It’s the day after the release of The Boys Episode 5 (The Last Time To Look on This World of Lies) after another week of anticipation running high and the official accounts doing a great job of teasing us while we wait. This episode was billed as “The Boys Musical” which left some fans expecting all the characters to burst into song ala Buffy’s musical episode – and while it wasn’t that, we did get some amazing song and dance (and there’s more if you make use of the XRay function on the streaming videos). Those moments provided a welcome interlude of lightness and even joy interspersed between the more usual moments of darkness, angst and violence. Oh, and kinky sex. I love The Boys for its ability to swing between those different states seamlessly, something Kripke seems to have mastered in all his shows.
The episode also introduces the new character of The Legend, a Stan Lee homage and iconic figure from the comics who is played to perfection by Paul Reiser. In the comics, The Legend was a Vought comic book writer who helped sell the Supes as heroes, and who later gives information to the boys.
He’s a former Vought employee in the series too, but more a producer and manager for the Supes with the official title of VP of Hero Management before Stillwell took that job. He’s also quite a character – decadent, irreverent, a man from a bygone era a bit like Soldier Boy is. He’s probably a complete asshole but somehow kind of appealing anyway. The Legend also provides some more pointed commentary on celebrity – to him, the Supes are “the talent”, and as he wryly notes, “who knows why they do what they do?” If you’ve ever been backstage or on the other side of the celebrity fence for even a little while, it’s both fascinating and disturbing to see how differently someone is treated who’s identified as “the talent”. They are both coddled and infantilized simultaneously, which is a great way to encourage narcissism and discourage self awareness. It’s doubly fascinating when this is a show employing a bunch of “talent” in real life, but The Boys never backs away from its own attempts at self awareness (or self parody).
I feel like I say this every time, but there are pivotal happenings in this episode for many of the characters. SPOILERS AHEAD, so be sure you’ve watched before you read!
Butcher is still sliding down that slippery slope at breakneck speed. He embraces taking the Temp V, rationalizing his decision to MM when he asks if it felt good to use his laser eyes and kill Gunpowder.
Butcher: It did – for once I leveled the fucking playing field.
MM isn’t having it, with the one line that encompasses the primary message of this show.
MM: The whole point of what we do – the whole goddamn point – is that no one should have that kind of power.
Butcher is not without ambivalence himself, especially about Hughie also taking the Temp V. He imagines Hughie as his younger brother Lenny, upset when Hughie reacts to the drug by vomiting a lot of green puke into the sink repeatedly.
For himself, however, Butcher is committed to taking the drug that will even the playing field. Maeve brings him more, and he offers her a drink, both of them breaking their sobriety in increasing desperation, side by side on a couch in the dark trying to figure out how to take down Homelander. In spite of their shared revenge mission, and in spite of becoming a Supe himself at least temporarily, Butcher’s hatred for Supes remains. Kripke has likened it to racism, and it’s just as impervious to logic or anything else.
Butcher: I mean, you’re all just people. All the V does is ramp up all that shit that’s already inside. You lot are just a bunch of walking nuclear erections. It’s not just Homelander, you fucking all gotta go. Every last one of you.
Maeve asks if he still thinks he’s too good for her, and what happens next suggests the answer is no. It’s a surprisingly not surprising hook up.
Back at Vought Tower, Homelander takes over now that he’s manipulated Stan Edgar’s departure, and Ashley of all people becomes CEO. The Supe takeover of Vought is a great example of just how disastrous it can be when a narcissist takes power and then gives all the jobs to the biggest ass kissers, who usually don’t know a thing about doing the actual job. Homelander also confronts Queen Maeve after she calls him a paranoid malignant narcissist who thinks everything is about him.
Homelander is bitter, saying it’s lonely at the top but at least they had each other and they were lonely together.
Homelander: And I loved you, in my own way. But you, was anything about us ever real?
This time, Maeve tells the truth.
Maeve: From the start, I hated you. But what’s more, I fucking pitied you.
Homelander throws up his walls, pretends that didn’t get to him – and Black Noir attacks her from behind. Uh oh.
A Train is rewarded for turning on Starlight and Supersonic with that meeting he wanted with Bluehawk (Nick Wechsler), who responds to A Train’s criticism of the excessive patrols in black neighborhoods with alarmingly familiar ‘buts’. This has nothing to do with African Americans. You know it’s actually racist to call somebody racist. Am I being cancelled?
He agrees to come down to the community center and apologize, which goes horribly wrong since he was never sorry in the first place. He brings a camera crew and his so-called apology is a script that starts out with I don’t see color and ends up with All Lives Matter and blaming Antifa.
Bluehawk loses his temper and starts tossing people around the room, A Train’s brother ending up injured on the floor. More uh oh.
After returning to the States, Kimiko recovers in the hospital while Frenchie tries to get out of Little Nina’s ultimatum of working for her again, and killing a man and his young daughter.
When Kimiko wakes up, she’s thrilled to find that she no longer has powers. Apparently Soldier Boy zapped them right out of her. She haltingly tells Frenchie that, and then the fantasy musical number starts, a spirited version of “I Got Rythym” with Kimiko in her hospital gown cavorting through the hospital with Frenchie, ending with a kiss. The Boys wouldn’t be The Boys without something unexpected happening repeatedly in an episode, or without moments of both humor and (fleeting perhaps) joy and hope.
Hughie and Starlight really struggle in this episode, which hurts after seeing their relationship get to a fairly good place. The tension underlying their relationship has nothing to do with supes or Temp V, really – it’s much more universal and relatable than that. Hughie desperately wants to be the one taking care of Annie, instead of it being the other way around. For Hughie, taking the Temp V gave him a different kind of power – the power to make a difference. To defend himself and others. He admits to Annie that he loved the feeling that Temp V gave him, freedom from feeling scared and even able to save Mother’s Milk. He promises her that it was a one time thing, though.
Annie: So what do we do now?
Hughie: I don’t know, but whatever it is? We’ll figure it out together. It’s you and me against the world, right?
That’s a theme right out of Supernatural, so it made me more emotional than it might have otherwise.
And speaking of Supernatural, then there’s Soldier Boy.
I have been eagerly awaiting the fandom’s reaction to Episode 5 – especially those fans who came to the show already fans of Jensen Ackles and perhaps Dean Winchester. I’ve been watching The Boys since the beginning, but I came to it already a Supernatural fan and an Ackles fan, so I knew that Jensen joining the show was going to be both shockingly different and awesome. And it has been! While Soldier Boy was introduced in the previous episode, in this episode we find out more about his past and what has shaped him, and we also get to experience Jensen bringing him to life not just in a physical sense but in that emotional sense that Ackles excels at.
That has left the fandom a bit divided. Many fans are struggling with unexpected feelings of empathy for Soldier Boy (though many also expected the struggle, because Ackles is so good at showing his characters’ emotions that if they’re ever feeling vulnerable or hurt or rejected, you damn well know that you’re gonna feel it too!). Everyone knows intellectually that Soldier Boy is absolutely an asshole – we already know that he was abusive to his young sidekick, that he embodied the misogyny and homophobia of his time and then some, and that he destroyed Mother’s Milk’s family and probably plenty of other innocent people and was exonerated for all of it. In this episode, we also learn that his entire Payback team hated him instead of looking up to him. So, not a good guy.
On the other hand, we find out in this episode – and, crucially, we’re shown instead of told – that when he was in Russian captivity, he was tortured unspeakably and then locked in a metal box. For forty years. The images of the torture are shown on old video footage that MM is watching, the white coated Russian lab scientist methodically experimenting on a restrained but fully conscious Soldier Boy with everything from caustic chemicals to scalpels to lasers cutting his throat to radioactive matter. I have a hard time with any depictions of torture, but just those few minutes were so difficult to watch that I still can’t get them out of my head. That’s partly because Ackles acts the hell out of them.
One of the reasons I fell so hard for Dean Winchester is because Jensen was able to portray all of his emotions so vividly, and that included depicting his pain and suffering and hurt. I’m a psychologist, I’m primed for empathy – and when someone shows it to you in a way that is that realistic, I’m going to feel it. A lot. Ackles is fearless in not holding back when his character is in pain or vulnerable, and it was all I could do not to turn away during the torture scenes. That they were in grainy black and white and that the researcher was absolutely matter of fact about what he was doing just made it more horrific.
What made the footage of the lab coated researcher so appalling is that he had clearly succeeded in dehumanizing the temporarily helpless (and essentially human) Soldier Boy to such an extent that he could carry out the worst violations without a flinch. “The subject’s skin has demonstrated remarkable durability, which includes internal tissue,” he notes calmly as he forces Soldier Boy’s mouth open and pours sulfuric acid into his open mouth as he screams in pain. And that is hard to watch (and, like just about everything in The Boys, hits too close to things happening in reality right now in terms of what you can do when you dehumanize others).
The fact that the ‘tortured for 40 years’ was a Supernatural call back – to Dean Winchester being in Hell for 40 years and tortured there – only made the whole thing hit harder. When the scientist recorded the date as January 24, I nearly burst into tears. Dean Winchester’s effing birthday. I see what you’re doing here, Kripke, and it is working!
Those brief scenes near the beginning of the episode established Soldier Boy as not just an all-powerful (and all evil) Supe, but as a vulnerable man who can be hurt. Seeing him half clothed and strapped down and having extreme pain and injury inflicted on him primed all the empathy I don’t want to feel for him. The fact that he is also played by Ackles – and, let’s be real, that means he’s a very attractive man – just made that unwanted empathy stronger. When Soldier Boy breaks free as the researcher goes to slice open his eyeball, lodging the scalpel in the doc’s throat and trying to escape, I was frankly rooting for him. When he collapses on the floor, half naked and vulnerable, that just made the empathy more intense.
Thus the fandom struggle. Some fans are scratching their heads and saying ‘but he’s an asshole’ and others are nodding and adding ‘but baby boy murder kitten tho’. I love fandom.
In the present, Soldier Boy wakes up in Russia.
He makes his way to New York, looking far too attractive in a grubby track suit with a cute little bag slung over his shoulder and those bow legs.
But I digress.
He’s overwhelmed by the ringing cell phones and posters of Robert Singer and Dawn of The Seven on the side of a bus and two guys kissing on the street. It’s a short scene, but it’s clear how out of place and time he feels. We get a little glimpse of his homophobia too in his raised eyebrows at the two men being openly affectionate.
Then he hears some Russian music playing on a boom box and suddenly he bends over, grimacing, flashbacks of his years of torture overwhelming him. A huge explosion blasts from his chest, pretty much leveling an entire city block.
Mother’s Milk, who had planned to spend the day with daughter Janine and is trying to convince Todd that Homelander is not a hero but a psycho piece of shit, sees it happen on the TV news and has a flashback of his own – to watching Soldier Boy on ‘Solid Gold’ with his family, playing with toy cars, before tragedy struck. He apologizes and leaves, Janine asking if she did something wrong, and Todd pointing out that she had been waiting for him to take her to the science center all week. That’s pretty heartbreaking, and sends MM out on his own determined to find Soldier Boy, intent on revenge.
Butcher and Hughie convince him to go after Soldier Boy together with them, which brings them to the home of The Legend, with photos of him with Sinatra and Burt Reynolds on the wall and stories of wild coke-fueled sex with everyone from Angelica Huston to Marlon Brando. MM calls it accurately that while The Legend okayed a lot of cover ups, he feels guilty about them, and so he agrees to help them. He tells them that Soldier Boy had been there to pick up his super suit. When the boys ask if he knew Soldier Boy would blow up a building, he scoffs.
The Legend: Who knows why talent does what they do? That’s why they’re talent!
Soldier Boy also came for his girlfriend’s address – Crimson Countess. So that’s where the boys go to intercept him. Butcher, Hughie and Mother’s Milk stop at Butcher’s car and Butcher flips open his trunk, the three staring down at it in another homage to an iconic scene in Supernatural. The Temp V waits for them, and Hughie stares at it like an addict, but MM is resolute.
The iconic Sam and Dean trunk shots from Supernatural, in case you don’t relate everything in the universe to that show like I do:
MM: My dad wouldn’t want it. He said if you don’t draw the line somewhere, how the hell are you gonna know where you stand?
Butcher insists that Hughie can decide for himself, and Hughie does, asking if they want weak freaking the fuck out Hughie or strong confident handling his shit Hughie? It’s clear which one he wants to be.
They find Crimson Countess in the middle of singing her ridiculous (and awesome) ballad “Chimps Don’t Cry” and entertaining an Only Fans customer who’s frantically jerking off on the other end of the camera (in a cameo by Seth Rogen because apparently they couldn’t find anyone else willing to do it).
The boys tape her to a chair and tell her Soldier Boy is coming, and she begs them to let her go, saying that he’ll kill her – he’ll kill them all. Butcher is frighteningly unmoved by her plea, his eyes glowing green.
Laurie Holden did a wonderful job as Crimson Countess. She’s a Supe too, a member of Payback, and that means she’s probably done some very shitty things – in an earlier episode she exploded a hapless worker at the rainbow theme park – but Holden also makes her appealing. I mean, she’s had to pretend to be pining for her lost love Soldier Boy for decades while doing video sex work with guys like surprise cameo Seth Rogen – I mean, Sircumsalot. And she loves chimps! Okay, so she’s got a chimp sanctuary that’s probably only there to make money and still keeps chimps in cages, but I love her ‘Chimps Don’t Cry’ song anyway, I can’t help it. Chris Lennertz and Laurie Holden together make that whole video priceless – check it out in the XRay features if you haven’t already.
MM calls Annie to try to convince Hughie not to fall down the slippery slope he’s on. When she shows up, Hughie teleports them a distance away (losing his clothes in the process, which is The Boys trying to make things make more logical sense but also making it hilarious), and he tells her about taking the Temp V and why.
Hughie: What if you got hurt trying to save me? Now you don’t have to, I can finally save you for once.
Annie: I don’t need you to save me, Hughie. I need you!
The radioactivity meter Butcher and MM have starts ticking (another Supernatural shout out to the Winchesters’ ubiquitous EMF meter), and MM starts to feel woozy.
Butcher: I can’t draw no line. I’m sorry. You’ll be all right in the morning.
He eases a drugged MM to the ground, and then we see Soldier Boy emerging from the misty night. A close up of his super suit, his legs, his boots, his shield.
I might have been swearing a blue streak at that moment – it was pretty damn epic.
Soldier Boy: You’re that asshole from the lab.
We get the absolute treat of a Butcher and Soldier Boy face off, Butcher saying they’ve given him the Countess as a gesture of good faith, and he’s hoping they can come to a little arrangement – a team up.
Soldier Boy smirks.
Is it hot in here?
We learn more about Soldier Boy as he finally confronts Crimson Countess, who was his girlfriend back in the day. She tells him she’s sorry, and for a moment he looks sorry too.
She humanizes him more by calling him by his name, Ben, and then wounds him in an entirely different way by admitting that the Russians didn’t pay her anything to betray him – that, far from loving him like he was all too happy to believe, she hated him. She didn’t sell him out to the Russians – they didn’t pay her anything.
It’s more data in the ‘he’s a misogynistic abusive asshole’ category, since she says that the entire team hated him, but it’s also hard to witness without once again feeling empathy for Soldier Boy – Ben. (Which may or may not be a shout out to Ackles’ role as another manipulated killing machine, Ben on Dark Angel). He goes from bravado and aggressive confrontation to shock at the realization that he wasn’t loved after all, just the opposite.
Soldier Boy: I loved you. All these years that they burned me and then pumped me full of poison, I held onto the hope that you would come, that you would save me.
There are tears in his eyes, lower lip quivering. He looks heartbroken.
Soldier Boy: Because I still loved you.
Crimson Countess, knowing she’s about to die, tells the truth just like Maeve did to Homelander.
CC: I didn’t love you. I hated you. We all did.
You can see it sink in, Soldier Boy’s eyes filling up, his jaw set.
Agonized, angry, hurt.
And you can see the moment he closes the vulnerable, wounded part of him off – his eyes go steely, cold. His mouth and his chin stop quivering as he sets his jaw with determination. It’s a long practiced skill likely, and one we don’t yet know why or when it was perfected, but Ackles shows it happen in real time and we can all interpret it easily.
It’s chilling, a reminder of how dangerous Soldier Boy is. Just like Homelander with a gaping narcissistic wound realizing Maeve never loved him is the most dangerous version, so is Soldier Boy similarly wounded. We know that neither of them actually know how to love in any kind of reciprocal sense, so we really don’t blame Maeve or Crimson Countess for feeling the way they do, but it’s hard to see anyone broken apart like that, even if they deserve it. I don’t think anyone was surprised when his chest glowed and he exploded Crimson Countess and her entire house into burning rubble.
Butcher carries an unconscious MM out of the destroyed house, and Soldier Boy emerges out of the smoke.
This is the behind the scenes photo we saw long ago during filming, snapped of Jensen Ackles by Jack Quaid and looking so ethereally beautiful.
Starlight confronts him, but Butcher puts himself between them. She realizes that Hughie knew this was going to happen and got her out of there – and that his “no more secrets” promise was broken.
Hughie: It’s the only way I can save you from Homelander! I’m doing this for you. Whatever it takes, remember? Come with us – you and me against the world.
Butcher beckons; Annie asks Hughie not to go, tears in her eyes.
The decision he makes pretty much breaks all our hearts.
That wasn’t a typical ending for an episode of The Boys, but it was perhaps the most emotionally powerful one yet. Both the allure and the consequences of toxic masculinity laid bare in one episode. Hughie can’t give up the chance to be the strong man, the one who saves others. Homelander and Soldier Boy held onto that and gave in to all the worst parts of themselves, and lost their chance to be loved and ultimately save themselves. Butcher is on that same slippery slope himself. The question is, can Starlight help Hughie save not others, but himself?
If you haven’t watched, what are you waiting for? And if you have, stay tuned for a brand new episode next Friday – and the long-awaited Herogasm episode!
You can read Jensen Ackles’ thoughts on fandom
(and the other Supernatural actors too) in his
chapters in Family Don’t End With Blood and
There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done – links
here or at:
6 thoughts on “The Boys Episode 5 (And More Reluctant Jensen Ackles-Induced Empathy)”
Everyone on this show is doing a spectacular job, doing what Kripke does best, posing open ended questions we must ask ourselves.vEveryone is bringing their ‘A’ game.
So I’m just leaving it here to consider. At what point are past debts paid? For Ben, Soldier Boy, he’s been through literal Hell,
betrayed, isolated, terrified, tortured and brutalized in horrific ways for forty years. Has he not done penance enough for his crimes? Is there a point at which second chances are earned the hard way?
What remorse or compassion did Crimson Countess show, knowing that her betrayal would hand Soldier Boy over to an eternity of suffering, she must have known he’d be experimented on and dehumanised like a lab rat . Whatever Soldier Boy did or didn’t do, how are her actions those of a decent person? Where was her humanity?
The parallels are there between, both the Supes and The Boys and the lines are blurring, Butcher brutally murdered Gunpowder, the only Supe who remained loyal to Soldier Boy, but protects Ryan, so much hypocrisy going around, at what point does justice get lost in the desire for vengeance,? A favourite Kripke theme. What price is too high?
The very best thing about this show is all the complex questions woven in that are left for us to figure out, as extreme as some of it is, everything serves a purpose as a prompt to look inward at ourselves and it’s not serving up a happy ever after ( although Please let Frenchie and Kimiko have some happiness, at least for a little while longer…)
Who on this show has the moral high ground. Grace, with her CIA connections, delt drugs into minority neiborhoods, Butcher didn’t have clean hands even before his hatred over Becca’s rape. Soldier Boy fought in world war 2 and if you think he was the only racist, misogynistic, and homophobic soldier in that war, well read a little history.
Thanks for the thoughtful review. I look forward to your insights.
How ironic is it that Crimson Countess hated him so much as to betray Soldier Boy so thoroughly and then spend however many years as a has-been Supe singing every half hour on the hour how great he was and about his heroic and selfless sacrifice?
Karma Supe style. 😉