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The Umbrella Academy and the joys and pain of time-traveling queers
As they drive down a dirt road, headed toward freedom, Vanya and Sissy (Ellen Page and Marin Ireland) hold hands. They smile at each other, happy to be starting their new life together with Sissy's son, Harlan. When they see cop cars blocking their way, they become uneasy and Sissy pulls her hand away.
Vanya stops the car, ready to fight for her love — and she's got a secret weapon not even Sissy knows about: Vanya is a bona fide time-traveling superhero who can manipulate sound waves.
She uses her powers to disarm the cops but is knocked out when she turns to face Sissy, leaving herself open for an attack. When Vanya wakes, she's in an interrogation room where she's tortured until her powers overload and bring about the apocalypse. Again.
At least, that's the way her story ends at the beginning of Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy. By the end of the season finale, our story reaches a new conclusion. That might seem contradictory, but any story with a superhero who can time travel at will is bound to have some interesting timelines, sometimes intersecting with other timelines.
Warning: Spoilers for Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy within.
Netflix's The Umbrella Academy is an adaptation of the comic book series of the same name created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. The series has some notable differences from the source material in terms of characterization and plot, but overall, it's the same: Superpowered siblings adopted by an eccentric billionaire fight evil and save the world. Until we find out dear ol' daddy has actually been lying to all of them, experimenting on them, and worst of all, telling young Vanya she has no powers at all and then drugging her so that she can't access the considerable powers she has.
Season 1 follows the siblings as they unsuccessfully try to keep Vanya from bringing about the apocalypse when she learns of her sound manipulation powers and lets them loose. The season finale shows Five using his time-traveling powers to avoid the apocalypse with his siblings, including an unconscious Vanya.
Season 2 opens with each of the Umbrella Academy siblings being dumped in an alley in Dallas alone between 1960 and 1963 due to Five's lack of control over his powers. After seeing the world end in a nuclear apocalypse, Five jumps back in time and spends the bulk of the season trying to find and then unite his siblings so that they can thwart (another) apocalypse brought on by a, to them, unknown source.
Where Season 1 is uneven, Season 2 is much stronger, in no small part due to how it handles the stories of its queer characters — namely Vanya, Sissy, Klaus, and Dave. What's particularly powerful about the representation is how it handles the joys and pains of time-traveling queer characters.
For instance, in the above scene, it's important to keep in mind that in Dallas in 1963, a woman leaving her husband for another woman wasn't just frowned upon, it was outright illegal — Texas only removed their antediluvian restrictions against "intercourse with another individual of the same sex" in 1973. So when Vanya is apprehended by the cops, they have a legal right to detain her. Add to that the fact that she's suspected of being a Russian agent (in part because of her name), and you've got a recipe for bad news.
What the series does, though, is it shows us that future (er, well, past) where Vanya is tortured to the point of exploding and ending the world, a future where homophobia leads to her destruction. And, then it offers us an alternative. Vanya gets a do-over without even realizing it. When she starts to overload, her siblings come to her aid, having figured out what triggers nuclear war. Their act of love, which it isn't hard to read as an act of accepting your queer sibling, helps her ground and control her powers, which allows her to return to her love. That moment opens up a plethora of possible futures, futures where acceptance flings open the doors of the world.
Meanwhile, Sissy has been back on the farm with her husband, where she's decided to take a stand: She's leaving him to live with the person she really loves, Vanya. The confrontation doesn't end well for the husband, who is accidentally killed. Good riddance. Ultimately, when Vanya has to return to 2019, Sissy decides not to join her — no longer because she's afraid of being queer, but because she's ready to be queer in 1963. It's a powerful moment not only because it's a kind of happy ending — a bittersweet kind of happy where Vanya and Sissy part with love in their hearts and tears streaming down their faces — but because we've spent the whole f***ing season holding our breath hoping the series won't fall into the Bury Your Gays trope again.
I say again because one of the great disappointments of Season 1 was when Klaus met the love of his life Dave while time traveling back to the '70s, only for Dave to be killed in the Vietnam War. I'm not saying it's not realistic for a young soldier to die in Vietnam, but we have to call it what it is. In Season 1, there were two main queer characters and one of them died. Furthermore, Klaus develops a serious chemical dependency that he has a... let's say self-destructive relationship with throughout the series.
That said, Season 2 has grappled with Dave and Klaus in interesting ways. Klaus finds Dave in the '60s, before he enlists, and begs him not to join the military. He even confesses his love for the future Dave in a diner, eliciting a homophobic tirade from a relative of Dave's who eggs Dave into punching Klaus. It's devastating and it honors the homophobia young queer men experienced in the '60s — and many queer people still do experience.
In the end, we learn that Dave has enlisted even earlier than he did originally, seemingly representing how Klaus' plan has backfired. However, the last thing we see of Dave is him boarding a bus to head toward boot camp and though it's not exactly him bucking the system, he does hesitate. And that hesitation is an open door, one that Dave may yet walk through.
Throughout powerful, cathartic, painful, and, frankly, scary moments, the queer representation in The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is by and large very positive, yet realistic. The series declares that queer people have always existed throughout history, that we've always deserved to have good, safe lives, but that we still live in a flawed world — and even by omitting Black queer characters or any other queer characters who are people of color, the series itself replicates that flawed society.
Vanya, Klaus, Sissy, and Dave have to grapple with the homophobia of their society and their time in history, but they also get to find love in unlikely places, help each other find themselves and their queerness, get second chances thanks to time travel, and end with a kind of hope. Is it shiny, rainbow-colored, glitter-filled euphoria? No. But it's hard to believe there's a way to be queer that doesn't embrace the pain and joy of being queer, that doesn't recognize the things some queer people have had to and do have to endure to be ourselves. And that resilience in and of itself is a kind of hope.