‘The Boys’ Are Back to Save American Democracy

A season that takes place between Election Day and January 6th might not sound like much fun, but what if dozens of bad guys explode along the way?
‘The Boys’ Are Back to Save American Democracy

This article contains spoilers about the first three seasons of The Boys and the first season of Gen V.

The Boys, in its original incarnation as a comic book series, ended its run in 2012 — just a dozen years ago chronologically, even if some of us may feel like we’ve aged about four decades since then. When Eric Kripke adapted it as a TV series launching in 2019, he opted not to make it a comparatively recent period piece, instead focusing its satire on what was, at the time the comic book débuted in 2006, barely a glint in Kevin Feige’s eye: the cultural dominance of superhero media, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the political subtext of its various officially apolitical franchises (positive representation of law enforcement and other structures of social control; an understood endorsement of surveillance and vigilantism; and casual portrayals of torture by supposedly righteous characters). 

But later seasons grew a lot more pointed in their barely allegorical depictions of our own political moment: Season Two, premiering in the fall of 2020, introduces Stormfront (Aya Cash), whose origin dates back to the Nazi Party of the 1930s and 1940s and who plans to complete the Fuhrer’s work in the 21st century by exploiting credulous followers of the “alt-supe” movement. Season Three, which dropped in the summer of 2022, dug into such timely topics as abuses of children who are wards of the state, anti-Communist black-ops by American intelligence agencies, the exploitation of Black mouthpieces by cynical corporations aiming to appear progressive and an open fascist — Antony Starr’s Homelander — proving to Vought, the company that formerly controlled him, that his acolytes are so rabid he can commit literal murder in front of a rally full of witnesses and lose absolutely no support. 

So yes, the show has made Homelander an increasingly Trumpian figure as it’s gone on. After Season Four, it’s the show I would most love to see age into complete incomprehensibility, but I recognize that it’s probably too much to hope for.

Season Three of The Boys is largely propelled by the titular Boys’ ever more urgent mission to kill Homelander — a project that involves the use of untested chemicals either to enhance or diminish superpowers. V24, a tweaked version of Compound V that temporarily confers powers in the user, seems like the perfect tool for the Boys’ short-term, mission-based superstrength needs, and Butcher (Karl Urban), the team’s lead anti-supe commando, takes it frequently before finding out that it can be fatal after just a few injections; by the season finale, he’s suffering with a terminal brain tumor. 

The super-science picks up in the first season of Gen V. The Boys spin-off, which premiered last fall, is set at Godolkin University, an institution where teen supes learn both to harness their powers and master their personal branding. What our protagonists spend the first season figuring out is that God U is also a large-scale experiment in which all the students are subjects. The season’s big reveal is that researchers have created a virus that is deadly to supes, one sample of which ends up in the hands of vice-presidential candidate and secret supe Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit). Prime Video’s list of “do not reveal”s is pretty aggressive, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this virus becomes a plot link to the new season of The Boys.

Science-fiction elements aside, Season Four locates us in a world uncomfortably close to our own. The premiere kicks off on Election Night, with the count in progress. Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), de facto leader of The Boys now that Butcher’s starting to look poorly, finds out his young daughter’s gotten into a fight at school with a “Hometeamer” classmate. On trial for one of his many crimes, Homelander scowls in the courtroom when he’s not using his young son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) to prop up his public image. And everyone is anxiously looking ahead to January 6th, when the election results will be certified… or will they? So if you’re settling in to watch this show for a temporary escape from your stressful reality, it may not be the best choice.

Against the backdrop of the season’s extremely thinly veiled political commentary, however, The Boys is grappling more with its contradictions than ever before. What started out as a story of heroes and villains as clearly delineated as in any Marvel movie has grown murkier over the years. Evolving circumstances demand alliances of convenience between formerly sworn enemies; the supposed “good guys” belatedly notice that they’re a lot less concerned about collateral damage to civilians amid their principled operations than they used to be. And while the show’s evocation of electoral politics in our world can be unpleasant, it’s sharper than ever in its portrayal of corporations’ corruption of the political process. Elected officials have been co-opted by Vought money such that the distinction between parties has effectively been erased. As ever, the fact that the show’s portrait of a deeply evil multinational corporation with interests across multiple industries lives on Amazon’s streaming platform adds another layer of complexity to its satire.

All of these difficult truths would be a lot harder to watch if The Boys wasn’t also funny — and, in the fourth season, it still is. As The Deep, Vought’s version of Aquaman, Chace Crawford still delivers as comic relief, particularly as regards his complicated love life. He’s also just generally very adept at playing a pretty, self-important boob who knows he’s failed upward into a position where he’s far too dumb to excel. This season introduces several new marquee supes, most notably “Sister Sage” (Susan Heyward); she doesn’t appear in the comics and her power is still under wraps, so I’ll just say Heyward gets more room than most supe actors to show what she can do, from steely strategist to unpredictable goofball. (Antony Starr is still the cast standout, and it’s always fun, as each new season brings in new supes, to see how their energy bounces off Homelander’s; Sage is no exception.) 

The season also carries on the franchise’s low-key obsession with supe sex. This late in the game you might think The Boys writers have run out of ways to shock you, but I assure you, they have not. That goes double for its kills, which turn countless baddies into dripping stains, sprays of limbs and chunky human gravy.

Firecracker (Valorie Curry), another new supe headliner, gets a promotion from fringe alt-supe vlogger to a much larger platform, and while she serves an important narrative purpose, the humor of her buzzwordy rants about “woke” this, “groomer” that and “Jewish space lasers” the other soon wear thin. I sometimes wished I could text Kripke that I really, truly get it. But given that many other members of the audience took until Season Three to realize Homelander is the show’s villain, apparently the show does have to keep making these points, less and less ambiguously. 

As the season barrels toward its January 6th deadline, characters repeat the stakes to one another: the importance of upholding the democratic process; the danger of letting the wrong people get too close to the seats of power; which disadvantaged people are at risk of harm, and how. I get it. You get it. But some still don’t. Let’s hope this darkly hilarious and violently gruesome season leaves no room for misinterpretation.


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