MAJOR SPOILERS for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Umbrella Academy.
So Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy dropped last week, and my sister and I blew through all ten episodes pretty quickly. IT’S SO GOOD. I love The Umbrella Academy because it’s a family drama disguised as a superhero show. Yes, there are superpowers and explosions and time travel and a few apocalypses, but these things all serve the purpose of bringing the Hargreeves siblings back together after years of estrangement. These things also make it possible for them to work through their traumas and rebuild their relationships with each other. Though this show has great special effects, flashy visuals, and fantastic music montages, it’s a character-driven show, not a plot- or effects-driven show. The plot and the effects help further the characters’ journeys, which is why The Umbrella Academy is such an amazing show.
Since Season 2 dropped, it’s getting memed and tweeted about, and I think a lot of these memes and tweets are really funny and entertaining, as they should be. However, I’ve noticed a lot memes making fun of one of my favorite Hargreeves siblings, Diego, for wanting to stop the Kennedy assassination, implicating their father in the assassination, and making a few other dumb decisions. These memes and tweets seem to blame a lack of intelligence, but I don’t think stupidity drives Diego’s dumb decisions. Rather, his psychological trauma and his hero complex drive his dumb decisions. When his trauma and his hero complex are at the wheel, he’s more likely to make dumb decisions than when he has a clear objective he wants to achieve.
Note: This post is going to focus on Diego’s relationship mainly with his family, not his relationship with Lila in Season 2. That’s because when he’s with Lila, he’s basically playing Flynn Rider in an assassin-themed remake of Tangled, and that’s a different blog post altogether.
When we first meet Diego in Season 1, he’s the only member of the Hargreeves clan who’s actually trying to be a superhero. He lives behind a boxing gym, where he boxes and works as the janitor, when he’s not listening to his police scanner and driving around town taking down criminals, like a low-budget Batman. Diego is a good detective who follows trails of evidence and can effectively get testimony from witnesses, but he got kicked out of the police academy because he has too many issues with authority and thus can’t follow orders very well. He’s also a loner who is hostile towards the majority of his siblings. There are only three people he even remotely gets along with: his robot/A.I. mother, Grace; his ex-girlfriend/friend on the police force, Detective Eudora Patch; and his brother Klaus, who is a major drug addict and can see the dead.
Diego is hostile towards the majority of his family because his father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, adopted them all and used them as superpowered child soldiers. When Sir Reginald dies and the remaining five estranged siblings show up to the funeral, Diego gives a blisteringly harsh speech about how cruel his father was. “He was a bad person and an even worse father,” Diego states. He also points out that Sir Reginald “didn’t even give us names. He had Mom do it.” Indeed, Sir Reginald just gave his kids numbers, not names, and Diego was Number Two, forever second to his super-strong blond brother, Number One, a.k.a. Luther. Diego is uniquely positioned to see Sir Reginald’s abuse for what it is not only because he was forever second to Luther, but also because he suffered from a stutter as a child, which Grace helped him work through. Once Diego hit his late teens, he apparently cursed Sir Reginald out one final time and left The Umbrella Academy. However, even though he recognized the abuse and removed himself from a toxic situation, Diego is still affected by his father’s abuse. His psychological trauma manifests itself in the form of a hero complex.
What is a hero complex? A hero complex, also called a savior complex or hero syndrome, is psychological phenomenon where a person believes they have to save the day at all costs, no matter what the odds are. Some people who exhibit this phenomenon set up dangerous situations so they can prevent them. Thankfully, Diego doesn’t have that kind of hero complex. Instead, he seeks out dangerous situations like home invasions so he can stop them and save people. In fact, that’s what we first see him doing in the first episode–stopping a home invasion. It’s interesting that Diego chooses to be a crime-stopping vigilante because he clearly hated his father and the abusive training and superheroics he did as part of the Umbrella Academy. Yet when he’s out stopping crimes, he still wears the signature Umbrella Academy domino mask (seen in the first two pictures above). So even though he hates what his father put him through, being a hero is still a core part of Diego’s identity, and his hero complex helps him make sense of the world.
We can see how Diego has to work through his hero complex in both seasons of The Umbrella Academy. In Season 1, Detective Patch dies while investigating a series of crimes connected to Diego’s brother five, and Diego shows up too late to prevent her death. When this happens, he spends the rest of the season trying to avenge Patch’s death by killing Hazel and Cha-Cha, the time-traveling assassins who killed her. Diego never asks himself why he’s decided to do this or makes a fully conscious decision to do it. It’s almost an instinctive decision for him because avenging his ex-girlfriend allows him to take control of the situation by playing the crusading hero. However, late in the season, Five asks Diego what he actually liked about Detective Patch. Diego at first tries to brush him off, but then says that Patch believed in people. Five snarks that then she’ll probably appreciate his killing Hazel and Cha-Cha to honor her memory. This interaction with Five helps Diego realize, once he confront Cha-Cha and has her on the ropes in a fist fight during the season finale, that Patch wouldn’t want him to murder her killer, so he decides to let Cha-Cha go. In that moment, Diego realizes that honoring the people you’ve lost shouldn’t include blind revenge, but rather remembering and honoring them in the way that those people would want.
However, that’s not the last time Diego has to work through his hero complex. In Season 2, all the Hargreeves siblings end up traveling through time to Dallas in the early 1960s after they fail to stop the apocalypse in April 2019. They all fall into the same alleyway, but at different points in time. Diego lands in the alleyway on September 1, 1963, just two and a half months before John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Once he realizes this, Diego, in true Diego fashion, throws himself into trying to thwart the assassination. Of course, he has little to actually go on to stop it, and he ends up getting arrested and put in a mental institution. Because, you know, that’s what happens to people who run around babbling about presidential assassinations in the Cold War-era U.S.
This is where we get to what some people don’t like about Diego’s character arc in Season 2: he spends a lot of time blabbering about the Kennedy assassination. This apparently annoys people, probably because it seems to detract from the main plot or because it seems like a lot of buildup with no real payoff, since Diego does not stop JFK’s assassination. However, I think that’s the point: Diego never had a chance of stopping the Kennedy assassination, and his fixation with stopping it is just another expression of his hero complex, so it’s something he has to work through and overcome, not a destiny he has to fulfill.
Additionally, the way Diego shoehorns Sir Reginald into his obsession with the Kennedy assassination suggests that he’s using this tragic event to control the narrative of the world around him. See, when the Hargreeves siblings fell into the past, they all had to adjust to this new, strange world, and while most of them found a way to cope, Diego just fell back on his hero complex to make sense of the world of 1963. So when he realizes where and when he is, he decides that he’s here for the sole purpose of saving President Kennedy. And it’s easy to understand why: if you have a hero complex and you live for saving the day, then stopping the Kennedy assassination is one of the biggest heroic acts you can ask for. You’d singlehandedly avert the Baby Boomers’ most major loss-of-innocence moment and change U.S. history. Of course Diego would throw himself into that. Then, when he finds a man with an umbrella in the background of the Frankel Footage, he has a chance to add Sir Reginald to his narrative and make his hero narrative not just about saving a sitting U.S. President, but also about stopping his abusive father from harming someone else. Now the hero narrative becomes truly personal for Diego.
But why would Diego just fall into his hero complex again, if he already worked through at least some of it in the first season? Because healing from trauma does not occur overnight, nor does it happen in a straight line. It’s something that takes years to work through, and Diego is just starting to heal, and so are the rest of his siblings.
Speaking of his siblings, Diego gets along much better with his siblings in Season 2. For example, he was extremely hostile towards Vanya in Season 1, especially at the beginning because she wrote a tell-all about life as a member of the Umbrella Academy. However, in the middle of Season 2, he accepts Vanya’s apology for ending the world in 2019. Then in the season finale, as things are winding down, we see Diego and Vanya sitting on the farmhouse steps together, and she rests her head on his shoulder. Additionally, he also bonds with Luther as they both work through their issues with their awful father. Most people only remember how they dropped the ball with the “Oga for Oga” incident (which was hilarious), but they forget that after Sir Reginald shanks Diego, Luther says, “At least he never shanked my ass,” and Diego says, “No, he shanked your heart.” Damn. Later, Luther asks why Diego wants to save JFK, and Diego says that he’s a hero and that’s what he does. “No,” Luther replies, “Dad told you you were a hero.” Also damn.
However, Diego also spends a lot of time with Five as they try to track down Sir Reginald, and Five has this tendency to insult his intelligence, calling Diego “my dim-witted brother” and “the village idiot,” among other things. However, Diego isn’t actually stupid–he just has more practical intelligence and knowledge that Five doesn’t value. For instance, Diego manages to get out of straight jacket and jimmy a lock shortly after waking up from being sedated. That would be impressive to anyone except for Five, who can teleport. Additionally, as soon as he sees the Infinite Switchboard at the Commission, Diego realizes that he can use that as a lead to find out how the 1963 apocalypse happens, which Five apparently never considered using. Diego also manages to get along with some bureaucrats at the Commission who help him get back to siblings and stop the apocalypse. All of those things take skill, knowledge and intelligence to pull off or figure out, but Five doesn’t see that because he has a superiority complex that has lead him to believe he’s the smartest person in the room, and everyone else is a moron. Five can’t comprehend that someone like Diego, who’s only power is telekinetically controlling projectiles, needs practical skills and knowledge to accomplish the things he accomplishes by teleporting.
So that’s why I think Diego has a lot more going on than “LOL, he’s stupid.” He actually has a lot going on, but you have to think about all of this to really unpack it. It’s easy to say “LOL, [x] is stupid” when they mess up in a story, but if the story is well told and has layers, then there’s usually more to the story than that. And that’s definitely the case with Diego Hargreeves.