You’ll know whether The Boys is your kind of show in the first five minutes of the first episode. Fresh faced Hughie Campbell is walking down the street with his girlfriend Robin, lost in the haze of love with not a care in the world. The very next second, Robin explodes, completely covering Hughie in blood with him still holding her hand, the only body part of Robin that is still intact.
Such is the nature of The Boys, the hyper-violent, irreverent, and weirdly hilarious show that is currently burning through its second season on Amazon Prime. Gruesome deaths, gory injuries, and heartless actions aren’t just shown in their full capacity, but they’re also played for laughs. It’s all in line with the show’s philosophy: in a world where the good guys are actually the bad guys and the bad guys are… still pretty much the bad guys, everything being fucked up is just the natural order.
The series follows the formerly blood-soaked Hughie as he’s recruited into The Boys, the titular group of vigilante mercenaries who harbor deep resentment and hatred towards any and all superheroes. Led by the sadistic and deeply cynical Billy Butcher, portrayed with frayed brilliance by Karl Urban, The Boys originally centers around the group’s attempts to out America’s preeminent superhero group as the dangerous and destructive group of villains that they are.
Meanwhile, Annie January, who now goes under the superhero name Starlight, is the newest recruit into the Seven. She immediately has to deal with the sexual blackmail of The Deep, the token aquatic member of the team; the moral reprehensibility of speedster A-Train, who was responsible for Robin’s death due to his use of performance enhancing drugs; the complacency of Queen Maeve, whose repressed homosexuality and burnout causes her to no longer strive to protect the public; and the Seven’s leader Homelander, a narcissistic psychopath who’s outwardly noble appearance belies his quest for power and world domination.
Annie and Hughie both represent what happens when good people are pushed too far by nefarious forces. Annie harbors sincere ambitions to help and protect people, but the crushing bureaucracy of the Seven’s controlling corporate company, Vought Industries, and the apathy of her fellow superheroes to provide justice causes her to backslide into a detached shadow of her former self. For his part, Hughie’s normal existence is now erased as he’s motivated by vengeance, and even as he starts a new relationship with Annie, the trauma surrounding Robin’s death never heals in a meaningful way.
The subject matter covered in The Boys is all over the place, touching on themes of racial profiling, drug abuse, corporate greed, American exeptionalism, military intervention, sexual abuse, and revenge. Alternating between heavy themes and pitch black comedy, the show’s tone can be cynical and demented when the visuals become highly visceral, but it never sacrifices story over style. Every time you see a limb go flying or feel sick to your stomach at whatever might be going on, there’s always a reason behind it. The sometimes-difficult to watch show redeems itself when it narrows its sights on the human flaws in all its characters, not just it’s antagonists. Every character (minus the irredeemable Homelander) has some form of humanistic soul, but it’s often masked in guilt, shame, confusion, or anger.
What’s New in Season Two
Season Two builds on the brutality of the first season while introducing new characters and doubling down on the battle of wills between The Boys and The Seven. Now wanted criminals, The Boys are in hiding while they try to figure out their next move. Instead of trying to beat out The Seven, The Boys are now simply trying to survive. The Seven are in their own forms of dysfunction, with Homelander’s manipulative ways starting to cause cracks to show in the once-rock solid facade of the superhero group.
As I mentioned before, the series is at its best when it almost completely ignores the superpowered aspects of the narrative and instead focuses on the smaller heartfelt moments of the characters. A brief scene in the first episode of the second season where Annie and Hughie meet in disguise on the subway, sharing a subtle romantic moment that evaporates almost instantly, underscores this balance perfectly. As does Maeve’s visit of her ex-girlfriend when she’s in the hospital, or when Kimiko, the only member of The Boys who is both female and superpowered, reunites with her long-lost brother. These moments are fleeting, and that’s the point. When there’s danger around every corner, the briefest of respites can hold some of the biggest emotional punches.
Season Two still has the laughs
Beyond that though, the show’s second season plays into its own weirdness through the awkward and comical interactions between these people. Now that their personalities have been established, we get to see the interplay between the characters who, despite being under enormous pressure, still have time to sardonically wisecrack and make fun of each other. It often comes out at the weirdest times, like just after (or sometimes even during) someone being killed or maimed in a horrific way. That’s the one thing that changed between the seasons: the once-extreme need to be “edgy” is now toned down, with the show’s writers being comfortable with adding some goofiness to the sometimes-dour proceedings. I mean, how do you break the tension of an extremely uneasy world: by pumping in the goofy synths and extremely-unsubtle non-diegetic sounds of Billy Joel’s “Pressure”.
Should I be watching The Boys?
Season Two is so far a pretty solid improvement on Season One. The first go around, there were a number of times where I told myself that I had to just turn my brain off and let the story take me anywhere it was going to go. Most of the time it paid off, and the final episode of Season One is a great payoff for the first seven episodes, even with all of its flaws. Season Two trusts that you know what you’re getting yourself into this time, and so it jumps right in. Not exactly shying away from the gore, instead it seems like the show is using its reputation for blood and guts in a more sparing and controlled way. Season One was about establishing the world of The Boys, and Season Two is about exploring it.
Like any good streaming show, The Boys is ripe for a binge watch. It has that same rabbit hole quality where at first you can’t believe you’re watching it, and then suddenly it’s ten hours later and you can’t believe you’ve watched the whole thing. Season Two is getting a staggered release, and as of the moment I’m writing this there are still a few episodes until the season finale. But if all the episodes are like the first three of this season, The Boys is simply one of the best shows out right now.