[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Umbrella Academy.]
To say that The Umbrella Academy has some parent-child issues to work out would be an understatement. The premise of the whole story is that, back in October of 1989, 43 women all over the world gave birth simultaneously and spontaneously, not having been pregnant at the start of that fateful day. When those children began to exhibit super-human abilities, powerful people around the globe took notice, some for good, some for evil. The tricky part is figuring out which one is which.
At the start of the series itself, we meet the titular team, a group of seven super-powered superheroic “siblings” who are adopted by the eccentric but presumably beneficent billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves for the purposes of defending the Earth against the threat of nuclear war. And in the series’ premiere, that introduction is told through the reunion of the now-grown Umbrella Academy members who only get back together to mourn the passing of their adoptive father. It’s the perfect setup for creating sympathy for our hero characters and their late mentor … but is it all a lie? I mean, when Vanya inadvertently causes an apocalypse, the explanation can be summed up simply:
The Umbrella Academy puts a satirical spin on famous superhero schools and their leaders, like the X-Men and Charles Xavier, by revealing over time that not all parents are fit to be so. In fact, most of the parental figures in the Netflix adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá‘s comic series are downright awful, with very few exceptions. Season 1 mainly focused on the relationships among the Umbrella Academy kids themselves, but Season 2 goes all-in on problematic parents.
Here’s my own personal ranking on these dysfunctional family units, from bad to the absolute worst, starting with …
When the least-bad parental figure in a fictional series is Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald, you know it’s going to be both a wild ride and an increasingly awful one. Ruby, played here by John Kapelos, steps in as a father figure for the wayward Luther (Tom Hopper) who’s been set adrift in time thanks to Five’s quick-thinking but poorly executed escape from the previous apocalypse. Now employed as a fighter by Ruby, who fixes fights and pumps up the bets to astronomical amounts, Luther puts his sole set of skills to use trying to please yet another parental figure in his life. He fails, of course, but it’s better that he did so. When Luther flops on a fight he easily could have — and, by Ruby’s design, should have — won, Ruby tosses him aside quicker than he found him. And that’s the least ruthless parent-child relationship this season!
Old Man Five
If you find yourself wondering who that older man is in the picture above, you clearly haven’t watched Season 2 yet, and you should probably quit reading now and go rectify that. Who it is, besides being Sean Sullivan, is Old Man Five, or Future Five, the same character as Aidan Gallagher‘s own time-jumping, fast-talking superhero. In the scenario above, Luther and Five concoct the perfect plan to not only get their hands on a time briefcase — which they’ll use to get back to their correct timeline — but to prevent Future Five from repeating the same mistake; a mathematical calculation caused him to accidentally maroon himself in an apocalyptic future where he was stranded for decades. Sounds like a win-win, right?
Well, Future Five doesn’t trust his younger self (who is actually older by about 14 days) and instead conspires with Luther to kill the “younger” Five and work together to restore the proper timeline. This is all complicated by the time-travelers’ “paradox psychosis” and Luther’s unbridled stupidity and willingness to please a parental figure.
Luckily, our Five figures it out before Luther does something irreversibly stupid. (Poor Luther.) So yeah, Future Five, the perfect assassin (who was also responsible for carrying out the not-entirely-official orders to kill Lila’s parents back in the day…) is a “murder first and ask questions never” kind of person, which does not make for a good parent.
But neither do drunk homophobes…
Carl Cooper (Stephen Bogaert) is a classic American throwback 60s dad, a traveling salesman with a strong thirst for alcohol and a distaste for women’s liberation or anything even remotely progressive. And don’t even get him started on the Communists. Carl’s down-home nature is harmless enough at first blush, but as his traditional husband-wife relationship with Sissy (Marin Ireland) is threatened by the amnesic Vanya (Ellen Page), he starts to come unglued. But don’t lose sight of the fact that, throughout the entire season, Carl has never shown the slightest interest in caring for his very likely autistic son Harlan (Justin Paul Kelly), leaving that burden to both his wife and their new miracle-worker.
Carl’s a tough case here. His homophobia and lack of parenting skills are self-evident, but his happy (for him, anyway) married life is being thrown into disarray by someone they’ve opened their home to. Even when he goes to great lengths to ruin Vanya and Sissy’s burgeoning romantic relationship, which he knows will lead to ruin at home, Carl does what he thinks is best by trying to get Harlan to a doctor to “fix” his condition. Ultimately, Harlan would end up being subjected to endless pseudo-scientific experiments as yet another super-powered lab rat in this world, so Sissy was right to step in. Carl paid the price for his boorish behavior, however, when he tries to wrestle the gun away from Sissy during a confrontation, nearly killing Harlan in the process. Good thing Harlan’s inherited super-powers (from Vanya saving his life after he drowned) deflected that bullet; bad thing for Carl is that it kills him instead.
A side note here to call out perhaps the one decent parent in this series: Sissy. She doesn’t always do the right thing, and sometimes she gives into selfish desires like the rest of us, but ultimately she does what’s right for her son even if that means giving up a chance at true love. That selfless act is what separates a good parent from the bad, but what separates the bad from the worst can be seen in these last two examples:
What a nasty piece of work, right? Kate Walsh delights in playing this devilishly evil character, someone who’s hard to kill and harder to love. Always scheming behind the scenes, she’s a wannabe Reginald Hargreeves, and nearly succeeds or even surpasses the billionaire in a number of ways. It was The Handler who orchestrated Five’s assassination of Lila’s parents so that she could swoop in an adopt the newly orphaned child who showed signs of her own super-human abilities. Yup, Lila (Ritu Arya) is one of the 43, a supernatural sibling to the members of the Umbrella Academy … and others.
As the former head of the Commission who is demoted during her untimely (and temporary) death, The Handler goes to great lengths to engage in what amounts to a hostile corporate takeover; and that’s just what she does for fun. But beyond the broad strokes of The Handler’s supervillainous plan, the nastier business is in this toxic mother-daughter relationship. The Handler calls out Lila’s weaknesses and failures at every opportunity, never highlighting her strengths or praising her achievements, and always in that fake, saccharine tone of voice. That mental manipulation game obviously plays havoc with Lila’s own sense of self-worth and being, so it’s not much of a stretch that we’re introduced to Lila’s character as a patient in a mental health facility (or what passed for one in 1960s Dallas). The Handler even orders The Swedes, a bizarre trio of hitmen, to act as a contingency plan in eliminating her competition, even if Lila happens to get caught in the crossfire.
The handler’s emotional manipulation of Lila continues even as the Umbrella Academy members offer love and support as superpowered siblings, right up until the end … when The Handler guns down Lila in addition to the rest:
After all that, The Handler was (once again) put down by a rival … but will it be for good? And who could possibly be worse than this maleficent mother?
Reginald Hargreeves (IF THAT IS YOUR REAL NAME!)
I don’t really know how you do worse than this man* when it comes to parenting. Reginald Hargreeves is posited as a great benefactor in the early going, but it quickly becomes apparent (a parent?) that he’s The Worst. Rather than merely adopt and care for the seven children, Hargreeves opted to train them up to become not just superheroic defenders, but lethal killers. (Sometimes that training worked too well.) And it’s all supposedly in the name of averting eventual world-ending nuclear war, at any cost.
Let’s do a brief recap of all the awful things Hargreeves did to the Academy members as children:
- Suppressed Vanya’s destructive use of soundwaves through drugs.
- Confined Luther to the moon (!) for four years and later injected him with a super-simian serum to “save his life” after a mortal injury.
- Diego was often treated as the Black Sheep of the family.
- Convinced Allison to use her powers to wipe Vanya’s memory and make her think she was “ordinary.”
- When Ben (Justin Min) dies during an early mission, Reginald takes the remaining members of the team to task, granting them a brief reprieve before resuming their training.
- He locked Klaus in a mausoleum to test his ability to communicate with spirits.
That’s all pretty awful, but Season 2 digs into Reginald’s past, his partnership with the Majestic 12 (brief though it may be), his assistance with the U.S. government’s rocket program in order to beat the Soviets to the moon (and keep Reginald’s moon base a secret), and his origin story. [*He’s actually an extraterrestrial(?)] It also touches on his abnormally long existence in disguise as a human, which explains a bit about his cold, artificial approach to both parenting and human relationships in general.
Take, for example, Reginald’s relationship with Grace. They worked together as part of a scientific team centered around Pogo, the chimpanzee who was sent into space but returned with grievous injuries. Reginald’s serum ultimately saved Pogo and gave him super-human intelligence, but the partnership tested the limits of Reginald and Grace’s own romance. Reginald would later go on to construct robotic nannies in the guise of Grace (many of which were destroyed by young Vanya as control of her powers remained elusive). That led to a rather funny but awkward moment where a grown Diego meets a young adult Grace during a social gathering, one of the many perils of time travel.
Diego has a rough go of it in Season 2, what with mental health professionals diagnosing him with a hero complex, delusions of grandeur, and on and on. He shrugs off most of the attacks on his character. But when Diego met his father in that same time, a one-sided battle left him not only mortally wounded but psychologically scarred; his father bested him physically and mentally. That hurts bad enough, but it’s the end of the supper scene that really hit Diego in his core. After a lifetime spent bettering himself, toughening himself up mentally and physically, becoming the “Batman” of this series, Diego was reduced to a small, stuttering child once more, simply by the words of the man he looked up to as a father:
(We’re not crying, you’re crying, and that’s okay because we’ve been raised to be emotionally healthy individuals by caring parents.) That’s what makes Reginald’s treatment of Diego (and the rest of his “children”) so crushing; he cares just enough to pay attention to the things that he knows will do the most damage at the right time. It’s why he gifted Vanya with her violin, or suggested to Five how taking small steps could restore his powers and maybe even find a new skill, or why he even bothered attempting to save Luther’s life, the sole member of the team who never lost faith in his “father” or his ideals. It’s those closest to us who can do the most damage.
While the surviving members of the Umbrella Academy could have used their past connection with their father out-of-time as a healing moment, it was not to be. Their return to their “own” timeline comes with grave consequences: Turns out that their interference in the ’60s didn’t dissuade Reginald from adopting children in 1989, but it did dissuade him from adopting those exact children. That’s why the newly formed Sparrow Academy — a separation from Reginald’s own umbrella company-adjacent spinoff — includes only one of the same members as the Umbrella Academy: Ben. Reginald never met Ben back in the ’60s because Ben was, and remains, dead. But now, in the new timeline, Ben seems to not only be very much alive, but possibly the new #1 of this alt academy. (Unless it’s the green floating cube … I hope it’s the cube.)
New name, new academy, same shitty parenting. I don’t know if Sparrow Academy got its name because there’s some sort of Soviet influence in this new and different timeline, or if there’s something else to it entirely, but the fact remains: Reginald Hargreeves is the worst dad ever, human, alien, or otherwise. Some things never change no matter what timeline you’re in.
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD