Hell-raisers: The Boys season 3 shakes up prestige TV with superhero debauchery
The boys are back in town. On a balmy spring afternoon, Jack Quaid greets three of his chums as he arrives at Hudson Lofts in Los Angeles. A sun-kissed Karl Urban and grizzled Antony Starr, his fellow series veterans on The Boys, gather round with Supernatural's Jensen Ackles, the big newcomer of the upcoming season. Between sips of their to-go coffees they eagerly wait for Quaid — who is on leave from his role in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer film — to regale them with tales of working with the illustrious filmmaker of Inception and The Dark Knight. (Those coffees, by the way, will be swapped for Ackles' go-to, bourbon, once the evening gets going.)
"Everybody's just insane," Quaid says, meaning the cast is crazy talented — not the kind of "insane" that has come to define their own brutally satirical R-rated drama. The guys haven't been in the same room together since making The Boys season 3 in Canada the previous September. Starr's been off on a months-long adventure in Spain filming Guy Ritchie's latest actioner, The Interpreter with Jake Gyllenhaal, while Urban and Ackles are fresh off an appearance at SXSW in Austin. No matter how long it's been, it doesn't take much for that signature insanity to jump out.
"This is a remake of The Hangover," Starr remarks as the gang surveys the set of EW's photo shoot. Red and green lights illuminate a tar-and-feathered hotel room torn asunder. Shards of glass glisten in the curls of the rug, a toppled television plays nonstop static, and a black scorch mark licks the wall. Urban, sporting a disheveled black suit replete with dirt and ripped seams, has another idea to enhance the scene. He plops down in a frayed recliner, poised to sip tea from a cracked porcelain cup as a nod to his Cockney alter ego, Billy Butcher. Silently, he holds out his outstretched arm, waiting for someone to grab the saucer. After three seasons playing the vigilante, Urban knows when something's not right. "Look at this whole wrecked place," he finally says. "Butcher wouldn't have a saucer."
All four of these stars have become masters of this kind of mayhem thanks to their time filming The Boys, about a world in which superheroes are more like out-of-control celebrities (like the Seven, led by Starr's Homelander) and one unorthodox group of supe-fighters (the Boys, led by Urban's Butcher) are keeping them in check. The subversive show hasn't just won over fans, but the industry too. After The Boys — with its distinct take on the standard comic book-based fare — became one of Amazon Prime Video's top series, the team nabbed two Emmy nominations last year, one in the coveted Best Drama category.
It's crazy for Karen Fukuhara, who plays silent assassin (and main female member of the Boys) Kimiko, to think their show and all its wildly provocative stunts — death by cunnilingus and the 10-foot-long superhuman retractable penis included — would be welcomed by the purveyors of prestige television. "A lot of people would think that our show is inappropriate. To me, it's inappropriate in all the right ways," Fukuhara says. She chalks the moment up to the show's poignant writing that is attuned to the current cultural and political pulse of the real world, whether that is tackling the #MeToo movement (season 1) or the public resurgence of white nationalism (season 2). "We had gotten the golden stamp from the [Television] Academy, and there's no better feeling than to feel validated for the work that you do."
Still, The Boys will be The Boys, awards recognition or none. The wild antics don't let up in season 3, premiering its first three episodes on Amazon this June 3. And if Quaid is to be believed, they are delivering "the most insane season of TV ever filmed." That's him doing his best not to hyperbolize, but he insists: "It is really, really, truly insane."
It's payback time
Every time Starr thinks showrunner Eric Kripke and his room of writers have gone too far with what they put on screen, it's pretty much guaranteed that scene will become an iconic moment with viewers. He points to the season 2 episode where Urban's Butcher drives a speedboat straight through a giant whale as a prime example. (The Emmys aired that clip as part of The Boys' Best Drama nomination announcement during a July livestream. Quaid found it "most appropriate.") And Fukuhara says season 3 "will make that whole whale sequence look like a piece of cake." Reading the scripts, she didn't know how they were going to pull off some of the material. "It's not just about the crazy action scenes [or] the social commentary," she explains, but also about "the depths of the characters, and the darkness that some of them go through. I don't know how we did it, but hopefully it's allowed to air."
That's what Starr appreciates about the show: "It doesn't pull its punches" And this season, some of those punches are thrown by the newest addition to the cast, Soldier Boy (Ackles), who drops in amid a tumultuous time for the world. We pick up after a yearlong time jump from the end of the season 2 finale, which saw the Boys defeating the Nazi supe Stormfront (Aya Cash) and finally muzzling the most powerful (and most sadistic) man alive, Homelander, with blackmail. Now, "everything is mostly under control," Kripke hints. Hughie (Quaid) has been fighting supes a more legal way, as part of Congresswoman Victoria Neuman's (Claudia Doumit) newly-launched Federal Bureau of Supe Affairs. But he's unaware that his new boss is the elusive head popper the Boys were hunting in season 2. Butcher, meanwhile, feels like he's being kept on a tight leash. "He's sick of being told that he has to go to a gunfight with a knife," Urban says. "So, he decides to take matters into his own hands." With Homelander going haywire, this time even worse than before, Butcher gets hold of a serum that bestows superpowers for 24 hours, breaking his long-held mantra ("The only good supe is a dead supe"). "The result changes the course of everything," Urban adds. "It leads to unexpected alliances and conflicts between characters that historically get along."
A few ideas were bobbing around the writers' room when they mapped out the season 3 arc. Kripke, on a break from finishing the last edits in early May, teases that "a really troubling development" in our country became top of mind. "The powers that be got very good at making you scared about these foreign 'others' who are coming to kill you," he says. "Now they're saying the people that are coming to get you are your neighbor — the other political party." The show leans into that idea in part through Soldier Boy. Vought International (the show's big bad corporation, which created the Seven and supes through their pharmaceutical concoction Compound V) rolled him out as the world's first superhero. "What is interesting about Soldier Boy as an antagonist is he's like this walking, talking figure of macho American history," Kripke explains. "The figures that they're using to create fear and panic and to manipulate and control the population are other Americans."
So, what happens when two of these guys, Homelander and Soldier Boy, are put together in the same room? "It doesn't go well," Kripke teases. "When you have two alpha males who both consider themselves the most powerful, most famous person on the planet, that gets to conflict pretty quickly."
Soldier Boy led the first team of heroes who were operating during World War II. Known as Payback, Kripke describes them as the Seven before the Seven. "They were the biggest stars in the world at one time," he adds. Now, in the present day, they are "the has-beens" who are "trying to hold on to some little bit of the spotlight." Payback's members include Crimson Countess (The Walking Dead veteran Laurie Holden), Gunpowder (The Boondock Saints' Sean Patrick Flannery), and others like the TNT Twins and Mindstorm. But Soldier Boy, really, is a piece of work.
From Supernatural to supe
"It's Captain America on his a--," says Ackles. "It's as if Captain America gave up superheroism and was just your drunk and inappropriate uncle." More than that, this super-soldier emits toxic masculinity like it's exhaust — another concept at the forefront of season 3. "It's mind-blowing how the most powerful white dudes in the world are the ones that are first to claim that they're being victimized and disenfranchised and persecuted," Kripke elaborates. "We're trying to call attention to what bulls--- that is."
Ackles recalls how Kripke would actively try to push the limits of what you could show on screen during their days working on the WB/CW's Supernatural. The showrunner felt like a caged lion at the time — or at least a lion caged by Standards and Practices censors. To some extent, Ackles knew what he was getting into when, after Supernatural's conclusion in 2020, the pair decided to work together again on The Boys, this time with the narrative liberties that come with making a show for a subscription streaming platform. Still, Kripke managed to push the actor to the edge.
Ackles was game for just about everything season 3 had to throw at him, except for one part of the Soldier Boy arc. The actor called up Kripke after reading the scripts and, based on the pair's accounts of that call, the conversation went something like this: "As a father of three, and a son and a husband and a self-respecting human being, I can't do this. I didn't know where my line was, but you found it." For now, they both decline to say what this scene entailed exactly, but Kripke admits to laughing when he got Ackles' call. Not that he found the situation funny. It was more the thought that maybe they had finally pushed the TV limits too far. "We worked out a compromise where I got what I needed without him destroying his soul," Kripke says.
Urban sees it as a good sign: "When Jensen Ackles is making calls like, 'I don't know if I can do this,' that's when you know you're in the right place." It's clear the cast has a lot of faith in Kripke's vision. When he asks someone to climb into a dead whale carcass, the reply would likely be, "In what shoes?" So, when it was finally time to adapt something that faithful fans of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson's original The Boys comics have been waiting years to see realized, everyone was on board.
'Herogasm' at last
"Herogasm" is something Kripke has been talking about doing since season 1. In the comics, it's the name of a particular story arc that sees the world's superheroes banding together to fight aliens in outer space. At least, that's what they tell the public. Instead, they secretly fly to a remote island and have a weeklong orgy. "Herogasm" is now the title of the sixth episode of season 3, but Starr teases that "it's maybe not what people would expect" from reading the comics.
There's still going to be lots of nudity. However, being on what Kripke describes as a "hot, stuffy, sticky film set" isn't so sexy after a while. Executive producer Paul Grellong was actually on location for "Herogasm" with the episode's director Nelson Crowd. "Day 1, it's really novel and you're surrounded by all these beautiful naked people," Kripke recalls Grellong relaying. "By Day 2, they're all naked mole rats and you just want to get outside." Adds Ackles: "The look on our crew was like they'd just been through some horrible experience." All jokes aside, he describes the underlying sentiment amidst cast and crew, adding that at the end of the day: "We trust the process that is this show. There's a reason why [it's] as popular as it is around the world, and it's because we don't hold back."
In some ways, "Herogasm" is reflective of how far the show has come. It was a slow burn for The Boys' ascent to streaming ratings darling, which didn't happen until the premiere of season 2 in 2020. Season 1 was a strong start, but when the first year of COVID-19 postponed the premieres of nearly all other big-ticket dramas, everyone had time to try out the supes come that September. "If you were to ask the Amazon executives, they would deny it, but I feel like ['Herogasm'] was in a strange way a reward for two seasons of a successful show," Kripke says. "There was no way we could have sold that pitch the first season." In his defense, he did fully realize a closeted religious supe getting into a four-gy at a nightclub.
"We definitely have more permission to go nuts," Quaid agrees. "I feel like every season we reset what the ceiling is, and somehow we push through it. I don't know how we can keep raising the bar for messed-up things, but Eric keeps finding a way." Fukuhara adds, "Hopefully, the Television Academy will accept us again. We'll see." If not the Emmys, the fans will.
Director: Kristen Harding; Photographer: Gina Gizella Manning; DP: Madeline Leach; 1st AC: Kyle Summers; Steadicam: Luke Rihl; Photo Assistant: Ian Spencer; Gaffer: Kay Zhou; Key Grip: Spenser Adelstein; Best Boy Electric: Bailey Clark; Set Lighting Technician: Ethan Waddell; Best Boy Grip: Dave Adam; Grip: Sebastian Lam; DIT: Jamie Yu; Set Designer: Daniel Luna; Set Assistants: Fabian Fioto, Naoko Inada, Cole Maxwell; Stylist: Evan Simonitsch; Stylist Assistant: Reagan Morley; Groomers: Sussy Campos (Ackles), Stephanie Hobgood (Quaid), Blondie (Starr), Simone (Urban); Photo Director: Maya Robinson; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr; Video Editor: Ethan Bellows; VFX: Ira Morris, Color Correction: Carlos Flores
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