The Umbrella Academy
There’s an increasingly frustrating downside to Umbrella Academy separating all its characters at the beginning of the season: It’s starting to feel like it’s going to take a very, very long time to get them all back together again. The first season thrived on the oddball chemistry, and the natural tensions, that bubbled to the surface whenever this whole dysfunctional family was stuck in the same room. But season two decided to split them all up again, and so far, none of the individual stories are compelling enough to stand alone for long. There’s a reason “The Swedish Job” opens with a brief, breathless montage chronicling Klaus’s yearslong, globe-trotting rise to becoming a cult leader: This material — while worth a chuckle — just isn’t enough to sustain more than a few minutes of an audience’s attention.
You can feel the strain across every story in this episode, which manages to be very busy without doing much to actually move the plot forward. Vanya fends off an attack from the trio of Swedish assassins (and rediscovers her own superpower in the process). Klaus springs Allison’s husband Ray from prison. Luther attempts to reconnect with Allison and discovers that she’s married, spiraling into an even deeper depression. Diego and Lila finally hook up.
“The Swedish Job” does feature one story with a little extra emotional punch. Klaus tracks down his old partner, David, who is working at a local hardware shop. You might remember David from season one when he and Klaus fell in love while serving in Vietnam together. David died, and Klaus returned to 2019, wracked with grief and PTSD from a life no one else could ever really understand.
And now, thanks to time travel, Klaus and David can be reunited again — but how well will that go? By and large, the Hargreeves children have adjusted to life in Dallas pretty well. But this story gets at one of the tragic complexities of time travel: The desperate desire to fix everything that originally went wrong. Klaus and David fell in love in the middle of a war. Here, before the war, Klaus believes he can dissuade David from enlisting and save his life — even if there’s a very real chance that would also mean David never falls for him in the first place.
Unfortunately, one of the strange things about building Umbrella Academy’s second season around a second apocalypse (eight days and counting!) is that it renders most of these smaller, more personal story lines moot. It doesn’t actually matter if Klaus stops David from enlisting if he’s just going to die via nuclear bomb before he’d go to Vietnam anyway. When you’re ranking priorities, stopping the death of literally everyone in the world is a pretty big trump card.
And then there’s Allison and Ray’s sit-in at the whites-only diner. We’ve been building up to this moment for a few episodes, and it’s legitimately difficult to watch. The diner explodes with resentment, with employees pouring salt and coffee on peaceful Black protestors who know that the arrival of the police might mean their deaths.
Unfortunately, the episode also makes the very misguided choice to cut between the diner and Luther’s latest brawl in the fighting pit. Luther, grieving over the knowledge that Allison has found love with someone else, decides to take a dive, begging his opponent to pummel him into numbness. As a result, the crosscutting between Allison and Luther’s stories has the effect of conflating the very stark reality of a police officer beating a Black man to death — a national shame that America is actually, painfully grappling with right now — with the ridiculous spectacle of a depressed superhero inviting someone to punch him into oblivion.
I’ve been wondering how a show as frothy as Umbrella Academy would tackle a subject this painful, and the execution is as flawed as I feared it might be. It’s certainly possible for genre stories to delve into difficult social and cultural issues. (See HBO’s Watchmen, for one.) But as much as I enjoy Umbrella Academy on a moment to moment basis, I don’t think the series has the depth or complexity to treat this particular story with the weight it both requires and deserves. It’s telling that the “solution” is just Allison using her superpower to make the cop stop beating her husband to death, which is one way to borrow the gravity of an actual social issue without needing to say anything about it. We get no resolution whatsoever on the fates of all the other Black Americans who are being attacked by the diner patrons and police officers because Umbrella Academy isn’t really interested in them as human beings. They’re ultimately afterthoughts in a story that’s really just about the growing tension between Allison and Ray, who is beginning to realize that his wife is harboring some pretty deep secrets of her own.
This whole messy, half-baked sequence made me think about exactly what Umbrella Academy is trying to do in season two, and what it’s actually capable of doing. It’s hard to fault the show for ambition — but in the end, I suspect Umbrella Academy might just be better equipped for giddy escapism, rousing set pieces, and nutty twists.
That’s certainly what we get at the end of the episode, when Lila hooks up with Diego, then sneaks off to a hotel and meets up with The Handler, who turns out to be … her mother! It looks like it’s not just the Swedish assassins who are hunting down the various members of the Umbrella Academy. And now that Lila has fully insinuated herself into Diego’s confidence, I suspect her subtler approach will bear some real fruit.
• British accents can be tricky — see Bond, James Bond — but for the record, the subtitles make it clear that Lila calls The Handler “mum,” not “ma’am.”
• One question not answered by this closing twist: Did Lila totally make up the story about her parents being killed in a home invasion when she was 4 years old? Or did The Commission (and The Handler) swoop in to adopt her after her birth parents had been killed?
• The Handler’s hotel room happens to be room 217 — the notorious room in Stephen King’s The Shining (but not the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, which changed it to room 237).
• The montage of Klaus’s rise as a cult leader has a quick shot of Ben smiling at a girl reading on a bus. I hope Umbrella Academy follows up on that at some point, because I’m really ready for Ben to get a bigger role than Klaus’s imaginary friend.
• You might have noticed that Jack Ruby is always carrying a dog around. This quirky detail is actually pulled from real history: Ruby adored his dachshund Sheba. He left her in his car when he shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and his attorneys later used that detail to argue that the shooting wasn’t premeditated, because Ruby would never have deliberately abandoned her.
• The modern mania around crop circles began in the United States in the 1960s, and it wouldn’t surprise me if The Umbrella Academy’s fictionalized version of the phenomenon begins with someone discovering the big circle Vanya blasted into the cornfield with her superpowers.
• Diego walks by a guy with a “THE END IS NIGH” sandwich board, which is probably a reference to the similarly subversive, similarly apocalypse-obsessed Watchmen.
• In case it wasn’t clear enough that Luther is lonely, his boarding house is specifically for “solitary men.”