I keep meaning to do some writing about more things than books and I have failed so far, but with the arrival of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix I finally feel inspired enough to write something.
Firstly I want to say that overall I did enjoy it more than not and it is likely I will keep watching into season 2. But there are elements of it that I found problematic and I want to discuss them further. Warning this blog most definitely contains spoilers, lots of them, so you may want to avoid reading it till you are done watching the whole thing.
One final thing, I know that the series is based on graphic novels. I have not read those so I am only referencing things that happened in the show in this post.
**WARNING: PAST THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS!**
Now I am done leaving a little spoiler space, let’s get onto the meat of the matter.
Soooo… where to begin. I mostly want to address the treatment of women and PoC in the series because it really does leave a lot to be desired, which is a shame, because the series could have done so much better. This isn’t all going to be negative, don’t worry, I shall try and end it on a positive note, but I do want to cover what I felt were failings.
I shall start with the female characters as I am on more familiar ground there. Firstly I want to say that I do appreciate how many female characters that actually is, it’s nice to see in a series. We have the two female students of the academy out of the 7, Allison and Vanya; Cha Cha the assassin; their mother, Grace; Agnes the waitress at the donut place; Detective Patch; and The Handler.
Allison is one of two PoC in the academy group. Her power is basically making gossip true, well it’s supposed to be reality bending through her words, but since she has to start every use of her power with “I heard a rumour” it basically comes down to gossip. So that annoyed me to start, it’s something of a bad female stereotype that we are all terrible gossips so it felt a bit frustrating that this was her power.
I did appreciate that she genuinely cared about her sister, though so many of their conversation seemed to revolve around men that I am not entirely sure the relationship passed the Bechdel test. The fact she was so willing to forgive Vanya and tried to get Luther to let her go when she was imprisoned was excellent, him using his superior physical strength to block her and then creepily following her to her room and deciding to watch her even when she physically brushes him off and turns her back on him was not OK, not when they spent episodes building up the relationship between Allison and Luther.
When I thought they had killed her off towards the end I was absolutely fuming. the last image where there are all the guys looking at her on the ground was such a blatant sense of fridging that it made me visibly grind my teeth together. Yes, she’s not dead. But now she may have lost her power, thus rendering her in some ways weaker and if she ends up having to be looked after/rescued by the rest of them in the next series I will not be remotely surprised.
For a good chunk of the series we are confused as to how Vanya can possibly be powerless if she was born in the same circumstances as everyone else. We also watch her be excluded, belittled and pushed away by her family. I see her loneliness and it made me ache for her.
So a guy comes along who actually seems to like her for her, who treats her with love and kindness and then naturally turns out to be a manipulative horror who is using her as a weapon against the rest of her family because he hates them because they laughed at him when he was a teenager. I am not saying that coercive controlling behaviours are not a real problem, but I am not sure it was a good choice with everything else that was going on. Her discovering that people had been lying to her and hiding what she was her whole life could easily have been reasone enough to lose it.
The other thing that confused me is that when we see her with her powers as a child she basically seems to be a callous horror who just casually kills her nannies because she can. This doesn’t remotely fit with anything we see of her later personality and it is pretty unclear if it is trying to say that the power has a separate personality to main Vanya or not.
The fact that her adopted father doesn’t bother trying to teach her control when she is older than four years old, but just sticks her on medication for the rest of the life whilst giving her a complex about never amounting to anything is just adding insult to injury. I would also appreciate the fact that she seems to be the most powerful of all of them if that didn’t automatically come with her becoming the villain.
Generally I thought she was done quite well. I genuinely liked the partnership with her and Hazel throughout the early stuff and she seemed like the more competent of the two. She was a bit too much kickass woman stereotype at times though and given how much time they spent giving Hazel character development and such, it would have been nice if they had bothered to do the same with Cha Cha.
I kept trying to work out if she was angry with Hazel over the dissolution of their working partnership, or because he was in love with something. Never quite managed to make a decision on how they wanted me to view it.
So not too bad I think, would have liked to see more of her (another female PoC in the same series no less!) and her ending was incredibly disappointing if I am honest. Randomly killed off in the big blast felt a little cheap.
The mother to the academy children and a robot who seems to basically have been designed to a 1940/50’s stereotypical housewife. I mean, she wasn’t a sex bot so that is a plus point, but I am not sure a nanny bot was really raising the bar for the portrayal of women in the series.
There is also the episode when her own son shuts her down because she seems to be malfunctioning, which I am not entirely sure I got the whole point of. She is taken to be the emotional core of the academy group in some ways, but again she doesn’t have much personality or development and mostly seems to get used as motivation for other characters.
Firstly I have to say that I adore that there is an older female love interest subplot in the series. Yes please, more of that. The relationship between her and Hazel is also done really slowly and sweetly, which I also enjoyed.
In fact I was really loving all of that until Cha Cha kidnaps her, ties her to a chair and then threatens her life just to make Hazel suffer. More fridging, no thanks.
The end where she and Hazel die as they share a last kiss I am pretty ambivalent about. On one hand it’s a darkly cute moment, on the other it’s another dead female character and I can do without that for no good reason.
We basically get introduced to her just long enough for it to be a, hey, this is a kickass police woman who has a history with Diego. She’s smart as hell and good at her job and oh look she’s been killed just to provide motivation for a male character.
More fridging. Seriously, how much can you stick into one series? This was the first instance, but as mentioned above, hardly the last. Oh and she’s another PoC, which just rubs salt in the wound.
I am not sure I have much negative stuff to say about her. She’s clearly in charge, definitely competent at her job and pretty darn intimidating at times. As an antagonist she is excellent, though I would love to have more of an understanding as to why she believes so much in the The Commission. Hopefully fuel for season 2 and there will be more of what she is up to and why.
So I have gone through the treatment of all the main or commonly recurring female characters and I do want to say a little about the men before I stop. There was a diverse cast, which was excellent, though I think they could have made some more interesting choices in what roles those characters played. The leader of the Academy children seems to be either Luther or 5, depending on how you want to look at it, both white, and Diego’s attempts to be in charge seem to be generally considered with eyerolling by the rest of the group.
Then we have Ben, the only Asian character, who is killed off basically in narration without any explanation of what happened to him. His power is also basically being possessed by Kaiju so yeah… a little bit of a problematic choice there as well. We see very little of him, hear very little of him even though he haunts Klauss and it was honestly pretty frustrating.
Honestly this show is worth watching for Klauss alone. He is an amazing character and manages to shrug off being too much of a stereotype. A goth type who can see and hear ghosts and takes drugs because he is scared of them is definitely an interesting idea. He is also gay, although the fact that he is portrayed as the weakest of all of the brothers is therefore somewhat worrying.
Still, he is wonderfully acted and if you are not entirely in love with the character by the time he is dancing around listening to music whilst a fight rages all around his home, then I worry for your soul.
The kid who plays 5 is also absolutely amazing. Honestly I am not sure how he manages to pull off Adult in a child’s body quite so convincingly, but he is extremely convincing and without him the series would not be anywhere near as watchable as it is.
The fight scenes overall are very good and the whole show has a sort of madcap nonsense to it in places that balances the darker material quite nicely.
Oh! And there aren’t any rape plots or sexual assault plots of any kind that I can recall (and they usually stick with me). Wish this wasn’t something I have to raise as a plus point, but in a show with darker themes it’s very much a rarity.
So yeah, overall a pretty good show that I did enjoy, but it’s good to be aware of its problematic elements. The show could have been so much better if they had more awareness of what they were doing, which is a shame because then it could have been truly excellent.