SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the second season of “The Umbrella Academy,” streaming now on Netflix.
Traveling through time certainly takes its toll — not only on characters’ emotions and on their relationships, but also on their larger world.
In the second season of Steve Blackman’s streaming adaptation of “The Umbrella Academy,” the seven Hargreeves children get sent back to the 1960s after stopping the apocalypse in present-day. They end up scattered across the first few years of the decade, but all in the same place: Dallas, Texas. While there, they have mere days to stop yet another world-ending event, which has ties to JFK’s assassination.
Diego (David Castañeda) is convinced he has to stop that assassination, while Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) works to change history through the rights that Black Americans have, leading a sit-in at a local diner. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) gathers followers and is treated as a messiah (or cult leader, depending on your point of view) after he is witnessed floating thanks to an assist from Ben (Justin Lin), while Luther (Tom Hopper) gets involved in underground fighting and amnesiac Vanya (Ellen Page), after being hit by a car, is taken in by the woman who hit her, and the two fall in love.
It is up to Five (Aidan Gallagher) to figure out how to get them all back together to stop the next cataclysmic event and return home. And while eventually they do both, the home they return to is not the Umbrella Academy of their youth but one where their father and Ben are still very much alive.
“We all have such serious opinions about how [time travel] works,” Blackman tells Variety. “Vanya asks why she can’t just bring Sissy and [her son] Harlan back; they’re inconsequential, and Five says nothing is inconsequential when you’re dealing with time travel. Their time in 1963 has had major repercussions.”
Here, Blackman talks with Variety about some of the second season’s major character developments, including Vanya and Sissy’s relationship, Allison’s activism and Klaus’ cult, as well as revealing there are more people in the world like the Hargreeves children and what other changes may be in store if and when the show is renewed for a third season.
Aside from the Ben of it all, there’s also this large looming piece of Sissy’s son Harlan left behind in the 1960s with new abilities and no one to help him come to terms with them, let alone control them. How important is that going to be in the show going forward?
The biggest change is there is this flesh and blood Ben standing there, saying “Who the hell are you?” Justin’s excited, if we get a Season 3, to finally work with more of the actors. I do know what Season 3 is — I’ve already planned it out — but there were a lot of open-ended questions and loose ends, and one of them is Harlan. We are left with happens to Harlan, what happens to Dave, and a few other things. But I think that’s the fun of the show: I like television shows that don’t answer all of the questions for me, so I don’t plan to tie up all of those loose ends. Especially on a time travel show, we have the luxury of answering these questions in future seasons or not.
Similarly, revealing that Lila could adapt to and mirror everyone else’s ability certainly makes her a threat like no other.
I think it’s fair to say there are others out there like them. Some of them might be good and some of them might be evil — and some of them might be in the middle. With Lila the limitation is, she can harness the power but only to a certain degree — she gets tired and can’t do it, and ultimately they’re able to take her down.
What were the challenges in finding something that would be a credible threat against the Hargreeves who, when they are all together, complement each other with their abilities?
Each of them has a limitation: They’re not a Superman-type character where things are just endlessly possible. Five runs out of blinks; Vanya needs to recharge. The goal for me is to challenge them with the internal challenges and the family, but also to find unexpected challenges to what it is to be a superhero. Like, Allison’s reluctance to use her power because it often corrupts her. We’re trying to see, “What would a real superhero’s life be like?” and not feel like we’re in the DC or Marvel universes — I have great respect for them, but this is different. We want you to feel like, “I could be this character.” They’re also not equal in their abilities; they’re all evolving and I think as we go forward their powers will get stronger and they’ll learn new things about them, but it’s OK in this universe that one of them has a stronger power than the other. And that’s where the emotional stories come in — one looking at [another] like, “I wish I could do that” or “It’s not fair they’re stronger than me.”
Why were the 1960s the perfect backdrop for this season?
In the graphic novels, JFK was a very small part of it. I wanted to set the whole show in this time period because I love the conspiracy theories around JFK, but also it was a very tumultuous time when you talk about civil rights and the Cold War, and we weren’t that far away from the missile crisis. There was a heightened sense of paranoia about Communism and what Yugoslavia was going to do, so there was this amazing upheaval, and I thought, “Why not complicate their lives by putting them in a 10-day period, mostly before the assassination of this famous president?” It was hard for production to do it, but it was a great place to start the story. The majority of production shot in Toronto but we did go to the Grassy Knoll to shoot those scenes there.
That had to be extra emotional, especially given how so many love to speculate on what could have been, but typically in pop culture if JFK lives, the world ends in another way.
It was [emotional] for the crew, and I talked the cast through a lot of it, too. I think we all just felt a sense of awe and respect being there on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas. In some ways that we talked about, things were not so far from where they are now in terms of racism, but in other ways, like being the height of the Cold War, it was tough in other ways to live through as well.
With an ensemble this large, there are a lot of individual journeys to manage whether they’re split apart, as they are at the start of the season, or working alongside each other, as they are later. Which character or journey was your starting point for breaking the season?
I knew I couldn’t start the season where all of them arrive together. At one point I started that way on paper, but I thought it was too easy, so I came to the conceit that they would all arrive at the same place but in different time periods because spreading them out by a few years meant they got to have real-life stories. They all think the others are dead, and how do they deal with that and move on? But the extra complications [are things like] Allison is married to a husband she really loves and has a cause, Klaus has started a cult, Luther is miserable but still has a life. It made it harder for them to leave [those things], but I hoped the audience was striving to see them come back together. And when they do come back together, they come back stronger and better for it. The dysfunctions and foibles are still there, as you see in the scene in the tiki bar, but you’re cheering for this family to get it right.
Given that you wrote this season months ago, you couldn’t have known how some of the scenes with 1960s police brutality against Allison and her husband (Yusuf Gatewood) would mimic things we’re seeing on the streets today, but racial injustice has not disappeared in between the 1960s and today. So what were some of your references for the activism and protests in this storyline?
Just to be upfront, we wrote this a year ago so no, we did not know how our lives would be affected by George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. But from the beginning I spent a lot of time with the writers doing a ton of research. Even though our show exists in the fantasy world, we couldn’t glaze over the racial issues in the ’60s. It was so important that we grounded them in a real way. So Allison lands and she sees a “Whites only” sign as her first welcome to 1963. We’re playing a woman of color who really has no voice in the segregated South — and she actually lost her voice, which makes it more challenging. Then the sit-in idea was an amalgamation of many sit-ins of the time period from our research. We wanted to make it authentic, and when we shot it it took two days and nights and it was very emotional on set and it was a very moving scene because you forgot where you were when the lights were down and we rolled the camera. We were in awe that these brave people of color would walk into a place that said “No whites” or “Whites only,” sit down and be publicly humiliated. We didn’t realize when we were telling the story, but we’re reminded now that things really haven’t improved as much as they should have.
What were the challenges of shaping Vanya and Sissy’s story so that there were all of the good feelings that came with watching two people fall in love but still staying true to the time period where they wouldn’t be accepted?
I definitely wanted to tell an authentic love story, and having Marin Ireland and Ellen Page, you can’t do better as actors. But I wanted to be honest for what it would be like for Allison to be a woman of color in the South in 1963 and also to have a woman like Sissy — a queer woman in the ’60s could go to jail, could lose custody of her child; she had no rights. So it was important that we complicate that story. She says to Vanya, a woman of 2019, “You may understand what it’s like to be different, but my life could be completely destroyed in a way that you would not understand.” And I think that’s what’s so interesting about Sissy. And there’s a moment — and Ellen plays it beautifully — where it just sits with [Vanya] where she realizes that there’s more at stake than just the love story. There’s also a child in this relationship, and it could seriously screw things up for him. I talked a lot with Ellen about this storyline and how we could make it feel beautiful and have hope but still be honest. I honestly believe if Sissy and Vanya didn’t have to separate it could have been a love story for the ages.
Going back to Klaus, a cult is not typically a humorous thing, yet with his personality, it provided some of the lighter moments of the season. And still, he’s also humbled at times and seems to genuinely learn from the experience and hopefully that will stick.
Klaus wants to be loved, adored and taken care of, but having the knowledge of the future and being able to recite a lot of famous lyrics of songs would be a powerful thing for Klaus. He uses it deceitfully to have a following because he has no money and he’s a master manipulator and he just can’t stop himself. He’s not a mean guy — he’s not drawn to do bad things — but then it overtakes him and he does have all of these people who have expectations of him. And in my mind, the following long lives after Klaus is gone. So probably in 2019, there is still this Klaus cult with thousands of new members in India and America that are following his teachings, even though he stole most of his lyrics from Destiny’s Child and the Backstreet Boys.
When we first met these characters last season they all had so much trauma from their childhoods manifesting in different ways and they have had to face down so many physical, large threats, so how important is it, as time goes on in the show, to show some of these events or the simple camaraderie they are finding with each other helping them heal from that trauma?
Do we ever get over our childhood traumas? I say this as the son of two psychologists, and this is just my opinion, but I think that we’re always struggling to overcome our childhood trauma. I remind people that in terms of the storytelling time period, they’ve only been back together for three weeks — each season is 10 days. So they’ve been pretty good for three weeks together after years apart and having an abusive father. But I think they are starting to come into their own and starting to have a better understanding, but they’re always going to struggle.
Their father being alive will undoubtedly add to the struggle. And what about Pogo?
I love Pogo, don’t get me wrong, but I had to say to myself, “There’s only a little bit of Pogo I’m going to do this year because it’s right for the story.” But we have a Season 3, it would be a good be to think that Pogo is back — and not hanging on antlers.
By the same logic, is there a future for the Handler? And if so, how do you work through concerns that the showdown between the Hargreeves and their opposers might feel less satisfying if they have to keep going after each other?
I think the Handler might actually be really dead this time around. As much as I adore Kate Walsh — and this is my third show with her, so clearly I like her a lot — we spent so much time in the writers’ room trying to create the logic for the time travel, so for the uber-uber fan they don’t feel like we hit a complete reset button. They’ve clearly done something to cause the change, but I think it will be unexpected.