The Boys season 4 becomes a stronger show but a weaker satire

Homelander smiles and holds his young, uncomfortable son close to him in the city streets in a scene from The Boys season 4.
Photo: Jasper Savage/Prime Video

The stakes are clear, but the metaphor is not

It’s an election year in these United States, and as go the headlines, so goes The Boys. Not on purpose — showrunner Eric Kripke, articulating a reality of television production, has noted that his narrative plans often precede their real-world parallels — but the hit Prime Video series has a pretty consistent rep for producing a bloody response to the moment at hand. In its fourth season, the dark satire circles a familiar target, once again arriving in a pivotal election year. Now it’s returned to ask if anyone learned anything since the last go round.

Unfortunately, the only clear answers to that question are bad ones in the world of The Boys. Last season ended with Homelander (Antony Starr) lasering a man’s head off in public to the cheers of his supporters, signaling a shift in the status quo between the world and the supes that inhabit it. As debauched and amoral as the supes of The Boys have been in the series, they still kept up appearances. They engaged in the theater of being superheroes, noble exemplars there to help their fellow man. But the appeal of playing pretend is losing its luster.

Normal humans, Homelander frequently tells his son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) and himself, are lesser, “toys for our amusement.” The ticking time bomb of The Boys, narratively, has been: How long can the show’s writers convince us that he is more amused with the normal people committed to ruining his fun?

This is where some may find exhaustion beginning to creep in, as a show with an antagonist who can credibly eliminate all sources of conflict whenever he chooses continues to, well, not do that. But The Boys has always been a canny show where petty flaws and insecurities drive the action more than big, violent fights, and while season 4 leads with politics, its character work carries the show this year.

In between the clear parallels to our modern media circus, The Boys takes its time for a renewed focus on its characters, making a point to have everyone articulate what it is exactly that they’re fighting for. It can be easy to forget, with all the ass-exploding, genital-forward antics of the show, but it is a story deeply concerned with humanity, and how hard it is to hold on to it in the face of pure uncontested power. At its best moments, season 4 lingers on pairings of fathers and sons or other strained relationships. The strongest divide in the world of The Boys isn’t necessarily between the superhuman and not, but who still gives a shit about people, even when there’s no incentive to. As The Seven become more depraved under Homelander’s unrestrained control, the temptation to meet them in kind remains strong — even if the Temp V that briefly superpowered The Boys last season is now off the table.

Naturally, Hughie (Jack Quaid) sits at the center of this, as the formerly nervous dweeb is now a seasoned operative in danger of losing the heart that keeps his team grounded. But Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) and Frenchie (Tomer Capone) see their relationship tested, and even those within Vought, like A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) or the beleaguered PR flack Ashley Barrett (Colby Minifie) have some contemplating to do as Homelander shakes things up in Supe Camelot.

Hughie and Annie January/Starlight talk to each other in front of a massive protest in The Boys season 4
Photo: Jasper Savage/Prime Video

The new season is less deft with its political satire, with frankly not enough time in its eight episodes to situate viewers in the world as it stands now (something spinoff Gen V was quite good at). Homelander’s trial for killing an innocent man splits the public into Homelander stans and anti-stans — who take up Starlight (Erin Moriarty) as their figurehead — but there’s no real ideology at play here, just the veneer of team sports. Two new additions to The Seven, Sage (Susan Heyward) and Firecracker (Valorie Curry) gesture at the shifting political landscape, but in a way that feels like a preamble. While what is present makes for a pretty accurate and damning approximation of current U.S. politics, reproduction is not commentary, and unfortunately a season that so successfully refocuses on interpersonal dynamics suffers when its scope widens.

What’s undeniable is that The Boys fourth season has doomsday on the mind. As mentioned above, even before the news of next season being its last, there’s a ticking clock inherent in its premise. Much like Homelander will eventually tire of whatever restrictions remain on his id, so do all authoritarians in swaying the public toward their view. The social contract is only maintained as long as a critical mass of people believe in it. When that fails? The bomb goes off — and The Boys has never met a bomb it didn’t want to immediately blow up. Let’s just make it so the headlines don’t follow suit this time, yeah?

The first three episodes of The Boys season 4 are now streaming on Prime Video. New episodes drop weekly.

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