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‘The Boys’ Suffers Growing Pains in Its Darkest Season Yet: TV Review

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You have to hand it to “The Boys.” Production on Season 4 of the Amazon action satire wrapped over a year ago, with its release delayed by subsequent strikes in the entertainment industry. (Season 3 aired two full years ago, in the summer of 2022.) The premiere still manages to be almost uncannily well-timed, with characters waiting on a verdict from the breathlessly publicized Manhattan trial of a polarizing political figure. Granted, the figure in question is Homelander (Antony Starr), the psychopathic Captain America type who serves as the series’ archvillain, not a certain former — and possibly future — president. But the trial’s subject is a clear allusion to an infamous Trumpism. When Homelander eye-lasered a protester for throwing a plastic bottle at his son, he essentially shot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue. And in the ever-cynical world of “The Boys,” Homelander loses about as much support for it as his real-life inspiration.

As developed by showrunner Eric Kripke from Garth Ennis’ namesake comics, “The Boys” has always been a political allegory. (It also takes swipes at popular culture, the military-industrial complex and capitalism writ large, a ridiculously broad remit to match the reach of sprawling conglomerate Vought International.) Since the introduction of Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), a head-exploding superhero who poses as a progressive congresswoman attempting to regulate Vought, this aspect of the show has only grown more prominent. But Season 4 marks the most central this parallel version of American government has ever been to the core story, with all eight episodes unfolding between the election of anti-“supe” presidential candidate Robert Singer (Jim Beaver) and the vote’s certification on — brace yourself — January 6th. Unsurprisingly, that makes the season the darkest installment yet of “The Boys,” which already includes enough gore to make “Game of Thrones” look like “My Little Pony.”

Said bleakness already makes Season 4 a tough watch, but “The Boys” has to balance its tone with a couple of steep challenges to its storytelling. One is incorporating the events of spinoff “Gen V,” an excellent coming-of-age drama that now must migrate off its college campus and merge into the mothership. The other is the world building required of a story line driven by mass movements and transfers of power. “The Boys” has an iron grip on its point of view, a caustic cynicism directed generally rightward at big business, scaremongering fascists, entertainment as propaganda and truth-resistant zealotry. But as the stakes rise and franchise expansion continues, “The Boys” has a less steady handle on these newer aspects of its growing mission.

Singer’s victory, with Neuman as his VP-elect, intersects with other developments in the show’s master narrative. After dosing himself with the experimental drug Temp V, a short-term version of the proprietary chemical Compound V that Vought uses to create its heroes, exiled anti-supe squad leader Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) now has only months to live. This prognosis gives Butcher a desperation only enabled by the appearance of his ex-CIA comrade Kessler (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a man even more militantly devoted to the cause than he is. Homelander has taken custody of Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), his now-teenage son conceived via the rape of Butcher’s late wife, and taken on two dangerous new lieutenants: Firecracker (Valorie Curry), a true-believing QAnon type with an InfoWars-style podcast, and Sister Sage (Susan Heyward), whose super-intelligence threatens to balance Homelander’s impulsive megalomania. Meanwhile, Starlight (Erin Moriarty) has quit Avengers-esque group the Seven and come out publicly against Vought, drawing the ire of Firecracker and her frenzied fans.

These varied threads, which don’t even include various team members of the namesake crew struggling with guilt from their traumatic pasts, already make the season feel less focused than its immediate predecessor, which centered on antagonist Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles). Then, about halfway through, Butcher abruptly announces the existence of the anti-supe virus that drove the plot of “Gen V” — a game-changing, status-quo-shifting development that’s relegated to a sudden exposition dump. Characters from “Gen V” also cross over with little introduction, an infusion of lore that’s disorienting in its own right and tricky to balance with cracks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s seemingly infinite, interconnected phases. With its own extra-textual context, “The Boys” is no longer in as prime a position to punch up.

The introduction of the virus ties into larger issues with communicating the larger impact of major shifts within the show’s world. Certain bylaws of Compound V have always felt a little handwaved: some supes can be killed by natural means, while others can’t; some supes pass on their abilities to their children, while others don’t. When putting humor and momentum first, this tendency barely registered. After all, “The Boys” came from comic books, a medium that rarely values continuity. But with politics in the foreground, such fuzziness becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Homelander’s acquittal contrasts with the election of a liberal, anti-supe president. Starlight’s condemnation of Vought is strangely light on specific accusations and seems to have little impact. Years after the public learned superheroes are manufactured via Compound V, supes are still discussed like they’re inherently different from regular people and not an injection away. (“Gen V” was more solid on this point, but that particular theme didn’t survive the transplant.) It’s hard not to want more detail on political dynamics with Neuman a heartbeat — or rather, a head-pop — away from the Oval Office, but “The Boys” is generally too busy with subplots and spectacular action to fill us in.

Without such specificity about its own universe, “The Boys” instead gets ever closer to ours. Figures like Elizabeth Warren and AOC canonically exist on “The Boys,” and in lieu of inventing outrageous positions for its fictional conservatives, the writers simply insert familiar ones like “Jewish space lasers” and “legitimate rape.” The tactic is quite effective, showing how seamlessly the circus in Washington blends into a landscape where the Aquaman analog has sex with an octopus. It also amplifies the existential dread of watching America descend into potential autocracy, just on Amazon Prime in lieu of CNN.

“The Boys” balances this heart-sinking sensation with its usual flair for lewd, rude comedy and an ear for inane corporate messaging. Amazon itself gets a nudge when a bloody fight spills over into a “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”-themed bat mitzvah; a push to promote diversity in the Seven is dubbed “Black At It.” But while the show began primarily as a parody of oppressively dominant superhero franchised, it’s become an indictment of an overlapping series of systems and the noxious ideology that underlies them. Season 4 starts to show the strain of that effort, both on the viewer’s tolerance for despair and the series itself.

The first three episodes of “The Boys” Season 4 will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Thursday, June 13, with remaining episodes streaming weekly on Thursdays.

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