REVIEW: “The Umbrella Academy” Season 2

I enjoyed the first season of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. Sure, it wasn’t entirely faithful to the comics, but they did a great job at capturing what felt like the spiritual essence of what Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá did in the comics. And a lot of the character work in the first season was excellent. So, of course, I was excited to see what a second season of the show would look like. After all, season one’s ending had departed so far from what the comics did that I genuinely had no idea where the show would go after that. Well, as it turns out, season two would go on to loosely adapt the comics’ second arc, Dallas, to mixed results. It retains all the positives and negatives of the first season, with the positives being even better and the negatives being more blatant. It’s an enjoyable, if flawed, watch. (4 out of 5 wands.)

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.

Like the first season loosely adapted the first arc of the comics, Apocalypse Suite, the second season loosely adapts the second arc, Dallas. And when I say loose, I mean loose. It’s an adaptation in premise only, borrowing a few elements from the comic’s main plot but mostly doing its own thing. And that, on its own, wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Honestly, I never expected the show to adapt Dallas because the first season had already taken so much from it and, subsequently, diverted so far from the comics that it felt like there was no way for the show to adapt the storyline. And I was mostly right. The show doesn’t really adapt the storyline of the comic. Instead, it takes the broad narrative arc from the first season and just… uses it again here.

Allow me to explain. In season two, Five learns of an impending apocalypse and gathers his family together in an attempt to avert it. Meanwhile, the Hargreeves family is tracked and attacked by mysterious assassins. If that sounds a lot like season one, you’re right. Of course, all the finer details are wildly different but the overall narrative thrust of the second season is almost identical to the narrative thrust of the first season. And it gives the whole affair a bit of a “been there, done that” feeling. It’s not that any of it is bad, per se, but it just feels a bit old and, subsequently, less exciting than it should be. All the recycled elements from season 1 are less interesting this time around – the impending apocalypse doesn’t feel all that scary, nor do the nameless Swedish assassins, who are blatant stand-ins for Hazel and Cha Cha and are woefully underdeveloped. It’s not like the writers are unaware of this; there are a few self-referential jokes related to how “same old, same old” much of the plot feels. But, for me, self-referential jokes aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for questionable writing choices; you still made them and you knew they were blatant and felt they had to be commented on. All of this repetition of season one elements greatly detracts from the new stuff the season has to offer. 

And, to be fair, a lot of that new stuff is really good – especially in the season’s latter five episodes, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first five. I don’t want to go into much detail about the plot, nor can I, but I liked a lot of what this season did. On the whole, the pacing of the season is much better than that of the first. There are plenty of subplots, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to see developments in those plots. Plus, many of them end up being interesting, especially in the latter half of the season. There’s a lot of stuff involving conspiracies – two, in particular, that should be obvious to anyone familiar with the season’s premise or to anyone who’s seen the episode titles for the season. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t explore those conspiracies as much as I’d like, but they’re still a lot of fun. Fun is a good word for the season, as a whole. Once it gets going, it’s simply a lot of fun to watch. As the season reaches its climax, some plot developments prove devilishly exciting and push the show (and its potential future) into new and surprising directions. And I can’t wait to see more.

Even more surprising, though, is the exploration of racism in the 1960s. It’s not a topic I expected a show like The Umbrella Academy to explore, but it makes a lot of sense and is explored in a fairly nuanced way. Obviously, a character like Allison would experience racism in Texas in the early 1960s, but how would she handle it? That question is deftly examined during the season. It’s a pretty meaty plot and all the time travel shenanigans give the show a lot of freedom to explore it. On that note, there are times in the season’s first half where it almost feels like an entirely different show. All of the characters are split up and most of them aren’t using their powers all that much. It feels a bit more like a family drama than a superhero show but it’s very intriguing. It doesn’t last all that long, nor should it have, but it was neat. It might be a bit jarring for people expecting to see more superhero shenanigans, but I think it’s worth that risk as it brings a lot of energy into that first half of the season. And it’s that injection of newness that keeps you invested in the season until the plot stops feeling like a weird rehash of the first season.

I’ll never understand why ensemble shows insist on splitting up their ensembles like this – surely the writers understand that seeing all the characters interacting with one another is the appeal of such a show? For the first half of the season, most of the Hargreaves siblings are separated from each other – which is a real shame since their interactions were the highlight last season and they continue to be the highlight this season. But they’re separated for much of the season. Now, to be fair, many of Hargreeves siblings are plenty interesting on their own, and their various subplots make up the bulk of the narrative thrust of the early episodes. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Vanya (Ellen Page) remain the highlights of the show, with both Sheehan and Page delivering performances even better than those in season one. Klaus’ cult subplot is a lot of fun and it’s a joy to see Vanya continuing to develop. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is pretty close behind them as Lampman is given a lot of material to play with – including, but not limited to, the previously mentioned racism subplot. Ben (Justin H. Min) also gets a lot more to do this season, though I don’t want to spoil any of it. Needless to say, Min continues to be great and his interactions with Sheehan continue to be hilarious.

As for the rest of the Hargreeves siblings, my love for them ranges. All of the actors do a good job, but their various characters are not necessarily given the best material. Luther (Tom Hopper) shows some definite growth when compared to his arc in season one, but this season doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with him, so he’s frequently just kind of there. Diego (David Castañeda) is still a lot of fun, but so much of his plot is tied to a new character, Lila (Ritu Arya), who I just couldn’t stand. Both Castañeda and Arya do a respectable job with their respective characters, but I couldn’t vibe with Lila as a character and didn’t enjoy her interactions with any of the characters. And then there’s Five (Aidan Gallagher). Just as precocious and annoying as last season, Five’s flaws are at the forefront of this season. And they’re a lot harder to swallow now. He’s shown no character growth over either of the seasons and I found him particularly grating this season. His arc is almost identical to his season 1 arc, and it’s not particularly exciting to watch. Gallagher’s performance isn’t the problem; it’s solid and he makes the best of what he’s given, but it’s hard to make a character like Five likable. Overall, the characters remain the best part of The Umbrella Academy, though, even if the Hargreeves siblings are separated for more of the season than I’d like. The other characters (some new, some not-so-new) are a mixture of good and not-so-good, but to go into any more detail would be a bit spoilery. All of the actors do a great job, though, regardless of how their characters developed. And I think fans will be very satisfied with some of these side characters.

Honestly, I think the crux of my problem with this season is that the show seems to feel it has to return to the comics and adapt, however loosely, those storylines. As a lover of the comics, I appreciate it when the show grabs something I loved and uses it in the world of the show. There are a ton of easter eggs throughout this season that made my comics-loving heart soar. But every time the show feels it needs to veer its plot back toward the plot of the comics, it suffers. I feel the show’s universe has simply diverged too far from the comic’s universe for the bulk of the comic’s plotlines to make sense in the show’s world. The plotline of Dallas had to be tweaked to such a degree in this season that they might as well have just not done it and done something else instead. And, as I’ve said, I loved almost every new thing the show did this season, so I would be all for it completely departing from the comic’s plotlines. At this point, I think it’s fine for the show to exist as its own thing, and I’d love for it to embrace its own identity a bit more than it did this season. I think it would be in the show’s best interests.

At the end of the day, I have a lot of mixed thoughts toward the second season of The Umbrella Academy. It’s an enjoyable watch, capturing a lot of the fun and excitement found in the show’s first season while pushing the characters into new directions and adventures. There’s more action this time around, the pacing is a lot better, and there’s a lot of story packed into these ten episodes. But it also maintains a lot of the first season’s weaknesses while trying so hard to emulate its narrative. All the details of the story might be different, but the general arc of the season’s narrative lines up so closely with the arc in season one that it gives the whole thing a “been there, done that” feeling, even while you’re watching all these new and exciting things. As a fan of the comics, there’s a lot to love in this season and a lot to be annoyed with. As a fan of these characters, it’s a joy to revisit them and see how they’ve grown and continue to grow. Ultimately, I enjoyed the season well enough. It’s a fun time, even if it feels like a slight downgrade from the first season at times. On the bright side, the door is wide open for a potential third season that’s full of surprises and I am beyond excited to see what they might do there.

4 out of 5 wands.

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