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The Boys Keeps Flying in Circles in Season 4

Prime Video's subversive superhero series is in a rut, and no amount of tawdry shenanigans can save it.
  • Karl Urban, Tomer Capone, and Laz Alonson in The Boys (Photo: Amazon Studios)
    Karl Urban, Tomer Capone, and Laz Alonson in The Boys (Photo: Amazon Studios)

    Whenever Prime Video cuts promos from its most buck-wild moments, The Boys comes off like the most violent and profane show on streaming. But even Vought's most insidious spinmeisters can't obscure the truth: Eric Kripke's wildly popular superhero send-up maintains a melodramatic flight pattern typical by TV drama standards. Born from the bizarre imaginations of comics maverick Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, The Boys struggles with its dual aspirations to be respected as "good TV" while enjoying the hype it gets for being so, so bad. 

    The Boys got stuck in a rut last season, flitting between schmoopy melodrama and its "diabolical" brand of "yeah, we went there" putri-tainment as though it had little idea of where else to go. While it's certainly been down this road before, after 24 episodes of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) engaging Homelander (Antony Starr) in a proxy war between Vought International and the CIA's black ops Supe-killing squad, with no quarter given or advancements made (Soldier Boy, we hardly knew ye), watching the series spin out into chaos only to return to its funky status quo of us vs. them finally felt like a trudge. 

    Unsurprisingly, The Boys' periodically rowdy fourth season goes for yet another spin on this circuitous trajectory of shocks and schmoop. And so comes a hard truth: no amount of plucky cartoon sidekicks, high-profile cameos, ironic needle drops, jokes about butt stuff, or head-exploding shenanigans can obscure tedious storytelling. 

    It's a bummer to point out how tired and hacky The Boys has become, because it still has the goods to be a ridiculously fun show. But when it tries to square gnarly satire with honestly rendered emotions, it stumbles — no big shock that something this tonally chaotic has a hard time striking a nimble balance. Besides, a show this bonkers and this popular is in the unenviable position of having to top itself with each successive season, and naturally, this is Season 4's biggest obstacle. 

    Sustaining a steady clip of irreverence means inundating viewers with worn-out jokes ranging from variations of "well, that happened" to "it's like [normal thing] on meth!" to the inevitable partisan political yuks that have become the series's bread and butter. This season, The Boys sojourn to TruthCon, where red-capped right-wingers gratify themselves on conspiratorial frippery (in one instance, quite literally) as savvy Supes like Firecracker (Valorie Curry) toss out phrases like "defund the Supes" and "critical Supes theory" like they're supposed to have some sort of sardonic edge to them. 

    The way this season leans even further into conspiracy theorists, spin-zone media coverage, and Pizzagate (of all the ancient political footballs to toss around), it feels like The Boys is piling on the commentary just so that it hits a topical point just as often as misses, miring in political crud that is already a hundred news cycles gone before it can offer its hot, Supes-ified take on them. 

    If the commentary's stale, what's new with the characters? Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso, reliably great) shaves off his depression beard and reasserts himself as The Boys' moral core, Frenchie (Tomer Capone) and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) confront their violent pasts while broadening their romantic spectrums, and Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Annie/Starlight (Erin Moriarty) enjoy their open power-couple status even as Wee Hughie is distracted by his estranged family. 

    Billy broodily continues on his self-destructive spiral following last season's terminal diagnosis in a bid to rescue Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) from his evil Super-father's clutches. On a dramatic front, seemingly life-altering things happen to many of these appealing characters, but the internal changes they undergo as a consequence feel purposefully small to not disrupt whatever endgame Kripke has in mind. (The Boys is slated to wrap up next season, where presumably some substantial change might occur for all parties involved.)

    Over in Vought Tower, Ryan is learning the ropes as a young Supe, receiving the fawning media coverage that befits Homelander's son — although his allegiance to his father shows signs of strain as his old man goes on trial for the murder of a Starlight supporter last season. "It's just a formality," Homelander says, but the fact that he has to show up to face justice at all leaves him in a splotchy state, oscillating from a trembling pile of mush one moment to a cackling hyena for the cameras the next. 

    It might be worth noting that the recent trial of Donald Trump, whose rhetoric is often intentionally echoed by Homelander, was convicted of his crimes on May 30, an outcome Kripke and his team might not have anticipated (considering how casually they frame Homelander's acquittal as an inevitability) but have certainly taken advantage of.

    When he isn't combating personal demons on the world stage, Homelander has his hands full recruiting new members of the Seven. He enlists Sister Sage (Susan Heyward), "the smartest person in the world," whose knack for side-eye gives Homelander a reprieve from Vought's armada of yes men. (Though her Holmesian powers of deduction seem to make her only slightly more clever than the dopes she contends with.)

    Firecracker, that bless-yer-heart Southern Supe from TruthCon, wins a slot on the team more for her Marjorie Taylor Greene-styled bluster and ScarJo looks than her combustibility. Among the new players this season, Curry strikes the most successful balance between the show's crudeness and inanity with a tangible sense of sadness and unspoken interiority. Firecracker's greatest superpower, ironically enough, is subtlety.

    Subtle is not how to describe the in-house squabbling at The Boys' historic Flatiron offices. Moral limits have always been a sticking point for a show that wants us to enjoy its government-backed havoc without hyping up the deeds as heroic, but this season, the intermittent hand-wringing is another example of The Boys flying in circles. Their job is to kill Supes by whatever means necessary (a job, by the way, they're somehow worse at this season), but to justify their violence, we must spend much of these hour-long episodes grappling with their motivations and enduring their hesitations before they break out into another kill-fest jamboree of viscera and tears. It's wild to see a bilious character like Firecracker come off as sympathetic, even compelling, after comparing her to the ceaselessly moralizing sad sacks with whom The Boys fills out its eponymous covert government unit.

    When The Boys indulges in its cheap Ennisian thrills (meaning comedically cheap; who knows how much it costs to render a hallway-length phallus digitally), the viewer jolts upright in their seat because tawdry thrills are why we watch satirically obvious diversions like The Boys. The brazen way it slots in a human centipede pleasure chain, or orifices that fire out unspeakable fluids, or any number of other redacted perversions, suggests there's still a willingness to push new boundaries even if the series feels like it's tapped out on fresh ideas. Maybe The Boys will cut the noble pretensions and embrace chaos in its final season, cementing a legacy that will be just as memorable as wicked.

    The Boys Season 4 premieres June 13 on Prime Video with three episodes. New episodes drop Thursdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: The Boys, Prime Video, Antony Starr, Claudia Doumit, Eric Kripke, Erin Moriarty, Jack Quaid, Karl Urban, Laz Alonso