Ars staffers were divided on the merits of The Umbrella Academy‘s first season. The pacing dragged a bit in the earlier episodes, and the deviations from the source material—the Dark Horse Comics series created by Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá—were not to everyone’s taste. But I appreciated the time taken to flesh out the main characters, and I thought S1 ended strong, with a promising setup for a second season. I’m happy to report that S2 is even better: faster paced and well-acted, with some intriguing plot twists and developmental arcs for the Hargreeves siblings as they find themselves scattered in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1960s.
(Spoilers for S1; some spoilers for S2, but no major reveals with regard to the final episodes.)
For those unfamiliar with the series, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore, House of Cards) adopts seven children out of 43 mysteriously born in 1989 to random women who had not been pregnant the day before. The children are raised at Hargreeves’ Umbrella Academy, with the help of a robot “mother” named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins, iZombie) and become a family of superheroes with special powers. But it’s a dysfunctional arrangement, and the family members ultimately disband, only reuniting as adults when Hargreeves dies.
Number One, Luther (Tom Hopper, Game of Thrones), is the super strong Spaceboy. When he was critically injured on a mission, his father injected him with a lifesaving serum with an unfortunate side effect: it turned his upper body into that of an ape. Number Two, Diego (David Castañeda, Blindspot), aka The Kraken, specializes in knife-throwing, since he can bend trajectories of metallic objects.
Number Three, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jane the Virgin), is The Rumor, who can manipulate people with her lies. Number Four, Klaus (Robert Sheehan, Mortal Engines), is The Seance, a flamboyantly charming telekinetic who can communicate with the dead—resorting to drugs as an adult to silence those voices. Among the dead: Number Six, Ben (Justin H. Min, CSI: Cyber), aka The Horror, whose power as a child was the ability to summon tentacled Lovecraftian monsters from other dimensions through his body—until his untimely demise. He now exists in ghost form and only Klaus can interact with him.
Then there’s Number Seven, Vanya (Ellen Page, Inception), who apparently has no superpowers, although we eventually learn she is most powerful of all and can use the energy of sound waves to destructive ends. Sir Reginald had lied to her about her abilities and kept her medicated most of her life because, well, she kept killing the nannies in her toddler fits of rage. Vanya is also a master violinist—hence her nickname, The White Violin.
Finally, there is Number Five (Aidan Gallagher, Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, and Dawn), who can teleport through time and space. He still has the form of a boy, thanks to getting stuck in the future for many years and then escaping back to the present. He recruits his siblings to help him avert the apocalypse, which will occur in eight days. But he’s also being hunted by a couple of assassins from the future, courtesy of a group called the Commission, who send people back in time to kill historical figures.
S1 ended on a cliffhanger, after Vanya rediscovered her powers and destroyed the Moon with the acoustic energy she accumulated playing the violin in a concert at the Icarus Theater. As the Moon’s fragments rained down on Earth, marking the start of the apocalypse, Five offered to bring his siblings back with him in time, so they could once again try to avert the destruction of the world. The finale ended with the group’s time jump.
But the jump didn’t go smoothly. Per the S2 official synopsis:
Five warned his family (so, so many times) that using his powers to escape from Vanya’s 2019 apocalypse was risky. Well, he was right— the time jump scatters the siblings in time in and around Dallas, Texas. Over a three year period. Starting in 1960. Some, having been stuck in the past for years, have built lives and moved on, certain they’re the only ones who survived. Five is the last to land, smack dab in the middle of a nuclear doomsday, which—spoiler alert!—turns out is a result of the group’s disruption of the timeline (déjà vu, anyone?). Now the Umbrella Academy must find a way to reunite, figure out what caused doomsday, put a stop to it, and return to the present timeline to stop that other apocalypse. All while being hunted by a trio of ruthless Swedish assassins. But seriously, no pressure or anything.
Since landing in the past, Klaus has become a cult leader with hordes of followers, while Allison has married a Civil Rights leader named Raymond (Yusuf Gatewood, Good Omens). Luther is the champion of an underground fight club, while Diego finds himself confined to a psych ward—until his fellow inmate, Lila (easily the best new character, thanks to a ferocious performance by Ritu Arya, Humans) helps him escape. Vanya has lost her memory and found work as a live-in nanny for a rural couple with an autistic son, falling in love with the mother, Sissy (Marin Ireland, Y: The Last Man). Even Ben is there, because apparently ghosts can time travel, too.
Dallas, Texas, in 1963 wasn’t exactly a random choice for where to send the Umbrella Academy with S1’s last-ditch time jump: the second volume of Wray’s comic series is set in the same time period, and showrunner Steve Blackman drew on elements of that storyline for his TV adaptation. “The show is not a carbon copy of the graphic novel,” Blackman told Ars. “Gerard [Way] is very open with me about deviating on my own path. But at the same time, I’m trying to be respectful to the fans.” There are certainly nods to The Umbrella Academy: Dallas in S2, most notably the almost throwaway appearance of Commission leader A.J. Carmichael (Robin Atkin Downes, Star Wars: The Clone Wars), aka Shubunkin Goldfish, who taps Five to assassinate President John F. Kennedy to preserve the timeline—at least in the comics.
But that second volume only had six issues, so those elements are just a small part of S2’s 10-episode arc. “It was such a tumultuous time,” said Blackman. “There was so much paranoia, with the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, [plus] there was the civil rights movement. The challenge was making it feel real so you were never distracted by the look and you jumped right into the story.” Most of the Dallas scenes were actually shot on location in Hamilton, Ontario, because “there were no streets that looked like 1963 Dallas anymore” in the city today, according to Blackman, although they did shoot a few scenes on the infamous grassy knoll.
The issue of civil rights provided a powerful narrative arc for the character of Allison in particular: a Black woman from the 21st century who experiences the culture shock of being Black in the 1960s. Thanks to an incensed Vanya slashing her throat in the S1 finale, Allison is also unable to speak for over a year, and hence unable to use her power. “It’s symbolic that she physically can’t talk, because as a woman of color in the south, her voice didn’t matter,” said Blackman. So naturally she becomes a civil rights organizer with her husband, thereby finding her voice, both literally and figuratively.
Blackburn also drew on his personal experiences when creating the family with whom Vanya finds refuge: he has a nonverbal autistic son, and while the character of Sissy’s son, Harlan, is not based solely on his own son, it was certainly inspired by such children. “It was important that they never use the word autism on the show,” he said, given how little understood the condition was during the 1960s. It also allowed him to explore family dysfunction beyond the members of the Umbrella Academy—not just Sissy and her son, but Lila’s testy relationship with her adoptive mother (and Five’s former boss), The Handler (Kate Walsh, Private Practice). “It’s all layers of family complications,” Blackburn said. “Even the Swedes, the bad guys, are a family of brothers who love each other despite being adopted.”
Both seasons of The Umbrella Academy raise questions about the nature of time travel (as presented in the series) and the tension between choice and predetermination. What if the siblings can’t control the timeline and despite their best efforts, the apocalypse always happens? There is a pivotal scene in the eighth episode where Five is asked why he can’t bring some people from the past back with him into the future, since they are largely inconsequential. “Five says that everybody is consequential when you talk about time travel. Everyone matters,” said Blackman. “He knows that time is fickle; it will punish you if you’re not careful.”
As for where the series goes from here, S2 neatly wraps up its main narrative threads while also ending on another cliffhanger to set up a possible third season. Blackman is understandably circumspect with regard to his plans for S3, but one element will involve exploring what may have happened to the other special children who were born on the same day as the Umbrella Academy siblings. Ben is also likely to have a greater role, although Blacakburn is cagey about when we might learn more about how, precisely, Ben died in the original timeline. “That’s something I’ve talked about with Gerard, because it’s something he wants to do in later volumes,” he said. “I promised I’d hold off to try and be in synch with telling that story.”
The Umbrella Academy S2 is currently streaming on Netflix. Here’s hoping we get a third season.
Listing image by Netflix