The first season of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy—based on the comic by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá—was largely about subverting expectations. Its eponymous team of adopted sibling superheroes was raised as hardened, emotionless soldiers in order to save the world, but they grew up to be emotionally damaged adults who mostly hated each other, their obligation to save the world, and especially their adopted father (Colm Feore’s cold and cruel Sir Reginald Hargreeves). By the time they’d all reunited to prevent a coming apocalypse, the Umbrella Academy had not only failed but actually caused the end of the world. Season one was fun, undeniably buoyed by excellent performances from the core cast; but it also had a bad habit of needlessly dragging out every single bit of backstory and every single solution (even the red herrings) to its many mysteries. A key example is how the show behaved like nobody could possibly predict that the guy with super-strength and the body of a gorilla would have some kind of gorilla body, while treating that reveal like it had the impact of Jon Snow’s true parentage.
But what better way to subvert expectations than by coming back for a second season that is actually, thankfully, and somewhat miraculously better in almost every single way? Season two of The Umbrella Academy manages to pull that off, and it has become a significantly better version of itself in the process. The performances are still very good (especially from newcomers Yusuf Gatewood and Ritu Arya, who slot into unexpectedly prominent roles very comfortably), and they’re no longer forced to carry the weight of a storyline that unravels its mysteries at a crawl. There’s one specific goal here that everyone is working toward—together—and the first episode finally gives these characters a chance to do what they were born to do, with a superhero battle against an invading Soviet army that gives everyone a cool Avengers-style hero moment. It’s fantastic. And then everyone on the planet gets obliterated by nuclear bombs.
Building up to that moment is the season’s narrative hook, and the way it’s revealed is very fun and sets the stage nicely for the whole season. The first season ended with Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) using his teleporting/time-traveling powers to send everyone back to before they caused the apocalypse, but in his desperation, he ends up accidentally scattering everyone across a three-year span in Dallas in the ’60s. Everyone assumes they were sent back alone and has no reason to think they should just wait a few weeks for one of their siblings to drop out of the sky, so they all go off and try to live a new life, until Five tracks them down and reveals they have to prevent a different apocalypse.
Luther (Tom Hopper) is working as a heavy for a nightclub owner who may or may not have some connections to organized crime; Diego (David Castañeda) got himself locked up in a mental hospital; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has recovered from getting her throat slashed and is now both married and working with the civil rights movement; Klaus (Robert Sheehan) has parlayed his ability to communicate with the dead and his constant need for attention into becoming a hippie cult leader (the name of his cult and the source of his enigmatic words of wisdom are a good gag); Ben (Justin H. Min) is still a ghost; and Vanya (Ellen Page) has amnesia and is living on a farm with a troubled boy and his lonely mother (who does a bad job hiding the fact that she has feelings for Vanya).
The most straightforward improvement on the show’s first season is that everyone is pretty much on the same page for the entirety of this apocalypse. The siblings already bonded and grew together in season one, so once they’re re-reunited (which happens very elegantly, as if fate is gently guiding them back together), it doesn’t take too much nudging to convince them all that they need to give up their lives in the ’60s and help save the world. Even Vanya, whose turn to evil caused the last apocalypse, is able to move past that—and it doesn’t hurt that her siblings apologize for the role they caused in pushing her down that path, which could be read as an acknowledgement of how frustrating it was for season one to constantly separate people. This lets the characters’ relationships shine a bit more, which is good since they’ve all grown a bit since witnessing the end of the world and then having to fend for themselves in the ’60s. Some of their individual storylines feel a little less fleshed out, as Luther’s hesitance to leave his new job (even when he knows what’s going to happen) can’t possibly have the same weight as Allison joining a sit-in and constantly being the target of Dallas’ many, many racists, but the show seems aware of this and doesn’t waste a lot of time with things that don’t ultimately matter.
As much as things have improved, there are still some issues that remain from season one. For one thing, none of it is quite as aesthetically inventive as it aims to be (with one big exception being a character who is just a fish in a bowl attached to a man’s body), but that’s mostly mitigated by the fact that they’ve all left the Hargreeves Mansion and its faux-Tim Burton/Wes Anderson vibe behind. It was an interesting place, but it never justified being the setting for a household of super-kids and a chimpanzee butler. Season two mostly takes place in something resembling the real world, so the brief moments that are stylish feel less like wasted opportunities and more like reminders that this is still a weird universe.
The show is also still way too tickled by its needle drops, of which there are as many as three or four per episode. It’s fine when they’re mostly era-appropriate, but it’s hard not to groan when a fight scene between someone who is suddenly revealed to be a bad guy is set to a distracting cover of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.” There is an extended dance sequence, but it’s not the cathartic and unexpected expression of shared yet unspoken grief that season one’s standout moment was. It’s just a thing that happens. Speaking of callbacks to season one, there is unfortunately no further exploration of the surprise backstory for one particular character that was saved until the finale. They still show up and do some stuff, but any explanation for where they come from will apparently be saved for season three.
The Umbrella Academy was annoyingly watchable in season one. The characters were fun, the performances were good, and the world was just wacky enough to suggest the potential for exciting developments; but the frustrating way it obfuscated virtually everything about the plot just so it could make a shocking reveal later on made getting to those exciting developments a pain. The best thing that can be said about season two, then, is that it is that same show but good. Not perfect, certainly, but if Sir Reginald Hargreeves has made any of his terrible lessons abundantly clear, it’s that people will continue to improve if you repeatedly tell them that they’re bad and you don’t love them.