Considering “Nothing Like It in the World” marks The Boys‘ semi-shift into a weekly series, it is a strange decision for that episode to be a bloated, 68-minute mess mostly reinforcing the worst tendencies of prestige streaming series. It’s poorly paced, from the episode’s timeline to its goofy attempts to parallel certain events (mostly people fucking), trading in coherency for volume, a dump of character beats, plot details, and back stories that all kind of just fall of a cliff by the end of it all.
Considering “Nothing Like It in the World” marks The Boys’ semi-shift into a weekly series, it is a strange decision for that episode to be a bloated, 68-minute mess… and yet, it is a fascinating hour of TV.
And yet, it is a fascinating hour of television; there are a lot of things, large and small, The Boys is doing differently in season two. The most important of these changes is the show’s shift away from strictly parodying superhero culture for the sake of cynical laughs, into something that uses the extremes and “big-ness” (official TV term) of its subjects more as a critical lens of the dystopia we call our own reality in 2020. The reveal of Stormfront as Liberty is probably the biggest tell in all of this; though it is obvious the writer’s room was paying attention to what Watchmen was doing, it still offers a more engaging villain than the vague corporate mysticism presiding over much of season one’s dramatics.
Stormfront’s presence in this episode is light, but her weight is felt across the entire spectrum of The Boys; so much so we spend a good 20-plus minutes on the road trip bringing us to the reveal that she was murdering black children in North Carolina in the 1940’s under the identity Liberty. Racists who succeed, after all, are very good at one specific thing in the modern age: branding and pandering, a tactic Stormfront’s been applying on the fringes of season two with surgical precision, undercutting Homelander’s influence along the way.
Stormfront knows how to wield the most powerful tools in modern society: social media and hysteria, understanding that the neoliberal dream of being a leader “for everyone” is a shrinking idealistic dream. The deification of The Seven, in a lot of ways, neatly parallels what we see in the media when John McCain or Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies; rather than be treated as human beings, they’re treated as beacons of some ideal, an anchor for some arbitrarily-measured sense of moral quality. That deification is the very thing The Boys parodies in its superheroes; the inability to learn the dangers of that, of course, have dire consequences, ones being felt in both “Nothing Like it in the World” and ours.
The other major unifying concept of The Boys is examining the transactional nature of emotion; for The Deep, it is literally taking auditions for his Collective-approved wife, though it takes slightly subtler forms elsewhere, mostly involving characters getting naked with each other (look, The Boys is getting better, but it still has its repetitive streak, seen in three different boring-as-all-hell sex scenes). All three of those scenes, as ineffective an unsexy as they are (seriously – did anyone watch Normal People this year? There’s such thing as good sex on TV!!!), are effective because of what follows them; a series of rejections, engaging with the core cynicism of The Boys in a more challenging, surprising way.
It would’ve been so easy for The Boys to get The Ladies on board – hell, the women in the Collective are ready to get on board to be The Deep’s wife – and yet, the writers took a more complicated approach, with Becca’s rejection of Butcher, Annie’s hesitation to reconcile with Hughie, and whoever the girl Frenchie showed up to bang for a scene and whine about Kimiko refusing to engage with his victim mentality. The latter might not be very consequential (given Frenchie’s limited influence on anything this season, how could it be), but the synchronizing of these three stories across the episode is interesting, an abject refusal by The Boys to be simple – or more importantly, to constantly pander to the needs of the men in the series.
(As poorly scripted, sequenced, and performed those scenes are, it is nice to see sex on TV just be some regular ass sex that doesn’t grant one party emotional dominion over the other).
Thankfully, “Nothing Like It in the World” is a little more than its most horizontal moments; as I prefaced in the opening paragraph, there’s all too much of this episode. There are some serious Choices in this episode that boggle the mind; interspersing The Deep’s interviews through the story (yes, I get the episode is feinting being about ‘love’, but a show as cynical as The Boys can’t really do romance) makes no sense, mostly existing as curious filler moments between a collection of scenes that all run on wayyyyy longer than they need, to get the point across.
Another example: we already saw a whole season of Homelander’s weird fetish for his now-dead boss; did we really need to Elisabeth Shue-horn her character back for two interminably long scenes? While her performance remains tic-y and weird (even playing a version of herself being projected by season one’s Doppleganger), Shue’s presence only harkens back to a different era for the young series, one still lacking in confidence, fumbling to find its voice. Then, she was a bit of a dramatic anchor for the series; in this fully formed, slightly weirder and quieter second season, she sticks out like a sore thumb, a landmark for a much lesser, simplistic action superhero series.
It’s sad to say, but Homelander is infinitely more compelling when being challenged by real presences; shifting attitudes of the public, combined with Stormfront’s casual dismissal of his narcissim, are driving Homelander to a more angry, desperate place than ever before. If anything, this hour really establishes him as the season’s big ticking time bomb; with Kenji’s wild card forcefully removed from the table and Stormfront’s confident Nazi-ism well established at this point, he’s the real variable of season two.
Vought the company’s mostly faded to the background, and the various members of the Seven are treadmilling through their story lines (boy, Maeve talks a lot about a character we never see!) – or in the case of A-Train, being told to get off the treadmill altogether. Maeve and A-Train’s stories continue to be disappointing in how little screen time they’re given; as objects to isolate Homelander, they’re effective, and intriguing in that kind of “ooo, who is going to win when the heroes start fucking each other up” kind of way. But as actual characters, they really aren’t doing shit: and while so much of The Boys is working really well, seeing these side plots awkwardly stumble through the main narrative in each episode is disappointing – and a little embarrassing, considering how little it seems both writers and performers are interested in the stories (basically extensions of season one: A-Train’s failing, Maeve’s floundering… let’s move forward, people!).
After this episode, The Boys can only move forward; if there’s one benefit to this episode being a massive dump of information and over-extended exchanges, it will be reaped in future episodes that don’t have to waste time with all this table-setting. It’s supremely annoying how streaming series pace themselves in 2020, but it is a byproduct of an industry running on hope and vague viewership numbers; the Big Moments really have to pop, so might as well clear the deck for those moments with episodes like “Nothing Like It in the World,” right?
- Did I miss something, or does Black Noir’s story just drop off the face of the earth in this episode? Wasn’t he going to go after Billy – why do we have to wait for next week for that?
- I didn’t go into detail about the reveal around Mother’s Milk’s backstory, but boy, the Watchmen parallels are strong; the idea of inherited trauma is so powerful, and informs the character’s approach to the scene in North Carolina in a really sobering, thoughtful way.
- I appreciate a show that respects its minor characters: Anika the analyst and Doppleganger returning help continue to build out a world for The Boys, which has a bad habit of forgetting an actual world exist outside of Hughie and the “heroes.”
- Oh yeah, Frenchie’s on a bender,
- Speaking of: how is Hughie walking around Central Park with no disguise, or attempt to conceal his identity? Isn’t he one of the most wanted men in America right now?
- Those donuts were Fucking enormous. really bothered me when Annie said they went to Dunkin’ for chocolate cream-filled donuts, because those most certainly DID NOT exist when I was getting donuts there as a child. See? All heroes are lying pieces of shit!
- “You have fans; I have soldiers.” Stormfront is so well-written; so glad Aya Cash was cast in this role.
- I really should’ve stopped writing this review after the “Shue-horn” bit, huh.