3P Reviews, Superheroes, The Umbrella Academy

ALL THE MAGICAL GAY! – The Umbrella Academy, Season Two, Episode Four

Image of Vanya using her powers

Righty-O, let’s put the “unction” back in “dysfunctional!”

That wasn’t supposed to be deep, by the way, it was supposed to be nonsense, but I just looked it up, and apparently “unction” is a real word. It’s an archaic term for an oil used to cleanse and heal. How oddly thematic.

Anyway, welcome back to The Umbrella Academy, Season Two. As with most of the episodes so far, there’s a lot to discuss despite relatively little of substance happening. I have to say, I’m missing the episodic format of the first season, imbalanced as it was. There’s just something deeply appealing about a series that can nest storylines fractally that I really enjoy. We’re clearly not going to get that in this one, and I’m a little sad about it. But not to worry, we have other things to keep us engaged. Not great, not bad, but worth your time if you’re interested. I think there’s a bit more than meets the eye in this one, but it’s a bit difficult to discuss properly what the show is doing in the format I’ve chosen to write in. Ah well.

And, oh hey, we’ve got some lovely queer Umbrella Academy-related news with Elliot Page coming out, so out of celebration for him, I feel like I ought to get back on the ball finally.

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3P Reviews Series: The Umbrella Academy

Season Two

Episode Four:  The Magnificent 12 – ***

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Spoilers: Yes

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

Content Warnings: Mention of cults, drowning, rape, violence, homophobia, ableism, substance abuse.

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Part One: Poor Drunk Boi and His Loving Fans

Image of Klaus running from his adoring followers

What I think I’ll start doing for this season (and you’ve probably seen it a bit already) is organize the different sections by pairing off the characters, because let’s be honest, functionally there are really only six characters since Ben’s subplots are often smooshed in with Klaus’. The continuity of the season doesn’t lend to a lot of structure, because even when significant things happen in the plot, their consequences are often spread out over at least two or three episodes. It’s one of the things that comes of having a large cast.

But you know what that means? That’s right, the Obligatory Klaus Section is now an integral part of these reviews. I’m so proud.

Actually, in a shocking twist, this week’s Obligatory Klaus Section is going to co-star Allison, because she’s the one stuck with the fucker sleeping on her couch/floor for the foreseeable future. In the aftermath of the police raid, she’s got serious things to worry about, namely revealing her powers to her husband. She’s made it two years without using them, so Ray naturally knows nothing about superpowers of any sort, and Allison is caught between being ashamed of herself and fearing her husband will leave her. She asks Klaus for advice, and gets about two sentences into his haggle-based rendition of the Scorpion and the Frog before realizing her mistake in doing so. When Klaus finishes his story and seems to arrive at the conclusion that she should abandon her husband, Allison leaves to go find Ray and explain everything to him.

Allison’s dilemma is not resolved in this episode, but I wanted to give a quick moment to point out how much I empathize with her failure to explain things to Ray. He suspects that she’s an undercover cop or someone else working to undermine their cause, and Allison physically cannot get the words out that will soften the betrayal he feels. It’s a small moment, but I relate deeply to the sense of helplessness that comes of choking up against your will. Sometimes you feel like there must be a combination of words that will solve all of your problems, and yet no matter how hard you try to articulate them, all that comes out is sound. Often, you just sort of stop speaking because the weight of your failure to turn thoughts into words just crushes you.

Ironically, Allison is unwittingly in a similar boat to Klaus in some ways. Klaus likewise was unable to explain himself while trying to approach Dave last time, and the problems persist as he tries again, this time jumping straight from a 0 to a 10. He sits himself down at the diner (notably the exact diner where the sit-in took place the day before) and tells Dave something to the effect of, “I know everything about your life history, I know what you’re thinking right now, let me tell you how the Vietnam War ends, you’re going to die if you enlist, please don’t do that because I love you.” That’s a lot to take in over breakfast, especially considering that from Dave’s perspective, his knowledge of this man begins and ends with selling him a can of paint.

Needless to say, the conversation does not go well.

On a side note, I want to credit the show for actually listing the Vietnamese death count, because despite covering the Vietnam War about four times in school, I never heard the actual number spoken in a class or class-assigned text. The American casualties were significant at somewhere around 58,000, but that’s the only number I was ever taught, and the absence of the other has bothered me since middle school. The numbers The Umbrella Academy lists are also not that far off; estimates vary, but somewhere around 1.3 million Vietnamese casualties (both allied South Vietnamese and VC/civilian) are the current estimates. To put that into perspective, that’s about as many Americans as have died in all of our wars since the Revolution. Combined. We killed 3% of the country’s population, and I was never even told the number.

So, you know, kudos to the fucking Umbrella Academy for surpassing the U.S. education system in that regard.

Long story short, Dave is at the diner with his war vet uncle who gets into a spat with Klaus. Dave’s uncle starts to prod at Klaus’ femininity and calls him “queer,” which rankles him. The situation escalates, with Klaus continuing to ask Dave to reconsider and Dave’s uncle barking at Dave to prove he’s a man and fight Klaus. Dave clocks Klaus in the face, and Klaus runs off.

Yes, it’s rather on the nose, but it’s also deeply devastating and makes me very sad. This isn’t the first time the show has hinted that Klaus, as a gay man, has been subject to homophobia. He’ll occasionally run afoul of rough types at bars, mostly because of his personality, but there’s often an undertone of these particular figures disliking Klaus for his effeminate presentation. There’s a lot to be said about how stories with fantastical elements depict queer experiences, particularly queer trauma, and while I’m not going to get into that today, its relative absence from so much of the series serves to drive home the impact of what’s happened here. Klaus has plenty of things to be worried about other than homophobia, but there’s something gut-wrenching about the suggestion that he’s had to wrangle with that on top of everything else. Queer people in real life are more likely to suffer from substance abuse, mental disorders, and homelessness, and have fraught social lives than their cis/straight counterparts. It’s nothing inherent to being queer, it’s just how homophobia and transphobia exacerbate other traumas. In places where queerness is more openly accepted, those correlations diminish.

So you can kind of take this entire scene as a culmination of about half a dozen things. It’s Klaus failing on a social level, Klaus falling victim to the homophobia of the 1960s, Klaus misjudging his own communication skills, Klaus being hamstrung by his general life experiences, and an unfortunately-timed release of all of the emotional weight he’s been carrying for the past few years. It’s not surprising that the encounter goes as badly as it does, nor what his response is.

Here, however, is where the episode falters for me. It was so close, they almost stuck the landing. Naturally, the disastrous encounter with Dave leads to Klaus breaking his sobriety and going on a bender in a liquor store — sort of. He drinks, like, part of a bottle of vodka. And dances in the isles. Cheesy 80s guitar riffs are involved. As is a camera shot that I’m sure has a name, but I can’t figure out what it is, so I shall call it the selfie stick shot. You know, the one where they take a POV camera and turn it to face the actor. It’s the sort of shot you want to use in the right situation, and I’m not entirely convinced this is it.

I’ve mentioned that the series doesn’t quite seem to understand how drugs or alcohol work, and this is a glorious example of exactly that. I remain unconvinced that this is how a relapse would look, even for Klaus. I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of the scene or what the show was going for in concept, it’s just kind of delivered in the most rote way possible. The scene has big “we only had an hour to shoot on location and this was either the first or last thing we filmed” energy.

Ah well. His cult greeting him when he gets home is almost enough to bring it back for me. I look forward to meeting the cult.

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Part Two: We Have Achieved Lesbians!

Image of Vanya and Sissy kissing

Elsewhere, Vanya and Luther have met up again and resolved their differences. Luther gets a little bit more of substance to do in this episode, but still not a lot.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it much yet, but Luther has been working as a body guard and general strong man for gangster Jack Ruby. In the last episode, he failed a fistfighting match because he was upset about Allison, and now that’s come back around to bite him. Ruby fires him in an oddly touching moment that makes me want to see more of how Luther got into his good graces, because both of them seem sad about it and Ruby is doing it more to save face than because he’s actively angry at Luther.

(And in case you were wondering, yes, Jack Ruby did have a tiny adorable dog. Her name was Sheba, and she went with him in the car when he shot Lee Harvey Oswald.)

Luther is kicked out of his apartment as a direct result, so things aren’t going great for him. He has a tender moment with Vanya, though, as she comes to talk to him about what Five has told her. To put it lightly, Luther has been a bit of a dick about Vanya ever since she attacked Allison, but when he finally gets the chance to talk about what happened with her destroying the world, he’s gentle with it, which is kind of nice. He doesn’t skirt around anything, unlike Five, but he’s direct in a way that is meant to empathize with Vanya. Vanya knows Five isn’t telling her the whole truth, but when she comes to Luther wanting to know more, he has to reflect on his own understanding of the situation. He admits that he didn’t respond well at all, and her reaction was partly due to him, but it’s not really her fault, nor his, nor any of theirs. How they responded was related to their messed-up childhoods, and if anyone’s to blame, it’s their father for never telling them about her powers. Luther is still far from seeing Vanya as a friend, but over the course of this conversation, he slowly realizes he’s forgiven her, and that’s something.

It’s better than just having him eat a lot of food (which they still do in this episode, but I guess that’s to be expected). Oh, and he also has a weirdly ominous but delightful scene where he gets high on nitrous with Elliott when he finds his way to Five’s hideout.

Shortly after leaving Luther’s place, Vanya diverts back to the farm to explain to Sissy that she’s found her siblings. Here’s where things get a bit tricky to maneuver.

First, the good stuff: shenanigans happen that involve Vanya saving Harlan, and when Vanya and Sissy are alone later, a heartfelt thanks turns into kissing. ‘Tis good, ’tis good. *Small applause* *happy Hat.*

I think it says something about how many series queerbait that I’m genuinely a bit surprised they honored their subtext. Usually a series that has one gay character and doesn’t have particularly strong queer themes will leave it at one and call it a day. I’m glad they went the natural route here and actually built upon the dynamic between these characters as it developed. They recognized how horny they were and went for it. I respect that.

Also, despite my title for this section, I quite like that the show doesn’t call Vanya gay exclusively. They’ve not just taken a character who hasn’t had a relationship yet and decided, “That one’s gay! That’s why they weren’t in a relationship!” I like seeing refutation of the idea that once a character shows interest in one sex, that defines their identity. The show leaves the door open for Vanya to be bisexual, or a bi lesbian (because yes, people can in fact have intersectional experiences, despite what exclusionists would have you think).

It’s a nice connection to Elliot Page as a notable queer actor, too. A bit of discussion has sprung up around his part in this role in particular, and to be honest, I don’t really have any preference for the show keeping Vanya a woman or writing the character to be a man. Trans actors should have free reign to play whatever roles they feel comfortable with, especially since they’re often denied those roles by gender-swapped cis casting for the few trans characters that exist. There are some roles only trans actors can play effectively, and they often have far more insight into gender roles than cis actors anyway. I don’t normally follow actors closely, but the support I’ve seen for Elliot by his fellow cast members is heartwarming, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy.

Happy moment over though, we need to talk about why the kissing doesn’t grant the episode a perfect rating.

I was just commending the series two episodes for not having Harlan’s parents describe him as burdensome, and here we have Sissy complaining that he doesn’t talk. You need to be better than that, show. For one, Harlan’s actually quite communicative even if he doesn’t use verbal words for it. If his reaction to Vanya suggesting she’ll be leaving soon is any indication, he can understand English well enough to at least engage with people. Imagine someone complaining that they don’t have anyone to talk to because their kid doesn’t like to talk about clothes. It’s fine to want a friend who respects you and shares your interests, but you don’t get to blame your child’s disability for them liking different things than you, especially if they’re young. You wouldn’t say, “My kid’s a brunette” like that’s a reason people should pity you. It’s a rather cruel way to open up a romantic interaction especially.

I feel like that’s a relatively small slip-up that writers make when they don’t do their research. It’s harmful, but it’s the sort of thing that other series can easily avoid. Harlan splooshing directly into a lake in order for the plot to happen takes a bit longer to unpack.

Okay, so that thing Vanya did to cement her in Sissy’s good graces was to save Harlan from drowning. After Harlan overhears Vanya planning to leave, he runs off into the woods. Vanya runs after him, and finds the little duck toy he stims with on the end of a pond. Panicking, she uses her power to lift the water up. She rushes to get Harlan out of the middle of the pond, and the water falls back down. Harlan still isn’t breathing, so Vanya gives him mouth-to-mouth and in doing so, transfers some mysterious glowing orbs into Harlan, and that wakes him back up.

Drowning is a serious concern, and it can happen to anyone whenever there’s water around. It’s scary. That said, I still have difficulty accepting the plotting the writers went with here. First, they found perhaps the least risk-averse pond to serve as the threat — it’s tiny, has gentle slopes, a fairly wide bank so you won’t just fall into it, and no edge vegetation. Second, the way Harlan just off and immediately dives into the middle of it y accident highlights that the plot point is there less to highlight the dangers of small ponds and more to generate drama. The goal of this scene is to A) escalate the romantic tension between Sissy and Vanya, and B) sow the seeds for the end-season climax. Note that Harlan has very little to do with either of those directly. The scene merely requires a living person or creature that can be imperiled and then rescued. It’s the same sort of thing that makes damsel in distress characters less character and more prop when they’re used exclusively to heighten the tension of the scene and make the hero look impressive. I don’t care for the cliche much unless the series it appears in does something to freshen it up a bit. You’re not getting anything new here, which is a pity because there are plenty of ways the show could have been more creative. It could have written Vanya to have to work with Harlan, for instance, instead of just finding him unconscious and rescuing him like a sack of flour. It’s a bit infantilizing. I’m not a fan of that so much.

And I’m sure those glowing orbs won’t become important later.

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Part Three: Andra Moi Ennepe, Mousa, Polytropon

Picture of Five in silhouette looking at a street

“Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.”

— Opening of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey

Admittedly, I haven’t read the Odyssey many times, so I don’t know a lot of translations, but this is easily my favorite.

The Odyssey is the famous story of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, Hero of Troy, who on his voyage home from war got lost and wandered the sea for ten years before reaching his destination. You’ve heard of him. You were probably forced to read the Odyssey like I was in school, or you’ve at least seen some rendition of it in children’s cartoon form.

However, if the version you know is about a brave, clever figure who gets himself out of scrapes and runs across all manner of gods and monsters, always with a plan of some sort to eventually return home where his wife and son are faithfully waiting for him amidst rowdy suitors, then I’d like to introduce you to a slight variation:

This is the story of Odysseus, the clever king who led the Trojan Horse ruse and secured the victory for the Greeks in the Trojan War. In the course of returning home, Odysseus and his twelve ships were led off-course, arriving at various islands where his unruly men would often cause chaos and either die or have to be rescued by their commander, who suffered little harm himself.

Trapped in the cyclops Polyphemus’ cave with his men being eaten one by one, Odysseus devised an escape and blinded the one-eyed creature. Unable to contain his delight at causing the cyclops torment, Odysseus shouted his name at Polyphemus as he sailed away. The cyclops prayed to Poseidon to curse Odysseus and prevent him from returning home.

Odysseus, though, favored by the other gods, was gifted a bag of winds that could right his course and send him home. He kept it secret from his men, who, thinking it contained gold, opened it as he slept and ended up blowing all of them back to where they started. They set sail again and arrived on the island of the Laestrygonians. Here, Odysseus’ ship hung back and the others entered a placid bay. The cannibalistic giants of the island sank the ships with rocks and speared the men to eat, destroying all but Odysseus’ ship, which sailed away to safety. He and his remaining crew arrived at Aeaea, where Circe turned the crew into pigs for eating her food. Odysseus avoided the same fate with the help of Hermes, then bullied Circe into turning his men back and became her lover for a year. When he set sail again, he sacrificed some of his men to the monster Scylla in order to pass through a dangerous strait, and had his men tie him to the mast so he could listen to the Siren’s song and live to tell the tale.

Eventually, they arrived on the island which contained Helios’ sacred cattle, which Circe had warned Odysseus not to harm. His men ate the cattle anyway, and at Helios’ behest, Zeus sent a storm to smash the ship to pieces, killing everyone save Odysseus. Odysseus, his crew lost, washed ashore on Calypso’s island and became her lover for the next seven years. At long last, he left Calypso to return home to his wife, aided by his patron goddess Athena and given a disguise. In disguise, he reveled in his reputation and sung his own praises to whoever would listen, before finally arriving home to his son and his wife. He slayed the suitors and the slave women they had raped, and resumed his place as king of Ithaca.

Odysseus was not a nice person.

Greek heroes weren’t supposed to be. They were often flawed, sometimes severely, and suffered because of it, but usually not as much as the people around them. That was part of the point of them; Heroes in Ancient Greece were figures of historic importance, god-like in some ways, but otherwise mortal. They were not meant to be role models or good people per se, but rather figures around whom interesting stories could be told. Cultural values shift, and many parts of Ancient Greece were not known for being egalitarian utopias of any sort. It’s likely that the Greeks didn’t have qualms about Odysseus’ violence and the audience is meant to blame his men for their faithlessness in their king rather than Odysseus’ poor leadership skills as the cause of their problems. But even so, the point of the story is that it is engaging to listen to. Odysseus himself is a noteworthy figure, and may be relatable at times, but the story ultimately doesn’t care if you like him or not.

Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey is an attempt to get this point across to a modern audience, and I appreciate the honesty about how much of a dick he is. Most versions of the poem open with a literal translation of the first line: ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον — “Tell me about a man of many ways, Muse.” The word “ἄνδρα” means “man,” emphasizing that this is Odysseus’ story, and some translators try to capture the weight of that opening word by changing it to be, “Sing to me,” or “Tell through me, Muse” (“μοῦσα” — Muse — is the figure to which the narrator is asking for help in recounting the story). “πολύτροπον,” is one of many descriptors added to the “man” in question, and literally means “of many ways.” However, that in particular is an awkward phrase to translate, and speaks to the sly, variable, and wandering nature of Odysseus. He is a man metaphorically of many ways, as he is cunning and deceitful, but he also travels many literal paths on his odyssey. Emily Wilson adds another layer in her choice to go with “complicated” to describe Odysseus, because for a modern audience, it adds the opportunity for negative connotations as well, which is omitted from most other translations. It’s true though; Odysseus is a complicated man.

I somehow doubt all of this was going through the mind of the writers of The Umbrella Academy when they decided that these were the words Five would shout to his father in this episode, but the juxtaposition of Five with Odysseus is interesting.

Five is similar to Odysseus in a few obvious ways. He’s a little shit who’s a bit full of himself, sure, but more importantly, he’s been separated from his family and spent years on a long journey to get to them. At this point in the story, his journey still isn’t over because he and his family are adrift through time. Where Odysseus’ story wasn’t over once he reached Ithaca, neither was Five’s story complete when he arrived back home. They are both of them quite complicated men. It’s natural for the series to want to draw the comparison.

However, Five is different from Odysseus in one crucial way: Odysseus is driven by glory; Five is driven by guilt. Five ended up lost because of a mistake he made, and his journey home is an attempt to make amends as much as to reunite with his family. He’s not always good at voicing it, but he knows he’s fucked up more than a few times and wants to fix things. The irony of the character is that no matter how much he travels through time, there are some things he can’t undo, namely his own experiences. It’s unclear if he can even really reverse the perpetual doomsday that seems to follow them. However, Five is stubborn and set in his ways, so he plods onward, unstoppable, toward an unclear end.

When Five gets the chance to reunite with his father, he quotes the first lines of the Odyssey in Attic. Hargreeves of course has no idea who this strange child is or what he’s doing here quoting Greek at him, but Five’s attempt to communicate goes beyond just trying to impress dear old Daddy. As he reveals later, part of the training for the kids was to memorize the Odyssey and other works in multiple languages. In this moment, Five has reverted to something that was drilled into his head, probably unpleasantly if his and the others’ childhoods are anything to go by. He’s showing that despite the decades, he hasn’t forgotten what Hargreeves taught him. He wants to be a good son, and all he wants is to go back to before this mess began. It can also be read as a plea for help. It’s Five saying, “Look at me, Father, I am Odysseus — lost, stranded, cursed to live while I watch my people die. I know what I am. Please, Father, help me.”

It’s a very small moment and I’m probably reading way more into it than I ought to, but it’s fun to do this. I like these little moments, if you hadn’t noticed. There’s not a lot else of note to talk about with Five and Diego’s part of the story, anyway. The two of them, along with Lila, are infiltrating some party for the titular “Magnificent 12,” of whom their father is one. Eh, something something, conspiratorial society trying to control of depose Kennedy, something something. The Greek stuff is infinitely more insightful than everything that comes before where Five is concerned.

Diego gets an adorably hilarious scene with Grace, who is yet again back in the story for some reason. Apparently the kids’ robot mom was based on Hargreeves’ girlfriend from way back when, which is weird, but not as weird as Diego introducing himself by calling her (the girlfriend) “Mom.” It’s great. This part I do like. In fact, he immediately abandons Lila — on the dance floor, no less — because he sees the back of this woman’s head from, like, three rooms away. What an excellent doof.

Rather unsurprisingly, Five’s outburst at his parent of choice is no more successful than Diego’s, as a confused Hargreeves leaves the party with an equally confused Grace while Diego continues to fight some large blond men upstairs. There are plenty of things I could see this episode improving on, but the unmitigated chaos of this family is exactly what I’m here for at the end of the day.

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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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