She, too, had been a victim of sorts; a slave to poverty and discrimination (on grounds of both race and gender); in thrall to a violent, charismatic criminal, a man who thought nothing of throwing men a beating, chopping off their pinkies or shooting them dead; a man who was out with one of his many mistresses on the night that she miscarried a baby and needed him by her side. Tony, his son, takes these revelations and buries them, as deep as they’ll go, partly because Tony’s world is a man’s world and men get a pass, but mainly to avoid the bright bulb of introspection from falling upon his own, very similar behavior. His mother gets the blame, but who really made Tony?
The world of The Boys is, to an extent, a man’s one, too, except that the boys here don’t get a pass. Given its title, it’s a surprisingly feminist show for one that is also, on the surface at least, a testosterone-fuelled superhero show (albeit one that takes an anti-superhero stance). The female characters are strong, but not inhumanly, infallibly strong like some of the Marvel heroes they parody. They’re flawed, human, and fascinating. They kick ass, they fuck up, but they’re never one-note or scapegoats. Of course there are bad women and mothers out there in the real world, and we shouldn’t shy away from imagining or creating those kinds of stories, but what we’ve seen on TV and film over the last decade or so is the steady opening up of a multiplicity of perspectives that’s been busy enriching our cultural currency. We should roll with that for a while. There’s a lot of lost ground to catch up on.
Perhaps much of the appeal of stories about bad mothers relies on our preconceptions of motherhood and the expectations that have always been laid upon women to be not just good mothers, but perfect ones. A bad mother stands out more than a bad father because for much of human history it’s been almost impossible to be classed as a bad father.
Let’s take Butcher. Without his own father’s brutality he mightn’t have been capable of becoming the effective, remorseless killing-machine we know and love, but, on the other hand, without his father’s brutality, he mightn’t felt the urge to pursue his vendetta in the first place. He might have been more like an immediately post-A-Train Hughie. But here’s the rub, because, arguably, a world with Homelanders needs Butchers, and plenty of them. There’s a weird and tragic duality at play here. Homelander is who he is largely because of his own failed father, so really the two men are destroying each other, and the world around them, because of their daddy issues.
Butcher himself is a flawed father figure. He uses a grief-wracked Hughie as a pawn to pursue his own vendetta against The Seven, showing the same sort of callous disregard Homelander might show an underling. But through Butcher’s influence Hughie learns to be (or is forced to become) bold, assertive, even brutal; the sort of son his own father could never have let him be; wouldn’t have known how to kindle. In time, almost despite himself, Butcher comes to care about Hughie, albeit not always in a conventionally paternal way. Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) tells Butcher early on this season that Hughie is his ‘pit canary’; if something bad happens to Hughie, then Butcher will know he’s gone too far. So if Butcher can be said to be the kind of father that Hughie never had, then Hughie, in turn, can be said to be the conscience that Butcher long forsook in favor of bloodshed.