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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Umbrella Academy processes its past in an uneven penultimate episode

Illustration for article titled emThe Umbrella Academy /emprocesses its past in an uneven penultimate episode
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix
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Though “743” is the penultimate episode of the season, in many ways it feels like the climax. It seems to wrap up the JFK assassination/nuclear war threads and shift The Umbrella Academy’s focus heading into the finale. But while I can appreciate what this episode is trying to do, it lacks the finesse—and more importantly, the foundation—to fully pull it off.

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“743” features four major storylines: Ben’s attempt to reach Vanya after Allison, Diego, and Klaus fail; the Five vs. Five vs. Luther fight; the stuff with Lila and the Handler at the Commission, and the escalation of the Sissy/Harlan/Carl subplot. There’s not actually a ton of storytelling meat to any of them, which is something the episode tries to disguise by kinetically hopping between them. In the end, however, too many of these throughlines wind up feeling uneven at best and pointless at worst.

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So let’s start with the one that almost reaches its potential, which is Ben saving Vanya. Sweet, selfless Ben finally puts into words the subtext that’s been running under both of these seasons: Vanya isn’t a monster who’s destined to become an apocalyptic bomb, she only became one because of cruelty and repression—first from her father and then in the way she was treated in the 1960s. When she’s met with love, however, she can learn to control her abilities, as she’s demonstrated all season. And Ben makes an ultimate gesture of love as he sacrifices his life (or at least his ghostly presence) not just to save the world, but specifically to save his sister.

Justin H. Min and Ellen Page are wonderfully warm in the scenes together, and the score does a lot of heavy lifting to make Ben’s sacrifice land emotionally. The problem is, I’m just not sure this season has done enough with Ben to earn this sendoff. If this is what the show was building to, why have Klaus keep Ben’s existence a secret all season? Why not explore Ben’s dynamic with Vanya or his feelings about sticking around so long after his death?

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Don’t get me wrong, watching Vanya hug Ben goodbye is incredibly moving. But it could’ve been more moving if we knew anything specific about their childhood relationship or if Ben had been leaving more behind in his final departure to the other side. That Ben is the one to stop Vanya from destroying the world isn’t entirely unsatisfying—it’s neat that being a ghost sort of becomes a superpower for him. But because he’s remained relatively underdeveloped despite his increased screentime, it can’t help but feel a little bit random too.

Illustration for article titled emThe Umbrella Academy /emprocesses its past in an uneven penultimate episode
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix
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Still, it’s miles better than the Luther/Five stuff, which is the most actively frustrating element of “743.” Sure, it’s fun to watch the two Fives duke it out in a slow-motion fight set to Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” But, once again, the whole thing turns out to be a pointless runaround story. Old Man Five is forced into 2019 and yet somehow doesn’t change the events of season one with all he now knows about his own future. (Either that or The Umbrella Academy is working off a branch universe version of time travel, although that doesn’t jibe with Five’s earlier concern about erasing his own existence.) Even worse, “743” deploys one of The Umbrella Academy’s most annoying storytelling tropes—introducing a time traveling briefcase and then having it get destroyed just before the episode ends.

Equally strange is the fact that Diego’s desire to stop the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have any meaningful payoff. He fails because of a random Sir Reginald decoy, not because he has a lesson to learn about the dangers of altering the past or the foibles of his hero complex. In the first half of the season, the Kennedy assassination felt like a prism through which to explore the show’s characters. Here, however, plot takes precedent over meaningful character work.

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Illustration for article titled emThe Umbrella Academy /emprocesses its past in an uneven penultimate episode
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix

Indeed, with the Kennedy assassination preserved and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse seemingly over, I’m not even sure what the Hargreeves siblings want as this point. Presumably to return to 2019, although they still have that year’s apocalypse to solve too. Without an immediate need to leave the 1960s will Klaus want more time to try to save Dave? Will Allison rethink her decision to leave Ray?

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The only Hargreeves with a clear cut objective is Vanya, who wants to save Sissy and Harlan from their confinement. It helps that Sissy and Harlan are the most compelling thread of this episode too. Their storyline has operated on a better, more nuanced level all season and that continues here, as Sissy boldly stands her ground when Carl tries to cart Harlan off to an institution.

There’s so much to unpack in Carl’s speech about how he’s provided everything Sissy could reasonably expect from her life, as if her happiness is a luxury she has no right to demand. (“I never blamed you for the boy” lands particularly harshly as does, “I stayed, you don’t get to ask for more than that.”) And it’s shocking but fitting to watch Harlan’s powers burst forth in a way that saves himself and kills his father. Yet the effectiveness of that brief sequence just drills home how uneven the rest of the episode is.

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Illustration for article titled emThe Umbrella Academy /emprocesses its past in an uneven penultimate episode
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix

While there could be something exciting about heading into a finale in which I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen, in this case it all just feels vague. The ending of “743” opens up three new throughlines: The Commission’s war against Harlan, Lila’s vendetta against Five, and whatever is going on with the official reveal that Reginald is an alien lizard man. Yet I’m nervous about the idea of re-centering the season so late in the game. Especially when these new threads seem like things that are going to happen to the Umbrella Academy, rather than storylines in which they’ll be active players.

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What began as such a strong season has gotten noticeably shakier in these past few episodes. That puts a lot of pressure on the finale to right the ship. But, hey, I guess the Hargreeves are used to facing impossible odds.


Stray observations

  • “Vanya would understand. She has realistic expectations for what I am. And what I am is sexy trash.”
  • It’s hilarious to watch mentor-craving Luther contend with the idea that his “kid brother” is actually the most senior authority figure around.
  • I hadn’t actually realized that Lila didn’t know the Commission killed her parents, but the reveal that Five was the one who pulled the trigger is effective.
  • The Handler’s coronation look is incredible.
  • I like that the random fire extinguisher Klaus threw into the time portal back in the first season premiere winds up causing such chaos here.
  • Sir Reginald apparently has some sort of interest on the dark side of the Moon. Maybe Luther’s mission up there wasn’t so pointless after all.
  • We heard AJ threaten the Handler about “that whole 743 incident” back in “The Frankel Footage,” so that’s one thread this season set up early. (Also R.I.P AJ. What a way to go.)
  • So are we ever going to learn how Ben died? He tells Vanya it was 17 years ago, which, accounting for his three years in the 1960s with Klaus, would’ve made him about 15 when it happened.
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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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