Everyone in unison now: Happy birthday, Homelander! How old are you? Are ya one, are ya two, are ya three, are ya f– sorry, what? You don’t actually have a birthday because you were created in a test tube? Well, happy birthday anyway. Please do not wipe me from the face of the Earth.
Homelander’s live-TV birthday celebration comes at a weird time for him; his relationship with Vought has been tricky since he got exposed for the whole “dating a Nazi” thing, and most people just want to see Starlight. (He’s still ultimately doing fine: Special guests include Judi Dench, Rascal Flatts, Emeril Lagasse, and the cast of Riverdale, who are off being superheroes in their own show right now.) But it’s always satisfying to see Homelander up against a wall. The world’s most powerful man isn’t totally invincible.
Despite it being his designated special day, nothing seems to go right for Homelander in “The Only Man in the Sky.” He comes up with a typical Homelander-y plan to publicly undermine Starlight — by forcing her to do a sexy rendition of “Happy Birthday” — but Stan Edgar coldly shuts him down when Starlight calls the idea demeaning. According to Edgar, 76 percent of likely viewers will watch live for Starlight, while 53 percent “might DVR” for Homelander. Devastating.
When he visits Stormfront, she seems to be asleep — and that turns out to be the last time he’ll ever speak to her because his ex kills herself not long after. On his birthday. It happens while Homelander is doing his annual “birthday save” publicity stunt, talking down a young woman from a ledge. But as soon as he hears the news, he pivots from bored obligation to actively encouraging the woman to go through with the suicide. It’s clear where it’s all heading from the moment he launches into a monologue about his made-up birthday, likening himself to Jesus.
Homelander seems genuinely rattled by Stormfront’s death, and by the time an audience member calls out, “Your Nazi died,” on live TV, it’s clear something has to break. He doesn’t massacre the audience, thankfully, like he fantasized in season two. But he does deliver an all-timer of a monologue, refusing to apologize any longer. He tells the world that he’s the real hero. “I am done being persecuted for my strength,” he says. “You people should be thanking Christ that I am who and what I am because you need me.” Much of the language carries the same reactionary, borderline-eugenicist bent as Stormfront’s speeches did last season.
While Annie is preoccupied with the birthday boy, Hughie is too impatient — and too insecure about his reliance on his superhero girlfriend — to wait for her to investigate Neuman further. He pays a visit to the Red River Institute, a group home for the super-abled owned by Vought, where it turns out Neuman (and her latest victim, Tony) grew up. After discreetly slipping a flash drive into the database, Hughie (magically) downloads all the files, learning that Neuman — whose real name, of course, is Nadia — was raised at Red River after a tragic head-exploding accident(?) with her family. She was eventually taken in by, of all people, Stan Edgar!
Neuman and Edgar share a nice scene showing their comfort and familiarity with each other, but I wanted more. Edgar may not have officially adopted Neuman, but how has their relationship escaped scrutiny for so long? What have their security measures looked like over the years besides simply murdering anyone who could conceivably link them together? But that’s The Boys: With brisk, economical plotting, there’s sometimes less opportunity to really make the supporting characters and their relationships feel human. Hopefully, as the season goes on, we’ll understand more about Neuman and her real ideologies — and she won’t just be another quickly eliminated villain of the season.
We do see Neuman-slash-Vicky-slash-Nadia confront Hughie about his recent flakiness, but Annie swoops in with a handy alibi: They were fighting. But the couple’s fake fight is organic enough to morph into a real one, tied to Hughie’s awareness of his relative physical weakness. It’s nicely summed up by the jars that Annie has to regularly open for Hughie — a gesture that seemed sweet in “Payback” but now feels like a sign of his inadequacy. “You shouldn’t be afraid of a powerful woman,” Neuman says as she walks away, a statement with layers.
Thankfully, the fight ends with an honest admission: Hughie thought things were finally going his way, but the Neuman revelation has shown him how blind he was to the truth. Even worse, on a personal level, Neuman was his friend, someone with whom he had a casual and believable rapport in just the few scenes we’ve seen them interact. It’s devastating for Hughie to realize how much of the last year has been a waste. It even triggers a perspective shift: Fighting Vought “the right way” is impossible, and real progress can only be made if the Boys play dirty. Hughie even calls Butcher to tell him he was right.
Ironically, the phone call comes at the one moment Butcher was actually coming to the opposite conclusion. After getting shot by Gunpowder (more on that later) and watching Ryan’s emotional stop-motion animation of Becca’s voice-mail, he realizes Grace Mallory might be right, it might be time to get out of the game like Mother’s Milk did.
Except that Marvin hasn’t truly stayed out of the game. His mind has been stuck on the Seven and on Soldier Boy this whole time. He tries to resist Butcher’s invitation back — he can’t abandon his family again — but we know it’s only a matter of time. The truth sinks in when Marvin has an unexpectedly violent response to a beeping smoke detector in front of his daughter. The moment when he hugs her and cries is tied for the most moving of the episode (the other is the voice-mail), and it’s a relief when Marvin’s wife actually encourages him to finish what he started. She knows that he does want to be with his family, but he can’t be at peace when he still has unfinished business.
The rest of “The Only Man in the Sky” follows the Boys’ separate journeys to learn more about the weapon that supposedly killed Soldier Boy. Frenchie and Kimiko track down Crimson Countess, Soldier Boy’s old flame when they were in Payback together. Now she performs their story at Voughtland, a sort of fake-woke Disney World based around supes. At Brave Maeve’s Inclusive Kingdom, Kimiko sees a little girl and her brother and is reminded of her and Kenji’s own childhood dreams. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, those same kids have witnessed the gooey explosion of a Homelander mascot, traumatizing them the same way Kimiko and her brother were. The cycle of violence continues.
But it’s hard to know how Kimiko could’ve avoided the public violence, especially since it’s a Countess fireball that makes the biggest mess. In the end, very little is learned from the whole adventure: Crimson Countess maintains that Soldier Boy’s death went down exactly like the cheesy Soldier Boy propaganda film said.
Butcher has more success at the Vought gun expo where he finds Gunpowder, Soldier Boy’s aged right-wing sidekick. Poking and prodding him with the suggestion that Soldier Boy routinely molested him, Butcher winds up provoking a gunfight that he barely escapes. (Gunpowder’s skill at tracing the path of a bullet through all its likely ricochets is admittedly badass.) But the phone call from Hughie is the final push he needs to embrace chaos and take temp Compound V. The rematch goes much better for him: Bullets don’t penetrate his skin anymore, so Gunpowder isn’t even a threat. He gets the information he wants — whatever happened to Soldier Boy happened during a mission in Nicaragua, working under none other than Grace Mallory! (Oh, and Soldier Boy did slap him around a little, but it never went further than that.)
The intel isn’t enough to save Gunpowder’s life, of course. Butcher kills him with a brutal round of superpowered punches to the face, then double-kills him when his eyes unexpectedly light up like Homelander’s and blast a laser into the man, splitting him and the car behind him in two. It should be interesting to see how Butcher reacts to these new powers, even if they are temporary. Could he actually develop some empathy for the supes he’s always thought of as inherently wrong?
• The Deep is starring in a movie adaptation of his memoir, entitled Not Without My Dolphin. It co-stars Billy Zane, the second big cameo of the season. Cool!
• Since A-Train can’t race, he’s trying to rebrand by reconnecting with his African roots. He and Seth pitch a 15-part limited docuseries called A-Train to Africa and a video game about the slave trade called The Middle Passage, in addition to redesigning his suit “for the culture.” It’s a very funny scene, and I’m curious to see where this story line goes.
• Malcolm Barrett has a great episode as Seth, especially when he calls out the cynical nature of A-Train’s rebranding. The shame etched on his face as he reluctantly pitches Ashley is hilarious.
• Food stands in Voughtland include “BLM BLTs,” “Woke Wok,” and “LGBTurkey Legs.” Very relevant with the rainbow capitalism that comes out every Pride Month.
• The firearm convention banner reads, “Admission: $8. Children: Free!” A moment later, we see a little children’s section, where some kids are content to draw with crayons while others are trying out guns. Dark!
• Hughie is famously a terrible liar, but he actually does some decent thinking on his feet this episode, especially with his lie after his relationship with Starlight gets exposed by a teleporting kid. Speaking of which: The teleporting kid is Teddy Stillwell, Madelyn’s orphan son!
• Another excellent acting moment: Antony Starr’s plastered-on smile seeming to glitch when Homelander first hears the heckler.