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The Umbrella Academy restructures The Commission

The A.V. Club logo The A.V. Club 1/08/2020 Caroline Siede

Tom Hopper riding on the back seat of a car: Tom Hopper in The Umbrella Academy © Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix Tom Hopper in The Umbrella Academy

The Commission has never been my favorite element of The Umbrella Academy. Though Cha-Cha and especially Hazel had their moments last season, it too often felt like the retro bureau was pulling focus from the more compelling Hargreeves family dynamics happening elsewhere. I honestly wouldn’t have been upset if season two had dropped the Commission entirely, but this episode goes for some restructuring instead. Kate Walsh’s Handler is back thanks to a conveniently placed metal plate that allowed her to survive Hazel’s kill shot. Moving forward, it looks like she’s going to function as the newly demoted face of the organization, while a bizarre trio of silent Scandinavian goons (a.k.a. “The Swedes”) will serve as the heavies chasing the Hargreeves.

It’s a smart bit of streamlining as The Umbrella Academy already has quite a bit on its plate with the various 1960s adventures of the Hargreeves siblings. Most of their storylines continue their arcs from the first season: Vanya is yearning for a sense of belonging, Diego is seeking purpose in his vigilante work, and Luther is looking for a male authority figure to boss him around. But each character now has a completely different context for their respective journey.

Diego has gone from working with a female partner who reined in his worst impulses to one who’s even more reckless than he is. Luther, meanwhile, is giving the dark side a try. Having tried and failed at the whole goody two-shoes thing for most of his life, he’s now working for notorious gangster Jack Ruby, the man who kills Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Oswald kills Kennedy. And while last season saw Vanya find a fake kindred spirit in Leonard Peabody, this time around she finds a real one in Sissy (Marin Ireland).

a man playing a video game © Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

This is a great episode for Ellen Page, who’s wonderful at conveying the openhearted vulnerability Vanya feels in her amnesiac state. When Luther shows up to make tentative amends, Vanya’s so excited at having someone finally recognize her that she doesn’t even care that she and Luther clearly have a complicated history. Though Vanya’s memory wipe is one of The Umbrella Academy’s weaker narrative impulses (it’s clearly just a way to stall her arc until later in the season), it’s nice to see Page given new notes to play. And Vanya’s burgeoning connection with Sissy is a great little 1960s love story in its own right—one that Page and Ireland portray beautifully.

“The Frankel Footage” proves The Umbrella Academy hasn’t entirely given up its slow-burning habits. (Luther apologizing to Vanya and then just leaving felt particularly frustrating). But when the character stuff is this rich, the slow-burn approach isn’t as annoying as it was last season. In this episode’s most delightful thread, we learn exactly what Klaus was running from in San Francisco. It turns out he made himself into a New Age prophet with a peace and love message that’s earned him legions of devoted followers.

“Klaus as accidental hippie Jesus” is a great comedic bit, even before it’s revealed that his profundity comes from quoting pop lyrics from the likes of TLC. Klaus has always reveled in being a force of chaos, and it’s hilarious that his personal hell is having that chaotic energy taken as earnest wisdom. It gets even funnier as the episode keeps heightening its reveals about just how far his influence goes. (He’s got connections to the governor of Texas.)

a group of people looking at each other © Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

Not everyone has been able to adapt to the 1960s as seamlessly as Klaus, however. If Allison’s storyline diverges the most from her season one arc, it’s because The Umbrella Academy recognizes that living in the segregated South would have the biggest impact on her life. The question of how a modern Black woman—let alone one with literal superpowers—would adjust to living in the past is a thorny but compelling one. Presumably the terrifying stakes of Allison’s new environment are part of what led her to create a permanent 1960s life in the way that she did. Still, given how much season one Allison was defined by her love for her daughter, her love for Luther, and her love for Vanya, I’m hoping the show will have her directly address her decision to seemingly move on from any hope of reuniting with them.

Indeed, the shakiest part of season two’s storytelling is the casual way the Hargreeves start to cross paths in this episode, which makes it seem silly that they weren’t able to find each other before now. Granted, Diego and Vanya are relatively new arrivals and Klaus has been in San Francisco for years, but it’s still rather convenient that Luther just happens to see Vanya outside his boss’ club or that Klaus randomly befriends Allison’s husband in jail. I suppose you could argue that Five’s arrival somehow caused fate to lead them back together, but it feels more like the effortful hand of a writer at work.

On the other hand, I’d rather see the Umbrella Academy reunited than torn apart, so it’s hard to complain too much. Diego is the first to be brought to Five’s base of operations at Elliot’s house. Maybe the biggest revelation of “The Frankel Footage” is just how much The Umbrella Academy was wasting David Castañeda last season. While he was great at Diego’s “tortured hothead” thing, it seldom felt like the show let him move beyond that box. In this episode, however, he gets to play hilarious comedy when paired with Five as well as moving pathos when paired with Ritu Arya’s wigged out Lila, who doesn’t quite know how to process the “Frankel Footage,” which shows Kennedy’s upcoming assassination. (For his part, Diego is more wigged out to see Sir Reginald standing on the grassy knoll.)

a man and a woman standing in a room © Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

Though “The Frankel Footage” is less exhilarating than the premiere, it serves as a reminder that The Umbrella Academy is the only place on TV where you can see things like a 58-year-old man in a 13-year-old’s body meet the baby chimpanzee who will one day become his beloved father figure. The Umbrella Academy’s bonkers energy carries it far, and this episode continues the newfound confidence of season two. While there’s a cliffhanger ending in Diego getting stabbed by a younger Sir Reginald, the overall character-centric storytelling in this episode is strong enough that I didn’t need a specific incentive to click “play next.”

Stray observations

  • The Handler’s boss is AJ, a talking goldfish with a human body and a cigarette habit. Okay!
  • Five on Diego: “Imagine Batman, then aim lower.”
  • I laughed really hard at Diego and Five pausing to mull over the existential levels of Elliot asking, “Are you or are you not an enemy of the people?” (“That’s such an open-ended question, if you think about it.”/“It really depends on the people.”)
  • Klaus’ “Hello”/“Good-Bye” palm tattoos have been adopted by his disciples, something that clearly drives him crazy.
  • “But Shakespeare had no idea what it was like to be me.

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