2019 was a big year for TV adaptations of superhero satires. HBO's Watchmen — Damon Lindelof's take on Alan Moore's iconic Cold War-era graphic novel — was more feted, but Amazon's The Boys was, in my opinion, unjustly overlooked. Developed by Supernatural alumnus Eric Kripke (and from a team of executive producers that includes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), the series wisely rewrote and attacked the misogyny for which the books had rightly been criticized, while still working in thrilling action and brutal gore. And while those elements spoke to (or, more accurately, screamed at) my inner 14-year-old boy, the larger project of the series was to use The Seven — its version of The Avengers or the Justice League, wholly owned by a mega-corporation called Vought — as the entry point for a critique of rapacious capitalism. And as hard as Season 1 went, Season 2 goes even harder.
The first season of The Boys situates us in the world of Vought through two characters who directly experience its corruption. First, there's Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), whose girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) is physically obliterated when A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), the member of The Seven with superspeed, essentially runs straight through her. Hughie is offered a payout to keep quiet about what happened and spare A-Train from scandal, but Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a former CIA operative-turned-anti-Vought-vigilante, recruits Hughie to join his crew. Then there's Annie January (Erin Moriarty), aka superhero Starlight, whose excitement at being called up to join The Seven and use her light-emitting powers to serve the public is short-lived when The Deep (Chace Crawford), The Seven's Aquaman avatar, demands that she perform oral sex on him or lose her place on the squad. Having been trained by her mother her whole life to join The Seven, Annie stays, but she gets a lot of support from her friendship with Hughie after a chance meeting in Central Park, not knowing he is actively working against Vought, sometimes via his access to her; since he really likes Annie, Hughie has conscience pangs about this, too. Aside from the two of them, Vought pursues its plans for market dominance using its superheroes as the tip of the spear: staging terrorist actions for Homelander (Antony Starr) and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) to defuse in order to convince the governments of various U.S. cities to contract with Vought to assign lesser superheroes to police them. This wouldn't be much of a plan if superheroes happened by chance — and, of course, they don't: Vought created the substance, Compound-V, that when administered to children causes them to manifest superpowers — with the co-operation of parents like Annie's mother, who dreamed that their children could be special and didn't consider the cost. And while policing U.S. cities is fine as far as it goes, Vought is after a bigger prize: contracting its superheroes to the U.S. military.
Whereas Season 1 stuck to areas that, broadly, we can all agree on — it's bad for any one private corporation to amass so much capital and power that no government can check it, particularly if such a corporation has superpowered individuals both to do its evil bidding as well as star in all its marketing campaigns — Season 2 is more ambitious, wading into more dangerous territory. It's one thing to portray capitalism, represented by Vought, as a malign force; even most moderate centrists are going to have a hard time cogently arguing that capitalism is a force for good six months into a pandemic that has devastated the U.S. economy and killed far more people in our market-based health insurance system than in countries with socialized medicine. (The fact that this show comes to us via Amazon is...curious.) Where Season 2 of The Boys takes this concept further is in showing why Vought is amassing power: to drive imperialist and fascist policy that will ultimately enrich the company further while making the world more dangerous. Seeding foreign nations with Compound-V-powered "super-terrorists" (or "supervillains," as Homelander insists on calling them) serves Vought's agenda by spiking demand for Vought superheroes; the Department of Defense agrees that civilian casualties of up to 34% will be acceptable in such skirmishes. Every superhero battle scene reminds us of how many grieving Hughies Vought has created, even if we haven't followed them home and gotten to know them the way we have him.
With Translucent dead and The Deep sidelined after Annie publicly named him as her assailant, The Seven now has a couple of slots to fill. Newly promoted Vought executive Ashley (Colby Minifie) is focused on diversity, a buzzword all corporations love to use in their marketing as long as you have no follow-up questions, and presents Homelander with Blindspot (Chris Mark), a prospect who's visually impaired; no spoilers, but he and Homelander don't quite click. Instead, swooping in from Portland (and You're The Worst) is Stormfront (Aya Cash). Homelander is immediately put off by her irreverent attitude and social media savviness — rather than let Vought define her public image, she talks directly to her followers in constant livestreams — but Ashley is eager to hype the historical first that is three women in The Seven at the same time, and makes them parrot her patronizing slogan, "Girls Get It Done!" Since Annie is still a double agent, working with Hughie to take Vought down from within, she seems to vibe with the rebellious Stormfront from the start; if it's possible for Annie to bring about change in the organization by exposing what is actually going on, maybe she and Stormfront will be the foundation for a new direction The Seven can take? Again, no spoilers, but: Stormfront's plan for what she'd do with a platform like The Seven has been in the works for a very long time, and Annie isn't part of it.
When he's not clashing with Stormfront, Homelander is exploring his relationship with Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), the son who, we learned in Season 1, was the product of Homelander's rape of Billy's wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten). It's a true shame that genre shows like this aren't considered seriously in award conversations, because Antony Starr's performance is a tour de force, switching as it must from the polished perfection of Homelander's Superman-ish public face, to the spectrum of emotional manipulation (cheerfully jocular to threateningly sinister) he uses offstage, to the PTSD from which he continues to suffer from having been raised in Vought labs, including the sexual kinks he developed as a consequence. Homelander's desire to be in Ryan's life is partly born of a desire to antagonize Billy, but partly a sincere desire to connect with his child, and seeing Starr in these scenes gives so much more dimension to what was already a hilariously chilling character.
The guest casting in Season 2 continues to impress: we welcome Laila Robin as a CIA operative who comes back into Billy's life to help with his mission; Langston Kerman as Eagle the Archer, a local Ohio Supe who helps Deep during his exile, including by getting him involved with an exciting new religious organization, the Church of the Collective, with the assistance of his guide, Carol (Jessica Hecht); and while Giancarlo Esposito made his début as Vought executive Stan Edgar in Season 1, he gets much more to do now that his former colleague Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) has departed.
Some elements amuse for reasons the showrunners probably did not intend. As a longtime resident of Toronto, where the series is filmed (but not set; it's supposed to take place in and around New York City), the extreme Toronto-iness of its locations is a bit distracting, although at least the CN Tower didn't sneak into any shots this season, unlike Season 1. A runner about Church of the Collective members' fondness for Fresca is going to reveal to a lot of Americans that those cans look different in Canada. The show's tendency to go for an obvious needle-drop also remains, though at least this season producers are staying within the Billy Joel songbook, so there's a thematic consistency to it. Overall, it's a very strong season that boldly extrapolates on the concepts the first season established, and only makes me more excited about where the already-announced third season might go once Annie learns that Vought, like all the authoritarian institutions that surround us, cannot be reformed.
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The second season of The Boys drops Friday September 4th on Amazon Prime Video.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.