Despite playing out more as a slow-burn, moody character drama than an action-packed superhero show, The Umbrella Academy’s first season wraps up on a striking cliffhanger.
Having spent nine episodes working to prevent an impending and mysterious apocalypse, the Hargreeves clan realize far too late that their own sister Vanya (Ellen Page) is the one responsible for bringing about the end of the world. Worse, it’s the group’s actions — specifically those of Luther (Tom Hopper) — that push Vanya over the edge into uncontrollable violence. After Vanya loses control of her newfound powers and slits sister Allison’s (Emmy Raver-Lampman) throat, Luther makes the unfortunate decision to lock her up in a soundproof steel cell in the family basement; the same place where she was periodically imprisoned as a child by the siblings’ abusive adoptive father. The re-triggering of past trauma is what drives her transformation into the powerful and destructive White Violin.
In the season’s final moments, realizing that there is no way for them to stop the apocalypse in this timeline, The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) comes up with a way to save himself and his siblings by time traveling. As the earth burns around them, all seven siblings disappear. To where? We can only guess. Ahead, showrunner Steve Blackman and graphic novel creator Gerard Way speak with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the biggest changes from page to screen, how trauma and abuse define Vanya’s journey, and what that cliffhanger means for season two.
Is it safe to assume that in the final shot, the siblings successfully traveled into the past and will get another shot at stopping the apocalypse?
Steve Blackman: The truth is, we don’t know where they are. We don’t know what happened to them. I wanted this to really be the best of cliffhangers, in that you’re like “Wait, what? What happened?” It gives us a lot of openness and legroom to tell the best story we can next year. But yes, the apocalypse is not solved. They did not save the world, which is a slight alteration of the comic. To me, it was the right Netflix cliffhanger. You really want people to go into the off-season saying, “I gotta know what happened,” and that will be revealed when — hopefully — you see season two.
How much of the show’s future do you have mapped out?
Gerard Way: There’s eight graphic novels planned in total, and we’re on the third series right now. Now that we’ve started up again, we’re averaging about a year and a half per series for the turnaround. Steven knows what happens in all of those eight volumes; I wrote up this document for him and the writers, which explains what will happen through all of the graphic novels.
So are you planning a parallel eight-season run for the show?
Blackman: Yeah. It’s wonderful to have that [outline], because it gives you a springboard. Some of it will work and some of it won’t, but what’s nice about it is, I know where [Gerard’s] head is going. The idea is not to deviate too much, we want to stay on course with what the comics are doing, and having that plan ahead of time allows us to set some things up now for later seasons, things that you’ll see and later be like, “Oh, I get that now, they did that for this reason.” That’s what we’re thinking ahead to.
The core of the show is these siblings dealing with their traumas, and Vanya’s trauma is also what ends up causing the apocalypse.
Blackman: Right, I wanted to go back to this childhood trauma. I read a lot about the effects of parents on kids, and my goal was to return her to something that was really traumatic from her childhood that would re-trigger these memories. The truth is, how much do you remember of when you were four, or three, or five? But smells and places and seeing things really do take you back to this place, and for Vanya it triggers her to remember who she really was.
Way: Vanya’s transformation is different from the comic, but I know Steve wanted her transformation to be a longer process. In the book, it’s a machine and it’s done very quickly. That doesn’t give an actor a lot of room to move in that, or develop.
Blackman: It grew out from early conversations with Ellen. She had an idea early on of how this character would slowly change over time, down to the nuances of what she would do in each episode, and that felt like it needed a more grounded transformation. It couldn’t be a machine, it had to be sort of a metamorphosis of sorts, and she does a masterful job of going from this wallflower to this woman who’s completely checked into who she really is. It’s not a revenge story in any way, to me. It’s Vanya coming into her own and realizing, “I’m not just ordinary, despite what my father has told me and my siblings have told me. I am something more than that.”
I was frustrated with Vanya for not noticing the red flags with Leonard Peabody (John Magaro), her secretly evil boyfriend. But does she fall into that controlling relationship because she has a history of abuse?
Blackman: I feel the character has definitely been in an abusive type of relationship her whole life, with her father. They all have. I mean, if this was real life, the first thing someone would ask is, “How did you get these kids, Mr. Hargreeves?” I also want to remind you that Peabody has read her journal, and knows every little secret about her, so he’s pressing every button. I think Vanya’s very smart, I think she’s very bright and I think deep down there are some red flags, but he just seems to say the right things and seems to understand her. He has a sort of playbook on her. Also, the whole show is eight days. I think if it took place over a few weeks, she would probably come to realize [the truth] a little faster. For Vanya, it’s like, this guy is into me, and my family keeps telling me no one should be into me. He manipulates her in a way that I think is very, very destructive.
Luther’s physicality is one of the biggest changes from the graphic novels. How did you figure out how to make that character work on screen?
Blackman: In the graphic novel, he’s in a spacesuit the whole time, and I worried that would distract from people understanding the character, and people who knew nothing about the graphic novel would say, “This character isn’t serious.” I love that he has this boyhood innocence, and he’s under dad’s wing more than any of them, and he’s never had a life beyond the house. So I put him in clothing in a way that still allowed us to tell this tragic backstory about how he became what he became, but it allowed him to function in a little bit more of a grounded way in the world.
Way: But he’s still big! Tom Hopper is already huge, and then they put a prosthetic on him. I thought that was a big risk and I thought that was awesome. They didn’t just give him a human-shaped partially ape body, they gave him this full prosthetic and he looks insane!
Blackman: Oh yeah, we did all this research, and we gave him these extra muscles and bones that only apes would have.
Cha-Cha is a man in the graphic novels, which changes the dynamic with her assassin partner Hazel. Why make that change?
Way: One of the things I really like about the whole series, and a way that it improves upon the source material, is that it is so much more diverse and inclusive. It does that on every level, and Hazel and Cha-Cha are different but it’s a really good change.
Blackman: I pulled them from volume two of the comics, because they didn’t exist in volume one, but they were just such great characters that I knew we had to have them. I knew I wanted Cameron Britton, and then when I heard we could get Mary J., I was like, “We have to have these two people!” I love using the two of them in a Coen Brothers kind of way, with their weird problems and the bureaucracy they deal with.
Klaus’ (Robert Sheehan) backstory with Dave, the soldier he loved and lost, is another change from the comics. What inspired that addition?
Blackman: I wanted to give Klaus a love story, but in an unconventional way, and of course it’s too easy for Klaus to meet someone in this time period. He has to fall in love with somebody that he can’t be with from Vietnam! In volume two of the comics there’s a big Vietnam sequence, so that was the inspiration. Robert Sheehan is just such a good actor, so it’s great to see him play those layers and reveal that oh, [Klaus] is not just this idiot, there’s layers of passion and creativity there.
Speaking of love stories: Alison and Luther. Incest or not incest?
Way: (Laughs.) I’ll tell you this: When I first wrote the comic, my answer would have definitely been, “Pfft, not incest! They’re not even related!” But now that I’m forty, I’m like, “Yeah, but they still grew up together. That’s kind of fucked up.”
Blackman: The room debates this endlessly. We ended up, obviously, on the notion that they are not biological [relations] in any way, they were taken from their homes, they didn’t grow up in a typical family, they were more like recruits to a man who didn’t love them. So a love story was okay and believable, even though they really only achieved a kiss on a day that never happened. They never got far along in their love story!
They do get one of the season’s biggest set pieces, though: their dance to “Dancing In The Moonlight.”
Way: To me, that is the biggest moment in the show, that dance between Alison and Luther.
Blackman: Oh my God, it was a nightmare to do! We hung thousands of bulbs, we couldn’t lock off the whole park, so homeless people would just walk through the shots… As a side note, Ellen Page’s wife [Emma Portner] choreographed that dance. I phoned her and said, “Please, can you do me a favor, can you teach these two how to dance?” So she did! It came out so great, and you can see how much the two of them like each other in real life. Emmy and Tom just loved every minute of dancing together.
There are a lot of classics on the soundtrack. How did you settle on what tracks to use in what moments?
Way: Steven had a really distinct vision of what he wanted for the music, and a lot of times he’ll write those into the scripts and encourage his writers to do the same. The music and the needle drops and things like that are really Steve and the writers.
Blackman: I love music, and I knew I didn’t want to just play fifteen seconds of a song, I wanted the songs to live and exist [in the show]. We said in some ways, it’s like a music video, it’s a full moment, and I wanted to find great songs to punctuate moments and then play them through. At the end of the first episode I put They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul” over a scene where The Boy is shooting, because I love to counterpoint violence and action with a song that just has no business being there, and yet somehow it just finds a synergy and it works. We also had a great score by Jeff Russo, who won an Emmy for Fargo and wrote all the music [for season one of Umbrella Academy]. The whole Apocalypse Suite concert is him. Music’s a big part of the show, and will be in future seasons.
With big musical moments like the “I Think We’re Alone Now” dance, was that song written into the script?
Blackman: Yeah, so when I did my pass of Jeremy Slater’s script when I came on board, I wanted to add a moment to show that the kids are really similar, although they would never tell each other how they’re all hurting inside. I just think when you go back to your room as a kid, your house when you haven’t been there in years, it all comes back to you. They all think nobody’s watching, but they’re all doing the exact same thing, they’re letting go and being free and being kids again, forgetting all the bullshit, and then you pull out to that wide shot and you see them all dancing and you realize they’re not so far apart. They’re all the same family, and there’s a bit of innocence to all of them in that moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.