The Boys Season One Episode 2: “Cherry” Is a Toxic Affair
On the surface, “Cherry” is a rather deft turn for The Boys in its second episode, an interesting deconstruction of the classic “villain captures hero” trope. There’s also a lot of intriguing other ideas brought into play, be it the power hierarchy inside the Seven, or Madelyn’s larger goals of getting some of that good American defense spending money injected into Vought International. But underneath the thin veneer of antihero grime and socio-political intrigue lies a rather toxic, off putting episode, one more inclined to indulge in the worst, most sinister flaws of the genre it is supposedly satirizing.
It’s unfortunate the more interesting beats of “Cherry” are obfuscated under The Boys’ thick layer of shitty, homophobic humor.
Take the character of Translucent, who meets an abrupt end in the final minutes of “Cherry.” Introduced as “creepy guy who uses invisibility powers to hang out in bathrooms,” Translucent’s brief arc contained three elements: full frontal nude scene, getting electrocuted up his ass in “The Name of the Game,” and getting killed by… a bomb that Frenchie sticks up his ass at some point in “Cherry.” Neither incident is particularly funny, but The Boys certainly thinks it is being clever – and for a series that’s already reveled in moments of sexual violence and casual homophobia, suddenly becomes a disturbing trend the rest of “Cherry” follows.
Which is a bummer, because the predicament Butcher, Hughie, and Frenchie end up in is fascinating, full of brainstorming sessions on how they might be able to kill a superhero. Usually, in comic books, villains appear once they have a plan ready to be put into action: Butcher and his partners are a team haphazardly thrown together after a chance encounter, thoroughly unprepared to realize whatever grander scheme or goal beyond “kill this invisible prick” – which they eventually do, in a moment that feels like a solidification of The Boys‘ most nihilistic tendencies.
Hughie being the trigger man on Translucent’s ass bomb is a classic “loss of innocence” moment for antihero characters – on The Boys, it is literally treated as Hughie losing his murderer virginity, a gory, juvenile metaphor that only serves to further ingratiate The Boys with the juvenile cynicism, with all the subtlety of frat house humor. “Cherry” revels in its own immaturity, even as it depicts Hughie (still dealing with a massive trauma in his life, I might add) going through a transformative, supposedly maturing sequence of events: in an episode where three of the four plot arcs distinctly feature sexualized violence and rampant homophobia (and the fourth features a bestiality joke), this supposed moment of depth for Hughie lands with a dull thud.
The second plot of “Cherry” also hinges on an eye-rolling sexual endeavor: when a senator from Oklahoma laughs at Madelyn’s attempts to get supes involved in national defense, she sends a shape-shifting client (named Doppleganger) to his hotel room to black mail him. How does Madelyn accomplish this? She has Doppleganger present as a female sex worker, who then shifts back to their more natural, masculine state during sex in order to take suggestive pictures.
While it does an effective job painting just how desperate and manipulative Madelyn is to accumulate power, it takes a rather interesting idea about gender fluidity in this world, and reduces it to yet another gay panic joke, in what’s quickly becoming a disturbing habit for My Boys. It’s amazing how ignorant it is to the possibilities of this idea, reducing the entire thing to the senator’s eye-rolling punchline at the end of the scene: “Hey, this feels different?!”
The Boys thinks it is clever and subversive: but how flippantly it has treated sexual violence as a punch line is disturbing. It’s hard to expect a show literally called The Boys to be a pantheon of progressive values, but it is wildly disappointing to see a series in 2019 waste so many talented performers and intriguing plot ideas for lame homophobic punchlines and superficial expressions of testosterone.
I think that’s why Starlight’s big scenes – where she tells off The Deep during her first mission, and beats up some potential rapists later on – land a bit flat during “Cherry.” It feels like The Boys trying to play both sides of the argument, like the mere existence of Starlight and her resilience in the face of a sexual assault, gives them license for the shitty sensibilities it expresses in nearly every other scene of the episode.
Seeing Starlight take back some of her agency from The Deep is, as one might expect, an empowering moment: but these moments are presented in isolation from everything else in “Cherry,” and never feel like they’re doing anything but the bare minimum to justify the presence of this particular piece of source material. It ends up feeling thin, and disingenuous, eventually devolving into Starlight being shamed by her employers for creating a PR nightmare for Vought, when a video of her beating up rapists hits the internet.
The conflict it introduces is interesting: once superheroes have been privatized, who can superheroes actually save? The politicization of super powers comes with a unique set of caveats and drawbacks: one can justify the death of civilians as a byproduct of saving the world, but their deployment as fascistic tools of corporations and governments is an entirely different issue (and one seminal to comic books, like Superman’s role in the US government during Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns).
But The Boys is less interested in that, than exploring the limits (or lack thereof) of its analogous heroes, which we see with Homelander’s chillingly casual reflections on his career. Once a beacon of greatness, Homelander clearly recognizes what a hypocrisy he’s become – and doesn’t fucking care one bit, The Boys equally villainizing and reveling in his behavior during “Cherry.” Because The Boys refuses to work in any shades of subtlety, Homelander vacillates between being awesome and awful, with nothing to anchor his characterization to anything in particular.
It’s unfortunate the more interesting beats of “Cherry” are obfuscated under supremely juvenile sense humor, because there are so many interesting discussions opened up by the premises of its main plots. However, as the episode slowly devolves into a series of “haha, anal sex is gross!” jokes, it quickly loses the thread on its engaging premises, ultimately reinforcing the most disappointing aspects of the series premiere.
- Starlight and Homelander have a brief exchange about identity that’s rather interesting: Starlight still maintains a secret identity (though the internet just ruined that), while Homelander says he “gave that up” a long time ago. It’s a quietly sad moment, one that gives Homelander a bit of texture the rest of the episode sorely lacks.
- It’s hard to get a read on Frenchie, Butcher’s former colleague/current debtor, a guy who likes to make bullets while taking psychadelics? Tomer Capon’s bringing some serious energy to the performance, but it’s hard to put a thumb on what Frenchie’s about, beyond the obvious sadism.
- I’m so happy Colby Minifie is on The Boys, but her character’s been an annoying faucet of plot-related bullet points so far, which makes her character extremely grating in these early episodes – especially when she tells Starlight to say “this is lit” for an Instagram photo.
- There’s a great scene with Translucent and Hughie, where we can really get a feel for how invincible The Seven feel they are. Then tells Hughie “You’re not the hero of this story,” and we all know how that goes for characters who utter that line.
- Billy Butcher once waterboarded someone 183 times; I certainly can believe he’s CIA after hearing that tidbit.
- there’s a wonderfully awkward scene where A Train, filling in for the missing Translucent, has to participate in a live social media video visiting a child with cancer in the hospital. It’s uncomfortable, artificial, and the kind of cringe-y humor The Boys could lean into more, instead of everything being a joke about buttholes.
- Great shot of Black Noir drinking soda through a straw, then being ignored when trying to grab appetizers off a waiter’s tray.