"There's Always a Choice": Netflix's The Umbrella Academy Series One
In 1769, Thomas Day—a British author perhaps best known nowadays for his snarky abolitionist critique of United States’ Declaration of Independence[i]—and his friend John Bicknell adopted under false pretenses two girls, Sabrina and Lucretia, from the Shrewsbury Orphan Hospital and the London Foundling Hospital. They subjected the girls to a strict routine of Rousseauvian education and strange endurance tests (read: torture) with the hope of turning one of them into the ideal wife for Day. The experiment failed, and both girls were eventually sent away. The one who endured the experiment the longest, Sabrina, eventually learnt the truth from Bicknell and was appropriately horrified. Nevertheless, she eventually married Bicknell. When confronted, Day never apologized (Moore).
Day’s project to create the perfect wife through what is essentially child grooming and abuse is remarkably like the premise of Netflix’s quirky 2019 series The Umbrella Academy, a live-action adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s Eisner Award-winning comic of the same name. In The Umbrella Academy, at noon on 1 October 1989, forty-three women around the world spontaneously give birth. None was pregnant that morning. An eccentric (and secret alien) aristocrat, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) “adopts”[i] seven of the infants and displays them to the world’s press, vowing to turn them into superheroes that will eventually save the world. Hargreeves builds them a doting robot mother, Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), and sets about training the children in his vast mansion. Uninterested in them as people, he gives the children numbers, not names, in ascending order of usefulness to him. Number One/Luther (Tom Hopper) has super strength and, after a near-fatal injury, the torso of an ape. Ever loyal, Luther spent the last four years before the series opens sitting in a trailer on the moon on his father’s orders. Number Two/Diego (David Castañeda) can curve any object he throws and is a police academy dropout and vigilante. Number Three/Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) can influence behavior with just the phrase “I heard a rumor” and used her power to become a Hollywood movie star. Number Four/Klaus (Robert Sheehan) can summon the dead but because that is obviously a very frightening superpower to have, he numbs himself with drugs and alcohol. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) can travel through space and time—and has been missing for seventeen years. He returns in the first episode from a lonely apocalyptic future in which the moon is gone and everyone is dead. Number Six/Ben (Justin H. Min) can summon monsters from other dimensions but is inconveniently dead and only visible to a sober Klaus. The last, Number Seven/Vanya (Ellen Page) has no powers and is an ordinary, third-chair violinist estranged from her family after writing a tell-all book about them.
The Hargreeves reunite in the present after the death of their father and try to sort through their dysfunctional family history. Vanya eventually discovers that she has vast destructive powers but her inability to control them under Sir Reginald’s stern training as a child led him to medically suppress her powers and make her believe she was ordinary. The shock of her siblings’ treatment of her after discovering her powers leads to a mental break in which she kills their remaining parental figures and demolishes their house. While trying to stop Vanya, her siblings accidentally cause her to blow up the moon. As the series closes, it becomes clear that the abuse they endured as children under Sir Reginald’s plan to prepare them to avert the apocalypse causes the apocalypse.
Narratives of adult adoptees dealing with their complex feelings towards their adoptive siblings and parents are not uncommon nowadays. In Star Trek: Discovery, Michael Burnham struggles with her relationship with her adoptive parents, Sarek and Amanda, and their biological son, Spock. In series two, choosing to take responsibility for a mentally compromised Spock and protect him from Starfleet is a pivotal moment of emotional growth for Michael. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the contentious relationship between adoptees Gamora and Nebula plays out across several films. Taken by Thanos and made to spar every day, they grew up scared, resentful, and desperate. For her success, their father forced Gamora to kill on his behalf. For her failure, Thanos authorized painful cyborg modifications to Nebula. As adults, they become uneasy allies against their father. In the Thor and Avengers films, Loki and Thor are in constant conflict, sometimes seriously and sometimes humorously. Like Gamora and Nebula, their father pitted them against each other for his approval. The Umbrella Academy follows similar threads of adoptees sorting through their complex feelings about each other after enduring traumatic childhoods.
In adoption, the basic premise is that taking possession of another’s child is beneficial for all parties. Narratives such as The Umbrella Academy challenge that assumption. In Kim Park Nelson’s “‘Loss is more than sadness’: Reading Dissent in Transracial Adoption Melodrama in The Language of Blood and First Person Plural” she observes that “sadness as an integral part of the transracial adoption experience stands in contrast to the other, more dominant representation of transracial adoption as an overwhelmingly positive experience marked by familial fulfillment, generosity, and unconditional, colorblind love” (101). Sir Reginald believed that adopting these special children and training them to use their powers through his method is of wholesale benefit for all. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Hargreeves children lost out on a lot: childhood, school, friends, and—for all of them, because their father is an alien from another planet—their first families and the cultures of the places they were taken from. With the Hargreeves adoptees rather than their father at the center, “a different characterization of the adoptee as a tragic survivor of adoption-related family and social trauma has taken shape” one in which explores the issues of choice and responsibility (Park Nelson 101).
The Hargreeves did not choose to become Hargreeves or The Umbrella Academy. They did, as Allison notes, choose to exclude Vanya, the powerless one, from their childhood activities and they all (save Luther) chose to leave The Umbrella Academy when they became adults. In a conversation between Luther and Dr. Pogo—Sir Reginald’s chimpanzee assistant, secret keeper, and wizened witness to much of their suffering—Pogo confesses that “We had no choice.” Luther retorts, “There’s always choice!” In the same way that Thomas Day, the abolitionist, did not see the irony of his calling out Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves only a few years after his perfect-wife project, Sir Reginald cannot see how his own parental choices to make heroes out of children—and suppress a child who defied him—lead to destroying the world. His regimen of isolation and superhero training was cognitively dissonant with his ambition to save the world.
In The Umbrella Academy, almost every relationship bears an undercurrent of abuse. Time-travelling assassin, Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) berates Hazel (Cameron Britton), her partner, for his unhappiness with their declining pay and insurance coverage from their employer, the Time Bureau, which seems to care less and less for their welfare. Diego abuses Detective Patch’s (Ashley Madekwe) affection for him in order to access crime scenes and witnesses. Allison abuses her superpower to make her young daughter behave. Vanya’s boyfriend, Leonard (John Magaro) uses her insecurities and fragile mental state to maneuver her against her family. Pogo and Grace, who both appear to find Sir Reginald’s treatment of the children distasteful, choose to keep their dissent to themselves and keep information from the Hargreeves children once they are adults. These are choices that characters make and they all have consequences. Several characters lose their lives and Allison loses custody of her daughter because of the abusive choices they make or others make and they accept.
This is why taking responsibility is such an important and risky choice in The Umbrella Academy. Sir Reginald chooses to make saving the world his business and takes on the responsibility of seven children despite, as Klaus observes, hating them. He bears sole responsibility for the truly toxic home environment they grow up in. And while the Hargreeves are all bratty little children with little in common with each other who compete for attention from an emotionally distant patriarch and are, like many families, mean to each other, as adults they now bear responsibility for how they respond to one another.
In the first episode, Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, and Vanya return home after the sudden passing of their father. There is a tense reunion that results in each sibling retreating to a separate room in the vast mansion. Luther puts on a record of Tiffany’s 1987 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and as the music filters throughout the mansion, each of them dances. Luther goofs off in his bedroom. Next door, Allison dances with a feather boa. Downstairs, rebellious Diego pops and locks in his leather vigilante costume. Klaus, the most flamboyant of the Hargreeves and a bit drunk and/or high, spins around with his father’s urn. And poor powerless Vanya, tries to let loose in the hallway but only manages some subtle moves.
It is a fun scene, showing off each of their personalities. At the same time, it is deeply tragic. Their father is now dead, and they can let loose. But they cannot manage to let loose together. Their coping mechanisms—isolation, becoming a vigilante, becoming a movie star, drugs, and writing a tell-all book—have all left them estranged.
Confronting, apologizing, and reassessing siblings’ relationships after an abusive childhood is tough, humbling, and uncomfortable. In Marianne Novy’s Reading Adoption she says that “adoption plots often move toward an end that defines what it is to be considered the true family of the central character” (4). The Umbrella Academy problematizes family: who is true family? Is it their loving but malfunctioning robot mother? Is it their distant and imperious father? Is it Dr. Pogo, the talking chimpanzee? Is it their siblings, whom they do not really care for but with whom they share a common miraculous birth and traumatic isolated childhood? The relationships between adoptees and their adoptive parents are complex and evolving but so too are the relationships between adoptees and their siblings.
In the end, the way the Hargreeves assert their familial bond is not through blood but through taking responsibility for each other. They accept that their choices—having been cruel to Vanya as children and being cruel again as adults (they lock her in an isolation chamber after her first outburst of power injures Allison)—have led to the apocalypse. They are not responsible for their father’s decision to suppress Vanya’s power. They were children. But they are responsible for themselves and they can now take responsibility for the situation they helped create through their own poor choices. By the end of the first series, the inter-adoptee relationships are still dysfunctional: Luther is still an inept leader, Diego still jockeys to be leader, Klaus is sober (for now), Allison is injured and unable to use her power, Number Five is still mercurial, Ben is still dead, and Vanya has a destructive power she cannot control. The final shot of the series ends with a note of hope in failure. The Umbrella Academy, dead and alive, failed heroes, and successful apocalyptic villain, hold hands and use Number Five’s power to travel back in time together, hoping for a do-over that results in averting the apocalypse. I like to think that adoption narratives and the way they dramatize cultural tensions around familial destiny create space for a certain degree of flexibility in imagining multiple childhood possibilities. In The Umbrella Academy, the use of time-travel in an adoption narrative creates the opportunity for these adoptee siblings not to repeat the sins of their father and to create a new family narrative. It will be interesting to see what direction the show goes with the Hargreeves.
[i] Day wrote, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” This observation was made only a few years after his failed experiment with Sabrina and Lucretia.
[i] “They were generously compensated!” Sir Reginald Hargreeves claims to the press.
About the Author
Emily N. Bartz is a PhD candidate in English at Texas A&M University and a member of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption & Culture’s Executive Committee. Her dissertation Adoption Rhetoric, examines adoptee representations in poetry, comics, and film. If you want to chat comics like Naomi, Monstress, and Mister Miracle, she can be reached on Twitter at @phusaza.
Moore, Wendy. How To Create the Perfect Wife. Orion, 2013.
Novy, Marianne. Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama. The U of Michigan P, 2005.
Park Nelson, Kim. “‘Loss is more than sadness’: Reading Dissent in Transracial Adoption Melodrama in The Language of Blood and First Person Plural.” Adoption & Culture, volume 1, no. 1, 2007, pp. 101-28.
Slater, Jeremy. The Umbrella Academy. Netflix, 2019.