Unrealised Desires in Umbrella Academy
Why do we still care about the 1960s? Why are we required to care about the 1960s? Why does it haunt us at the level of iconography and why do its cultural forms persist? I’d say it has something to do with the unrealised desires that were inherent in those forms and to which those forms still speak…? I don’t like this phrase ‘speak to’… That they’re still relevant to.
—Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire
Umbrella Academy is Steve Blackman’s Netflix series based on comic books by Gerard Way. It is darkly comic and, although it draws heavily from the hero genre pastiche that has become almost as dominant as the hero genre itself, it’s set up more like a metaphysical comedy. In its absurdism (robot women, a man with a goldfish bowl for a head, talking primates), it has much in common with the quite tonally different Netflix show The Good Place. It is not, for all that, an especially cerebral story.
Most of its entertainment is rooted in poignant climaxes that are saved from being overly corny by an undercurrent of grim humour. And it is effectively both moving and funny by turns. Both season one and two revolved principally around an impending apocalypse, but season two was also set in the 1960s, where the principles find themselves following a time-travel-gone-awry trope.
The premise is that a group of adoptees, superpowered children, are trained by a mysterious and cruel man in the titular academy to become a line of defence against evil, but the Hargreeves—as they are named—find themselves burnt-out and cynical in adulthood. Damaged by their experiences, they are dysfunctional, but inevitably—grudgingly—drawn back together. That is, it’s a story not only about trauma, but about how trauma shapes our relationships.
It’s not a masterpiece of television, but it is consistently fun, well-acted, with enough gags and built-in tensions to sustain is zany narrative arcs.
Having said all of that, Umbrella Academy’s handling of the 60s is fascinatingly confused. Before the season débuted, it was heralded by a trailer comprised of its opening scene, in which all the characters are shown fighting a Soviet Union style invasion of the United States, preceding a nuclear strike. I joked at the time that launching a land invasion in anticipation of a nuclear blast seemed a peculiar military strategy.
It is certainly not the only piece of pop media to engage in this kind of nostalgic redbaiting (which operates in lieu of any actual communist threat). The upcoming game Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold Warseems far more deeply entrenched in such an idea. But the show’s take on the Cold War is notably very inconsistent, much more so than the cash-in first person shooter. Indeed, the show’s take on the period in which it concerns itself is decidedly odd. So much so that the peculiarity often becomes interesting in itself.
The characters are misfits, and the arc takes the opportunity to situate them in apt struggles from the 60s. Ellen Page’s repressed Vanya faces the patriarchy in a gay sexual awakening story; Tom Hopper’s Luther joins the criminal world of underground boxing in search of a father figure; David Castañeda’s Diego plays out a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest after attempting to prevent the Kennedy assassination (more on that later); Emmy Raver-Lampman’s Allison marries a Black civil rights campaigner and Robert Sheehan’s Klaus becomes a hippie cult leader using anachronistic song lyrics as the content of a new age philosophy.
Vanya’s story also involves an undiagnosed mute autistic boy and Klaus’s has him seeking to prevent a repressed young gay man from signing up to the military, which he knows—from time travel escapades in the first season—will result in the man’s death.
All of that is to say there is little about the 60s Umbrella Academy doesn’t touch on. From the counterculture and more, the points of reference and concerns are ambitious. Given that, one might expect it to have something profound to say, but it is hard to find more of a point than racism, homophobia and ableism are bad, cults are probably bad, Vietnam was very bad, redbaiting was bad (even if the show also itself prominently indulges it).
Let’s go back to the epigraph. Fisher asks, ‘Why do we still care about the 1960s? Why are we required to care about the 1960s? Why does it haunt us at the level of iconography and why do its cultural forms persist?’ To this, his answer seems to offer some clue to the mess of this series; that is, that ‘it has something to do with the unrealised desires that were inherent in those forms and to which those forms [are…] still relevant to.’
Desire is very enmeshed with how Umbrella Academy cannot make its mind up about conspiracy theories. In season two Diego is the resident conspiracist. He believes that everything, including the siblings going back in time, has a preordained purpose. He quickly—and, as it turns out, wrongly—weaves a narrative in which their farther, alive in the 60s, is the secret Kennedy assassin. The show explicitly frames him as having heroic delusions. That is not subtext; it is directly expressed on a few occasions.
And yet, this false conspiracy is relatively innocent compared to the conspiracies the show does endorse. There is a shadowy cabal in the 60s who organised Kennedy’s murder, but more than that, the deed is in fact assured not by them, but by an even more enigmatic Commission. That is, a time-travelling group who exist to defend a single, canonical timeline, utilising a network of assassins and mediated through a contemporary-looking office environment replete with a recognisably neoliberal corporate hierarchy.
Is not this the ur-conspiracy? That a sinister group have guided all human history? That this is the backdrop is significant to everything the show has to say about the 60s. At one point, Allison’s husband asks her to use her powers for the Black movement, but she refuses for the usual conservative time-travelling reasons about preserving history—and in any case, there will be a Black president, so all turns out well. Klaus fails to save the Vietnam soldier. Vanya to get her lover to return to the present where both she—as a lesbian—and her son—an autistic boy—would undoubtedly be safer. Diego fails to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
The one sibling who succeeds is Five, the puer aeternus (eternal boy) who once worked for the aforementioned Commission (as an assassin no less) and whose only goal is the return everyone to the present, and for the maintenance of the status quo. And yet, he is also the reason they were accidentally catapulted to the past.
In short, although the show is invested in (admittedly glib, liberal) readings of past struggles of the oppressed and of progressives, its final analysis is steadfastly against change. At least, change that is not approved, proper, correct, in the right order. They leave the 60s having, perhaps, developed themselves, but with events largely intact. And although the final twist shows that events are not perfectly preserved, this has no real historical import outside the show’s own narrative logic.
We do not know what to do with the 60s once we conjure them. Umbrella Academy has liberal sensibilities with its whiggish account of history, whereby we must accept incremental improvements over revolutionary leaps. Soviets, hippies, time-travelling meddlers are all decidedly improper. And the task of heroes is not to accelerate the course of history, but prevent the machinations against that course by the real antagonists. The main villain of the show is someone whose coup d'état within the Commission causes chaos, although her motives are purely base.
But for all that, there remains those unrealised desires. The show is full of them. Klaus’s cult might be the subject of endless mockery, but its glimpses of communal living still come off well compared to every other form of social relation depicted, which are all inflected by oppression, violence and pathos. Allison might plea that the US gets its Black president, but even if we put to one side whether Obama did much to overcome US racism—from the carceral state to police violence—she remains confusingly silent about the forty-fifth president.
There is no way to sort through the relationship this show has with history. It is a mess. But it is also symptomatic of a liberalism that is feeling its deep fragility in the face of a pushback from the reactionary right. As liberalism looks to historic struggles for guidance, it neglects the continuity and meaning of those struggles. As it muses over the failed utopias of the past, it also caricatures the agency of those utopias, the left, as either a pure fantasy entity of the right, or—contradictorily—exactly what the right accuses it of being: demonic, an invading army of reds.
Umbrella Academy is a show about how trauma impacts on social relationships, and its own relationship with the contemporary world is deeply impacted by a trauma about history. That history remains relevant precisely because the incremental version of history, the somewhat benevolently, somewhat malevolently conspiratorial account of the past guided along a preordained route—a secular Calvinist fatalism—is foundationally mistaken.
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