What does peacetime look like for The Boys? Most of the third-season premiere is focused on answering that question. What has happened in the past 12 months, and can an uneasy truce be sustained based on the threat of mutually assured destruction alone?
It’s clear from the beginning of the episode that this ceasefire is temporary (if it even exists at all). In fact, much of “Payback” feels like the calm before the storm. Much of the running time is focused on conversations and character work showing how everyone’s year has been going. Only two people die in the episode (a low body count for this show), and neither character was featured before this episode anyway.
But let’s talk about those two deaths because they are two of the most memorable moments of the episode, and they’re more than just flashy. The first one happens at a penthouse party hosted by Termite (Brett Geddes), an Ant Man–esque shrinking superhero whom the Boys have been hunting on assignment. He’s introduced demonstrating a party trick, fucking a Barbie doll in front of a crowd of cheering fans. But that visual pales compared to what happens next when Termite heads to the bedroom with his boyfriend.
There’s no point in putting it off, so let’s dive in (no pun intended): At his boyfriend’s request, Termite shrinks down and squeezes through his urethra, stroking the inner walls of his dick as he meanders toward the prostate. It seems fun for both of them until Termite sneezes, instantaneously blasting him back to normal size — and killing his poor partner, whose entire lower half is now a pile of goo on the floor. After a fun skirmish with Frenchie, Termite finally gets scooped up by Butcher into a baggie of coke, triggering an overdose he barely survives.
Creative violence is this show’s bread and butter, especially as it intersects with sex, so you can imagine members of the writers’ room laughing their asses off coming up with each beat of this scene. But beyond the shock value, it’s a helpful subplot to illustrate the state of affairs with the Boys. For one, it clarifies the chain of command: Butcher is, for the first time, in the position of answering to Hughie, who serves as intermediary with his boss, Representative and FBSA director Victoria Neuman. Because Butcher is Butcher, that means Neuman has had to do a lot of apologizing for his antics over the past year, even if he does get results.
And because Hughie is Hughie, he doesn’t question what’s too good to be true. For all his high-and-mightiness about the work he and Neuman have been doing — and, to be fair, they have contributed to a steep drop in “supe collateral” — the rich and famous still rarely face any repercussions. Maybe Vought is fine tossing a few bad apples, but they can stop whenever it suits them. That becomes clear with Termite, who’s saved from jail time and exposure when Vought closes a deal for a brand endorsement.
Neuman is complicit in sweeping the first death of the episode under the rug. But she’s directly responsible for the messy head-popping second death: Tony, an old friend who calls her “Nadia” and wants her to tell the world about their shared past at “Red River.” As always, she’s able to call a team in to eliminate any trace of what happened — but this time, Hughie, who’d grown to consider her a genuine friend, saw it all.
It’s nice to see the big secret about Hughie’s new boss come out so early on instead of after a few episodes of wheel-spinning. Hughie starts the episode in a great spot, revered at the office for his role in defeating Stormfront and his public relationship with Starlight. But by the end, he realizes how much of his work was a smoke screen, how many compromises he’s made to work with somebody no better than Vought. Even his relationship is starting to wobble: he’s growing visibly jealous of Annie’s ex-boyfriend Alex, a.k.a. “Supersonic,” a supe pop star competing on American Hero for a spot on the Seven. And Hughie can’t hold back a little judgment when Annie breaks the news that she’s been made co-captain of the Seven.
There’s a lot I like about this turn for Starlight, especially the suggestion that some part of her still does crave power and adoration despite the ideals she’s supposed to be fighting for. “Think about what that would mean to millions of girls,” she tells Hughie, momentarily forgetting the real end goal here. But she’s not wrong when she points out Hughie’s pettiness and the double standard for women climbing the corporate ladder. And gaining leverage over Homelander is never a bad thing, especially if she gets to fill the empty slots in the Seven herself.
Well, unless he goes on a rampage first. Though the Seven (and Starlight) are more respected than ever, Homelander is finally facing some public scrutiny after his girlfriend Stormfront was outed as a Nazi. Claiming “I’m just as human as all the rest of you” on TV isn’t enough this time; what the captain needs is to step back a little, making room for Starlight to restore trust and inspire people the way he used to. But Homelander isn’t good at stepping back. He uses A-Train as an outlet for his anger, needling him about his weight gain and almost killing him when he dares to mouth off. At least he has the charred, barely alive Stormfront to vent to whenever he feels like it.
We don’t hear as much from Queen Maeve in “Payback,” though she’s clearly worried about Homelander’s increasingly unhinged behavior. She privately meets with Butcher to tell him about a weapon that apparently killed Soldier Boy, Vought’s original superhero, in 1984. (Most people think he sacrificed himself in a nuclear meltdown.) If something was powerful enough to kill him, could it kill Homelander too? Maeve even goes so far as to give Butcher some temporary Compound V, which Stan Edgar is still prepping to sell to the military. It’s still in the testing phase, but the Boys may not have a choice; they probably wouldn’t stand a chance against Payback, Soldier Boy’s old team, without powers of their own.
Butcher’s meeting with Maeve is one of the most consequential scenes of the premiere, giving a rough idea of what we’re in store for this season. But what follows when Homelander stops by for a visit is even more intriguing. Of course, Butcher refuses to pass along Becca’s son Ryan’s location to Homelander; he’s bonded a lot with the kid over the year of Ryan’s isolated stay with Boys founder Grace Mallory. For all Butcher’s fears of becoming his father, he’s becoming a surprisingly good one himself.
Homelander and Butcher have the type of frank conversation that only two people who openly despise each other can have. Neither has much of a problem admitting they’re fed up with the authorities they answer to — Homelander is getting upstaged by Starlight and ignored by Edgar, while Butcher is hamstrung by Neuman’s opposition to the kind of brutal wartime tactics he knows best.
Because it is wartime even if nobody wants to admit it. As much baggage as Butcher and Homelander have, at least they can agree on that one idea. The rich and powerful people who finance this war want to keep it going, to just keep things the same, with no ground gained or lost on either side. But that’s no fun for anyone. The two men agree to commit to their own favored brand of warfare: scorched earth with only one left standing at the end.
It’s fascinating that Homelander could actually be opposed to the system Vought created despite being molded into the symbol of that very system. But perhaps the peacetime that both Vought and Neuman are so keen to maintain isn’t peacetime at all; it’s just stasis. Each low-level supe that the Boys “nonviolently” round up represents a little compromise, and added up, they represent the biggest compromise of all: a tacit acceptance of the larger profit-driven system that covers up endless murders and sexual assaults while hiding behind the façade of heroism and reveling in bigotry behind closed doors.
Peacetime is over. Maybe it was never really there to begin with.
• Mother’s Milk is out of the game for now, unsuccessfully trying to woo his wife away from her supe-obsessed boyfriend, Todd. But it’s only a matter of time before he gets sucked back into the fight, as evidenced by his closet shrine to Soldier Boy.
• The episode opens with the premiere of Dawn of the Seven with the real-life Charlize Theron playing Stormfront and saying lines like, “You’ll always be in my heart. But the Fourth Reich is in my soul.”
• Nice to see Simon Pegg return as Hughie’s dad for the first time since season one even if it’s over FaceTime!
• The Deep is promoting his ghostwritten book Deeper, about his and Cassandra’s escape from the Church of the Collective. Apparently, Malcolm Gladwell called him “the next Leah Remini” in The New Yorker.
• Not a ton of time with Kimiko in this episode, but we get to see her delightful fantasy of singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” sung by the talented Karen Fukuhara herself.
• I’m not totally sure what to think of Stormfront’s return yet. There’s not much she can do besides be a sounding board for Homelander, and I wouldn’t want to see her recover and make a return as a threat.