The Umbrella Academy - a writer's perspective
Spoiler alert - this post responds to Season 2 and will include some spoilers.
Any series which centres on superheroes must focus on their characters and their relationships first and foremost. To do otherwise is to render the story superficial and dominated by special effects. (such as the way Twentieth Century Fox dealt with the X-Men franchise. The story which had the most potential for character exploration!). In series 1 of The Umbrella Academy the dysfunctionality of the Hargreeves family is well established, the foundations of their characters have been laid, as well as the world in which they live. It's an impressive accomplishment because it never feels like that's happening, good writing eh!
Season 2 is a class act in writing. It is also beautifully directed and superbly acted. But I'm focusing on the writing here. Let's start by identifying the theme which arcs across all 10 episodes: family.
Parents: who needs 'em?
The villains of the series are Handler (played with such versatility and style by Kate Walsh) and Father, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore). What places them into this role is their callous disregard for their adopted offspring, the kids are there to serve a purpose, their goal. Nothing else matters. Handler is consistent in her callous disregard for everyone so it's not like she's being deliberately mean to Lila (Rita Arya). It's also the manipulation that goes with that disregard. Manipulation aimed at The Goal.
It means this dereliction of care, linked to the endless exploitation, leads to the children becoming dysfunctional, unable to react in any normal way to other people. What's clever about the plot structure in the series is how this is counterpointed by the character of Sissy. As mother to Harlan, who we can assume has some form of extreme autism, we see a woman prepared to go to any length to love her son. She even sacrifices her own happiness for the boy. She's tested too, repeatedly. She's given the chance to find happiness but it involves sacrifice and each time she turns it down. We get to see the role of the parent on a wide spectrum during the season, showing the good and the downright evil.
Journeys of self-discovery
When you have the whole of history for your social backdrop to the season, it was an interesting writing choice to choose Dallas, Texas in 1963 and the lead-up to the Kennedy assassination. It provides a charged atmosphere of paranoia which impacts upon our protagonists, forcing them into situations which make them confront their individual demons.
The toughest journey has to be the one taken by Vanya (Ellen Page). It's a clever maguffin to give her amnesia right at the start of the series so her actions last season are wiped clean. It allows her to "reboot" in a way, to compensate for the prejudices which caused her to act as she did. She rediscovers her siblings in a neutral way that lets her form a new relationship with them. That's the good news. The bad news is her growing affection and eventual sexual relationship with Sissy, one which is seen as immoral and degenerate at the time. Not only that but having a Russian first name turns out to be a disadvantage when the FBI get involved. This is an outcome of McCarthyism and the 'reds under the bed' philosophy which was rife at the time. All this means Vanya's journey is filled with torment as she rediscovers herself.
A close second in the torment league, is Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman). Being black in the American South with its bigotry and discrimination means we see her confidence and self-belief stripped away. It's the ultimate torture for the character who, in much of Season 1 was a superstar. Isolated from her siblings for a year means seeking refuge elsewhere, in a marriage to a man she has come to genuinely care for. But Allison is also a fighter, unwilling to tolerate all the racial hatred. She's found love again, after the frustrations in Season 1 with Luthor. Despite everything, love tempts her to stay with Ray, her husband. The irony here is that she must choose where her loyalties really lie, where love runs the deepest.
Diego (David Casteneda) also finds love but it also comes at a price. Lila is equally as damaged and being manipulated equally as much. Diego continues to pursue the role of hero, intent on saving Kennedy's life. This role is also turned on its head as he is rejected, used and abused as he is manipulated by almost everyone. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) has the saddest story in this season. He's accidentally returned to the home town of the man he's loved in Vietnam, meets him and tries to stop him from enlisting so he doesn't die pointlessly in the war. He fails of course and suffers as the man is made to punch him and later ridicule him. Later, at the very end, we also find he's spent his life feeling guilt about his treatment of Ben, his dead brother. Poor Klaus is rejected by those who matter to him, his journey made worse by the adoration he's given by the cult members of those who worship him. Pure irony. Pure 60s hippy thinking.
Luther (Tom Hopper) has less of a role in this season, providing some of the humour except for a couple of episodes where his love for Allison is thwarted when he discovers she's married. The standout performance though, so varied in its demands on the actor, is Five (played by the super-talented sixteen year old Aiden Gallagher). His goal is to rescue him family and get them home, something they all manage to prevent, causing poor Five to compromise himself by becoming Handler's weapon.
In the final episode the siblings comment on how they've all been changed. It draws the audience's attention to the over-arching theme of family once again. Events have changed them but it also brings them together. There's a lovely moment when Luthor tells Lila that family means being loved and wanted - to which she pretends to stick her fingers down her throat and he chuckles and says it's the best he could do. It's sums up the quality of the writing by mocking itself and its own theme.
The final episode is powerful in its imagery. The best example is Vanya's declaration of needing to save Harlan and her plea for help being rejected initially until, one by one, they each join her in the car. (With Luther wrecking the suspension in the process). But also the way they support one another in the final battle at the farm, which is still coloured by the inevitable sibling banter. There's also the one, good piece of advice which Five has been given by his Father earlier in the season, which proves to be the crucial element to the plot. We knew it was coming, it had to be relevant, the question was how would it play out. But it is the final segment in the jigsaw, good advice from a father figure.
The final scene sets us up for a new iteration of the story. It offers an intriguing continuation of this theme of family and I look forward to watching it. I'm confident it will be just as well written as this season because the writers understand my opening premise - all good drama must be character-based, even when it includes superheroes.