Review: Daniel Tessier
Warning: Contains Spoilers
After the first season of The Umbrella Academy rapidly became a popular and critical success, it was obvious that Netflix would greenlight a second run. As with many series these days, the season was put into very rapid production, just narrowly getting in the can before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of television and film production. Filming was completed in November 2019, and with post-production working from home, season two was able to make its 2020 release.
While I'll keep spoilers to a minimum here regarding season two, it's impossible to go into this without spoiling some elements of season one. The new season is based on the second series of the original comic, subtitled " Dallas," which should provide a fairly solid idea of the setting. After leaping into time with Number Five in a desperate attempt to escape the end of the world, the seven Hargreaves siblings arrive in Dallas in the 1960s. However, while they all land roughly in the same spot, they don't arrive at precisely the same time, and are spread over several years.
Five (Aiden Gallagher) arrives on November 25th, 1963, three days after the Kennedy assassination (at least in the original timeline). Instead of a mourning but prosperous America, he finds the world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. An elderly Hazel (Cameron Britton, making a brief return from season one) rescues Five, transporting him back ten days, explaining that he and his siblings have that long to save the world. Let's hope they do a better job than last time.
Shifting the series to a period setting is a clever way of keeping things fresh, and kicking off with the apocalypse rather than ending with it is an effectively shocking way to kick things off. Naturally, the soundtrack is absolutely amazing, and laden with sixties favourites plus reimaginings of hits. Although it's set in and around Dallas, it's filmed, like the first season, in Canada, but you wouldn't know it. The season is far more timey-wimey (to steal a Doctor Who phrase) than the first, which is saying something really, with history rewritten multiple times in the attempt to put things right. Added to this, of course, is that the seven siblings, in spite of being born on the same day, are now all different ages due to time travel. Amusingly, for Five, who's the oldest but looks the youngest, the main events of the series so far have taken only a fortnight.
Number Five has his work cut out for him tracking everyone down, with each of the siblings having got themselves into their own ridiculous situations. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) arrived first, along with his phantom brother Ben (Justin H. Min), and has managed to build a cult around himself, milking it for all the money, sex and adoration its worth. Sheehan is just as entertaining as ever, managing to imbue Klaus with heart-breaking emotional depths underneath the flamboyant hedonism. It's also gratifying to see Ben get some real development as a character, rather than simply being an add-on to Klaus, and Min puts in an excellent and likeable performance now he has stronger material to work with.
Luthor (Tom Hopper), reeling from his experiences, has become depressed, but is earning a living as a boxer and heavy for crime boss Jack Ruby (John Kapelos), the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has both the best and worst situations. Being the only non-white member of the family (other than the invisible Ben), she has to cope with the racism prevalent in the sixties. On the other hand, she's found a new place for herself, working for the civil rights movement and happily married to their local group leader Raymond Chestnut (an intense performance by Yusuf Gatewood). The struggle of the civil rights activists in the sixties is more powerful now than it might have been just a year ago, with America of 2020 reeling from a resurgence in activism following the continuing violence against black people. This has never gone away, of course, but as we seem to be in the beginnings of a new, modern civil rights movement, the juxtaposition between the realities of the 1960s and the world we find ourselves in now is all the more potent (see also ‘Watchmen’, which explores the same issues in even more depth).
Vanya (Ellen Page) is immediately hit by a car, leading to amnesia, but is taken in by the family who crash into her. She finds herself experiencing a mutual attraction to Sissie (Marin Ireland, known for ‘Sneaky Pete’, plus much acclaimed stage work), but they have to keep their feelings secret around Marin's patriarchal husband (Stephen Bogeart) and her troubled son Harlan (Justin Paul Kelley). The actors in this dysfunctional family unit are all excellent, bringing a sympathetic reading to everyone even as they treat each other questionably. Like the civil rights plotline, the exploration of Vanya and Sissie's sexuality (and that of Klaus) shows both how far we've come in common rights and how many things are still the same.
Diego (David Castaeda) finds himself in the worst position. Arriving mere months before Five, he becomes obsessed with the idea of saving Kennedy, convinced that's why he's arrived when he did. Shouldering his unending hero complex, he ends up committed to an asylum. As unpleasant a place as this is to be in the sixties, he does meet his seeming soulmate Lila, a dangerous woman hiding a devastating secret. Ritu Arya, a British actor known for ‘Feel Good’ and ‘Humans’, gives an incredible, off-the-wall performance as Lila. She's a highlight of the season, and is clearly becoming a big deal, having suddenly received guest roles on all manner of series this year.
There's a wonderful element of farce to the earlier episodes, as the siblings' lives continually intersect but they never quite run into each other, until Five's presence catalyses events. Sixties preoccupations - Reds under the bed and so on – have their influence, but it's the Kennedy assassination that everything revolves around. Diego and Five (along with local conspiracy theorist Elliott – Kevin Rankin), investigate into the event, only to discover that their father (Colm Feore) was involved. The past setting allows Hargreaves to appear in his prime, leading to a wholly different dynamic when the siblings encounter him.
Of course, those who watched the first season know that it was Five himself who was responsible for Kennedy's death. The conspiracy pulls the characters towards the inevitable catastrophe, with Five's former employers at the Commission sending their own hitmen along to make sure that history runs in the direction they want. Kate Walsh makes the jump from recurring cast member to regular as the Handler, the cold, cruel and deadly villainess who formerly recruited Five. Technically, she reports to the Commission head, A. J. Carmichael, (voice actor Robin Atkin Downes) who is, in true comicbook fashion, a talking goldfish atop a humanoid body. The Handler, however, is playing her own games with history.
The first episode is titled "Right Back Where We Started," and there's definitely a feeling that we've done a lot of this before. Much of the plotline seems like a retread of season one, in particular the role of Vanya in the impending apocalypse. The details and setting, though, keep things feeling fresh, with new focus on certain characters and some genuine developments for each of the siblings as they come to terms with their pasts. It's all, naturally, bloody, atmospheric, colourful and hilarious, and there's a more consistent tone to the season this time round. In the end, the final cliffhanger suggests we'll see something rather different in season three. For the present, though, season two offers the exceptional performances, amazing visuals and gripping entertainment we've come to expect from the series, changing just enough to keep it novel, if not surprising.
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on October 9th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.