When you start a story with the end of the world, things must only improve from there. Or must they? When we’re talking about a family that redefines dysfunction, “improve” is a relative term.
The new season opens with the siblings scattering in time in and around Dallas in the early 1960s. That provides the useful backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK assassination, which are brought together to engineer yet another apocalypse for the Academy to avert. And that is even before the opening credits.
This is the early warning that the ten episodes of season 2 will demand close concentration, as viewers are taken on a roller-coaster ride through time, character revelations and plot twists both predictable and shocking.
In some cases, the twists are telegraphed years in advance – literally and figuratively. In others, long-standing puzzles are solved and loose ends resolved, if too neatly at times. The paradoxes of time-travel have nothing on the paradoxes of character motivation. As in, if Allison can do THAT, why doesn’t she do it when it really matters?
Back in 1963, a younger edition of the infuriating Sir Reginald Hargreeves turns out to be just as infuriating, but entirely in character as his back story gradually fills out.
The series moves at a frenetic pace, characters reveal cool aspects of their powers, and we just know nothing will ever work out as planned. Wait, did I say “ever”? That, too, is a relative term in Umbrella Academy.
Unlike traditional time travel series like Quantum Leap and Doctor Who, time travel really does mess with history. Even the civil rights movement of the early 60s gets something of a rewrite, but leaves a deep sense of discomfort at the way it is treated as disposable subplot for Allison rather than essential backdrop. Klaus gets to start a cult movement that presages the hippie movement, and Luther gets involved with the machinations of the Mob.
Clearly, the all-powerful Commission that maintains “time” is falling down on its job, even though it plays a central role throughout this season. It also presents us with a character that many will regard as their favourite of the season, namely a man whose head is, quite literally, a goldfish in a fishbowl. Such cool visual humour permeates the season, and makes it as memorable as the first.
On the other hand, that a goldfish makes such an impact could be seen as an indictment on several predictable performances. However, Ellen Page stands out with an intense portrayal of Vanya, the seemingly ordinary sibling who is in reality the most powerful of all. She also seems the most compassionate, ready to disrupt time for the love of another woman. Klaus the cult leader who communes with the dead is hilarious even as he pursues a doomed love. The teenaged Aidan Gallagher playing 58-year-old Number 5 trapped in a schoolboy’s body is perhaps the most impressive achievement of all. He is sharp, witty and convincing as the self-proclaimed “elder” among the siblings.
While the “future” in which the Commission is based is annoyingly non-descript, and its leader startlingly inept, the production design for the 1963 milieu is superb, effectively channeling the era, its people and its prejudices.
As with season 1, the soundtrack is wonderfully evocative, providing not only powerful subtext to the action, but also great listening. In combination with cool special effects and costume design, it makes for a visual and aural feast.
The biggest questions are left to the very end: is the second apocalypse averted? Does the Academy make it home? If such still exists? You’ve got ten episodes of quirky, intense, disturbing and moving story to find the answers.
- See Arthur Goldstuck’s interview with Ellen Page and Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman here: https://gadget.co.za/umbrellaacademyexclusive/