The apocalypse is coming in just a matter of days, and the dysfunctional, superpowered, adopted siblings of The Umbrella Academy might be the only ones capable of stopping it. That’s the plot of the first season of Netflix’s show based on The Umbrella Academy, a comic series by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá. Surprise: it’s also the plot of the second season, which releases on July 31.
“Again?” perpetually intoxicated medium Klaus (Robert Sheehan of Misfits) asks when his time-traveling brother Five (Aidan Gallagher) explains the pending doomsday. Yet while the threat and many of the story beats are familiar, a new setting and lighter tone keeps the second season of The Umbrella Academy from feeling like a retread.
[Ed. note: The following review of Umbrella Academy season 2 contains significant spoilers for season 1.]
The story picks up right after the season 1 finale, with Five transporting his family to the past to keep them from being killed along with the rest of humanity by a fragment of the moon hurtling toward Earth. Unfortunately, Five’s time-travel skills have never been flawless — he previously got trapped in a post-apocalyptic future for decades, only to come back to 2019 in the body of a child — and this time around, he drops off his siblings individually in Dallas between the years 1960 and 1963. That misstep somehow alters the timeline to cause nuclear war, and Five has just a week to reunite his family and figure out how to make things right.
Time heals all wounds, and in this case, being displaced in time helps reset much of the animus between the characters that came to a head at the end of season 1, while simultaneously solidifying which parts of their dynamic will never change. Left to their own devices for months or years, the siblings each chart their own paths, which play like a tour through a textbook chapter on the ’60s.
Klaus effectively starts the hippie movement off early by founding a cult whose philosophy is based on the lyrics of pop songs that have yet to be written. “Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to,” he tells one awed follower. Batman wannabe Diego (David Castañeda) gets committed to a mental asylum for stalking Lee Harvey Oswald. Sad-sack strongman Luther (Tom Hopper) takes a job as a nightclub bouncer, but winds up in a position to affect history significantly as well.
The women of the group have the most powerful arcs, though. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has a jarring adjustment, left without the ability to speak or use her mind-control powers for a full year after her sister Vanya (Ellen Page of Juno and Inception) cut her throat at the end of season 1. Confused and looking for help, Allison walks into a diner and is greeted by a “Whites Only” sign, then chased across town by a group of white men until she finds sanctuary in a beauty parlor for Black women that doubles as a meeting place for civil-rights activists.
When the time-traveling superhero show Legends of Tomorrow stranded one of its Black characters in 1958, it utterly glossed over the racism she would have experienced. The Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman and his writers take a more honest look at the period through a harrowing depiction of police brutally attacking peaceful protestors staging a sit-in at that same diner. The fact that the footage is so depressingly similar to video filmed of the security forces responding to recent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 also helps strip away the idea that American society has made significant progress in fighting racism over the past 60 years.
Vanya, who tried to kill her siblings and blew up the moon after learning that her father Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) suppressed her sonic powers and made her an outcast in her own family, gets a hard reset, thanks to a convenient case of total amnesia. As cliché as that plot device is, it lets Page finally bring some nuance to a character who spent the entire first season either horribly depressed, or blinded by rage. It’s extremely charming to watch her excitement at discovering she has a family, and see her siblings welcome her back without holding much of a grudge. “I don’t remember what I did, but I’m sorry, if that means anything,” Vanya tells Diego as he threateningly juggles a knife. “It does,” he responds, before accepting her as a confidant he can turn to for advice on how to handle his feelings for a girl he met at the asylum.
While the time-scattered setting gives the writers and characters plenty of opportunity for exploration, this season’s supporting cast is decidedly a step down. The bickering time-assassins Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) have been replaced with a trio of largely mute Swedes who are meant to be intimidating, but just feel like generic goons. The other major villain, whose identity would be a spoiler, feels like a Cruella de Vil-inspired caricature rather than a real threat.
Those weak villains give the members of The Umbrella Academy room to confront the most destructive force in their lives: their own adoptive father. Reginald died before the first episode of season 1, but the siblings find a younger version of him in Dallas, and suspect he might be connected to the pending crisis. While he won’t adopt them for decades, Reginald still proves just as capable of preying on their deepest insecurities, while somehow leaving them attacking each other instead of him.
The siblings’ perpetually sharp, rapid-fire banter remains the show’s heart and soul. The gentle ribbing takes on a deeply surreal tone because of the absurd things the family has gone through together, like when Vanya confesses she might be in love with the farm wife she’s staying with, and her siblings are just grateful she isn’t enamored with a serial killer again. The characters were almost always at each other’s throats in the first season, so the more genial relationship they forge after being reunited in the past is refreshing.
The show also continues to have a phenomenal soundtrack, which brings charm and levity to the whole series. It’s particularly powerful in scenes like the one where Klaus, Vanya, and Allison end a moping session by dancing together to “Twistin’ the Night Away.” It’s a throwback to a similar scene in the first season, showing the siblings all dancing separately. That sequence was more impressively shot, but this version is more fun, because the chemistry between the actors is so powerful.
There’s precious little that’s really original in the second season of The Umbrella Academy, but the familiarity works well for a show about family. In spite of the high stakes and superpowers, the show is fundamentally about how people who know each other better than anyone else can come together or tear themselves apart. Given a second chance to save the world and each other, all they can do is try to do better.
All 10 episodes of The Umbrella Academy will be available to stream on Netflix on July 31.