By Elysia Balavage
We humans find fascination with those among us who are “extraordinary.” From tales spun about the classical Achilles to the modern Wonder Woman, narratives about individuals with extraordinary abilities have captivated our attention for centuries. The ubiquity of such stories these days seems like a collective cry for a hero.
But what does it mean to be extraordinary?
For Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, “extraordinary” encompasses more than simply possessing super-human skills. Being extraordinary requires transition, transformation, and a decision to face nihilism head-on. Or as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would say, a “down-going” that will forge the Übermensch (or overman).
The Umbrella Academy follows seven ostensibly ordinary children who were born under extraordinary circumstances, all on October 1, 1989. Each Academy member was born to a mother who exhibited no previous signs of pregnancy, and these births are made even more extraordinary by the spontaneity: Vanya’s mother’s pregnancy, for instance, began and ended in under two minutes of screen time. Recognizing them as extraordinary, the wealthy and eccentric Sir Reginald Hargreeves assembles the children in an endeavor to cultivate and harness their abilities so they can “save humanity.”
Born to be Super
One character in The Umbrella Academy experiences a “down-going,” as Nietzsche would call it, more viscerally than the others. Number Five, an extraordinary human with teleportative and chronokinetic abilities, embodies characteristics of the Übermensch that Nietzsche describes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Though a prideful genius who often appears detached and even ruthless at times, Number Five is life-affirming and value-creating: he stares down the nihilism of apocalypse and determines that peoples’ lives—and especially the lives of his adoptive family—are important.
Unlike his adoptive siblings, Number Five does not have a conventional name. This seems significant: names attach us to a time and place, and they essentially give us identities from birth. Number Five, however, is a character that exists beyond and outside of time, so to speak. After his return to the present from an apocalyptic future, Five is a nearly 60-year-old man trapped in the body of a 13-year-old boy whose sole self-imposed task is to prevent the annihilation he witnessed during his time-travelling venture. His identity can thus be construed as that of an overman who can transcend time, space, and conventional reality.
Zarathustra and the Übermensch
The connection between the Academy’s students and Nietzsche is evident when Reginald Hargreeves quotes from Thus Spoke Zarathustra in an early Season One episode. As the children train, he declares (or “spoke thus,” if I may): “Man is as a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman. A rope over an abyss. It is a dangerous crossing, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting” (Nietzsche, 14).
Reginald bears some resemblance to Zarathustra himself: Zarathustra is the prophetic herald of the Übermensch—a human who will overturn conventional value systems and replace them with something new. Similarly, Reginald is an eccentric man who tasks himself with teaching a group of extraordinary children to develop and control their powers so that they can one day deliver humanity from complete destruction.
While each of the Hargreeves siblings demonstrates character development, Number Five is the only one to experience an authentic down-going. By spending years directly engaging with nihilism—represented in the series as the aftermath of an apocalyptic event—he learns to endure. More importantly, however, Five’s will transforms from egocentric to life-affirming: he endeavors to avoid nihilism at all costs because he is the only Earthling with the understanding of ultimate nothingness’s consequence.
Eternal Return and Nihilism
Number Five’s engagement with an eradicating apocalyptic event is the catalyst that propels him from human with extraordinary abilities to modern Übermensch. But where does eternal return fit into all this? Let’s first think about Five’s motivation for stopping the nihilistic apocalypse. He places value on the continued existence of his family, and he is so dedicated to succeeding in his mission that Five simultaneously embraces and subverts eternal return: while not content with perpetually reliving the apocalypse, he will endure that repetition until he succeeds in accomplishing his mission.
It is crucial for the Übermensch to confront the idea of eternal return and establish new values. For Nietzsche, “in order to endure the thought of the eternal return one needs ‘freedom from morality…uncertainty, experimentalism…abolition of the concept of necessity as something to be suffered, abolition of the ‘will,’ and finally, ‘greatest enhancement of the consciousness of strength in man, as of that which creates the overman’” (Ansell-Pearson, 192).
Five accomplishes many of these goals, but a freedom from conventional morality and creation of new values are perhaps the most striking. For instance, he overturns the established temporal code that the Temps Commission strives to maintain at all costs. Then, he adopts a new value system that is based in his dedication to preserving life on earth so that he might stop the apocalypse and ward off the nihilism of which he is far too familiar.
So, what does it mean to be extraordinary? Perhaps it means to overturn the catastrophe of destruction and nihilism and to replace the emptiness with something of value.
After traveling decades into the future in an act fueled by hubris, Number Five witnesses the aftermath of an apocalyptic event that sets him on his journey of both overcoming and preventing nihilism. Five becomes willing to risk his life, subvert and overturn the laws of the Temps Commission, and commit acts of violence to enact his redefined values and ensure humanity’s survival.
Number Five faces eternal return with the goal of rescuing his family—and the rest of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants—from the proven destruction that he endured for nearly fifty years. After he confronts the apocalypse head on, he tries to stop it entirely, and when that eventually fails, he at least manages to rescue his family. That’s an inspiring image for a contemporary audience: an extraordinary individual who perseveres despite the constant threat of failure.
Elysia Balavage is a Lecturer in English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and the relationship between modernism and philosophical nihilism. Her current book project, Illumination and Nothing: Empty Spaces in Modernism, investigates images of emptiness in modernist literature and interrogates their generative potential.
Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Nietzsche Contra Rousseau: A Study of Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. New York: Modern Library, 1995.