A bloody, beaten-up man in nothing but a jacket and towel, holding a briefcase, blinks out of existence in the middle of a city bus. This is how episode four, “Man on the Moon,” of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy ends. The man is Klaus Hargreeves (Robert Sheehan), one of the show’s seven main characters, who’s just been through an episode of torture and ghostly hauntings. The hour is one of the best uses of the show’s superhero element, a defining episode for a character who’s been the comedic relief up until now. At least, it would be, if the show didn’t leave Klaus behind in a flash of blue light.
Klaus and his adopted siblings were born under bizarre circumstances, adopted by a Dr. Hargreeves to be trained to one day save the world. Each one has a different power: super-strong Luther/Number One (Tom Hopper); knives master Diego/Number Two (David Castaneda); reality-alterer Allison/Number Three (Emmy Raver-Lampman); medium-like Klaus/Number Four; time jumper Five/Number Five (Aidan Gallagher); host of terrors Ben/Number Six (also deceased and haunting Klaus) and secretive violin expert Vanya/Number Seven (Ellen Page). Based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy is a show that places family dysfunction over the usual superhero beats in any origin story.
Still, there’s something to be said about using a character’s emotional journey as the main driving force to further the larger narrative, which does involve a few superhero shenanigans. “Man on the Moon,” which presents itself through its title and cold open as Luther’s story, is really all about Klaus. Klaus radiates a manic energy, partly from drug use, but mostly because that’s just who he is (and also Sheehan, who enlivens the character in some of the most hilarious and tragic ways imaginable). His addiction is used to tamper his ability to speak with the dead, who can be quite bothersome.
In episode four, Klaus has been kidnapped by Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige), time assassins looking for Number Five. As a captive, Klaus can’t get his hands on drugs and thus begins a slow process of withdrawal. As he gets farther away from the high, ghosts begin to appear until he’s surrounded by them, all in various stages of mutilation, their final state upon their death. They’re all the products of Hazel and Cha Cha’s kills. Tied to a chair, this is the best hope Klaus has of getting away. With encouragement from Ben, Klaus talks to the dead he’s been scared of all his life and takes the first step into realizing his potential.
These moments in the dingy hotel room are some of the most beautifully shot scenes of the show. The reveal of what Klaus can really do, the number of dead people he actually sees, is a great microcosm to what Klaus’ journey for the rest of the show will be like, even if the change doesn’t arrive immediately. But then, he disappears from a city bus, into a flash of blue light.
It’s not until the 12th minute of episode five, “Number Five,” that we see Klaus again. He appears again on a city bus, but looking a bit more traumatized, clutching the briefcase he stole from Hazel and Cha Cha during his escape, with bloody hands and an over-sized army vest. He’s crying. He has a complete breakdown on the sidewalk. But there’s no context to this scene, no reason why we should feel any emotional connection to this character’s plight.
If there’s one major issue with the first season of The Umbrella Academy, it’s in the way it randomly decides what’s important and what isn’t. We may spend an entire episode with Klaus using his abilities in a dire situation — if you will, a perfect origin story — only to be pulled out of his narrative in the next episode. Klaus goes through an entire life-changing experience between “Man on the Moon” and “Number Five,” but it’s not revealed until episode six, “The Day That Wasn’t,” that he time traveled back to the front lines of the Vietnam War in 1968, met a soldier, fell in love, then watched that person die. Thus, his traumatizing return to present day.
The problem is that the story is told through a flashback montage. It’s heartbreaking as a singular event, but in the context of the larger narrative, it feels pigeonholed into the season as a way to motivate Klaus into pursuing and testing the limits of his powers (and it’s actually one of the more interesting parts of the show!). But instead of letting us follow Klaus’ story back in time, it gets relegated to a sideshow, a quick explanation for a character’s sudden growth. Instead of getting to witness that journey, it happens without us.
It’s a cause-and-effect misstep. There’s a moment in episode nine, “Changes,” when Ben punches Klaus in the face. Significant, because it’s the first time Klaus has made a ghost corporeal. He’s able to do so because of his newfound sobriety. The cause of that new found sobriety? His time in Vietnam and the willingness to conjure Dave, the one he lost. Now, at this point in the season, we’ve seen the Vietnam flashbacks, but there’s still so much left unsaid in the text that these moments of Klaus’ power steadily getting stronger feel unearned.
A lot of this individual growth impacts Klaus’ relationships with his siblings as well. However, without the journey, those relationships fall into the same cause/effect trap as Klaus’ own story.
The relationships are defined by their shared trauma, and further exasperated by their estrangement. While it’s clear in the beginning the siblings have had little to do with each other over the years, the end of the season should point to a more cohesive family unit, in so much as the Hargreeves are capable of.
So when Vayna is locked in the soundproof cellar and Klaus advocates for her freedom, it rings hollow emotionally. The sibling relationship between Klaus and Vanya is left unexplored throughout the season, exchanging no significant words with each other throughout the 10 hours. And yet, Klaus’ reasoning for letting Vanya go is closely related to his own journey of discovering new powers he never knew he possessed. The Umbrella Academy knows what relationships it wants to payoff, but it fails in laying the groundwork in the early moments.
Part of this is the nature of streaming these days. When an entire season can be taken in all at once, the episodes themselves are too much like pieces of a larger whole when they should be like standalone stories connected by the season-long narrative, something which can hopefully be fixed in the show’s second season.
The end of season one saw the Hargreeves siblings time-traveling to some unknown point to avoid dying in the apocalypse. Now that they’ve got their groove going and a rapidly expanding fandom, season two has the opportunity to dive deeper into the sibling interactions, all the while letting the characters’ emotional journeys drive the plot and have it all happen on screen.