The Boys: S4, Eric Kripke

‘The Boys’ Season 4 Is a Bloody Descent into Hell

Erik Kripke’s gory superhero satire The Boys takes a visceral plunge into political and personal tragedy, showing there’s more to fear than just corrupt superheroes.

The Boys
Eric Kripke
Amazon Prime Video
26 July 2019 -

Homelander (Antony Starr) is in trouble, for real, this time. His pubes are turning grey. The most powerful creature to have ever existed is aging. In the privacy of a pissoir, he sheds a tear, then plucks the grey hair from this most sensitive area to later place it in a jar he keeps safe in his office shrine, a masochistic reminder of his decay and a primitive attempt at escaping the inevitable. First, you meet this absurdity with a chuckle, then, following Homelander’s countless forlorn stares at every reflective surface across the gilded Vought tower, uneasy silence.

Intimate tribulations such as these (and worse) plague most major characters in the fourth season of Erik Kripke’s The Boys, a madly ambitious superhero satire now expanding its commentary into territory most dreaded by its inspiration, Marvel and Disney-like content machines: tragedy. Full-blown, merciless, nihilistic clapback to virtue like this ties in all too well with the Brechtian epic theater. 

Based on Garth Ennis’ and Darick Robertson’s superhero comic of the same name, The Boys, Amazon Prime Video’s biggest hit besides The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and now Fallout, keeps evolving to reflect on more than just primetime TV ploys. A breakneck, high-octane hodgepodge of parody, cat-and-mouse thriller, and gore, The Boys won the viewers over in 2019 with an uproarious premise and diabolical cultural criticism.

Caricaturing neoliberal consumerism and the circus of postmodern politics against the backdrop of Marvel satire, over three seasons, it has been clawing at our perilous relationship with celebrity and obsession with power, showering us with golden comedy and kinks to make most edge lords blush. In season Four, The Boys‘ eight new episodes take a U-turn and thrust inward, confronting us with the individual personalities behind the unending mess and streams of blood.   

The corporate superhero (“Supes”) moneymakers, the Seven, are in shambles, with Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) gone, Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) killed by Homelander, and Annie January, aka Starlight (Erin Moriarty) defecting from the Seven to Billy Butcher’s (Karl Urban) team of vigilante outcasts (the titular Boys). The stakes have never been higher, with imminent elections and Homelander’s superhero teenage son Ryan – whom he fathered with Butcher’s wife, Becca – thrown into the equation. Closeted Supe and VP candidate Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit) is looking to solidify her political position by rubbing off both Homelander and the Boys. Meanwhile, Vought corpo cronies keep producing right-wing propaganda to divide the masses and ensure buy-in for the Supes to be legitimated as a sort of national security (if the SS comes to mind, you’re not too far off). 

The US, which was not in a mint state to begin with, is at the edge of the knife as Homelander awaits trial for annihilating a protester who threw a bottle at his son. His rabid supporters clash with Starlight’s (kinda) progressive crowd; not even studios and talk shows are spared from constant violent clashes. The acceleration of fervent warring between Vought Corporation’s Idealpolitik for degenerates and the Boys’ Realpolitik for the emotionally primitive is just a blink away from a civil war that would put Alex Garland’s film to shame.

One would expect the unbearable urgency to have the abundant antiheroes scrambling to strengthen their hand… except Homelander is wallowing in his childhood trauma; Butcher, who has months to live, is going on rampages with his friend from the military Joe Kessler (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); Frenchie (Tomer Capone) is haunted by his past as an assassin; Annie crumbles under a weighty identity crisis; and A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is grappling with letting his family down. After developing all these personalities across 24 episodes, it is time to remove their masks and see what’s boiling beneath. The fate of the world may be at stake, but who has time to handle that when they can’t even handle themselves? 

Summarizing even the basic plot backlog of The Boys is a sick joke of a task, as daunting as Homelander’s attempts at self-actualization, but here we are. In the show’s deranged universe, America is essentially run by the nefarious conglomerate Vought, who has been engineering humans with superpowers mostly for cash-milking entertainment but also a bit for hegemonic purposes. Homelander, the most powerful Supe ever created, leads the Seven, Vought’s version of the Avengers, except the primary use value of these celebrity bozos is in churning out movies a dime a dozen and strutting around red carpets. 

In many ways, the Supes are puppets, but they’re also whimsical, often callous, and shockingly dangerous. Plus, the omnipotent Homelander is at the center of some heavy-duty Vought plotting to rally government support for the Supes to protect, i.e., control the public. On the other side, vigilante Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) scraps the Boys together, a bunch of outcasts trying to expose Vought’s deceptions. His team of misfits and weirdos of dubious moral standing all have personal reasons for fighting the establishment, most of all Butcher himself, who swears to kill Homelander for allegedly murdering his wife, Becca. So, the agonizingly graphic bloodshed begins. 

Fast forward three seasons, and we’ve rolled around in bouts of tongue-in-cheek winking at Marvel and Disney franchises, thinly veiled allusions to Trump and QAnon, toxic masculinity, fake news, violent right-wingers, the rise of fascism, and marine bestiality, among other intricacies. Reality TV-rate lineup changes have left the Seven with just four members, Homelander, Flash-cum-Kanye West parody A-train, the indomitable dimwit Aquaman, The Deep (ever-hilarious Chace Crawford), and an unidentified narcoleptic actor standing in for Black Noir (don’t even ask). On the other side of lawlessness, the Boys, i.e., Butcher, investigator Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), goody-two-shoes Hughie (Jack Quaid), tinkerer assassin Frenchie, and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), the traumatized Supe assassin Frenchie rescued, are joined by Annie January, Hughie’s girlfriend and a Supe who’s had enough of Vought and Homelander. 

With political overtones taking center stage plot-wise, expectedly, Season Four of The Boys is all about scheming or the unraveling thereof. Without spoiling the story too much, Homelander, who’s had enough of the sycophantic babble around Vought tower, recruits “Sister” Sage (a deliciously snide Susan Hayward), the world’s smartest person, to help him maneuver his way into the White House. Sister Sage’s cerebral plans are complemented by another, more populist addition to the Seven: Firecracker (a snappy Valorie Curry), a conspiracy theorist podcaster based on Republican U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who swivels between “news” and TruthCons, preaching to the deluded right-wingers. After learning the public will love him even if he occasionally murders, convincing the head-exploding Neuman to be his political ally in securing the Supes their “due” and getting Ryan, the only natural-born Supe, to side with him, Homelander should be in a comfortably hegemonic position.

Sure enough, his nemeses, the Boys et al., also have tricks up their sleeves. Annie’s Antifa following is growing, Neuman remains eager to negotiate, Butcher, though dying, now sports some serious Supe tentacles – oh, and there might just be a way to brew a virus to kill Homelander. Though The Boys‘ basic premise of “Destroy Vought + Kill Homelander” keeps delivering more twists than one review can manage, it also keeps hovering in tense stasis. Finally, we are certain about why this is: neither of these two “teams” have much idea what they’re doing or even why they are doing it. Tough shit that both think that they are a great solution to a massive political crisis. 

Behind the veneers of “justice for Supes” or “justice for the people”, only myopic self-interest and fruitless neoliberal alienation surface. With the widely misinterpreted, resentful, and sociopathic Homelander and narcissistic, impulsive Butcher, that much was understood. However, dispensing with sentimentality in the narratives of greatly beloved Frenchie, Annie, or even Hughie is quite something.

We should consider ourselves lucky that Kripke, the famed creator of Supernatural, understands his source material well enough to know that satire usually conceals something dirtier and meaner (thank you, Justine Triet). Operating in the uncomfortable liminal intersection of entertainment and society’s age-old obsession with heroism gives Kripke’s team plenty of maneuvering space, and they have never been shy to paint it all a sham, often quite literally. At their core, all major players in The Boys, save for, shockingly, Homelander, either see themselves as or want to be heroic or believe themselves to be sufficiently benevolent to avoid moral scrutiny. Alas, with the spotlight on each of them, the seams come apart, revealing pools of self-delusion, deeply seated trauma, or repulsive character. 

Personal backstories have always been present in The Boys, but in Season Four, the focus on each individual’s reckoning with their crimes and sins sees the series mature into a beast it’s always hinted at being. The relentless parodic antics continue, but between Suped-up chickens thirsty for blood and BDSM orgies involving farting on a cake (don’t snigger, I haven’t even got to mention the human centipede clone rimming), for the first time, we move past the ridiculing of the superhero genre to an inward-looking examination of the faults in our society, and how we may be complicit in the downfall of civilization. We now see all of these humans, enhanced or otherwise, for who they are, and most of them, except Kimiko, Mother’s Milk, and possibly Homelander, deserve only a moderate amount of sympathy. 

If realizing that the fate of the world is in the hands of some nasty or unhinged folks (with or without superpowers) makes this story nihilistic, the notion of fundamental impotence of all beneath these grand political and carnal ideas, is what gives The Boys its newly-found tragic status. If Homelander, a demigod with power enough to humiliate Superman and Captain America, feels like nothing he ever does is of any consequence, what are the rest of us to say? If he is frightened of his aging body at 42, what hope is there for us?

The many character arcs that are best not spoiled all converge (so far) at a single point: a realization of the futility of aspiration. This pessimistic outlook comes fully into its tragic form once you realize that many of these deeply flawed antiheroes only feel they have agency when they engage in violent transgressions. Sure enough, they all too often see violence as a solution. I invite you to return to this once you’ve seen the entire season and see how deeply intertwined futility and violence are. It’s a hellish affair all around.

In terms of acting, we get more of the same, which is mostly a good thing. As usual, Starr carries the most weight on his ridiculously padded shoulders, and the otherwise questionable decision to overindulge in closeups works wonders with his angular jawline and frightening grey eyes. Urban maintains his dismal “Cockney” accent and over-the-top bad boy grimaces but makes up for the lack of Butcher’s emotional depth with some serious charm. Usher is finally well-utilized this season as A-Train questions his role in society. Still, it’s Crawford who again dominates the one-liners in the Supe department, this time around with help from Tilda Swinton voicing his secret octopus lover (just go with it). Within the “Boys”, Capone and Fukuhara are at their most delicate here, graciously coming to terms with their characters’ arrested development. Moriarty steals the spotlight toward the end of the season as Annie approaches a nervous breakdown.  

Pacing in The Boys is as merciless as ever, and keeping track of a dozen parallel stories is difficult. The perfunctory but telling political machinations and yet another jumbled, overly complicated conspiracy to kill Homelander do the job as main developments, but apart from the personal components, much of the series seems like a mere setup for the final season, which promises unprecedented levels of mayhem. The absurdist comedy and carnage are still in Season Four and will again make for meme fodder. Still, it’s a shame the creatives didn’t realize that this season of The Boys works best as a drama, as seen in its quieter moments, of which there are surprisingly few, despite the gravity of the content. 

The writing also remains uneven and leaves much to be desired in some key aspects. Starr’s Homelander, the show’s undisputed star, remains contradictory and underdeveloped to the point it warrants a separate analysis. Starr consistently gives one of the most vividly realized performances on television, but much of it goes to waste when the writer’s room cannot agree on whether Homelander is megalomaniacal or apathetic (one can’t be both).

Top of the bill as they may be, Butcher and Hughie spend much of this season away from the rest. Hughie’s story is so isolated and strange that it barely makes sense. Moriarty, a powerhouse actress whose Annie is revealed to be impressively nuanced, stays contained to two-bit quips and only tears through the screen in the very last episode. Thankfully, the pieces mostly fit, but it’s dispiriting to see The Boys come within an inch of being one of television’s very best dramas, only to be undone by its enormous ambition.

One could – and should – debate whether Homelander is really an “enemy” of the American people despite his incredible powers and foul character. Still, the big, spoiler-free reveal of The Boys‘ upcoming endgame is its admission that real enemies are (also) among us and are to be feared as much as the “monsters” we point our fingers at. The misogynistic, genocidal macho asshole, the ambitious woman who will stop at nothing to come out on top, the dorky kid who condemns murder unless it serves him, or the gold-hearted guy lamenting the dozens he killed as an assassin (he’s sorry, you know), these are the folks we ought to trust with restoring order to humanity.

Flaws and all, The Boys remains fantastically fun and profoundly human, even in its nihilism and tragedy. Whether its commentary on current society will give us anything to hope for remains to be seen in its fifth and final season, but so far, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the hell we manifest comes from within, and the only way out is through.