**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Season One of The Umbrella Academy.**
On February 15, 2019, Netflix premiered the first season of the genre-bending comic book ode to domestic dysfunction, The Umbrella Academy. Even with only one season under its belt, the series has proven to be a surprise hit and is quickly generating a small cult following. Based on the Dark Horse comic series by Gerard Way (lead singer of My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy offers many of the tropes that fans of the superhero genre have come to expect from DC and Marvel films but delivers them in subversive packaging. The show is, in some ways, an exercise in the familiar. It boasts a team of heroes with superhuman abilities, an approaching global threat, villains bent on putting a stop to these heroes, and a wise and enigmatic leader.
If the definition of addiction can be expanded to include any unhealthy obsession, psychological or emotional as well as chemical, then all the members of The Umbrella Academy suffer from their own personal variations of it.Yet, though The Umbrella Academy offers the appearance of previous franchise conventions, it actively works to subvert each one. The heroes are anything but heroic, the villains are eventually more ineffectual and pitiable than terrifying, and the greatest threat may be nothing other than the fearless and enigmatic leader himself. However, what sets this show apart from others is not each separate instance of subversion, but the central reversal which serves as the foundation for all of them.
In most Marvel and DC narratives, a team of oddly-matched super-humans must come together in order to stop a global threat. In The Umbrella Academy, this hierarchy is completely reversed. The global threat, and all of the super-hero antics which it brings out, is of secondary importance to the human drama which provides the foundation for the narrative. In this post, I will argue that the central idea in the first season of The Umbrella Academy, the primary concern that provides the motivation for this human drama is one of the most contested issues of our time: addiction.
The series begins with a narrator announcing the fact that on a certain day in October of 1989, forty-three women gave birth across the globe simultaneously. Even more bizarre than this occurrence was the fact that until the moment of birth, none of the young women had been pregnant. We then cut to Sir Reginald Hargreeves, eccentric billionaire, inventor, and philanthropist. He approaches each of the forty-three women and offers to adopt their children. Seven of the women agree, at which point Sir Reginald brings the infants to his mansion and raises them as his own. The children, who each manifest superhuman abilities, are formed by Sir Reginald into a squad of crime-fighting super-heroes once they reach adolescence. Nicknamed “The Umbrella Academy” after Sir Reginald’s favorite hand-held accoutrement, the team announces their presence to the world after stopping a dangerous bank heist.
Unfortunately, any similarities to previous superhero franchises end here. The series’s primary narrative begins seventeen years after this first official mission, when various members of the academy have either left, died, or been sent to the moon. The action commences at this point, with the news of Sir Reginald’s unexpected death. When the now adult children come back together for the funeral, we discover that each of them brings with them an addiction in one form or another.
The most obvious example of addiction is adopted son “Number Four,” Klaus, who keeps a steady stream of heroine, ecstasy and other psychotropic drugs pumping through his veins. The next most obvious example of addiction is adopted daughter “Number Seven,” Vanya, who takes daily doses of anxiety medication that has been prescribed to her since she was a child, without which she seemingly cannot function.
However, an interesting comment made in “Changes,” the penultimate episode of the season, expands the possible definition of what true addiction is. “Number Five” (yes, that is his actual name), spends the entire season attempting to prevent a global apocalypse. Number Five, a Time-Traveler trapped in his thirteen-year-old body after spending decades caught in the future, witnesses a global apocalypse and comes back to the present time to warn the other members of the Academy. In episode eight, believing that the global threat has been averted, Number Five, now purposeless, spirals emotionally. Mocking Klaus for fidgeting from withdrawal, that character retorts, “Well, I guess we’re both fighting our addictions, then . . . You’re addicted to a drug called ‘The Apocalypse.’” If the definition of addiction can be expanded to include any unhealthy obsession, psychological or emotional as well as chemical, then all the members of The Umbrella Academy suffer from their own personal variations of it.
For example, “Number One,” Luther, has spent the last four years of his life on the moon, after being the last member of the academy left in the house. He continues to go on missions, though all of his other siblings have either died or left to live their own lives. In episode six, we learn that this final “extended mission” was given to Luther simply to force him to be independent and to encourage him to make his own decisions. Yet instead of thinking on his own, he uncomplainingly acquiesces to his father’s wishes and sends back dozens of reports from the lunar surface, reports which are never opened. Luther is addicted to mission, to his role as leader of the Academy. This addiction carries his sense of moral duty to unrealistic extremes and leaves him lonely and isolated.
“Number Two,” Diego, is almost the exact opposite of Luther. He walks the city streets at night in black leather and a mask, a self-appointed vigilante with a toxic view of authority, responsibility, and any system of order. He is addicted to his own independence, to doing things “his way” regardless of the consequences. It is an addiction that costs him his job on the police force, his relationship with one-time partner Eudora Patch, and any relationship with his siblings. Crippled by an intense arrested development, Diego wears a costume everywhere he goes, works as a custodian at a boxing club, and sleeps each night in the basement.
“Number Three,” Allison, is the closest of all the members of the Academy to what might be called a “recovering addict.” Allison is (or was) addicted to her own special ability—or, to be more precise, the power of control she is able to derive from it. Allison can manipulate others, making anyone do anything she wants through reality-altering suggestion, as long as she begins her suggestion with the phrase “I heard a rumor…” In episode eight of the series, Allison reflects on the ways her power has been abused. As she drives through the night to rescue her sister Vanya from a man she believes is going to harm her, an audio reel of past uses of her power plays, ostensibly in her head: “I heard a rumor I made the soccer team…I heard a rumor I’m perfect for the role…I heard a rumor that you loved me.” The abuse of this power has cost her both her marriage and custody of her daughter, leading her to make a promise never to use it again.
These addictions, though a central focus of the series, are in fact only the surface of the actual problem. As modern psychology has established, addiction is almost always a symptom of dysfunction, rather than a cause. In other words, the question for The Umbrella Academy is not “How has the addictive or obsessive behaviors of the family ruined their lives?” but “What caused these addictive behaviors in the first place?”
According to a 2009 study conducted by Academic Pediatrics, drug or substance abuse, including the abuse of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, often have their roots in ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences). As author Vincent Felitti states,
Many of our most intractable public health problems are the result of compensatory behaviors like smoking, over-eating, and alcohol and drug use, which provide immediate partial relief from the emotional problems caused by traumatic childhood experiences. Those experiences are generally unrecognized and become lost in time, where they are protected by shame, by secrecy, and by social taboos against exploring certain areas of human experience. (131)
And if anyone knows anything about Adverse Childhood Experience, it is the members of The Umbrella Academy.
Sadly, while The Umbrella Academy may look and sound like X-Men to those unfamiliar with the show, the only quality which Sir Reginald Hargreeves shares with Prof. Charles Xavier is an English accent. Sir Reginald houses, clothes, and feeds his adopted children but does little else. He trains the children in the use of their powers but does so with the exactness and rigor of a drill sergeant rather than a compassionate parent or teacher.
In one of the more harrowing scenes from the first season, Sir Reginald takes twelve-year-old son Klaus (or “Number Four,” as Sir Reginald prefers to call the children by numbers rather than their names) and locks him in the family mausoleum overnight. Klaus has the ability to communicate with the dead, and Sir Reginald introduces this plan as both a type of joint training-intensive / immersion therapy to “encourage” Klaus in the use of his powers and as a way to help him conquer his fear of—well, dead people talking to him. In the morning, after a night of haunting by all the family ghosts, Sir Reginald opens the mausoleum doors. Klaus lifts a tear-stained face and pleads with his father to let him come back into the house. Sir Reginald’s response, disappointed with Klaus’s lack of progress, is “three more hours,” at which he shuts the doors fast again.
The members of the Umbrella Academy may seem profoundly broken to us, but it is a brokenness which we all share . . .But as cruel as this instance of Sir Reginald’s coldness is, his cruelest behavior is reserved for “Number Seven,” Vanya. Vanya manifests no abilities, something that Sir Reginald constantly reminds her of by separating her from her siblings and telling her that she is “just not special.” In the last four episodes of the season, we learn that not only does Vanya have powers, but that her powers are the most destructive of all the family’s. Sir Hargreeves’s psychological abuse of Vanya, then, is a misdirected effort to suppress her uncontrollable powers. It is a decision that backfires catastrophically in the last episodes of the season.
But each member of the Academy can tell stories of mistreatment: Luther is ignored by the father he has spent most of his life trying to win approval from; Diego resents his father’s treatment of Grace (an automaton which serves as a mother figure); Allison will not forgive Sir Reginald for disallowing her budding relationship with Luther; and Number Five acts out to prove his father’s lack of faith in his own abilities wrong. If Felitti’s assessment of addiction is the correct one, then these behaviors can be interpreted as personal compensatory measures, filling the void left by a lack of parental or (as in Vanya’s case) any familial affection.
The truth is that the real obsession, the real addiction, which drives all the Hargreeves children is the same which drives all of us—the desire to love and be loved. Unmet, this desire will turn to compensatory measures which are often dangerous at best and destructive at worst. Thankfully, in the last episode of the season, The Umbrella Academy provides an alternative to these destructive addictions, offering a healthy solution for the children’s unmet affections.
In the final moments of this last episode, the Hargreeves siblings gather around Vanya, whose anger at her decades of mistreatment has awakened her powers, turning her into a human supernova on the verge of explosion. (This is what I meant earlier about the reversal of the typical superhero hierarchy. The team does not stop the apocalypse—they cause it). In the end, the children of the family gather around Vanya as the world implodes in a massive conflagration. The siblings understand that it is three decades worth of emotional abuse which make Vanya the way she is, and Number Five proposes that he transport them all back into the past to help “fix her.” It takes a global apocalypse for the family to understand that they need each other, that the only way to prevent a global apocalypse is to fill the need left in each of the children through the unconditional love of family. In the show’s second season, we will see if the Hargreeveses can truly come together and help heal decades worth of emotional and psychological abuse.
But what about those of us who cannot travel back in time to salve old wounds, or who have no family to gather around us to heal past trauma? More importantly, what should the members of The Umbrella Academy do? The love which comes from family may be unconditional; that is, may lack preconditions, but it is not perfect. Even if Number Five’s plan works, the members of the Academy will eventually fail each other again and will create new emotional wounds to replace the old.
Christians understand that any human love is incomplete. The only love which perfects and is perfect is the love of God, which can only be experienced fully through the person of Christ. And it is only in this love that we can love one another perfectly. As Marshall Segal writes,
True love, effective love, world-changing love is an enlightened love, a love sharpened with and filled by truth. You can’t love like God loves unless your mind is engaged rightly. Good loving requires good, right thinking. And this love—an affection for others grounded in and stirred by the truth—is what God builds into our hearts as he works to complete us. It’s the heavy reconstruction our hearts need in order to meet him on the last day.
The members of the Umbrella Academy may seem profoundly broken to us, but it is a brokenness which we all share—a brokenness which can only be made right, ultimately, in letting go of the things we think will satisfy us in order to gain the only thing that will. As Number Five knows better than anyone—the only way through is forward.