Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy comic was an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation, but in 2019, Netflix managed to produce a thoroughly enjoyable and coherent homage to the original work. On July 31, it captured lightning in a bottle once more, releasing a second season that shot Umbrella Academy to Netflix’s #1 most-watched show (where it remained for over two weeks in the United States). Met with wildly positive reviews, the second season improved on all the weaknesses of the first season while managing to keep a tight grip on the elements of the first season that were strongest: the ambiance, characterizations, music, and paradoxically absurd world that’s so easy to get lost in.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Among the greatest failings (or at least, weaknesses) of the first season was the pacing. The pacing was often slow. It never quite stopped, but it did crawl a bit. Given that the show was introducing the audience to unfamiliar characters, the dragging story arcs were, at times, necessary. Season one was focused more on the characters than the plot. In season two, the characters are already familiar, and so the pacing resolves into an exhilarating, break-neck sprint. Season two has none of the padding or filler that the first season has. It elegantly transitions between story threads and character arcs, giving a natural rise and fall to non-stop action. But season two doesn’t over-correct for the plodding pace of season one. It sticks the landing, giving tender, quiet moments room to breathe without bogging down the plot.
Another improvement over season one is the color palette. Season one features a lot of gloomy grays, browns, and glum neutrals. The whole season might as well have been lit under fluorescent lights in an office building without windows. In a way, it worked with the thin undercurrent of dread that followed our hapless heroes. But it also made fight scenes difficult to see, and took away from the precisely-chosen outfits and set pieces. Season two, set in the 1960’s, has an appropriately gaudy, eclectically colorful palette. Shocks of pink, yellow, and blue and wide, outdoor spaces mirror the growth of the characters. The settings of season two reflects the era it’s set in, and the bright springtime colors give us more hope for characters that have grown. It’s a cheerier season and easier on the eyes, and does a subtle but indispensable job of communicating tone.
Two of the most controversial characters from season one, Vanya and Luther, were given redemptive arcs. Since the first season, fans of Vanya have complained that Luther’s violent mishandling of Vanya in the final episode was what prompted the apocalypse. Defensive Luther apologists have responded that Vanya’s character was passive, emotionally withdrawn, and failed to take responsibility for her actions. Fans of both got a much-needed interaction between the two in which Luther apologized to Vanya for his actions toward her, and Vanya showed some emotional depth and agency. Both Luther and Vanya showed growth and a wider spectrum of emotions this season, making them more relatable. Both characters suffered from their isolation and self-seriousness in the first season; in season two, both are immensely more sympathetic, and seeing them interact positively is an absolute treat. In the finale, seeing Vanya get the support of all of her siblings as they pile into the car together hits as hard as one of Luther’s meaty gorilla-fists.
The characters didn’t just grow emotionally; we also got to see more of their powers. In particular, Allison’s powers were explored, along with their much darker implications. Cheery color palette and emotional growth aside, this season certainly had some brutal moments (earning it an TV-MA rating, as opposed to last season’s TV-14), including multiple instances of torture, more graphic violence, and more swearing. (My favorite line, hands-down, is “Eat shit, you shit-eater,” a sentence I’m almost certain I’ve said to my own brother before.) The stakes of the first season were high and the odd neutering of the dialogue was somewhat noticeable. In the second season, the mature rating is never abused, but is used strategically to allow for more realistic swearing and dignified exploration of adult themes such as homophobia and racial segregation (issues the show could have skirted entirely but instead faced head-on). There’s also more graphic violence that feels truer to the source material; season one has no problem torturing characters and letting the audience squirm in their seats a little.
As before, the show could have suffered from an over-stuffed cast, but the plot balanced out multiple storylines well. I was initially worried that the newest addition, Lila, would suffer from “Poochie” syndrome. But Lila was perfectly balanced and added a humorous and chaotic element without stealing the show from the OG 7. She offers a fantastic contrast for Diego, whose stern, aggressive posturing is tempered by her care-free, lackadaisical approach.
The increased budget and extra attention paid to special effects was clear. When A.J. Carmichael appeared, comic fans and aquarium enthusiasts alike rejoiced. It wasn’t merely the fact that the show managed to include a man with a talking fish for a head; it was the loving animation of Carmichael as he smoked and all the tiny micro-expression of his fishy little face. (Watch closely: he takes a drag on his cigarette through the bowl’s filter, and then sucks up the tiny bubbles as they enter the water.) Attention to such details– the horrible slurping when The Handler finally eats him, or the way baby Pogo lets go of a pen in zero-gravity and watches with wonderment as it floats away– really sell the realism, which is no easy feat when one considers that the show revolves around superheroes, aliens, time travel, and FBI conspiracies.
The soundtrack of the first season set a high bar, but the second season vaulted that bar with ease. The music was lovingly curated and deliciously eclectic (Styx, The Backstreet Boys, and Frank Sinatra are all present). It also offered a few surprising covers that added layers of depth to the originals, notable examples including a somber Swedish cover of Adele’s “Hello,” Daniela Andrade’s heart-breaking version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” and The Interrupters’ ska take on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.”
It would be a mistake to claim that the second season was a perfect 10/10, of course, so in the interest of fairness, there are a few minor stumbling points that might pull viewers out of the world. One criticism is the shoehorning of romance into almost every main character’s storyline. While the Luther-Allison-Raymond triangle is already established, as well as Klaus’s infatuation with Dave, one could argue that there is no need for Diego, Vanya, or Ben’s ghost to have any special love interest.
An intense, platonic relationship or friendship would have served the plot equally well, and in Diego’s case, there’s the nettling question of whether or not it’s incest. (Season two expertly handles this conundrum by having Klaus, in a moment of Deadpool-like self-awareness, point out that the most stable relationship any of them has ever had was “when Five was banging that mannequin.”) (Five is the only Hargreeves sibling who doesn’t find love; alas, his mannequin-wife is nowhere to be found this season.)
Another very minor criticism of this season is the occasional juvenile humor. It’s not that the first fart joke isn’t funny, or the second, or the third… it’s that there are three of them (at least) and it’s low-brow humor that feels out of place in a show that typically delivers incredibly self-aware jokes (with my favorite probably being Five’s description of Diego: “Think Batman, then aim lower.”) Two final, utterly ridiculous complaints that I just can’t let go of: that Vanya’s LSD trip featuring her eating a squishy brain instead of the obvious choice of cold oatmeal (were season one’s half-dozen nanny deaths a joke to you?) and the presence of Milton Bradley game “Operation,” which was released in 1965. (In fairness, perhaps someone from the Commission accidentally left it in 1963 without realizing.)
But overall, the second season was a work of art, giving the viewer the experience of watching a ten-hour movie that hits the mark over and over. You’ll cry when Ben dies (again), you’ll laugh when Diego needlessly threatens a harmless old lady he looked up in the phone book, and you’ll root for Five as he engages in an intense hand-to-hand combat with… himself. Every actor’s performance shines, and despite the backdrop of time paradoxes and (yet another) upcoming apocalypse, every one of the Hargreeves feels like a real person whose responses to their nonsensical world, and to each other, is incredibly engaging. It’s an existential masterpiece with a dash of Dadaism; it doesn’t take itself too seriously, though it also doesn’t sacrifice gravitas for a cheap laugh (mostly). It offers us insight into a world that is shockingly familiar despite how fantastical it is; for all of its cartoonish aestheticism, Umbrella Academy makes us love its characters and then makes its characters suffer, and we, the viewers, suffer willingly alongside them. There’s an artistic beauty in the existential absurdity that is life, and no other show captures it with quite as much finesse as the second season of Umbrella Academy.