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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An anticlimactic Umbrella Academy reaches the day of the Kennedy assassination

Illustration for article titled An anticlimacticem Umbrella Academy /emreaches the day of the Kennedy assassination
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix
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A lot of my praise for this season of The Umbrella Academy has come with the caveat that I just have to have faith that this is all building towards something. And while, yes, I did spend my previous review arguing that plot doesn’t really matter on this show, I’d still like the season to do something with the many JFK-related threads it’s introduced so far. “The Seven Stages” is the first time I’m starting to get nervous that season two might not actually be able to weave all its storylines together in any kind of meaningful way.

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The strangest thing about “The Seven Stages” is the way it arrives on the day of the Kennedy assassination without much fanfare. It took me a while to even realize this episode was set on that infamous day. In retrospect, anchoring the season around two ticking time clocks (one for the Kennedy assassination and one for doomsday three days later) was perhaps unnecessarily confusing, even if they’re ultimately tied to one another. Though I assumed the much-discussed assassination would be the thing to bring the Umbrella Academy together as a team, they spend most of this episode more fractured than ever.

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In fact, “The Seven Stages” cares much more about stylistic flourishes than meaningful character development or sharp storytelling. This is by far the trippiest episode of the season, and not just because Vanya is literally forced on an acid trip. “The Seven Stages” goes all-in on the time travel wackiness anchoring the season, with Five meeting the older (well younger) version of himself and suffering “paradox psychosis” in the process. (Side effects range from itching and excessive gas to acute paranoia and homicidal rage.)

And yet for as effortfully as this episode tries to make time travel paradoxes fun (Aidan Gallagher gets a cheeky direct-to-camera monologue laying out the seven stages of paradox psychosis), the multi-Five side of the story just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yes, this is Five’s Hail Mary play, but the fact that he seems to think he can alter his past timeline while also maintaining it is baffling. Sending the original Five back to 2019 in his old man body would drastically change the way the first season played out, potentially erasing the current version of the Umbrella Academy from existence altogether—depending on which time travel rules this show is operating under at the moment, of course.

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Illustration for article titled An anticlimacticem Umbrella Academy /emreaches the day of the Kennedy assassination
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix

Look, as a long-time Doctor Who fan, I’m fine with The Umbrella Academy taking a “talk fast and don’t think about it” approach to the nitty, gritty details of its time travel logic. But there should at least be some element of cleverness to how the show uses such a crucial element of season two’s world building. A bunch of fart jokes just don’t cut it.

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Diego’s trip through the Commission suffers from a similar lack of cleverness. Though his unexpected partnership with Herb is a delight, I almost wish he would’ve just stayed and watched the orientation video so we could get a better sense of what the Commission actually does. Elsewhere, Grace 1.0 breaks up with Sir Reginald in a scene that will hopefully be relevant later because it carries very little emotional weight here. And Allison says another goodbye to Ray, even though the show already covered that emotional ground in the previous episode. (I continue to love Ray though—he’s handled all of this like a champ!)

The Vanya portion of “The Seven Stages” encapsulates both the best and worst of what The Umbrella Academy can do. On the positive side, it’s actually incredibly clever that Vanya’s Russian-sounding name is the thing that winds up raising red flags in the era of the Red Scare. The FBI are less concerned about her romance with Sissy than they are that she’s a potential Communist threat—one they’re more than happy to torture for information. So while the apocalypse is once again caused by Vanya, it’s really caused by a sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and paranoid culture that pushes her to the breaking point. That’s a fitting genre-twist on this season’s critique of America’s supposed Golden Age.

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Illustration for article titled An anticlimacticem Umbrella Academy /emreaches the day of the Kennedy assassination
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix

Unfortunately, the actual meat of Vanya’s storyline is mostly just boring. Her trippy vision quest to rediscover her memories is neither insightful nor all that interesting to watch (she imagines herself at a family dinner at the Hargreeves manor where she’s forced to eat a brain). And it takes up far too much screentime for its lack of payoff.

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To be fair, “The Seven Stages” is clearly a prologue for whatever dramatics are yet to come in the final two episodes of the season. In fact, this hour reflects the limits of writing episodic reviews of a series that’s functioning first and foremost on a serialized level. The cliffhanger endings of “The Seven Stages” are designed to suck you into the next episode, not make you pause to reflect on what you just watched. Maybe these clunky building blocks will look better in retrospect than they do now.

So for now, I’ll just pause to compliment this season on its surprisingly nuanced look at the intersection of gender and sexuality. While Klaus’ flamboyance was viewed as something that needed to be violently and publicly punished by Dave’s uncle, Sissy’s sexuality is treated as an error of feminine judgment that needs to be paternalistic fixed. It’s a mix of sexism and homophobia that in some ways shields her from the same public shaming as Klaus, but in other ways traps her even further. (The way the FBI agent casually notes that Sissy and Harlan were “released back into the custody” of Carl is terrifying.) Through Sissy, The Umbrella Academy is exploring why historical stories of gay women are often more invisible than those of gay men. And that’s a welcome dose of reality for an otherwise over-the-top genre series.

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Illustration for article titled An anticlimacticem Umbrella Academy /emreaches the day of the Kennedy assassination
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix

The thoughtfulness of Sissy’s storyline gives me hope that The Umbrella Academy will have something meaningful to say in its final two episodes. Now back to those cliffhangers: Will Allison, Diego, and Klaus (and Ben!) be able to stop Vanya from exploding? Will Luther go along with Old Man Five’s plan to kill his younger/older self and hop back into the past/future? How is Harlan connected to all this? And will Sir Reginald’s advice about jumping just a few seconds in time ultimately be the key to saving the world? Let’s press on and find out!

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Stray observations

  • I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Five has only been in his teenage body for 14 days. No wonder so many of the Hargreeves were content to stay in the 1960s—they’ve been there far longer than they’ve been together these two seasons!
  • Luther’s arc has been really muddled this season. I’m not sure when he lost his angst/overeating habit and got back to his usual upbeat self.
  • Kudos to the casting department—Sean Sullivan really does look like he could be an older version of Aidan Gallagher, especially when they’re sitting face to face.
  • Klaus proves there’s no one you’d rather have by your side when you’ve got a dead body to hide: “Oh, I see, it’s gonna be one of this kinds of nights. So are we burning or burying?”
  • The last remaining Swede discovers that the Handler has been sending him fake assignments. It’s a cool reveal, although it also feels like a little bit of a cheat since the episode flashes back to a hotel room arts and craft project he never saw.
  • Sir Reginald’s design for a “Televator” is a nod to a form of transportation technology that exists in the Umbrella Academy comics.
  • “Whatever your skill, education, or comfort level with moral ambiguity, the Commission has an exciting career path in store for you!”
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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