When “The Umbrella Academy” last aired new episodes, in July 2020, its star occupied a different place in the culture, under a different name.
Elliot Page, the Academy Award-nominated performer, is by far the highest-profile member of the show’s cast — all playing a family of superheroes perennially trying to thwart apocalypse. And his public disclosure that he is a trans man in late 2020 presented the series with a conundrum as it looked ahead to a third season. How could “The Umbrella Academy” best leverage Page’s talent and honor the work he’d already put in on the show, while accounting for the fact that his character, known to this point as Vanya, had for two seasons presented as a woman?
The answer, with a new season that launched June 22, is with a strikingly, even movingly low-key approach. “The Umbrella Academy” often expresses its stakes with a sort of post-Quentin Tarantino every-reference-at-once mania — indeed, its new season begins, after a flashback sequence, with the show’s central characters taking part in a hallucinated dance battle to Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” — but it doesn’t put similar pressure on Page’s character’s coming out. It’s only toward the end of the first episode, when, in a confrontation between Page’s character and a hero from a rival hero team, that pressure is placed on the bruise. “What do you really want, Vanya?,” this hostile asks; the question’s double meaning hangs in the air for viewers who’ve followed Page’s story, even as Page quickly and snappily replies.
Only minutes are allowed to elapse, though, before we get catharsis of a kind; that moment comes near the end of the first episode, and within the first five minutes of the second, Page is shown wandering purposefully past a barbershop, pausing in front of a classic hairstyle guide indicating different methods of male grooming. The character walks in, with only momentary haltingness and a studiedly casual “hey” to the barber, and sits in the chair to chop off a long mane.
It’s a small moment, taking up relatively little show time, but a nuanced and an elegantly performed one. Anyone queer or trans can likely relate to the accidentally-on-purpose way that their feet brought them to a place of business where they had a breakthrough experience, and the exhalation of fear and doubt they experienced before walking in. The show diverges, a bit, from universal experience in Page’s next scene, in which the performer walks into a contentious family meeting and, at the first mention of the name “Vanya,” declares “It’s, uh, Viktor… It’s who I’ve always been. Uh, is that an issue for anyone?” The assembled family members, to a one, say that they’re happy for Viktor, and launch back into criticizing him for tactical decisions he’s made in their showdown with their enemies.
It’s seamless — so much so as to remind one both that “The Umbrella Academy” is a fantasy, and that Viktor’s identity within the show is perhaps less significant to those writing it than his role in the battle for the fate of the world. A later scene, in which Emmy Raver-Lampman’s character benevolently pesters Viktor about not having come out sooner and berates herself for not having realized he was trans, suggests the ways in which the best-intentioned allies can sometimes be a little tiresome. But Viktor shuts her down after only a few moments; he seems, in his new skin, always to know what to say, and he goes on to describe the discomfort he once felt seeing himself in the mirror. It’s elegantly put, seemingly drawing on Page’s performance from real-life experiences the actor has described, before the adventure rolls on.
But at a time when an ongoing backlash against the rights of trans people simply to exist is rolling across this country, a show depicting the coming-out process as a declaration of self that is possible and that can be met with kindness feels like a worthy thing to put out into the world, if given the opportunity. That Viktor’s storyline takes place on a show whose pop and crackle make it a favorite of young viewers, just as the idea of children being educated about the existence of trans people has become a hobbyhorse of an ascendant, hysterical right-wing, is all the more gratifying. And that it takes place on Netflix, a service whose co-CEO Ted Sarandos has defended anti-trans rhetoric in comedy specials by Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, provides a good example of counterprogramming. (Praise for this series’ approach to Viktor should go to the team behind it and not to Netflix’s leadership, which has made abundantly clear that they’ll air whatever.)
I’ve been critical of “The Umbrella Academy” in the past, for being somewhat hasty in dealing with its broad bench of characters, and for picking up their stories occasionally before eventually losing interest. It’s a show with more verve than follow-through, one that, in ambitiously trying to take on the world, often loses sight of the close and granular detail that makes stories worth telling. But in the early going of this new season, an offhanded approach works in reintroducing Page’s character, and Page as a performer. Viktor is trans, and is imbued with powers even beyond the strength it took to come out; Page is trans, and is a soulful and warm actor in part because of all of his life experiences. In addressing this issue, allowing Viktor and Page to move forward, meeting both where they were and allowing them to remain on the team, “The Umbrella Academy” did a small, good thing at a time when it might be easier not to.