Since its initial release nearly three years ago, The Boys has made a name for itself as an irreverent, unpredictable, and downright disturbing spectacle of blood, guts, and heroes. However, the premiere episode of Season 3, “Payback” reveals the exact opposite. As we are welcomed back to The Boys’ world, things are quiet, almost calm. But it isn’t peaceful, it’s a piercing sort of calm.
Still reeling from the PR disaster caused in the wake of Stormfront’s (Aya Cash) sinister true intentions, Homelander (Anthony Starr) is attempting to regain the public’s trust and respect as he plays an unending game of damage control throughout the episode. Forced into submission by Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) with video footage of his damning true character during the plane crash in Season 1, Homelander is unable to take any action against her or Starlight (Erin Moriarty). By extension, this also means Homelander can’t lay a finger on Hughie (Jack Quaid), who is now publicly dating Starlight as we see them attend the Dawn of the Seven premiere together. As if being blackmailed into working with the heroes who are actively plotting his downfall isn’t bad enough, Homelander finds himself struggling in the Vought polls for the first time. And his ego isn’t much helped by his numerous talk show appearances where, much to his chagrin, he finds himself second-billed behind ex-Seven member, The Deep (Chace Crawford), on the Vought News Network.
Meanwhile, Butcher (Karl Urban) explores a softer, albeit still quite coarse, side of himself working for the government’s Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs alongside Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) and Frenchie (Tomer Kapon). Butcher finds himself struggling with an uncomfortable amount of conformity in his new role, especially considering he must seek and gain approval from Hughie in order to initiate operations against dirty supes. Even when Butcher’s operations prove successful, he refrains from his usual style of supe-extermination and settles for turning them over to the authorities. Even though Butcher knows they will post bail in a matter of seconds after capture, he complies begrudgingly as any alternative reckless action would jeopardize Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), the son of his late wife, Becca (Shantel VanSanten), and Homelander. We learn that Butcher visits Ryan at a safe house in an undisclosed location, upholding his promise to Becca at the end of Season 2 but as much as Butcher may or may not want to help raise Ryan, he has to limit his interactions with the boy as he knows Homelander is searching for him.
Back over at Vought, Homelander gets what little joy he can from asserting his dominance over his co-workers. He comes across A-Train (Jessie Usher) in the hall, another embarrassing reminder of how little power he truly has. Having kicked him off the Seven in Season 2, A-Train has since been reinstated by Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) and The Church of the Collective. Homelander is infuriated as he knows the reality behind A-Train’s condition but is unable to do a thing outside of some light intimidation. He confronts A-Train, mocking the shake in his hand and calling out his gut. Homelander alludes to the fact that he is aware of A-Train’s heart problems and that he doesn’t need to keep up his metabolism like he used to.
Still shaken from his interaction with the speedster, Homelander is called to Edgar’s office where he bumps into Starlight. He tells her to leave them the room, but Edgar confirms he invited them both up. It is in this conversation where Homelander’s ego and already crumbling persona are dealt the mightiest blow. Informing them of Starlight’s stellar 96% in the polls (a new Vought record), Edgar extends an invitation to Starlight to join Homelander as co-captain of the Seven. Homelander remains calm but attempts to object, ultimately being asked to leave the room by Edgar. Once he has vacated, Edgar tells a flustered Starlight, “As long as I am CEO of Vought, he’s under control, and we both know why.” This statement from Edgar (with full knowledge that Homelander is likely within earshot) is the clearest example yet as to why Homelander is so docile, at least from the corporate perspective. Between the blackmail threat from Maeve, his declining public image, and Stan Edgar’s weary yet omnipotent eye, Homelander is shackled to obedience without much room to pursue his own agenda.
Homelander does attempt to step out a little, showing up unannounced outside Butcher’s apartment. Butcher lets him in, and they share a rather one-sided conversation over Ryan’s whereabouts. Homelander’s inquisition is met with insult after insult by Butcher as they stare bullets at each other, bubbling over with rage, but never acting on it. The stakes for Homelander are so abundantly clear that even Butcher points them out, and as for Billy himself, he knows he risks the safety of not just Ryan but the boys as well if he truly instigates anything.
Amidst all the silent tension, we see one character, in particular, living his best life. After parting ways with the boys and going to work with Congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit) at the end of Season 2, Hughie is at the top of the world. He’s dating the most popular supe in the Seven, no longer needing to hide their relationship, and he isn’t living in perpetual fear or covered in an abnormal amount of blood. Additionally, he has a high-ranking position at the Bureau of Superhuman Affairs and is essentially Butcher’s boss. It’s a major shake-up to their previous dynamic and a huge confidence boost as well. Simply put, Hughie is thriving in a way never seen before in the show.
However, it isn’t long before Hughie finds himself embraced in an an-all-to familiar coat of blood and a stalemate of his own. The end of the episode sees Hughie leaving the bureau after work, bidding goodbye to Neuman, only to follow her shortly after. A man across the street that Hughie saw in the office earlier calls out to Neuman, referring to her as Nadia. Confused, Hughie follows them to a narrow alleyway. And as we all know, nothing good ever happens in a dark alley. After a bit of a scuffle and an awkward fight between the two (who both happen to be supes and appear to know each other), Neuman/Nadia explodes the man while Hughie, hiding behind a dumpster, catches some of the remnants on his face.
“Payback” finally provides a payoff to the Season 2 cliffhanger that revealed Neuman as the mysterious head-popper. It also significantly changes Hughie’s priorities moving forward and places him in the aforementioned stalemate. He is now conscious of Neuman’s supe identity and her prior crimes but must keep his cool and continue to work at the bureau with her as if he never saw anything. Season 3 makes it undeniably clear, more than ever before, that no one is safe amidst the rising tension and despite the red tape. The stakes have never been higher as everyone is willing to play the long game.