Takeaways from The Boys

Now that the weather is getting cold and we still aren’t allowed to socialize in other dorms, I’ve found myself spending an increasing amount of time inside with my roommates. While we were looking for a TV show to alleviate our boredom during these cold and isolated weekends, we came across one called The Boys. Despite an irreligious and in some places clearly anti-Christian plot, this show carries some startlingly Christian themes.

I should note that I don’t fully recommend watching the show. It is often disturbing, vulgar, and excessively violent, and, frankly, takes a bit too much glee in its own dark plot. However, if one can get past the more depraved scenes — my roommates and I often look away from the TV or fast-forward through them — the show offers a poignant message about revenge and the human tendency toward evil.

The story takes place in a world where superheroes are adored as celebrities, noble crime fighters who happen to rake in billions of dollars in TV deals for their private security company. However, they are not nearly the upstanding people the media portrays them to be, and, as the show goes on, we find that their far-above-average power is matched by far-below-average moral standards. Enter the aptly-named Billy Butcher, a vigilante in search of his missing wife who sets out on a violent crusade against the company responsible for her fate. He is a modern-day Achilles, a fierce and terrible warrior fueled by all-consuming rage for vengeance. And much like we read in the opening lines of The Iliad, Butcher inflicts “countless sufferings” on those around him: two old acquaintances trying to escape their criminal past are dragged back to their old ways by his manipulation, and a naive, timid man named Hughie, whose girlfriend was killed in an act of recklessness by one of the “superheroes,” is also seduced to join the team. By the end of the first episode, the whole group become fugitives from justice after the once mild-mannered Hughie kills a man, and, for the rest of the season, Hughie struggles to integrate Butcher’s vigilante violence with his desire for real justice, all while Butcher drives the group to even greater extremes. 

After all this, one may wonder whether the show is worth watching at all. Shouldn’t such a vile plot outweigh whatever thematic value the story has? Perhaps. But, then again, maybe a certain degree of darkness is called for when presenting some of the darker truths of the human condition. The evil should never be presented as praiseworthy, of course, and, to the degree that the show may do this, it is wrong. Nevertheless, we can extract valuable kernels of truth from a work with which we otherwise disagree, in a similar way to the many classical Christian thinkers who happily cited pagan Greek philosophers in their own theological expositions.

With this in mind, let’s consider the most prominent theme of the show: revenge. Initially, we empathize a good deal with Billy Butcher. A corrupt system has made it impossible for him to find justice, but, filled with passionate love for his wife, he refuses to let the system have the final word. The same is true for Hughie, who only wants to stand up for what is right. However, we quickly come to see the dark side of Butcher’s crusade, as he cynically manipulates his allies and takes a disturbing amount of pleasure from creatively inflicting pain on those he believes have wronged him. Aquinas might say that Butcher has let his passions overwhelm his intellect; what might have begun as a quest for justice has been twisted into an all-consuming, self-centered quest for violent revenge. This hollow parody of justice sucks in everyone around him like a vacuum, turning a family man helping reform juvenile delinquents into a fugitive of the law, exacerbating the drug habits of a troubled soul and turning milquetoast Hughie into a stone-cold killer.

But no one is harmed more by Butcher’s disordered soul than Butcher himself. Having turned himself into a brutal, rage-fueled machine, he is flummoxed when he is finally reunited with her. All this time, he has been indulging his own worst instincts, harnessing his righteous anger but then letting it devolve into wanton violence. When an unforeseen complication with his wife requires him to respond with an attitude of true, noble love, he finds that the same fiery hatred that has helped him in his fight to find her has burned away the part of him that is capable of love, twisted what should be the most selfless of human emotions into an entirely egocentric self-indulgence. In a tragically fitting end to the episode, Butcher’s wife refuses to go with him, leaving him in his miserable, self-imposed isolation. For fans of C.S. Lewis, the concept of Hell as total self-indulgence culminating in total loneliness is quintessentially applicable to Butcher. 

Ultimately, the message we can take from this show as Catholics is twofold. First, be wary of indulging any sense of righteous anger. Anger can quickly take on inordinate power and lead us down a road of destruction that harms ourselves and those around us. While righteous anger has a role to play in standing up against injustice, it must be tempered by Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. The second is a lesson not found in the show itself but in the process of analyzing it: even something that seems antithetical to our own values can end up offering a grain of truth, and, through intelligent, discerning engagement with a hostile part of the culture, we can better communicate our ideas and better illuminate — as lights shining in the darkness — the shortcomings in the culture itself. 

Jack McEnery is a freshman studying PLS and a proud Alumni Hall Dawg. He can always be found participating in the dorm’s traditional Quad Dancing—look for him amidst the dynamic crowd of scantily-dressed and socially-distanced dancing dawgs on South Quad at 12:41 pm on home-game Fridays—or contact him at cmcenery@nd.edu.