This post discusses major plot points of The Boys episode “What I Know.”
OK, finally. NOW WE KNOW WHO IS EXPLODING THE HEADS.
Excuse me for my cheeky reference to the opening of last week’s penultimate recap—and thank you for reading my recaps during this second season of The Boys. Which, up until the season finale “What I Know,” I mostly enjoyed quite a lot. There were certainly some great moments in the finale: Maeve, Kimiko, and Annie showing us how girls really get it done while the Boys hang back, abashed and impressed; Butcher realizing that Ryan deserves a chance at a normal life, or the closest thing to one; and MM’s exuberant reunion with his family. Those were nice, as well as the look on MM’s daughter’s face. It was very life-affirming!
But, well. I guess we should talk about the Nazi in the room, and the mole in the room, and how those two reveals reframe this season into one that was very often not about the titular Boys themselves. (And suggest a false equivalency between a literal member of the Third Reich and a progressive politician that I don’t really like.) Week to week, the Boys’ mini-adventures, and how it felt like they were meandering toward a narrative climax versus hurtling directly toward it, didn’t really bother me. Looking back on the season as a whole, though, makes plain how much of these eight episodes were really transitioning us toward a version of the Boys that is actually where Garth Ennis’ comic books started out, with Butcher and his team working for Grace Mallory hunting supes. I understand that for fans of the show who haven’t read Ennis’ work, that might not matter very much. Yet it seems to me sort of peculiar to lead two seasons of the show to a plot point that, really, should have been an introductory one. It feels like we’re moving backward, which is an anticlimactic way to end a season that had so many highlights otherwise.
“What I Know” begins with the President declaring a national emergency after the head-exploding spree that went down at the House hearings into Compound-V led by Congresswoman Neuman, and he’s not the only one panicking. The Pentagon and ICE are both ordering Compound-V, too, and while Neuman and Mallory rightly point out that this is essentially a coup by Vought to gain control of the country, Ellsworth from Deadwood isn’t much swayed. “For the record, I agree with you, and I hate this,” he admits, but the only people who could calm down the country are “Jesus Christ or maybe Homelander.” And what are the chances of the latter, when Homelander is busy playing husband and daddy to Stormfront and Ryan, respectively?
I thought this whole happy-family subplot was ripped through too quickly in this episode; I wish it had a little more room to breathe. Last week I was surprised that Ryan turned so quickly on Becca and accused her of being a liar, and people pointed out in the comments that, well, kids can be jerks, and Homelander has been messing with him, and the life that Homelander and Stormfront offer does seem alluring in its own way. Okay, I concede defeat in the face of all that! And I think it makes sense, then, that Ryan is so quickly unnerved by the level of his father’s fame, and by the onslaught of people who want to see him, and by the fact that Stormfront—as sickly sweet as she was being with the boy—isn’t his mother.
Meanwhile, Becca is understandably frantic, and Butcher’s planned manipulation of the situation to get her back, but to leave Ryan behind? Fuckin’ diabolical. But this all seems very in line with who we know Butcher to be: He loves Becca desperately; he had mourned her and wanted to avenge her for so long; and to learn that she’s alive, and birthed Homelander’s son after he raped her? That’s a whole hell of a lot! And we finally get some more of Becca’s perspective in all this through her making Butcher promise that he would protect her son, and once those words were uttered, man, we all knew Becca was a goner, didn’t we? Still, I loved the face-off between Butcher and Stan Edgar, and how matter of factly Giancarlo Esposito delivered that character’s ethos:
“Compound-V raised our stock price. It’s not ruthless. It’s prices per share, that’s all …. It’s not about me. That’s a white man’s luxury. … When, Mr. Butcher, in history, has it been about anything different?”
Ahem: Money. Over. Everything.
I do think Edgar makes an interesting admission here: Yes, Vought was birthed out of Nazi science, and yes, Stormfront is a monster, and yes, they are using right-wing propaganda to stir up interest in Compound-V and continue making a boatload of money. But what can Edgar do as an individual against that? And what can he do as an individual who happens to be a Black man against that? I’m not excusing his choices, necessarily. But I think The Boys did a good job showing here the various levels of complicity it takes to ignore evil, and to let it fester: You have people like Madelyn, who was clearly in it for the glory and, I think, for Homelander, and you have people like Ashley, who primarily seems motivated by fear, and you have people like Edgar, who knows how power works. It’s a brutal world out here in our late-stage-capitalist nightmare, and money sure makes it easier.
What was less effective for me, though, is where the storyline with Stormfront ended up. I’ve complained before, and still am irritated by, the sketchy details of where Stormfront has been for the past 50 or so years. What happened after she essentially retired as Liberty? Neo-Nazism is (depressingly) vogue right now, but the past decades have been defined by a rise of conservatism and xenophobia. Even if The Boys had alluded to her role in some of that, in particular regarding how Vought navigated those waters (was she shaping company ideology behind the scenes?), her character would have felt more well-considered to me. But it felt like a tonal shift for her, just a few episodes ago, to be cooing to Homelander about how people love her and people want to hear what she’s saying, to then screaming at Annie and the Boys about how the photos of her as a Nazi are deepfakes. (A-Train leaking that Church-collected intel as a fuck you to Stormfront’s constant microaggressions was a great writing choice. Having the Church collude with the show’s popular liberal politician, not so great.) Stormfront is very clearly a true believer. So why then panic and freak out about the reveal of her true origin? There is, very clearly, a portion of this country that would love her more for this! We are living that reality right now!
On the one hand, I think The Boys enjoys wading into the waters of pure nihilism in its consideration of how power, capital, and American imperialism all work together. On the other hand, I think the show sometimes rears back when it should lean forward, and that’s how the Stormfront finale felt for me. For a character the show spent so much time building up as cruel and heartless and flat-out maniacal, to then have her hunt down Becca—why? To then have her shy away from the persona she’s cultivated for so long—why? I don’t think that Stormfront needed to stick around for another season, but I do think the dispatching of her character felt very swift. And I hope that the next season of the show doesn’t ignore that Stormfront worked very hard to, and did in fact succeed in creating, an atmosphere of xenophobic hatred (“We’re under attack. It’s called white genocide” was the worst history lesson ever) that will not disappear just because Vought blames the head explosions on her. Again: Some people will love her more for that, and the show should continue to acknowledge the figure they’ve created.
But I guess that leads me to: Where do the Seven, and the Boys, go from here? Maeve, despite her frustration when Annie comes asking for help against Homelander (“Haven’t I don’t enough for you? It doesn’t matter what we do. Nothing changes. Nothing ever changes or gets better, and I’m tired”) does decide to take a stand, coming to save the Boys during their failing fight against Stormfront. Her blackmail of Homelander results in Annie rejoining the Seven and Homelander’s public apology to “two of the best, most loyal friends I’ll ever have,” and we see now how Homelander will never, ever love anyone else more than he loves himself. Not even Stormfront, who played to his ego, and not even Ryan, who might have one day actually begun to care for his father. Homelander is always out for Homelander, and the possibility that Maeve’s cellphone recording of that crashed plane could turn all the adoration he receives into hatred? Well, that cannot do!
And so Homelander’s motivations and decision making, I get. But why would Annie rejoin this group? Her entire arc over this season has been one of increased disinterest and disillusionment, both with her faith and with her membership in the Seven. She was reacting to Homelander’s threats, yes, but also going through her own inner struggle regarding what kind of person she wanted to be. Doesn’t rejoining the Seven wrap that up too neatly? Even if Annie had said something like, “I’m going back to the Seven, but don’t worry, Hughie, I’ll still work with you guys because Vought is an evil corporation and I obviously object to everything they stand for,” that would have been fine! That doesn’t happen, though, and so her progression, too, feels like a step backward. And while Annie goes back to the Seven, MM reunites with his family, Kimiko and Frenchie go off dancing, Butcher considers that job offer from Mallory, and Hughie—well, Hughie might take a job with the head exploder herself, Congresswoman Victoria Neuman.
I’ll be direct: I hated this reveal. Loathed it. I think it’s bad storytelling, since we saw Neuman terrified and freaked out during the hearings where all the heads were exploding. We saw her fear. Yes, she could have been acting. But later on, when we see Neuman after she explodes the head of the Church of the Collective leader Alastair Adana, her eyes are clouded over, and it seems like her body is affected by the toll of committing that telekinetic burst of violence. The way she is acting then, after killing one man, is very different—and far more affected—than she was during the hearings, when she was killing what seemed like a dozen or more. So, what, is one of these people not really Neuman? Is there another doppelganger running around? I guess that could be an option. Regardless of that, though, I think it’s a very lame, very “both sides are bad,” faux-edgy ideology for The Boys to switch from having a neo-Nazi as a villain to now having a progressive politician as a villain. This is why I don’t watch South Park, I don’t have time for these lazy false equivalences! Yes, I am assuming that Neuman is a Vought plant, but also, that doesn’t make this storytelling any better. I am already low-key dreading how this plays out next season, especially with Hughie now working for her campaign. What is going to tip him off that Neuman is not who she seems? Please, The Boys, do not attempt a storyline about, say, universal health care and how it applies to the supes. I mean, they should have it, because health care is a human right. But I’m not trying to watch that!
Here is what I want: more absurdity from Homelander, who ends this season masturbating into the wind, just like the beautiful, pathetic deviant we all know him to be. More instances for Butcher to really derisively call anyone associated with Vought a “cunt.” More examples of Kimiko having Wolverine-like powers and maybe a use of her BOSSY brass knuckles. More soft romance between Annie and Hughie. More Almond Joys. Fewer attempts to make progressive politics seem like an artifice for evil. Maybe ease back on that. I ask for very little!
- When one of the Boys says, “We can’t just kill everyone”—OK, but you can if they’re Nazis, though.
- WHY do the Boys keep using guns on supes when they have rarely seemed to actually work on them? You already know what Stormfront can do! This is just a waste of resources!
- That little pause Butcher takes when he realizes Ryan killed Becca, and the look on his face when he turns around to consider his wife’s son? An excellent allusion to how this story line played out in the comics.
- “We definitely found fuck all. … I’m not sure I’m using that term properly” made me LOL.
- www.VoughtAmerica.com/active-supervillain: Did I write that down wrong? It doesn’t work for me as a real website, which would have been such integrated marketing! Dammit, Amazon! Shell out some money for a domain already!
- “Why is it always, always Billy Joel?” Our question is finally answered! I liked that Annie/Hughie car ride overall, and I am rooting for these crazy kids.
- Black Noir is a “vegetable”: Does that mean there’s another opening on the Seven? Because they’re down Stormfront now, right, and only A-Train is back? I can do math, I swear!
- Not entirely sure what to say about the season-long Deep arc. On the one hand, I do think spending time with him was worth it because Chace Crawford really committed to the role this season, and it was somewhat amusing to see what such a high-level narcissist would do to be famous again. But after a while, the Church of the Collective’s spin on Scientology just got kind of, “Yeah, and?” in its presentation. So now that the leader of the Church is dead—well, maybe the Deep steps up? OK, I might have just talked myself into being interested in this again.
- MM’s Black-power-fist sweatshirt was very good. His fits were right all season.
- Excellent Frenchie moments: the pleasure with which he provided Becca with a ham and cheese sandwich, and the casual way he delivered the line, “This is nothing compared to the raves I used to set up in Algiers.” Dance the night away, Frenchie and Kimiko, you deserve it.