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The Umbrella Academy: A Moral Philosopher’s Nightmare

Warning: Spoilers for the Umbrella Academy on Netflix

Ok so I know I’m a wee bit late to the Umbrella Academy party, but I’m here now after a long reading week of procrastination. Needless to say im addicted, and it plagues me everyday as I have entered into a constant stress of stress of confusion. I panic when I hear violin music, I look at monkeys differently and have started to despise woodworking. While this show has provided me with entertainment it has also imbued me with the purpose of illustrating why philosophy is such an important aspect of television. This show is goldmine of philosophical discussion that I am beyond delighted is entering into popular culture.

Let’s start with everyone’s favourite…Luther. I know he wasn’t the most popular character, while I was watching it I saw endless online reactions against him. I was so scared he would kill someone or turn evil and yet nothing of the sort happened, at least to my eyes. Yes he did try to lock Vanya up, not one of his greatest moments, but his reason for doing so was rational. He thought he was protecting his family from an unknown power, honestly I thought he was going to kill her with his hug but he didn’t so imprisonment was a welcome if unideal alternative. Maybe people don’t feel pity for Luther because we see him as the most emotionally stunted of all the siblings. He was following a man everyone else saw to be manipulative until he died – so maybe we just don’t trust his judgement which makes us lose feelings of empathy towards him. He claims to be virtuous in a story where no one is truly virtuous. The characters are all inherently flawed and thus perhaps our standards become lower for who is deserving of sympathy. Yet why did Luther still fail to win over the hearts of the viewers?

Moving onto the other moral enigma of the show…Vanya.

I understand the horror and cruelty that Vanya went through completely, but the widespread online compassion towards her even after her actions in the end of the season was an interesting phenomenon. I thought it would be interesting to examine the differences between her behaviour and that of Harold Jenkins. I just want to enter into this discussion however saying that, while I don’t like to overuse the word “objectively”, Harold Jenkins is in fact objectively awful and Vanya is probably good at heart. I just want to ask that technically if we look at two isolated incidents, what is really the difference between Harold killing his physically abusive father and Vanya killing Pogo who assisted her father in mentally abusing her? We are set up in the series to hate Harold even before we find out that he stalked the Umbrella Academy and manipulated Vanya through his killing of his father. This indicates that we should frown upon this action or indeed see that he has violent tendencies which prove dangerous. Yet, this violent reaction was also taken up by Vanya, a character we were meant to feel sympathy and compassion for. It could have been Harold’s influence which made her take such extreme action or simply her loss of control, yet this seemed to be her moment of stepping into her powers and thus into her true self which spurred her onto murder and causing destruction.

So what does this say about how we view morality? We pity one character over another because of how their story is presented to us, vulnerable Vanya seems for us to be less worthy of blame than homicidal Harold. Granted, he did also lie to her and kill the first chair of her orchestra, actions not spurred on by provocation or abuse as Vanya’s were. However, the reaction of murder was as sudden and irrational as his. While his actions were predetermined they still remained irrational. It seems simple perhaps that because Vanya was more likeable we find ways to forgive her and we are made to understand her situation much more in depth, thus producing more sympathy for her. I would argue we have more sympathy for her because for the most part, we think she doesn’t have powers and so life isn’t as ‘easy’ for her. If something goes wrong in Alison’s life she can fix it, if someone dies Klaus can see them, but for Vanya she is helpless as the rest of us. It almost seems like our ideas of morality is something we can’t extend into their world. Now if you think the Umbrella Academy stops at ethical discussion, you’d be wrong. An even bigger question explored in the series is how and if we deal with the consequences of the inevitable. If, in this case, the apocalypse is meant to occur why are we so keen to stop it? This question seems to spur the actions of many of the characters in the show. Hargreeves acts from a place of omniscience, sacrificing the individual welfare of his children for an unknown greater good, emotionally stunting them so they can stop the apocalypse.

It’s easy to ask the question of inevitablity when it is placed from a position of safety, the Commission has the freedom to pose this question without consequences because of its protected position. Why should we stop something that a higher power seems to be certain should happen, bu then why should we trust this authority with no proof on why this greater good is worth preserving? It seems that until we know the reasoning for bringing about the apocalypse we can’t come to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes however that’s the price we pay for posing these questions, while we certainly are able to appreciate the intricacies of such a show, it also does bring on Chidi-style stomach aches trying to untie the philosophical knots of the show.


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Katya Conrad

McGill '20

Katya is a Art History and Philosophy Major at McGill University. She is a proud Libra and an ABBA superfan. She enjoys the great indoors and her dog Tally.
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