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This post contains spoilers for the third season of The Umbrella Academy, which is now streaming on Netflix.
When Elliot Page came out as nonbinary and trans in late 2020, the initial response was rightly focused on what it meant personally for the Oscar-nominated Juno star and what it might mean for the ongoing fight over trans civil rights. But Page’s announcement also presented a fascinating professional first, since he would be the first regular cast member of an American TV show to transition midway through the series’ run.
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That the show in question was the Netflix superhero dramedy The Umbrella Academy added yet another wrinkle. The series is about a family of superheroes who have repeatedly traveled through time, altering reality along the way. The second season, which was produced before Page came out, ended with the Umbrella Academy finding themselves in a new timeline where they didn’t exist, replaced by a different superhero family calling themselves the Sparrow Academy.
Because of all the supernatural forces at play, many more options were open to the Umbrella Academy creative team for the new season than there would have been if, say, Page were in the Yellowstone ensemble. These episodes potentially could have revealed, for instance, that the Umbrella Academy’s tampering with history meant that Page’s character — now called Viktor Hargreaves — had been born a cis male. A member of the Sparrow Academy (whose powers hadn’t been defined when they were glimpsed in shadow at the end of Season Two) could have been given the ability to transform Viktor. Almost any fantastical explanation was on the table.
Instead, Season Three takes a more grounded and low-key approach to redefining Viktor, in a manner not dissimilar to how a legal procedural or workplace comedy might have addressed the issue.
The season premiere does not have time to deal with personal matters at all. It picks up right where Season Two ended, focusing on a fight between the two Academies, and then on our heroes coming to terms with the nature of this altered timeline. Page sports a shoulder-length wig to recreate his hairstyle from earlier seasons, and, on a few occasions, Viktor is referred to by the name he was still using when last we saw these characters.
By the second episode, though, things have calmed down enough for introspection. Viktor researches the life of Sissy Cooper (Marin Ireland), the Texas woman with whom he had an affair when the Academy was trapped in 1963 last season. Upon learning that Sissy died in 1989, Viktor flashes back on a conversation they had about how he opened up her eyes to her true self, with Sissy saying, “You don’t even notice the box that you’re in, until someone comes along and lets you out.” Viktor considers this sentiment, enters a men’s barbershop, and requests a trim. A few scenes later, now sporting a short haircut, he approaches three of his brothers and explains to them that he reached out to the Sparrow Academy on his own to negotiate peace. An annoyed Diego (David Castañeda) asks who elected him for this responsibility, ending his question on the name by which he knows Viktor.
“It’s, uh, Viktor,” Viktor replies nervously.
“Who’s Viktor?” says a confused Diego.
“I am,” says Viktor, now more confident in himself. “It’s who I’ve always been. Uh, is that an issue for anyone?”
The trio of siblings thinks on this for a half-second, then quickly accepts the news and moves back to arguing about what to do regarding the Sparrows.
That is more or less how the rest of the season treats the subject. The only lengthy discussion of the change comes with Viktor’s sister Allison (Emily Raver-Lampman), who feels guilty for not realizing this fundamental truth sooner. Viktor asks why Allison would have, since he himself never truly understood who he was until he met Sissy. He then looks at his reflection in a window and — echoing language Page himself has used in discussing his transition — admits he used to hate seeing himself in the mirror. Allison asks what he sees now, and Viktor allows himself a small smile before saying, “Me. Just me.”
A few episodes later, their brother Luther (Tom Hopper), who has been otherwise occupied for a while, belatedly finds out about Viktor, and accepts the news just as quickly as Diego and his group did, and that is essentially it. Viktor is simply Viktor, and The Umbrella Academy is otherwise the show it has always been, for good (imaginative production design, fun musical numbers, sheer weirdness, and the irresistibly loose nature of Robert Sheehan’s performance as family misfit Klaus) and for ill (characters still spend the bulk of each season just sitting around and brooding).
This restrained approach comes as a pleasant surprise, if not a relief. There probably was an operatic and/or science-fiction route the series could have taken to this moment, but it would have required a far more delicate touch than Umbrella Academy typically possesses. By quickly presenting Viktor’s transition as a fact of life, allowing him a brief moment to describe his feelings, and then getting back to silly business as usual, the show takes its star’s transition seriously without getting in the way of its usual narrative or tonal choices.
There’s a good-sized history of sci-fi and/or fantasy shows being responsible for historic TV firsts, though often far less gracefully than happens here. Television’s first interracial kiss between white and Black actors, for instance, happened on the original Star Trek, but Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura were being psychically controlled by aliens at the time. The integration of Viktor’s transition is much more straightforward and thoughtful, and done in a way that future shows can look to as a rough template when one of their actors has the same experience.
There are many ways in which gender transition is a complex subject to discuss, much less dramatize. But in the most crucial way, it couldn’t be simpler. This is who Viktor always was, even if it took him a long time to recognize it and tell his family. The Umbrella Academy lets him look in the mirror, see himself, and speak his truth. And that’s that.
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