3P Reviews, The Umbrella Academy

Corn and Swedes – The Umbrella Academy, Season Two, Episode Three

Umbrella Academy S2E3 B

Continuing our foray into The Umbrella Academy‘s wonton chaos, Episode Three starts to bring two major subplots to a culmination but ends up prompting more questions than it answers. As an early entry into the season, that’s not necessarily a problem, but the season is solidifying in form, and as we get to the midpoint, it’s going to be harder and harder for the show to take sharp turns without breaking its own continuity. A few elements — namely holdovers from the last season like the Time Agency and Luther’s obsession with his sister — are proving less supports than weights on the narrative, but the season still shows promise, and indeed, parts of this episode hit home with surprising precision.

It has more good in it than bad, but you can see through the cracks. The next few episodes will show whether the show can fill them sufficiently before they pierce the foundation.

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3P Reviews Series: The Umbrella Academy

Season Two

Episode Three:  The Swedish Job – ****

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Spoilers: Yup.

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

Content Warnings: Mention of trauma, cults, body shaming, racism, police brutality, violence.

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Part One: That’s Not What I Meant When I Said Luther Needed More to Do

Umbrella Academy S2E3 D

I want to say that the plot in this one is fairly light, but there are a few more serious developments that I think merit more praise than that. This is the episode where we get the sit-in, and I have some thoughts about that as well as the nuanced personal subplots we see developed for Klaus and Allison. I feel like those scenes warrant deeper discussion than the madcap shenanigans that constitute the rest of the episode, so I’ll go into further detail about them in Part Three.

For now, we shall be silly.

The unifying theme of this episode, if you can call it that, is reunions. Small reunions — reunions mainly between just a few siblings at a time. Makes it easier for me to recap, so I’m not complaining.

Five has tracked down Vanya using some sort of sciencey doodad, after she unintentionally uses her powers to evade the milkman and his friends, who appear to be Swedish. Five catches a very confused Vanya up to speed on who she is, who he is, and what they’re all doing here. If she has any strong feelings about it, they don’t come across in the script; Five’s account is rather rushed and dry, exactly the sort of thing required to undo a (let’s be brutally honest) lazy amnesia subplot that the writers don’t care to explore in an interesting way. I think that they were going for comedy here (actually, I know they were going for comedy, because I used a similar description of the show’s setup in my first review on the series), but it just doesn’t land. It’s stated a few times in the first season that Five liked and missed Vanya most out of the siblings, but the show has done precious little to build up much of a dynamic between them, so there’s not a lot of texture to the scene.

The only real moments of note are when Five omits that Vanya was the one who destroyed the earth, and when Vanya decides that she wants to stay with Sissy more than she really cares to learn more about her family. Also, Harlan has a meltdown and bites Sissy because she grabs him. Sissy, that is why you don’t grab autistic kids. Really you shouldn’t be grabbing anyone, but definitely don’t grab autistic people, and definitely don’t grab them when they’re having a meltdown.

Allison, meanwhile, tracks down Klaus and they have a funny little reunion, delighting in the knowledge that someone else survived. They’ve both been stuck in the past for a while, and thus have had time to settle into the 60s — Allison with her husband, Klaus with his cult. We don’t get to see these characters interact much, and know little about their dynamic other than the superficial elements, so it’s nice to be reminded that they are still siblings and they can bond over their shared crazy lives.

Allison soon learns from her husband that Luther is similarly alive and in town, as the latter has managed to track down her address. Ray is thrilled to have a large white man dropping off a box of chocolates for his wife — you know, a normal sibling thing that siblings do.

Ben’s still dead, if you were wondering. Technically he shows up in this episode, but not for very long.

That leaves just one sibling, Diego, who is recovering from his injuries at Five’s temporary base of operations (the house of a conspiracy theorist named Elliott) with his friend Lila.

I should probably explain a bit about Lila, since she’s becoming a more important part of the series as it goes on. Lila was one of the inmates at the institution with Diego, and tagged along with him when he escaped. She’s a Cockney-Indian woman who apparently ended up in a mental hospital for schizophrenia or a related disorder, and she’s played as a chaotic friend and love interest for Diego. She’s initially disoriented by all of the talk of super powers and apocalypses, but accepts it with some comforting from Diego. She listens while he complains about being stabbed, and convinces him he’s not healed enough to get back out yet (by “convince,” I actually mean she pokes his stab wound and he flops over like a wet blanket). They get close and do the do, while talking about their respective tragic childhoods. It’s weird, but oddly sort of works?

Until, that is, we reach the end of the episode, and the show throws a needless twist at us by revealing Lila is actually lying about everything, and is actually the Handler’s daughter. You could have ended with the sit-in, but no, the Time Agency keeps dragging its rotting corpse back into the spotlight. Argh.

I am growing increasingly irritated at the Handler, even though she’s only been back for two episodes.

The Handler is an extraneous character at the best of times, inconsistent with the style of the series, and she contributes little within the structure of the story. The protagonists have plenty of rivalries built up within their own group, between infighting and personal trauma; they don’t need an external antagonist, and they certainly don’t need one with zero relevance to their personal lives. The Handler is more of Five’s personal antagonist, and their final confrontation in the first season was perfectly complete. She doesn’t need to be resurrected.

But I find the development with Lila to be particularly grating, as Lila fills a spot in the story that we don’t yet have. The story benefits from her perspective, where it really doesn’t benefit from the Handler’s.

I’m not opposed to Lila being an antagonist. I think that the archetype of the fragile woman who needs to be comforted and rescued by her man is a bit tired, and vulnerability doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with fragility. You can have a nuanced character with a deep personal story who is also just a bit of an asshole. In fact, characters who are both are often interesting, because they help you explore your boundaries for forgiveness. If a character is relatable at some times but needlessly cruel at others, you can start to see the edges of where a person’s actions endanger you (or in this case, the protagonists) sufficiently that you should bail. Similarly, it can engender a sympathy that allows for reform, if a person’s antisocial habits are something they can work to improve.

It could also be a lot of fun.

I could easily see Lila becoming a regular villain who occasionally steps in to cause trouble, but she’s still sort of Diego’s love interest and everyone knows it. Like Diego is always letting her get away because he’s easily duped by his dick, so the others have to account for that whenever they go up against her, and she’s constantly stopping in the middle of evil plans to catch up with Diego, because they’re still actually kind of on good terms. Like, I would love to see them go from clichéd villain-hero dialogue to, “Oh, did you get a new jacket? It looks nice on you. Is that from Old Navy?” I think that would be delightful — a sort of Batman-Catwoman dynamic, except adjusted for this series. It would be fitting, given how Diego sees himself.

But that can’t happen until the show stops trying to insert the Handler into the mix. Notice how Lila’s dynamic with Diego relies on the Handler? Oh wait, it doesn’t. Funny, that.

On a similar note, I am not really surprised at where the show is going with Luther, but boy am I disinterested. I don’t really know why I thought the show would know better, but it’s started down the path of Luther stuffing his face with junk food because he’s sad about Allison. It’s essentially the same plot as he gets in Book Two of the comics, and to be fair, the show goes softer on it than the comic does, but it’s still such a tired, pointless trope. Haha, he’s fat now. Isn’t that funny? He’s so fat. Definitely haven’t seen someone getting fat being used as a joke in, oh, every comedy from the 90s.

It’s not even that it’s actively malicious. I mean, it is actively malicious, given that a lot of people who are overweight or fat are poor, or have comorbid conditions like depression that contribute to their weight, and often can’t receive adequate health care because many doctors just tell them to “lose weight” before they’ll even consider how to treat their medical issues…

Hey, guess what? Come here, lean in closely. No, closer. Closer.

ACCESS TO HEALTHY FOOD AND EXERCISE IS NOT A PERSONAL CHOICE WHEN YOU LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT SUBSIDIZES SUGAR AND MEAT MANUFACTURERS AND LIMITS CONSTRUCTION OF GROCERY STORES THAT SELL ANYTHING GREEN TO NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THE AVERAGE HOUSEHOLD INCOME IS AT LEAST 100K, WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY PROFITEERING OFF OF HUMAN LIFE AND BLEEDING PEOPLE DRY OF EVERY CENT THEY HAVE UNTIL THEY LITERALLY KEEL OVER DEAD ON THE FLOOR OF THEIR SHITTY MINIMUM WAGE JOB. SO MAYBE FUCKING THINK ABOUT THAT BEFORE YOU MAKE ANOTHER “AMERICANS ARE SO FAT” JOKE.

But aside from that, it’s also just lazy comedy.

Despite my griping, I don’t actually dislike this episode. In fact, I largely think the positive elements outweigh the negative ones.

Other than the fat jokes, this is actually a pretty funny episode. The timing in the dialoged is sharper than the first two episodes, and the show manages to swing between comedic moments and bittersweet moments in a way that complicates many scenes beyond basic emotional impressions. There are quite a few sequences featuring the characters just being themselves, which is what I liked about the first season — and they bring Ray and Lila into the group as well. While there isn’t any one culmination in the emotional journeys of most of the characters, there are all sorts of little looks and offhand remarks that build up to something meaningful.

For instance, the character Elliott plays a largely insignificant role in the story, but he gets a few moments here to endear himself to the audience. The man likes his Jell-o, and like seemingly everyone in the 1960s, puts all sorts of horrible things like celery in it. The Umbrella Academy members are not so fond of this miracle desert, but they let him be. At one point when Diego and Lila are getting it on, their banging on the wall keeps bumping Elliott’s counter while he’s arranging his Jell-o, and the contrast between what’s going the two rooms is beautiful.

This is also a good Klaus episode, and you know I love me a good Klaus episode. The show creators manage to make his misadventures in the 1960s even more ridiculous than before, with him smarming his way into the house of a wealthy old woman, playing magician, and travelling across at least three countries before fleeing the cult that he has amassed by accident. It’s wonderful, and Ben is stuck with him the entire time. The show even throws a cheeky little reference to the books in here too. I had wondered if they were going to build to the shit-billion different powers Klaus’ book counterpart has, because in the original series, Klaus also has telekinesis and just floats everywhere instead of walking. I think the show came up with the best possible way for its version of Klaus to accomplish the same — that is, by making Ben carry him. It’s scammy, it’s an abuse of magical powers, and it fits this character perfectly. God it’s so good.

But it’s not just the humor of the episode that brings it back into my good graces. I think it’s time to return to those two scenes I’ve been putting off talking about.

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Part Two: Time for the Obligatory Klaus Section!

Umbrella Academy S2E3 A

About midway through this episode, we learn why Klaus has returned to Dallas, and in retrospect, it’s probably something you could have guessed. This is where Dave lives.

I like moments in stories that get you to think about characters differently, and part of what I appreciate most about the Dave subplot in the first season is that it reveals a lot about Klaus. The way to make a comedic or irritating character work in your favor is to show sides of them the audience can latch onto even when their comedy doesn’t work, so that their jokes become more than just plies for attention, and instead become expressions of the character’s background and mental state. It’s also how comedy works in real life – humor is about communication, even though it doesn’t always need an audience of others.

You can use humor to imply things about yourself that may or may not actually be true – for instance, a well-timed joke can present an air of confidence or control, it draws attention and makes a person seem outgoing. Jokes that are in good taste imply tact and social awareness, while subtle wit allows someone to come across as clever, and small, simple jokes in response to someone speaking can alleviate pressure on the speaker and mediate the tension in the room. However, humor isn’t always a positive thing; jokes can also be used to belittle, prod, expose, gaslight, and otherwise antagonize others. Either way, when humor isn’t directed solely at self-comfort, it’s an attempt to take control of an interaction.

Klaus uses humor to manipulate; it requires little honesty on his part, but elicits few repercussions compared to direct antagonism. His siblings find him insufferable, but those who meet him for the first time (at least the ones who don’t opt to punch him in the face immediately) find him amusing, which he uses to gain their favor. He tends to get by on the politeness and generosity of others, with no intention of offering anything of his own in return.

Klaus is a funny character because his frequently incompetence means that his machinations tend to backfire (as illustrated beautifully in the opening of this episode). I also think that humor often relies on the contrast between the stakes of the scenario and the seriousness with which people take it – something dire can become amusing if treated like an ordinary occurrence. That’s not always a good thing to do, mind, but the additional separation of the medium of fiction frees that sort of nonchalance of the risk that would come with it in real life. Klaus would be a terrible person to know in person, but as a fictional character, his assholery is part of the flavor of the show.

But it’s important to note that Klaus is not usually comedic within the show itself; the external framing paints Klaus’ actions as humorous, but his in-universe social comedy is generally not meant for the entertainment of himself or other characters.

While Klaus readily uses light social humor to manipulate people, when left to his own devices, all of the comedy around him is solely for the benefit of the audience. He doesn’t seek out humor for his own comfort, unlike Five for instance. Five seems to genuinely enjoy being a little shit, but Klaus is often a little shit for no reason at all. When he’s annoying someone, his goal is not to make them laugh or to make himself feel vindicated at their expense – it’s usually for the sole purpose of annoying them. I get the sense that Klaus doesn’t like people very much.

And actually, the show supports that reading. There’s a difference between people who are good at socializing and people who actually like it. Klaus is very good at talking to people, very good at striking up conversations and making new friends almost without thinking. He could be at a café, on a bus, in prison, pretty much anywhere, and he will have no trouble getting someone to like him to the point of, say, bequeathing him their mansion. But beyond whatever physical benefit these people provide him – money, drugs, transportation, etc. – Klaus tends to have little interest in spending time with people. He has a history of extremely short relationships, makes no effort to remember who people are, and his substance abuse issues arise from solitary rather than social drug use. The closest thing he has to friends are his siblings, most of whom he hasn’t seen in years, all of whom hate him at least a little bit, and few of whom know him beyond the unreliable affect that he leans into. While Klaus suffers from chronic boredom and usually doesn’t have much reason to leave a room with people in it, he doesn’t seem to particularly like the experience either. He dislikes being the center of attention when there are more than about three people present (unless, again, they are giving him things), and he really dislikes having social obligations.

The irony, of course, is that Klaus is the only character in the series who physically cannot be alone thanks to his super power. Good move, show.

There is one exception to all of this misanthropy, and that’s Dave. Klaus directly admits at one point that Dave is the only person he’s genuinely liked spending time with, and his actions back that up. Like all people, Klaus does have some amount of need for social interaction, and it’s actually probably pretty intense if his drop-everything-for-Dave attitude is anything to go by. However, his regular interactions with people don’t fill that need because they’re far too superficial, and when it comes to deeper interactions, Klaus has just never really had any practice.

Case in point, in this episode, Klaus shows up at the paint store where Dave works, and sees him alive for what’s almost certainly the first time in about three years. There’s a lot of weight to his awkward conversation, as he clearly wants to express about half a thousand things to Dave but instead just ends up buying paint he doesn’t need. It’s a cute and heartbreaking scene.

Initially, you expect that Klaus just wants to see Dave again and can’t tell him anything about his future because he knows that he can’t mess with the timeline or something like that. A) if he changes the future, they’ll never have met, and B) Dave doesn’t know him yet, so having some stranger waltz in and profess his undying love to him might be a bit intimidating. But no, neither of those actually seem to be of concern for Klaus, because he does waltz in and profess his undying love to Dave later in the season. Twice.

When Ben confronts him about it later, Klaus explains that he’s trying to figure out how to save Dave’s life. That’s when things get interesting to me, because we learn a few things from this exchange. First, Klaus has been thinking about Dave this entire time. While this scene is the first indication we’ve gotten all season that he even remembers who Dave is, it’s clearly not something he’s put off out of neglect. He remembers the address, he remembers the date, and as we learn in a later episode, he’s somehow managed to remain sober this entire time. Second, it’s emotionally hard for him to see Dave again because he doesn’t want to reunite with Dave, he wants to stop Dave from joining the war and dying in it. The tension in the scene is not Klaus trying to keep from spilling about everything – kind of the opposite actually. He wants, and needs, to tell Dave who he is, and doesn’t seem to care if it confuses him, as long as it keeps him from joining the war. Considering Klaus appears to have been planning this out for multiple years, even figured out when he needs to intercept Dave to have the best chance of success, he still doesn’t know how to navigate that scenario. He defaults to buying paint because he is wholly unprepared to have any conversation deeper than “eggshell is an off-white color.” And Ben certainly doesn’t help matters because, third, Ben has been in the dark about Klaus’ plan to save Dave this entire time.

Aside from Dave, Ben’s relationship with Klaus is the single strongest personal relationship Klaus has with anyone, and even it is extremely limited in how much communication actually gets through on either end. Ben seems to know Klaus more through forced observation than anything else. They do care more about each other than either is willing to admit, as they both sometimes share in the same excitement (patty-cake requires two participants after all). But when it comes to harder conversations, Klaus in particular doesn’t have the skillset to articulate himself in the way he needs. He often defaults to playing up the immaturity and unreliability that he’s known for, and as a result, hinders any chance at genuine openness. He physically cannot get there, even when he wants to.

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Part Three: The Heart of the Matter

Umbrella Academy S2E3 C

But of course, the big event in this episode is the sit-in.

First, let’s get our facts straight.

The idea of sit-ins has been around for a long time in the U.S., since at least the 1930s. Laws allowing white-owned businesses to discriminate against patrons on the basis of race – largely targeting Black individuals – were widespread throughout the country in the early 20th century. Sit-ins were a nonviolent protest strategy aimed at drawing attention to discriminatory practices and socially shaming these businesses for their infantile policies. The strategy became very popular in 1960 as part of the growing Civil Rights Movement after Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, started a sit-in at a department store lunch counter. These students – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond – started their protest in the heat of the moment, but they were familiar with sit-in techniques being used in India to protest British colonial rule. As other students across the country followed their lead, the sit-in movement became an organized set of strategies for integrating segregated spaces. And they worked.

Most of these sit-ins were organized by students from Black colleges, and were done at local cafes that had specific “White Only” seating at the counter. Black students would arrive in groups, professionally-dressed, fill all or most of the seats at the counter, and order something to eat or drink. If served, they would pay and eat at the counter like the other patrons, but if denied, they would remain at the counter and refuse to leave the premises, preventing White patrons from using the counter seats, and often costing the businesses sales as a result.

Some of the segregated shops would quickly integrate and their business would be mostly unaffected, but some would oppose the protestors. The lunch counters would close down early to force Black students out, call the police to arrest the students for ordering coffees, or invite White hecklers to abuse the students while they sat.

In association with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other civil rights organizations like the newly-formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), students and others participating in the sit-ins trained ahead of time in nonviolent protest tactics, like abuse endurance. The idea was that the protestors would remain courteous and dignified despite White people screaming at them, threatening them, pouring drinks on them, or otherwise trying to provoke them to violence. The protestors were frequently attacked and arrested, in some instances sprayed with fire hoses or choked with tear gas, and on at least one occasion, poisoned by insecticide fumes.

To an outside observer, these protests would look like business owners completely breaking down and trying to hurt potential customers for no reason. And that’s exactly what they were doing; the protests were designed to expose the violence and racism inherent to segregationist policies. The sit-ins were far from the only component of the Civil Rights Movement, but they, along with other demonstrations lead with similar philosophies, made considerable headway in legal protection for Black Americans.

Today, some of the protest strategies using for the sit-ins are less effective (misinformation and bad framing can spread a lot more quickly than they did in the 60s, and racist policies are often not as overt to White people as they were in the Jim Crow era), but the images they evoke are no less relevant. For the past few years, and especially this summer, the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought awareness to the increasing and persistent (often state-sanctioned) violence against Black and Indigenous people of color. The 1980s saw changes to the U.S. prison-industrial complex and policing policies targeted at low-income nonwhite communities, and many of these policies have been exacerbated since 2001. However, it’s also become increasingly clear to many people that the racism that was rampant in the 1960s is far from a thing of the past. The protest strategies of the 1960s and the experiences gleaned from those who used them are invaluable tools for combatting police brutality and other injustices today. In order to learn how to move forward, we need to know our history.

So. That’s a bit of a heavy spiel for a review of The Umbrella Academy, and to be honest, there is something about the sit-in subplot and Klaus’ subplot with Dave that both feel dissonant with the rest of the series. They’re good, but my initial concern was that they wouldn’t fit well within the rest of the series. I’ve since come around, and actually, I think the sit-in is one of the best-crafted subplots in the series to date. It has a few awkward moments here and there, but so many of the decisions made are careful and deliberate, and the shots in this episode are especially resonant.

As with Klaus in the Dave subplot, Allison’s role in the sit-in subplot is related to her upbringing and super power, albeit indirectly. She grew up with the ability to demand anything, allowing her to rise to fame and often avoid the same punishments as her siblings. To say her childhood was different than that of many Black children is quite the understatement, and that’s before we consider the differences between someone living in 2019 and someone living in 1963. Yet, her enthusiasm for the Civil Rights Movement is also genuine; living in 1963 now, she is subject to the same discrimination as Ray and the others at the salon, and in fact her naiveté as someone who grew up in such a different environment often makes her an easy target for racists begging for a fight. Allison has a responsibility to her new community and her husband, who are more likely to suffer than she is for her own mistakes. Given Allison’s attempts to live without her powers since losing custody of her daughter, the philosophy of the peaceful protests are likely very personal to her as well.

When the police arrive and break up the protest, Allison’s resolve fails and she uses her powers. It’s not a victorious scene, even though she uses it to save Ray. Her husband now knows about her power, which she’s been trying to hide from him for fear of how it’s hurt those around her in the past. Allison feels like she’s compromised her values, and the chaos of the environment reflects her own emotional state; everything is in shambles.

Things improve eventually, in small ways and not without cost, but the image we’re left on with the sit-in is intense (and would be a much better way to end the episode than Lila showing up at the Handler’s hotel, if you ask me). My main concern initially was that the show would not have the tact to present a Civil Rights Movement subplot adequately, but by this episode, I think they’ve nailed it. The imagery is supposed to feel familiar, but it’s also pretty historically accurate. While as far as I can tell, this specific café and sit-in appear to have been invented for the show, and the language used by the hecklers almost certainly would have been much worse, the show manages to interweave the drama of the history with the drama of its own story.

Narrative can be a powerful teaching medium. Even if you’re uninformed about the 1960s sit-ins, just depicting it in fiction can prompt additional research. I certainly didn’t realize how accurate the show’s portrayal of the abuses protestors faced were before I started doing some background research on it.

In that regard, I kind of think that it might be better that this scene exists in a show like The Umbrella Academy, instead of, for instance, a historical drama about the Civil Rights Movement. Those dramas are important and casual entertainment is no substitute for actual education, but it’s valuable to reach an audience that isn’t actively looking for a history lesson, and engage them on a personal level. Protests, political systems, and social justice issues are part of life. Ignoring them isn’t an option. If you can get people to engage with real-world topics through the lens of fictional characters, sometimes that can do more to communicate a core concept to them than a thousand in-depth lectures would.

I should note that neither the man who directed nor the man who wrote this episode are Black, and as a White person, I’m in no position to say whether this is good representation. It resonated with me, but it is hard to watch the abuse the Black characters face, and I imagine it might read differently to a Black viewer for a number of reasons.

I do firmly think that this show is starting to go beyond the basic social expectation for shows to have diverse characters, and making a deliberate choice to incorporate social commentary into its story. In some ways, social commentary has been a part of the show since its inception, as the story is about childhood trauma that impacts these characters into adulthood. I would like to see more of this, though I think I would be most interested to see characters address their experiences from an emotional lens. That’s ultimately what works most effectively about both Allison and Klaus’ subplots in this episode, and it’s the bridge that allows the series to expand both its characters and its story. I guess we’ll see, if 2020 ever ends.

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Resources:

https://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm

https://civilrightstrail.com/experience/student-led-sit-ins-across-the-south-lead-to-desegregated-businesses/

https://snccdigital.org/events/sit-ins-greensboro/

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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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