Abuse Causes the Apocalypse: Cycles of Harm, Transformative Justice, and The Umbrella Academy
Content warning: This article discusses depictions of chronic emotional abuse within family units. The first two paragraphs are free of spoilers for those who want an overview of analysis without any plot points revealed (don’t click on the hyperlinks, though!)
With a raucous soundtrack to match its relentless pace, The Umbrella Academy is a highly entertaining addition to the ever-growing genre of superhero media. The Umbrella Academy is full of many amazing and some not-at-all-okay elements, but is most distinguishable in its dedication to exploring heavier themes such as emotional abuse. In this way, The Umbrella Academy joins the lineage of another highly-acclaimed Netflix superhero drama, Jessica Jones, layering additional complexities by examining abuse within a family unit. Of its ten-episode season, the first eight are excellent, with a depiction of emotional abuse that includes coping mechanisms, cycles of harm, its relationship to physical abuse, and the potential for accountability. These episodes are both extremely powerful and, from this abuse survivor’s perspective, chillingly accurate. In a world and on a campus where emotional abuse is both widespread and overlooked, it is refreshing (and at times overwhelming) to watch ten hours of television that unpack many of the tactics of and damage inflicted by abuse. The show goes further, exploring the question of whether it is ever really possible to ‘get past’ the trauma of one’s past. However, this poignance and finesse make the final two episodes all the more painful, melodramatic, and implausible, leaving survivors and allies with a sense of betrayal and outrage at the finale. My suggestion? Watch the first eight episodes for its realistic, survivor-centric depiction, but prepare for the last two to infuriate and disappoint you.
Adapted from the graphic novel series of the same name by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy revolves around a super family. Seven babies are adopted by an eccentric, emotionally-stunted billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who turns them into a crime-fighting team (the titular “Umbrella Academy”). The Academy includes all but Vanya, the ostensibly ‘ordinary’ one with no superpower. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Number Five,* Ben, and Vanya are emotionally abused in different ways throughout their childhood by an adopted father who only sees them assets for his latest gambit. They carry their childhood traumas into their adulthood in ways corresponding to their relationships with Hargreeves, their specific powers, and how said power influenced the course of their lives. Isolation, vigilantism, manipulation, addiction, secrecy, and low self-esteem are carried by the siblings into their thirties, when we are introduced to them. The adopted siblings have grown apart since the height of the Umbrella Academy but are forced together, as so many estranged families are, after Hargreeves’s death. When Number Five, who has been lost in time for sixteen years, miraculously returns on the night of the funeral, the group learns that an impending apocalypse will arrive in eight days and that they must stay together long enough to prevent it.
*Spoiler alert! Turn back now if you don’t want to read about large/important/hidden elements of the plot!*
As is the case with most ensemble shows, various characters speak to viewers differently. Given my own experience with emotional abuse and the damage it causes, I was immediately drawn to Vanya. Because she grew up as the only ‘ordinary’ sibling and was consequently excluded from the Umbrella Academy, her emotional abuse took on additional complications than the others. She found herself being harmed not only by Hargreeves but also by her siblings, who persistently manipulated, overpowered, and isolated her. Vanya’s siblings should not be subject to the same degree of responsibility for their behavior as one would hold an adult; they were young, also emotionally abused, and did not have a single positive, human role model during their entire youth. Despite these mitigating circumstances during their childhoods, the members of the Academy continue their abusive behavior towards Vanya for more than a decade of their adulthoods, revealing how difficult it is to break the cycle of abuse** for all those involved. In Vanya’s relationship with Allison, The Umbrella Academy even suggests that a recourse of radical, transformative justice is often needed in order to do so. Understanding and acknowledging the cycles of abuse is not to argue that a traumatic past excuses any harm one may cause; it doesn’t. Instead, it is to reinforce that accountability and compassion should be seen as complementary, not oppositional, forces.
Vanya’s character is superbly written and acted (portrayed by Ellen Page of Juno fame), from her subdued, overly-medicated affect to her constant apologies for the slightest inconvenience she may cause. Some critics have argued that Page’s rendition is stale and lacks vigor; in reality, these appraisals speak more to the physical manifestations of trauma than to Page’s acting abilities. To those of us who are familiar with these physiological embodiments of trauma, Page’s performance brilliantly integrates the seemingly-contradictory impulses of despondency and rebelliousness, distress and resilience that is often carried by survivors. The already-toxic dynamic between Vanya and her siblings is further complicated by her memoir, Extra-Ordinary, Vanya’s attempt to reclaim her agency and self-worth by shedding light on the abusive dysfunction caused by Hargreeves’s actions. Though Vanya wrote Extra-Ordinary as a way to process her trauma, her decision to write about the whole family’s suffering without their consent caused justifiable anger and resentment between Vanya and her siblings. They ostracized her even further, cutting off ties for five years until she unexpectedly shows up at Hargreeves’s funeral.
The Umbrella Academy is at its best when it allows a character-focused exploration of emotional abuse drive the plot of show. The apocalypse is ushered in when Leonard, a seemingly kind and supportive adult student of Vanya manipulates her into literally destroying the world. The Umbrella Academy uses this relationship as a catalyst to explore cycles of abuse, both in Vanya’s relationship with Leonard and in her relationships with her family. When Vanya shows up at Hargreeves’s funeral, most of her five siblings*** seem to have accepted her reasons for writing Extra-Ordinary and forgiven her, at least in a cursory way. However, just because they forgive her for the book doesn’t mean that the underlying toxic relationships have been addressed. Repeatedly she is maligned by her siblings—Allison gaslights Vanya when she offers advice about Allison’s marital trouble, Luther and Diego yell at her after they are attacked by time-traveling assassins, and when she finds her siblings meeting about the apocalypse, she is told that it is “a family matter” and they don’t want her there. All of this drives her towards Leonard, a kind and soft-spoken violin student of hers who thinks she is anything but ‘ordinary.’ Leonard, who turns out to be a Very Bad Guy, preys on Vanya in the way that many abusers target the already-abused. By validating her feelings towards her family and encouraging her in ways no one had ever done, Leonard gains Vanya’s trust. Meanwhile, he also quietly manipulates her and her surroundings so that she will discover Hargreeves’s long-held secret: she has the most powerful super-ability of all. Suppressed since she was a young child through mood-stabilizing medication (because of their connection to her emotional state, and Hargreeves thought women are too ‘hysterical’ to control their emotions without pharmaceuticals), Vanya has the ability to unleash waves of energy and control them with precision using her violin. Leonard, like many abusers, is so successful because he fills the voids Vanya has felt her entire life, telling her all the things that an abuse survivor desperately needs to hear. Painfully, poignantly, The Umbrella Academy subverts the wish-fulfillment trope of the superhero genre: Vanya, the ‘ordinary’ character, gets everything she always wanted when something new (Leonard) appears in her life… except that he is only fulfilling these wishes in order to exploit Vanya, not because we’re in a utopic alternate-reality. The cycle of abuse plays out in a textbook fashion between Leonard and Vanya, complete with Leonard initiating the honeymoon/reconciliation phase any time Vanya becomes suspicious about or hurt by Leonard’s manipulative behavior.
The cycle of abuse is also explored in Vanya’s relationship with Allison, but here The Umbrella Academy explores how such cycles can be broken: through genuine and radical accountability, the central element of transformative justice. During the first four episodes, Vanya and Allison also exhibit the classic cycle of abuse, complete with the honeymoon phase, the tension building phase, the abusive incident, and the reconciliation phase. Things slowly begin to shift when Allison stumbles across videos of their childhood and is forced to witness the extensive cruelty Vanya endured from the Academy. “Why didn’t we include her?” Allison asks their chimpanzee butler, Pogo. “If anybody ever treated Claire [her daughter] like that, I can’t even imagine.” “You were a child, Ms. Allison,” Pogo responds. “Yeah. But I’m not anymore. And neither is she,” Allison notes. In recognizing that she could lose Vanya if she continues the status quo, Allison realizes that she must address the past harm she caused and make substantial changes to her behavior. Her promises to make amends is not so straightforward to keep, as it never is. Initially, Allison’s attempts result in more hurt because her apologies become more frequent, but she has not yet figured out how to interrupt her own (and her siblings’) hurtful behavior. Allison’s efforts are also complicated by Leonard’s ongoing manipulation of Vanya: Allison is rightfully suspicious about Leonard’s questionable behavior, but her warnings have little credibility for Vanya given Allison’s past abusive behavior. Being isolated from the other people in one’s life is a hallmark of emotional abuse, but this warning sign is very difficult to detect when the only people from which one is being isolated are past abusers. Is this new person trying to prey on you, or are they trying to help you make a positive change? In this case, Vanya has much more reason to think Allison is trying to isolate her from a potential ally (Leonard) than vice versa.
As the show goes on, Allison continues to struggle towards transforming her relationship with Vanya. She accidentally falls back into the cycle of abuse a few times, but gets a little better each time at taking accountability for these—and past—actions. The subplot culminates in a dramatic confrontation at Leonard’s isolated family cabin, in which Allison feels she has no choice to use her power of persuasion on Vanya. In a disassociated rage (demarcated by her eyes turning white, a reference to her name in the source material, “The White Violin”), Vanya accidentally slits Allison’s throat with her power. She snaps out of it immediately and is devastated by her actions, filled with even more remorse when she learns that Allison was there to help her. Allison does survive, but her vocal chords are badly damaged and there is a chance that she may never talk—or use her power—again. Despite the long-lasting harm that Vanya causes Allison, she insists that Vanya is not at fault. In the ethos of transformative justice, she reinforces her talk of radical, genuine accountability with changes in behavior, insisting that the loss of her voice is the price of restitution for thirty years of harm. This is the turning point in their relationship, and The Umbrella Academy’s most important message. Even as the show goes completely off the rails with melodrama, rushed storytelling, and victim-blaming in its final two episodes, Allison finally stays true to Vanya, demonstrating that accountability substantiated by action has the potential to stop the apocalypse, if it were not for the patronizing and infantilizing actions of others.
Despite Allison’s demands that the Academy not seek any type of retribution against Vanya, Luther ignores her wishes, insisting that he knows what is best for Allison (i.e., the only one who was harmed by Vanya’s violence). If this had been written as a completely on-point metaphor for the carceral state’s treatment of survivors, I would be totally behind it. As Luther resorts to physical abuse by cruelty locking Vanya up in the same sound-proof chamber in which she was imprisoned for weeks as a child’s, as he uses his super-strength to Allison and the others who want to release Vanya, I held out hope that this is where The Umbrella Academy was going. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and instead it veers completely off course. The debacle starts when writers decide that Vanya will lose any and all control of her emotions: the white, dissociated eyes return as she blasts open the soundproof chamber with her power, and they remain as she walks through the house, flashing back to memories of trauma in each room and proceeding to blow them up. The conclusion is attempting to again subvert superhero tropes to make an argument about trauma, wherein a literal apocalypse is catalyzed by the apocalyptic scenario for many survivors (being abused in the same way they were originally). However, the plot twist lacks the nuance seen earlier in the show and therefore feels disjointed from the rest of the season. Contrary to previous episodes, in which Vanya feels the depth of her actions even while she is dissociated, now writers depict her almost as if in a fugue state (revealing how little research they bothered to do on dissociation and its related conditions). The action escalates at Vanya’s orchestral recital as she attempts to kill her siblings and all the audience members in the room (apparently now dissociated abuse survivors who have never been violent prior to a day ago, and were filled with regret after said violence, now want to kill hundreds of people at a time). As the Academy races to travel back in time before an epically ginormous moon crater annihilates Earth, The Umbrella Academy delivers its gut-wrenching betrayal with one small, victim-blaming phrase: “we have to go back and fix her.”
By swerving into this dramatic mischaracterization of abuse survivors and casting the central abusers as the emotional heroes of the story, The Umbrella Academy teaches dangerous lessons about abuse and trauma. This is of particular concern given the realistic and survivor-focused messaging throughout the first eight episodes of the show, which build credibility and trust, just to betray it and the people those episodes centered. In adhering to the source material’s characterization of Vanya as the harbinger of the apocalypse, The Umbrella Academy misconstrues the experience and actions of the vast majority of abuse survivors, most of whom do not seek retribution on their perpetrators (much less violent retribution). Furthermore, given that the apocalyptic drama accelerates during Allison and Vanya’s reparations process, the last two episodes encourage the extremely destructive, already-prevalent idea that any attempt at accountability will only make things worse for everyone involved. These criticisms don’t mean that there should have been a picture perfect ending to the season. Abuse, accountability, and healing are extremely complicated, even more so when it occurs within a family and over the course of so many years. However, depicting a messy ending in which moral nuance remains at the heart of plot is very different from a messy ending that vilifies the survivor and celebrates the perpetrators. There could have been a way to depict the brothers’ return to abusive behavior without making them seem morally righteous in doing so. They do not get to say Vanya needs fixing; Vanya does not need fixing. Vanya did not cause the apocalypse. Emotional abuse did. Refusal to take accountability did. Blaming survivors did.
The Umbrella Academy, and Ellen Page’s performance of Vanya in particular, moved me and made me feel seen more than any other show in recent memory by centering the experiences of abuse survivors in the first eight episodes. I dearly hope that its second season will refocus survivors with a storyline that teaches the siblings that Luther and the other perpetrators, not Vanya, are the ones who need to fix their behavior. But after The Umbrella Academy’s disastrous betrayal of an ending in episodes 9-10, I’m not going to hold my breath.
Abuse is perpetrated in many, often co-existing, forms, including physical, sexual, and emotional. If you or someone you care about is a survivor or perpetrator of any type of abuse, consider seeking more information and support. One such resource is The National Domestic Violence Hotline website. Their 24/7 hotline is 1 (800) 799.SAFE (7233).
*Hargreeves initially numbers the children, and their mom—who is actually a robot—gave them real names... Except for Number Five, apparently.
** “Cycle of abuse” is used to refer to different (though related) situations: when any given relationship gets stuck in a repeating cycle of incident/reconciliation/honeymoon/tension-building; and when one abusive relationship establishes a ‘new normal’ for an individual and then proceeds to be replicated in future relationships, even if that original abusive relationship ends. [For more information, go to [abuse resource]]
***The seventh, Ben, died in an undisclosed and tragic way when he was young.