Bad fathers have long been a recurring figure in comic books and the properties based on them — Thanos, Odin, Omni Man, Ego, Bloodsport's dad, White Dragon (there's a separate piece to be written on the characters of James Gunn and their many, many daddy issues). The Boys, an Amazon Prime Video satire of superhero shows, avoids playing this trope for laughs. Instead, the show leans into the many ways cycles of neglect and abuse are perpetuated. In best-case scenarios, characters like Frenchie (Tomer Capone) escape their violent fathers at a young age, but take longer to mentally unshackle themselves. Even good men in this universe unwittingly push their children down dangerous paths in service of their ideals, which is where MM (Laz Alonso) finds himself. Ms. Marvel and Thor: Love and Thunder, the installments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that released alongside this show, feature parents who would die for their children. But only in the grim world of The Boys would a parent make them wish they'd never been born.
Think about some of the most horrifying imagery on the show and the montage of guts and gore that immediately springs to mind will be as long as Love Sausage's love sausage (a horrifying image in itself). One of its most frightening shots however, comes in the aftermath of gore, at the end of the third season. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed young boy smiles; his father's arm is draped lovingly across his shoulder. It's an image of all-American wholesomeness that the show, in its trademark way, uses to reveal a systemic rot. The father is Homelander (Antony Starr), a right-wing darling who has just lasered a man's head in half at a public rally. His fans are initially stunned, but then burst into applause, fuelled by the adrenaline rush that comes from the spectacle of public brutality. The Boys has been setting up Homelander as a Trumpian figure for some time, but this scene is its most obvious parallel yet, with its pointed reference to former US President Donald Trump's remark about being able to shoot a person on Fifth Avenue without losing any voters.
Homelander's son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), on the other hand, has so far shied away from embracing the violence his father perpetrates, but his slow smile suggests he's just begun to grasp its seductive possibilities. The Boys is often blunt about its themes, which include just how hollow and meaningless celebrity worship is; how corporations can co-opt and commodify the same beliefs they privately despise; and how, in a world full of manufactured superheroes, there is no one coming to save us. But perhaps its bleakest message yet is in the character-focussed third season and it's more personal than political: if we're not careful, we'll grow up to be the sum of the worst parts of our parents.
For much of The Boys, its protagonist, William Butcher (Karl Urban), and antagonist, Homelander, are depicted as two sides of the same coin. Their goals are in direct opposition to each other, but both their personalities are shaped by abusive father figures. Butcher was raised by an alcoholic with a fiery temper; Homelander in the cold sterility of a lab. Both men were exposed to recurring patterns of violence at a young age, which hardened and desensitised them. "When he was a little boy, five or six, he was quite sweet. I needed him to be the strongest man in the world…so I went to work on him," is how Vought scientist Jonah Vogelbaum (John Doman) describes training his ward, Homelander. While Butcher has channeled his rage into a righteous crusade against depraved superheroes, Homelander has learned to mask his better. A deep-seated need for public approval keeps Homelander's darker impulses in check, but just barely. Butcher is in denial about the troubling ways in which he resembles his father. Homelander, having never known his, holds on to the misguided idea that being raised by one would have made him better.
In introducing Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles) this season and revealing him to be Homelander's long-lost biological dad, the show gives its sociopathic supe a glimmer of the loving familial unit he never had, only to then coldly snatch it away. In Homelander, Soldier Boy doesn't see a son he could love, only a confirmation of the same weaknesses that his father once saw in him. The discovery that he has a child should be a moment of triumph for a man who's dreamed of having kids someday, but it becomes a moment of crushing failure instead, a validation of all his father's harshest taunts.
The Boys is a canny show about how structures of power operate and the Homelander-Soldier Boy meeting is one of the best illustrations of that theme — what could be more terrifying to a child than a parent who knows their deepest fears, has instilled many of those fears themselves, and will continue to do so from beyond the grave? Earlier in the show, Soldier Boy finds out that the woman he considered the love of his life secretly hated him, disgusted by his propensity for violence. A few episodes later, Homelander comes to the same conclusion about his former girlfriend, Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott). In a show filled with overt violence, this parallel is quietly cutting in its implication — that we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes our parents made. Worse still, we might not even recognise them as such.