicated followers who have quit their well-paying jobs to follow him around the country, and listen to his wisdom, and spread his message, and — It’s a cult. He’s started a cult, is what he’s done. He doesn’t doesn’t seem overly happy about it either, as he’s desperate to avoid his followers and any reminder of him. The mystery continues to build about how, and why, and what happened exactly in the last three years, because in addition to having characters like Keechie tattooing themselves in his name, Klaus has also apparently somehow acquired and then abandoned a fancy mansion, lectured at Berkeley, and gotten in good favor with the governor of Texas (whom he does not remember ever meeting, by the way). The show so far has shown zero interest in explaining any of this, and I kind of love it. It is rather a kick in the face, though, to see the juxtaposition of Ray, a respectable Black man who is imprisoned for entirely legal political organization, and Klaus, a White boy who is released from the next door jail cell solely on the basis of nepotism, despite a criminal record that includes, among other things, thievery, grand theft auto, assault and battery, and, oh yeah, starting a cult.

Ben’s barely in this episode, so he’s back to his role of clicking his tongue disapprovingly at Klaus while doing precious little to stop him.

That’s all of the siblings accounted for, but this episode also revisits a few familiar characters from the Time Agency. The Handler, Five’s main antagonist in the first season, is back, despite rather clearly dying at one point. She’s fine, and she’s been demoted, replaced by a fish in a man suit. Now I like this fish — he has a fun character design, and it’s cool to see something pulled directly out of the second book — but I’ll be honest, I didn’t really feel the need to revisit the Time Agency. It was easily the most unnecessary part of the first season, and the Handler doesn’t fit the story all that clearly. She’s well-drawn, but she feels like she should be a character in another show, one where the Time Agency is more central. I don’t find her demotion and rage at Five to be a sufficient excuse to give her a unique subplot. We’ll see how this goes.

Oh, and the three milkmen now have cats.

 

Part Two: A Man and His Monkey

I know Pogo’s a chimpanzee, not a monkey. I just felt “An Anthropomorph and His Ape” didn’t have the same ring to it.

The ending note for this episode, and perhaps the most pertinent thing about it (other than the hilarious hand tattoos) is the return of Hargreeves. In 1963, Hargreeves was still alive, so upon seeing the footage of him at the Kennedy assassination, Five and Diego decide to track him down. Their search comes with a lot of emotional baggage we have yet to unpack, as like the other siblings, these two are haunted by the memory of their father and his cruel treatment of them as kids. We’ve seen a lot about how Hargreeves left Luther, Klaus, and Vanya emotionally scarred, but we know less about Five and Diego’s experiences.

Five wasn’t around long enough to leave their father of his own volition like the others, but he’s still been overshadowed by Hargreeves over the decades. One of Five’s last memories of spending time with his family before getting trapped was an argument with his father. As they’re getting ready to break into their father’s office, Five has a small mental breakdown when he realizes he’s going to see Hargreeves again. I like this. It’s a good bit of subtle characterization, and Five doesn’t get nearly enough of that. For the others, it’s been maybe ten or fifteen years since they last saw their father; for Five, it’s been most of his lifetime. His father warned him he wasn’t ready to time travel, and he was right. Five has had his father’s voice echoing around his head for years, whispering, “I told you so.” He has this tremendous guilt about not listening when he was a kid, and he’s never gotten closure for it. Indeed, this one regret has defined his character more than anything else. Confronting their father, rather than being cathartic, is likely to just re-open the deepest wounds all over again.

Diego, meanwhile, ties his insecurities to his antagonism toward his father. As introduced in the first season, we don’t know a lot of the specifics, but we do know that Diego is perhaps the most vocal of his siblings about not liking their father. Where Luther is defensive, Klaus doesn’t like to talk about him, and Allison just casually dismisses him as an asshole, Diego actively despises Hargreeves. We get the sense that Hargreeves constantly pressured Diego and Luther to fight for his approval, but of course, he always favored Luther. Diego was the closest to their mother, and dislikes how Hargreeves mistreated her, but you can absolutely see Hargreeves’ fingerprint on how Diego developed. Despite being a soft boi with a stutter who responds well to positive reinforcement, he chooses to lean into the superhero gimmick. He carries knives around because they make him look scary, and he runs around as a vigilante despite resenting his life as a child superhero. The need to impress his father, or perhaps show him up, runs to Diego’s core.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that when he finally gets the change to fight one-on-one with his father, Diego is utterly trounced.

The choice to re-introduce Hargreeves into the story is a risky one, because it could easily fall into the same territory as the end-of-the-world and time agency subplots. I was immediately concerned about this as soon as the show decided Hargeeves was involved in the Kennedy assassination. I’m still not wholly convinced the show will avoid that pitfall, but the end of the episode makes a good case for the rewards being worth the risk.

Part of what I like about the episode’s portrayal of Hargreeves is that he doesn’t directly acknowledge Five or Diego, except to spit a few condescending words at the latter after stabbing him. Their father continues to loom as a specter in their lives, almost mythological. They know he’s just a person, but even though this version of Hargreeves doesn’t know them, they still think of him as the abusive father they’ve come to fear and hate. The framing of Hargreeves makes it seem almost like he predicted they would come looking for him, that this is just one of his many manipulative “tests,” and that he continues to run their lives from beyond the grave.

Whether or not the story decides to give Hargreeves a cartoonish precognition about who the Umbrella Academy are, in this episode at least, it’s clear that Five and Diego’s failures are related more to their childhood traumas than anything Hargreeves himself is doing. Five craves normalcy, so when given the opportunity for a friendly interaction with Pogo, he drops his guard completely. Diego is so eager to show up his father in physical combat that he forgets the man he’s fighting is not as reluctant as he is to use cheap tricks or lethal force. Five and Diego’s childhoods are so ingrained in their mentalities that they are easily fooled by familiarity, and have trouble adapting.

That inflexibility is common to all of the protagonists, really. They’re going to have to find a way to deal with it if they want to break the negative hold their upbringing has had on them. Some of them are slowly starting to do that, particularly in how they interact with each other at this point in the series compared to at the start or in the flashbacks, but they’re all still a long way from completing their arcs. If the show can find a way to incorporate Hargreeves and allow the protagonists to confront their traumas directly through him, that could prove interesting.

However, it still stands to be shown whether the series can maneuver this plot element without aggrandizing Hargreeves or trying to force the audience to sympathize with him. The final slow-motion shot of Hargreeves walking off into the mist with baby Pogo, as much as I kind of like it, is not a good harbinger.

Speaking of which, I should probably talk about the visual elements of the season so far.

 

Part Three: Shining a Light on the Matter

The aesthetic of the first season is pure neon green, blueberry-cinnamon-scented chaos. While The Umbrella Academy isn’t the most aggressively stylized live-action series I’ve seen by any stretch, the visual and auditory choices of the first season in particular are very overt, often in an unpleasant way. There are plenty of genuinely good shots in the season, but they’re good in the “even a broken clock is right twice a day” sort of way. That’s rather mean of me to say, I think; I know from experience that it could be much worse, and that the show is brought down by specific choices that don’t ring well with me personally, as opposed to outright incompetence. The production values and the integrity of individual shots in isolation speak to the genuine talent behind the scenes. Like many shows and films trying to appeal to an audience that just wants fun, the more questionable decisions made in The Umbrella Academy to give it a frenetic energy feel unmistakably corporate to me. The soundtrack comes to mind.

How does Season Two fare, then? Well, I forgot to mention this in my previous review, but I think you should know that in the scene when Diego is in a padded cell, the show decided to play a cover of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley.

This series tends not to paint with a fine-tipped brush. Mops are more its tool of choice.

However, I would be lying if I said this season was as loud as the first in its aesthetic choices. In fact, barring missteps here and there, it’s honestly stepped up its game quite a lot, and it took me a second go through to realize it. If you know your limitations, you can get good at painting with a mop.

The trick is knowing how far you can go in any one shot before the audience notices. I think that some of the best cinematography works best right at the edge of perception, where a first-time viewer is unlikely to actively notice the shot because they’re distracted by something else, but they could still describe the layout if you asked them about it. The shot should also ideally communicate information that is complimentary to what else is happening in the scene, either reinforcing or complicating the actions of the characters and plot (shots that frame foiled characters in the same type of lighting are a favorite of mine). In a more stylized series that draws its audience’s attention purposefully, it has to create its own visual vocabulary to reset the audience’s expectations. The cinematography in the first season of The Umbrella Academy was not especially good at playing to more delicate moments, even in scenes that were genuinely brilliant; with a few exceptions, visual metaphors only ever went so deep.

But it did set up a vocabulary that the second season can use. A lot of this is complimentary to the plot and acting, so it’s hard to disentangle the three of them, but I’ll focus on how the camera plays with audience knowledge to tie things together in an interesting way.

The hand tattoo scene is a good example of it, as it has a wonderful progression leading into the punchline. When he meets Keechie in the cell, Klaus humors him initially, but seems to get particularly frustrated and deflect Keechie’s attention when the latter comes over to kneel at him and says something to the effect of, “I want to learn from the master.” From the audience’s perspective, Klaus is just responding to an over-enthusiastic fan, but because it’s shot from Keechie’s back, we don’t see that Keechie is opening up his hands in this moment to show he’s one of Klaus’ dedicated followers, and Klaus is realizing that in his attempt to escape his own cult, he has accidentally bumped right into one of them. The first time we see what’s on Keechie’s hand, we’re actually focused on Allison as she’s leaving Ray’s cell, and the focus is a bit distorted to reflect her anxious thoughts leaving Ray. The audience likely notices the hand with “Hello” written on it waving to her from behind the bars, and is primed to recognize it. Even if you didn’t notice what Klaus’ hand tattoos say in the first season (I somehow didn’t the first time through), you still probably noticed that he had some sort of hand tattoo. At the very least, this is the sort of thing Klaus would have, and no other character because it’s too silly. So there’s this moment of excitement when you realize Allison is going to run into Klaus, but when she stops and turns, she’s clearly talking to a stranger. The camera shifts to reveal she’s talking to Keechie, who then reveals his hands to her, as well as the audience. This shot deepens the mystery of what on earth Klaus has been up to, sets Allison up to seek Klaus out, and also provides a cute transition to the next scene.

Similar shots that do a surprising amount of heavy lifting largely surround Vanya. We’re not that far in yet, but this is the point where I feel the show promises to go the gay route. It would be actively baiting the audience if it didn’t. Again, the cinematogrpahy plays a big role in creating this expectation; the lighting around Vanya and Sissy is warm and soft, we get close-ups of them delicately holding each other’s hands, and when Vanya leaves, Sissy is framed in the same way as a love interest.

In particular, there’s an effective long take that sees Vanya walking from the warmly-lit hall out the front door after a nightmare. The camera turns slightly to show Sissy in the background in an opposite room of the house, watching Vanya, able to call out and visibly concerned, but unaware of the boundaries in their relationship. She doesn’t know why Vanya’s so upset, so she stays quiet, and the door closes with one of the glass panes framing her. It’s a nice shot, communicating the emotional states of the characters and the undertones of their relationship. And I completely missed it the first time, but the mood of the scene and its related sequence shines through to even the most oblivious viewers (like me).

But then for every shot like that, you have slow-motion action sequences that, while I’m sure hard to film, try too hard to impress the audience when the audience is not primed to be impressed by them. Add in a bit of comedy to these same action sequences (often at the wrong moment), and the whole scene can fall flat quickly.

I’m torn by this episode. I actually like a lot of moments in it, but the small moments of brilliance have a hard time competing with attention-grabbing flaws, especially when the worse parts of the episode are so heavily contrasted with the good parts. That contrast itself creates a serious tone problem for the show, and it’s not isolated to this episode either. By opting for a more subdued, but often less engaging visual style, awkward holdovers from the first season stand out more, whereas before they were just part of the package. The thing that’s going to stick with me about this episode is the CGI fish coughing smoke bubbles, which is the sort of joke I would expect in a 1940s animated film. It doesn’t quite hit the same target as Five admitting to Diego that their father still overshadowed his life as an old man, or Allison fearing her husband will learn about her powers, or Vanya’s budding romance with Sissy, or even the humor of Klaus being overwhelmed by his own foolhardy success. There is depth to this series, but it’s hard to pay attention to when it cuts to strobe lights and sirens every so often.

 

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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