Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

TV Review: ‘The Boys’ finds its momentum in a grittier and deeper second season

What The Boys does to deconstruct the basic tropes of superhero and comic-book formula isn’t exactly bold and new. Watchmen, both the graphic novel and the TV show, or even the movie version from Zack Snyder, has previously mastered what The Boys is doing: creating a gritty comic-book reality where superheroes are portrayed as corrupt and nihilistic. Even long before that, Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman, which then became Miracleman, has also toyed with this concept to a brilliant result. Yet somehow, despite all of that familiarity, there’s something about Eric Kripke’s TV adaptation of The Boys that makes it exciting and brand-new. Not because he finds a way to, once again, revitalize the well-worn superheroes-broke-bad formula, but rather because of how the show holds a mirror to our society nowadays by tackling real issues of capitalism in the military-industrial complex, the danger of hero-worship, and even the #MeToo movement.

Season two, which will premiere on Amazon Prime on 4 September, still touches on the same subjects addressed in the first season, and it still also features the same level of brutality and dark humor that makes the show so addictive in the first place. But where in season one Kripke and his writers struggled to create more compelling arguments than “capitalism is bad!” and that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, this time around, The Boys finally finds its momentum and goes even deeper into more real-life issues such as white nationalism, systemic racism, and xenophobia; though to get there, the season sure does move a little more slowly than usual.

Picking up right where the end of the first season left off, season two sees the titular The Boys — Hughie (Jack Quaid), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and the Female (Karen Fukuhara) — in hiding after being accused of murdering Vought’s VP Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue). Their leader, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile back in the Vought HQ, it’s business as usual, now with Ashley (Colby Minifie) taking Madelyn’s role as VP, though she’s basically only a pawn for Homelander (Anthony Starr). The first two episodes of the season do an okay job of establishing the new conflicts of the season. There’s a supe-terrorist on the loose, wanting to take revenge on Vought and America. There’s also a new hero joining the Seven called Stormfront (Aya Cash, both menacing and charming at the same time), whose popularity and power make Homelander insecure beyond belief. Then, of course, there’s the whole conspiracy revolving around Compound-V, mostly involving Hughie and Annie aka Starlight (Erin Moriarty).

Throughout the first half of season two, all these subplots, as well as the minor ones involving A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) and the Deep’s (Chace Crawford) religious journey, overlap one another, and it makes the season a little uneven in its first few episodes. But once the season reaches the fourth episode, The Boys doesn’t hold anything back. It only gets better and grittier on its depiction of violence while also diving even deeper into its exploration of systemic racism — an issue tackled from the storyline focusing on Stormfront.

The sixth episode “The Bloody Doors Off”, in particular, is a standout. It’s directed by Sarah Boyd and written by Anslem Richardson, and in it, we follow the Boys and Starlight discovering an insidious truth about how Vought develops Compound-V and the extreme length that they’re willing to take to maintain their power. What makes it great actually isn’t about what messages that the show is trying to convey to the audience in the episode, but more because of how focused and tightly-packed the writing is. Unlike the previous few episodes of the season, where one moment of high-octane action often gets distracted with a reflective, character-driven moment or a comedic scene filled with jokes that don’t always land, episode six concentrates only on fleshing out one big storyline and capturing the depth of the subject that the episode addresses, thus allowing the characters to get fleshed out too. When The Boys is able to keep its story focus, the show is at its absolute best. And thankfully, the second half of season two is filled with knockout after knockout, unlike the first season which most of its episodes felt only like a setup to the cliffhanger at the finale.

The improvement, however, isn’t just done on the storytelling aspect; how the season tackles the topics that the show is trying to explore also feels more compelling this time around, particularly in its depiction of the danger of hero-worship and white nationalism. Kripke doesn’t just show us that these two issues are bad, but he also offers a thought-provoking argument on why they are bad, how they are created and perpetuated, and how dangerous the impact is. And he does so in ways that are bold and apologetic that watching it unfolds will without a doubt make us uncomfortable. But this feeling of discomfort is what exactly makes The Boys, well, The Boys in the first place. It isn’t here to provide us hope and a portrait of do-gooders who will always prioritize justice on top of everything else. What the show achieves here is actually quite the opposite: giving us a funhouse mirror to reality where nothing can seem to prevent us from repeating history.

Yes, all of these may sound pretty pessimistic, and The Boys does indeed get very cynical along the way. But in a world where the mainstream comic-book movies and TV shows only offer us a glossy optimism, a show like The Boys is what will remind us that they are nothing but fantasy, and that the reality we live in right now is actually pretty horrible — so much so that witnessing certain characters act throughout the season feels like watching and experiencing Trump administration in real life.

The Boys season two is not by any means a flawless follow-up. Some elements, especially in the first few episodes, are weakly executed, and there are few subplots and characters that do not really add anything to the main story of the season. But for the most part, the season has improved what the show established last year. It’s grittier and deeper in terms of its exploration of hero-worship, and on top of that, it remains a diabolically fun superhero show with solid performances from the ensemble.

The Boys season 2 drops September 4 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

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