Let’s explore the archaeology of a popular television series. Based on graphic novels by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy is soon to get its third season. I wish to reflect on the prominent and pathos-ridden dark comedic uses of material cultures of death and memory in series 1, focusing on the deceptive and dysfunctional character of the items which often masquerade as authentic (and especially ‘vintage’) in framing death and remembrance. In particular, it is an uncanny and jaunty caricature of strict Victorian and Edwardian aristocratic European mores which underpin engagements with death in the show, reflecting the original comics in broad terms.
‘Best Funeral Ever’: The death of Sir Reginald Hargreeves
Episode 1 is framed about the death of Sir Reginald Hargreeves and the remaining of his exceptional children learning the news. They are adults now, and their lives as a team of superhero crime-fighting kids is already at an end.
They all return to Hargreeve’s house: a Victorian monstrosity full of antiques, stuffed animal heads, and a shrine to the false-family that was the Umbrella Academy. Number 5 had disappeared 16 years earlier and he has a portrait in the house honouring his loss: his father never believing he was gone for good. Meanwhile, Ben (Number 6) has died in circumstances that are as yet unclear: he has a bronze statue situated in the back-courtyard of the property.
The surviving adopted children of Hargreeves – numbers 1-4 and 7 (Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus and Vanya) – have gathered at the house to pay their respects. Hargreeve’s has already been cremated and his ashes are retained and on display in an ornamatal Victorian (neoclassical) bronze vase. Crucially, Klaus steals a pearl-inlaid box which he discards into a dumpster without realising its value to pawn the box for drugs. We later learn that it contained Hargreeve’s research notes on the seven children – all born the same day and each with discrete superpowers – and we learn the book was retrieved by Leonard Peabody.
They urge Klaus (Number 4) to try to commune with the spirit of their father, but either unable or unwilling given his drug abuse, he is unable to use is superpower to talk to the dead and find out the circumstances of Hargreeve’s demise. The ashes are used as the focal point of his efforts, and Klaus’s irreverant handling of his father’s ashes marks him apart as someone in touch with death and the dead, and angry and bitter at his father’s passing.
Then, Number 5 mysteriously returns from ‘the future’ (we learn in series 2 he’s actually coming from the past, but that’s another story). His return coincides with a brief open-air memorial service.
The ashes of Sir Reginald Hargreeves are scattered by Luther at the centre of the rainy courtyard close by (at least, those left over after Klaus had already spilled them earlier). As the ‘first’, Luther takes on the responsibility, but clearly has no clue what he is doing. He drops it into a single pile and then looks awkwardly at the others and says: ‘probably would have been better with some wind’.
This scene also specifically embodies the widespread cultural awkwardness regarding ash-scattering. Pogo begins the epitaph, but Diego interrupts and maligns their father, starting a fight with Luther. In the fight, Ben’s statue is accidentally destroyed. Thus, the ash-scattering and statue toppling and breaking, thus embodying the fractured nature of Hargreeves’ family – a talking chimp butler, an android wife, and 7 adopted children: one dead, and six who are utterly broken. After everyone else has dispersed, Klaus squats over the sad pile of human cremated remains and sums it up: ‘I bet you’re loving this. Hmmm? The team at its best. It’s just like old times. Best funeral ever!’. As a sign of final indignity, he stubs out the ashes of his cigarette in the cremains. The final image of the scene is the broken statue of Ben, embodying the seemngly utter dissolution of their familial ties both between those still living and those dead. The entire scene embodies contradictions, cluelessness and ineffectiveness regarding how to mourn and memorialise – the insularity and egotism of Hargreeves, but also Pogo and Grace (Mum), and the ‘kids’ themselves. The ultimate failed memorial event.
The final piece of material culture linked to the memorialisation of Hargreeves is his monocle. Luther had searched his father’s room and found it missing, but we later learn that Diego had taken it and drops it in the river, an active statement of disdain for his father and his siblings for whom he knew the monocle would be significant.
So the disaggregation and destruction of all the material and corporeal ties that bind mark the ‘end’ of the Umbrella Academy at the very start of the first episode.
- Hargreeves’ ashes in an elaborate bronze cinerary urn, scattered in the courtyard;
- Hargreeves’ monocle;
- Ben’s statue;
- Number 5’s portrait;
- Pearl-inlaid box containing Hargreeves’ legacy which is thrown away by Klaus and Pogo explains contains ‘priceless’ contents.
But all is not what it seems. While Hargreeves is indeed dead, his monocle’s loss is a red herring. Ben isn’t really gone. Number 5 is ‘back’ and the box is gone but its recovery becomes key to the story. And his death is not what it seems: he committed suicide to bring the family back together to save the world (and yet through his actions brings about the world’s demise).
So, the traditional materials and corporeal transformations of 20th and early 21st-century death aren’t what they seem and the rules do not apply! It’s all very dark.
Diego and Grace
After the attack of the temporal assassins Cha-Cha and Hazel on the Umbrella Academy, Diego finds that Grace is faulty; stitching her own arm. We are left unsure at this point whether she killed Reginald Hargreeves or not, but Diego’s decision to euthanise his android mother that is the most touching moment. Later, she comes back to life, repaired by Pogo, and we learn her programming was altered to prevent her administering first aid to Hargreeves who has committed suicide. She dies once again near the end of series 1, trapped inside the Academy, very much a part of its oppressive architecture, destroyed by Vanya in her rage.
Klaus and the dead
Another central mortuary dimension to the first series is that Klaus is haunted by the dead with whom he can communicate. As he sobers up, Klaus becomes followed around by his dead brother, Ben. But we have a flashback in episode 4 to Klaus as a child being locked in a mausoleum by his adopted father to cure him of his fear of the dead. Kidnapped and tortured by Cha-Cha and Hazel, he is finally sober for the first time since childhood and he listens to the stories of their victims and conspires a way out.
Later (episode 5), Klaus uses the briefcase he stole from Cha-Cha and Hazel to time-jump back c. 10 months to 1968 and upon his return he enters a veterans’ bar and breaks down at a photograph of his lover, Dave, on the wall.
Later, he briefly dies in a club from a drug overdose and in this way rather than actively through communino does he establish a dialogue with the ghost of his father. Finally, his ability to manifest the dead allows him to save his fellow brothers and sisters from the Time Commission, allowing Ben to enact his superpower from beyond the grave.
Significantly, we learn that the violin is the force of armageddon itself through Vanya, her bow is a ‘lightning rod’. We learn of its origin; it arrives as a gift and memento mori of Hargreeves himself for his dead lover on an alien planet. Leaving with the violin, he arrives as an immigrant in early 20th-century America and buys an umbrella manufacturer. So Hargreeves’ suicide is revealed as bringing about the end of the world rather than thwarting it, while the instrument of the world’s demise is the violin he brought with him.
Of course, series 1 has other fascinating dark and dysfunctional reflections upon material culture, such as Number 5’s long-running post-apocalyptic love affair with Delores the shop-mannequin, the false-eyeball of a mystery individual, the tragically lonely interaction of Mum with her paintings, Vanya’s books, the restoration antiques and wood-carving (and collection of mutilated action figures) of Leonard Peabody, the Handler’s collection of weapons (including the gun Hitler used to shoot himself), to name but a few. We might also explore the umbrella theme motif. There are also things to be said about the portray of the world post-apocalypse in which Number 5 lives alone with Delores as his only company for year after year.
Putting it all together, there is a broad theme of deep ambivalence towards ‘traditional’ or ‘vintage’ late 19th/early 20th-century material cultures in an early 21st-century world. There is also a deep nostalgia for mid-/late-20th-century material cultures (including the sweet that has the flavour of the 1950s). Particular disdain relates to those who collect and obsess over such treasured antique items in particular. Such trophies and trinkets, heirlooms and fancies utter in the apocalypse.
Moreover, things claim to assert security and solidity but they are instead frequently just as deceptive and dysfunctional as the family itself. Inevitably, such facades must fall – things and their spaces. Vanya destroys the entire academy having impaled Pogo on the antlers of one of the bleak trophies in the main hall, articulating her revenge on the ties that bound her and suppressed her memory and her powers.
Fortunately, time-travel is the panacea to all this death and destruction. Jumping away from all the horrors created and the comedic failings of the ‘heroes’, the Umbrella Academy unite and with Number 5’s time-travel capabilities, they jump back to the 1960s for season 2…